Preparing the garden bed for spring; marigolds as houseplants

Q We want to grow vegetables next year, but our soil is very claylike, hard, and lumpy. What can we do to loosen it up for garden crops by next spring? There is nothing like organic matter to break up heavy soil. An expert gardener whom we know puts leaves, three to four feet deep, on his garden each fall, then works the rotted ones into the soil in the spring.

Rotted straw, hay, manure, and compost are all great soil amendments.

Fresh manure should be added only in the fall so that it has a chance to rot. Chopped or shredded newspapers can be added directly or layered with compost, whether you have an outdoor compost pile or an indoor garbage-can composter.

Q I was given a blue Arabian violet about nine months ago and felt quite elated to have kept it blooming and healthy. However, now it seems that nothing I do is correct, since the plant is beginning to look very straggly, with few blooms and even some falling leaves. What happened?

Exacum (also called Persian violet or Arabian violet) is not a long-lasting houseplant. The bloom period depends on age. After about eight months the plants go into a slump and should be treated as an annual.

You can take several cuttings before discarding the parent plant. Root them in moist perlite in a room where the temperature doesn't go below 65 degress F. (18 degrees C.)

Apparently you gave the right treatment, such as bright light (no sun), moderately moist soil, and a feeding about once a month.

Q We thought your readers would like to know that marigolds and petunias make dandy houseplants. This year we had some porch pots of yellow French marigolds and Blue Frost picotee petunias which were just too lovely to leave for the frost. We now have them indoors in our sunniest window, and they are blooming beautifully. The petunias were pruned back to about 8 inches and they are full of new buds. How often do you think we should feed them?

Thank you for the opportunity to tell fellow gardeners how successfully marigolds and petunias can be grown indoors.

If you can give them half a day's winter sun, and a half-strength feeding of liquid houseplant fertilizer monthly, they should do fine - at least until late winter.

For folks who didn't bring theirs indoors, they can start seeds now and have blooms in 10 or 11 weeks. Don't cover petunia seeds. Marigolds, however, can have a light covering of peatlite mix (available at garden stores). Keep medium moist and at a temperature of 70 to 75 degrees F. Be sure the water is the same temperature.

Q In our science class we have to write about some plant that is grown in American gardens (not just how to grow it, but also where it was discovered). I chose gladiolus because we grow lots of them. Can you help?

In a fascinating book entitled ''Green Immigrants,'' by Claire Shaver Haughton (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), the author tells us: ''Gladiolus were said to be the 'lilies of the field' Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the Mount. They were familiar weeds in the grain fields of the Holy Land and grew wild . . . along the Mediterranean coast of Africa.''

In 1620 the royal gardener of Charles I, while on an expedition with the British Navy, brought ''sword lilies'' to England. A Philadelphia seedsman, Bernard McMahon, urged their introduction in America in 1806, and a famous garden-minded baron of Cape Town, South Africa, sent some to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1836, but it took another 50 years as well as Luther Burbank's efforts before a demand was created in America for gladiolus.

Incidentally, gladiolus (from the Latin word for sword) is an accepted word for both singular and plural.

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