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ASK THE GARDENERS, Questions & Answers

Q I have tried starting tomatoes twice. Each time after the seedlings had reached a -inch height, they flopped over because the stems had some kind of rot right at the soil level. I used a peat-lite mix, but I confess it was left over from a pot that had contained a mum plant I bought in December. I followed your instructions about keeping soil moist, and I used a heat cable to keep soil at 70 degrees F. while they were sprouting. At this late date I probably should buy tomato plants from a garden store, but I would like to know what caused seedlings to wilt. B.R.

Council Bluffs, Iowa

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We recommend peat-lite mixes (vermiculite, perlite, and sphagnum peat moss) because they are relatively sterile, but once they have served as a potting medium or seed-starting mix for other plants, they should not be reused for starting seeds. They can be reused as a potting mix if the former plant was healthy. Your seedlings had what is called ``damping-off,'' caused by fungi that attach themslves to tender seedling stems at soil level. Besides using a sterile mix, we recommend using a small fan to keep air moving in the seed-starting area, unless you have ample ventilation. All commercial growers use fans to thart damping-off, mildew, and other fungal problems. Do not let the fan blow directly on plants.

Q Last year for the first time we grew Brussels sprouts. We followed directions on the packet and had large, healthy stalks; the sprouts never did reach a size that could compare with ones we see in supermarkets, however. Could it be that we did not add enough fertilizer?


Madison, Wis.

As soon as small sprouts have formed, break off all the lower leaves. Begin eating the sprouts at the bottom, as they reach a large enough size. Other sprouts farther up the stalk will gradually increase in size. Some folks in very cold climates cut or whack out the tops only as soon as sprouts form. They say the large lower leaves protect the sprouts through many frosts. Sprouts can freeze solid and still be edible. We have picked them after the temperature has dropped into the teens.

Actually, they should have at least a couple of mild frosts to develop flavor. Otherwise, they tend to taste somewhat bitter.

If you have a question about your garden, inside or out, send it, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the Garden Page, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115.

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