This issue of From The Ground Up features an expanded version of “Tom’s tips,” the tag end of each home/garden column. Hopefully, readers will find at least one or two of these suggestions useful for the upcoming gardening season.

Misting myth

Our houseplants suffer during the heating season because of low indoor humidity. To counter that, many folks mist their plants each day. But just how effective is misting? Not very.

Try this. Mist a plant heavily and then return 10 minutes later and check. The plant’s leaves will have completely dried, just as if they had never been misted.

Better to increase indoor humidity than to mist plants. A humidifier helps, but they are messy, noisy, expensive to operate and can even introduce fungus to the home. A better way might be to use humidity trays for your moisture-loving plants. These are deep pans with no drainage. To use, just line with pebbles and place potted plants on top of the pebbles. Then add water so that it comes up to the top of the pebbles, but not so high as to come in contact with the plant pots.

As the water in the humidity tray evaporates, the plants will draw in the moisture. This has a much longer-lasting effect than just misting.

Soon, when spring finally arrives, outdoor humidity should increase to the point that it affects indoor humidity, with the result that your plants will benefit. But for now, keep at it, and if it makes you feel better, keep misting.

Conqueror egg

Hen’s eggs, our most popular breakfast item, can not only feed people, but also provide nourishment for plants as well. Eggshells make for a good source of calcium, and calcium helps plants develop healthy roots and stalks; it also releases nutrients from the soil, which plants can then take up and use.

We have two different ways to use eggs to help our plants. The first is, after boiling eggs, allow the water to cool and then use it to water plants.

The second requires washing the inside of the eggshells in order to clean out the inside membrane. The membranes can decay to the point they develop an offensive odor.

After removing the membranes, crush the shells. I like to use a rolling pin, but any method will work. Then, either spread on top of the soil or add to any potting mix. Who said eggs were only for breakfast?

Iron gardener

Just as we require iron, so do plants. Iron deficiency is easily spotted, because it causes plant leaves to turn yellow. You can buy chelated iron, but for the frugal gardener, other sources of iron are available.

Are there any old, rusted steel wool pads in the kitchen cabinets? These can be crushed and sprinkled on the soil and successive rains or waterings will leach the iron into the soil, where plants can then take it up.

Even an old rusty nail can work to our good. Just stick rusty (non-galvanized) nails in the soil around plants that show leaf yellowing and the iron from the rust will eventually work its way into the soil.

If after these treatments your plant’s leaves turn the darkest green imaginable, stop adding iron and your plants should return to a healthy-looking green.

Happy annuals

In another month or so, gardeners will hit the flower and garden centers for their supply of this year’s annual flowers. Annuals embrace a wide variety of plants of all shapes, sizes and colors and are as useful in in-ground beds as they are in window boxes and containers.

When buying annuals, try not to allow fully developed plants to sway you. Plants that have not yet begun to bloom will acclimate better than those already in bloom. And if you do buy that gorgeous annual in full bloom, it pays to nip off the blossoms before planting in order to allow more energy to go into establishing the root system. And that goes against the grain, so do try to purchase non-blooming annuals instead.

Here’s another thing about annuals. You should read the label carefully in order to learn how tall and wide your plant or plants will grow. It’s a common mistake to fill the outside border of a perennial bed with annuals that will soon outgrow their surroundings. In some cases, the annuals can and will block the view of your perennials.

So using the planting suggestions on the label, plant your annuals accordingly. And if your bed looks a bit sparse at first, don’t worry, because annuals are, as a group, fast-growing and in no time at all your annual border will become full and lush.

I, pollinator

Ever have lush-looking cucumber vines, loaded with blossoms that never turn into cucumbers? The reason is something that few would suspect, and it isn’t a shortage of honeybees and other pollinators.

Like other flowering plants, cucumbers produce both male and female flowers. The difference between the two lies in the length of the flower stem, or petiole. Male flowers have long petioles and female flowers sit on very short petioles. So given that, the gardener can easily identify both male and female blossoms.

Now here is where it becomes interesting. Male flowers open in the early morning, a time when bees haven’t yet begun to gather nectar in earnest. And of course, as the bees and other pollinators gather nectar, they incidentally collect pollen too. So when a bee, legs covered with yellow pollen, spends its time equally between male and female blossoms, pollination takes place. But in the morning, when bees are relatively inactive, the male flowers don’t get the attention they need for the insects to gather pollen as they sip nectar.

The difficult part is, female flowers don’t open until the sun is high in the sky, around noontime. So when bees really go after cucumber flowers with a vengeance, they don’t accomplish much besides transferring pollen from one female flower to another. In time, a few bees will manage to hit both female and male flowers and then go on to doing some worthwhile pollinating.

But this natural pollinating often fails to produce the desired amount of fruit. There must be a better way. And there is. It requires you, the gardener, to pollinate your cucumber blossoms. Here’s how to do it.

Since male and female blossoms open at different times, the time-tested method of using a cotton swab to gather pollen from one blossom and transfer it to another blossom won't work now. So instead, just pick a few male blossoms in the morning and take them inside in the shade. Then, in the afternoon, after peeling the petals off of the male blossoms you have saved, just take them outside and gently touch the female blossoms. You will have then pollinated your cukes and will get a far better harvest than if left to nature.

Finally, cucumbers usually produce only male blossoms in their early stages. Female blossoms will come later, so be patient.

Encouraging Words

From Flowering Plants of Great Britain, 1870. –

“Though still so early one may spy,

And mark spring’s footsteps every hour;

The daisy with its golden eye,

And primrose bursting into flower.”