Ask the Gardeners

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Q Someone recently wrote to you about moles and voles ruining their lawns. I have been told that Milky Spore powder controls grubs and cutworms, which are the food that attracts these animals. J. H. S. Carbondale, Ill. Thank you for reminding us of Milky Spore powder. Although it will usually take two years to do the job, it does eliminate Japanese beetle grubs, rose chafer larvae, some June beetle grubs, and Oriental beetle grubs. We checked with Reuter Laboratories (8450 Natural Way, Manassas Park, Va. 22111), one of the largest producers of natural pest controls, and spokesmen tell us Milky Spore does not control cutworms; however, Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) will. This pesticide will kill larvae of other mot hs and butterflies, including cabbage butterfly and gypsy moth.

These products now have national distribution and the reason for their success is that people are interested in pesticides that do not kill natural predators and are much safer to use. Read the labels to make sure the product contains one of the above biological controls (BT or Milky Spore), if you have the insects mentioned. Also, adhere to the precautions on the label. Milky Spore should not be used near lakes, ponds, or streams. Q I have always wanted a perennial bed and have started with some of the old favorites: peonies, iris, bleeding heart, and columbine. Perhaps there are some that would have a longer bloom period -- possibly from early summer, after spring ones are out of bloom, until late fall. E. R. G. Columbia, Mo.

We will mention some of our favorites that can be grown in almost all areas of the United States and in southern Canada: coreopsis (yellow); gaillardia (yellow with red or maroon); rudbeckia (brown-eyed Susan, yellow); Lythrum (Morden Pink); dianthus (hardy pinks coming in pink, red, white); coral-bell (Heuchera sanguinera, red, pink, attracts hummingbirds); coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, lavender); balloon flower (Platycodon, blue, white, or pink); dragon's blood (Sedum spurium, reddish p ink, also called stonecrop). Daylilies have become an outstanding perennial, with new varieties being developed that will furnish blooms from late spring until late fall, if the right choices are made. Q A friend has given me a large, variegated flowering maple. Could you give me some simple directions for its care? Are these houseplants true maples? B. F. Moses Lake, Wash.

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Although these plants were called parlor maple, and later named flowering maple, they are not related to maple trees of the northeastern US and Canada. They are indigenous to South America, where they grow as shrubs, and their true name is abutilon. Varieties have improved since the days of parlors (or parlours), now coming in variegated foliage and brighter, more varied color blooms. They do well at 50 degrees F. night temperature and 70 to 75 degrees F. during the day. They need a well-drained soil mi x, but the plant should not go dry. A good mix is 1 part sand, 1 part garden loam, 1 part sphagnum peat moss, or you can use 1 part sand and 1 part loam added to 1 part peat-lite mix from the garden store.

They will grow in almost any bright window but do best in bright indirect light. A liquid feeding about every two months is sufficient. The new hybrids will bloom almost constantly. They grow fast and need a pruning at least once a year. We usually do it in late fall, after summering the plant outdoors. They may need to be repotted three or four times a year. Plants can be started from seeds or cuttings. QFor the past four or five years we have had a beautiful pink hydrangea in our front yard. It is the type with the large round blooms. This year the blooms turned out to be bluish instead of bright pink. Last fall, thinking it needed a mulch, I worked some peat moss into the soil around it and am wondering if this had something to do with the color change. J. L. Richmond, Ky.

You have Hydrangea macrophylla, which responds to the amount of acid in the soil. Previously you had an alkaline soil (above a pH of 7) and this helped it retain a pink color. Adding the peat moss would make the soil somewhat acid (below a pH of 7), bringing out a blue color. If soil is neutral (pH 7), the hydrangea is usually purplish, or halfway between pink and blue. If you wish to change the color back to pink, sprinkle a cupful of lime under the drip of the branches and water it in. A simple soil t est with litmus paper will tell you whether you have an acid or alkaline soil. Q Your mention of edible flowers awhile ago prompts me to inquire about cattails. My grandmother took my brothers and me on many excursions to gather the little green cattail heads and again later to collect pollen. She simmered these green heads until tender, then we buttered them and chewed the green part off as you would sweet corn. But I cannot remember how she used the pollen. Have you ever used the tender green heads, or the pollen from mature brown heads?

The tender green flower heads smell like sweet corn when they are cooking, and you are correct, they are eaten like corn on the cob. The rich yellow pollen (formed later on brown heads) is removed by rubbing two together over a pan. It makes colorful pancakes. A recipe we have is: 2 beaten eggs, 1 1/2 cups milk, 2 tablespoons melted shortening, 1 cup cattail pollen, 1 cup regular flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Mix thoroughly and cook on greased pancake griddle or frying pan. You can substitute the pollen for half the flour called for in muffin recipes, also. Q While on a trip four years ago we bought a Northern bayberry and planted it at our seaside home in Virginia. The botanical name on the tag was Myrica pensylvanica. We have been expecting an abundance of waxy berries to use for making bayberry candles, but although the shrub has grown beautifully and we enjoy the aromatic foliage, we haven't had a single berry. It produces small blooms each year but they fall off. Could it be due to the salt spray from the ocean?

Sexes of these plants are separate, so you have either a male or a female with no mate to pollinate or be pollinated. The best way to get lots of berries is to plant several bayberries in a cluster, to make sure you have some of each sex. Northern bayberries are remarkably tolerant of salt spray and are hardy from USDA hardiness Zones 2 to 7 (southern Canada to Virginia and Tennessee and similar latitudes), but do not tolerate the warmest areas of the United States.

If you have a question about your garden, send it to the Garden Page, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115.

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