Q: This is the second year I've planted pumpkin seeds with my grandchildren. I have good growth and flowers, but no pumpkins. It's probably too late for this season, but I hope to try again next year.
-- Carole Sikora, Lansing, Ill.
A: Growing pumpkins -- which are actually a variety of Cucurbita, or winter squash -- is an exciting project for children.
Pumpkins need lots of sun, well-drained soil and a generous amount of space in the garden for their vines to sprawl out. Plant the seeds once the soil has warmed, about a week after the last frost date in your area. Water regularly to keep the soil moist as the seeds sprout and seedlings grow.
Because your plants had healthy growth and flowers, it sounds as though pollination might have been the problem. Bees usually take care of pollination for us (so don't use insecticides to keep them away), but next year you might want to help nature along. The first flowers you'll see are male ones, with females appearing a little later. You can tell them apart by the rounded bulge just below the blossom on the females.
As soon as the females bloom, use a soft, clean brush to collect pollen from the male flowers, then transfer it to the females. In the middle of the summer, pinch off flowers that remain, so the plant can channel its energy into ripening the fruit. Keep watering regularly as the pumpkins grow, and slide a board under each pumpkin to keep it off the damp soil.
Pumpkins and other winter squash are slow to mature, taking as long as four months. But when you carve those home-grown jack-o'-lanterns, you'll know it was worth the wait.
Let there be light
Q: Could you tell me how to clean lampshades?
-- Darlene Pearson, Decatur, Ga.
A: Most lampshades, unfortunately, aren't really meant to get a good cleaning. Here are some methods to try, but keep in mind that depending on the shade, cleaning can do more harm than good. If the metal frame beneath the fabric isn't lacquered or rust-proofed, it can rust, staining the shade. Water can also cause the fabric to shrink, colors to bleed or fade, and glue to unstick.
A well-made, hand-sewn fabric shade is the best candidate for a thorough cleaning. Fill a sink or tub with water and sudsy, gentle soap, such as Woolite or Ivory Flakes. Dip the shade into the water, lift it out slowly and dip it again. Repeat until the water that runs off the shade is clean; refill the tub with more soapy water if necessary. Rinse the shade in clean water using the same technique.
Use a blow dryer on a low setting to dry the shade, but point it toward a white cloth first to make sure it doesn't give off any dust.
For plastic-coated and laminated shades, use a barely damp sponge to wipe away dirt, but avoid any trim and other areas with glue. You can also sponge on the suds of a gentle soap. Remove any soap with a damp sponge, using as little water as possible; dry the shade with a soft cloth. You can try this technique on a fabric shade, but it may leave water spots.
Lampshades don't last forever, but with regular maintenance you can enjoy them for years. Keep them clean by dusting, inside and out, with a very soft brush about once a week.
Q: I have a problem with romaine lettuce. I can't seem to get it nice and crisp. I wash it, pat it dry with paper towels and refrigerate it. It always seems to be limp. What am I doing wrong?
-- Mary Bradley, Van Nuys, Calif.
A: Perfect lettuce is essential for a wonderful salad. Use the following steps for preparing and storing romaine lettuce and any other kind of greens.
First, discard any blemished outer leaves. Fill the sink with cold water and dunk the remaining leaves in it to rinse away any dirt, but don't leave them to soak.
The best way to dry lettuce is in a salad spinner, which uses centrifugal force to whisk the water away from the leaves. This is an inexpensive tool, available at kitchenware or department stores, that any salad lover should have. Pack the spinner loosely to keep the leaves from bruising.
If you're making the salad right away, tear the dry leaves by hand into manageable pieces. Small leaves can remain whole. Don't cut lettuce with a knife, as it can cause the edges to turn brown.
If you're not using the greens immediately, place them in a sealable plastic bag and add a single sheet of paper towel to absorb moisture. Refrigerate for up to two days.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.