Q. I am interested in making my own brooms. Is broomcorn very hard to grow?
-- K. L. of Highland
A. Broomcorn is as easy to grow as sweet corn and very similar in its requirements. After the soil has warmed up in spring (or when the oak leaves on trees grow to the size of a squirrel's ear), you can try planting broomcorn seed.
Plant seeds 5 inches apart in rose no closer than two feet apart. Or, plant seeds in hills 12 inches apart. Fertilize broomcorn about a month after it germinates with a grass-type fertilizer.
You can begin cutting the heads about three months after it germinates, when the seed heads begin to fill out. But the "sweeps" should be still green and the seeds just beginning to form. When fully mature, the broomcorn will have red colored heads, which are pretty for decoration but too late to be material for a strong broom.
Cut the stalks about 3 feet down from the top, then hang the heads upside-down to dry and cure. These stalks will mildew very easily if the weather is damp. If you do this outside, the heads will bleach out. But make sure to bring them inside if there's a threat of rain. It takes about 25 to 30 stalks to make a sturdy broom.
Q. Why did my tomatoes have papery, blister-like patches last summer?
-- H.D. of Collinsville
A. These patches are sunscald. The hot, dry summer we had burned the fruit. This can also affect peppers and eggplants. Plants that have lost their lower leavers or have been pruned and trellised are especially susceptible.
Sunscald first appears on young green fruits as a white or yellow patch on the side facing the sun. This patch remains white or yellow as the fruit matures. Cells that are seriously damaged turn brown and look like paper. These spots are usually accompanied with fungal infections as well.
The trick here is to make sure the tomato plants are growing well with enough water and with some fertilizer to keep the plants growing. Do not overdo fertilizer because that will it stimulate more stem and leaf growth rather than stimulating fruit production. Plants without enough nitrogen fertilizer will begin to die back early, dropping their leaves before the fruit is mature. Proper fertilizations requires knowing the stress signals from your plants.
Of hot, dry conditions show up again this summer, you can also try to shade the fruits with cheesecloth or use a snow picket fence sunscreen overhead.
Do it now
DAFFODILS: Check you flower beds for daffodils beginning to sprout out. Clear any mulching leaves away from them. Leaves hold the heat in the soil, stimulating this faster growth.
PESTS: Check for moles and voles. every time the weather gets a little warmer after a cold spell, these two animals are back to work doing damage because they think spring is coming.
Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.