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Article updated: 2/14/2013 1:56 PM

It's time to start slow annuals and starting a compost project

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Creating compost is a process in which organic matter such as leaves, garden debris and fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen is collected, mixed and allowed to decompose. Compost can be used to amend soil or as a mulch layer on garden beds and around trees.

In nature, the leaves of deciduous trees create a mulch layer that eventually decomposes. Like human-made compost, this natural recycling process returns nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure, and it is one reason why native plants growing in natural ecosystems usually do not need more fertilizer than nature provides.

Composting at home reduces the amount of garden debris that ends up in landfills and improves your garden's soil. Consider using a freestanding plastic compost bin. That way, you can continue putting organic material from the kitchen in the composter during the winter and dogs and other animals cannot get into it.

It's not too soon to start the seeds of annuals that need a lot of time to mature before transplanting, such as pansies, violas, petunias, snapdragons and lobelia. While garden centers offer many favorites, when you grow your own the choices of flower varieties are seemingly endless. The quantity can be too, if you have space for many seedlings. Remember, when sowing seed, to include a few extras, but not too many.

Use grow lights to ensure success. A fluorescent fixture hung on chains and hooks works best, as it will allow you to adjust the level to keep the light at an optimum 8 to 12 inches above the growing seedlings.

Providing bottom heat for seeds as they germinate also will improve results. Heat mats or cables can be purchased at your local garden center.

Thin seedlings as needed, especially after the first set of leaves form, to prevent overcrowding and keep only the best plants.

Did you recently receive roses from your Valentine? If healthy cut roses suddenly develop drooping heads, it may be due to air bubbles trapped in their stems. To try to salvage a rose, float the entire stem in a sink full of warm water. Trim another inch from the stem, cutting on an angle below the water level. Because the stem is horizontal, the air bubbles may be able to escape. Try to gently straighten the drooping flower head as the flower and stem continue to float and the cut end of the stem remains under water for at least half an hour. When the flower head is firmly in a straightened position, place the rose back in the vase.

Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org.

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