Q: I have, in outdoor containers, some beautiful flowers and an amazing basil, the best I have ever grown. I will bring them indoors before they freeze, but what about light? Shouldn't I supply some extra light as the days get shorter and shorter? How would I do it?
A: Yes, you should, if you do not want your plants to slow to a standstill. Although basil is an annual, it can live up to 18 months, and some of your flowers may be tender perennials, capable of surviving for several years. Both petunias and geraniums are in this category.
To approach something like adequate light for your plants, the most important thing to do is to increase their day length. Aim for a light period of 16 hours, but do not try to keep them lighted all the time. Plants need eight hours of darkness at night for their equivalent of human sleep. If you own a timer, attach it to your supplemental light source. If you do not own a timer, turn the plant lights on when you get up in the morning and off when you go to bed. Whether or not the lights stay on during daylight hours is not critical.
You may want to add extra light with extra lamps, or you may want to change the bulbs in existing light sources. The quantity of light reaching the plant leaves will be affected by the type of light bulb used and the distance between light bulbs and plants. Compromises may be in order if you will be spending much time in the room with the plants. You will want to look at plants, not technical lighting.
Light bulbs called "plant lights" will keep plants happier than standard room lighting. The color spectrum of plant lights is heavier toward the red and blue ends of the spectrum. These lights exist as both incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs which can be screwed into ordinary light fixtures or lamp bases. If you use a fluorescent tube fixture, buy plant lights for it; they are locally available in both two-foot and four-foot lengths. The light from plant light bulbs may look more blue or lavender than that from standard bulbs.
New on the market are LED plant lights. They are shaped like flood bulbs, and they also screw into standard fixtures. I have not used LED bulbs yet, but I intend to replace my incandescent plant lights with LEDs as bulbs burn out.
One thing to be cautious about when plants are brought indoors is overwatering them. Indoor light levels will always be lower than outdoors, so plants will grow slowly. Teach yourself to water your immigrant plants only when the top of the soil is dry, and never let water stand in their saucers.
Q: I have been mowing fallen pine needles on my lawn with my mulching mower. Someone who should know suggested that I should worry about the needles making the soil acid. Should I worry?
A: Pine needles creating acid soil is an old gardeners' tale that will not go away. If you were to dump needles three feet deep and work them into the soil, perhaps you would lower its pH; however, changing the acidity or alkalinity of soil is very, very difficult. Soil is what it is. Any changes effected must be continually worked on, since local environmental factors will keep returning the soil to its usual pH.
Fallen pine needles may not contribute much in the way of soil nutrients, but they will be good for soil tilth and aeration. The chief disadvantage of pine needles is that they break down slowly. Chopping them with a mulching mower will increase the rate at which the needles turn into soil.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails.