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Highway medians become home to the birds, bees, butterflies

The tiniest employees of the Maryland State Highway Administration are hard at work while we sit in traffic. Glance out the window to see them buzzing about their daily routines. In exchange for their work, MSHA provides room and board — in the medians of state highways.
    Important work is happening in these often overlooked parcels of land: over 100 acres along Maryland highways are now wildlife habitat for pollinators.
    Medians along interstates and rural roads — places historically mowed and manicured — are now meadows of wildflowers, native grasses and perennials.
    “If we go back 20 years ago, we looked like golf courses,” says Highway spokesman Charlie Gischlar. Now, the medians provide beauty and habitat while fulfilling their original purpose of creating restful driving conditions and screening out oncoming headlight glare at night.
    In 2008, with the economy tanking and state agencies looking to tighten their budgets, highway planners asked biologists and landscapers for ideas. The Statewide Native Plants Establishment Program was born.
    “This program is a win-win situation between the built and the natural environment,” Gischlar says.
    “We realized we could stop mowing and save money.”
    The number of acres mowed went from 110,684 in 2005 to 51,751 in 2013, saving the cost of rising fuel.
    The second benefit is habitat for birds, bees, butterflies.
    Pollinators help the reproduction of 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants. And, according to the Xerces Society, nuts and seeds feed “25 percent of all birds and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.”
    Habitat loss is one of the top threats to our nation’s pollinators. The loss of bees and butterflies has a direct and dire impact on agriculture.
    “It’s actually pretty scary what’s happening to our honeybee population,” Gischlar says. “Colony collapse is a very serious issue.”
    While scientists study this mysterious disorder, bee populations continue to decline. Without a good mix of native plants, bees miss out on the proper nutrition from a variety of pollens. Restoring meadows with plants like butterfly weed, sunflowers, asters, coreopsis and black-eyed Susans is a vital component to giving honeybee colonies a chance to recover.
    Highway plantings make conditions favorable for these insects by reducing roadside mowing, using insects for vegetation control and creating meadows of nectar and pollen-producing native species.
    Invasive plants edging out the wildflowers that pollinators need are attacked along highways with a careful strategy of mowing and herbicide application. Two of those invasives, Canada thistle and Tree of Heaven, are notorious for choking out the natives.
    Elmer Dengler of Bowie has been following the plight of the monarch butterfly since he was 12 years old.
    “We need more Joe Pye weed and native goldenrods for these butterflies to survive,” Dengler says. “We need to encourage private landowners to work along with the highway departments to promote these native plants.”
    When monarchs find plants, egg-laying remains a risky business, Dengler says, due to a lot of unnecessary mowing.
    Along highways, however, some mowing is necessary “First and foremost,” Gischlar says, we have to maintain sight distance in critical areas, to protect drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.”
    Are efforts to bring back pollinators working?
    The outlook still looks grim, according to Chip Taylor, founder and director of MonarchWatch and an insect ecology professor at the University of Kansas.
    “Unfortunately,” he writes, “as of late July, it appears that the fall migration and the overwintering numbers will be similar to those seen last year. A substantial increase in the number of migrants and the area of the forests in Mexico occupied by overwintering monarchs is highly unlikely. I was expecting much better.”

A superhero a fraction the usual size delivers big laughs

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con who wants to go straight. A burglar with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, he can’t even keep a job at Baskin-Robbins. Desperate to earn child support money so he can see his daughter, he reverts to crime one more time.
    But mysterious millionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) isn’t the doddering old man he pretends to be. Pym is a genius who has invented a suit that allows its wearer to shrink to the size of an ant while becoming 50 times stronger and faster than a human. Hank offers Scott a job as Ant-Man to keep a protégé from weaponizing the Ant-Man suit.
    In the world of the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman and Iron Man, a shrinking suit isn’t very impressive. So instead of awe-inspiring, Ant-Man’s powers are laugh-inspiring.
    Rudd and director Peyton Reed find the laugh in each scene and quirk of the genre. Scott must learn to communicate with ants. A dramatic battle to the death takes place on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. A ridiculous number of animals and people are vaporized into goo.
    Combining great writing, a charismatic performance from Rudd and some spectacularly funny action sequences, this is the best Marvel release since the fantastic Guardians of the Galaxy.

Great Action • PG-13 • 117 mins.

Little creatures look for a fearless leader in this fun comedy

Since the dawn of time, Minions have been looking for a master to serve. The yellow cylindrical beings are attracted to the baddies of the world and biologically compelled to assist them.
    But they’re terrible at the job.
    These yellow dunderheads have managed to cause catastrophes from the extinction of the dinosaurs to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. For their constant failures, they are expelled from society.
    In their icy cave, the Minions long for a new evil mastermind. In 1968, three leave the cave to realize their hope. They find Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock: ­Gravity), the world’s first female supervillain. She’s ruthless, she’s stylish and she’s beautiful. The Minions are enthralled.
    To earn a spot on Scarlett’s payroll for the banana-like brethren, the Minions must complete a trial mission: Steal the queen of England’s crown.
    Clever and relentlessly silly, Minions is a family film that entertains all generations.
    The stars are the creatures who chatter gibberish and take in the world through wide Buster Keaton eyes, sweet of nature even as they try to be bad. These are not cruel or stupid creatures, and the film seems to cherish the innocent exuberance that often leads the Minions astray.
    Pierre Coffin (who also co-directs) has the unenviable job of providing a voice to the Minions, and though he doesn’t speak in comprehensible sentences, he manages to create three distinct personalities as well as a whole host of emotions.
    Bullock has a grand time as Scarlett, a brassy villain whose princess complex exacerbates her mood swings.
    Though their concept is fairly straight forward, directors Kyle Balda and Coffin find innovative ways to tell the story. The setting inspires a fantastic classic rock soundtrack that drives the action and will have adults tapping their toes. Minions also uses 3D technology in an interesting way. Coffin and Balda play with perception, having objects enter or leave frame in unexpected places. Scenes seem alive, and the 3D effect catches the audience off guard.
    Minions doesn’t have the depth or beauty of Pixar’s Inside Out, but profundity isn’t its thing. This is a movie for a bucket of popcorn and an escape from the summer heat. As children aren’t the only people in the seats, there are a few jokes to keep adults laughing as these little yellow henchmen bumble their way through London.

Good Animation • PG • 91 mins.

When water replaces air in the soil, plants die

If plants are wilting in your gardens despite all of the rain we have been having, it is due to a lack of oxygen in the soil. This is a bigger problem in heavy-loam soils than in sandy loam or loamy sands. Heavy soils become saturated with water faster than sandy soils because the pores are smaller and thus exclude all the air.
    The roots of plants need oxygen to function. We have received so much rain that air in the soil has been replaced by water. If the problem persists for more than a couple of weeks, there is a good possibility that root rot will kill plants. Under these conditions, it is not uncommon to harvest carrots with rotted taproots. Or to see tomato plants developing roots near the base of stems to replace the dying roots killed by excess water in the soil.
    The problem is worse in gardens that have been plowed and/or rototilled at the same depth year after year. Working the soil to the same depth once or twice each year causes a plow pan to form below the tilled or plowed layer. Plow pans are a compacted layer of soil that prevents the downward movement of both water and roots.
    Plow pan can occur in both sandy and heavy loam soil but happens more rapidly in heavy soils. To determine if your soil has plow pan, try pushing a half-inch-diameter piece of pipe or dowel into the soil. If you have plow-pan, you will most likely be able to force the pipe only six inches deep. In many instances, I have uncovered plow pans so dense that I was not able to penetrate them with my stainless steel auger.
    The problem can be solved by sub-soiling with a special tractor-mounted attachment, by double digging or by varying the depth of plowing or rototilling season to season.
    Sub-soilers are plow-like attachments that penetrate the soil to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, forcing the soil upward and fracturing the pan layer. Sub-soiling should be done when the soil is as dry as possible to maximize fracturing of the pan layer.
    If you spade the garden by hand, double digging means that when you first press your spade in the ground, you remove a spade full of soil and place it to one side, followed by removing another spade full of soil from the same hole. In other words, you are digging into the sub-soil, thus removing the pan layer, then blending it with the surface layer of soil.
    You can delay the formation of the plow pan by varying the depth that you plow or rototill. One year you plow or rototill at a depth of three inches, the next four inches, the next five inches and the next six inches before returning to a depth of three inches.


Share the Bounty

    Let others benefit from your gardening skills by contributing surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries. The Bay Gardener donates his surplus vegetables to SCAN Food Bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2, which is open for those in need on Thursday and Saturday from 8am until noon.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Rockfish crave spot, but in a pinch white perch will satisfy

I strained to keep my severely arced rod from touching the gunnel as I plunged the tip deep into the water. A large and powerful fish about 20 feet down was intent on crossing under my skiff. Had the line, humming from the tension, contacted the hull it would likely have snapped. On the other hand, if the stressed graphite rod banged the gunnel, it could shatter. I was doing my best to avoid either catastrophe.
    My partner in the bow was handling his own critical situation. He had also hung a big fish that was running deep, equally out of control. Things would soon get worse.

Our Shared Affliction
    Mike Fiore and I often planned to fish together, but either the weather or our work schedules had cancelled out each attempt. This time we hoped it would be different. It was, and in more ways than we had imagined.
    Mike and I work together at Angler’s and often exchange information on where the rockfish are hottest, the best new baits and the hangouts for white perch. I knew the 18-year-old was a skilled angler for his age and that he fished the same kind of gear I did, bait-casting tackle, an affliction not shared widely in the Chesapeake. We wanted to compare techniques.
    Finally we were both free on the same day. Meeting in the early morning, we acquired ice and a bag of bloodworms. We’d agreed that we wanted to live-line for stripers, a technique special to the tackle we both favored.
    The problem with our plan was the scarcity of small Norfolk spot, the number-one bait to live-line for stripers. Once on the water we ­couldn’t find spot the right size anywhere. But we did find some smaller white perch.
    We reasoned that if the rockfish had as much trouble as we did finding spot, the spikey white perch just might work. A sharp-spined, thick-scaled perch is a distant second choice, compared to spot, for predatory striped bass. But if they were hungry enough they should eat them.

Bait in the Water
    With barely enough whities for bait, we headed for the Eastern Shore around the area of the Sewer Pipe. Running well out into the Bay a few hundred yards north of the Bay Bridge,  the pipe is the outflow from a sewage processing plant on Kent Island. Protected by steeply piled rock for the entirety of its length, it creates underwater structure that is a magnet for marine life. That marine life often includes big rockfish.
    A small, tight school of fish below produced marks on my fish-finder that strongly indicated striped bass below. Dropping down a couple of wriggling perch, we lightly thumbed our spools, feeding out line and feeling the actions of the baitfish as they strained for the bottom.
    Within seconds, we’d had that double hookup. We kept the big rock separated as long as we could, but as we drew them close the inevitable happened: Our lines crossed. Mike was fishing braid and I mono, so the situation was dire. Under tension, the ultra-thin braid will slice through mono like soft butter.
    Luckily for us the fish were played out and docile. Though we had a line tangle to undo, both stripers (twins at 34 inches) were quickly netted and in the cooler. Over the next hour we then enjoyed another double header (both released as too big) and then two 26-inch singles to manage our last two keepers. (The daily individual limit for rockfish is two fish over 20 inches, only one of which can exceed 28 inches.)
    That day, white perch were on the rockfish menu and rockfish were on our own.

The capacity of herons

The discovery that a heron was plundering my catch solved the mystery but did not end my ­curiosity. There was more to be learned.
    Apparently, herons are quite intelligent and know an easy meal when they see it. Almost immediately, a pattern became evident. If I was on the dock to use the boat or to check the crab traps, heron was nowhere in sight. As soon as I picked up my fishing rod, the bird would appear from nowhere and wait about 10 feet down the dock for my catch. At first I fiercely protected my perch. But heron was persistent and cute, and I gave into temptation, tossing an occasional fish. Eventually the bird was getting my first fish. Neighbors kidded me about having a pet heron, and when I gave him a name — Harry the Heron — I knew they were right.
    Having heard stories about adopting wild animals, I checked on potential dangers.
    My wife agreed. She thought I should see a shrink.
    But it was the bird I worried about. Dave Brinker, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bird expert, told me blue herons cause the biggest trouble for the state’s goldfish and koi farmers, who must protect their fish from these predators. The stately birds are not picky eaters.  “If they can catch it and subdue it, they will eat it,” Brinker said. “While we usually think of them eating fish, they will eat frogs and voles and even small muskrat.”
    I was amazed they could eat perch up to eight inches, but their bodies are designed to stretch. Perch are a favorite food because the fish’s shape is conducive to swallowing. Herons are smart enough to know what they can handle, and a bird choking on a meal is very rare.
    Brinker confirmed it was not a good idea to keep feeding Harry, but not for the reason I thought. Once a bird learns to fend for itself, it never forgets and can always go back to self-sufficiency. There are, however, other good reasons to avoid the practice. First, these are smart birds. Once they find an easy meal, they will stick around. This can be problematic at migration time. If Harry decided to stay for the winter, and it was a bad one, it could be hard for either of us to find him food, even if I’m willing to brave sub-zero temperatures to fish for a bird. The second is one’s neighbors. While mine think it’s cool to have a resident heron, not all would agree. Especially fish pond owners.
    I have to sever relations with Harry, and I will in a few weeks. We’ll both go cold turkey. I will stop fishing from my dock; he will have to catch his own dinner. I’m not sure which of us will suffer more.


To see the video of the solved the mystery, go to YouTube and enter Bay Weekly Newspaper Missing Fish Mystery Solved in the search box.

The eating is good and local

Plant a seed and it will grow. That’s the truth of midsummer, especially this wet midsummer when Earth up here in our northern hemisphere is cloaked in vegetation. You’ll remember it wasn’t like this six months ago; sticks and Earth were bare. Now it’s gangbusters.
    Corn grows rampant. Cucumbers and squash hang pendulous and beans in curtains on their vines. Canes break out with raspberries. Tomatoes swell and burst in the sun. Earth reverts to the Garden of Eden, where it’s all yours for the picking.
    If ever you’re going to eat local, now is the time.
    Corn grew so tall and thick it shaded the narrow lane I traveled on the way to the Bay Gardener’s Upakrik Farm in Deale, where Dr. Gouin is calling in friends and carrying baskets to the SCAN Food pantry to help eat his way out of abundance. His is a mighty garden.
    Even a little patch on the edge of shade like ours feeds the family generously if a bit monotonously. First came our salad days. Then the feast of radishes. Now cucumber salad is a nightly dish as we wait and hope for the tomatoes to go riot. No vampires will visit my home, where a year’s worth of garlic dries in braids I learned to tie from the Bay Gardener. I had parsley (until it went to seed, in its second year) and have basil and oregano enough to feed Fairhaven. My lemon balm would make tea for all Annapolis.
    If you planted a seed this spring, it grew.
    Multiply that bounty by all the gardens and farms in Chesapeake Country, gather it in dozens of farmers markets and roadside stands, and we’ve all got some eating to do. Because, as Dr. Gouin says, “over production of vegetables often occurs, and it is shameful to allow it to spoil.”
    In case you’re not doing your part, Maryland designates the coming week of high summer, July 18 through 26, as Buy Local Challenge Week. Your assignment, if you accept it, is to make a personal commitment, pledging (at www.buy-local-challenge.com) to eat at least one thing from a local farm every day of the Challenge Week.
    Where will you start?
    Simple and unsurpassed for the tomato eaters of Maryland is a perfect tomato sandwich: Thick slices of tomato on your choice of bread moistened by butter, mayo or olive oil, topped with salt, pepper and, if you go the olive oil route, basil. Make it meaty with crisp strips of bacon. Yes, locally raised meat is becoming standard at local farmers markets, if not farm stands.
    If you’re ready to step out, try the recipes in this week’s paper. Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan’s instructs us how to make two Korean dishes — pork bulgogyi and cucumber salad, both favorites among her family. Step out a bit further with avid home cook, artist and fermentation enthusiast Caiti Sullivan, who simplifies canning, pickling and fermentation with in-season recipes for Spiced Cherry Preserves, Bread and Butter Pickles, Canned Tomatoes with Italian Herbs and Sauerkraut.
    If you’re really into challenge, try the complex and delicious recipes created by local chefs from local ingredients from local farms for the Governor’s Annual Buy-Local Cookout. This year’s recipes include not only Hogan’s bulgogyi but also, to sweeten the menu, Firefly Farms Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Caramel Sauce and Grilled Black Rock Orchard Peach Compote, by Doug Wetzel of Gertrude’s in Baltimore.
    Find Governor’s Buy Local Cookout cookbooks and recipes from 2009 to 2015 at mda.maryland.gov/Pages/Buy-Local-Cookout.aspx.
    It’s midsummer, and the eating is good and fresh. But the season is short. Stock your kitchen, fridge and pantry with local bounty. Make a habit of shopping farmers markets and roadside stands for the best local produce, brought to you freshly harvested by the farmers who grew the good things we love to eat.

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

The best of times and worst of times brought to vivid, emotional life

The most famous first lines in literature — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — may make you fear you’re in for a dry history lesson.
    Not so with Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s A Tale of Two Cities. As soon as actor Brian Keith MacDonald follows that opening, you realize this production is going to be about the fire of feelings, not the dust of historic facts. Thereupon, it becomes impossible not to go with this revolutionary ride.
    Lara Eason’s adaptation of Dickens’ 1859 novel is concise, filtering out a few characters and situations to put on stage the very basics of the book that so many read in high school. (Most lists have A Tale of Two Cities as the top-selling book of all time, excluding the Bible and other religious books often given away.)
    We’re in England and France before and during the French Revolution, with the aristocracy’s long years of entitlement and cruelty punished by the revolutionaries, whose self-justified actions are just as cruel.
    This production runs only one hour and 45 minutes including intermission, but if anything, the power of Dickens’ story and the clarity of his characters’ feelings are enhanced by that brevity. That’s due in very large part to a cast of seven actors, including MacDonald, who plumbs the depths of each main character even as they quickly switch to playing multiple others.
    MacDonald plays the cynical drunk Sydney Carton, who turns out to be the hero. Patrick Truhler gives us Charles Darnay, the French noble who changes his name out of disgust at his family’s treatment of the peasants. Richard Pilcher is Doctor Manette, imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years. James Carpenter is Jarvis Lorry, Manette’s friend. Laura Rocklyn is Doctor Manette’s daughter Lucie, loved by both Carton and Darnay, and the central character tying everything together. Joel Ottenheimer plays Monsieur Defarge, the wine shop owner who becomes a revolutionary leader. Amy Pastoor plays his wife Madame Defarge, whose cruel back story is hinted at in such speeches as “Tell the wind and fire where to stop; not me!” Each of these actors does a remarkable job switching from role to role in a way that clearly delineates the character of the moment so that the audience keeps up easily with the action.
    Director Sally Boyett, the company’s founder and producing artistic director, keeps the pace moving with nary a scene change in the small, 70-seat, black-box space. The play is beautifully choreographed so that the action is constant, yet the emotions remain the focus. Lighting designer Adam Mendelson’s illumination is so focused and appropriate that it acts as another character.
    It’s very likely, of course, that you’ve read the book. It’s not very likely that when you did you were kicked in the gut by the emotions and raw power of the characters that are brought to life so vividly in this sincere and succinct production.


Stage manager: Sara K. Smith; Sound designer: Gregory Thomas Martin; Fight choreographer: Amy Pastoor; Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.

FSa 8pm, Su 2pm & 7pm thru Aug. 2. 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; annapolisshakespeare.org.

Okra, for beauty and taste

Okra likes it hot.  Soon the cool-loving cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will have been harvested, leaving a large empty space in the garden. Lots of nutrients still in the garden can be used for growing a crop of okra.
    To get a jump, start young okra plants in three-inch pots.  After filling the pots with potting soil, place two okra seeds in each. I prefer Clemson Spineless, but there are many varieties available. The seeds will germinate in five to eight days, especially if the pots are outdoors in full sun. Keep them well watered. After the seedlings are about three inches tall, take a sharp knife or nail clippers and cut out the smallest.
    As soon as the area in the garden is cleared, transplant the young okra two feet apart in rows at least three feet apart. Or plant them in your flower bed. Purple varieties produce very attractive foliage. As they can grow to a height of four feet, they are best used as a background plant. But make certain they are accessible for harvesting the pods.
    Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The plants will start producing beautiful pale yellow hibiscus flowers with purple or red centers within three to four weeks after transplant­ing. Within two to three days after the flowers have wilted, some of the pods will be ready to harvest.
    To assure quality and tenderness, okra pods should be harvested three to four times weekly, especially during hot muggy days when the plants are flowering daily and growing rapidly. Pods longer than five inches will be woody and not palatable. But with some imagination, they can be dried and used in floral arrangements or Christmas tree decorations. Pods can grow to eight to 10 inches long.
    Okra plants will continue to produce pods into mid to late September. However, the later pods tend to become warty looking and are generally not tender.
    Okra can be breaded and fried, brushed with olive oil and baked for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven and sprinkled with salt, used in making gumbo, pickled or added to a tomato, hamburger and onion sauce. When using okra in sauces, always add the cut okra just before serving to avoid the slimy texture that results from over-cooking.
    I have grown okra in my garden in Deale for the past 24 years without failure. I could never grow it when I gardened in New Hampshire because the summers were too short and cool.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Nine-year, three-billion-mile mission to study solar system’s outer limits

As the sky darkens, Venus and Jupiter appear low in the west. While the gap between the two planets is growing, they are both inching toward Regulus, with Venus two degrees below the star Monday and Tuesday.
    Dusk reveals Saturn above the southern horizon with the three stars marking the head of Scorpius beneath it and Antares, the heart of the scorpion, a dozen degrees below.
    Mercury makes an early morning appearance low in the east-northeast a half-hour before sunrise. Don’t confuse Mercury with the much-dimmer star Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, high above to the planet’s right. Aldebaran is visited by the thin waning crescent moon before dawn Sunday.
    While you’d need a massive telescope to see it from your back yard, eyes will be on Pluto this week, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, comes its closest to the distant planetoid Tuesday after a three-billion-mile journey. Back then, Pluto was still the ninth planet. As I wrote at the time:
    Thursday, January 19, NASA launched the space-probe New Horizons on a nine-year mission to our solar system’s outermost planet, Pluto. Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto is also the last planet not viewed by a passing earthen spacecraft.
    Two weather delays were not the only pressures weighing on the launch. The project sparked debate over the craft’s plutonium-powered engines and a possible lift-off explosion. But as New Horizons safely cleared earth orbit, it carried another payload, one closing the cosmic loop: a tiny canister bearing cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh.
    Over the next five months, New Horizons will study Pluto and its moons, of which there are at least four detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to NASA, astronomers hope to determine “where Pluto and its moons fit in with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
    On the 14th, New Horizons will be within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface. But at almost three billion miles from earth, data sent from the probe, travelling at the speed of light, will take more than four hours to reach us.
    Thanks to the near-endless power of its plutonium engine, New Horizons will leave Pluto and delve farther still, into the heart of the Kuiper Belt, a region at the solar system’s outer limits made up of countless icy mini-worlds akin to Pluto.