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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

But learn their tastes, and they’ll give you flowers

Are your African violets blooming?    
    If not, read on to learn why and what you can do to bring out the flowers.
    African violets’ long-standing popularity grows from lush foliage and their habit of winter flowering. The plants are challenging, but not more than many in-home gardeners can manage. Even propagation is possible with a little knowledge on your part.
    African violets are shade-loving plants whose leaves scorch under the direct rays of the sun. Grow yours in places where they receive only diffused light. Or try growing lights.
    When you re-pot, use only a rich organic rooting medium that has been sterilized. You’ll find the right mix at garden supply stores, or you can sterilize your own in the microwave. Heat a gallon of moist rooting medium for 10 to 12 minutes on high.
    African violet varieties are vast because these popular plants have been hybridized extensively. Cultivars range from miniatures to larger than normal, with varying types of petals, flower colors and velvety foliage.
    Not all the hybridizing has produced good qualities. In breeding, some desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, wet-soil tolerance and plant vigor have been compromised. Many of the new cultivars require special care. Some want to be grown in sterile rooting media. Others demand extreme care in watering, refusing to tolerate over-watering or wet foliage. Still others can’t abide fertilizer accumulation along the edges of their pot. Even winter flowering has been lost in some cultivars.
    African violets are picky about temperature. If they don’t like the temperature where they live, they won’t flower.
    Many of the new cultivars will flower consistently only when temperatures remain constant. Older cultivars flowered best where temperatures were warm during the day and cool at night. The windowsill was often the best place for growing African violets. Today’s African violets are best grown in the middle of the room where temperatures remain more constant.
    It’s still true that you should avoid wetting the foliage when watering the pots. If you typically water from the bottom up, change over once a month and water from the top down to prevent fertilizer salts from accumulating along the top edge of the pots. Accumulated fertilizer salts will burn the petiols, or stalks, of the lower leaves in contact with the edge of the pot. Fertilizer salts appear as tiny gray-green granules clinging to the inside edge of the pot starting from the surface of the rooting medium. If you’ve got them, scrape them off.
    Have I answered all your questions about raising African violets? If not, write and ask and I’ll reply.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Get out and dig to be ready for spring

If you did a good job of building your compost pile last fall, now is a good time to stimulate more microbial activity.
    Just before Christmas, temperatures in my compost pile dropped below 100 degrees from a high of 130 degrees measured just three weeks earlier. This falling temperature is due partially to a drop in surrounding ambient air and partially to a lower rate of microbial activity.
    Microbial activity in composting can fall because of low levels of oxygen, excessive dryness, less available carbon or fewer sources of nitrogen. For most home composting projects, low levels of oxygen are unlikely unless your compost pile is taller and wider than 12 feet. Exchange of gasses is likely to be fine as leaves are bulky and do not pack easily. Thus, compost cooling is most likely due to a sudden drop in ambient air or dryness.
    To check for moisture, thrust your hand into the compost and squeeze firmly. If the composting waste feels wet like a sponge, there is adequate moisture. If the compost feels on the dry side, drag out the hose and wet the pile down with a heavy stream of water. After the compost appears adequately wet, use either a grub-hoe or digging spade, going as deep into the pile as possible while adding more water. The excess water will drain deeper into the composting mass.
    If possible, empty the composting bin and wet the waste before re-filling the bin. Digging into the composting materials will grind the larger particles into smaller pieces, stimulating greater microbial activity. Ground leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    Within a week after you’ve reformed the pile, temperatures within it should increase. However, if your compost pile is less than three feet by three by three, it is not likely to give you much temperature rise due to a lack of mass.

A fresh-cut Douglas fir is the safest tree you can buy

Believe me when I say that not all Christmas trees are created equal. I know because I was assigned to set fires under the five most popular Christmas species.
    In 1995, I was asked by the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and the State Fire Marshall’s office to research the most fire-resistant species. I tested white pine, Scots pine, blue spruce and both Douglas and Frazier firs. The State Fire Marshall set the rules. I rolled a single sheet of newspaper into a ball about 10 inches in diameter. I placed the ball against the lowest branches of the tree, then set it afire.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
    –Linda Williams, Annapolis

A    There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a severe state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.
Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Fresh-cut trees of each species were delivered to me at Upakrik Farm and stored — some with, others without water — at 70 degrees with lights on for eight hours. Trees were held in storage for three and six weeks prior to testing.
    We set the fires in the Fire/EMS Training Academy’s burn building at Cheltenham, with several Christmas tree growers watching. Each variant of the experiment was replicated three times and videotaped for evaluation by fire marshals from three counties and from the state office.
    White pines generated lots of smoke regardless of the amount of time in storage. They were immediately rejected by the fire marshals.
    Frazier firs were also rejected. Stored without water, they burned readily after three weeks of storage. After six weeks, they exploded into fire.
    Douglas fir was approved as the most fire-safe tree because even after six weeks of storage without water, it did not ignite. Scots pine and blue spruce were also approved.
    We repeated the experiment in 1996 with exactly the same results.
    As a Christmas tree grower, I attribute the Douglas fir’s fire-safe performance to its low resin content. My knives and pruners remain clean even after days of shearing. This is not true with the other species tested.
    As a result of this study, the State Fire Marshal established COMAR 12.03.04, allowing only Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce in public buildings. Each tree must be accompanied with a tag identifying the farm where it was grown, date of harvest and species. Before the tree is moved indoors, two inches must be cut from the base. Tree stands must hold a minimum of two gallons of water. The tree must stay indoors no longer than four weeks.
    To keep your house fire-safe this Christmas season, follow these recommendations.

Here’s your recipe for making them into rich compost

Don’t bag those leaves for the county to collect. Use them in making your own compost. It takes about a bushel of leaves to make a gallon of quality compost, which contains more nutrients and fiber than peat moss and is less acetic.
    Yard debris compost is made by blending grass clippings with fall-harvested leaves. The compost is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium and lots of important trace elements. Because the nitrogen from the leaves drains back into the stems of the branches from which they fell, yard debris compost contains less than one percent nitrogen, which is contributed mostly by the grass clipping.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
–Linda Williams, Annapolis   

A There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a sever state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Since grass clippings are not readily available in the fall, use this recipe to hasten the composting of leaves so that you will have compost ready for next spring:
    1. Build a compost bin that is at least five feet in diameter using snow fencing, turkey wire, pallets or such. The larger the bin, the better. Place the bin where it will not accumulate water.
    2. Fill a five-gallon pail with a shovel full of garden soil, one-half cup dish detergent and a cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer; top off with water. Stir thoroughly to create a soupy mud. The detergent helps wet the leaves, and the nitrogen-containing fertilizer replaces the grass clippings in providing the nitrogen microorganisms needed to build their bodies and digest the carbon in the leaves. The garden soil provides the necessary microorganisms, and the mud also helps wet the leaves.
    3. Place 12 to 18 inches of leaves on the bottom of the bin. First, pass the lawnmower through the leaves to chop them up and hasten the composting process.
    4. Use an empty coffee can or the like to wet the leaves with the muddy water. Before dipping into the muddy water, stir thoroughly to maintain a suspension.
    5. With a garden hose misting nozzle, wet the leaves thoroughly, washing some of the muddy water down through the layer.
    6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until the bin is full.
    7. Check the bin weekly. The composting process can be hastened by dumping your dirty dishwater over the surface of the compost pile. The detergent and grease will help wet the leaves.
    If you need exercise to stay in shape, mix the compost pile by turning it inside-out. Turning the pile in late January or February provides additional aeration, chopping the leaves and eliminating dry pockets that can occur in the initial building.

How to fight back

     Popular as Knockout roses are, they are not immune to viruses. They are susceptible to witches broom and to rose rosette, which is becoming a frequent problem. Rose rosette is spread by infested pruners and by a microscopic eriophyid mite. 
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Pluck off wilted flowers

For more abundant flowers on your rhododendrons and mountain laurels next year, deadhead this year’s flowers as soon as they wilt. By preventing the flowers from setting seeds, you’ll stimulate the branches to flush new growth from waiting latent buds. This is especially true if the bushes are growing in full sun.  
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Propagate a jungle of African violets using my foolproof method

Beyond their good looks and winter bloom, African violets have another charm. They’re so easy to propagate in the home that they raise your self-esteem. Here’s my foolproof method:
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Evergreens to welcome home — and those to avoid

As Christmas approaches, it’s time to bring fresh greens, with their piney aromas, into your home. Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreens to choose from. Many will last through the season, even without water. Others dry up too quickly to come inside.
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Gardening tools you can grow with

Fellow gardeners often ask me which gardening tools are my favorites. In case you’re shopping for one of those gardeners, here’s my list. I don’t stint on price because I want quality tools that last.
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We’re eating well and will be into spring

This year’s fall garden has been better than ever.
    The August plantings of Contender and Crocket green beans each provided at least three pickings of the most tender and flavorful green beans we have ever enjoyed.
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