Ask the gardeners

We gathered some cattails along in the summer for dried flower arrangements. They looked lovely mixed with leaves and pods, but after we turned our heat on they began swelling up and dispersing fluff all over. What can I do to stop this? How do florists manage to keep them nice and brown and trim-looking without having them ''explode''

Next year gather the cattails just as they are turning from green to brown, before they produce pollen, and they will retain their shape. If you wait too long, about the only thing you can do is apply hair spray or dip them in a very thin lacquer.

Go back again to the cattails after they produce the yellowish pollen, shake some of it from the cattail, and add it to pancake batter. Real tasty!

I know that wood ashes can be added to the soil in place of lime to change a soil from acid to alkaline, but do they have any nutrients that help plants grow?

Although we consider wood ashes a liming material rather than a fertilizer, they do give you a bonus of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, all beneficial to plants.

Potassium (or potash) is especially valuable for producing stiff stalks that prevent plants from falling over. If, for example, grains don't get enough potassium, they ''lodge,'' or fall over flat, making them hard to harvest.

If you use wood ashes on the garden, give your soil a sample pH soil test to make sure it doesn't get too alkaline. If pH reading is 6 to 6.8, don't add ashes or lime. Garden stores have simple soil testers with directions that explain how to take a pH reading.

I love the idea of growing watercress indoors, as you mentioned in your column a few weeks back, but where does one get the seeds? I've looked everywhere.

True watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is available from: W. Atlee Burpee Company, Warminster, Pa. 18974; Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321; and George W. Park Seed Co., Greenwood, S.C. 29646. If readers can give us other sources, we'll add them to our list.

Watercress should not be confused with peppergrass (mountain cress), which is Lepidium sativum, not in the same family. Some folks like to grow this one also, because of its nippy flavor.

In our younger days, we relished it on sandwiches made with homemade bread spread generously with home-churned butter.

Our apartment faces north, and most of our houseplants don't seem to get enough light to do well. Can you suggest any attractive foliage plants that will tolerate this situation?

Our nomination for the best candidate tolerating low light would be Scindapsus or devil's ivy. It's also still called pothos (its old name) or Epiprimnum, its newest botanical name. It is a handsome vine with philodendronlike leaves that are variegated, green with white or cream.

Another plant that we have tucked into a dark corner is Spathiphyllum, with large, glossy green leaves. If soil is not allowed to dry out, room temperature not allowed to fall below 65 degrees F., and air has a reasonable amount of humidity, they will produce pure white, fragrant callalike blooms for long periods of time.

As blooms age, they turn a chartreuse shade. Even if plant doesn't bloom, the leaves are handsome by themselves.

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