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In Good Thyme

"This week's column features readers' questions, starting with a problem rose query from Rose Frank of Oak Harbor:I have a Tropicana hybrid which I planted three or four years ago. The soil around it is hard, but it looks healthy, about 4 feet tall, with many beautiful, huge flowers. The problem is that when the buds open, the color doesn't even last a day before it fades out. It does this every year. I haven't fed it at all until last month, when I gave it some granular fertilizer. Could this be the problem?Tropicana is a spectacular orange-colored rose-in the catalog, if not in Mrs. Franks' garden. To solve her problem, I called in a team of experts: rose fanciers and WSU Master Gardeners Linda Sue Schoenharl of Langley and David Bell of Oak Harbor, plus Melissa Bridges of Anacortes, a consulting rosarian with the American Rose Society.All concur with the most obvious problem: Rose, your rose is hungry! Roses are ravenous feeders, and the first three years of life are the most critical. Melissa suggests a generous helping of bone meal annually for the first three years, to ensure the plant absorbs enough phosphorous. Then, the team agrees, feed it monthly during the growing season with a balanced rose fertilizer. Your local nursery professional can suggest a good one. We also recommend that you amend the soil with plenty of compost and/or composted steer manure. It's difficult for plants to stretch their roots into hardpan soil. I supplement my roses' diet with alfalfa meal every six weeks. Roses love it the way I love Cherry Garcia Ice Cream. Melissa adds that no matter how well you care for it, your Tropicana may never look as colorful and glamorous as it would in Hollywood or Miami Beach. The reason, she says, is light intensity. Our Pacific Northwest light is far more diffused than that of southern climes, and some rose colors just aren't as brilliant here. You may want to peruse local nurseries when roses are in bloom and see how they compare with the same roses pictured in the catalogs. The difference can be dramatic. I have a lovely Graham Thomas English rose that in catalogs, is deep gold. In my garden, it's a clear pastel yellow, but you know, I like it that way. The next question is from Coupeville resident Herb Pope. Herb is no rookie gardener. He's being playing in the dirt since 1948, which makes his problem even more perplexing.On the Fourth and sixth of July I planted vegetable and herb seeds, including lettuce, spinach, beans, zucchini, corn, arugula and basil. I used good topsoil amended with my homemade compost, which included some alder and fir ash. When the seeds hadn't sprouted after two and a half weeks, I uncovered the rows and none of them had germinated! In all my years of gardening, this has never happened. Could the wood ash in my compost be causing a problem?I called Mr. Pope to get more information. The first question I asked was how often was he watering. July was a dry month, for the most part, but sometimes overzealous gardeners administer so much water that seeds either rot or are washed away. This was not so in Mr. Pope's case. He informed me that he watered every other evening after sunset to minimize evaporation. He had used fresh seed and was careful to plant at recommended depths. The chemical content of the wood ash shouldn't affect germination, but there may be enough ash interacting with the soil to inhibit maximum moisture absorption. The soil may look wet on the surface, but water may not be filtering down to seed level in sufficient amounts. The soil amendments may also be too caustic, suggests fellow Master Gardener Rick Fulgham. Hot soil, combined with our relatively high July temperatures, may have cooked the seeds.Rick prefers starting seeds in sterile potting mix in peat pots. He keeps them in an environment which provides consistent moisture and temperature, such as a covered plastic tray atop a freezer in his garage. That way, he knows which seeds are viable and which are not, instead of guessing in the garden.To test the seeds that failed to germinate, Mr. Pope, try the seeds-layered-in-wet-paper-towel approach. Keep the toweling damp and warm for a couple of days. If the seeds germinate, you'll know whether lack of water or spoiled seed was your problem.-------------------August garden tips* Prepare your vegetable beds for cool weather crops by working in slow-acting organic fertilizer and composted manure. * Early in the month, plant cool weather crops such as spinach, lettuce, chard, cabbage, bok choy, mustard greens, kale, arugula, onions, beets, carrots, turnips and rutabaga.* Help your roses keep cool in August's heat. Provide adequate moisture and mulch around roots.* You should be harvesting many of your vegetables by now. Keep squash, cukes, beans, and peas picked to keep them flowering and fruiting.---------------------- Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net. "

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