Hans Gissinger
Lack of precision in measuring has little effect on most foods.

Dear Martha: I'm concerned about some of the ingredients in commercial pet food. What do you feed your dogs?

A: It's just as important to read the labels on your pet's food as it is your own. Make sure that the first ingredient listed is some kind of meat, and that the rest of the ingredients are natural, as opposed to processed. You'll also want to choose a pet food that is not too high in carbohydrates or sugar.

I feed my dogs an all-natural, organic dry food, but then supplement their diet with some very basic human foods. For example, I often give them steamed vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, kale, spinach and even sweet potatoes. They need plenty of protein, so I'll also scramble the occasional egg for my dogs or add a piece of cooked meat or a spoonful of cottage cheese to the bowl.

Paying close attention to your dog's diet and giving him fresh, nutrient-rich food will help him live a long and healthy life. Not only that, I actually think it makes people more conscious of their own diets.

Dear Martha: When recipes call for a "scant" amount of an ingredient, how much is that?

A: "Scant," when used in the kitchen, suggests that an ingredient barely comes up to the specified line on a measuring spoon or cup. It means the opposite of "heaping," which is a slightly generous measure.

These words are common in recipes that were written when there was less of an emphasis on precision in the kitchen. Rest assured that the inexact measure will not dramatically affect the outcome of your recipe.

Dear Martha: Is there a safe, nontoxic way to eliminate the small black gnats that live in the soil of my indoor plants?

A: The pests you're describing are fungus gnats. These tiny winged insects are related to houseflies and mosquitoes, but they don't bite or sting. Fungus gnats often hover around houseplants because moist potting soil is an ideal environment for them to lay eggs.

After the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on decaying organic matter in the soil. Then they pupate (like a caterpillar in its cocoon) and emerge as adults to continue the cycle. They are not harmful to people, pets or most plants, but are an unsettling sight.

A severe infestation of fungus gnats is probably the result of overly moist soil. Allowing the topsoil to dry between waterings (most houseplants do fine with a weekly hydration) will usually prevent an infestation. If your plant cannot survive in drier soil, fend off fungus gnats by placing plastic wrap over the pot and around the base of the stems.

If you're in the midst of an infestation, try placing a 1/2-inch-thick slice of potato on the surface of the soil. The larvae will flock to the potato for food. A few days later, toss the potato, and with it all the larvae.

You can also use yellow sticky traps to catch the adult gnats (available at organic-garden suppliers). Place the traps on a stake in the soil, or tie them to a branch. Discard the traps after they have done their job of snaring the population of gnats.

Dear Martha: How long will photographs last stored on compact discs?

A: Provided you care for your CDs properly, the images will last anywhere from 25 to 100 years. Start by buying brand-name discs labeled "archival." They cost more, but the layer that records information (discs are actually 10 layers melded into one) is made of gold, which is more durable than layers made of silver alloy.

To prevent damage from heat or scratching, store discs in plastic cases and handle them only by their outer rim or middle hole. As for identifying discs, printed labels are better than a marker. If you must use a marker, try a felt-tip, nonsolvent one, and write only on the plastic inner rim of the disc, where no data is stored.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to: mslletters@marthastewart.com. 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. © Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. Dist. by The New York Times Syndicate