Q: I have a question about caring for catnip plants so our little kitten will be able to have her treats during the winter. The plants start off well, but they don't seem to last long. Any suggestions?
A: You didn't tell me much about your catnip plants, but I suspect they aren't getting enough light. This is the same reason most herbs don't do well when grown indoors in New England. The light level is decreased in winter, and when you put a pane of glass between the weak sun and the plant, you decrease the sun's rays even more.
Catnip is easy to grow, if it has sufficient light. Try some growing lights. Also, keep the plants damp but not wet and provide good air circulation.
Catnip is susceptible to white flies. Use a pet-safe soap solution or wash infected plants repeatedly with a spray of cold water. White flies repopulate in about seven to 10 days, so you'll have to keep repeating treatment if you miss even one minute fly.
Now, after all your work, don't be insulted if the kitty likes commercial catnip better. I think it's blended with more catnip oil than the homegrown varieties so the scent is stronger.
Q: I got a Chia Pet for Christmas. I think my girlfriend said she bought it at Walgreens. It looks like a lamb and is supposed to grow green grass for hair. What do I do with it?
A: Chia Pets! DÃ©jÃ vu all over again! They first appeared in 1977, so I guess that dates me! The first Chias were simple animal shapes, but now you can get so many varieties, even the characters from "The Simpsons."
Each Chia Pet comes with a packet of seeds that, when soaked in water, form a gelatinous seed coating that sticks to the figure. The seeds are smeared onto the clay figure, which has ridges in the unglazed, ceramic body to catch and hold the seeds. Just like a standard clay flower pot, the clay Chia figure absorbs and holds water. Stand the clay figure in a saucer of water, and, in a few days, the seeds sprout and you have the illusion of fur or hair.
In a few weeks, the seeds will stop growing and die. This might happen sooner if you forget to keep it watered. Then you scrub off the remaining dead plant and the clay figure can be reseeded.
What's growing? The seeds that come with most Chia Pets are a seed of the watercress family and are said to contain no toxic chemicals. You can buy similar seeds in the health food store. They must be tiny, form a gelatinous coating when soaked and sprout quickly to survive.
You could try growing it in the office if you have decent lighting and remember to water it. At best, it's good for a few laughs! They're also a good choice for a child's first plant.
Q: I just received a beautiful Christmas cactus plant as a gift. The pot is 10 inches around, and it's almost in full bloom. I usually have pretty good luck with outdoor plants, but indoor plants have been known to wane under my care. Can you give me some advice on how to keep it as beautiful as it is now?
A: What a lovely present! First off, keep the Christmas cactus in a well-lit location away from drafts, heat vents and fireplaces.
Watering seems to be a big source of most problems with the Christmas cactus. Don't let the name "cactus" fool you — the plant is a tropical cactus, not a desert cactus. It is a succulent and can store water in the fleshy leaves.
Water thoroughly when the top half of the soil in the pot feels dry to the touch. Never let it stand in water for more than an hour or two. Discard the excess water, and then do not water again until the top half becomes dry.
While the Christmas cactus can adapt to low light, more blooms are produced on plants that have been exposed to high light intensity. Keep your plants in a sunny location indoors in winter while the sun is weak.
Plants can be moved outdoors in summer, but keep them in a shady or semi-shady location. Too much direct sunlight can burn the leaves and turn them a rosy color or, worse still, cause them to shrivel and drop.
Prune your Christmas cactus only after it blooms. Pruning will encourage the plant to branch out, and more flowers will form next year on the new branches. Save the pieces you've cut, which can be easily rooted in moist soil. You know everyone will admire your plant and want one, too!
This week's dirt
Are you saving eggshells to use on your plants? You should be!
I used to throw them into a container under the sink, and then I crushed and used them as needed. I added eggshells to the birdseed at the feeder. Birds need a source of grit for digestion. And birds need calcium for strong bones.
When added to the soil around houseplants, they add much needed calcium for plants, too. Crushed eggshells are sharp and repel crawling insects and pests like slugs.
I use some every week or two, but, boy, what a mess! And did they stink — think rotten eggs! — as they fermented in the warmth under the sink. Now I save the eggshells in the freezer, and there's no odor and no mess! I can take out as many as I need and save the rest for months. And they never smell.
North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a regular feature of the Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by e-mail at email@example.com or write to her c/o Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.