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GARDENING

Thinning Is a Net Gain, Not a Weight Loss

June 28, 1997|From Associated Press

Plant lovers have something in common with computer lovers: Each group has its specialized jargon, not readily understandable to those outside the field. Just as "bytes" and "booting a disc" have nothing to do about using your mouth or kicking a record in the world of computing, "thinning" has nothing to do with losing weight in the world of gardening.

So, an explanation of gardening terms is in order.

"Thinning" is the removal of excess plants. When you sprinkle carrot seeds along a furrow in the garden, or press three cucumber seeds into the soil in one pot, you are taking out insurance.

You really want only one carrot every inch and one cucumber plant in each pot. So once your insurance policy has paid off and many more seedlings come up than should mature, you have to start thinning.

Ideally, thin late in the day and just before watering, so that the remaining plants have time to recover from any root damage that occurred as their neighbors were wrenched from the soil.

When you are directed to plant cucumbers in "hills," no mounding of soil is implied. A hill is a grouping of plants, a cluster. Certain vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, are easier to manage if planted in hills from which the trailing vines can radiate.

A "stand" of plants is a group that might be a row or a hill. If all your seeds sprout and the seedlings look sturdy, brag about your "good stand."

At this time of year, most plants have been removed from their "flats" and planted out in the garden. A flat is a shallow box, with holes for drainage, in which seedlings are started before they are planted outdoors. In contrast to "hill," "flat" seems like a reasonable term, since a flat is flatter than it is tall.

"Pinching" means removing the tips of plant shoots--"nipping" might be a more accurate term. Fingernails come in handy here. Pinching makes plants bushier.

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Seedlings raised in flats in sunny windows and greenhouses are too coddled to face the world outdoors without being "hardened off." Harden off seedlings by gradually exposing them to increasing sun, wind, cool temperatures and even a little drying. After a week or two of treatment, the once-tender seedlings are tough enough for a permanent home out in the garden, exposed to the whims of nature.

"To cultivate" has two meanings. In a general sense, cultivate means to care for plants. However, when the directions on a seed packet tell you to cultivate weekly, you are being instructed to get out there with a hoe or rototiller and rough up the top inch or so of soil. English gardening books use the phrase "stir the soil." The purpose is to uproot small weeds and loosen the surface so rain seeps in more readily.

By now, seedlings in "flats" were "hardened off" and planted in the garden, in "hills," perhaps. As delicate seedlings from seeds sown directly in the garden prove themselves sturdy, "thin" the "stand" to correct spacing. Good times to "stir the soil" are mornings and after rains.

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