I have been a gardener since I was a little girl, taught by my dad, and it's always fun to learn new thrifty and creative ways to enhance my gardening skills. Over the years, I have picked up many great ideas from several friends and relatives, and also just by experimenting. I hope you find these tips interesting.
Seeds don't always expire by the date printed on the package, so don't toss them automatically if you think they are expired. The seeds can often last for many years and still be viable. I have used tomato seeds that are 5 years old, and most germinated. Just plant the seeds a little thicker than usual. You can also pre-soak the seeds overnight in a little water to give them a head-start. This won't work for all seeds, but it's worth a try before tossing "old" seeds.
You should also consider saving your own seeds from any open-pollinated (NOT hybrid) plants from year to year. I have been saving pole bean seeds and tomato seeds for many years this way. That way, you have free seeds to grow the next season, and you can share them with your friends, too.
Seed starting: use the cardboard egg cartons with a little seed starter mix in each cup to start seedlings indoors. You can also use the bottoms of egg shells to start seeds.
An inexpensive shop-light (flourescent) works well instead of a more expensive grow-light to start seedlings. Just put it a few inches over the emerging seedlings, and raise it as they grow.
Once your seedlings are growing, use an old cookie tray or a plastic serving-tray to put your seedling containers on, and then water from the bottom, using the tray to hold the water. (Burger King plastic trays work great. My mom went in to one of their stores and asked to buy an old tray, and they gave her one for free.)
Don't forget to harden off your seedlings before planting them outside. You can transport them on your trays outside for a few hours a day, lengthening the time till they are sturdy and stocky and ready to go into your garden.
Enriching the soil:
I am an advocate of composting whenever possible. We keep a compost pile in the corner of our yard. Into this we put vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, leaves, grass, etc. Once a year, in the spring, we empty the pile into our garden and rototill it all into the ground. Then we start a new compost pile. It's a great way to enrich the soil, it's a way to recycle, and it's free.
Sometimes we also go to a local stable and cart away some free rotted horse manure. That also goes into the garden to be tilled under. It's an excellent free fertilizer.
I often save grass clippings and use them to mulch the garden once the plants are established. It's good for pathways and the edges of the vegetable garden. Since it generates heat while decomposing, don't put it too close to the plants. In the fall, till it into the garden. It adds necessary nitrogen to the soil.
Consider growing a "green manure" crop like alfalfa or buckwheat. Till these into the soil and let them decompose, and they also add nitrogen to the garden.
I have also collected buckets of rotted leaves and well-rotted wood chips (never use fresh wood chips) from the town's collection site to add to the compost or the garden. Fresh wood chips (free from the town or from some tree removal companies) can be used to make mulched pathways in the garden, but they must be very well rotted before you can add them to the growing area, as they will rob the soil of the nitrogen that the plants need. There are so many things you can add to enrich your soil, and many good books on this subject are available at the library.
I use trash-scavenged broomsticks (and the like) as tomato stakes. Recycle old pantyhose and tights and cut them into strips to tie the tomatoes to the sticks.
You can also use layers of newspaper as mulcg. Wet the paper with a hose after you place it around the plants. Put grass clippings, peat moss, or rotted wood chips on top to hold the paper down. This can all be turned under after the growing season.
Using, saving and sharing the harvest:
Enjoy your fresh garden produce while it's producing. Look for new recipes to use up what you have grown. (Check out the world wide web, as well as your local library for ideas.) Also, you can can, freeze, or dry the extra. Your local cooperative extension has booklets on how to do this. Lastly, share the bounty (whether veggies or flowers) with family, friends and neighbors. As my father always says, "You can make a lot of friends by giving away a little produce." The best benefit of all is how great you will feel by sharing with others! Enjoy!