One of the most important things you can do for your strawberries at this time of the year is to mulch them with two to four inches of pine needles, straw or coarse hay. Pansies and newly planted trees and shrubs also will benefit from being mulched.

Mulching helps prevent low-temperature injury to strawberry flower buds and reduces the amount of heaving of plants by alternate freezing and thawing of the soil during the winter and early spring. The mulch also delays weed and grass growth in the spring and helps to keep the berries clean.

Remove the mulch in the spring soon after the young leaves turn yellow. Leaving the mulch on as long as posssible delays the time of bloom and reduces damage from late-spring frosts. The mulch can be raked off and left in between the rows.

Mulching newly planted trees and shrubs reduces rapid freezing and thawing of the soil, keeps the soil from freezing as deeply and prevents soil erosion. Shredded tree bark, wood chips, sawdust, straw or coarse hay can be used. Oak, sycamore and beech tree leaves are good if you can put something over them to keep them from blowing away.

Maple, elm, ash, birch and poplar leaves are not satisfactory for mulching because they pack down when they get wet, preventing the movement of air and moisture into the soil.

Mulches influence moisture penetration of the soil in several ways. Bulky materials such as wood chips, sawdust and straw temporarily hold a considerable volume of water, and thus prevent loss by runoff when the rate of application, rainfall or otherwise, is too rapid for soil penetration.

This may be more important with a heavy silt than with a porous sandy soil. However, keeping the soil structure loose and open may be the most important factor involved. Rain beating on an exposed soil compacts it, and subsequent baking in the sun almost completely eliminates its capacity to absorb water rapidly.

The mulch also eliminates the impact of raindrops falling on bare soil. The mulch delivers the water gently to the soil surface, preserving its pore structure.

In general, dark-colored surfaces absorb more of the sun's heat than light-colored one. Blacktop pavement, dark card, dark roofs, dark clothing and dark soils absorb much of the sun's heat that strikes them. Glass, wood and tree leaves are poor conductors of heat. Wood is such a poor conductor of heat that very little of the energy moves down into it. Q- I picked up and saved half a basket of pinecones to use to make Christmas decorations. The cones fell apart soon after I put them up. How can you keep them fresh? A- Cones picked up off the ground usually shatter within a short time. Pick them while they're in the green or light-brown stage in mid-fall, and let them dry out in full sunshine. They'll open fully if placed in a warm oven for several minutes. Then spray-paint them with clear shellac, lacquer or clear varnish. Q- I have been given a 12-inch pineapple plant. What does it need to grow indoors? A- Direct sun is best for the pineapple plant is you can provide it. Best temperatures are 65 at night and 75 during the day. Water it when the soil feels dry to your touch and fertilize it about every two months. Q- My African violets stopped blooming and the leaves are stunted and lumpy. Do you have any idea what's wrong? A- Most likely it's infested with cyclamen mites, tiny creatures hard to see without a magnifying glass. They feed on the buds by sucking juice and will spread to other plants nearby. Check the plants with a magnifying glass and, if infested, submerge the plant for 10 minutes at 115 degree F. This won't hurt the plant but should get rid of the mites. Q- Don't you think you should write more about wild plants that can be used for food? Our family enjoys these nature vegetables very much. A- While some wild plants can be used for food, others are poisonous, and some have parts that can be eaten and others that may be harmful, and most people are not able to identify the plants. Take pokeweed, for example: The new shoots can be eaten as greens but should first be cooked in two waters. Most poisoning occurs when the roots are eaten, so it's necessary to guard against taking some roots along with the young shoots. It's better and safer not to encourage people to take chances because incomplete knowledge can be dangerous. Q- I have two flower boxes on my patio, 8 inches wide, 10 inches deep and 5 feet long. Can pansies survive in them over the winter? A- If winter weather is severe, the pansies probably would not survive. The problem is that the soil temperature will be the same as the air temperature, and the roots can't take it. When planted in the ground, the temperature does not go as low, and mulching will prevent the ground from getting too cold. Q- We have been unable to grow grass in our front lawn because of heavy shade, and we had two maple trees cut down. How can we get rid of those stumps?

A- Stumps can be pulled out by a bulldozer, chipped out by a stump axe, or rotted out. To rot them out, cut the stump off at ground level, cover it with soil and keep it moist.Nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil will hasten the rotting process. Rotting also can be hastened by boring several vertical holes in the stump before covering it with soil.It usually takes about two years to rot them out. Q. We had some wonderful pumpkins this fall and want to save seeds from them to plant next year. How do we store them for best results? A. You best bet is to buy fresh seed of the same variety next spring and plant them. It's likely the seeds you saved would be very disappointing. You don't know where the pollen came from that resulted in the pumpkin. So far as the flesh of the pumpkin is concerned, it makes no difference. To save the seeds, dry them, put them in a glass jar, put the lid on tight and store in a cool place. Q. When I visited my daughter in Florida last summer I gave her a blue spruce about a foot tall. She's been told it can't be grown there. Is this true? A. Blue spruce, Picea pungeans, is native to the Rocky mountain area and has a winter chill requirement of more than a thousand hours at temperatures below 42 degrees. For this reason it cannot be grown normally in the deep south.