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It all goes back to Hansel and Gretel

In one form or another, gingerbread has been popular since at least mediaeval times.
    “Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe — often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Several cities in France and England hosted regular gingerbread fairs for centuries.”
    Gingerbread became especially popular in Germany, where monks baked the confection starting around the 14th century. Lay bakers then started making the treat and took their recipes extremely seriously, guarding them as family secrets.
    Building gingerbread houses likely started in Germany. Records of gingerbread houses start in the 1600s but became really popular after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812, according to The History Kitchen.
    In the tale, a witch lives in a house made of delicious candy and cookies. The house is a trap she uses to lure children into her home and, eventually, her oven. Somehow the story inspired bakers to create their own baked houses, and people liked them, despite their terrifying associations. Gingerbread houses now range from the simple to the extreme.
    This year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust commissioned a gingerbread house that is astounding. Built by an English cookie making company, the mansion took 15 months and 500 hours to create. It was inspired by Waddesdon Manor and is made up of 66 pounds of butter, 240 eggs and 480 pounds of icing. It is six feet tall and has details that many of us would never imagine going into a gingerbread house, like paintings, beds, chairs and elaborate carpets, all made of confection. See the creation at https://waddesdon.org.uk/whats-on/biscuiteers-manor-in-gingerbread/
    Closer to home, a gingerbread White House is always part of the holiday decorations at The White House. This year’s house is constructed of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
    Fifty-six more pseudo gingerbread houses, each actually made of Lego bricks, represent each state and territory
    If you have $78,000 to splurge, you can order an organic gingerbread house custom made to look like your own home, adorned with pearls and a five-carat ruby from veryfirstto.com.

From boxwood to white pine, you’ve many evergreen choices

Here in Chesapeake Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

A Bonus from Boxwood
    Back in colonial days, gardeners pruned their boxwoods by breaking branches just prior to the holidays for use in making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    To punch holes through the boxwood canopy thus allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant, break branches 12 to 14 inches long. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring. Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods with shears during the summer increases the chance of spreading canker-causing diseases from plant to plant.


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

Adjust your dress and technique, and you might still catch one

This is the end my friend, the end.
It hurts to set you free.

Rock legend Jim Morrison’s words echo my thoughts as our rockfish season heads to a close on Dec­ember 20. It has been a fine year chasing my favorite Bay species, and I still hope for a few more encounters.
    I’ve gotten in some good December licks in the past. Jigging around the Eastern Shore rock pile at the Bay Bridge has been memorably productive during this last month. Though I’ve been out of action recently with unexpected boat motor repairs and foul weather, I am itching for another chance or two.
    Just a couple of years ago, a friend and I couldn’t get a jig with a small dropper to the bottom for all the big white perch that were schooled there. The reason? Four- and five-pound rockfish would pounce on the rig before it was halfway down. The year before that, a simple two-ounce jig with a lip-hooked minnow slow bumped along deep shell was the key to lots of striped winter action. I’m planning over the next few days to be trying them all, especially a chartreuse Bernie’s Bomber rig, a two-ounce feather-dressed jig followed with a fluorescent yellow Meushaw jig dropper. Stripers will be my target, but I won’t discard any chunky white perch that decide to jump the rig.
    Both rockfish and white perch are at their dinner-table best this time of year, fat as pigs from fall feeding and as firm as tuna from the deep cold water both species prefer this time of year.
    Of course Maryland’s winter weather will always play a role in deciding when to go.
    Since I’m fishing from a light 17-foot skiff, I’ll stick to windless days with temperatures in the mid-50s and won’t stray too far from the boat ramp. Though in my youth, nothing discouraged me until my rod guides started freezing up, the last few years I’ve discovered the December conditions much more uncomfortable than I remembered them.
    Waterproof (not water-resistant) foul weather coat and pants are a must, even on calm sunny days. It doesn’t take much for an errant bow wave to splash onto the boat and soak your clothes. I don’t care what the advertisements say: No matter what you’re wearing, it won’t keep you warm if it’s wet.
    A good hat is a must. Bring an extra along in case the first blows off while you’re at speed. Gloves are handy but don’t expect to keep them dry, so stay away from fleece. Wool is best. It’s also a good idea to bring a hot beverage in a good-quality thermos, as it will keep your core warm and make everything more comfortable. Limit your alcohol intake. In quantity, alcohol gives the illusion of warming you up while actually dropping your body temp.
    Keep in mind that as the water temperatures fall, especially below 50 degrees, fish will search for their prey more and more by smell and less by vision. Adding a strip of fresh bait to your lures or going strictly to live bait will generally improve your results. Using synthesized potions to make your baits more scent attractive can also be helpful. Slowing your retrieves and lure action to match the lower metabolisms of the cold-blooded quarry is wise.
    Expect extreme patience to pay off more than constant relocation and experimentation.

Why are pelicans still hanging around the Bay so late in the year?

Brown pelicans have become summer residents hereabouts, nesting on Smith and Holland islands in the southern Bay when the water is warm and fish are plentiful. This late fall, however, the big-billed birds have been sighted as far north as Ft. Smallwood Park and Ft. Armistead Park near Baltimore.
    “Seeing them that far north in the Bay in November is notable,” says David Brinker of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t remember observations like this in years past.”
    As for explanation, Brinker explains that last month was warm “so the waters of the Bay don’t seem to be cooling as fast as they generally do. This means that fish are more active than usual, so the pelicans can still find food easily. So they’re sticking around longer than normal.”
    In a typical year, pelicans start migrating south in late October or early November. Leaving Maryland, most pelicans end up in Florida or the Caribbean islands for the winter. Some go as far south as the northern part of South America.
    In the Chesapeake, pelicans nearly disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s because the pesticide DDT weakened their eggs. They didn’t return until 1987.
    Now, Brinker says, “We have somewhere between one to two thousand breeding pairs of pelicans every summer. I think part of the reason we’ve had this great expansion of birds is that they’ve discovered the great resource of the Bay ecosystem, especially the menhaden.”
    Odder still, a small flock of white pelicans winters at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.
    “Thirty to 50 birds have been spending their winters there for the past five or so years,” Brinker said.
    White pelicans spend their summers in the Midwest and west, nesting in freshwater wetlands, then typically wintering along the southern coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.

Once upon a time …

Step into the ancient Chesapeake, and you could have become a crocodile’s dinner. So it’s a good thing all those crocodiles were creature of the Miocene epoch (23 to five million years ago), gone long before Homo sapiens discovered the modern Chesapeake.
    Their remains, however, are still here, along the Calvert Cliffs, as well as in coastal states down to Florida.
    There avid fossil collector George Klein, of Chapel Hill, NC, got to know these ancient crocodiles, called ­Thecachampsa, whose length may have approached 30 feet. He’s gotten to know them in such detail — down to each of the 19 bones that compose their skulls, excluding the lower jaw — that he’s published a book on the beasts and their comparison to living American alligators.
    His book, published in digital and hard copies by Calvert Marine Museum, is of necessity skeletal, as bony fossils are all our two species of large crocodiles — Thecachampsa sericodon and Thecachampsa antiquus — left behind. Skeletal Anatomy of Alligator and Comparison with Thecachampsa is the kind of book you’d read as a fossil collector seeking to identify your finds.
    “I expect that this work will inspire on several fronts and further our understanding of extinct alligators and crocodiles by bringing new finds to light,” says Dr. Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the museum — and sponsor of its Fossil Club.
    That’s where you’d go to get to know crocodiles, great white sharks and many other ancient denizens of the oceanic pre-Chesapeake. You’d also meet human enthusiasts near and far as the club works with fossil collectors all over the world to advance the field of paleontology and grow the museum’s collection.
    Or you could wait a while and maybe see the real thing.
    “Although crocodilians have not inhabited northeastern North America in several million years, as global climates warm,” writes Godfrey, “perhaps they will someday re-inhabit coastal Maryland.”
    Take a look at all that remains of Thecachampsa at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/276/CMM-Publications.

Not all Christmas trees are equal

Not all evergreen trees are equally fire-resistant. The Douglas fir is the most fire-resistant tree, while the popular Fraser fir is the most combustible. Freshness has nothing to do with this comparison. Douglas fir is a low-resin tree, while Fraser fir is a high-resin tree. As the tree dries, the resin becomes highly combustible.
    Assuring that your Christmas tree is a fire-safe tree begins with selecting the right tree. The State of Maryland fire marshal has declared that the most fire-resistant species are Douglas fir, Colorado spruce and Scots pine. This conclusion is based on studies conducted in 1995 and 1996, using fresh-cut trees stored in water prior to igniting.
    Your next consideration after species should be freshness. The sooner after cutting you purchase that tree — if you care for it properly — the more fire-resistant it will be. For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot. Or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in November or even late October.
    As soon as you purchase the tree, cut at least one inch from the base of the trunk and dunk the stem immediately into a pail of 100-degree water. Store the tree in a shaded area.
    When you bring the tree indoors, cut off another inch of from the base, and place the stem into a clean tree stand that will hold at least one gallon of water. Adding floral preservative to the water assures a longer shelf-life, which makes the tree more fire-resistant — providing you always maintain a constant water level.
    Avoid placing the tree near a heat register or radiator, and use only UL-approved lights in good condition. Never leave a lighted tree without supervision. Finally, don’t extend your holiday too long. If you wait for the tree to start dropping needles before removing it from your home, you’re housing a fire hazard.


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

December 5 ended the Volstead Act

Prohibition Repeal Day, December 5, is the anniversary of the repeal of the 18th amendment, which ended prohibition. Prohibition began in 1920 and ended in 1933 after it was concluded that the law had not ended drinking in America. Worse, Prohibition was costing billions in lost tax revenue for local and federal agencies.
    To celebrate, I’ve found some lesser known facts about the era.
    Prohibition didn’t actually outlaw drinking. Surprisingly, the Volstead Act, as it was called, only outlawed the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. Doctors could prescribe alcohol for various ailments, and you could pick it up at the pharmacy.
    Maryland refused to enforce the law. “Although Maryland became the sixth state to ratify the amendment, the state, led by outspoken anti-prohibition Governor Albert C. Ritchie, refused to pass a state enforcement law abridging its citizens’ right to imbibe,” the Maryland State Historical Society reports. “In his second inaugural address delivered on January 9, 1921, Ritchie laid out his opposition to national prohibition as an infringement on Marylander’s liberties.”
    Thus “Maryland was one of the ‘wettest’ states, and Baltimore one of the ‘wettest’ cities.”
    “The Chesapeake Bay became the prime port of call for the nation’s bootleggers,” according to the Brewers Association of Maryland. “Because of its refusal to enforce prohibition, Maryland was also important in becoming a strong advocate for repealing the law.
    Elsewhere, booze cruises became popular. These “cruises to nowhere” set sail into international waters so passengers could legally drink, went in a circle and came back.
    Some states remained dry even after Prohibition was repealed by the federal government. Mississippi didn’t end Prohibition until 1966.
    This December 5, consider raising a glass to Utah, the last state to ratify the 21st amendment that repealed prohibiton.

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

Give a little, get a lot

The vegetable gardening season does not end with the first killing frost. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, snap beans and lettuce may have been killed by the first frost. But if you are an avid gardener, kale, collards, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts should still be growing.
    If you planted Brussels sprouts in late July or early August, you should be cutting off the tops of the plants now to force the sprouts along the stems to increase in size. Cutting off the tops stops the plant from growing taller, thus forcing them to direct their energy into growing larger sprouts.
    Follow this practice and your plants will produce nice large sprouts from bottom to top. If the tops are not cut off, you will have small sprouts at the top of the stem and large sprouts at the bottom. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts will be ready to start harvesting just before Thanksgiving.
    Peas will continue producing flowers and pods until the plants are killed by temperatures below 28 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower will only exhibit minimum frost damage at those temperatures. Collards, kale and spinach can tolerate even colder temperatures.
    If you sowed carrots back in July, your harvest will be sweet and tasty. There is nothing like eating freshly harvested carrots during late fall and winter months. Parsnips sowed in the spring will not be ready to harvest until mid-winter, if the ground has not frozen, or early next spring, when they will be at their best. Steamed, stir-fried or ground and blended with egg and flour, there is nothing tastier than spring-dug parsnips.
    The asparagus ferns should by now have all turned brown and be ready to cut, chopped and added to the compost bin. However, avoid composting asparagus plants with red berries clinging to the stems. Those red berries contain seeds that will germinate and quickly become a weed when you spread the compost in your garden.
    If you have not already sowed a cover crop of winter rye where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, snap beans grew during the summer, do it now. Winter rye is the most effective plant to absorb available nutrients in the soil, stop the soil from eroding by wind or water, prevent winter weeds from growing and help in keeping your garden soil fertile. Not all of the nutrients you applied as fertilizer or compost have been utilized by the crop you just finished growing. A cover crop will absorb those nutrients, storing them in the roots and leaves.
    Next spring when you spade or rototill the rye under, the nutrients will be released back into the soil and used by next season’s crops. The incorporation of the cover crop back into the soil helps maintain the organic matter content of your garden soil. A good garden soil should have an excess of three percent organic matter.
    Never allow your soil to remain fallow. Soils that remain fallow contribute to water pollution problems.


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

Four faults that lead to lost fish — and how to correct them

That moment is clearly etched in my memory. It was early evening as my skiff softly coasted into a deserted shoreline. I was a long cast off a small tidal pond outlet at the first stages of a falling flood. Firing a top-water plug to just a foot or two off the sand, I gave the lure the slightest pop. A mighty swirl engulfed the bait, and my pulse went sky-high.
    Feeling immediate pressure on my line, I set the hook, and a large, powerful fish took off, sending its wake cascading along the shoreline like breaking surf. The reel drag started its song, and my rod bowed deeply.
    Then, inexplicably, the fish was gone. My heart plummeted. Reeling in the line, dejected, I had a strong suspicion of what had just happened. As I lifted the plug to my hand, my fears were confirmed. My line had fouled the front hook during the cast.
    Sometimes there is little you can do to prevent entangling the lure. But, minimally, keeping the lure steady and not tumbling during its flight can be critical, and not just for optimum distance. Avoiding excess wrist snap at the end of the casting stroke tends to produce a smoother, more controlled throw.
    If a multi-hooked plug tumbles in the air, there is a good chance the loose trailing line will foul, particularly on that front treble hook. An angler might not notice the problem during the retrieve, but it will most definitely impact the outcome of any rockfish battle.
    Since the line has become wrapped around the bend in the front hook and the front of the lure is, inevitably, the end a striper will attack, the pressure from the angler in fighting the fish will eventually pull that fouled hook backwards, out of the fish’s mouth.
    The next most frequent cause of losing a good fish just after the strike is slack line. This is particularly true of spin-casting tackle. If the arc of the line trailing the lure is excessive — either because of a high overhand cast or from the effect of a brisk wind — a large amount of loose line will be pulled off of the spool.
    Before the angler can again come tight to the lure and regain control of that slack, a fish may have struck and spit the bait. Even if the force of the fish’s strike sinks a hook without much angler pressure, that slack may have allowed only light hook penetration.
    The fight from a lightly hooked fish is usually short and not in favor of the angler. Keeping the casting arc low to the water during windy conditions and avoiding high-arching overhead casts minimizes this problem.
    Another cause of many lost game fish is the quality and condition of the hooks. Saltwater is relentless for encouraging rust. There are no remedies for hooks that become oxidized except replacement.
    Under magnification, a rusted hook will show a very rough surface requiring a much greater force than an unaffected hook to penetrate a fish’s jaws, particularly larger fish that tend to have age-hardened mouth structures. A rusty hook will still get bites and strikes, but a fresh, sharp hook will always get the fish: So goes the angling dictum.
    The last significant cause of losing a good game fish at any stage of the fight is rod-handling technique. Close syncopation with the rod and reel is necessary to bring a fish to hand. The key is gaining line by stroking the rod smoothly and forcefully back (preferably to the side), then reeling in the gained line while continuing to maintain pressure on the fish, especially while lowering the rod in preparation for another retrieval stroke.