Ciscoe Morris, Seattle Times garden writer, gives tips on getting African Violets to bloom; using straw as mulch and having soil tested.

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Q: Why won’t my African violets bloom? They’re in the same conditions where they used to blossom beautifully, but I haven’t seen a flower for the last two years.

A: African violets are capable of blooming year-round in the home, but they won’t bloom reliably if one or more of their basic needs are not being met.

The most likely reason African violets stop blooming is because they’re in too little light. Although they don’t like direct sunlight, they need as bright light as possible to form buds.

Usually an east or west window is adequate, but in winter extending day light by placing the plant under a grow light for a few extra hours in the evening can be necessary to keep them blooming.

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Transplanting into an overly large container is another reason these plants stop setting blossoms. African violets won’t bloom unless they’re fairly rootbound. At the same time, they won’t bloom if the top growth gets crowded, so make a habit of removing any suckers that come up in the pot.

A lack of nutrition and dry air can also cause blooming problems. Feed year round with a half-strength dilution of African violet fertilizer, and keep humidity high by grouping the plants on pebble trays, and misting often.

Finally, keep them warm. They’ll stop blooming if night temperatures dip below 60.

Q: I found a feed store where I can get hay and straw for a great price. Can I use these materials as mulch to cover the bare soil in my vegetable garden?

A: Most feed stores sell straw and hay, but they are two totally different products, and you don’t want to get them mixed up. Straw is the leftover after the seed has been threshed out of wheat, oat, rye or barley. It makes great mulch because it contains no seeds, breaks down easily, and gives good weed control. Apply it just as you would any organic mulch: about 3 inches deep, and till it into the soil in the spring.

The one drawback is that voles (field mice) love to live under straw in winter and can become a horrible pest, so don’t use it if you live where voles are present.

Hay is horse, pig and goat food. It’s brimming with seeds and, applied as mulch, your garden will resemble a hay farm in spring.

One last warning: It can be hard to tell bales of hay from straw when you see them at the feed store, so ask before you buy. You don’t want to get them mixed up and end up with a wheat field in spring.

Q: How important is it to have soil tests done, and what’s the advantage of sending out a soil sample to have it tested, versus using one of those store-bought pH-testing kits?

A: It probably is worthwhile to have a soil test done at least every few years. Store-bought test kits are inexpensive and great for measuring soil pH, but if you send soil to a test lab (listed in the yellow pages and online) you get a lot more useful information.

In addition to pH, the lab test will tell you if your soil is deficient or too high in the nutrients needed for the particular kinds of plants you’re growing and give recommendations regarding applications of lime and other additives to maintain a healthy nutrient balance.

In ornamental gardens, if the plants look healthy, soil tests aren’t needed. If you have a large lawn, however, a test can save you money and help you garden more environmentally by allowing you to fine-tune fertilizer applications to just the nutrients required for a healthy lawn.

Testing the soil in your vegetable garden can be very informative. Most vegetables need higher pH levels, and growing them uses up nutrients that need to be replenished on a yearly basis.

Having a test done at least every few years can help you maintain the healthy balance of nutrients required to keep those Brussels sprouts growing healthy and strong.

Ciscoe Morris:; “Gardening with Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV

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