Melissa Caughey, HGTV Gardens Contributor

Melissa Caughey

onion, peppers and squash
Onions, peppers and squash thrive in coastal gardener Melissa Caughey's 100-year-old family garden.

Melissa Caughey is a Massachusetts chicken and garden blogger at Tilly’s Nest with an avid following who has graciously shared some of her coastal gardening insights and tips.

I guess you could say that gardening is in my blood.

My grandparents, who emigrated from Italy in the 1800s, ran a successful garden and floral business. They brought with them gardening techniques from the old country, including their own home remedies for their gardens. They had organic solutions to fight against mildew, blight and invading pests and animals. Today their gardens are over a hundred years old and still in the family. I can remember running through the gardens and greenhouses as a little girl, paying attention only to the fruits and flowers. It seems like yesterday.

A few years ago, I had an epiphany as I was visiting their gardens. I watched my great uncle tend to his garden. He was picking off tiny worms from his tomato plants. Though the work was tedious, he inspected each stem and leaf. Just watching was therapeutic. Right in front of me, he was demonstrating one of his organic gardening techniques. From then on, the way I did things around here changed. I had two young children, a flock of backyard chickens and two honeybee hives. I too owed it to my menagerie to adopt organic techniques. Today, I would like to share some easy organic gardening solutions that can work in your gardens too.

Did you know that you can fight harmful insects with beneficial ones? Ladybugs and praying mantis fall into just that category. You can purchase these seasonally at your local gardening store. Release them just after dusk to encourage them to remain in your yard and get to work. They help combat aphids and many other pests that can plague your gardens.

If you prefer to go another route, other organic products do exist. These too help combat unwanted insects. Look for products with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) such as Thuricide or insecticidal soaps. Insecticidal soaps are safe for honeybees when applied to plants in the evening after honeybees have returned home to their hives.

Slugs and snails can turn your beautiful leaves into unsightly ones laced with holes in just one night. But eggshells can help. After cooking with eggs, dry their shells on newspaper and crush them into bits. Sprinkle them in your flowerbeds. Not only are they completely compostable, but while they are breaking down they will dehydrate these slimy pests by making small cuts into their exterior skin. Coffee grounds are also incredibly useful. The power of caffeine does much more than keep you awake: it can also deter slugs and snails. Used coffee grounds are a wonderful source of nitrogen as well. If you are lacking eggshells or you are not a coffee drinker, you can also try Sluggo which is safe for all pets and pollinators.

Animals can also affect gardens. From deer, squirrels, rabbits, birds and chipmunks can come all sorts of trouble. Blood meal can be very effective at deterring such wildlife as well. Sprinkling granulated blood meal, although stinky, gets the job done. Other products on the market include shimmering repellent ribbons — motion activated sprinklers that squirt unsuspecting visitors.  And if all else fails, there is always the solution of putting up a fence. Every year, we put up a temporary fence around the vegetable garden.

Another great way to improve your plants’ health, size and provide pollination for your gardens is to employ companion planting. Companion planting involves researching and grouping plants together that have a symbiotic relationship. With a little planning it is not difficult to do. Two plants that enjoy being planted next to each other are basil and tomatoes. Companion planting is a great way to deter pests such as worms, flies, beetles, moths and some wildlife. Another great technique is mixing up your plantings. Intersperse an array of plants in one garden bed. This makes it more difficult for pests to find their next meal. It is much easier for a tomato hornworm to damage many tomato plants when they are all planted in the same bed as opposed to planted between a few different beds with things like basil (a deterrent to flies & mosquitos), borage (a deterrent to tomato hornworm), marigolds (a deterrent to white worms) and mint (a deterrent to beetles, aphids and small animals). As a caveat, mint can be invasive, so keep it in a small pot and plant that pot in the ground. Other beneficial garden plants include chives, rosemary, garlic and nasturtiums.

Every area of the country seems to have certain growing conditions that they have to “manage.” For some it is soaring temperatures and for others it is rainfall. Cape Cod tends to have a damp, humid and breezy climate. Molds and fungi thrive here. We are damp in the winter and humid in the summer. Thank goodness for the breeze! It seems that I am always fighting off mildews, leaf rot and blight. One of my favorite products is called Serenade. Its active ingredient, Bacillus subtilis, treats a wide array of bacteria, mold, mildew and leaf spot. It can be applied directly to your vegetables and fruits. I even use this as a spot treatment for red thread disease in my lawn.

Lastly, most of us like to fertilize our crops, gardens and lawns at various times of the year. You can make your own fertilizer by starting your own compost pile. Almost every kitchen scrap is compostable! Or better yet, you can keep a flock of backyard chickens and compost their manure. Compost is terrific in your gardens and for your lawn.

Organic methods exist for practically every issue in gardening. A great time to investigate new practices and ideas for your garden is during the fall and winter. Why not try adding a composter next year? Try planting some favorite plants of honeybees. Little things like that add up to big things, especially when others — including children — are learning from our gardening techniques.

Author’s note: All products mentioned in the above post are safe for honeybees. Some popular organic products that are not safe for honey bees include Spinodad, Neem oil, Sabadilla and diatomaceous earth.

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