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A flower-like romaine lettuce plant.

Wow, I see it’s been a full week since my last post. Didn’t mean for this to be a Sunday blogging thing; will try to do better next week.

At any rate, I received no less than three questions from friends today who were asking me about various gardening-related questions. Apparently, they have me confused with some kind of knowledgeable person, but I answered two of the questions anyway and have done research on the third. I thought others might be curious about similar things, because you know the teacher’s adage: if one kid asks a question, that means two others had the same question but were afraid to raise their hands. So, here’s what I was asked:

“The seeds I planted said they were spinach, but the things that sprouted up look nothing like what they’re supposed to.”

Take heart. Everything is proceeding as normal. The first leaves of a seedling are called cotyledons, and are present in the seed before germination. In fact, they contain the stored food reserves of the seed, and can sometimes stay with the maturing plant for some time, or wither soon after the true leaves appear. The true leaves of many plants do not appear until the post-germination phase (meaning after the seedling has sprouted). Shown on the left is a juvenile spinach seedling with both the cotyledons (the long thin leaves) and the first pair of true leaves. Later, the spinach plant will grow and its true leaves will expand to their more familiar shape, and begin to look like the right-hand picture as the plant matures.



“My compost bin smells awful. Is it supposed to do that?”
Sure, that’s what’s happening to a lot of things while they decompose…remember that “composting” is little more than a euphemism for “rotting.” Want your compost bin to not smell? Make sure you have a good mix of  “greens” and “browns.” “Greens,” or items high in nitrogen, are things like kitchen scraps (remember to keep any dairy or meat products out of your compost mix), grass clippings, coffee grounds, chicken manure, or weeds you’ve pulled. “Browns,” or high-carbon items, are things like straw, dry leaves, dryer lint, shredded paper (avoid colored paper or paper with colored inks), eggshells, coffee husks, etc. The most common culprit for foul-smelling compost is a mixture too high in nitrogen caused by adding too many kitchen scraps without covering them with some kind of carbon or “browns.” Also, remember to keep the pile a bit damp–like a wrung-out sponge but not sopping wet–and occasionally add a shovelful of garden dirt. The dirt will add millions of microbial bacteria that are the prime movers in the composting process. When your mix is right, you will find the pile will heat up, sometimes to as high as 140 degrees or more. Today, for example, my bin was steaming in 60-degree weather! This ‘hot composting’ means your nitrogen/carbon mix is right, and the only thing you will smell is the lovely scent of fresh earth.

“My potatoes are growing and I know I’m supposed to add dirt to them…but how much, and when do I stop adding it?”
The two main things that potatoes hate are inadequate water and excessive soil heat. Both problems can be solved easily, and there are many viable ways to do it. Perhaps the easiest is mulching. When your seedlings first appear from the ground and get a set of true leaves, mulch around them with an inch of compost and then cover the entire bed with a foot of clean straw. The plants will grow right up through it and the soil will stay cooler and retain moisture longer. This method can even be used at planting time; just set the seed potatoes right on the ground, cover with compost and straw, and water well. What could be simpler? Another way is to use a hoe to mound the soil up around the plants every few weeks. Don’t worry about covering up the stem and lower leaves; the plant doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve even heard of people who grow potatoes in raised beds using a “potato collar.” This is another wooden frame (without a bottom) that sits on top of the raised bed and, in effect, raises it still further. This second bed is then filled with compost and straw, or just plain dirt, and the potatoes keep right on growing. In short, cover them with something to keep the ground moist and cool, and don’t stress too much about the particulars.

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