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Due date gets earlier year by year

On the first day, he soars through the air in a rollercoaster dance, weaving the sky with his fish flight: the dance of courtship. On the second day, she is with him, perched comfortably in their solitary tower. The osprey have returned to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. This year’s return date was February 22.
    Isn’t that early? Don’t osprey usually arrive after St. Patrick’s Day?
    Not so, explains Greg Kearns, veteran naturalist at Patuxent River Park, across the river from Jug Bay. This year’s date is a reinforcing statistic in the steady, downward trend of the last 30 years. Just about every year, osprey have arrived earlier than the year before.
    Kearns may have the perfect explanation for this trend.
    “Birds are an ecological litmus paper,” said famous naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. Like those little color-changing strips for testing pH, bird behavior is a prime indicator of our changing environment.
    Osprey, in particular, are key adaptors. “They’ve been here for the last two to five million years, and they’ll likely still be here after we’re gone,” Kearns says. They know when it is the right time to soar on back to their summer stays. As our winters become warmer, the birds arrive earlier.
    And you don’t need to be concerned if winter weather returns for a few days. Osprey can withstand the cold, and their key food source, fish, have already begun spawning over this year’s warm winter months.
    To spot your first osprey of the year, head to the water. About 85 percent of the birds, recognizable by their brown and white plumage, nest in constructed towers close to docks and beaches.
    You’ll see them until late September, when they head back south.

White perch make good sport and better eating

March brings a springtime treasure that almost makes up for its treacherous weather: white perch. These tasty fish have just begun to show up in the creeks, though the winter storm that tormented the Northeast coast might delay the bulk of their numbers.
    A close cousin of the striped bass, white perch (Marone americana) are the most numerous fish in the Tidewater as well as the species most often caught by recreational anglers. They can reach 18 inches in length, but due to Maryland’s largely unregulated commercial netting in the Chesapeake, not many taken by hook and line are over 10 inches.
    The largest white perch on record anywhere was caught in 2012 in a Virginia private pond by Beau McLaughlin of Virginia Beach. It weighed three pounds two ounces and measured 17 ¾ inches. The previous record of three pounds one ounce was taken in 1995. The current record for the Chesapeake is two pounds 10 ounces.
    Living 15 or more years, white perch is a particularly prolific species. The male fish move upstream toward fresh water and await the arrival of females. The females arrive next, usually on an incoming tide, and move into the warmer shallows when they feel the urge to spawn. Each gravid female produces 150,000 or more eggs as she releases her roe in stages in tributary headwaters over one to three weeks from mid-March through May. The males follow, broadcasting their milt over the roe. The eggs will hatch out in one to six days. Fingerlings remain in the shelter of the headwaters for a year or two before descending to bigger Bay waters.
    Finally spent of eggs, the females return downstream to Bay waters while the males stay on station until the females stop arriving. After the spawn has been completed. The fish then regroup and move out to their preferred haunts. Some gather near the Bay shorelines or over shell bottom flats in about 10 to 15 feet of water, others prefer moving back into the estuaries in two- to five-foot depths.
    Fishing for white perch in the springtime is generally a shallow-water experience. A light-action spin rod with six-pound test mono is the optimum tackle. Tipped with a small, weighted casting bobber and a shad dart, a grass shrimp, a minnow or a piece of worm as enticement, the rig is cast out from the shoreline and worked back in a slow, twitching motion.
    When fishing from a boat, target shallow shorelines during the flood tide, particularly areas near submerged brush, fallen trees, rocky edges and around docks or bulkheads. As low tide approaches, the fish tend to retreat to the deeper water. Then a top-and-bottom rig with a one-ounce sinker is a better producer for both shore and boat anglers.
    There is no minimum size nor possession limit for white perch, but a fish much under nine inches lacks enough meat to warrant harvesting.
    Their table quality is unequaled, whether baked, broiled, fried whole or filleted, rolled in panko and crisped in hot peanut oil. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out on a Bay treasure.

Hoe them out and bury them — or eat them

Winter weeds have loved mild winter we’ve been having. Annual bluegrass, cardamine, chickweed, henbit and mares-tale, to name a few, are twice the size they were this time last year. Unless you eradicate them now, they are likely to cover the ground by the time you’re ready for planting. They may already be flowering and producing an abundance of seeds.
    Attack them without chemicals with a hoe or pull them out of the ground. Then collect them and bury them deep in your compost bin. If you leave them lying, they will most likely take root and resume growth. These cold-tolerant weeds can remain alive and capable of rooting even if they are all turned upside down. Their fibrous roots will retain sufficient soil to keep them moist and growing and the stems that will come in contact with the ground can form roots.
    Weeds are survivors, determined to thrive and reproduce.
    You can also eat them. Add some snap to your salad with cadamine. Common chickweed has a very mild lettuce flavor. Dandelions are quite mild providing there are no flower buds forming on the plants. Wild mustard should now be ready to be harvest, adding zest to any salad. If you like a vinegar taste, add a little oxalis to the salad blend.


No Sun, No Fruit

Q    We are hoping you can help us with a problem in a fruit orchard. The trees in question are Malus Spartan, Prunus armenica Harlayne, Prunus persica Red Haven
    They were planted about five years ago. They initially produce fruit early in the season, but the fruit ­doesn’t mature. At first the problem was assumed to be birds or other pests, but we’ve tried various bird barriers and still no luck. No amendments have been made to the soil recently. I know we don’t have a lot of information to offer, but perhaps you could provide some initial thoughts about what we should explore?
     Does it look to you like the trees are too crowded with underplanting? Or perhaps the surrounding trees are shading them out? Would it be recommended to move the trees to a different location?

A    You are trying to grow fruit trees under crowded conditions and in partial shade. Also the trees do not appear to have been properly pruned to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which is necessary for fruit to ripen. Fruit trees must be grow only in full sun, and they must be pruned properly for the fruit to be exposed to a certain amount of direct sunlight for ripening.


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

If an extraordinary day comes your way, grab your gear and get fishing

Friend and neighbor Frank Tuma and I were enjoying a combination shakedown cruise and yellow perch outing on the Magothy River. At Beachwood Park, we noted a number of anglers milling about with about as much success as we were enjoying, which was none. No one seemed to care. It was enough to get out on the water.
    Tossing minnows, spinner baits and small spoons separately and in combination, then just about everything else in the tackle box, we worked over shoreline spots thoroughly. Targeting fallen trees, derelict docks, jetties, groins and anywhere either of us had ever caught a fish, we exchanged stories of successes and disasters.
    I worked my two favorite outfits. One is a five-foot-four-inch, extra-fast-action Loomis GL2 spin rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 reel spooled with six-pound P Line. The other is a six-foot St Croix medium-power casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta 1000 DC-level wind reel, spooled with 10-pound Power Pro.
    My buddy, ever the more practical and pragmatic of the two of us, used his trusty six-foot-six-inch, ultra-light spin rod of unknown provenance and a mystery spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Spider Line. Frank caught all the fish.
    After working the Upper Magothy to little effect, we explored the nearby creeks lower down the river, trying to rescue the day with a pickerel or two. At about noon, Frank hooked up with a real scrapper on an orange-and-yellow spinner bait with a lip-hooked minnow. I assisted by netting the flashing pickerel for a quick picture.
    Quite near the same spot, Frank then had another smashing strike. His rod bent over, and I could hear his reel grudgingly giving up line in fits and starts as the fish refused to come closer. The battle went on for long minutes, and the water boiled as the fish came near the surface again and again — Never close enough, however, to identify except as a big one.
    Guessing a really big pickerel, then perhaps an early-spawning rockfish, Frank worked the fish gradually closer while I threatened him with disgrace if he lost it. As it finally neared the boat and I leaned over with the net, we caught a flash of a brown and orange flank. Then it was gone. The hook had pulled.
    After a moment of anguish we laughed. This was what fishing was like — and we would have let the rascal go anyway. Now we were free to interpret the brute anyway we felt. It could have been a big channel cat, or perhaps a thick and powerful carp heading to spawn. I suggested a wayward cobia. That was preposterous, but it had been a long day and we were both getting a bit addled after such a successful late-winter’s day on the water.

High in calcium and potassium, it keeps lawn and garden soil balanced

Wood ash belongs in the garden or on the lawn, not in the trash can or in the compost bin. Wood ash is basic in nature and an excellent source of calcium, potassium and trace elements. This means ash can be used as a substitute for limestone. A five-gallon pail of wood ash will treat approximately 100 square feet of a garden or lawn with a pH of around 6.0.
    I have divided the vegetable garden into three zones and treat each zone with wood ash once every three years. The wood ash has done such a great job of maintaining the pH of the soil that I have not had to apply lime or potassium on the garden for the past 25 years.
    Select a calm day for applying wood ash, as it is easily carried away by the slightest breeze. I use a trowel to spread the ash from the pail, applying it until the ground appears covered like a heavy frost.
    Wood ash won’t supply magnesium, an element often low or deficient in Maryland soil. Without magnesium, chlorophyll’s efficiency in converting carbon dioxide to sugars is considerably reduced. Since wood ash does not contain magnesium (though limestone does), I also apply Epsom salts at the rate of five to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet depending on the soil test results.
    Don’t dump wood ash in the compost pile. Wood ash is basic in nature, and the microorganisms involved in composting perform best in an environment that is mildly acid. Adding ash will stop the composting process.
    Never use a paper, cardboard, wooden or plastic container to carry wood ash. Ash may appear cool when you remove it form the fireplace or stove, but hot embers can remain buried and when exposed to air can ignite. Put your ash in a metal container and store it outdoors in a sheltered place a couple of days before spreading in the garden. I can remember my grandfather removing ash from the parlor stove and spreading it in the garden only to turn around to see dried corn stalks smoldering.
    Here’s another use for wood ash that’s now largely forgotten. My grandmother dumped wood ash from the kitchen stove into a wire basket in the shed. She then flushed the ash with dishwater several times, collecting the water to make lye soap. Do you remember Grandma’s lye soap — or the old popular song by that name?

Irrigate Your Garlic
    Your garlic plants are thirsty. Neither rain nor snow has provided them with water. February’s extra-warm, sunny days have activated the garlic plants into wanting to grow. Without adequate water in the ground, the tips of the leaves are showing yellowing and brown crispy tissues. Irrigate them now for bigger cloves of garlic at harvest.  Italian, Polish and German garlic is not planted as deeply as elephant garlic, making them more susceptible to drought damage. Soaking the soil with water now also makes the ground less likely to freeze deeply should the weather turn cold again.


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

Filmed in their natural habitat

Legendary in Chesapeake tributaries are spring spawning runs, especially of the season’s harbinger, yellow perch.
    See for yourself, with wonder, a video of spawning yellow perch in pristine water in the Upper Magothy River, documented this year by Magothy River Association volunteers and photographed by Chesapeake Bay Program’s Will Parson.
    The spawning run began on Monday, February 27. In hours, hundreds of fish swam up a narrow, clear stream called the Upper Magothy River in Pasadena, between Catherine Avenue and the Lake Waterford dam/fish ladder.
    The male yellow perch arrived first to locate spawning sites, and the females followed. Several dozen long egg sacks, called egg chains, were photographed in this part of the stream. Each egg chain contains 5,000 to 20,000 eggs.
    Yellow perch have been threatened by development runoff that degrades water quality in many of the tributary streams and creeks on the Magothy River. The Maryland State Habitat Protection Area law requires each county to protect yellow perch spawning habitat. It also requires the counties to improve water quality and limit development in HPA areas.
    “The tragedy is that this should have been declared a habitat-protected area years ago under the Critical Area Law,” says Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association. “Anne Arundel County chose not to, and now this spawning creek, perhaps the last in the county, is under attack by development.”
    Fishing is prohibited in the tributaries during the spawning months of February, March and April, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police have been enforcing this policy along the Upper Magothy River.
    To see the photographs and videos of the spawn, visit the Magothy River Association Facebook page or www.dropbox.com/s/7u9i43bwpjn6aoc/20170227-YellowPerch.mp4?dl=0.

Attack overgrown plants before this year’s growth starts

If you have overgrown plants that are smothering the house or taking over the landscape, now is the time to strike. Hollies, yews, viburnums, forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons and many more take well to hard pruning. Butterfly bush should be pruned very hard, to within inches of the ground, every year.
    The only plants you can’t prune severely are conifers such as junipers, cedar, pine, spruce and fir. These species do not form adventitious buds, nor do they have latent buds capable of sprouting after all other buds have been removed.
    Brutal pruning to lower the height and spread of plants is best timed when the plants are dormant, meaning several weeks before the soil begins to warm. Well-established vigorous plants have extensive root systems in the ground with an abundance of reserved energy. Early pruning directs that reserved energy to the most viable vegetative buds in the stems. Thus the earlier plants are pruned hard before growth starts, the more new growth they will generate.
    If you are cutting azalea stems the size of your index finger, as soon as temperatures rise you will see hundreds of green buds emerging from under the bark up and down that stem. Each of those buds is capable of producing branches. While the buds are still soft and green, wipe away at least half of them with your fingers. If you allow all of those buds to produce branches, the stems will look like a bottlebrush.
    When pruning forsythia and weigela, always remove branches that have gray bark near the base of the plant. Prune as close to the ground as possible to promote new vigorous stems to emerge from buds at the soil line. Remove all stems smaller than a pencil in diameter. These weak, flimsy shoots will generally not flower and will only droop with the ends of the stems touching the ground and rooting in.
    When pruning lilacs, inspect the larger stems for borer holes. Lilac borers generally attack stems one-and-a-half to two inches in diameter. Cut infected stems near the ground, and either burn or send them away with the trash. Allowing those infested stems to remain will only result in younger stems becoming infested before they approach maturity. You don’t want that because lilac flowers are produced on second-year wood.
    Do not try to rejuvenate any plant whose stump is larger than two inches in diameter by cutting it back to the ground. Stumps are capable of sprouting, but the sprouts will topple when the center of the old stump, which is mostly dead tissue, begins to rot, two to three years after it has been cut.
    To maintain generally well-behaved plants, prune after flowering when the petals are dropping to the ground.


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

Check out Calvert Marine Museum’s new otter and otter cam

They are otterly adorable. The two North American river otters, 14-year-old Chumley (aka Squeak) and year-old Chessie-Grace (aka Bubbles), love to romp and play throughout their habitat at the Calvert Marine Museum. Now you can see what’s going on behind the scenes in their indoor habitat when you can’t see these furry mammals in-person.
    A newly installed otter cam lets you experience remotely what’s up with these museum favorites seven days a week. Log in to get a peak: http://www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/375/River-Otter-Live-Cam.
    “Visiting in-person is always best, as the new lodging area includes a feeding panel that allows guests to get face-to-face with the otters while they dine,” says Dave Moyer, curator of Estuarine Biology. “When you need to get your otter fix, remember a great time to view the cam is during feeding times.”
    The indoor holding area where the otters reside has been updated with new nesting dens, play yards, an infinity pool and LED lighting.
    Plus a newly rescued otter from Louisiana has joined the exhibit.
    “He was extricated from an aquaculture pond,” Moyer explains. “On a fish farm, it is bad for business to have otters eating all your profits.”
    After acclimating and getting a clean bill of health from the museum veterinarian, What’s His Name may join Chumley and Chessie-Grace.
    “It will depend on the animals as to whether he stays separated,” Moyer says. “Personalities and social dynamics play huge roles.”
    Chumley, also rescued as a pup, came to the museum via Clearwater Aquarium in Florida. Chessie-Grace was hand-raised and bottle-fed after her mother failed to care for her pups.
    Guess the newcomer’s name and win a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour with the otters and animal care staff.
    Otter Name Game clues appear each Wednesday at noon on the Otter Cam website and the museum’s Facebook page.

Yellow perch are the first panfish of the emerging spring season

My rod tip was arced over so hard that the tip entered the water off to the side of the skiff. The drag on the tiny spin reel was groaning as it released a few yards of four-pound-test mono into the current and an unseen fish made its best effort at an escape. I pushed my slender stick up high to avoid fouling the line on the brush tips poking out of the water where the fish was heading.
    The water boiled as the fish neared the surface at the far shore. A glint of gold flashed against the morning rays of the sun. Bingo, just what I was hoping for. A yellow perch was on my line. Then another broach and a pair of flashes. Bonus: Two yellow perch were on my rig.
    Yellow perch are closer to gold or brass than yellow. They are also known as ring perch, neds or yellow neds. No one I have ever spoken to has an explanation for the ned part of the name. The ring aspect is due to six to eight, vertical, bright-olive stripes along the flanks of the delicious fish that give it the appearance of being ringed. In other parts of the country it is known as the raccoon perch, the lake perch, the American perch and the ringtail.
    Whatever you call it, the fish is the first panfish of the emerging spring season. It was once significantly more numerous than today and far more popular with anglers. But the Bay population has suffered over the years from commercial overfishing and the silt and lawn chemicals released from residential and commercial developments around the headwaters where they spawn. Of late, their numbers have been recovering due to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ efforts at restricting commercial harvest so that our 300,000 recreational anglers could be apportioned half shares with the three-dozen or so netters that continue to harvest them.
    In February, yellow perch begin ascending the Bay tributaries, seeking to spawn in the freshwater sources where they were born. They feed on worms, insects, larvae, grass shrimp, minnows and other small fish and live in the more brackish waters of the Chesapeake during most of their life.
    This fish has a unique spawning characteristic. It releases its eggs encased in a long accordion-like membrane designed to hang up on rocks, brush or any stream structure that ensures the roe do not settle to the bottom. If the egg sacks do not remain suspended, they are far more likely to become covered with the silt and chemical residue that washes into the streams in the spring rains and much less likely to hatch out.
    The traditional angling method for ring perch is a light spin rod armed with a shad dart or two suspended under a casting bobber and tipped with grass shrimp, worms or small minnows. Four-pound test mono is just right for the task, but an angler can get away with up to eight-pound in a pinch.
    Fish the first of the flood around the shores of the headwaters or the last of the ebb at the deeper holes. Or fish whenever you can as the runs of perch during the spawning season are unpredictable.
    There is a nine-inch minimum size limit with a possession limit of 10. The citation size is 14 inches, and the state record is two pounds three ounces for tidal areas and three pounds five ounces for non-tidal.
    Scaling, eviscerating and beheading the fish will result in the tastiest preparation, but filleting the fish makes the end result boneless. Baking, broiling or breading and frying all result in a great meal. The traditional approach is a crispy coating and hot peanut-oil frying.
    The results are all the same: a delicious treat made all the more tasty because it’s the first fish dinner of the coming spring season.

Now’s the time to get it right

Step 1 to a productive garden is getting the location right. Plants perform best in full sun and well-drained soil. You can improve other aspects of a garden, but there is no substitute for full sun and a soil that drains properly.
    Next, prepare a soil test. Your soil may do fine for grass and weeds, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for gardening. The pH, nutrient concentration and organic matter in soils are important and can be improved.
    Follow the instructions at A&L Eastern Laboratories of Virginia: www.al-labs-eastern.com. Expect results by mail within five working days. Replies by email take even less time. Add my email to the form — DR.FRGouin@gmail.com — for personal recommendations from the Bay Gardener based on the results.
    Plan for proper irrigation. I am a big supporter of trickle irrigation because it irrigates the plants with 80 percent less water than overhead methods. Since the water is placed just within the root zone of the plants, it is not irrigating the weeds between the rows. Plant foliage also remains dry, reducing the spread of diseases that can occur when plants are irrigated from overhead.
    Vegetable gardens should receive one inch of water per week. Allow a trickle system to run for four to five hours with four to five pounds of pressure in the irrigation line. When irrigating with sprinklers, place a tuna fish can on the soil in the middle of the irrigation area. When the can is full, you have applied one acre-inch of water.

Plant Spacing

Tomatoes: 21⁄2-3 feet

Peppers: 2+ feet

Okra: 18 inches

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower: 12 to 18 inches

Corn 6-8 inches

Lettuce: 6 inches

Bush beans and peas: 2 inches

Root crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips: 1⁄2 inch
-1 inch, thinned to 2-21⁄2 when seedlings reach 2 inches

    Buy a hoe and keep it sharp to stop weeds in their tracks. Cultivation should be shallow so as not to damage roots of crops or to expose dormant weed seeds. Garden soils are loaded with weed seeds accumulated from previous years. Most weed seeds can survive for years; exposure to even a few seconds of sunlight stimulates them to germinate. Thus the less you disturb the soil, the better.
    Simply scraping the hoe on the soil surface to separate the top of the weeds from their roots is all it takes, unless you have waited until the weeds are knee-high.
    Plan for adequate spacing. Annual plants grow rapidly. If they are crowded, the plants will spend most of their energy competing for light, water and nutrients and less energy in producing a crop.
    Plan your planting by the sun’s course. If your garden rows run east to west, plant lower-growing crops on the south side of taller-growing species. In other words, plant the green beans on the south side of the corn or tomatoes and the lettuce on the south side of the green beans. If the crop rows run north to south, it does not matter how you arrange the crops because the sun travels from east to west, resulting in uniform lighting of all plants.


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