Friday, February 25, 2011

Tums in the Tomatoes?

I was recently griping to a gardening friend about my rotten luck growing tomatoes in Virginia. When I grew them in a container, I struggled to keep them moist enough and they developed signs of calcium deficiency. That fall I found a rich, sunny spot in the garden, loaded the soil with a summers worth of crushed eggshells, and dreamt of tomatoes, fat and juicy, filling my wheelbarrow the following year. Fast forward ten months - in the epic battle of Tomato vs Trumpet Creeper, the trumpet creeper won and the Brandywine tomato plant was crushed to a lifeless pulp. My tomato loving husband drove despairingly to the grocery store and I stewed over what had gone wrong.

Annette listened patiently, as she always does, and then casually commented that her friend, who grew amazing tomatoes, always throws a few Tums into each hole when he plants them. I stopped, my hands frozen in mid-air, students papers suspended over my desk like stratus clouds in a thick, white sky, and stared. "Tums? He puts Tums in each hole? Like those little stomach pills?" Annette laughed, as she always does, and replied, "Yep! He just throws a few in. It gives them calcium all summer."

Once I had recovered from the brilliance of the Tums remedy, I began to wonder, what other folk remedies do gardeners use that no one knows about but them? Fer, author of the wonderful blog My Little Garden in Japan, recently posted about making a liquid banana fertilizer. For years I had used dried, pulverized banana peels in my garden but had never heard of mixing them with water. The potassium in bananas is water-soluable and only released to the plants when mixed with liquid. I wish I had known that years ago!

I've decided for this week's post to list the remedies I've created or discovered that have proven successful in my garden. But what I really want to know is, what remedies do you use? I've created a Blog Carnival at the bottom of this post for other bloggers to add their own bits of wisdom.

Epsom Salt Helps with Heat Stress

Several years ago after planting a Rutgers Hybrid Stellar Pink dogwood, we had one of the hottest, driest summers on record. Despite having been planted the previous October, the tree struggled and drooped. Gallon after gallon of water was poured around the base but to seemingly no avail. Frustrated and worried I was going to lose an expensive tree, I headed to the US Botanic Gardens in DC to query the horticulturalists.

By 9 am the city was already steamy. Hot and cranky, the lone horticulturalist eyed me warily. Keeping my distance, I asked her opinion about dogwoods. She rolled her eyes. What about heat stressed dogwoods? Any advice? Perhaps debating between blasting me with the hose or parting with a wee bit of wisdom, she shot me a "Go away!" look and hissed that if I mixed 1 cup of Epsom salt with 5 gallons of water and poured it around the base every three weeks, my tree would recover. Grateful for the advice and worried about her grip on the hose, I thanked her and left. As quickly as possible.

Did it work?? Oh yeah!!! I added some liquid kelp meal to the mix and my tree recovered beautifully. Last summer when I made another annual pilgrimage to the US Botanic Gardens, the horticulturalist I talked to was kind and helpful. Maybe it was because I didn't ask about dogwoods....

Container Plants Love Cooking Water

Every summer I try desperately to come up with new ways of saving water. Last summer I began saving my cooking water that had been used to steam vegetables, or cook pasta or potatoes. After it cooled, I used it to water my container plants and they thrived. Boing! That was easy!

If My Roses Could talk, They'd Bark 

Despite having a garden focused on native plants, I love roses. My David Austin roses and beautiful climbers aren't native to Virginia, but I just don't care. They've been a part of almost every garden I've created and remind me of my parents who died in their 50's of cancer.

But when I started to dig the holes necessary to plant my beautiful new roses, my shovel barely scraped the surface before bouncing back into my hand, the clay scratched but not excavated. Stubborn and fiercely dermined to plant my roses, I just kept digging and soon discovered where all the thick clay soil had gone after our patio was installed. The landscaper had piled it in mounds and covered it with mulch.  Furious to the point of tears, I continued to dig. Two hours later I had one hole. Worried my roses were doomed to a quick death in the hideous soil, I vented to a co-worker. Had I ever given my roses dog food, she asked? Dog food? For roses? "I don't know what it does," she commented. "But I know a guy who swears by it."

I had nothing to lose and into the compost and bone meal went several cups of grain-based dog food and several handfuls of dried, pulverized banana peels. (I have since switched to a meat/veg based dog food but continue to buy small bags of grain-based kibble for my roses.) Did it work? Yes!!! Here's what I think happened: I noticed that fall that the areas I had enriched with dog food had more worms than the areas with just straight compost. While there probably wasn't much in the dog food that wasn't also in the clay, compost, and bonemeal, the dog food attracted worms whose casings enriched the soil. Because the dog food was buried so deep, my dogs never knew it was there and didn't dig it up. I still plant new roses with dog food. They'd wag their tails if they had them.

Crushed Granite Grit Helps Drainage in Heavy Soils

Tired of accidentally killing my drainage loving plants with our clay soil, I began using growers grit at the advice of my friend Sally at our local feed n' seed. At about $8 or so for a 50 lb bag, I mix it with the soil to improve aeration and drainage and fill the bottom of deep holes with it for my plants such as agastache and penstemon that die if they stay wet too long. It works wonders and has become a staple in my garden.

There's a bit of a glare in the picture, but the label says GRAN-I-GRIT. I think it's similar to chicken grit, but not having chickens, I'm not 100% sure.

This is what the growers grit looks like up close.

Worm Juice is Wonderful 

My worm bins always create several gallons of liquid every summer. I add the liquid to my watering cans and rain barrels. It makes a fabulous liquid fertilizer that helps counteract heat and drought stress.

Fertilizer de Casa Mariposa

I make my own organic fertilizer that has been very effective in ammending my soil and nourishing the plants. I use the following ingredients in order of greatest amount to least amount:
* ground alfalfa meal  * cottonseed meal  * greensand  *bone/bloodmeal  *dried kelpmeal  *crushed eggshells.

Alfalfa contains a naturally occuring plant growth hormone that really seems to stimulate vigorous but sturdy plant growth. I've seen little overpriced bags of it at upscale nurseries but always order mine from a farmers supply feed store. It's exponentially cheaper.


  1. This was a great post and I learned a few things here. Wow. So much made sense and you don't think about using common household items like this. The dog food made loads of common sense, yet who would have thought.

  2. This is an informative post. Thanks for sharing.

    A doctor told me that he fed his plants the same vitamins that he took.

    As for me, I throw in egg shells, clam shells as well as used coffee and tea. Of course, I also have the usual compost.

  3. What a great post! I'll be bookmarking this for sure. I want to come to your garden for a field trip! I just planted two rose bushes yesterday...wonder if I should pull them up and add a bit of dog food? Wouldn't hurt. The Gran-i-grit is also a God send...I'm adding a couple of succulents to the beds this year and I'll be needing some of that!

  4. These tips are great, thank you! I will try the Tums with the tomatoes. We have not had good crops the last couple of years. The Epson salts trick is new to me too.

    The chief remedy I use is compost ~ we have two horses and so it's never in short supply.

    Westmoreland has been on my want list but now I'll have to consider Night Owl too. What a great color!

  5. I occasionally give my garden, especially the palms, a spray of Epsom salts. It adds magnesium to the soil. I've never tried the dog food though. Don't know what Missy would say if I started burying her dog food.

  6. TS - dog food?! who would have guessed. What a great idea to post these bits of information for all to read. One of the things I love about garden bloggers - they like to share.

  7. Fascinating! I am still learning all there is from gardeners, and trying various remedies. The only thing I have used so far with unerring results is compost, compost, compost. It does wonders!

  8. I love hearing what other people find useful for pests, feed etc. I really must remember to save the cooking water this year.

  9. What a fabulous post! I learned a lot of new remedies that I will be using! I especially like the Epsom salt remedy for heat stressed trees...a common problem during our summers! THANK YOU so much for sharing them!

  10. Such a great post! I love all these home remedies. I am definitely going to try out a few of the ideas.

  11. Great tips, TS. I, too, will book mark this post. Great ideas. I've used Epsom salts when planting my tomatoes. It helps to prevent blossom end rot which is a problem with tomatoes for most gardeners I know. I will use the Tums tip for sure! Thanks so much for sharing!

  12. Thanks Diane! I'm definitely throwing some Epsom salt, which isn't salt at all, into the tomatoes this year. Hopefully, they'll be wonderful instead of pathetic!

    One - How does the dr give his plants the vitamins? Does he just stick them in the soil? I've never heard of that trick before.

  13. Great post. I am copiously making notes.

  14. Bless you, living in the heart of clay country you gave me hope and inspiration. I am so excited that I bookmarked this page because sometimes my memory is swiss cheese and there soooo many great tips here.

    Really, you are my new patron.

    Can I get you some coffee?

  15. Wow! so many great advices! I have to try the Tums for my tomatoes and my chilies this summer.

    I also use some of the water from cooking rice into the plants. They seem to like it a lot.

    This is a great post. You have a great collection of homemade advice! I will be sure to write it down.

    Best luck with your carnival! I hope you get a lot of entries.

  16. TS I finally got my article posted! Sorry this has taken so long. I like people's idea of bookmarking this page. I often see posts I think 'oh i must remember that' and then later the same day I can't remember where in the world I read something.

  17. Okay, I know that I'm a few months behind on commenting on this post, but WOW. Nice information. You should write a book, my friend. Seriously, you need to be published. And thanks for adding me to your list of cool blogs. You rock! : ) As someone who had a less-than-thrilling tomato season, I'm totally trying the Tums trick next year. I don't think it was all a calcium deficiency for me, but what a simple preventative. That and I have a big container of Tums that we never use....until now! I'm linking to this post, if ya don't mind. This kind of awesomeness is too good to keep to oneself.

  18. WoW! I feel like I just got garden-wiser! Thank you! As for my tips... let's see... Oh! When I plant tomatoes, I dig a very big hole, fill it all with water (I mean lots! of water) and sit a plant directly into the water. It helps to keep it moist and they say, thanks to this trick, they don't need to be watered very often.


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