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There’s a lot to buy on the path to preparedness and self-sufficiency, and garden supplies are no different. Happily, there are a few things that can be had for free or very inexpensively that can make a big impact on garden costs. Here’s a handful we can get as we drive around during our normal daily lives.
Tea & Coffee Grounds – Freebie – I won’t belabor this one; it’s on every garden tip list. Nutrients, moisture retention and drainage, aeration – they’re enormous garden boosts, and can be added right to the top of soil or mulch, or can be tilled in.
I mention them because hotels that provide coffee in a lobby are almost never on the lists with coffee shops and McD’s. They can be really excellent places to source a fair number of grounds early in the day as we head to work and the other places are too swamped to hook us up.
Citrus – Freebie/Cheapie – If you’re using lemons or limes or nom-noming oranges or grapefruit, stick the peels in the freezer. We can also dehydrate the fruit or peels, and store them in canning jars or Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers.
When aphids show up, brew a tea (1 part citrus peels and juiced wedges to 3 parts water, 15-20 minutes simmer, let cool, strain) and spray it on the plants and buggaboos, making sure to hit the undersides of leaves and all the nooks and crannies. It won’t harm the plants, but it will wipe out the aphids.
If you know somebody who works at a bar or a restaurant, and you’re not afraid of people germs, they can be an additional source for citrus wedges and rinds.
Cardboard – Freebie – Cardboard has a number of applications in our lives, from doing a cover-expose-repeat kill on lawns to make it easier to break ground for a garden, to creating weed exclusions at the bottom of beds or on the surface. We can also make patches and light blocks for windows out of it, use it as a table cover for messy tasks (it won’t stick and lift the way paper towel and newspapers will) and rip it up to add to compost or till into soil as a moisture sink before we bed down the garden.
Thick, large boxes are readily available from moving companies (they dispose of boxes after they unpack people) and from new-appliance sellers. Smaller, sturdy boxes ideal for smaller spaces (or stashing goodies) can be had from liquor stores and alcohol-wine merchandisers. The green-sign dollar stores are also a good source, with few of their merchandisers retaining their boxes the way supermarkets do, and no contracts for recycling the way Walmart has.
Curbside Pickups – Freebie/Cheapie – There are numerous sites that allow people to list free items. We can also hit condos and apartments a day or two after phone books are delivered (very few people take them, so snag 1-3 out of each big stack) and contact local handyman and contractors who do windows to grab up some mesh for pest exclusions and shade for cold crops, and glass for cold frames.
Also check out yard sale listings. After the sales, there are regularly piles of things added to the trash pickup, or, you can hit up the owners toward the end or just after “closing” on the last day. They’re regularly willing to make deals at that point.
While it’s a way to get all kinds of things for preparedness, as you drive past, keep the garden in mind.
Laundry bags, sheer curtains, and afghans can create exclusions for pesky moths and caterpillars, and some will limit or prevent squash bugs. Shelving units, dressers and drawers, cracked or lidless totes, and filing cabinets and drawers are all potential planters and water collection. Dark fabrics can be used to help warm soil. Bedframes, shelves, chairs, table legs, and headboards become trellis frames, posts or fencing for beds, and racks to vertically stack water catchment systems.
Spent Hops – Freebie – Hops is like coffee grounds for beer brewers; they get rid of it after it leaches its goodness into the lovely nectar of the gods. Their waste is our gain. Hops can be tilled in just as they come from the brewer, usually not more than a cup per square yard. Hops are acidic (pH 4.8), which makes it a great amendment for most veggies and soft fruits, and can help counter the alkaline conditions that come from extended wood mulch gardening techniques.
As an additive, hops also has the advantage of being a moisture sink, just like hair, hides, and coffee grounds. It can serve the same purpose as a mulch, increasing the moisture that stays available to plants longer than any of the other common mulches.
Forums to track down a nearby home brewer and local micro-breweries are the most likely sources for most of us.
There is one sad note: Hops smell like a bar floor with cheap lemon cleaner undertones. It’s not something I’d stick around windows or under the hammock, but it doesn’t bother me out in the gardens and orchards.
Pine – Freebie or Cheapie – Pine needles/straw is another mulch that can help lower pH or maintain the acidic pH in our gardens. If we want to make separating mulch covers easier or mix it into a chip-mulch bed, we might want to run over it with a mower to make smaller lengths and separate the needles from the fascicle sheath (the woody tube bit that holds groups of needles together).
Small-chip pine bark mulch can give us the same acidity-raising benefits, and like pine straw, can be used as our sole mulch or can be mixed into other wood-chip mulches or clipped grass mulch.
Pine straw can usually be had for free, although we may have to drive around to find it. Try to find it from yards and private property, not parks. We can buy it if we really want to, in which case it should already be trimmed and it should be totally weed free.
Glean fields – Freebie – Farm fields are rarely harvested “clean” – there’s usually leftovers. There are also imperfect fruits that are left in place by hand-pickers or piled up in on-the-farm sorting areas. Farmers also sometimes abandon a crop for various reasons.
While some of them are restricted due to liabilities, many will let you come out and pick over fields. We usually have to make those contacts ahead of time, and may be best served asking if the farmer wants us to call and remind them at harvest time, but sometimes we can see harvesting taking place as we drive around, and can just make contact then.
While it’s usually going to be a hybrid, sometimes we can find OP seed doing so. Most of the time, though, all we’re doing is either boosting our own produce or collecting some animal feed.
Junior College Starts – Freebie – Find out who teaches the local horticulture and botany classes, look up when the semesters end, and tag the instructors to find out if there are any leftover veggie starts or fruit or rose cuttings a week or two out. Sometimes (regularly) students don’t take them all at the end of class. A lot of us are happy to give them away if you’re swinging by.
Another excellent resource is the aquaculture instructor(s). Most will either shut down or severely cut down on population for at least one of the summer semesters, and some restart the systems 2-3 times a year for different fish. The water and the fish grunge left over at the end of the semester or year is an excellent garden additive, and I haven’t run into one yet that won’t let me fill a few buckets. Look at me like I’m crazy, but let me have my buckets.
There are a ton of freebie-cheapie “fixes” for the garden. Some work. Some … don’t. Here’s a few I’m not a huge fan of.
– Baking Soda-Vinegar pH test – If your soil has a serious reaction to either of these, you have a major problem. While some veggies and fruits like it significantly acidic or alkaline, most actually like it in between 5.8 and 7.0. Baking soda and vinegar don’t react much in near-neutral conditions, so all you’re going to know is that you’re near-neutral, or have a few bubbles that tell you a little acidic or a little alkaline. Those bubbles might also be coming from tap water, contaminants on tools, and soap residue left in containers.
Nab some pink-blue litmus strips at $3-$10/100 instead.
They give you the same acid-alkaline readings, and with many, you can learn to estimate the pH range by how quickly and strongly they change color. You can also use them to test the acidity of foods before canning to make sure it’s safe to water bath (many of our foods that were formerly WBC’d have lost acidity along the way).
– Hair as pest deterrents – Hair is full of nitrogen and micronutrients, so it’s not a waste to toss those shavings and trimmings in the garden directly or into compost, but I’ve yet to see it actually repel rodents or deer. Peeing has its proponents as well, and you can buy zoo/carnivore poo, but those (and things like Zest, Irish Spring, citrus peels, hot pepper sauce and powder, and most others) have to be reapplied and may not work.
It’s not free, but the solar-run predator eyes, garden terriers doing the jobs they were originally intended for, owl nesting, and things like double-fenced chicken runs are far, far more effective in the long run. Diggers really just require predators and traps, or buried fencing.
– Eggshells as slug barriers – Save the eggshells (and beet tops – they accumulate calcium) for planting with your tomatoes to prevent blossom end rot. You need sharp fragments that form a solid wall at least an inch thick and an inch tall for slugs. Even so, the eggshells will develop a film that allows slugs to crawl over them later.
Instead, try a barrier of Epsom salt or cornmeal (both need replaced frequently), or ripped soda can collars (be careful – it’s the sharp edges that deter the slugs). Beer wells work, but beer is precious. Brewer’s mash in water also attracts and then drowns them.
You can also lay out boards. They’ll hide under them as day breaks, then you can carry the board to birds (or the trash can or choice of death) and over time your slug and snail population will drop enough to no longer be an issue.
There are many similar free or low-cost items we can pick up as we drive around to boost our gardens – and fallacies that people waste precious time on.
There are things like buckets and gallon+ condiment containers we can source from supermarkets, caterers, and restaurants, we can go dumpster diving for produce at some restaurants and groceries, but the days of having them hand us blemished produce are largely over, even for livestock. We can usually source materials to make toad, owl, swallow and bat houses to lower our insect loads, and we can dip up buckets of pond scum and algae (it’s a super boost to compost and garden soil), but I’ve yet to find a store, homeowner, restaurant or school that will give me their out-of-date milk to boost calcium in the soil.
Those lists could go on forever. Hopefully these introduce some less-known resources we can snag for our gardens as we drive around, or will save us from wasting time on some of the freebie-cheapie tips that get passed around so often.