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Protect Your Wicker

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Distributed by New York Times Special Features

Tip: Painting wicker furniture periodically will keep it from drying out and falling apart, but routine cleaning also is important, especially removing mildew with Murphy's Oil Soap every season.

Q: Can you give me some tips on weatherproofing wicker furniture?

A: Wicker -- the inner stem, or reed, of the rattan plant -- looks great outdoors, but it's susceptible to heat and sunlight, which dry out the natural fibers and make wicker brittle. Once it dries out, wicker may simply fall apart. Rain and dew also take their toll.

To answer your question, I consulted David Feuer at Yorkville Caning, a New York City company that does wonderful restoration work on wicker. Feuer recommends painting wicker furniture once every three years with a good-quality paint: Spray or brush on two coats, letting each coat dry completely, then top with a coating of marine varnish (available at paint stores).

If you like the look of unfinished wicker, you can use marine varnish alone. A good, valuable piece of unpainted wicker, however, should never be painted -- its value would be ruined. Unsealed wicker will oxidize and change colors -- an effect that can also be charming -- but you'll need to be more diligent about routine care.

To keep wicker from drying out, mist it every three weeks. This doesn't mean drench it. Aim a spray bottle about 3 feet away from the piece, spray and let the mist settle. Dust and vacuum wicker regularly to keep dirt from accumulating in the crevices. Once a season, clean the furniture with a soft brush and Murphy's Oil Soap and water to remove mildew. This, says Feuer, is the most important thing you can do.

Good wicker isn't meant to be exposed to the elements over long periods of time. If you use it outdoors, cover it when not in use, or bring it inside.

Q: How do you grow strawberries?

A: Strawberries are at their peak in June, which means that it's a little late to plant a bed of them this year. But the good news is that it's a fine time to plant a strawberry pot, which will provide a wonderful introduction to these plants -- as well as a modest harvest of berries.

A strawberry pot is a large glazed or unglazed terra-cotta planter with several openings dotted around the sides. Designed to allow strawberry plants' tendril-like runners to cascade out of these openings, it is a lovely decoration on the patio or terrace. Look for strawberry pots at garden centers and nurseries.

Ever-bearing strawberry plants, which are most prolific in June and August but do bear some fruit throughout the summer, are generally the best choice for strawberry pots. Use a basic potting mix that contains soil, sand and vermiculite. Several hours or the day before planting, moisten the potting mix: Cut a corner off the bag, pour in some water, work the bag with your hands to distribute the water, then let it stand. Cover the pot's bottom drainage hole with crockery shards, then add a couple of inches of gravel.

If you wish, you can insert a length of perforated PVC piping -- it should be as long as the pot is high -- into the vessel to make watering the plants easier. To do so, stand the pipe on the gravel, resting the bottom of the pipe on a pot shard to act as a plug. When you water the plants, the holes in the pipe will allow water to be distributed to the roots.

Add potting-soil mix up to the lowest openings of the pot. Place one or more plants in each of the lowest openings, and anchor the roots in the moistened soil. It's a good idea to line the opening with a collar of black-and-white newspaper to help prevent the soil and plant from washing out when watering the pot. The newspaper will eventually degrade.

Press the soil down and fill the pot with more soil up to the next openings. Add more plants, and repeat the process until the pot is full. Plant two or three plants in the top of the pot. Water until the soil is moist throughout. Place the pot in a sunny spot, water often and fertilize after six weeks. If all sides of the pot do not receive several hours of sun, turn the pot every few days so the berries ripen evenly.

If you want to embark on a more extensive planting, prepare a bed this fall, since the plants should go into the ground as early in spring as possible. Select a plot, weed it well, till in compost and check the pH. Strawberries like full sun, a pH of 6 to 6.5 and well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter. In addition to ever-bearing plants, you may choose June-bearing plants, which produce one early summer crop, or day-neutral plants, which produce throughout the summer.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. Questions may also be sent by email to mslletters@marthastewart.com. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com. Copyright 2006 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

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