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The Geminids can really deliver

Dropping temperatures and long nights — combined with this week’s new moon — make for some of the best sky-watching. The sun still sets well before 5pm, and within another 90 minutes the sky is truly dark. Coupled with the darkness, the cold weather knocks any humidity from the air, providing crisp, undistorted views of the stars and planets.
    As evening twilight deepens, December’s sky is filled with familiar figures. To the west are the lingering constellations of summer, Aquila the eagle, Lyra the harp and Cygnus the swan, the brightest stars from each making the familiar asterism of the Summer Triangle. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, as this time of year it stands upright above the horizon.
    To the north is the familiar shape of the Big Dipper, which is itself a part of Ursa Major, the great bear. Below it is the Little Dipper, host of the North Star Polaris, around which the entire celestial sphere revolves.
    High overhead is W-shaped Cassiopeia the queen and Cepheus the king, which looks more like a bishop’s miter than a king’s crown. Beneath them is their daughter Andromeda, flanked by the square of Pegasus to the west and the hero Perseus to the east.
    Rising in the east in the evening are the constellations of winter. There’s Taurus the bull, pursued by Orion the hunter, his hourglass shape one of the easiest to make out. Trailing Orion is Canis Minor, the Little Dog, and Canis Major, the Big Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. Standing high over the east horizon by 10pm are the Gemini twins.
    Keep your eyes on those two this week, as they are the apparent source for the consistently best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. There’s no interfering moonlight, and unlike other meteor showers, you don’t have to wait until the wee hours for the best of this show. This year’s peak, in the dark hours Sunday to Tuesday, can produce more than 100 meteors in an hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but traced backward they all appear to radiate from Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By midnight this radiant is almost directly overhead.
    The Geminids are unique, in that their parent is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while all other meteor showers are spawned by comets. In either case, as these frozen interlopers near the sun in their orbit around the solar system, some of their matter melts off into bits of stellar debris that burst aflame as they carom into earth’s atmosphere.
    As daybreak approaches, Gemini is high in the west. By that time Jupiter, now rising around midnight, is high in the south, trailed by Mars and much closer to the horizon Venus in brilliant glory

Not too cold, please, these penguins beg

Winter is creeping up, leading us through frost to cold to ice and snow. That’s weather that will chill the newest penguin residents of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as much as it will you and me.
    As African penguins, the newly hatched pair prefers moderate temperatures like those predicted for this week, between about 41 and 68 degrees. So the zoo’s main conservation center building, where they nest comfortably with their parents Mega and Rossi, has controlled temperatures.
    “With African penguins, both the male and the female take turns sitting on the eggs,” said Jen Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager. “Once the eggs hatch, parents take turns caring for their offspring; they each protect, feed, and keep the chick or chicks warm for two to three days, then switch off.”
    The downy grey juveniles will soon learn how to swim. Then they will slowly meet the rest of the penguin colony.
    The month-old siblings are the first chicks to hatch this breeding season. Penguin chicks spend 38 to 42 days in the egg before hatching. In zoos, keepers monitor development of the eggs by candling them about a week after they are laid to see if they are fertile and developing. The eggs are then reunited with the parents.  The chicks’ parents supply their early diet of regurgitated fish.
    At about three weeks, keepers begin hand rearing chicks to acclimate them to humans as their source of food. 
    The Maryland Zoo has been ­invested in penguins since 1967. Since 2009, African penguins have been endangered in the wild.
    At the zoo, you’ll see the largest African penguin colony in North America, with over 60 birds in the new “highly dynamic” Penguin Coast exhibit.
    Expect a noisy place, as African penguins have loud, braying calls that earn them the nickname jackass penguin.
    You won’t be able to visit these chicks until they’re several months old, but you can follow their growth and development online: ­www.marylandzoo.org; ­www.facebook.com/marylandzoo.

And you open up your world

Reading puts ideas in your head.     
    There are so many places I’ll never visit. So many times, both past and future, out of my reach. So many people so close and far whose lives are stories unto themselves. So many thoughts I’d never imagine.
    Except for stories.
    Stories are my magic carpet, my time traveling machine, my introduction, my education.
    “A novel of the life of the city,” a Chicago Daily News editor called his paper, which in its day could be thick as a middle-size city’s telephone book.
    For Chesapeake Country, Bay Weekly is a weekly chapter of our ongoing story, featuring people whose lives run on tracks parallel to your own but each on its own path. They’re your neighbors. But what it is that moves them, how would you ever know — without these pages?
    Among them this week are the railway enthusiasts introduced by Bob Melamud in All Aboard.
    Chesapeake Country is not railway country. Our trains typically run down memory lane, as in the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, the B&O Railway Museum and the B&A Trail, a 13.3-mile rail trail on a former rail line.
    I’ve lived in places where the train ran as close to home as it does in the idealized villages created by enthusiasts like Tom Crockett of Tans Cycles Shop in North Beach and the volunteers of Marley Station, who you’ll meet in this story. So I can understand their appreciation for these arteries so near to ours but with beginnings and endings far beyond our reach.
    The scope of their affection, however, goes way further than appreciation. Their love is encompassing, expansionary. These are people who build cities and landscapes around their trains, adding more tracks until they’re so big they have to go public.
    Or they might move up the line in size, to miniature trains so big that children, and even full-sized adults, can ride them.
    Those are the sorts you’ll meet in Melamud’s story, which culminates in instructions for riding the closest we can conveniently get (without paying Amtrak prices) to a real train.
    I tested his instructions, and they work. My teenage train-loving grandkids and I rode to Baltimore on the Light Rail. We could have made a shorter trip by car, but as our destination was the National Aquarium, I’d have had to find Inner Harbor parking, so any adventure we might have had would have been less pleasant — and more expensive — than the light rail adventure we had. I recommend it.
    You’ll meet still more folks enamored of big vehicles in this week’s paper. Fire trucks come after trains, as staff writer Kathy Knotts follows the annual second Sunday of December Santa Run through many Annapolis-area neighborhoods. Collecting toys for kids in need is the reason for the run, but Santa’s rides by fire truck are much of the fun. Says organizer (and antique fire truck owner) John Muhitch, Santa Run happens because of “little boys who didn’t get a fire truck for Christmas.”
    Open up Bay Weekly, and you open up your world.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as in making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring.
    Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa: Fallout 4) is afraid of everything. The Apatosaurus lives on a farm where his family grows corn. As the smallest, Arlo is assigned menial chores, like feeding the chickens. He’s terrified of chickens … and bugs … and bad weather … and leaves … and the critter that steals corn.
    To change his cowardly reputation, Arlo sets out to capture and kill the corn thief. The critter turns out to be a feral human boy (Jack Bright). In pursuit, Arlo enters a raging river.
    He survives, but wakes with no idea of where he is or how to get home. Terrified and incapable of caring for himself, he turns to the boy for protection. Together the small boy and the giant dino seek their way home.
    Gorgeously rendered but emotionally shallow, The Good Dinosaur lacks the storytelling mastery we expect in Pixar films. Lack of nuance shows in the characters, especially one-note Arlo. It’s also troubling that rage seems to be Arlo’s only motivation. Not exactly the lesson most parents would want for their little ones.
    Director Peter Sohn (Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) does build an impressive supporting voice cast including Sam Elliott (Grandma) as a cattle ranching T-Rex and Steve Zahn (Modern Family) as a psychotic pterodactyl. The movie also has a darker sense of humor than most Pixar fare, including jokes about the deaths of little creatures. This gallows humor drew laughs from the adults in the audience, but small viewers seemed upset.
    The star of The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s photo-realistic nature animation. The film takes you from lush forests to deserts to snowy peaks, lovingly creating each environment. Some of the sets are worthy of National Geographic, and it is a marvel of technology and talent that we see such realistic vistas on the silver screen.
    Even a bad Pixar movie is pretty good. At plenty of moments, adults guffawed and children cheered. The Good Dinosaur is about fun instead of feelings.

Good Animation • PG • 100 mins.

The pre-dawn display in the east continues this week, with the waning crescent moon joining the show. Early Friday the moon trails Jupiter by just two degrees, with Mars, Spica and Venus stretching down to their left. Saturday, the moon is between Jupiter and Mars, while Sunday the moon hangs almost equally between Mars and Spica. Then Monday the moon shines barely one degree to the right of Venus, easily within the field of view of binoculars, a modest telescope or a camera. Tuesday you’ll be hard-pressed to spot the last of this thin crescent, now a dozen degrees below Venus. Venus, the brightest of all stars and planets, is sinking lower day by day, while Jupiter, Mars and Spica are climbing higher and rising earlier.
    We’re still a few weeks from the December 22 solstice, but Tuesday is our earliest sunset of the year.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Without them, Christmas would be a lot less colorful

In equatorial zones, poinsettias grow like weeds. But a touch of our winter is killing. How these tropical natives have become the flower of Christmas is a story of careful science in the greenhouse and ingenuity in marketing.
    “Most mother plants are grown offshore, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Kenya,” says Ray Greenstreet, whose Greenstreet Gardens is a major grower for our homes and for wholesalers.
    In June and July, Greenstreet and other growers bring in cuttings and root them in greenhouses. By late July and early August, plants are transplanted into display pots.
    The length of day light controls the plant’s growth and coloring. Flower buds form only when daylight is less than 12 hours.
    “In the long days of summer, we want to keep them vegetative as they grow to a certain size,” Greenstreet explains. “Then about September 23, days get shorter than nights, which naturally initiates blooming.”
    Traditionally, light and shade were controlled in greenhouses so plants bloomed sequentially. In the last quarter century, plants have been bred for seasonal blooming.
    “Early-season poinsettias bloom around November 15,” Greenstreet says, “and others bloom as late as mid-December. We grow a number of different bloom-response times, so we have nice fresh plants through the season.”
    For shipping around the country, Greenstreet roots about 185 varieties, in colors ranging from whites to mauves and lots of reds.
    “Right before 9/11,” Greenstreet says, “mauve or pink were selling well.” After the terrorist attacks, he continued, “people went back to tradition, and all they wanted for a couple seasons was red or white.”
    Now, variety is back. At Greenstreet you can choose from some 80 varieties, differing in leaf form as well as color.
    Buy your poinsettia when the temperature is above 36 degrees, packaged in a sleeve. Keep it warm in the car and bringing it in. At home, keep it away from drafts at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, in average light and evenly moist. Don’t let it sit in water. Carry it to a sink for watering, and let it drain before you put it back on display.
    Finally, don’t worry if your baby or cat has a bite. Poinsettias don’t taste good but are not toxic, both Greenstreet and Bay Gardener Frank Gouin confirm.

A funny, heartwarming holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years

Morning’s at Seven could be dated or boring, this 1930s’ play written about a quartet of aging sisters in Middle America. Instead, Annapolis veteran Rick Wade’s deft direction combines with a timeless script by playwright Paul Osborn and some of this area’s most experienced actors to make us laugh while tugging at our heartstrings.
    The family is sure to remind you of your own, especially at this time of year. Cora and Thor (Lois Evans and Mike Dunlop) live next to her sister Ida (Carol Cohen) and Ida’s husband Carl (Duncan Hood). Aaronetta (Dianne Hood) the old maid, lives with Cora and Thor. Esther (Sharie Valerio) and her husband David (Greg Anderson) live nearby. Homer (Paul Valleau), Ida and Carl’s son, has been engaged to Myrtle (Sherri Millan) for seven years but hasn’t yet introduced her to the family.
    It’s a cast whose experience and commitment to their roles create interplay and chemistry that reminds us consistently of what it’s like to laugh with family members one minute and hate them the next. Love never fades, but it does go into hiding.
    The love among these sisters is palpable, and their frustrations are tangible. Evans’ Cora is the leader of the pack, her maturity and big sisterly attitude enduring even when her little sisters are in their late 60s and early 70s. Cohen’s Ida is a nerve-wracked wife trying to figure out why Carl keeps having “spells.” Duncan Hood gives us a Carl whose spells are manifested in his entire comedic body; yet his comedic mastery never gets in the way of the empathy we feel with a man of age who doubts where he’s been and where he ought to be going. Similarly, Dianne Hood gives us an Aaronetta who wonders what she’s missed by remaining single — while harboring a secret that might explain why she made the choice so many years ago.
    As the edgy 40-something who has been engaged for years but can’t seem to pull the trigger, Paul Valleau makes Homer a combination of Ida and Carl, physically funny without crossing into caricature. Valleau’s work here is splendid and matched by Millan’s nicely underplayed Myrtle.
    Anderson’s David, who hates it when his wife Esther visits her sisters, does a nice job as the rigid in-law who looks down on the rest of the family. We’ve all experienced those, right?
    The heart of this play is the four sisters; Valerio, Evans, Cohen and Hood work so well together that it’s easy to believe they’re related. These talented actresses convey the pathos and commitment needed to make us care as much as if we were sitting at Osborn’s premiere. I can’t get too much into the plot because it wraps up with a few nice surprises; suffice it to say that Morning’s at Seven is written and performed timelessly.
    One quibble: When a play set in 1930s middle America focuses on sisters in their late 60s and early to mid 70s, it’s a distraction to see three of the four with auburn-dyed hair. Fact is, in the 1930s getting one’s hair dyed was a long, painful and expensive process, typically undertaken by younger women who were often looked down upon for doing it … except for the platinum-haired movie stars who literally bleached their hair. At least a hint of gray would have been more real in a cast of older women playing older women.
    But as I say, that’s a quibble. It doesn’t take away from the acting, from the relationships we are privileged to witness and the overall feeling that Morning’s at Seven gives us, especially during this time of year when family is the focus.
    Top-notch acting and direction, a beautiful backyard set complete with tree limbs hanging from the ceiling, sharp lighting and a nice musical score all combine to make Morning’s at Seven a funny, heartwarming treat. It’s a nice holiday present from a local theater company that has been making Annapolis grateful for 67 years.


Two and a half hours with intermission. Thru Dec. 13. ThFSa 8pm, Su Nov. 29 2pm & 7:30pm, Su Dec. 13 2pm, Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis, $20 w/ discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
 
Producer:  Tom Stuckey. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Set design: David Pindell. Floor design: Carol Youmans; Lighting design: Frank Florentine. Sound design: Theresa Riffle. Costume design: Dianne Smith.

 

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.