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Dear Victory Garden

I need to have two wood retaining walls replaced. The taller wall is about five feet tall on one side and there are 12 mature azaleas growing next to this wall. I am considering having a contractor who has old railroad ties. However, I am now aware that if they are treated with creosote this could leech into the soil and cause damage. Please advise! I need an affordable alternative to stone and do not care for the products available in my area such as Versa Lok, Omni-stone, etc. that are made from concrete. — Gabrielle, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Dear Gabrielle,

Creosote is toxic, which is why it is an effective wood preservative. However, studies have shown that it is not generally absorbed into the roots and therefore will not get into the plant and damage it. This is not conclusive enough to suggest you use creosote-treated timbers around edible plants, but they should be alright near azaleas.

There are two issues to keep in mind using creosote-treated wood in plantings:

1) Creosote volatizes in the air on a warm day. Therefore, keep plants away from the timbers by at least three to four inches. Again, azaleas near a retaining wall should be fine, but a creeper such as thyme crawling over the wall might be damaged.

2) No matter how old they are, creosote-treated timbers tend to get sticky on a warm day and if you lean against them you will get creosote on your clothes. If this is not a place where people would typically brush by, again, this shouldn't be an issue.

There are alternatives to creosote treated lumber, all of which have advantages and disadvantages. Pressure-treated wood is considered by most to be safe around non-edible plants. Breathing the saw-dust created while constructing the wall should be avoided. Brush-on preservatives allow you to use cheaper wood, but since they do not penetrate deeply in the wood they do not preserve the wood for very long, especially in contact with the soil. Concrete products, when properly installed, will last indefinitely, but it is a different look.

Dear Victory Garden

This year I tore up the carpet in our living room and used it to carpet my garden. It worked great for keeping the weeds down and great for moisture and walking barefoot in the garden. What should I do with the carpet now? Should I throw it out and get more next year, or can I save it and use it again next year? — Shirley, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

Dear Shirley,

It really depends on what condition the carpet is in now, after a season out in the garden. Especially if the carpet is made of synthetic fiber, the chances are pretty good that you will be able to use it again. What I would suggest is that you clean it as best you can, dry it thoroughly, and store it indoors or at least under cover for the winter. I hope you don't have to tear up a rug in one of the rooms in your house every time you need more foot-friendly mulch for your garden. Perhaps you could post a notice in a community bulletin or an advertising circular the next time you are looking for more carpet. I'm sure that many people would be glad to have you take their discarded rugs off their hands, because they are not so easily disposed of.

Dear Victory Garden

I love to garden, but all of my past experience has been with black soil near Fort Worth, Texas. I bought a place outside of Elgin, which is heavily wooded with sandy soil. The trees are mostly oak. Should I have the soil tested, or do you think the fallen leaves over the years have built the soil up enough? — Francine, Elgin, Texas

Dear Francine,

Absolutely you should have your soil tested. Just because the land supports oak trees doesn't mean it will be good enough for the plants you would like to grow in your garden. The fact that you have sandy soil is a good thing, but also not such a good thing. Sandy soil is often poor, in part due to how quickly nutrients can leach out of it, but it is much easier to improve than heavy clay soil. Basically what you need to do is add lots of organic material to it, and adjust the pH and nutrient levels according to the recommendations that should accompany the results of your soil test. In a few years, if you work hard at it, you may be growing on black soil again. What I'd like to know is, if you plan to clear some of your land to create garden spaces, how you intend to remove all those tree roots.

Dear Victory Garden

What can one put in the bottom of containers instead of soil to keep them from getting so heavy? I have heard of people using styrofoam peanuts. Then I was told that they give off a gas and should not be used. What is a good alternative? — Donnie, San Antonio, Texas

Dear Donnie,

I have often faced this problem myself. Most of the annuals I use in ornamental containers require only a foot or so of vertical root space, but the wider the diameter of a typical pot, the greater its height. Since wide is good for stunning arrangements, large pots get too heavy to lift if they are filled from top to bottom with saturated potting soil. I have remedied the situation in a couple of ways. I sometimes use pots that are not of the "standard" type, but proportioned like an "azalea" pot, a cactus planter, or a bulb pan. If the container display needs to be presented at a greater height than these other types of pots allow, I can sit them on another empty inverted pot. Or I can partway fill a standard pot with bark chips -- or even (free!) wood chips if they are available. Sometimes I invert used plastic cell-packs or small pots on the bottom of the container before adding chips. Styrofoam peanuts are to be avoided for any number of reasons.

Dear Victory Garden

I am a 24-year-old young man who wants to do what you do. Why? Because I've liked plants since I was a little boy. I know I'm getting a late start in this career field. Do you have any advice to get started? What type of education do I need and what kind of internships? What type of job can I expect to get in this field? And is there growth in this field of work? — Nicholas, Huntington Park, California

Dear Nicholas,

The best school of gardening is that of experience: I started gardening with my grandfather at age five and have been learning ever since. Since you are starting considerably later in life, I would suggest one of two things: getting a job with a landscaping firm, or attending classes at one of the many community colleges or other educational organizations which offer courses in horticulture. Personally, the former has more appeal for me: I like the idea of learning on the job and getting paid to do it. Obviously, as a beginner, you will need to start at the bottom of the ladder in terms of pay, which will probably mean a lot of time behind the mower, weeding, or doing other basic tasks. But if you're interested, pay attention, and learn from the other people around you. You can quickly and easily move up the pay scale. There are a lot of people out there more than willing to pay upwards of $30 per hour for a skilled horticulturist who really knows his business.

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Updated April 2, 2009