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Make a bed or make way for stalks now pushing up

Time to turn your attention to asparagus. One of spring’s earliest crops, asparagus is typically ready for cutting in Maryland between April 25 and June 15.
    If your bed is already planted, it needs prepping. Winter weeds have most likely covered the beds, and the old asparagus stems are still sticking above ground. While the soil is still cool, asparagus roots are not yet energized. As soon as the soil dries sufficiently so it will not clump on the hoe or tiller, adjust the cultivator or tiller so that the blades will not penetrate the soil more that two inches. Cultivate or till weeds and those old asparagus stems into the soil. Allow the soil to dry for at least a week, then repeat. Cultivating the soil will hasten its warming, which will hasten the sprouting of asparagus stems.
    If you wish to delay the emergence of asparagus spears, cover the cultivated beds with four to six inches of straw. The straw mulch will shade the soil, retarding warming.
    Under normal conditions, asparagus beds should not be fertilized or mulched with compost until after harvesting. But they should be kept weed-free. Hand weed with a hoe immediately after making a harvest of spears.
    If you’re starting a new asparagus bed, now is the time. Choose a full-sun spot with well-drained soil. Dig a trench 10 to 12 inches wide and eight to 10 inches deep. Place one to two inches of compost in the bottom of the trench, and spade the compost into the soil to a depth of four inches.
    Place the asparagus crowns over the spaded soil at eight-inch intervals, spreading the roots uniformly flat. Cover with about two inches of soil amended 1-to-1 with compost. As the asparagus spears begin to grow, continue adding amended soil to the trench until it is full.
    Do not harvest any asparagus spears for at least two years. Allow the foliage to grow to its maximum height, cutting the stems to the ground in late fall when they have completely turned golden-brown. By delaying cutting, you allow residual nutrients in the stems and leaves to return to the roots.
    After you have cut the asparagus back to the ground in the fall, mulch the bed with a two-inch-thick layer of compost. This not only helps to insulate the bed, it also supplies all the nutrients for next year.
    In the third year, you may start harvesting asparagus spears in the spring. During the first year of harvesting, you should limit your harvests to two. For maximum recovery, cut the asparagus spears just below the surface of the soil using a sharp knife.
    If you prefer eating French-style asparagus, white spears, build a low frame, 10 inches to a foot high above a section of your asparagus bed and cover it with black plastic. The same wire hoops used for building small tunnels can be used to support the black plastic. To prevent heat build-up, leave both ends of the tunnel partially open. Asparagus that develops in total darkness will be white and tends to be tenderer than green asparagus.


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

Clip right to force branches of flowers

Now is the time to force forsythia, quince, magnolia, crabapple, lilac and weigela branches into flower. Select heavily budded branches from the center of the plants so as not to distract from the natural appearance of the plant when it flowers later in the spring. Flower buds are easily distinguished this time of year because they tend to be plump as compared to vegetative buds. In many species, the ends of the flowering buds are rounded.
    If the container for your arrangement is large like a crock, you will achieve a better effect if you first make a large loose ball with chicken wire. The holes in the chicken wire enable you to stand the branches upright or at any angle. Fill the container two-thirds full with 100-degree water.  
    Cut the branches longer than needed so that when you bring them indoors you can make a second cut just before arranging them in the container. Using sharp pruners, cut the stems at a slight angle and quickly immerse them in the warm water. Freshly cut woody stems will absorb more water when placed in warm water than if placed in cold. Cutting the stem at a slight angle also makes larger openings in the stem’s sieve cells, which absorb the water.
    Don’t bother misting the branches and buds. Misting actually delays flowering because as the water evaporates, it causes cooling.
    To maintain a succession of flowering branches, wait 10 to 12 days before harvesting more branches for forcing. Put them in warm water in an out-of-the-way place, adding these just-flowering branches to your arrangement when the first batch starts dropping petals. As outdoor temperatures become warmer, it will take less and less time to force branches into flower.
    Try mixing forsythia branches with saucer or star magnolia branches. The magnolia will be slower in forcing but will add additional color to your arrangement.


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

Dress warm to catch ’em by the shore

Rockfish season is still four weeks away, but already a small crowd of dedicated anglers is breaking out gear. Their tackle is rather odd for the coming trophy season. They don’t favor the short, stout-as-a-broomstick trolling outfits used by Bay skippers. These specialized anglers prefer equipment more common among coastal surf fishermen.
    Their rods are nine to 12 feet long with lengthy butts, and they are hung with big spinning or casting reels capable of 300 or more yards of 20- to 30-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid. Their terminal setups are 30- to 50-pound leaders and big circle hooks rigged with three- to six-ounce sinkers. Their bait of choice: bloodworms, as big as they can find.
    A hard winter has delayed these early birds, but now they are shore-bound. The first couple of weeks, fishing is catch and release only. But by the season opener, they will have sussed the tempo of the striper migration and will be ready to slide some rockfish giants into their big coolers.
    Sandy Point, Fort Smallwood and Matapeake State Parks as well as Anne Arundel County’s Thomas Point Park are frequented by the cognoscenti. Further south, Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac has been drawing larger and larger numbers of anglers willing to suffer the wind, chill and rain.
    This tactic, strangely enough, has developed in only the last half-dozen years or so. Big migratory fish surely have been cruising the shoreline looking for a snack as long as they’ve been returning from the ocean to spawn. Yet most anglers have traditionally pursued them by dragging big lures behind big boats.
    Perhaps it was the economic downturn that forced some to remain shore-bound. Perhaps the successes of a small number of dedicated fishers were finally noted. Whatever the reason, more and more anglers have been showing up in the spring to soak a big, whole bloodworm on the bottom and hope for a 40-plus-incher to discover it.
    When fresh menhaden become available, many anglers will switch to them. Some fanatics will even search out herring or shad that have been legally harvested elsewhere (it’s prohibited to take either in any part of the Chesapeake). But the bottom line is that these guys catch fish, and often regularly.
    Many anglers prefer night fishing, when the big rockfish are more apt to frequent the shallows. But I have also interviewed those who maintain banker’s hours and arrive about 9am and fish through to the afternoon. Their theory is that, as the majority of the fish are unpredictable, one might as well be as comfortable as possible when pursuing them. All of these guys catch fish, sometimes lots of them.
    Enduring the weather is a major part of the early spring fishing experience. Warm boots, woolen socks, windproof, insulated coats, snug hats with ear covering, thick gloves, handwarmers and a thermos full of a hot beverage are almost a necessity, especially at night.
    Many anglers fish multiple rigs. Two or more outfits increase the odds of hooking up and ensure that at least one line is available while changing baits or clearing a fouled line.
    When shoreline fishing, sand spikes firmly set into the ground are a necessity. Casually propping your rod against a cooler risks it being dragged into deep water when a strong fish takes the bait.
    A beach chair is another mark of an experienced angler. Shoreline fishing is characterized by long periods of inactivity interrupted by moments of adrenalin-soaked, fish-fighting panic. Being comfortable during the slower moments makes the wait much more tolerable.

Marvels lie under the sea

Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful things surround you

     –The Little Mermaid: Under the Sea

Thousands of photos and videos of the seafloor, its creatures and the coastline — most areas never seen before — are now just a mouse-click away, thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Geology Video and Photograph Portal.
    The Portal is a treat for you and me and a great help for coastal managers faced with decisions from protecting habitats to understanding hazards and managing land use.
    The largest database of its kind, it delivers detailed, fine-scale representations of the coast plus maps of the exact location of each recording.
    A work in progress, the Portal so far covers the seafloor off California and Massachusetts with aerial images of the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic coastlines.
    Some 100,000 photographs have been collected along with 1,000 hours of trackline video covering 2,000 miles of coastline.
    Upcoming are Washington State’s Puget Sound, Hawaii and the Arctic.
    Start with the tutorial: http://tinyurl.com/qbh5o4v.
    Then dive in: http://cmgvideo.usgsportals.net.
    Learn more about USGS science: http://marine.usgs.gov.

Hard-working pods make fat peas

March 17 is the day many gardeners plant peas. So it’s time to know a little about them.
    Did you know that the green pea pod generates most of the energy needed to swell the peas in the pod? It would seem that the leaves on the vine would be contributing. However, research shows that only the leaves immediately adjacent to the pod contribute to the formation of the flowers and the pod itself. Once the pea pod has formed, it generates the energy that causes the peas within to expand. 
    This discovery was made after a researcher wrapped up a newly formed pea pod. At that stage of growth, the pod was flat. Covered with opaque tape, the pods did not produce peas. Covering one-half of the pod produced small peas. Different colored opaque materials gave similar results.
    To study the energy source that produced the pod, he removed one, two or three leaves above and below the flower on the vine. Removing leaves adjacent to the flower reduced the size of the pod. Removing leaves from the vine above the flower had no effect. Removing two of the leaves below the flower had the greatest effect on reducing the size of the pod. Removing the third leaf below the flower had little effect. Thus, the leaves closest to and below the flower had the greatest effect on the growth of the pea pod.
    This is more than an idle-hands study. It proves the importance of proper spacing of seeds and of growing peas where they will receive maximum sunlight. If you use too many seeds, the plants will be crowded, causing more vine and fewer pods and peas because both the pods and the adjacent leaves will most likely be shaded.
    Peaches, plums and apples have similar leaf and fruit association. Only the leaves adjacent to the fruit generate the energy to cause the fruit to grow and sweeten. All of the other leaves on the tree provide energy for the tree to grow new leaves and branches. This is another good reason for pruning because pruning allows the sun to penetrate to the regions of the tree where fruit is growing.
    The knowledge gained from such studies has resulted in the development of new pruning and training practices. If you visit a newly planted orchard, you will see apple, plum and peach trees being trained on trellises to minimize the growth of the tree and to maximize fruit production. 
    This knowledge has helped us understand partitioning. Partitioning means that plants have evolved systems for diverting energy for specific purposes. Most of the leaves on pea vines and fruit trees are designated to grow the plant. Only those leaves nearest the flower and fruit produce the energy to grow the fruit. In the case of the pea, the photosynthesis of the pod produces the energy to grow the peas within.


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

Pickerel don’t mind the weather

The nasty weather variations have made angling difficult. A day of moderate temperature has usually been followed by extreme cold and sometimes even blizzard conditions, weather not conducive to any consistent bite.
    The chain pickerel, however, tolerates wild, frigid weather. When the majority of our Tidewater fish are hiding in deeper water waiting for snow to melt and conditions to warm up — or at least stabilize — the pickerel is still cruising the laydowns. Holding around any available structure, it waits for some lesser creature to make a mistake.
    With its large mouth, needle-sharp dentures and long, lean powerful body, the pickerel is the ideal predator, fast and deadly. It can tolerate brackish water to a high degree, so it thrives throughout the middle to upper reaches of most Bay tributaries and virtually all of our lakes and impoundments.
    The grinning devil feeds on minnows, grass shrimp, crabs, goslings, ducklings, snakes, frogs — any small bird or rodent that happens to fall in the water and just about any sized fish it can trap in its toothy grip. Right now, it is gathering in fresher water to ambush yellow and white perch that have begun venturing up toward the headwaters of our rivers and streams to spawn.
    While the larger, older pickerel (up to eight pounds) tend to be loners, the younger sizes will gather in small schools, the better to round up and feed on the eating-sized fish moving into their areas. Pickerel are also preparing to spawn later this month and early next.
    When temperatures plunge and make fishing for crappie, white perch or yellow perch a losing proposition this spring, you can always count on the pickerel to improve your day. No matter what the temperature, if you can get out on the water, there’s a good chance you can find the water wolf.
    Medium- to lightweight spin, casting or fly tackle are ideal for tangling with the chain pickerel. It got that moniker because of the iridescent-green, chain pattern that lights up its flanks. It is also called grass pike, green pike, federation pike, jackfish, and my favorite, water wolf.
    Since the pickerel’s teeth are grasping teeth (rounded shafts but sharply pointed), a steel leader is not necessary. Any line greater than eight-pound-test will generally get your fish to hand. If you’re lunker-hunting or want to be extra careful, a short section of 15-pound mono spliced onto your lighter test fishing line will ensure against cut-offs.
    A net or fish glove is advisable when landing them, as they have a very slippery coating on their body. Use long-nosed pliers for unhooking. That mouthful of teeth can cause some damage if you’re careless.
    Grass pike like to attack small to medium flashing lures like spinner baits, spoons, brightly colored jigs and silver or gold crank baits. Tony Accetta spoons in sizes 12 and 13, squirrel tail-dressed Mepps spinners in sizes 3 and 4 and Super Rooster Tails in quarter-ounce sizes are my favorites during the colder months. Adding a lip-hooked minnow onto the spoons are especially effective.
    The best crank baits are smaller sized Rat-L-Traps, Rapalas and Zara Spooks. The best flies are sizes 2 to 2/0 Lefty Deceivers in bright colors and Clousers in chartreuse and white or all black. Small and medium poppers will get their attention some days and add some surface violence to the mix.
    As the weather gets warmer, pickerel will move into thicker and thicker cover. During hotter months, try throwing a floating or swimming weedless rigged frog onto lily pads, weed beds, sunken brush and laydowns. There will likely be a water wolf lurking there.

Vote bracket by bracket for the Live ­Science champion

Which scares you more? A scorpion crawling up your leg? Being devoured by the King of the Jungle? Swimming with a killer whale?
    As March Madness brings the nation’s top college basketball teams into quick-death competition, the website Live Science jumps in with a parallel competition in the Animal Kingdom. Bracket by bracket, you’re invited to advance your worst fears in its no-holds-barred Killer Animal Tournament.
    Starting March 16 and for the next three weeks, vote for the animal you believe should win in four divisions: Land, Air, Sea and Creepy-Crawly. As eliminations progress, you’ll vote in new pairings until, from 16, only eight, four, two and one are left standing.
    Competing are:
    Land Lubbers: African lion versus white rhino; and polar bear versus African elephant.
    Creepy Crawlers: king cobra versus Brazilian wandering spider; and poison dart frog versus deathstalker scorpion.
    Sea Dwellers: killer whale versus saltwater crocodile; and great white shark versus hippo.
    Airborne: African-crowned eagle versus mosquito; and lappet-faced vulture versus peregrine falcon.
    Cast your votes at www.livescience.com/49887-deadliest-animal-tournament.html.
    Share your votes on social media using the hashtag #LSAnimalMadness.
    Watch for the announcement of the Killer champion on April 6 at 3pm.
    Local shout out: Two of the contenders earn a local shout out. Peregrine falcons in residence on the 33rd floor ledge of the Transamerica skyscraper in downtown Baltimore are now Reality Television stars. See them live 24/7 at the Chesapeake Conservancy’s new webcam: www.chesapeakeconservancy.org/peregrine-falcon-webcam.
    In a science first, an Andinobates geminisae froglet has hatched in captivity, Smithsonian Institution researchers report. This tiny poison dart frog, the size of a dime, is a conservation-priority species in its native Panama because of an amphibian-killing chytrid fungus.

What you don’t know can kill a tree

Did you know that only roots less than one inch around are capable of generating new roots from the cut end? Did you know that the cut end of a small root can only grow three new roots at the most?
    Roots are not like branches. When you prune away the end of a branch, you stimulate the development of side branches. Root regeneration only occurs at the ends of the cut root.
    Root pruning is common in commercial nurseries where large trees are grown in the ground. Root pruning starts when the seedlings or rooted cuttings are first planted in the field, always after woody plants have stopped producing new leaves in the first flush of growth. It works to stimulate multiple branching of roots as close to the stem as possible so when the plant is dug and transplanted into your landscape, it will have a better chance of survival. Roots are typically pruned every two years with greater distance from the trunk each time.
    It’s done by making a circle of deep cuts at the plant’s drip line, severing the roots with a sharp spade.
    Root pruning during shoot elongation and leaf growth often results in severe wilting and loss of foliage, thus weakening the plant.
    However, there comes a time when the plants become too tall or wide and root pruning is no longer feasible. If root pruning were delayed until pruned roots are larger than one inch in diameter, many trees would die because large diameter roots are unable to generate new roots.
    So you take a risk when you decide to dig up a well-established plant to move it or cultivate a plant from a wooded area for transplanting into your landscape. Pruning away branches to achieve a balance between the top and the loss of roots only makes matters worse.
    Large roots can be stimulated to generate new roots by inserting toothpicks into the sides of larger cut roots. Soak wooden toothpicks in a concentrated solution of rooting hormone. Wearing latex gloves, use an icepick to pierce a hole in the side of the root and insert a treated toothpick into the hole. The rooting hormone in the treated toothpick will stimulate new roots to grow from the side of the large roots.

Watermen sentenced to year-plus

Four commercial fishermen from Maryland’s Eastern Shore have been sentenced in federal court for illegally netting and selling more than 90 tons of rockfish and pocketing almost a half-million dollars in profits over four years.
    The watermen used gill nets, particularly effective gear used in the Chesapeake since 1873. Gill nets snare fish by the gills in a mesh that allows the fish’s head to enter while preventing its body from following. Some 300 commercial gill-netters operate on the Chesapeake.
    Almost impossible to detect once anchored in place, three technological developments have made these nets so deadly that they may be a threat to our rockfish population.
    First was the development of translucent, nylon monofilament. Gill nets constructed of this material are virtually invisible to the fish and much more effective in catching them.
    The second development was the electronic fish finder. With fish finders, watermen can easily locate populations of rockfish, especially in winter when schools tend to linger in an area.
    The final development was the GPS. While greatly assisting commercial watermen in navigation, GPS also enabled poachers to set anchored nets with geographic precision and to return under cover of darkness or bad weather and quickly locate them for retrieval.
    Because of proven by-catch mortality, anchored gill nets have been outlawed in Maryland waters since 1992. Only legal are attended, free-floating drift nets with a five- to seven-inch mesh size that limits most rockfish catches to legal-sized fish. Gill nets can legally be up to 3,500 yards long, though in practice most are less.

Crime and Punishment
    The watermen in question broke the law in several ways: by using unattended, anchored gill nets; by fishing outside of the commercial season; and by falsifying catch records and evading Maryland regulations. The fish were sold to wholesale markets in surrounding states.
    Federal law under the Lacey Act prohibits crossing state lines to sell fish caught illegally. Thus the sentences came in U.S. District Court.
    “The scale of this conspiracy was massive,” said federal prosecutor Todd Gleason. “It coincides with a steady decline of striped bass. We are heading back to the levels near the moratorium.”
    The two Tilghman Island watermen running the operation were each sentenced to more than a year. Michael Hayden Jr., who also was found guilty of witness intimidation, will serve 18 months plus three years home detention. William Lednum, who expressed remorse, was sentenced to a year and a day. One helper was sentenced to 30 days to be served on weekends; another escaped with probation and a fine.
    Three of the four were each fined $40,000. The two main operators were also made liable for restitution of rockfish valued at nearly $500,000. The penalties are among the most severe ever handed down for Natural Resource violations.
    These are also the first major instances of illegal netters brought to justice in Maryland despite years of rumors about illegal wintertime netting. According to one of the principle defendants, William Lednum, these illicit activities have been a common practice among many watermen, but he was the only one caught. The witness operating the station where the fish were checked in, and who testified to falsifying documents with the watermen to cover the illegal catches, also explained that his actions were merely a routine industry practice.
    Understaffing at Natural Resources Police is one key reason for these problems. The number of water-patrolling officers has been reduced by half over the last decade, while Department of Natural Resources personnel dedicated to verifying and double-checking reported catch data and seafood wholesaler records continue to be low. Cheating and under-reporting commercial catch information thus remain unchecked.
    No further discoveries of illegal gill netting of this scope have been made since these arrests. However, considering the extreme difficulty of detecting the activity, the vastness of the Chesapeake and the significant financial rewards to be gained it would be foolish to assume that it is not still occurring.

Look and listen before they leave

Trumpeter swans returned to Chesapeake Country after many years.
    “I have lived at this location on the Chesapeake Bay for 19 years and have never observed trumpeter swans before,” said life-long bird watcher Randy Kiser of Shady Side. “Their sound was unmistakable, so different from the tundras.
    “They stayed for about an hour and then moved on,” Kiser said.
    He wasn’t alone in his trumpeter sighting.
    A D.C. Ornithological Society birdwatcher confirmed that Kiser’s five “was the largest group identified in a long time.”
    Five were also reported in St. Michaels that same February afternoon.
    How to tell them apart from the more common migratory tundra or invasive mute swan?
    Trumpeters have all-black bills, while tundra swans have black bills with a tear­drop of yellow near their eyes and mute swans have bright orange bills with a black knob on top.
    Trumpeters have their necks kinked back at the bottom in a hard C-shape.
    The biggest difference is sound.
    Trumpeters have a very loud, trumpet-like call; hence their name. It’s mainly a gentle honk, like a single short toot on a horn, repeated, often in series of two to three notes, do-do-doo.
    Hurry to catch a glimpse of these Chesapeake visitors. The spring thaw in mid-March to early-April signals their departure. So Chesapeake County is vacated by swans just about the time osprey return.