Ask the Gardeners

Q My grandmother introduced me to gardening when as a child I spent my summers with her. Now that I have a home with a spot large enough for a garden, I would like to introduce our children to the joys of seeing seeds sprout and grow. My grandmother grew a low plant with narrow, short, fleshy leaves and beautiful flowers (red, pink, yellow, white) which she called moss rose. I recall that she planted it each year in a rock garden and the hotter the weather, the more it bloomed. Hope you can tell me what the real name is. You are referring to Portulaca, a native of Brazil, which has been grown in this country for more than 150 years. They need full sun or flowers will close up. Plant breeders will soon have varieties that bloom on sunless days, but the flowers' biggest asset is their ability to bloom lustily and continuously in poor, dry soil, with very little attention. Q Each year friends who lived in Louisiana sent us a holiday package of English walnuts. They have now moved to our state (Michigan) and we would like to give them a nut tree. Is the English walnut hardy here? If so, would we need two for pollination?

For your area, be sure to get the hardy Carpathian strain, which will withstand temperatures of -20 degrees F. Ours have survived -25 degrees F., but bore sparsely that year. Although they are supposed to be self-fertile, you should plant two trees not farther than 50 feet apart for good pollination. Q My family has become what you might call mung bean sprout ``freaks.'' They like them raw in salads and in all kinds of cooked dishes. It would help our budget if we could grow our own beans, but don't know if they would grow here (Iowa), or where to get seeds (other than those for sprouts).

Mung beans need a well-drained soil, and do best in a warm sandy soil. Commercial growers in Oklahoma get a crop in 70 to 75 days, but in cooler areas they will take longer. Friends of ours in New York state (same hardiness zone as Iowa) get dry beans in 100 to 110 days in a normal growing season. When pods start to dry, pick daily before they pop open and scatter, as pods mature erratically. Seeds can be obtained from: Burpee Seeds, Warminster, Pa. 18991; Farmer Seed & Nursery, Faribault, Minn. 55021; Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, Maine 04910; R. H. Shumway, Rockford, Ill. 61105; Vermont Bean Seed Company, Bomoseen, Vt. 05732. Q At a sale last spring, I bought a small plant labeled ``tarragon.'' It grew quite vigorously so that by fall I could use some tender shoots to make tarragon vinegar for gifts. What a disappointment! The vinegar had no tarragon flavor, nor did the leaves have the characteristic anise-like scent, even though the plant appeared to resemble one which my mother had in her herb garden many years ago. What was it?

What you bought was Russian tarragon, which is useless as a seasoning. French tarragon is the one with the anise taste and scent, a truly fine herb which grows about two feet tall and has bright green fine leaves.

Although the Russian variety resembles it somewhat, it is taller and more ``weedy,'' with longer, droopy, lighter-green leaves. French tarragon is propagated by cuttings or divisions; Russian tarragon can be started from seeds.

Unfortunately, both are offered in some catalogs simply as ``tarragon'' with no distinction. In fact, we found both listed as Artemisia dracunculus, but one plant source lists the French variety as A. dracunculus, cultivar Sativa, while the Russian variety is listed merely as A. dracunculus.

Next time pinch a leaf to detect the anise scent. Q My family is fond of potatoes, so we've decided to grow our own. I saved some tubers from a bag bought at the supermarket. Now a neighbor tells me we should get certified seed potatoes. I must confess I've never heard of them. I would appreciate your comments.

Certified seed potatoes are those that have passed inspection by an inspector authorized by the state's department of agriculture. They are usually inspected while growing in the field and in the grower's storage. They are certified to be an accurately named variety and also to be relatively disease free. You can count on them to mature within the number of days indicated in a catalog or on a package. The ones you buy in supermarkets are called ``tablestock.'' Variety may be unknown and might mature too late in your particular area.

You might buy tubers directly from a grower or from a seed catalog. Because of high postage, catalogs offer ``sets'' or tuber pieces with at least one eye. Some catalogs list ``eyes'' and ``buds'' which are even smaller than ``sets.''

Some seed companies offer Explorer potato seeds. These take about 120 days to mature and in areas of short growing seasons should be started indoors as you would tomato plants. Explorer potato seeds are not named varieties and you may get a mixture of varieties.

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