Testing soil for lead is important in the city and elsewhere, too

BACKYARD Q&A

June 11, 2000

Q. I've been reading a lot about lead poisoning in the newspaper lately. I don't live in the city, but should I have my garden soil tested? Who does that kind of testing?

A. Soil lead is not just a city problem. Elevated levels -- from decades of burning leaded gasoline -- may be found in anyone's garden bed. Yes, it is a good idea to have your soil tested. Various testing labs are listed in the phone book. The University of Massachusetts offers a complete soil test for $8 that also includes a lead test. Its phone number is 413-545-2311, and the Web address is www.umass. edu/plsoils/soiltest/. For more information, request the MCE Fact Sheet No. 18, "Lead in Garden Soils" from the telephone number or Web address below.

Q. I planted garlic cloves last fall that I bought from a supermarket. My garlic plants look stunted and have yellow streaks in the leaves. When I pulled a few up I noticed that the small bulbs were slimy. Is this caused by weather, insects or disease? What can I do about it?

A. Sounds like white rot, a common and devastating fungal disease that comes in on Western-grown garlic. Remove all plants and bag them up for trash disposal. The tiny, hard sclerotia, or fruiting bodies, of the fungus will remain in your soil for some time, so you won't be able to grow garlic there for at least four to five years. Rotate next year's crop as far away as possible from this year's crop. Purchase your planting stock from a reputable seed company and not the supermarket. Unfortunately, there is no certified, disease-free garlic seed available.

Q. I need a couple of ideas for annual flower plants that grow in the shade. We're having a wedding in our yard in 6 weeks, and I need help!

A. Browallia, nicotiana, impatiens, torenia, forget-me-nots, gerbera daisy and wax begonias are a few to try. Coleus and caladium are attractive plants with colorful foliage.

THIS WEEK'S CHECKLIST

1. Pinch the flower buds of mums and asters to prevent early flowering.

2. Prune back first-year raspberry and blackberry canes at 3 feet off the ground to encourage growth of lateral shoots.

Garden tips are provided by the Home and Garden Information Center of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland. For additional information on these questions, or if you have questions of your own, call the center's hot line at 800-342-2507, or visit its Web site at www.agnr.umd.edu/users/hgic.

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