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20 Garden Hacks for the Quirky and Pragmatic Permaculturalist

There is a new term—hack—spinning wildly on the World Wide Web, and I’ve resisted it. I grew up in a time where a hack was someone who did a crappy job, so transitioning into the new definition has been an arduous process for me. But, words evolve, and times change. I don’t want to be the guy standing in the way, so for those of you only now stumbling on to the new “hack”, or life hack, it is a technique that helps manage time more one’s time and chores more efficiently, as well as save money and reuse present resources.

In substance, that doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, this idea seems a key component to good permaculture design. Well’ I won’t promise that the following hacks will change your life the way permaculture might, but they might be useful, they might add a little logic or funkiness to the garden, and they could definitely inspire some new ideas for the innovative amongst us. After all, new terminology is no reason to kick a good idea to the curb. How many times have I, despite only being a few years into it myself, been asked: What’s permaculture?

Here are some of the more impressive gardening hacks I’ve come across:


Video: 21 Garden Hacks

1. The Wine Bottle Self Waterer: Nothing new to many, this is a clever idea for the container garden or small plots that don’t get attention everyday. Fill a wine bottle with water, stick it neck-down into the soil, and it’ll act as a slow release water dispenser for the garden.

2. Gutters for a Vertical Garden: Vertical gardens are a great way to utilize space in urban environments or to keep Zone 1 gardens even closer. Use old rain gutters and/or pipes to build lettuce and herb beds along walls or fences and get the most out of your space.

3. Coffee Grounds for Fertility: Liquid coffee may be what we use to wake up, but the grounds are outstanding for keeping plants perky as well. They are high in nitrogen, and the process of brewing coffee washes away the acidity. Plus, they deter pest. Lots of things can be done with spent coffee grounds and used up tea leaves.

4. Seedling Pots a Plenty: Toilet paper rolls make great seedling pots, as do newspapers and old fruit rinds. Fill them up with soil, get the plants started, and then just put the whole contraption into the ground. It’ll protect young roots then soften and degrade, letting the more mature roots reach out into the soil.

5. Milk Jugs and Plastic Bottle Watering Cans: There is no need to buy a watering can, as they are put into the recycling bin daily across the world. Poke a few small holes in the lid of a milk jug or plastic bottle, fill the bottle with water, and use it as watering can.


Video: 7 Gardening Hacks with Plastic Bottles

6. Plastic Bottle Water Reservoir: Use the same set up as the watering can, but this time cut the bottom of the bottle off. Bury it in your plant pot or garden bed. It can then be filled with water and will release it slowly into the soil as needed.

7. Tools in the Sand: Hand-held gardening tools, especially for the less diligent of us, are constantly going rusty. To help with this, make a stand for them by filling up an old plant pot with sand, and store them metal-first in it. The sand will help to prevent rust. Add a bit of oil the mix to keep shears opening and closing well.

8. DIY Plant Labels: Use old plastic bottles, yogurt pots or similar containers to make your plant labels for seedlings or experimental gardens. Cut them into strips and write the name of the plant with a permanent marker. Strips of bamboo or stones—if they are in the garden already—also work well and are, of course, natural.

9. Measuring Tool: For the very precise among us, this hack works well. Mark out measurements on the handle of a shovel (or whatever tools), and when planting, you will be able to space things appropriately. It’s a bit anal, but then again, some of us are. It could also be used to measure the depth of holes or other rough distances.

10. Reuse Your Kitchen Water: Not all of us have had the time, money or energy to set up a proper greywater system for our homes, but that shouldn’t stop us from reusing it in the garden. Let water from boiling vegetables or pasta cool, use plant-based washing up liquid (avoid dishwater with dairy or meat), and then water the garden with it all. Saves on resources and money.


Video: Creating a Home Graywater System

11. Soak Your Beans: Soaking beans is a key to cooking them, as it releases anti-nutrients that make us gassy and cuts down tremendously on cooking time. But, it’s also very useful in the garden, as it allows the seeds (any hard-coated seed) to get a head-start with germination before even being in the ground.

12. Frozen Herbs on Demand: Herb gardens are great, as nothing brings a meal to life quite the same way. A cool way to store herbs when they are plentiful is to separate them out and place them in an old ice cube tray with water or oil. Put it in the freezer for later, and then pop the cubes into dinner as needed.

13. TP Seed Tape: Sometimes it’s really difficult to sort out planting small seeds, but a little ingenuity can help. Use toilet paper. Mist it with a little water, then place the seeds where they need to be, and finally plant the tissue in the garden. Everything will be spaced appropriately.

14. Seed Testing: Before we were hip to the hacks, we likely made a lot of mistakes, overlooking things like labeling seeds properly. So, we are left with a packet, wondering if they’ll work. Prior to planting them all out, test a few on a wet paper towel to see if they sprout.

15. Seed Bank: Most of us are already in the habit of saving old jars. They can be used for canning, pickling and so on, as well as food containers instead of the plastic we’ve become accustomed to. They also work very well for storing seeds, keeping them safe from bugs and weather, and come in all sizes to make them convenient for every type.


Video: How to Create a Seed Bank at Home

16. Send Bank Revisited: Another cool idea for seed banks, especially for smaller seeds, is to take old photo albums and put them into the picture pouches. Then, it’s easy to arrange them and flip through to find what you are looking for.

17. Grow from Kitchen Scraps: In addition to growing from cuttings in the garden, always be sure to think of the market and supermarket as possibilities for acquiring seeds or cuttings that you’ve had trouble finding. Root cuttings of herbs in glasses of water, or replant the bases of lettuces, cabbages and so on. Or, get hard to find dried legumes, organic quinoa, other seeds, and plant them instead of cook them.

18. Coffee Filters for Soil Retention: Coffee filters are great for lining newly planted pots so that they can drain water but not the soil. Place them in the bottom of the pot before filling it with earth. Eventually, it will degrade, but hopefully the roots are holding onto the soil a little more tightly by then.

19. Garden Supplies from Around the Neighborhood: While many of us have an eye on self-sufficiency, which means there isn’t a lot of waste, we can still acquire extra organic materials, bottles, buckets, mulch, lumber and so on by visiting places—restaurants, lawn care businesses, horse stables—that have what we are looking for. Set up and exchange to get supplies for free.

20. In-Situ Composting Bins: Use old buckets and garden pots to make composting or vermiculture bins right in the garden. Drill holes along the bottom rim of the bucket, about a third of the way up. Bury it (only deep enough to cover the holes) in the garden bed. Put compost in that. The nutrient-rich liquids will leach into garden beds while to organic materials are breaking down. When it’s full, add it to a larger compost pile or if it’s ready to the garden bed.


Video: Worm Towers from 5 Gallon Buckets

Special thanks to Buzzfeed, Clicworthy, and Shareably for gathering and composing their ideas from which other hack (the old term) writers can hack (the new term) to make their own lists. Sharing information is a beautiful thing.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Ruth Hartnup

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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