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Sow slow-germinating seeds now

As you know from last week’s calendar of when to sow what, now into early March is the time to sow seeds of onions and shallots, begonias and coleus, petunias and impatients. These very fine-seeded species require special treatment. Here’s what to do.
    Buy a commercial seed starter that’s a sterile fine mixture of peat moss, pine bark and fine vermiculite amended with limestone to adjust the pH to near 6.5.
    Sow onions and shallots in four-inch pots with drainage holes. The seedlings will grow in these containers until you transplant them to the garden. Fill the pot to the top with seed starter; scrape away the excess. Bounce the bottom of the pot several times on your work surface to eliminate air pockets. Smooth the surface of the growing medium. Now uniformly spread 30 to 40 seeds over the surface. Watering the seeds will cover them with medium as it causes additional settling.
    The seeds will germinate best at temperatures between 75 to 80 degrees. The top of the refrigerator supplies the heat to make an ideal germinating table. As soon as seedlings appear, move the pots to a window facing south for maximum sunlight — or into a greenhouse. Irrigate as needed. Fertilize after seedlings have grown two to three inches tall. Use either fish emulsion or a diluted commercial water-soluble fertilizer.
    For starting seeds of begonia, coleus, impatients, petunia and so on, salad trays — the plastic kind you fill at salad bars — are ideal. Using an ice pick or a pointed knife, punch holes uniformly across the bottom, spacing the holes one inch apart. Punch from the inside out. Next add at least one to two inches of seed-starting mix. Using plant labels, divide the surface area of the starter mix so that each species gets approximately two by two inches. Scatter the seeds uniformly over their area, label each species and sprinkle with water until the excess drips out the container’s bottom. Snap the clear cover closed and place the container on top of the refrigerator.
    As soon as the seeds start to germinate, move the container to a window facing south or to a greenhouse. To prevent the build-up of heat within the salad bar container, lay a pencil or wooden dowel half-way between the hinge and the front edge of the container, across the length of the container and wrap with a rubber band to keep the cover partially closed. The seedlings will be ready to transplant into larger pots as soon as they can be lifted.

Next week: Transplanting seedlings.

A rare breed proves it’s still Best in Show

Whiskey was the first wire fox terrier to enter our home. He chased children and adults, pilfered food from the table and ripped the shingles off a hand-built doghouse — even after application of sour apple anti-chew spray. He could open coffee cans and drag leaded food dishes up flights of stairs. This miscreant pup was a terror on four legs.
    He barked, he dug and he obeyed only when convenient.
    After Whiskey, we couldn’t imagine owning another breed.
    Brilliant, insubordinate and hilarious, fox terriers were bred for fox hunting in 17th century England. Smooth and wire-haired terriers (considered the same breed until 1984) rode in pouches on the hunters’ horses until the prey was driven to ground. The terriers were then sent into the fox dens and yanked out by their tails, doomed fox clenched in their teeth.
    By the 1930s, wire fox terriers’ square heads, keen eyes and compact build earned them popularity with the glamorous set, in movies and on the arms of the rich and famous. Actors and heiresses weren’t the only ones smitten. Wire fox terriers have won 14 Best in Show titles at Westminster, more than any other breed. The breed got its latest win this year when five-year-old GCH Afterall Painting the Sky, aka Sky, took the Best in Show prize.
    Now that Sky has showed you that foxies are beautiful, loyal and full of personality, be warned that they aren’t the dog for the faint of heart. These usually bouncy and friendly terriers are too smart for lazy owners. Leave them alone for too long, they’ll empty your trash cans all over the floor. Yell at them, they’ll bark right back. Ignore them, and they’ll force your attention by leaping in your lap or snatching whatever you’re focused on. Mental stimulation and regular exercise are the barrier between you and a household of destroyed items.
    If, however, you can’t resist a dog that believes it’s intellectually superior to you, wire fox terriers are a great addition to your family. With a fox terrier in your house, you’ll have good bad dog stories enough for years.

Now’s the time to pack the things you’re sure to need

A number of tools can make an angler’s life easier. The most important of these are often needed multiple times a day. Many are the frustrated anglers who have overlooked them.
    I’m frequently surprised by the number of experienced fishermen and women who have to rummage around in their pockets or tackle bags to find a tool to cut their line when changing terminal tackle. If you’re using braided line, you’ve found that not every line clipper will manage its thin diameter and tough composition.
    Your line cutting device should be designed to include braid and should always be carried in an easily available location on your person. Keep in mind that an angler’s hands are often fouled by fish slime or bait offal (or both) at the precise moment the device is needed. Having to plunge one’s dirty mits into pockets looking for a line cutter is always unpleasant.
    A clipper or proper cutting pliers on a belt holster is handy. It will inevitably save any angler time and trouble. Plus, if I’m fishing with you, you won’t have to bother me by asking to use mine.
    The second necessary item is a small folding utility knife. I’ve carried a scout-type knife for years, and there’s hardly a day on the water I don’t use it. Searching through tackle boxes and bags for a screwdriver or a hole punch, can opener, bottle opener or cutting tool is unnecessary if you keep one of these in your pocket.
    The curved beak can opener, by the way, also excels at picking out particularly nasty backlashes and knot tangles. A Swiss Army knife with its combination of tools also works well, particularly the Tinker model.
    The next most important everyday item is a long needle-nose pliers suitable for extracting a hook from deep within a fish’s mouth or throat. Even when using circle hooks, a busy day of fishing will inevitably result in hooking a throw-back fish (in a difficult-to-reach location. The proper tool, close at hand, makes the hook’s removal much less traumatic for the fish and allows you to return it to the water promptly.
    A stout wire cutter is also essential. Sooner or later, the odds are that you or someone in your party will get a fishing hook imbedded somewhere on their person. Prepared anglers can retrieve their wire cutters, snip the hook off with just an accessible part of the shaft protruding, dose the area with a disinfectant and then tape the protruding shaft firmly down and out of the way.
    The unfortunate victim can continue fishing and afterwards visit a medical center to have the remains of the hook removed with the aid of a local anesthetic and get the necessary shots and antibiotics.
    If you don’t have a wire cutter on hand, your day on the water is suddenly over. Hook-removal techniques are endlessly touted by instruction books and videos, but, I have never seen the large rockfish hooks used on the Bay removed on-site without the accompaniment of pain and often some ugly tissue damage.
    A good-quality fillet or fish knife is also an item that should be included with your tackle. A sharp knife is absolutely necessary for the precise cutting and preparing of baits. At the end of the day, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to marina fish cleaning facilities, it will save you much fuss and bother by helping you reduce your catch to fillets before heading home. I use a freshly honed, five-inch, Russell, curved-blade, boning knife.
    A small but powerful flashlight with fresh batteries is another particularly useful item that is somehow often overlooked. Though most fishing trips are planned for daylight hours, the launch often occurs before dawn and the return sometimes happens after dark. Finding boat keys or anything dropped is much more problematic if you have to search by feel.
    The final must-have item in your gear bag is not really a tool, but it can be critical. Always store at least one small tube of high SPF sunscreen somewhere among your gear. Staying out on the water means a nasty burn unless you have some on hand.
    Fish fully prepared. You’ll never regret it.

Here’s what to sow when

It’s time to start on your garden.    
    Sow slow-germinating small seeds inside in late February through March. These include begonia, celery, impatient, petunia, snapdragon, etc. These small seed plants are not only slow to germinate but slow to grow.
    Wait until March to sow larger seeded plants. Broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and pac choi should be sown so that the plants will be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. The seeds of these plants also germinate and grow best in cooler temperatures. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.

What’s Next for Forced Bulbs?

Q  My forced bulbs, amaryllis and paperwhites, have finished flowering. What can I do to bring them back next year?
    –Sandra Olivetti Martin

A  Are the bulbs in gravel or in soil in pots? If they are in gravel, plant them in a mix of half potting soil-half compost, put them near a window facing south and keep them growing until you can plant them outdoors in full sun come spring. In soil, give them some liquid fertilizer. Next fall after the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs, plant them in pots, place them near the foundation of the house on the north side and mulch heavily with leaves held in place with chicken wire. Near early December, bring in a few pots of potted bulbs and start forcing them. Do not fertilize them again until they have flowered.

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

    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March, under 80-degree temperatures. Pepper seeds require two to three weeks to germinate and seedlings are slow to grow initially.
    Seeds of tomatoes, calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflower and zinnia germinate rapidly, and the seedlings also develop rapidly. Seeds of these species can be delayed five or six weeks before they are transplanted into the garden. This prevents the seedlings from becoming root bound, which will permanently stunt their growth. If you want to grow extra large plants, start them in five- and six-inch containers.
    Many seed catalogs publish seeding schedules, but you must know your climate zone and growing conditions, such as growing in a cool or heated greenhouse or on the window sill. The heated greenhouse in full sun provides the ideal growing condition, while the window sill is the least desirable situation for growing plants, especially those that require full sun.
    If you are growing plants on a window sill, rotate them daily (weekly if that’s the best you can do) to prevent them from leaning toward the light. Follow the same rule if you have a lean-to greenhouse that faces south.
 

That means you forgot to feed them

Are your azalea leaves yellowing and dropping? The loss is more than winter’s toll. You could have prevented it if you had mulched your azaleas with one or two inches of compost in early to mid-September or applied one-quarter cup of an ammonium-based fertilizer soon after the first frost.
    Lacking that help, nitrogen is now translocating from the older leaves to the flower and vegetative buds at the ends of the branches. During late fall and winter, buds are enlarging in preparation for spring when the flower buds open and vegetative buds produce new stems. If the roots of plants cannot provide sufficient nitrogen to the ends of the branches after the plants have stopped growing in the fall, nitrogen from the older leaves will migrate out of these leaves and move up the stem to where terminal flower and vegetative buds develop. Nitrogen is the only plant nutrient that can move about after its initial distribution when plants were in active growth. The translocation of nitrogen is most active in the fall when temperatures are above freezing.
    The leaves of white-flowered azaleas yellow before falling. The leaves of red- and pink-flowered azaleas generally turn red to purple-red just prior to leaf drop.
    This same problem occurs with American holly, especially female hollies that produce an abundance of berries. The production of holly berries requires an abundance of nitrogen. If the roots cannot supply the nitrogen needed, buds will rob the nutrient from the leaves. However, with hollies, the nitrogen is translocated rather uniformly from all of the existing leaves, which causes the uniform yellowing of the foliage. Under severe nitrogen-stress, hollies will drop leaves extensively.

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

Give plants the right lights, and they’ll grow in any season

Plants don’t like freezing temperatures any more than we do. But many will be perfectly happy to grow indoors, encouraged by fluorescent lights.
    Under lights, you can grow plants, including vegetables, up to 10 inches tall.
    Success depends on choosing the right setup. Many systems are on the market, but not all are of equal quality. Beware of those made entirely of chrome-plated steel. They are susceptible to rusting from the fertilizers used for growing. Chrome-plated shelves and trays are especially vulnerable. Stainless steel or plastic-coated shelves and trays will outlast all others.
    Nearly all the lighting fixtures are designed to hold Grow-lux fluorescent bulbs. Grow-lux lights emit both the blue and red rays of light, and both are necessary for photosynthesis and flower production. For maximum effectiveness, the uppermost foliage of the plants must be placed within inches of the light source. Grow-lux lights are recognized for their light quality and not for their light intensity.
    To improve the light intensity of your growing chamber, consider including a warm white fluorescent bulb for every two Grow-Lux lights in the light bank. Adding warm white bulbs is especially important when growing tall plants or plants with varying heights. Only warm white fluorescent bulbs emit the red light essential for photosynthesis with sufficient intensity to penetrate the foliage to a depth of eight to 10 inches. Cool white fluorescent bulbs emit only low levels of blue light, which is not as essential for photosynthesis as red light.
    High intensity lighting fixtures can be built using a combination of power-groove fluorescent tubes and 60-watt incandescent bulbs. This sort of setup is used to supply lighting in commercial growth chambers. However, these power-groove fluorescent tubes generate so much heat that fans must be used to circulate the air.
    Meeting the irrigation needs of plants growing under artificial lights can be challenging. Plants growing under Glor-lux lights require less water than plants growing under warm white fluorescent lights due to cooler rooting media temperatures. Because the red waves from warm white fluorescent bulbs penetrate deeper, rooting media are warmer and dry out faster.
    Avoid overcrowding plants under artificial lights. As the plants increase in size, provide additional space for them. A good rule of thumb is to never allow the foliage of one plant to touch that of an adjoining plant. Allowing the plants to grow under crowded conditions will give you tall spindly plants with weak stems and yellowing leaves at the bottom.

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

Get help, for free, from techies smarter than you

As soon as I purchased my new skiff some three years ago, I had to have the latest and greatest fish-finder/GPS machine. I got it installed, but once I turned it on, problems followed. The software on my machine had some initial problems that were later corrected. Still, I needed to load a new version of the operating software.
    That simple operation involved downloading the updated system from the manufacturer’s Internet site onto a computer, transfering it to a storage device and plugging that into my finder/GPS unit for automatic update. I somehow botched the operation and had to send the unit back. The manufacturer reloaded everything and promptly returned it.
    Doing some Internet research on my new unit, I quickly set a few basic parameters and barely touched the settings again. It worked well, much better than the 15-year-old unit I’d had before, but I couldn’t help thinking I wasn’t using the machine’s full potential. This winter I decided to fix that.

Beneath the Iceberg
    The electronic fish-finder is the most revolutionary tool available to anglers. It’s a tool with a story that dates back to the sinking of the Titanic.
    The part of the iceberg hit by the cruise ship was underwater and unobservable to the navigating crew. After that disaster, work immediately began on how to detect below-surface objects. First developed was an echo-ranging apparatus based on the navigational methods of dolphins.
    Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian working for a U.S. company in Boston, patented the first workable sonar —Sound Navigation and Ranging — device in 1912. Submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II greatly accelerated its development, first by Britain, then the U.S.
    The fish-finders we use today are spinoffs of that defense technology. Over the years, they have become so accurate and complex that they are prohibited from export by U.S. law. They’re so sophisticated that many anglers — I being a poster boy — fail to get the most from their units. There are just too many options for a simple fisherman like me to comprehend, let alone remember how they interact.

Learning the Machine
    There is, however, a solution for us technologically inept. Almost all retailers of such units have at least one employee expert in their setup and use. In talking to a number of them over the last week, I have found them all eager to help, especially during the slow times of winter. Just disconnect your unit from the boat and take it to the store.
    The expert there can hook it up in-house and go over the settings, explain the options and suggest changes for your type of fishing.
    There also may be software upgrades available from the manufacturer. These are generally free and can be downloaded pretty easily.
    It is wise to call ahead to make sure that the right technician will be on hand and that they service your brand.
    If you have a GPS (the satellite-based Global Positioning System) unit combined with your fish-finder, you can review it as well. You can also discuss aftermarket products, such as navigational map overlays.
    Wintertime is slow for both marine stores and anglers. Availing yourself now of the expertise that the stores offer will pay off in fish in the box and fun on the water in 2014.

That’s the closest you can get to fishing when winter howls

The 10-day weather forecast calls for wind and consistently low temperatures, occasionally a bit of rain and clouds. Not the kind of outlook that lifts your spirits, unless you’re a waterfowler. I hadn’t joined a hunt club this season, so that didn’t include me.
    Worse yet, I had chores on my conscience. I had cleaned most of my fishing tackle late in November — only to need it again for early December’s last-minute rockfish bite. So half of my tackle was fouled, awaiting another cleaning. I had also neglected to put on my reel covers for the winter, so my collection of rigs has been accumulating light dust flavored with errant dog and cat hair.
    Still, the next best thing to fishing is fooling with fishing tackle. So this week I took a deep breath and got to business. The dust and hair I conquered with a medium-width, soft-bristle nylon paintbrush that I keep handy for the PC keyboard.
    Next I clipped off leftover terminal rigs, cleaning the outfits over a large towel I could shake outside. The tackle with fish slime and salt residue took longer to rectify. Then I hit everything with a light coat of silicone, sat back and took stock of the situation.
    It had been a long time since I had done any internal maintenance: drag washer cleaning and regreasing; bearing lubrication; level wind and casting brake attention. All these ensure that the next season starts out trouble-free. Early fishing is no time for a long series of problem-solving interruptions.
    I had a bit of work ahead of me. That’s because of my fondness for multiple rigs: bait-casting setups for chumming; others, slightly different, for live-lining; yet others for light-plug casting; stiffer sticks for heavier plugs and jigging; and light spin outfits for perch.
    I had done little plug casting the past season, so I decided those outfits could wait. But all of the bait rigs and perch rods had seen extensive use.
    My preferred bait-casting reels, Abu Garcia Ambassaduer 5600s, have to be taken apart before anything can be done to them. My outfits are modified with Abu Soft Grip Power Handles and Carbontex drag washers. Everything else is stock. A YouTube video details disassembly and service: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=7k9Hb75gXJg.
    Another video that covers a Shimano spin reel is analogous to just about all fixed spool reels: www.youtube.com/
watch?v=kflr4kraG50.
    Shimano, Okuma, Penn and other manufacturers all have similar website support for specific reel models.
    It looks like classic winter is descending upon us. Don’t squander your cabin-bound hours with TV or video games. Maintain your tackle and dream of next season.

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.