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Tree stumps? Saltpetre? Skin toner? Read on for all the info

The Singing Gardener offers his tips and those from Grainews readers

In this instalment of the Singing Gardener — I, Ted, have some ideas for dealing with tree stumps. Also, a handwritten note re: naming of horses and a letter re: Italian heirloom tomato, both from Laura Hughes of Edmonton. Recently, I made a batch of facial skin toner and think it’s a pretty darn good formula for helping maintain normal pH (acid/alkaline) balance. The skin is sometimes referred to as the human body’s largest organ. The curtain’s going up, so journey along with me through another merger of words and welcome to the show.

Dealing with tree stumps

What’s your answer/approach to getting rid of surface tree stumps and tree roots? I’ll share a Canadian gardener’s method that goes back to the 1940s… without the use of equipment such as a front-end loader or backhoe. Frequently a stump becomes a problem after the tree has been cut down or brought down to its knees by damaging winds during a storm. Besides deep roots, some trees also have roots close to soil surface that send up annoying shoots and suckers all over the lawn and beyond. Keep in mind it’ll take longer if you’re dealing with a recently cut down or storm-damaged tree with live roots still in the ground, as opposed to an old tree stump whose roots are already dead.


Drill 3/4-inch-wide holes and bore down six inches deep on the tree stump surface. Fill those holes nearly to the top with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and seal each hole with a wine bottling-type cork or paraffin wax. Don’t be in a rush. It takes time and depends on girth and age of the tree stump. The more holes drilled and filled as noted, hastens decomposition. As a boost, dig down and remove soil from around the outer circumference of the stump to a depth of at least four inches and then peel back or hack off the exposed bark with an axe or hatchet. Be careful and apply due diligence.

From another perspective there’s an alternate suggestion that prepared holes can be filled instead with 100 per cent pure Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) and then sealed with cork or wax. How well any of these work before stump disintegration is evident, I cannot say. For an alternate use, Epsom salts is frequently added to bathwater and footbaths to soothe joint pain, ease stiffness and promote relaxation, having tried that many times myself.

Things to know about saltpetre

For whatever reason, many pharmacies and drugstores do not appear to stock or carry saltpetre, but it can be ordered in. When I inquired about price, one pharmacist told me 125 grams costs $10.30; yet I can order two kilograms (four pounds plus) for $17.

Besides tree stump removal, other major uses of saltpetre are in fertilizers, fireworks, and rocket propellants. Since Middle Ages it’s been used as a food preservative. Apparently, it’s also been added to cigarettes to maintain an even burn of the tobacco.

Saltpetre was once thought to induce impotence and was falsely rumoured it may have been added to some institutional food and military fare in places. However, there’s no hard scientific evidence to support such a claim that saltpetre acts as an anaphrodisiac: i.e. tending to cool, quench and suppress libido. The common name of saltpetre is derived from medieval Latin sal petrae: “stone salt” or possibly “Salt of Petra.”

The chemical compound potassium nitrate is a naturally occurring mineral source of nitrogen. As a fertilizer it has been used to induce flowering of mango trees in the Philippines. Well wouldn’t you know, here’s a plant food recipe you can make at home having made it myself and it follows.

When house plants say no

Do you have a stubborn houseplant that won’t do what’s expected of it? A verbal scolding and some homemade plant food might help. Green-thumbers needn’t put up with any houseplant that fails to grow or bloom. Remember — you’re in charge of the plant, not the other way around. Let me share some suggestions.

Yes — people do talk to plants. Place a balking or obstinate houseplant in the kitchen or same room when you prepare your next salad from scratch. A plant with a bad attitude becomes traumatized when fellow greenery goes on the chopping block. A plant quickly reacts to the sight of other less fortunate vegetation that’s minced, chopped or shredded and soon decides to smarten up. Tell a backward plant it shall receive the same fate and be put onto the chopping block too and tossed onto the compost heap if it doesn’t smarten up. Repeat each time you make a salad and watch for an improvement. When all else fails, tell the plant you’ll treat it to dessert with some homemade plant food. Here’s a recipe and it works particularly well with African violets. You might want to experiment using it on outdoor plants too.

Plant food recipe

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda OR baking powder (either one, not both)
  • 1 teaspoon Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate)
  • 1 teaspoon saltpetre (potassium nitrate)

Dissolve above ingredients into a cupful of warm water then pour it into a clean four-litre milk jug. Fill jug with water into which you’ve added one teaspoon of non-detergent household ammonia. Shake the mixture before feeding it to either indoor or outside plants and apply monthly. Keep surface soil of plants loose, worked up and pliable. Some houseplants do better when watered from the bottom rather than the top. Six to eight weeks later you should notice a change of growth for the better.

A note and a letter

Laura Hughes writes: “Dear Ted, re: the July 21, 2015 Grainews article re: naming horses. Our horses (mares) were named and their young were named with the first letter of its mom. The last one was Cody — and this mare needed a vet. The family of the vet came out (after hours of course). After asking what his two-year-old son’s name was — he said: Coltan. So that became the name. We are at the farm — Vegreville, Alberta — but live in Edmonton. Have dwindled our herd of horses down to two. They are a matching pair “buddy-buddy” so hate to sell them. We sure enjoy your many wonderful hints in your column.

Later, Laura followed up with her letter dated August 22, 2015. Dear Ted, I am writing in regards to the package of tomato seeds I won in your February draws. Mine was the Italian heirloom. Thank you very much. I shared a few seeds with friends in case mine would not grow. However, from one plant I got a five-gallon pailful. One was even in the form of three together — four inches wide, four inches deep. A real treasure. Most of them were two to three inches or odd ones four inches wide. Still green as we had a frost warning in Vegreville. I am very pleased and thank you again. Sincerely, Laura H. Hughes.”

Facial skin toner

Restore pH acid/alkaline balance to the skin and help keep it toned, healthy and resistant to infection. All skin types can benefit from regular use. It even controls blackheads on oily skin and cancels out flakiness on very dry skin. You’ll notice a cooling sensation too.

  • 1 cup distilled water
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 3 or more whole fresh mint leaves OR one tablespoonful dried mint OR one mint teabag

You can experiment by using less vinegar and more or less mint. Place all ingredients in a clean container; give it a stir and let sit for three days. Afterward, strain or filter out all solids and pour prepared liquid into a clean bottle with a tight-fitting lid. To use: Apply to clean skin with a cotton ball, avoiding the eye area as it will sting. Keep remainder in the fridge.

Herbal medicine, acupressure and massage are nothing new, tracing their roots back to the earliest days of civilization. They continue to flourish as healing arts to this very day, despite amazing technological advances of modern medicine. Light from one full moon to the next wanes and waxes again and again. Those who garden according to moon cycles are particularly aware of this. The art of healing with plants and its popularity with humans is still gaining; not waning.

About the author


Ted Meseyton

This is Ted Meseyton the Singing Gardener and Grow-It Poet from Portage la Prairie, Man. I salute all gardeners and farmers who help make our world a little safer and more ecologically balanced, and who toil to provide health-giving produce to others who cannot produce their own. It takes all sorts to make a world. One half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. The best physicians are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet and Dr. Merryman.



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