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COAXING A LILAC INTO BLOOM

Q. The lilac bush I planted three years ago isn't flowering. What should I do?
-- Patty Trueman, Dorchester, Mass.
A. The lilac plant, Syringa vulgaris, is generally undemanding. Even so, your question is a common one.

Be patient. Some lilacs take years to begin blooming. Here are some guidelines for care:

To encourage your plant to flower, make sure the growing conditions are appropriate. Lilacs do best in rich, well-drained soil that is fairly neutral in pH; the bed should never be soggy. They also need full sun. If necessary, move the plant to a sunnier spot in your garden.

Planting should be done in early spring or fall. Be aware, however, that after being moved, a lilac bush may not bloom right away.

Proper pruning is crucial. It can be done while the plant is in bloom, which means that you can cut the flowers for bouquets to enjoy indoors. Or you can cut off the spent blooms just as the flowers finish. The plant soon begins setting next year's flower buds, so to be safe, don't prune it at all after July 4 each year. At that point, and through the fall and winter, pruning would reduce or eliminate next spring's show.

Happy dicing

Q. How do you keep from becoming teary-eyed when cutting onions?
-- Elizabeth Jump, Manlius
A. Crying while slicing onions is a problem that every cook experiences. When you peel or cut into an onion, it releases gaseous sulfur compounds that irritate the eyes.

There is no foolproof solution, but here are several techniques to reduce the stinging and tearing:

My favorite trick is to light a large candle near the cutting board. The flame will help burn off the sulfur compounds released by the onion. Or if you have a gas stove and a steady, safe place near it where you can place the cutting board, slice the onion there. Be careful working near the flame, and don't forget to turn off the stove as soon as you're finished.

Place the onion in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes before cutting it. Or store onions in refrigerator. Cold onions release less gas.

When peeling onions, hold them under cold running water. The water helps keep the fumes from getting to you.

Chop the onion quickly. Here is the best method: Cut it in half from stem end to root end. Set one half aside, cut side down, on your work surface. Cut off the stem end of the other half, and peel it. Place it cut side down on the cutting board and make vertical cuts along the veins of the onion, without cutting through the root end, which holds the onion together as you work. Make a few horizontal cuts from the cut stem end toward the root end. Then chop across the onion from the cut stem end to the root end, resulting in beautiful, perfectly even dice.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: mstewart@marthastewart.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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