Q: It's all very well to say not to cut all my perennial flowers to the ground, but I can't stand looking at a mess in the flower bed all winter. Do you have an answer to that problem?
A: I think so. First of all, try cutting the perennials only when each one looks bad instead of all at once. And cut only the brown parts of the plant. For some perennials that will mean cutting the flower stalks but leaving the foliage for now. Rather than have one glorious day of cutting down everything, nibble at the flower bed only as more plants turn brown. Having a few green spots to look at through fall and early winter is very restful to the eyes.
Second, cut back the perennials to a height of two inches, not all the way to the soil level. The stem bases will look brown over the winter, but at least they will look neat. Those short remaining stems will protect the crown and roots from the worst of winter weather, helping the plants survive until spring comes.
Third, spread a fresh layer of mulch over the bed, around the plants, but do not pile mulch over the plant crowns. I mulch my flower gardens with an inch of shredded dead plants, but any organic mulch looks good and does a good job. If you have never tried this, you will be pleasantly surprised at the way mulch makes the bed look neat. It will still look neat several months from now, when the mulch makes a background for early spring bulbs and the first perennial shoots.
Q: We have a lot of apples this year. How can we keep some of them edible for the longest time?
A: Harvested apples carry on the plant equivalent of breathing. They absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen—plus some esters and ethyls. As they breathe the apples rot slowly. Since cool surroundings slow the respiration rate, they also slow the process of rotting in apples. Try to store your apples in a place which stays barely above freezing and definitely below 40 degrees. High humidity will keep the skins tender. Later ripening varieties always will store longer than the earliest apples.
Commercial storage will keep apples for a year, but it cannot be duplicated at home. Oxygen is removed from the warehouse atmosphere and replaced with nitrogen. The apples go to sleep and stop making ethylene, the gas which causes ripening. By the way, the ethylene produced by apples can give strange flavors to vegetables stored in the same place. Work out a design for storing apples and carrots in different areas. Cut flowers stored with apples will age and droop their heads after just a few hours.
Q: What are your current favorite tomatoes?
A: Two have been my favorites for a few years: Whopper and Prudens Purple. Two are varieties that I grew for the first time this year. I was so impressed with both that they have bumped other old favorites off the list for next year. The two new varieties are Legacy and Pink Berkeley Tie Dye. I have already waxed eloquent about Berkeley but have not much mentioned Legacy. It is a conventional hybrid, huge in size and excellent in flavor.
My favorite cherry tomato still is Sungold, although I think it has been around long enough that it will be superseded in the near future. It is impossible to prevent changes in any living thing. Vegetable varieties slowly age and deteriorate, just like all of us.
Q: Can I store perennial flowers in a deep window well instead of digging a hole in the ground to hold the pot?
A: I have not tried the system, but it certainly would be worth the experiment. Setting a pot in the ground lets it partake of the insulation from all that dirt. In a window well the pots would benefit from the dirt surrounding the well. Be sure to fill the empty space in the window well with some kind of insulation also. Bags of styrofoam popcorn or shredded paper should make good insulation, as would containers of pet litter. Leave no space for air to circulate.
Q: I have tried bringing a geranium indoors for the winter, but I do not have a south window with bright light. The geranium grew very tall, and eventually the stems got floppy. What can a person without a south window do with a geranium?
A: Give it the most light you can find. Set the geranium in front of any window, as close to the window as possible, since light levels are highest near the glass. The geranium stems will grow longer distances between leaves as they stretch out toward the light.
Whenever a stem grows tall enough to look homely, cut off the top half. New growth will start where the top leaf joins the stem. If you make the cut just above a leaf, you will avoid the gradual development of a dead stub above the leaf. Sections of stem, often called internodes, will grow long while winter days are short, but the internodes will gradually shorten as we move toward spring. It may be necessary to cut off the top half of stems two or three times before winter is over. The geranium will not mind at all.
You also can help the shape of the plant by placing a light near it during the long winter evenings. Although no light will be as bright as sunlight, the geranium will respond to some light in place of darkness. Do not leave a light on all night, though. Plants need to sleep just as people do.
Q: I love the tiny early iris, the ones that grow only a few inches tall, but I have not succeeded in keeping them alive. What am I doing wrong?
A: Perhaps you are trying to grow the very difficult ones. I have great success with the species called Iris reticulata. It flowers in purple shades from lavender to indigo. Many of the other early iris are hard to grow and short lived. The yellow one, Iris danfordiae, is the worst; it flowers one year and is never seen again. Before I knew that, I planted some. True to form, they lasted just one year.
If you decide to try Iris reticulata, plant the bulbs now, about three inches deep and four inches apart. If too shallow, they will make only leaves. The plants will need half a day of sun and decent soil drainage. I find that these iris require no special care except weeding. They are not aggressive defenders of their space. If you leave the grassy foliage to ripen over the summer, the clusters will enlarge from year to year. The reward is an edging of mini iris which bloom as early as crocus and are not upset by daily snowstorms. Meanwhile, a Canadian breeder is trying to develop new colors with the hardiness of Iris reticulata.