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THE QUESTIONS KEEP SPROUTING

People often ask (usually in response to discovering that this column is entering its 20th year), "Where do you get your ideas for your column?" And I respond, almost without hesitation, that I get them from you -- the readers, the gardeners, friends and colleagues.

Western New York has a large and dedicated group of indoor gardeners who are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than one might think. But they are also gardeners who are quick -- maybe too quick -- to admit mistakes or failings. They are not shy about asking questions, trying new things or accepting new challenges. All of which makes my job easier.

I am always amazed at their stories of 12-foot-high philodendrons, ever-blooming cactus plants, resurrected cast-offs or African violets that bloom only because of regular coffee-grounds feedings.

The stories, of course, usually match up well with the questions, which may be one of the most intriguing aspects of writing a gardening column. There have been, for example, very poignant questions, like the one from a woman who was told that the chemotherapy she was undergoing would kill her plants if she touched them (wrong!); funny questions, like whether a spider plant needs a "mate" in order to produce "baby" spiders (no); and questions for which I had to seek more expert advice, like if a cat's dirty litter could be used in a compost pile (my vet said no because of the possibility of toxoplasmosis).

It's challenging, rewarding, interesting and fun. And that's why I eagerly look forward to another season of writing and gardening.

Meanwhile, the current batch of questions from local gardeners include:

Q -- How do I take care of a shamrock plant that I received for St. Patrick's Day?

A -- The shamrock plant you have is probably a member of the oxalis family, which means that it needs a lot of sun and good air circulation in order to thrive. Moderate watering and cool nighttime temperatures will also help.

Watch out for the little pods or capsules that develop on oxalis. They're full of seeds, and when ripe, the pod bursts sending out seeds in all directions. The result can be shamrock plants taking hold in any pot that conveniently sits nearby.

Q -- I've heard about "forcing" branches into bloom indoors. How can I do this?

A -- Find a tree or shrub that produces blooms, such as forsythia, magnolia or crab apple, and cut off several foot-long, budded branches. Pound the cut ends with a hammer and place the branches in a vase of water in a cool, bright spot. Buds will open in about one to two weeks; flowers last only a short time, usually three to five days.

Q -- I haven't fertilized my plants all winter, so when can I start feeding them again?

A -- You can start anytime now. Just be sure to choose the correct kind of fertilizer. One higher in nitrogen is good for foliage plants (the first number in fertilizer formulas, for example, 10-5-5), while higher phosphorus and potassium levels are better for flowering plants. Many gardeners like to avoid the peaks and valleys of monthly feedings by using one-quarter the recommended strength on a weekly basis.

Q -- What can I do with a primrose plant after it has bloomed?

A -- Primroses are very difficult to keep as houseplants. Most people choose to discard them after they bloom, but you can keep a primrose longer if you keep it cool and moist. Also, you can prolong the flowering period by picking off dead flowers as soon as they fade.

If you can't bear to discard the plant after it has finished blooming, you can try planting it outdoors in a shady, moist spot. Depending on hardiness, it may or may not survive the winter, but it certainly is worth a try.

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