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Corn gluten, corn gluten: Where are you?

Wednesday - 3/2/2011, 5:30pm  ET

Editor's Note: WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath will appear at the free indoor Flower Show at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Md. (just outside of Annapolis) next weekend. On Saturday, March 12, he'll reveal how to grow your best tasting tomatoes ever at 11 a.m. On Sunday, March 13, it's a no-holds barred Q&A beginning at noon. Book signing after each talk. Mike and the Flower Show are both free (but bring money). Click here for the details.

Corn gluten, corn gluten: Where are you?

Lots of WTOP listeners have been emailing, asking where they can buy corn gluten meal to prevent crabgrass and give their lawn a perfect Spring feeding without killing frogs, toads, birds and the Bay. The basic answer is "large independent garden centers". You may find a few brands of corn gluten for sale at some of the Big Box stores, but judging by numerous listener reports, the odds aren't good. Independent garden centers -- businesses that survive by providing good service and selection -- seem to be your best bet. And don't delay, to control new weeds, all pre-emergent herbicides -- natural or nasty -- must be applied just as the forsythia begin to bloom.

But don't bother treating a leaf-covered lawn

George in Fairfax Station writes: "Our three acre lot has lots of oak trees and an ugly and weedy lawn! I'm determined to begin anew and will start to compost with the tons of leaves from last winter that I failed to blow into the woods. I will have to get those leaves off the lawn before I apply the corn gluten meal you recommend. Am I correct?"

Technically, yes, George. But I wouldn't bother applying any of that natural weed and feed this Spring, leaving all those leaves on the lawn over winter has likely smothered whatever nice turf you had left.

Blow the leaves off ASAP and shred them, they'll become fine compost by July. Just cut your 'lawn' high over the summer and be ready to tear it up reseed it at the end of August, using all that compost you made to create a nice fertile seed bed. (Don't bother trying to seed in the Spring; it won't work-soil's too cold).

Then get the next run of leaves off promptly this Fall (suck them up with a leaf blower set on reverse to avoid damaging the new young grass) and then start weed and feeding your nice new lawn with corn gluten in 2012.

But don't try and treat all three acres -- you'll go broke! Just apply the corn gluten to the areas nearest your home and use a mulching mower to return the clippings to the farthest parts of the lawn. Feed and care for the parts you see everyday.

Beware of woody horse manure

Liz in Stafford writes: "I recently picked up horse manure from a local farm that contains lot of wood shavings mixed in. Can you tell me if this is still good to use in the garden? I did apply it to the top of the soil but haven't mixed it in yet. I hope I'm not adding something that is going to kill my plants."

Well, there may be time to avoid that sad ending, Liz. Scrape it all off without delay and pile it up somewhere for a year, until you can't see any wood or smell any manure. Then use the composted horse manure to feed your lawn, a sweet corn patch or some other non-flowering plant.

Among your tactical errors thus far: Tilling wood into your soil would make the garden a killing field; tilling anything into a garden brings up lots of weeds; uncomposted horse manure would only grow a garden of weeds; and horse manure is a terrible fertilizing choice for flowering plants in general.

Other than that...

It's seed starting time

Michele in Nokesville writes to ask when to start her vegetable seeds.

The basic answer is two months before you plan to install the plants in your garden, Michele. That means that cool weather crops like lettuce should have been started a while ago, while tomatoes, peppers and other summer heat lovers will get going in a week or so.

But don't start your own seeds unless you use soil-free mix in the containers (no dirt from the garden) and you can provide six weeks of strong artificial light or a greenhouse or similar situation. Plants started in windowsills are always weak, leggy and unfit for the garden. If you can't do it correctly, buy your plants already started.

Plant starts need BRIGHT light

Benjamin in Silver Spring writes: "I just ordered some tomato, cucumber and pepper seeds for my garden this year. I want to start them indoors, but the window I can put them near doesn't really get much light. Can I use one of the cheap incandescent grow lights, or do I have to buy an expensive one?"

Warning Benjamin -- seed starting is more complex and demanding that you seem to realize. Your seeds will need to be sprouted in a soil free mix and then receive six weeks of intensely bright light. The sunniest windowsill is not even close to sufficient, and the heat generated by any kind of incandescent light would burn the little seedlings to a crisp!

Get a two or four tube shop light fitted with four-foot long 40 watt florescent tubes and keep the tops of the plants within an inch of the lights (which burn cool).

And if you can't or won't do that, give the seeds to someone who has the equipment and ask them to do it for you and/or buy professionally started plants.