Q: For the last two years, my vegetables haven't been producing as well as usual. There must be something wrong with my soil because it can't be the seed. Potatoes, carrots, beets and radishes have all been disappointing. Could too much manure be a problem?
A: Probably not. As long as manure is aged and doesn't contain either Tordon or Milestone it shouldn't be a problem, and if there has been herbicide in the manure you would have known. Plants would have died or grown into weird or distorted shapes.
When you notice a gradual decline in production, we suggest that you consider whether your soil nutrients are declining. If you've been gardening in the same place for many years, the vegetables you've harvested take nutrients from the soil and give it to you as you eat the produce. Manure, because it's organic in origin, decomposes into soil that holds water and has good texture. It offers organisms to soil. As far as nutrients for plants go, manure supplies mostly nitrogen. Nitrogen, of course, is necessary for healthy leaves - the grass in your lawn and salad greens in your vegetable garden.
But it's the root crops that you've seen in decline. They need phosphorous, usually in the form of a phosphate, as well as nitrogen. Especially if your lettuce has seemed vigorous, you might think that added phosphate will solve the root crop problem.
You'll have to hunt harder and for more-expensive fertilizer containing phosphate and for the less-expensive nitrogen, but it will be worth the trouble. If the fertilizer container lists its nutrients as three numbers, phosphate will be the second number. Look for a fertilizer where the second number is bigger than the first.
Q: My rental house seems infested with ants. Even though it's early spring, I see them crawling along the foundation and I'm worried that they will be moving inside. What can I do?
A: For problem ants outdoors, we still find water the best answer. Ants in most places are actually a help because they are second only to earthworms as soil aerators. But when they are creating a large anthill in a garden bed or along a foundation wall, you can persuade them to move their house. Ants don't like wet soil. Put the end of a garden hose where you want to get rid of the ants. Turn on the water so that it barely trickles and let it drip for two days. The ants will move elsewhere and you'll have solved your problem with minimal effort.
If ants get into the house, we find that a mint oil spray works as well as any other ant killer. Additionally, it doesn't introduce ant poisons into your home.
Q: Since lily of the valley is supposed to grow well in shade, I'm thinking of planting some on the north side of the house. Would you recommend them? How much soil improvement will they require? What do you suggest for planting with the lily of the valley?
A: We think that they are wonderful plants for sunless areas.
They should thrive along your north wall and when they're in bloom, the white flowers will seem to light up the greenery. There is also a pink variety, but we're prejudiced against them.
You probably don't need to do any soil preparation before you plant. Lily of the valley is very tolerant of poor soil. They need some water and something smaller than rocks to anchor their roots, but little else.
Their robust health though means that you can't mix them with other perennials. Their dense root mass will choke out other flowers. If you want something else with the lily of the valley plant a shade-loving woody shrub whose roots will go deeper into the soil.
Master gardeners Molly Hackett and Georgianna Taylor, whose motto is "Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails," welcome your questions. Send them to 191 Eastside Highway, Hamilton, MT 59840; call 961-4614; or e-mail email@example.com. Please include a garden-related subject line in e-mails.