My favorite chemistry gardening hacks

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Veggie growing inspiring calendar, hand-drawn and designed by Long Island organic farmer Courtney Pure (https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheCoopDesignShoppe). Print-out cheerfully colored, to work in my mostly white kitchen, by me.

It’s not too late to start working in the garden if you live in a temperate climate region.  In addition to growing herbs and fast-growing vegetables, you can start planning for an Autumn/early Winter harvest.  Here are some chemistry-based tricks to boost your confidence and your yield.

Soak seeds in tea or vinegar to promote quick sprouting.  Water awakens the dormant plant inside the seed, but it needs to permeate the protective seed coat, which is mainly composed of cellulose, to get there.  You can weaken the seed coat by puncturing it, but since you could damage the insides, I prefer soaking seeds in leftover tea or in vinegar overnight.  The acid gently breaks up the tight-knit, rigid seed coat structure via acid hydrolysis. For peas, beans and similar ‘seeds’, the protective pod has already been removed and the pea has been preserved by dehydration, so to become active again, the pea only needs to be rehydrated by soaking in water.  If conditions are good, you can get fresh peas pods from planting peas in 2 months.

Dip cuttings in cinnamon to promote rooting.  Salicylates promote rooting, and natural sources of salicylates can be used as natural rooting hormones [Int. J. Advanced Biological and Biomedical Research, Volume 2, Issue 6, 2014: 1883-1886].  If you have a salicylate intolerance/low tolerance, you already know these sources.  This post on rooting hormones for cuttings from PreparednessMama lists 6 of them: yourself, apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, honey, aspirin and willow extract.  I’ve had success dipping cuttings (like rose stems) or garlic cloves in cinnamon and sticking them in wet sand.

Ferment weeds to make a cheap, organic fertilizer.  While you could make a fertilizer from compost tea (taking a clump of composted material from your compost heap and adding water), if you don’t have good composted material at the moment, or if you want a strong, easily absorbed fertilizer, you can take the bounty from intense weeding and ferment it with water in a polypropylene or glass container for a few days or until bubbles stop forming.  Strain the liquid into a watering can and apply near roots.  Fermentation (digestion by microbes) frees nutrients, like potassium and magnesium ions, from the plant material.  This also occurs in soil at a slower rate.  Fermented stinging nettles make a rich fertilizer.

Create copper barriers to keep out snails and slugs.  There is some controversy over whether this works.  However, following the reasoning in this wiki and empirical evidence from this science fair project, I would say that copper barriers do work, but, contrary to the advice given by many popular gardening bloggers, the copper needs to be partially oxidized.  A thick copper band or woven fence allows for regions of elemental copper (copper(0) electrode; anode) and regions of cuprous oxide (copper(I) oxide electrode; cathode).   The electrolyte-rich fluid from the snail/slug completes the circuit (yikes!), but the current is low, so the snail is not killed.  I have copper tape around raised beds, but I have note seen snails/slugs interacting with it.  While the copper barrier is not a foolproof system, I still think that it is better than introducing snail poisons, like copper sulfate, into the garden.  Once, I found a perfectly intact dead mouse in the garden (part of country life), and I believe that he was poisoned after eating a poisoned snail.  On this topic, to naturally reduce the snail population, attract birds and rodents to your garden, but don’t put down poison.

Plant specifically colored flowers to attract bees.  I’ve seen bees on all colors of flowers, but their favorites seem to be blue and yellow, and they aren’t attracted to frilly red flowers.  Unlike us, bees interpret some ultraviolet wavelengths as color.  This is how bees see certain yellow flowers:  hidden patterns.

Practice good companion planting to reduce the number of pests.  Companion planting is simply planting plants closely together that help each other out, often by repelling pests (for example, releasing chemicals into the air) or by creating a better soil environment (for example, attracting beneficial nitrogen-fixing microbes).  A very nice thing is companion planting guides, like this one in Mother Earth News, created from many observations by many people over many years, so you don’t need to know the biochemical basis (only now being studied in many cases) to use this valuable resource.  I especially like how the strong scent of my catmint (Nepeta × faasenii) can repel most pests, including aphids, mosquitoes, ticks and mites.  It is also very drought tolerant and low maintenance, and the bees love the numerous tiny purple flowers.

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