Ask the Gardeners. Q & A.

Q We have always used holly sprigs for decorating at Christmas time and about three years ago decided to raise our own. That fall we bought a beautiful American holly with many berries on it. The holly has grown well and is lush and green, but without a single berry. Is there a special plant food that we should be using? You should have a male holly to pollinate the female American holly because staminate and pistillate blooms of all but a few hollies are on separate plants. Your tree would have been pollinated by a male holly in the nursery before you bought it. In the spring, tell your nurseryman that you need a good male holly to pollinate the female American holly and, if they are labeled properly (which they usually are), you should have berries next fall.

One male holly, by the way, can produce enough pollen for 10 female trees. Some nurseries now offer female hollies on which male branches have been grafted.

If you order hollies from a catalog, be sure to get one hardy enough for your area.

Q I have noticed many displays of dwarf palms in store windows. This brings back memories of what were commonly called parlor palms and were found in almost all our friends' homes when I was a child. I asked a clerk in a nearby florist shop if palms will stay small because I live in an apartment, but she did not know. What do you say? Also, what is the scientific name of the parlor palm and what care do palms require?

Palms are enjoying a return to popularity, as you may have noticed. The parlor palm is Chamaedorea elegans, a common favorite, as is the pygmy date palm (Phoenix Roebelenii).

Palms are easy to grow indoors, and most of them remain small if confined to small pots (not over 6 or 8 inches in size). As houseplants palms tolerate low light, but not hot sun, and thrive in temperatures between 55 and 72 degrees F. The soil should be kept moist but not soggy, and they need fertilizer about once a month during the spring and summer, but not the fall and winter.

Some florists are offering rare and unusual palms, including variegated ones.

Q Lately, my African violet leaves, next to the crown, have become hard and brittle. Even a slight touch breaks the new little leaves, which don't seem to grow at all. The blooms are sparse and not full and pretty as they have been. I use a fertilizer especially for African violets and have never had this problem before. I hesitate to use a commercial spray since we have cats that sit on the window sill.

Your plants either have stunt or there are cyclamen mites present.

If the brittle leaves appear to be shinier and the edges curled up, exposing some of the color on the bottom, it is probably stunt. If so, the plants should be discarded.

But if the center leaves appear a lighter color than the others (grayish or yellowish) and are somewhat bunched, with the stems and leaves having a distorted look and being smaller than normal, then you probably have cyclamen mites. These pests are invisible to the naked eye and multiply rapidly.

Some African violet fanciers, who are organic gardeners, tell us they have had success ridding the plants of mites by using our all-purpose formula. To a gallon of water, add 1 tablespoon of liquid dishwashing detergent and 1 tablespoon of hot pepper sauce. To dunk the plants properly, use a large pan and enough solution to make sure the plant, when inverted, can be swished around with the solution covering all the leaves, but without the plant touching the bottom of the pan.

Grasp the pot so the fingers will be spread under the leaves and over the soil to keep the plant from falling out. The thumbs should be on the bottom of the pot.

Swish up and down, back and forth, until the plant is thoroughly drenched and the solution has had a chance to penetrate all the areas around the tightly curled leaves. You may want to remove a couple of leaves in order to improve penetration. If the plants don't appear to improve in three weeks, it's better to discard them and start all over again.

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