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Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: This is the first year that I have grown dahlias. Now that the tops have frozen, I dug the plants and put each cluster of tubers in a pot. Can I leave them like that for the winter? Can I store them in the basement?

A: Dahlias are fussy about how they are stored, but you have done the first step just right. The first time I grew dahlias, I carefully separated and neatly stacked the tubers in a pile, thereby killing them all. Only later did I learn that every tuber must stay connected to a fragment of the stem if it is to grow again the next year.

You want the tubers to have temperatures in the 40s all winter. That is one thing that dahlias are fussy about. They also care about the humidity. If they are wet, they rot; if they are dry, they shrivel. Most local growers store each cluster of tubers in a pot, bag, or box filled with some kind of dry material. Pet litter is good for the purpose. Punch holes in plastic bags to allow air circulation.

However you choose to store your tubers, check them once a month. If any are wrinkling from dryness, spray them with a little water. If any rotten spots appear, cut out the spots and dip the cut edges in antiseptic.

Q: I bought a shredder/chipper to chop up garden debris, so that I can spread it on the beds without having to put it in a compost pile for two years. So far I hate the thing. It keeps plugging up, and I have to continually take it apart and clean it out. What am I doing wrong?

A: Experience has taught me to avoid two mistakes. If you have a shredder which uses sharp blades, keep them sharp. Touch them up with a file frequently. And feed only small handfuls at a time. A small, steady stream will feed through the blades, but a wad of green stuff plugs up everything.

If you have a chipper, it will not need frequent sharpening, but all the plants must have dried for at least a few days, so that they break and smash easily. My current chipper includes a collector bin. I find it helpful to stop the machine frequently and push aside the pile which has accumulated under the blades. As long as I keep leveling the chipped material, I can fill the bin without plugging up the system.

Keep practicing. You will soon learn the foibles of your particular machine. I would bet that you will come to love it.

Q: What is the best way to save geraniums through winter?

A: Why not use whatever is easiest for you? If I had room to bring the whole pots in, to live in a sunny window, I would do just that. Since I do not, I take four- to six-inch cuttings, root them, and grow them in a south window. Some gardeners like to keep the whole plant in a dormant state, either in its pot or hung upside down, in a cool room. That never worked for me because I do not have a room that stays cold but above freezing.

Geranium cuttings are easy to root, but they are likely to rot if covered with a plastic bag. Root the cuttings in potting soil, not water. Grow them in a sunny window and water them frequently — probably every day until they have made roots.

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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 mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.

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