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Q: At the October meeting on composting, a member asked if you can use ashes in your compost.

A: Speaker Dave Schroeder has written to say that you can use small amounts of fire place or BBQ ashes in the soil or in the compost pile as long as you mix them in thoroughly, but that ashes shouldn't be added to a worm bin.

Q: A friend just divided his clump of Chasmanthe and gave me some of the corms. How should I treat them?

A: Chasmanthe floribunda, African flag, is a member of the iris family. Plant corms about 3" deep in groups in light shade in well-drained soil. Plants are dormant in summer. Leaves appear in late fall, growing 3-4 ft tall, and the arching sprays of orange and yellow, thin, tubular flowers appear in early spring. A favorite of hummingbirds. More detailed growing information can be found at https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/wildly-successful-ichasmanthe-floribundai/

Q: Do you really need to wash and sanitize containers to reuse them?

A: The counsel of perfection is “yes” so that you don’t pass along any infectious material they may contain. [But I admit I usually just wash them out with water (unless the previous plant was ill) and have never had a problem.]

Q: Can you reuse potting soil?

A: Again, ideally no, you should spread it around and dig it into the ground somewhere (unless the plants were ill). However, I’ve left the soil in some very large patio pots for several years, just changing out the plants and adding fertilizer, and the plants have done well.

Q: Is there a way to kill grasshoppers without harming beneficial insects?

A: This is very difficult, as pesticides kill them all. The good news is that serious grasshopper invasions generally only occur every 8-10 years (although they can last 2 or 3 years). The following may help, but since grasshoppers are very mobile, they can migrate into your garden from other places outside of it.

  • Grasshoppers lay eggs in the soil, so tilling the surface 1-2 inches a few times in late summer, fall and winter may reduce the number that develop.
  • The young hoppers like to live in areas of dense plant growth where spiders, blister beetles robber flies, and suchlike prey on the eggs and nymphs, so arrange to have a few areas like that.
  • Grasshoppers prefer uncultivated, weedy, grassy areas, so if you have an out of the way spot, you might let it go (but keep it healthy) and hope the pests think of it as prime real estate compared to your weeded beds.
  • Some birds eat young grasshoppers, so provide some perches in the garden. (Coyotes eat grasshoppers too, but you may not want to attract them!)
  • Among vegetables, they generally give tomatoes, squash and peas a miss, but delight in lettuce, carrots, and beans and onions. Putting row covers over your vegetables can reduce the damage. Hungry hoppers can eat through fabric and plastic, so consider using metal window screening. Be aware, though, that covers` may reduce insect pollination of your crops, so you may need to do some hand-pollination.

Q: Poinsettias — plant outside or toss?

A: Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are frost tender, prefer acid soil, grow to 8 ft in the ground,  and do not bloom well unless they get two months of total darkness at night in the fall. Darkness is hard to provide in an urban garden, so unless you enjoy a challenge, toss.  If you do grow them, wear gloves when pruning as the milky sap of euphorbias can cause skin irritation. (By the way, poinsettias are not poisonous–that’s an urban legend.)

Q: Last year’s seed packets — use or toss?

A: Seeds don’t stay alive forever, but neither do they all expire immediately at years’ end. Like people, the ones in a packet vary a bit in life expectancy. If you keep your packets in a cool, dark, dry location, you can expect to get good germination for several years. Here are some approximate times (years in parentheses): corn (2), lettuce (6), beans (3), cucumber (5), eggplant (4), kale (4), melons (5), onion (1), peas (3), spinach (3), tomato (4), radish (5). If you have older packets and are worried about poor germination, plant more thickly than normal and remove any extras.

Q: What are the flies in my houseplants?

A: Fungus gnats (Bradysia species) are common pests. The adults live about a week and don’t bite people or eat the plants, but are definitely annoying. Yellow sticky traps placed nearby will catch many of them. The larvae thrive in decaying plant matter and can damage plant roots. Their numbers can be reduced by cleaning up any dead leaves and by always letting the soil in the pots dry out to a depth of 1 to 2 inches before watering–dryness kills the eggs and larvae. It may take a couple of months of proper watering to eliminate the populations so be patient. Repotting the plants in new soil every year or so will also help to keep infestations down.