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Home remedies, helpful or harmful

Home garden remedies, helpful or harmful?

Why Home remedies?

Home remedies sound like a great idea. For thousands of years, we lived that way. If we didn’t have a home remedy, we didn’t have a remedy. Enter the 21st century; we now have stores where we can pick up things with the simple swipe of a card. While, some may be accepted norms, others might be bottled remedies that are labeled supplements.  There is a lot of conversation, these days, about home remedies being better. Possibly better for us or better for the environment. But what do we really know? Often, information is spread from person to person with a little background on the remedy or how it works. In the age of the internet, this information can move at the speed of light! Let’s take a look at some common garden remedies.

Helping our garden grow

Home remedies are becoming more popular than ever in our home gardens. Sites that claim simple garden hacks have become popular fodder. Let’s take a look at 5 of some more common home remedies and then check the science behind them. You will surely come across one you have either heard of or tried. You may have decided it worked for you. I have no intention of ruffling feathers and will give this disclaimer.  All information has been researched on University sites and may or may not be conclusive as to the validity of their usefulness. At the end of the article, I will give you some helpful tips on researching things yourself.

Some Common Remedies
Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds are great for adding to your compost. They are around 1-2% nitrogen which is not immediately available to the plant. Grounds are considered a “green” or a nitrogen-based additive when composting. Composting will break them down. You will not want your compost to consist of more than 25% coffee grounds.  A layer of grounds can also be added under mulch but not more than 1/2 inch in depth. Too much could compact and impede water and nutrient movement. For this same reason, Florida-Friendly Landscaping guidelines recommend no more than 2-3 inches of mulch. There is a notion the grounds make the soil acidic because the coffee liquid is acidic. The pH of the grounds is actually around 6.5, which is good news. Conclusion: Coffee grounds used properly can be helpful in your garden and a great additive when composting.

Soapy water for insects

Using dish soaps to rid plants of insects is a common remedy around the home and garden. Soaps kill insects by breaking down the outer chitin shell of an insect’s body. Also, because insects breathe through pores in their bodies, soaps can clog these up and interfere with respiration. There are brands of dish soap that are often touted as the cure. If you are using dish soaps from your kitchen, you may want to look at the ingredients first. Bactericides and degreasers may not be what you want on your plants and certainly are not an organic method. Common dish soaps designed for cleaning dishes would more accurately be called detergents most often made with sodium hydroxide. Sodium itself can be phytotoxic to plants. These chemicals can breakdown waxy coatings that protect the plant while also killing beneficial microbial. These types of soaps work well for cleaning pots and dishes but may kill or damage certain plants. Tomatoes are a good example of a plant that doesn’t tolerate the overuse of these detergents. There are insecticidal soaps that can be purchased at your lawn and garden nurseries that are labeled for plants. Part of this labeling will let you know if they are an organic pesticide. The labels also give you exact amounts and what plants may not be suitable to use them on. Conclusion: Dish soaps are not designed for use on plants and may not be effective or damage the plants. Purchase labeled insecticidal soaps instead.

Scattered eggshells and boiled egg water

Eggshells are sometimes suggested to enrich the soil by adding calcium. Calcium is an important plant nutrient and can be used to adjust the pH of the soil. Eggshells will add some immediate calcium to the soil if ground up to a fine powder. Using water that eggs are boiled in does not add much calcium or benefit to the soil. Conclusion: Crush your eggshells and add them to compost. Rely on fertilizers that have calcium in them to get nutrients to your plants. Vegetable growing problems such as blossom end rot (BER), which is a calcium deficiency will not be helped by adding eggshells. Read more about BER here.

Vinegar weed herbicides
Vivegar, Salt and Dish soap are pictured in theri containers. All three are touted as a home remedy for killing weeds

Household items to make a weed-killing remedy. Photo by David Austin

Herbicides are often the subject of home remedies. Glyphosate, originally sold under the name Round-up has often been singled out as a dangerous pesticide. Glyphosate is no longer a patented chemical so many companies sell it under different brands. If you are wondering if it is an ingredient in a weed killer you’re using, look under the active ingredient on the label. While it is recently vilified, it is one of the most studied chemical pesticides ever produced. For those of you that base your opinion on “science”, Glyphosate has been proved to be very safe when used as it is labeled.  Carcinogenic claims have not been verified through scientific experiments when used properly. Vinegar mixtures, used with other additives such as dish soaps and table salt, are being suggested by some as a safe effective alternative. Vinegar is acetic acid and when purchase at a grocery store is a 5% concentration. As far as weed killing performance this mixture can be effective on small annual weeds. Coverage is important because it works by desiccating the plant. Weeds with larger root systems tend to grow back. As far as toxicity vinegar mixtures are reportedly just as toxic as Glyphosate when studied at equal portions of active ingredients, vinegar and salt were both reported much more toxic to mammals in studies. There are some commercial herbicides that utilize acetic acid but these have as much as 30% active ingredient and can be very caustic. Conclusion; Vinegar, salt, and dish soaps are effective on small annual weeds but not on more mature weeds. Cost and effectiveness are considerably less than labeled herbicides. There is no proof that they are any safer.

Epsom salt

A gardening remedy you may hear about is Epsom salt. Epsom salt was first discovered in the town of Epsom in England. It is not traditional salt like the table salt you might be familiar with. Epsom salt is a mineral salt that is composed of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. It is very soluble in water and breaks down into magnesium and sulfur very readily. Because it is so soluble, it is highly leachable in sandy soils and may quickly leach past the root zone and become unavailable. If your plants lack magnesium then Epsom salt will surely help the plant out. Magnesium, a secondary nutrient, is vital to plant growth. If your plant is not deficient in Magnesium adding additional Epsom salt it not helpful and it does not hang around in the soil because it is so soluble. Conclusion: Use Epsom salt sparingly and only if the fertilizers you are using do not already have it.  To read more about Epsom salt as a garden additive read here.

Getting behind the science

You hear a lot about following the science-based information. That kind of information based on scientific studies is available to everyone on the internet. While social media can be full of great information, it is always best to check out things that you learn. My fact-checkers for scientific and agricultural information are our University Land Grant Institutions. In Florida, it’s the University of Florida and Florida A&M. UF has a website with the acronym of EDIS If you are interested in Science-based answers,. EDIS stands for the Electronic Data Information Source. When searching gardening simply put in the initials EDIS in your search engine. Another search trick is to add site:.edu to your query. This will weed out websites that are not from educational sites. Another option you have for learning proper horticultural techniques is to call you to visit your local UF/IFAS Extension office. There should be one in every Florida County and if they don’t have your answer they will help you find it. In Highlands County, our office is at 4509 W George Blvd., Sebring our Master Gardener Help Desk is open Monday – Friday from 9 AM to 3:30 PM.

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