Ask the Gardeners/Q&A

Q A friend has given me a packet of cactus seeds, but there are no instructions for starting them. I have always wanted to have a collection of cacti and hope you can give me seed-starting instructions. J. E. L. Alliance, Neb. Summer is a good time to plant seeds, because it is easier to maintain the 70 degree F. temperature (night and day) that helps them germinate better. A mixture of washed sand from the lumberyard, aquarium gravel, and sphagnum peat moss has worked well for us. We use equal parts of each. For a container we use a plastic bedding plant container, but any plastic container of that height, with several holes punched in the bottom with an ice pick, will be fine. Sow seeds on top of soil and merely pres s them down lightly with a spatula. Set container in a pan of water until moisture comes to top of soil. Remove from pan and place a pane of glass or polyethylene cover (shirt bag is fine) over top. Keep soil moist by misting with an atomizer or by repeated subirrigation. Keep container out of sun and remove covering as soon as seeds germinate. Q Two years ago we started growing some vegetables in a small garden beside our house. Each time we have tried growing carrots, they have had an ``off'' taste, one might even call it bitter. What would cause this? Our other vegetables don't seem to be affected. R. F. McC. Bakersfield, Calif.

If carrots are not kept evenly moist throughout the growing season, especially during periods of high temperature, they produce a bitter substance called isocoumarin. Humus dug into the soil will help maintain moisture; also, a mulch between rows keeps roots cool and moist. Watering during evening hours allows moisture to penetrate soil before it evaporates. Q In early June we made several corsages from our home-grown pinks and roses for friends' 50th wedding celebration. We followed your helpful suggestions for hardening off flowers, picking them the night before, and setting them in a cool place overnight. We made corsages in the a.m. and put them in our refrigerator crisper drawers (moving fruit to the shelf above). The roses we had put into vases looked fine, but those in the corsages were very floppy. Even the pinks and some larksp ur were droopy. A couple of nosegays we stored in our basement were perky as could be. We are puzzled. B. E. Shreveport, La.

Whenever flowers are stored near fruit in a confined area, the ethylene gas given off by the fruit ``puts the flowers to sleep.'' Carnations (pinks are of that family -- Dianthus) and roses are especially susceptible. Even if the fruit is on the shelf above, it gives off enough gas to affect the flowers in the crisper. Next time, be sure that no fruit is in the refrigerator. Q A friend shares the garden pages with us and we enjoy them very much. We have access to horse manure and we're wondering if mixing the manure with grass clippings would make a good compost. We are new at making a compost pile and would appreciate any suggestions. M. H. R. Shawnee, Okla.

A good way to make the pile so that heat will accumulate and quickly break down the clippings and the manure into rich compost is to alternate layers of each. Use approximately 3-inch layers of clippings with 2- to 3-inch layers of manure. To retain sufficient heat, the pile should be at least 3 feet square and 3 feet high. Water should be applied during dry spells to aid decomposition. An exposed compost pile is usually ready to use on the garden in about six months. If you live in the city, you may have to put the compost material in a large plastic bag and tie it shut to avoid odor. Open bag for a few minutes every two weeks to ventilate it. The bag can be ``kicked'' about every month or so to stir contents and aid in decomposition.

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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