Q: Is there a book or website that teaches one which growing things can be eaten and which can't? Specifically, I have some wonderful lemon geraniums — no flowers, just leaves. Every time I water them or the breeze moves them, the most wonderful smell hits me. I want to know whether I could use them to flavor something in cooking, or add them to my tea. I couldn't find this on the Internet.
A: The leaves of scented geraniums (and all parts of the plant) are safe to eat, but the leaves and flowers are most often used as scents and flavoring. Your lemon geranium is one of the most-used of the scented group, which includes nutmeg, rose, orange, peppermint, chocolate, etc. They are used as flavorings and scents, as well as decorations on plates and floating in soups. They can also be dried for tea, potpourri, bug repellents, etc. A recipe for lemon pound cake flavored with lemon geraniums and decorated with the leaves was popular in Victorian times and sounds delicious.
You should be able to find the toxicity of any plant by just typing in the name of the plant and asking if it's safe to eat — try it! Just be sure you have identified the plant correctly. In addition, there are articles on toxic houseplants, toxic trees — almost anything you could want.
The Foxfire book series by Elliot Wigginton has some wonderful wild plant information (as well as planting by the moon phases, hog butchering, etc. — many old-time ideas and skills). It's fun to just read.
Q: I have a deck going in that will end up covering a small section of a creeping myrtle tract. I want to transplant it rather than let it die. When I've pulled some up by mistake, there doesn't seem to be any root; rather, it breaks off from one continuous vine. I'd like to do it right. Any suggestions? Any special prep for the new location? It currently covers a pretty good chunk of yard where the dirt is not so good. Can I transplant it directly into the same not-so-good soil?
A: Your myrtle, or vinca or periwinkle, will make a lively ground cover in no time at all — move it this fall or next spring.
Do amend the soil in the new planting area, and weed it well. It's the last time you'll get the chance to do it.
Lift each plant, trimming the runners if you want; otherwise, the runner can be partially buried and in a short time will form more plants. If it breaks off, it won't do any harm; just discard or replant the runner.
Space plants about a foot apart. If you want a fast ground cover and have enough plants, space them closer. Water well, and water through a hot, dry season like this summer.
While you're at it, a myrtle bed is a nice place to plant some spring bulbs. Plant bulbs that don't require full sun, as the vinca will be providing full shade, and plant bulbs that are high enough to stand above the vinca foliage. Vinca will, in turn, hide the dying bulb foliage, and that's a big plus.
Think about fall cleanup: The easiest way to remove dead tree leaves in the fall is with a blower. A rake will tangle in the runners.
When the little, blue flowers appear in late spring, vinca will be a particularly lovely cover for the difficult spot.
Q: I have tried to grow purple fountain grass, the annual type, on different occasions with no luck. I would love to know how to grow it for my yard next year. I have purchased several plants for this year. Is there a chance that the seed on my plants could be sterile?
A: Fountain grass is fairly easy to grow, requiring little watering, an occasional dose of fertilizer like Miracle-Gro and plenty of sun. Regardless of what you've been told, if you have Purple Fountain grass, you have a perennial plant in Zone 6. It will occasionally winter over if the plant clump is well-mulched and winter is mild, but don't count on it.
No, your seeds aren't sterile. They're just difficult to germinate and have a very low rate of germination. It may not be worth your time and trouble to plant seeds that might never sprout.
Buy new plants each year. It's readily available in the early spring, as its color and 4-to-5-foot plumes make it popular as an accent plant.
Q: A couple of years ago, you helped me with large black ants on my outside gate. The solution had something to do with a combination of sugar and borax, I think. The last couple of days, I have seen occasional large black ants on my kitchen counters. When I pour a glass of orange juice, one seems to appear. I cleaned out that whole area around the floor, spraying with ant spray, but this morning a couple more appeared — though I do not see any at night and can't figure where they are coming from. Any suggestions on how to get rid of them?
A: Aren't they pesty this year? Borax and sugar water, placed on cotton wads, are a good bait, but not if you have inquisitive kids or pets around.
Ants mark their trail into your kitchen to let other ants know where the goodies are. Get rid of the trails by washing around floorboards and backsplash areas and tile grouting with soap and water or even vinegar. Their friends won't find their way in as easily.
Clean up sweet smells/tastes (like your orange juice) completely — again, with soap and water or vinegar. Rubbing alcohol can also be used.
Very pungent herbs and spices also deter most bugs, including ants. Try peppermint or cinnamon or pepper, but be careful around pets and kids.
It is said that an ant won't cross a chalk line. Some gardeners have had success by borrowing the kids' blackboard chalk and drawing a chalk line around floor baseboards and cabinets and doorways. I've never tried this, but people swear it works. I've also used cucumber peelings placed on the floor areas. Of course, your floor looks like a garbage can has overturned, but it was worth the mess and funny looks and was safe!
Have patience! It takes a few days for the ants to learn that your kitchen is no longer a friendly feeding area; then they will leave.
This week's dirt
The best time to pick some common veggie crops:
Sweet corn: About 10 days after silk appears.
Leaf lettuce: When at least five or six leaves have appeared.
Head lettuce: When the head begins to feel firm.
Tomatoes: When color is complete but the tomato is still firm, or pick when slightly green and finish ripening indoors at room temp. (But they're so much better when they finish ripening on the vine).
Zucchini: Pick before they are 7 inches and leave a piece of the stem on the squash to help deter rot, unless you are using immediately. (Got lots of zucchini and don't know what to do with them? Be forewarned — it is illegal to put excess zucchini in your neighbor's mailbox unless they have a stamp! But you can put them behind their door, ring the bell and run!)
Green beans: Pick in the morning, when pods are 4 to 5 inches, but before beans have begun to swell. If beans are allowed to mature too long, they get tough — but all is not lost. They can be dried, then shelled and used in recipes as any other dried bean.
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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday's Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by e-mail at email@example.com or write to her c/o Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.