A few years ago I accidentally grew a garden. No really – it was accidental. One early May morning I intentionally planted some sunflower seeds along an old carriage house next to my driveway. Hoping to help the flowers grow to their best potential, I added in some organic compost from the bin my sister tended to behind our shed. I carefully placed some compost throughout the garden bed. A few weeks later, much to my surprise, not only did I see sunflowers growing I saw a whole array of what seemed to be vegetable seedlings – a few types of tomatoes and some squash. After deciding to give them a chance and see how well they did, I soon had a veggie garden growing – and I was quite quickly addicted to it. Thank you, composted material, for sprouting plants from the seeds that had been left in you over the winter. I now have a mini-garden obsession.

Flash forward a few years and I now intentionally plant everything in my garden! Since I live in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, I don’t have a ton of space – but I’m easily able to plant a variety of flowers and vegetables in what little space I do have. This year I planted Tuscan kale, green chile peppers, cucumbers, and three different types of tomatoes – all organic of course. Mid-August in New Hampshire means that a lot of my vegetables are just now ripening and delighting me with their fresh-off-the-vine flavors.

A few simple and easy tricks got me to my current mini-harvest. If you’re like me and you planted an all- organic garden, you might not want to stray off the chemical-free path with pesticides and fertilizers. So, what do you do when the downtown squirrels and pesky creatures come a-knocking and your kale needs just a bit of extra TLC? Here are a few things I did this year that really helped make my vegetables stay beautiful and taste great:

Cayenne Pepper: Apparently Manchester squirrels eat more kale than I thought. Soon after my kale leaves started growing, squirrels came to chomp on them. I remembered reading that cayenne pepper won’t hurt your plants but it will keep your pests away. I can now verify that this is true. Every few days I sprinkle about ¼ cup of cayenne pepper throughout my garden. It gets washed away by rain and blows with the wind so it does need to be replenished – but you can buy it inexpensively, and it really does the trick. No more teeth-marks on your kale if you sprinkle this magical red dust around.

Marigolds: These easy-to-care-for annuals serve two purposes. Not only do they come in stunning bright red and orange hues that attract bumble bees and make your garden look pretty, they also help keep pests away. This year I planted them all along the border of my garden, as a type of “no trespassing” barricade for bugs and creatures that I hope will stay away.

Fireplace Ash: Instead of adding any synthetic nutrients to my garden I decided to do some quick research about what natural ingredients I may have around the house that I could add to the soil. It just so happens that I have a fireplace that I’m not exceptionally good about cleaning. Coincidentally it turns out that wood ashes contain potassium, some phosphorus and magnesium. Nutritional value varies according to the species of wood, but all ash contains nutrients. After reading this I gave my fireplace a quick sweep and weaved the ash into the soil around my newly planted seedlings. Note to self – next year it might be better to try this out before all of the seedlings have been planted. Regardless, the nutrients seemed to help my kale grow – I noticed a difference in their growth rate in just about a week or two.

These three natural tricks seemed to “beef up” my vegetable garden this year – and I’m thrilled they were so easy and harmful chemical free. Now I’m on a hunt for even more ideas for next year’s garden.

What types of tricks do you use?