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Q & A: Manure, Lime, Seed Storage and More

Master gardener Paul James fields questions on manure, lime, seed storage and insect sting relief.

Master gardener Paul James answers gardeners' questions:

Q. Have you ever heard of using charcoal in container plantings?

A. As a matter of fact, yes. However, which charcoal you choose to use makes all the difference. One form is perfectly harmless to plants while another form is toxic. One way to determine which charcoal is which is to examine their shapes (figure A). The charcoal on the left is the familiar briquette type, and while it's great for grilling, it contains petroleum products that can harm plants. The charcoal on the right is all natural, 100-percent hardwood charcoal, and it's the kind you should use in container plantings.

How should you use this stuff? Charcoal is used as filler in large pots to reduce their overall weight. And that's especially important if you do a lot of gardening on a balcony or if you have some large pots you need to move around every now and then. Fill one-third of an empty pot with charcoal, then add the potting mix on top. In addition to lightening the load, the charcoal can be used year after year.

Q. Should I apply lime every year?

A. The short answer is that you should use lime only when a soil test indicates that your soil pH is too low, meaning that your soil is too acidic. Lime is used to raise the soil pH or, to make the soil more basic. Keep in mind that many plants prefer to grow in slightly acidic soil, somewhere in the pH range of 6.5 to 6.8, so it is important to know which plants you have in the soil testing area and what soil type they prefer.

The first thing you need to do is test your soil pH, either by using a store-bought pH testing kit or sending a soil sample to a lab for testing. (In many areas, the Cooperative Extension Service or a local garden center may perform a soil test for free or a nominal fee.) Then you can make a determination on whether to increase the pH by using lime or decrease the pH by using sulfur. Either way, it can take up to two years for the lime or sulfur to significantly alter the pH of the soil, so be prepared to retest the soil every six to 12 months.

Q. What's the best way to save seeds?

A. If you save your own seeds as so many gardeners are doing these days, remember to keep your seeds cold and dry. If you leave your seeds out in the open where they are exposed to heat and humidity, they will quickly lose their viability. One way to store seeds is in a freezer bag along with a bit of rice (about a spoonful or two) to absorb the extra moisture. You can also use silica, whether in powder form or silica packets, as a substitute for rice. Place the bag of seeds in the freezer. When properly stored using these methods, most seeds will stay viable for up to five years. Exceptions include onion seed which should be purchased fresh every year and corn seed which only keeps for a couple of years at best.

Q. Is one type of manure better then another?

A. Assuming they've been composted first, virtually all manures are good for the garden. Manures add valuable organic matter and nutrients, both macro and micro. Rabbit and chicken manures have the highest levels of nutrients. Bat compost has the highest nitrogen content, but worm and cricket castings have the most balanced nutrient levels. The source of the manure isn't extremely important because all manures will ultimately do what you want them to do, which is improve the overall soil structure.

Q. Have you ever used meat tenderizer for wasp stings?

A. "No, I haven't because I haven't been stung in well over 40 years," says James. "But I do know people who keep a jar of meat tenderizer on hand just in case." However, not just any meat tenderizer will do. You need one that contains the ingredient papain, an enzyme derived from papaya. Papain is the active ingredient that not only tenderizes meat but also reduces the pain and swelling caused by bee, wasp and yellow jacket stings.

The effectiveness of papain has been confirmed by dermatologists and other researchers. If you have been stung (and are not allergic to bee or wasp stings), quickly remove the stinger, moisten the area with a few drops of water and apply the tenderizer (figure B). Gently rub it until it forms a paste over the wound. "I'm told that in most cases, relief comes very quickly. And by the next day, it's difficult to tell the stinging event ever took place."

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