Ask the gardeners

I have new asparagus plants raised from seeds a year ago. On the seed packet is the notation that plants which have red berries should be removed, since they are female and will not produce much. What is your opinion?

It is true that seeds will produce both male and female plants. However, there is no way of telling which crowns will produce male or female spears until one produces berries during its fern-like stage in the late summer.

While male plants may produce about 25 percent more spears, the female plants (or crowns) produce larger spears. It may take 2 years to find out which is which, and we have found that the size of spear just about evens out with the number of spears.

In our garden pound for pound, it doesn't make much difference. We like to use a few of the ferny tips with ''berries'' to give our summer bouquet a little zip.

I was given a lovely gloxinia recently, but there are now brown spots on the leaves. I have it in a window that gets afternoon sun and I keep it watered so that soil does not go completely dry. Why the brown spots?

Gloxinias should not be in direct sunlight, but intense rays filtered through a curtain cannot burn leaves. Direct sun, especially during summer months, will burn leaf tissue, causing the brown spots.

I recently came across a reference to ground cherry in some old magazines ( 1915). It contained a recipe for pie using this fruit. I have no idea what ground cherries could be.

Ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) is also called husk tomato, strawberry tomato, and dwarf Cape gooseberry. It is no relation to cherry tomato which is a true tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum).

Ground cherry is related to Japanese lantern which has the orange papery ''globes'' over the tiny fruit. However, this species is not edible.

Ground cherries are available from several seed houses, but are listed under any one of the above names, depending upon what they are called in their area. They do make delicious pies and preserves.

My petunias started out beautifully, then they got long and scraggly with only a few blooms. Is there anything I can do to make them bloom more fully?

This is a fault of petunias. They need a pruning once or twice during their growing season.

Some folks use hedge shears and cut them back halfway when they start to grow scraggly. Others constantly manicure them, cutting off long stems here and there , and keeping spent blooms nipped off. Be sure to pinch these off behind the calyx so that seed pods won't form.

The pruning is necessary to make the stems throw out new growth and new blooms.

I have large clumps of hardy perennial carnations with pink flowers. They have a spicy scent and have always bloomed through July with great profusion. This year, however, the buds opened about 1/8 inch and then stopped. Why?

If the buds turned brown, the problem is probably Botrytis blight. Pick off all the buds and dispose of in a plastic bag. Spray the plant with any good fungicide.

A simple formula is 1 tablespoon of household bleach in a gallon of water. Others are available at garden centers.

If buds became whitish it was likely due to thrips. The household bleach spray works on these tiny insects. Add 2 teaspoons of liquid detergent to it.

We planted a smoke tree about 6 years ago but still no smoke puffs. It has pretty purple foliage but none of the feathery look that we see on other people's smoke trees. Why?

At six years, if it is a female tree and is healthy, you should get a little of the smoky effect. Male trees do not produce the fruiting panicles that make the billowy look.

Smoke trees (Cotinus coggygria) must be watered well during dry periods for the first three years until roots are established. Sometimes in an extremely cold winter the fruiting panicles will be killed for that year.

If it doesn't bloom within the next year or two, you probably have a male tree. Most nurseries sell the purple-leaved varieties and are extremely conscientious about seeing that trees are female.

Our bean plants are just about finished bearing. Is there some vegetable we can plant and still get a crop before frost?

In your area, frost should be about 60 days away. Mid-August is a good time to plant radish seeds, because there are fewer radish maggots around and nights are cooler, making them crisper. Many varieties mature in 25 days.

Lettuce, such as Grand Rapids, is ready to eat in 45 days. A turnip called Just Right would be ready in 40 days, and it withstands frost, as will kale, beets for greens, and spinach.

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

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