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Oh the harm it causes!

In 1976, I wrote “Over-Mulching, A National Disaster” for a national trade journal. Nasty letters came from as far as Oregon and California. Forty years later, over-mulching has become a monkey-see-monkey-do calamity.
     Earlier this spring, I spent several days diagnosing plant problems for several landscape architects. In all but one, the problems were caused by excessive use of nutrient-robbing mulches.
    In several instances, well-established plantings of pachysandra were being suffocated by excessive mulch or starved by mulches containing raw wood. Where raw wood was applied around pachysandra, the plants were yellow green and the vegetation sparse. In the areas where four inches or more of mulch was applied, the pachysandra was dead and the stems rotten. 
    In one landscape, several hundreds of square feet of what was once a well established planting of English ivy was killed after having been mulched with Big Red. About three inches had been applied last year, follow by another application this year. I am frequently asked to recommend an herbicide for killing English ivy; from now on I will recommend a heavy mulching with Big Red. Guaranteed to give 100 percent control, organically.
    I saw azaleas with sparse distribution of small purple leaves and struggling in what appeared to be two to four inches of shredded hardwood bark. Soil tests indicated in excess of 300 pounds of manganese. Any level in excess of 80 pounds per acre is considered toxic to the roots of plants. It’s clear from the soil test results that shredded hardwood bark had been applied repeatedly for several years. Since the property owner had hired several yard maintenance firms over the years, she was not aware of what kind of mulch had been applied.
    In one yard I examined a large planting of boxwood with severe symptoms of decline. Digging around the base of the plants, I saw that they had been mulched several times. Over the years I have seen numerous once-healthy and hardy boxwoods killed by mulch. Boxwoods are shallow-rooted plants and should never be mulched. They are drought tolerant, and enzymes emitted by the roots and leaves prevent many weed species from growing around them.
    Most of the landscape maintenance companies were blaming poor drainage for decline or death. However, as I walked on the lawns adjoining these plantings and in the plantings, I saw and felt no symptoms of poor drainage. I augured holes in these areas and found the soil to be well drained.
    The only landscape where I did not see mulch problems was in a yard where water coming from a newly installed copper roof had flowed. Here, the decline in growth and the loss of plants was due to copper toxicity. I could easily follow the flow of water from the downspouts and areas where the water pooled. The solution to this problem was to divert the water away from the plants until the surface of the copper sheeting oxidizes to a brown or gray-green color.
    More on mulch next week …


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

Open season on these “voracious predators”

Reader Jesse Ledford asks: “Are there any reports on snakeheads in the Patuxent River? I’ve seen one in a lake in Lusby that runs into the Patuxent.”
    There sure are, and that’s not the only place. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have received reports of snakehead fish in the Patuxent, with some caught in the main stem near Jug Bay. The Potomac is prime snakehead territory. The highly adaptable predator has also shown up on the Eastern Shore in the Nanticoke, Wicomico, and Blackwater rivers.
    Northern snakeheads, as they’re officially called, are a fish native to China. But in 2002 the species appeared within the Chesapeake Bay’s own watershed. From a pond in Crofton, they’ve spread widely. This is trouble because snakeheads breed rapidly and eat local fish. Females spawn multiple times per year and usually release around 40,000 eggs. Maryland Department of Natural Resources describes these fish as “voracious predators.” All these snakeheads eating the population of native fish disturbs the Bay’s fragile ecosystem.

Blackened Snakehead

11⁄2 tablespoon paprika
1
tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper    
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon of kosher salt

1 snakehead filet skinned and cut into 4 pieces
    Preheat oven to 400 degrees

    In a mixing bowl combine the first nine ingredients. (This blackening spice works great with all fish, game and poultry for blackening and smoking. It can be stored for quite some time.)
    
With a dry towel pat the fish. Coat each piece on one side with a generous amount of blackening seasoning.
    Place 1 tablespoon cooking oil into a cast iron skillet and place over high heat. Once the pan has heated (you’ll know its hot when the oil is about to smoke and slides freely across the pan), place fish in the pan seasoned side down and press gently with a spatula.
Allow the fish to sear approximately 3 minutes.
Gently turn and sear for 1 minute. Place fish in oven and cook 3 to 5 minutes depending on the thickness of the filet.

    What to do? Catch and eat them.
    To help curb the invasion, DNR added an Invasive Species Award category to the annual Maryland Fishing Challenge. So now catching snakeheads in the Bay not only helps keep the ecosystem healthy but also can win you prizes. Info at http://tinyurl.com/m9dljpt.
    The fish themselves are a prize as well. They may not look like it, but they are quite tasty. Snakeheads are popular on the menus in their homeland of Asia, and you can enjoy their taste as well.
    How to cook such a fish?
    Executive Chef Chad Wells of Alewife in Baltimore offered this recipe to Maryland Natural Resource Magazine.

Telltale signs, and how to fight back

That black and white bird with a red cap and yellow belly is not a traditional woodpecker looking for bugs hiding beneath bark. At work making numerous holes all in a circle around the trunk of your tree is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, who then sucks sap from those wounds.
    In early spring, sap migrates to the phloem, the region just beneath the bark, and these birds are eager to suck those juices. Warm days and cool nights make the sap flow hard and furious, and the sapsuckers know it.  
    Sapsucker damage is easy to identify because the birds make one-half-inch diameter holes that penetrate through the bark into the cambium region. The holes are one-half to an inch apart and circle the trunk, starting from about eight feet above the ground up to where the diameter of the trunk is about six inches. Sapsuckers generally do most of their damage before sunrise and in the evening.
     They generally attack smooth bark trees such as magnolia, maple, cherry, apple, crab apple and ash. But I’ve also seen their telltale signs on pine and cedar. The damage they do can be fatal to some species. I’ve seen a southern magnolia so severely damaged that it had to be cut down.
    Why sapsuckers attack some trees more than others is not known. I have frequently seen two southern magnolia growing side by side, one showing severe damage while the other showed no damage.
    It is not uncommon to see hummingbirds feeding on the sap oozing from the holes as well as bees and wasps when the sapsuckers are feeding in the summer.
    Since sapsuckers tend to be skittish, the most effective remedy is to suspend shiny objects to the branches of trees being attacked. Cut 18-inch-long strips of foil six inches wide; twist the foil into long spiral tubes and tie the streamers loosely on branches with cotton string 10 inches to a foot away from the trunk. Space the foil strips two to three feet apart around the trunk. Use cotton string; if you forget to remove it, the cotton will decompose and fall to the ground. Wire or nylon could girdle the branches as they grow larger in diameter.


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

New mascot replaces PFD Panda

Going to the dogs is under reconstruction. In the olden days, going to the dogs described degeneration, as in another old saw: If you lie down with dogs, expect to get fleas.
    No more. Today’s dogs are superior beings offering the unconditional love that seems to be scarce elsewhere. From Haiti to Katmandu, they perform superhuman rescues. Closer to home, kids improve their reading with dogs as listeners.
    Now Maryland Department of Natural Resources is going to the dogs with Splash the Water Safety Dog — a handsome Chesapeake Bay retriever — replacing PFD Panda.
    “We decided there are no pandas in Maryland,” said Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candus Thomson. “We’re going homegrown with a mascot more in keeping with Maryland tradition.”
    PFD Panda came off the mascot shelf. Splash is unique, created by a one of-a-kind mascot maker.
    PFD Panda’s retirement was tearful, but the 20-year-mascot held no hard feelings, giving his replacement a new orange life jacket. The six-foot-tall Chessie now always wears the life jacket; except for a hat, it’s the new mascot’s only garment.
    Splash debuts tonight at Camden Yards when the Orioles face the Seattle Mariners during National Safe Boating Week. Look for Splash in the concourse behind home plate. Stop by to welcome Splash and, if you’re lucky, win a small plush replica.
    Hereafter, Splash will visit schools, fairs and other public events statewide to remind citizens that the best way to remain safe on the water is to wear a life jacket.
    Missing PFD Panda? See his farewell, with mascots from the Ravens, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Bowie Baysox, the Coast Guard, UMBC and Towson University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxQbQzzC22M&feature=youtu.be.
    There’s one more change to learn: With Panda goes the term PFD. Nowadays, we all wear lifejackets.

How to plant spring’s flagrant bloomer and its similars

As you continue your spring planting and transplanting, remember that many popular species perform best in acid soils. Among them are the now-blooming beauties azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, andromeda, Japanese hollies, deciduous hollies and blueberries. Oak and sweetgum trees also like acid soils.
    The best time to transplant these species is early spring and, even better, fall, when they’ve stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    Pruning is best done just after blooming, but never on new transplants.
    Success in transplanting these species can be guaranteed if you follow the following guidelines.
    1. Know the Ph of your soil before planting. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. Find directions at al-labs-eastern.com.
    2. Select a spot where the soil is well drained. None of these species will grow in poorly drained soils.
    3. All of these plants — except the trees — are shallow-rooted. The depth of the planting hole should not exceed 90 percent of the height of the root ball. In other words, 10 percent of the root ball should be above grade.
    4.  Add one-third to one-half compost by volume to the soil you removed when digging the hole. Do not bring in imported soil.
    5. Acid soils are generally low in calcium. Incorporate one rounded tablespoon of gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the compost-amended soil and mix thoroughly.
    6. If roots are tightly meshed around the outside edge of the root-ball after you remove it form the container, take a sharp knife and slash the roots at least one inch deep from top to the bottom of the root ball at three- to four-inch intervals around the entire root ball. Cutting the roots hastens root growth into the new soil.
    7. Water the plant well, even if it is raining, and repeat watering at four- to five-day intervals. Never water plants daily.


Is Your Soil Well Drained?

    To test drainage, dig a hole about a foot deep. Fill with water. Fill it again (some sources say immediately; some say the next day).
    Measure the depth with a ruler. In 15 minutes, measure again. How many inches has it dropped? Multiply by four to determine drainage per hour.
    Below one inch is poor drainage; over six is excessive. Anything in between is good drainage.


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

The modern rockfishing boat is a high-tech warship

My phone rang early. It was my friend Frank Tuma, calling to invite me on a last-minute trolling sortie in the Bay.
    Just east of the Baltimore Light, we set out the side-planer boards.
    Side planers are built of three one-inch-thick wooden or synthetic boards approximately two feet long and 10 inches wide. The leading edge of each board is cut at an angle to direct their path through the water. The boards are held about six inches apart by a series of stainless steel shafts. They are pulled along each side of the boat. Floating vertically like blades in the water, the boards are forced away and held fast by heavy 300-pound-test tether lines.
    We began trolling two umbrella rigs, some tandem parachutes rigged with soft shad bodies of both six- and nine-inch lengths, a couple of basic bucktails plus a Big Tony Accetta spoon, giving the fish a wide spectrum of baits to choose from. White, chartreuse, yellow and green were represented in the array.
    We finally began marking fish as we approached Love Point. A few minutes after making the first turn around the Love Point Buoy, a distinct pop announced that a line had been pulled free of its release clip, and one of the 10 rods bent over hard.
    The only downside to trolling multiple rigs on planer boards is that the boat cannot stop to fight a fish, which might cause a massive snarl of lines and lures.
    That means that an angler may be fighting a fish that can weigh upward of 50 pounds while moving through the water at four knots.
    Carl, the lucky man closest to the rod, was an old hand at reining in big fish and was soon inching the heavy fighter closer and closer to the boat.
    Everyone yelled at the first glimpse of the striper. It was a nice fish; perhaps too nice. Easing the big rockfish the last few feet, Frank finessed it into the landing net.
    The slot limit put in place this year by Department of Natural Resources dictate that only fish 28 inches to 36 inches or bigger than 40 inches can be harvested. This one was over 28 but uncomfortably close to 36.
    Quickly working the 12/0 hook out of its mouth, we ran a measuring tape along the big body. Then we squeezed the tail together and measured the overall length again to make sure that we were adhering to DNR’s exacting method for defining legal length.
    It’s not often that you wish a fish smaller, but at 37 inches, this spawned-out female went back over the side and disappeared into the depths of the Bay to swim another day.
    We hit four more stripers that day. Three were undersized, but one struck with massive force, fighting even harder than the first. There had been a good initial hook set and our angler was handling the fish expertly until it charged the boat. Getting the slack in the line it needed for just an instant, the fish shook itself free.
    We went fishless but had a beautiful day on the Chesapeake. All of us had pulled on at least one rockfish, and we still had many days left in the season to score.


Conservation News

    Warnings have been issued that the seaweed (or wormweed) used in Maine to pack bloodworms may be carrying invasive species. Anglers are advised to dispose of the weed in trash receptacles rather than dumping it into the Bay.
    Commercial menhaden processors (mainly Omega Protein) have been demanding more access to the remaining menhaden population (also called alewife, bunker and pogy). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is apparently considering their requests. Drop the Commission a letter and tell them what you think: comments@asmfc.org; 1050 N. Highland Street, Arlington, VA 22201.

Sometimes it takes a village

It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. So it does to relocate an osprey pair.
    This story begins in spring last year, when a pair of osprey constructed their residence atop a three-story chimney of a home in Resthaven in Southern Anne Arundel County. After the construction of the large, freeform contemporary and the raising of their brood, off they went to their second home for the winter. Prior to their departure, however, these tenants saw no need to clean the large amounts of graffiti left on the siding and decks below the nest.
    Fastforward mid-March this year. The same pair return to the same address to find their belongings gone and a blank canvas. Construction begins again. Another mega-mansion is nearing completion when the landlords below, remembering their last experience, attempt an eviction complete with chicken wire as a deterrent. Unruffled, the pair remains and tries to remodel. Another try at eviction follows, and again a defiant pair remain.
    Witnessing this saga was a small group of concerned citizens. A relocation plan of sorts was hatched, or so we thought.
    First, a three-foot-square osprey platform was constructed from recycled material, with the exception of the hardware cloth for the bottom. Second, a used section of a commercial fishnet pole was dragged out of the water, cut and loaded on a pickup by a local Deale fisherman and railway owner. Third, a small boat was commandered from another neighbor. Yet another neighbor allowed the use of his yard and pier as a staging area for this operation.
    A point was sharpened with a chainsaw on the now 22-foot-long osprey pole. The last and most difficult part was the enlistment of the required number of able-bodied people to float the pole across a small gut and around the edge of the marsh to the confluence of Parkers Creek and the Bay.
    A local carpenter secured the help of a longtime friend and Maryland Department of Natural Resources officer, who donated three hours of his off-time, and another friend, a young Army veteran. All this help was able to be gathered because of this carpenter’s innate ability to bend the truth about the toughness of the project, including answering no to the question am I going to get wet?
    We floated the pole around the cape with a kayak in tow loaded with platform, hardware, tools and a photographer. At our destination the plan was honed. First we positioned the pole horizontally to exacting specifications. Then we attached the platform with screws through one end of four metal strap anchors, one on each side of the platform, with the other end of each attached to the pole.
    As suggested by the photographer, a “starter kit of twigs” was added. Then all that remained was the raising and the jumpin’ down of the pole.
    With DNR and the carpenter at the platform end, soon to be top of the pole, and Army with one end of a length of line in his hands, the other end attached to the soon-to-be top, we started. We lifted the pole as high as possible and, hand over hand, started our march toward vertical. Don’t try this at home, folks. A few minutes later to our amazement, vertical.
    Then came the easiest part. Jumpin the pole down, a phrase borrowed from my railway buddy, who explained in detail the procedure. One end of a four-by-four post is lashed, close to the bottom, at a slight angle, to the now vertical 22-foot pole. The other end rests just onshore on solid ground. Army, the youngest by 25 years, is instructed to walk up the incline of the four-by-four and, holding on to the pole, start jumping on the four-by-four close to the pole.
    As we held the pole vertical we watched as it slowly started its decent south at about one-eighth-inch per jump.
    We raised and relashd the four-by-four to the pole about every 18 inches of vertical decent.
    In about one hour, the platform on the 22-foot pole was now about 16 feet above sea level. At this point, we looked at each other as if it were just another day at work. A couple more pictures, load the tools and the photographer and back across the gut to the start.
    But the early bird gets the worm, or in this case the nest. Apparently another pair of osprey were up earlier than the evicted pair we were doing all this for. Oh well.
    As one of the concerned bunch said “Hey, they must have been homeless, too.”

Fruiting plants need feeding

As you move tomato plants into your garden, here’s some advice to help improve your harvest.
    First, limit the amount of fertilizer and compost you apply when you transplant your tomato plants. Applying too much high-nitrogen fertilizer or high-nitrogen compost will produce extra-large plants and few late tomatoes.
    It’s in the production cycle that tomatoes need nitrogen.
    A fruiting plant must absorb nutrients sufficient not only to produce fruit but also to continue growing, producing more foliage, flowers and fruit. In other words, a mature tomato plant is much like a pregnant woman, eating for two to remain healthy and produce healthy offspring.
    That’s when the tomato plant is most nutritional needy, too. And that’s when early blight strikes.
    For a decade I have been studying methods of preventing early blight. Since 2009, I have had no early blight symptoms. I attribute that success to keeping my tomato plants nutritionally happy. Nitrogen is the key to a plant’s nutritional health.
    Nitrogen passes to upper-growing points or fruit from older leaves. Losing nitrogen makes those leaves susceptible to blight-causing microorganisms. If you supply tomato plants with sufficient nitrogen for the bottom leaves to remain strong and healthy, they are less likely to succumb to infection.
    Thus for the past five years, I’ve scattered a rounded tablespoon of calcium nitrate 15.5-0-0 around the base of each plant as soon as I see the first cluster of tomatoes form. During the growing season, I watch the bottom leaves of the plants closely. When those leaves start to turn yellow-green, I make a repeat application of calcium nitrate. Generally only two applications are needed per growing season.
    I selected calcium nitrate because mature plants absorb nitrate nitrogen more efficiently than they do other sources of nitrogen. Plus, the calcium in calcium nitrate helps build stronger cell walls and prevent blossom-end rot. There is lime in the soil, but the calcium in lime is only four percent soluble while the calcium in calcium nitrate is 100 percent available. Calcium is as important in plants for making strong cell walls as it is in humans and animals in making strong bones and teeth.
    If you are an organic gardener, apply at least two inches of compost around tomato plants as soon as you see the first flowers. Lobster waste or crab waste compost has the highest levels of calcium of all composted products available. Irrigate through the compost.


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

Cheer super-avian feats of prowess at International ­Migratory Bird Day

Imagine the epic journey of the red knot as it flies 9,300 miles along the Atlantic coast from its wintering grounds in southern South America to its high Arctic breeding grounds. The journey is so taxing that it requires two to three stopovers for refueling, including one at Delaware Bay. When the knot arrives there, its body is half its starting weight, devoid of fat and even some muscle. Here, it will spend some 10 days consuming the eggs of the horseshoe crab to regain its weight before continuing north.
    Or consider the remarkable journey of the ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing about a penny, crossing the Gulf of Mexico in a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles over 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather. In North America, migration continues at about 20 miles a day. One bird started its journey to its breeding area on March 1, arriving in northern Maine on May 10.
    A blackpoll warbler could boast of getting 720,000 miles to the gallon if it were burning gasoline instead of body fat, according to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
    The remarkable event of migration is played out twice a year by some 350 species flying between nesting habitats in North America and wintering grounds in Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
    Many obstacles challenge these superhuman athletes: collisions with buildings, pesticides, habitat degradation, deforestation, predators and global climate change.
    Learn how you can support the birds at International Migratory Bird Day, celebrated May 9 and 10. This year, a series of nationwide programs focuses on why we should care about maintaining healthy bird populations and protecting breeding, non-breeding and stopover habitats. Activities include bird walks, art competitions, nature festivals and presentations.
    Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian hosts the local festival, including guided walks and a stations involving a birds and beaks game, birdsong and calls display, bird habitat activities, feather lab, nests and eggs display and eagle airplane make-and-take. Saturday, May 9, 8.30am to noon: jugbay.org.

More ups and downs

Will 101 million spawning-age females produce a sustainable future for Chesapeake Bay’s blue crabs?
    That’s the $64,000 question raised by this year’s Winter Dredge Survey, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ census of crabs asleep in the mud of the Bay.
    The population is well — more than half — below the target female population of 215 million. This year shows an uptick. But the survey’s 24-year history has been consistently up and down. Only two years — 2010 and 2011 — have surpassed the target. Four — including 2014 — have fallen to or below the much lower threshold of 70,000, meaning a depleted population. On the chart, this year is average below average.
    Crab fishery managers use the Dredge Survey results to determine how many crabs can be harvested. This year, commercial female catch is allowed but regulated. Recreational crabbers must return females to the water.
    Better news is the rising total of crabs living in the Bay: 411 million, despite the hard winter. Only 10 years of the survey have found higher numbers, and seven of those years were in the 1990s. The other three highs coincided with or followed the boom female years of 2010 and 2011.
    That, said DNR Secretary Mark Belton, “is good news for the crabs and for Marylanders who enjoy them all summer long.”
    Read the full survey at http://tiny.cc/lgsjxx.