Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Don't throw away those onion tops!

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Be careful! Deer ticks abound! Take precautions! (I think I just used up my monthly allowance of exclamation points.) Not to sound too gloomy, but all predictions I've seen indicate the deer tick (also called black-legged tick) population will be exceptionally high this year. Their bites are painful enough, but the diseases they transmit are very serious. The Centers for Disease Control lists Massachusetts as one of the 12 states where incidence of tick-transmitted Lyme disease is highest.

As gardeners, we are especially vulnerable to deer tick bites now — I've already had one tick bite this month — since this is the time we rake up debris in the landscape. Old leaves, dead plant material and downed tree limbs are hiding places for the ticks. To protect yourself when working outdoors, apply products containing permethrin to your work clothing and products containing DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus to exposed skin. For more information on protective measures, check out cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/on_people.html.

MORE GARDENING TIPS

On a happier note, check out these gardening tips for the week ahead:

- Check onions in storage and cull any that have sprouted. However, do not discard these. Put the sprouted onions in a bowl or large flower pot and place it in a sunny location. There's no need to add soil to the container. The sprouted onion tops can be snipped off as needed in recipes calling for green onions.

- Plant a few varieties of peas, each with a different "days to harvest" time. Otherwise, make successive sowings at 10-day intervals until mid-May. Either of these approaches will extend the harvest season and keep your pea-picking family happy. What you don't eat fresh can be frozen for consumption later in the year.

- Be sure to include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and other cruciferous vegetables in your garden plans. These crops are high in nutrients and fiber, and low in fat. They also have cancer-fighting chemicals.

- Avoid disturbing the ground beneath the branches of trees. Though the roots of trees extend well beyond the outermost circumference of a tree's canopy, most roots occur within the area beneath the branches. Disturbances, such as changing the grade or trenching within this zone, can seriously damage tree roots and the health of the tree.

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- Apply horticultural oil to trees and shrubs that experienced infestations of spider mites, aphids or scale insects last year. Apply oil before buds open and on days when air temperature exceeds 40 F degrees. Though horticulture oil is quite safe to use, read and follow directions on the label to avoid injuring plants.

- Leave the following seeds uncovered when sowing them either indoors or in the garden: Ageratum, begonia, browallia, calceolaria, coleus, cineraria, strawflower, impatiens, red salvia and snapdragon. "Huh?" you say. The reason is that these seeds germinate better when exposed to light. An easy way to sow these is to make a shallow furrow with the edge of a ruler or a thin board. Then sow the seeds down the furrow, but do not cover with soil. The seeds should be watered lightly, such as with a fine spray of water. Directions on the seed packet will usually indicate if that particular seed favors exposure to light for germination.

- Begin planting herbaceous perennials this month while soil is moist, but no longer water-logged, and temperatures are still cool. Prepare soil for planting by applying a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost or other organic matter over the soil. Using a garden fork or spade, work the organic matter into the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Then you're ready to dig the hole and set in the plant.

- Keep houseplants located near windows from bending toward the light by turning each pot at least once per week. We like each of our houseplants to be upright individuals.

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A friend asked me about an alternative to using a bleach solution to sterilize her seed-starting containers. Two alternatives that come to mind are hydrogen peroxide and white vinegar. When using either of these materials — and the bleach solution for that matter — wash seedling containers first in soap and water, and rinse in clear water. Next pour either the undiluted peroxide or vinegar (do not mix the two) into a spray bottle and spray it onto the surfaces of the containers. Wait 10 to 20 minutes, then wipe or wash the disinfectant off the pots. The Organic Materials Review Institute (https://www.omri.org/) is a good source for information on products "appropriate for organic operations."

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Another friend recently asked me how she can keep her tomato seedlings from getting leggy (excessive stem elongation), despite growing them under lights. The answer is mechanical stimulation. That may sound complicated, but the process is very simple, so simple that my now 16-year old grandson employed the technique when he was just 2 years old. It was the day I witnessed him gently brushing the tops of my tomato seedlings. Yes, brushing is the solution to preventing seedlings from getting leggy. If you don't have a 2-year old in the house, you can do the job yourself with gentle back-and-forth strokes using a smooth wooden dowel or piece of plastic pipe along the tops of the seedlings about 10 times each day. Brushing should be started as soon as seedlings reach a height of 2 1/2 inches and continue until the plants are ready to be transplanted. Who knew that a 2-year-old was so clever? It took me 60 years to learn the technique.


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