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Answers about water-absorbing gels

There is a theory that using water-absorbing gels (also called hydrogels) will help to retain moisture in your container gardens and hanging baskets, so that they will need watering less often. Do these products work? Some of the better known commercial names of such products are Quench, Soil Moist, or Soil Sponge, as well as a few others. Jeff Gillman, associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota, has done research on these water absorbing gels and has this to say on the subject.

The theory is that if you mix a small amount of these water-absorbing gels (1 ½ teaspoons to 1 gallon of potting soil or mixture) they will absorb water during waterings and release it as the media dries, vastly decreasing the number of waterings needed during a season. You could even go on vacation and not have to worry about watering you plants. It is supposed to store 200 times its weight in water, be non-toxic, safe and economical, reduce transplant shock, and reduce plant watering by 50 percent.

There are two basic types of hydrogels: Polyacrylamide gels which are like sugar in terms of color and texture. And starch-based gels which are tan and shaped like instant-coffee granules. In research conducted at the University of Minnesota, they found that plants which were potted with polyacrylamide gels did not fare better than plants that were potted without them. The starch gel did have a modest benefit of one extra day between waterings.

Gillman goes on to say that if you are interested in trying these products despite their spotty success record, be cautious of a few things:

• Swelling: If too much polyacrylamide gel is mixed into a container, when it is watered the potting soil tumbles out of the container as the gel swells from absorbing so much water. The starch-based gels do not have this problem.

• Fertilizer: If fertilizer is used along with hydrogels, they will prevent the hydrogels from absorbing as much water as they otherwise might absorb.

• Safety: Although some people have questioned the safety of polyacrylamide gels, there is not much hard evidence that they are harmful if used as intended. However it is always best to err on the side of caution. Handle these products with gloves, avoid using them around children or animals, and keep them far away from food and drink.

Be butterfly-friendly

The following are some tips on making your garden more butterfly-friendly.

Butterflies need a sunny location (5-6 hours each day) but must be sheltered from the winds. Butterflies need the sun to warm themselves, but they won't feed in an area where they are constantly fighting the wind to stay on the plants. It is also a good idea to place a few flat stones in a sunny location so the butterflies can take a break while warming up. Butterflies need water, and love the edges of mud puddles. If you don't have puddles in your garden, you can fill a container with sand and enough water to make the sand moist for them to drink.

Butterflies love nectar and flowers with bright colors. Some butterfly-attracting flowers are: Aster, bachelor buttons, bee balm, butterfly bush, cosmos, candy corn, dianthus, gaillardia, geraniums, lilac, marigold, pentas, phlox, snapdragon, sunflower, sweet pea, sweet alyssum, verbena and zinnias. Butterflies are nearsighted so they are attracted to large stands of flowers of a particular color, rather than single flowers. Enjoy the butterflies!

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.