ASK THE GARDENERS. Questions & Answers

Reader comment: After trying several times to get poinsettias to bloom for the next holiday season, I finally had success, thanks to your instructions, which I received almost a year ago. After enjoying the plant indoors, I set it (with clay saucer underneath) beside our house, in June, where it thrived in dappled shade. In July, although blooms were still colorful, I cut it back to four inches and repotted in a slightly larger pot, adding some prepared peat-lite mix. I rooted some of the cuttings! The plant was kept moist and by mid-September it was in beautiful shape.

It was moved back indoors into bright light, but out of direct sun. At once I started covering the plant with a black satin cloth at 6 p.m. each day, then uncovered it at 7 a.m. each morning. As you suggested, I kept this schedule until Thanksgiving. To the delight of our entire family, tiny buds appeared and surrounding leaves (I think they are called bracts) turned a gorgeous red. Thank you!

C.R.T.

Lancaster, Pa.

We appreciate the fine testimony and want to thank all the kind folks who send complimentary letters. An added postscript from C.R.T. states that the poinsettia was given a liquid feeding of balanced fertilizer once a month.

For folks who are puzzled about the reason for shading, it is necessary to make sure the plant gets no more than 12 hours of light per day, as occurs in the subtropics which are the poinsettias natural habitat. The plant is photoperiodic, meaning its blooming period is affected by day length. Even a street light will delay bud setting. Temperature can also be a factor. To keep poinsettias on schedule, temperature should go no lower than 65 degrees F. at night and should be kept between 70 and 75 degrees F. during the day. Plants should be kept moist but never soggy.

Q I have a rather unusual problem and hope you can solve it. I offered to care for a friend's cat for several weeks. It is a lovely animal, but it has started eating the leaves of my African violets. It has always been strictly a house cat. I feed it according to my friend's directions. I assume the violets are nontoxic, since the cat remains healthy. Have you ever heard of a cat eating houseplants?

S.H.

Medford, Ore.

Coincidentally, a friend of ours has had the same problem. Cats need greenery in their diets at times. If they are allowed to go outdoors, they eat grass or similar green plants.

If you will provide some potted grass or grain, either by sowing seeds or potting some from outdoors, they will leave your violets alone. One favorite of cats is the spider plant (Chlorophytum). You could start one from a friend's plant or buy one. We suggest that if you buy one, set it out of reach for about four weeks until you're sure no systemic pesticide residue remains. ``Systemic'' means the pesticide is absorbed into the system. Unless you know the garden store operators or florists have grown the plants themselves, you cannot be sure what pesticide has been used on them. In the meantime, pot up some lawn grass that is untreated by pesticide.

In our column in September we had a response to a letter from someone who had tried cucumber peelings to get rid of ants. We asked readers to experiment and send us their results. Here is a sampling of their comments.

``I placed large pieces of cucumbers on my sink. The ants came and covered the pieces. I didn't remove the ants, but waited for about a day. Suddenly, the ants were all gone, and they have never returned. Thanks to all at the Monitor for the helpful information that is given out.'' Mrs. W.B. of Fullerton, Calif.

``I tried your suggestion several times, early in the summer, with peels from salad cukes from the produce department. A potato peeler made long, attractive strips which I spread on the ant hills. After a week, I could see no ants. These were small ants and perhaps the hot weather discouraged them. Later on, fire ants started making hills in my yard and my neighbor's. Using cukes from a market, I spread thick long strips on the hills. I checked in 10 days and there were no ants in sight. Upon lifting the peelings (which were still green) I found the ants had hollowed them out and installed rows of white looking eggs, standing up like rows of plates in a china shop. The shells were incubators for the fire ants. I am still curious. Do some species of ants behave differently than others? I may try again and use peels soaked in salt water.'' Mrs. D.B.N. of Hillsboro, Texas.

``We are usually pestered with black carpenter ants coming in our door from our deck. We had a good crop of pickle cucumbers so we sprinkled peelings around the deck just outside the door. It worked! We had no more ants. When peelings dried a few returned, but with another treatment the ants disappeared. The peelings of the burpless variety had no effect. Since the pickle type did have some bitterness, we think your theory about this factor is correct. Incidentally, to remove bitter taste, we cut off a little of each end (before peeling) and rub against the cut flesh. Some foam comes from the end, and after washing and peeling the cucumbers the bitterness is all gone. For pickles, I merely slice but do not peel.'' D.M.S. of Stone Mountain, Ga.

If you have a question about your garden, inside or out, send it, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the Garden Page, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115.

Doc and Katy Abraham are nationally known horticulturists.

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