Christmas cactus

Q: Is it time to do something so that my Christmas cactus will bloom for the holidays?

A: Perhaps. First take a close look at it. Does it show any sign of flower buds? They will appear at the ends of the stem segments. (Yes, the green part is all stems. The leaves are almost nonexistent. They have been reduced to a cluster of short hairs at stem joints.) Year around, a Christmas cactus makes new stem buds at the same place as flower buds. They can be distinguished, though, because stem buds are flat; flower buds are round. Before a flower bud is even an eighth of an inch in diameter, its shape will be obvious.

If your Christmas cactus has even one or two flower buds, do nothing. Its current temperature, moisture, and light level will permit it to bloom. As long as nothing changes in its surroundings, the cactus will continue to make buds, and the buds will open into flowers. It should be in full bloom by December.

To guarantee that the cactus keeps on its flowering schedule, it is worth paying attention to its requirements. Regular watering is important; if the plant gets too dry, it will sacrifice its flowers to keep its stems from drying out. If the flowering cycle is broken, it will not restart until next year.

The length of days is the most important factor in the environment of a cactus. It will grow only green stems until its nights are longer than its days. As the sun sets earlier, we turn on more lights in our homes. If those lights are not too bright, the cactus will not be fooled. But if it sits near a bright light, it will not be able to distinguish between a lamp and sunlight. It will decide that the flowering season has come and gone. My system for knowing how much light is too much is whether I can read comfortably while sitting next to the cactus. If I can, the cactus needs to move farther from the light.

A Christmas cactus also will refuse to bloom if it is too hot. Most of the newer varieties are less than fussy about temperature. However, if your house is warmer than average, you might want to create distance between the cactus and any source of heat.

If the environmental factors all seem in order, do not make any changes. Like many plants, a Christmas cactus prefers life to be unchanging. Look again in a month to see whether any flower buds are developing. The flowering schedule may vary a month or so from year to year. Only the exact controls provided in a commercial greenhouse will keep cacti on a rigid schedule.

Above all, do not decide that a Christmas cactus needs a bigger pot in order to bloom better. Empty dirt in a pot tells the cactus to grow roots instead of flowers. Save the repotting until spring.

Q: What might have made my carrots into miniatures this year? I am new to gardening in this area, so I don't know exactly what to expect. They grew in a raised bed.

A: Like any root vegetable, carrots need deep soil, deeper than even big plants like tomatoes, which have fibrous roots. Eight inches is minimum depth for standard size carrots, and more is better. If your raised beds are not deep, next year you might try one of the short carrot varieties. Carrots also need nutrient-rich soil. Whatever your choices for fertilizer, be sure to keep the soil well fed and well watered.

The weather this summer was not always kind to carrots. If planted too early and exposed to cold early in their lives, they might have been permanently dwarfed. If planted too late, they would have been affected by this summer's very hot days. Carrots grow best when daytime temperatures are in the 70s. I have learned that I get good carrot crops by planting the second or third week in May. The soil is warm enough to get the carrots off to a good start, but they do not mature so early that they split before summer is over.

Also, I like to plant pinches of seed every three inches in the row. I too grow carrots in a raised bed, so I make the rows four inches apart. That spacing will give a grid of carrot plants with maximum production in minimum space. Planting in pinches means less fussy thinning than seed scattered along a row, but I am careful to thin when plants are about two inches tall. Since carrot seed can germinate over a long period, I check the planting at least once more, to pull out any late arrivals.

The variety of carrots you plant will affect size as much as anything. Carrots are now available in a rainbow of colors, but any color besides the standard orange will be smaller even with the best of care. They have been developed only in the past few years, while the Dutch began breeding orange carrots in the 1700s. My choice for the best eating carrots are the Nantes varieties - they are both big and delicious. The Nantes hybrids are even bigger than the open-pollinated strain. These are exceptional carrots, which cannot be found in stores. They are so crisp that they break in shipping; therefore they are grown only in home gardens.

Q: Is there any way to keep the neighborhood cats from using my flower beds as a bathroom? I don't mind their walking around, but this is too much.

A: First let's talk about what does not keep cats away. Mothballs or other cat repellants may discourage cats for a little while, but sooner or later cats get used to any repellant. Electronic devices that emit high-pitched sounds keep away some cats. Others ignore the noise.

The way in which you plant may prevent cat usage as much as anything. Densely planted flowers with no empty space between the clumps of foliage leave little available room for cats. And cats prefer dry soil to dig in. If you keep the flower beds well watered, cats will look for a different place. If trouble persists, lay scraps of chicken wire on the ground between plants. A wire grid leaves spaces too small for cats to dig holes.

VOLE CITY

If you think that the season of vole trouble ended with the first frost, think again. A few days ago I was startled to find three big pyramids of loose soil in a flower bed. When I excavated and removed the piles, I found shallow tunnels in an area two feet wide and 20 feet long. Some animal had separated a big hosta and several neighboring plants from their roots. I could lift the tops with only the crowns and half an inch of soil attached.

With the damage repaired as much as possible and the soil re-leveled, I was still standing there and scratching my head. When had this happened? What animal had been digging up my perennials without my permission? As if in answer, a vole peeped out from under a nearby plant, saw me, and hastily ran back the way it had come. I went to work. Within two days five voles had been tempted into baited traps.

For most local gardeners this has been a season of extraordinary vole populations, and they must be reproducing still. Keep watch. Remember that voles are the only mice that do not hibernate.

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