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Ask Martha: Protecting leather in winter

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Q: What is the best way to protect leather boots and shoes against winter's harsh weather conditions?

A: It's important to weatherproof leather footwear before heading into the slush and snow. And when you come back in, you should dry and recondition shoes to minimize any damage and ready them for the next outing.

First, have a cobbler put sole guards — thin layers of rubber that help keep water out — on leather soles. Above the sole, silicone sprays or oil- or wax-based products protect leather well but can darken it. On light-colored leather, use Meltonian Water & Stain Protector or Kiwi Protect-All; these won't change its hue.

Coat clean shoes with protectant, followed by a layer on the welt (the seam between the sole and the leather upper). Wipe off excess with a soft cloth, and let shoes dry. Spray and dry brand-new shoes again. Then polish. This not only spiffs up the pair but also protects them further.

To speed drying and help maintain their shape after time outdoors, fill footwear with shoe or boot trees. Don't place them near heat, which can ruin leather by making it crack. Remove mud and dirt with a gentle cleaner, such as Lexol-pH (lexol.com). To lift stains, treat them immediately. Dab with a damp cloth so the marks disappear; then dab with equal parts water and white vinegar. Weatherproof and polish again.

Q: My kids want a pet fish. Is a goldfish the best choice?

A: If you want a simple setup, don't pick a goldfish. The ones you see in pet stores are babies and need a lot of growing space, says pet expert Marc Morrone. That means buying and maintaining a tank that holds at least 20 gallons, as well as a filtration system.

A beautiful jewel-hued betta, on the other hand, which looks high maintenance with its long, flowing fins, is happy in a filter-free 1- to 5-gallon bowl. Simpler yet, you can keep only one per container because they're prone to fighting.

Feed it daily with specially formulated pellets (which are sold at any pet store), and keep the water temperature from 75 to 85 degrees — a range that is easy to maintain by using a desk lamp aimed at the bowl. Replace the water three times a week. Use tap water left out in a pitcher for at least a day. A well-cared-for betta can live for three years.

Q: How do I get the best selection of plants for my garden?

A: You're asking this question at exactly the right time. To get the best selection for the year, make your purchases in January, via mail order. Many nurseries are taking orders now and will ship your plants when it's time to plant them where you live.

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