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All Past Questions and Answers Library | December 2008

This month's questions concern:

When To Prune Bougainvillea
When To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Garden
How To Organically Get Rid Of Slaters (Sowbugs)
Difference Between Heliconia and Strelitzia
How To Relocate An Asparagus Bed
Make Your Own Potting Soil

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  When To Prune Bougainvillea

Question:  Do I trim limb of the bougainvilleas in the winter?

 Shirley Jean Bethay, Fulton, MS, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Shirley! Bougainvillea are native to topical and subtropical South America, so while they are tolerably hardy, they don't like the cold weather.

That said, the best time to heavily prune any bougainvillea is early spring after any danger of frost has passed. You can always lightly prune during the growing season, which are the warmer summer months to shape and direct growth.

What you want to avoid is pruning in the fall or winter because it will encourage new growth that can be damaged by any frost or cold snaps that come along.

Thanks for the question!

Question #2:  When To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Garden

Question:  I am thinking about growing vegtables in my garden, when is the best time to prepare the ground? Many Thanks.

 Chris Mclaren, Sunderland, England


ANSWER:  Hi Chris! Well I could say, just about any time and I wouldn't be too far off!

If you have never used your soil to grow vegetables, start with a soil test. You can get a soil test kit at any nursery and they come with directions on how to do it, it's really easy.

Most vegetables like a pH range of 6.0 to 7.5 (neutral pH being 7.0), so the test will tell you what you will need to add to get your soil into your target range.

You can add amendments, in addition to lots of good organic matter, to your soil any time. In the fall is a good time because the soil will decompose some of the organic matter and start to create good, friable soil.

I would work more organic matter in again in the early spring before you plant. Any type of soil: clay, sand, or loam will never be hurt by adding more organic matter like compost. So be liberal with the compost, by adding at least 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) and tilling it well into the soil.

So to be clear, it's a good idea to get your soil ready by fall composting and again in the spring before planting. This is a yearly cycle, because organic matter decomposes over time and needs to be replenished regularly.

If you do this every year, and keep your pH in your target range, you will grow outstanding vegetables.

If you need more step-by-step instructions, read our two part series:

How To Start A Vegetable Garden

How To Maintain A Vegetable Garden

Good luck and have fun. Vegetable gardens are great!

Question #3:  How To Organically Get Rid Of Slaters (Sowbugs)

Question:  Do you have a green solution for slaters in the garden and in the base of pot plants?

 Judy Collins, Palmerston North, New Zealand


ANSWER:  Hi Judy! Yes, there are several things you can do. In our Disease and Pest Control Section we did a story that goes into quite a bit of detail, you can read it at:

Control Sowbugs Pillbugs (Slaters)

At the bottom of the article we give several ways to organically get rid of these pests. After reading that, you'll be rid of your problem in no time!

Question #4:  Difference Between Heliconia and Strelitzia

Question:  What is the difference between heliconia and bird of paradise?

 Deepti Naik, Ponda, Goa, India


ANSWER:  Hi Deepti! This is a very interesting question.

Actually they are not that different, in fact they are related, both belong to the order Zingiberales.

The Zingiberales order is made up of eight families of mostly tropical plants that are commonly grown as ornamentals. Many also have culinary and medicinal uses.

Specific characteristics which distinguish the Zingiberales from other plants include large leaves with parallel veins and often long petioles, and inflorescences composed of colorful bracts.

The following families make up the Zingiberales order:

1. Cannaceae (cannas)

2. Costaceae (costus)

3. Heliconiaceae (heliconias)

4. Lowiaceae (orchidantha)

5. Marantaceae (prayer plants)

6. Musaceae (bananas)

7. Strelitziaceae (birds of paradise)

8. Zingiberaceae (gingers)

Heliconias - may be distinguished from other members of the Zingiberales by their inverted flowers, a sterile staminode and fruits which are drupes (a hard seed surrounded by fleshy pulp).

Strelitzia reginae, Bird of Paradise - is short plant with banana-like leaves up to 0.5 m long; flowers bright orange with a blue "tongue."

Having said all that, the biggest difference is in their flowering structure. In the picture I posted by your question, you can really see the difference between the two.

Botanically, plants are grouped by their flowers, so that is why they are related but in different families.

I hope I answered your question, it was a good one!

Question #5:  How To Relocate An Asparagus Bed

Question:  Is it possible to relocate an established (six year old ) asparagus bed? I have six crowns planted six years ago. I am making a new larger bed in a different location and would like to add these to the new bed. What is the best time to dig and move the crowns?

 Steve Barragan, Natick, MA, USA


ANSWER:  Hi Steve! Wow, six year old asparagus, that must taste great when it comes time to harvest those spears.

Well, to answer your question, many people say that established asparagus roots can not be moved because they are so deep and extensive that transplanting them causes so much injury that they will die, or if they don't, that they never really bounce back.

Basically, asparagus crowns hate being disturbed and yours would take a couple of years to recover if they ever did.

You would probably be better off replanting new 1 year old crowns in your new larger bed than you would trying to re-locate the old ones.

If you want to try anyway, winter is the best time to move your crowns, when the plants are dormant. And then treat them like new plants for the first year and don't harvest until the following year.

When moving them, you goal is going to be to save as much of the root system as possible.

If the clump is relatively small, you might be able to loosen and lift it with a spading fork. An older mass, however, will often have to be pried out with a mattock, and a really large and overcrowded section may require a mattock, and a crowbar.

Make sure that you work under the roots instead of cutting through them or worse, slicing into the crowns.

Do your best to lift the clump out as a whole, but sometimes the plants in an old bed may be too closely intertwined to remove by simple circling and lifting.

In that case, you will have to start at the end of a row or the corner of a bed, and use the spading fork, as before, to locate the edges of the tangled root clumps and work along the bed.

If it were I, I would start with new plants. It's going to be easier, faster and less of a hassle for you.

Let me know what you decide, I'd be interested to know.

Question #6:  Make Your Own Potting Soil

Question:  How can I make my own potting mix?

 Francine Everingham, Adelaide,
South Australia


ANSWER:  Hi Francine! We used to make our own no-soil mixes in horticulture school all the time. They are so much better, especially when used in containers because they are so light, drain well, and the plants love them.

Soilless mixes are also great since you're not using real soil, so you don't have the same potential to have bacteria and fungi in your mix that can be harmful to plants.

Here are two good recipes for you to try:

Recipe #1
Mix all together. This mix is a good general mix and can be used for anything. It is good to starting seedlings, and if you want to use it for planters or containers, add some granular fertilizer to the mix.

1 part sphagnum peat moss (shredded)
1 part composted bark
1 part vermiculite
1 part sharp sand or perlite (I prefer perlite rather than sand)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) dolomitic lime per two quarts (2 liters) of mix

Recipe #2
This is another good general mix, but it is also good for seedlings that you're potting up as it contains some nutrients in the compost.

2 parts sphagnum peat moss (shredded)
1 part composted bark
1 part vermiculite
1 part sifted compost
2 parts sharp sand or perlite (I prefer perlite rather than sand)
2 tablespoons (30 ml) dolomitic lime per two quarts (2 liters) of mix

If you use either one of these recipes, your plants will do very well.

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Keep Seedlings Moist

When you have just planted seeds, keep the soil moist until germination.

If the soil dries out, the seeds will die.

After germination, allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings, but keep a close eye on the seedlings until they are well established.

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