view counter

Features (Gardening)

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.

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.

Cleaner air may be leaving your plants hungry

Billions of dollars have been spent making the air we breathe cleaner. We may be breathing better, but soil tests indicate that gardeners and farmers will have to add sulfur (S) to the list of nutrients that need to be added as a fertilizer.
    One of the major components in polluted air was sulfur dioxide. That airborne sulfur dioxide provided a continuous source of sulfur for good plant growth. We can also blame some of the sulfur deficiencies to the more highly purified fertilizers being applied. Older fertilizers contained sulfur as a contaminant. Now, few high-analysis fertilizers and water-soluble fertilizers contain sulfur. However, low-analysis fertilizers such as 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 are still often blended from nutrient sources contaminated with sulfates.
    In plants, sulfur is very important in the synthesis of amino acids and proteins. Researchers found that the addition of sulfur to deficient soil increased the yield of seed crops such as corn and soybeans by 10 to 20 percent. The addition of sulfur was also beneficial to the growth of cold crops such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. In reviewing soil test results, I have also noticed that sulfur levels in Southern Maryland are dropping.
    If soil test results indicate deficient or low levels of sulfur, it can be applied in various forms: pulverized, wettable, flowable, granulated and iron sulfate. Choose from other forms as your soil test indicates.
    Should your soil need phosphorus, purchase only single-strength super phosphate.
    If your plants need nitrogen, purchase ammonium sulfate.
    If the soil is in need of potassium, purchase potassium sulfate.
    If your soil needs calcium, purchase calcium sulfate.
    If the soil is in need of magnesium, purchase Epsom salts.
    Compost made from organic waste harvested from areas low in sulfur will also be low in sulfur. However, compost made from seafood waste or biosolids will be rich in sulfur. The nutrients in compost are totally dependent on nutrients in the feedstock being composted.
    You do not want to add sulfur if you are growing onions and garlic, as it will increase their sharpness in flavor. To grow mild onions, select a soil that contains nearly deficient levels of sulfur. Vidalia onions — grown only in Vidalia County, Georgia — are mild because their soils contain very low levels of sulfur.


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

Last year, I started from seed and had my biggest and best crop ever

If you planted garlic last fall, it now needs mulching with compost. I use compost made from either crab or lobster waste. Both have a good supply of calcium and a medium to high level of slow-release nitrogen for when soil temperatures rise above freezing. Mulching also protects these shallow-rooted plants from rapid temperature changes.
    If you plan to grow onions this spring, consider growing your own seedlings. Last year, instead of purchasing seedlings from Texas, I grew all my onions from seed and had the biggest and best crop ever. Since onion seeds are slow to germinate, seeds should be sown in prepared potting blends before the end of January. I highly recommend Copra and Candy. Both are good keepers, and Candy is as mild tasting as any Vidalia onion.
    Sow the onion seeds approximately a quarter- to a half-inch apart on the surface of the soil. Cover lightly by placing potting mix on a piece of window screen and shaking it over the seeds. Water well. Locate the containers where the soil will remain about 80 degrees. Onion seeds will germinate in about two weeks at this temperature.
    Once most of the seeds have germinated, place the container in full sun at a window facing south, as onion plants will grow in cooler temperatures. As daylight hours get longer, you will observe increased growth. Once the seedlings reach three inches tall, start making light applications of liquid fertilizer at three-week intervals.
    By mid March to early April, the onion plants will be five to six inches tall and ready to transplant into the garden. Onion plants are very cold-tolerant and can be planted early. They do best in soils rich in compost. I incorporate an inch or two of compost into the soil just prior to planting.
    If you prefer large onions, space the seedlings at least six inches apart. For smaller onions, space them four inches apart. I grow mine in solid blocks with spacing either six by six or four by six inches. I like the six-inch spacing between rows so that I can cultivate with my onion hoe. After the soil has been prepared, use a dibble to make the planting holes. Then, using your fingers, lift the onion seedlings in clusters from their rooting medium. Separate the seedlings, putting one in each hole. After all of the seedlings have been planted, use a stream of water to wash the soil into the planting holes to cover the roots.
    Once the onions start to bulb in June, stop cultivating the soil between the rows. The slightest amount of mechanical damage to the skin of the bulb will induce rot.
    As soon as the tails of the onions show yellow and browning, use a rake and knock down the tails to prevent neck rot microorganisms from entering the stem. Neck rot will spoil your onions when you put them into storage as summer ends.


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

Put those seed catalogs to good use

Perhaps you have received seed catalogs for the coming spring planting season. On the the front and back cover you will likely be encouraged to order early to receive bonuses or discounts. Many seed companies also offer free shipping for early orders. You can save quite a bit if you take advantage of these special offers.
    My method for ordering seeds begins with selecting at least three different catalogs that I have purchased from in recent years. After I have made an inventory of the leftover seeds from 2016 season, I go through each catalog selecting the seeds I need to purchase for this coming season. Expect to substitute some favorite varieties that are not available. Initially I complete three or more order forms. This is a good task after you have cleared the dinner table.
    After I total the cost from each order form, I compare prices, including shipping and handling and the specials that each catalog offers. Since I am always testing new varieties, I make it a point to review all of the information provided on each variety, especially when my time-tested varieties are not available.
    Before I make my final decision on which catalog I will order from, I check the total cost of the seeds with the shipping and handling charges. Most catalogs have a shipping charge based on the total cost of seeds. I base my final selection of seeds by either subtracting or adding from my wish list seeds to minimize the shipping and handling charge. You can save more money by following this procedure.
    Consider these factors as you plan your order.
    1. Expect to pay more for hybrid seeds because of the labor and technology involved in producing them.
    2. Order only what you expect to use in one season. Not all seeds have the same shelf life. The longer you store unused seeds, the lower the germination rate and the longer the germination time. So pay attention to the number of seeds included in each package. I find that many gardeners order more seeds than needed, thinking that seeds can be stored forever.
    3. Organically grown seeds may not be worth the price you pay. What determines if the fruit or vegetable is organically grown is the method of culture. With chemical fertilizers and pesticides or with compost, animal manures or organic fertilizers and without pesticides?
    Fruits and vegetables grown using conventional methods have the same nutritional value as those grown organically. I recently listened to a discussion between dietitians confirming what a graduate student of mine found in the 1980s in an extensive study comparing the nutritional value of snap beans grown organically versus those grown conventionally. The results clearly indicated that the fiber content and nutritional value were similar. The only difference was harvested yields. Bean beetles and the bean weevils caused a 20 percent loss in beans grown organically.


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

Anne Arundel County offers just the right raw ingredients

Anne Arundel County has more horses than any other county in the nation. It follows that we also have more horse manure. Some of that horse manure occupies precious landfill space or is dumped near streams, thus contributing to Bay pollution.
    Anne Arundel County landfills also have too much of another organic waste, nitrogen-rich food waste produced by an abundance of restaurants. Like yard debris, neither of these organic wastes should be occupying landfill space. Landfills are costly to construct and maintain. Both food waste and horse manure can easily be converted into compost.
    In the early 1980s, the Bay Gardener was involved in writing the state law that prohibited the dumping of yard debris into landfills and established yard debris composting facilities. One such facility is located near Upper Marlboro, just a mile from the Anne Arundel County line, near the intersection of Route 4 and Route 301. Operated by Maryland Environmental Services, it is one of the locations that manufactures LeafGro.
    Last month, the Anne Arundel County Council and the County Executive approved the composting of horse manure and restaurant waste on South County farms in facilities between five and 10 acres. The legislation has established strict standards that limit the area for compost to 25 percent of total acreage. Prohibited from composting are dead animals or waste from processing facilities. The new legislation also limits proximity of composting pads to adjacent properties, occupied dwellings and streams. The composting must be done on a non-porous pad, and the facility must be managed by an operator certified in the science of composting. The location of any such facility must be pre-approved. Also considered in the legislation is road access to the facility.
    The Maryland Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying managers of composting facilities. Certification requires a training program and rigorous written exam. As Maryland was the first in the nation to establish a commercial composting training program, I prepared many of the questions that are included in the certification exam. Managers must be knowledgeable in the biological processes, monitoring equipment, standards and management procedures.
    The Maryland Department of the Environment is responsible for inspecting and assuring that the facilities are properly managed and that sanitary conditions are maintained. Maryland’s composting facilities have been operating for the past 30 years without creating problems while producing such compost products as LeafGro, Orgro and Veterans Compost. Many municipalities compost their own yard debris, making it available to residents at a minimal charge, following standards established within their jurisdictions without creating odors. Near Exit 1 on the Baltimore Beltway, a composting facility processes 180 to 200 tons of Baltimore sewage sludge each day without creating an odor problem, producing compost called Orgro.
    Composting is an exact science. It requires blending the proper amount of feedstocks; in this case horse manure with restaurant waste. The amount of carbon and nitrogen in each are determined by established laboratory testing methods. After these two materials are blended properly in the correct amounts and placed in windrows, moisture levels are maintained between 50 and 60 percent and oxygen levels are maintained above five percent. Temperatures within the piles will average between 140 and 160 degrees within 24 to 36 hours. When oxygen levels drop below five percent, the windrows are turned with specialized equipment to introduce more oxygen into the mixture. Some composting facilities draw air, using fans, through the composting piles to maintain oxygen at the proper level. Only when the temperatures within the piles achieve those near ambient air is the compost ready. The process will generally require 80 to 100 days, depending on the time of year and the volume being composted. The resulting compost has a rich earthy smell.
    The microorganisms that digest the carbon in the horse manure, while using the nitrogen from the restaurant waste, are the same microbes found in garden soils. The same process occurs on the forest floor. Science has discovered that under ideal conditions, these microorganisms will gladly work overtime.
    The only by-products of composting are water vapor, heat and carbon dioxide. There are no toxic gasses released during composting.
    Gardening has become the most popular hobby in the nation. Ornamental horticulture is the second largest income-producing agricultural industry in Maryland, second to poultry. Potted plants are all grown in soil-less blends containing one-third to one-half by volume compost. With more people demanding organically grown food, the need for compost far exceeds the supply. Compost is a great soil amendment and a good source of slow-release nutrients.
    I have spent more than 30 years conducting research on using compost made from sewage sludge, animal manures, yard debris, crab waste, garbage, paper-mill sludge and more. Composting is the ultimate in recycling, and it can be done safely and efficiently. Although composting is an old agricultural practice, today’s composting technology is as different as the Model A Ford is to today’s hybrid cars.


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

Your pot must runneth over

By now your houseplants are adjusting to winter life inside. Or not. Many potted houseplants fail to grow properly because they are never watered properly. Here’s the right way.
    Every watering should be so ample that an excess of water drips from the bottom of the pot. Of course the pot should have drainage holes in its bottom and sit in a saucer to protect the furniture or windowsill. 
    If a plant’s soil is all the way to the top of the pot, you’ll have a watering problem. When repotting, always leave three-quarters to one inch of free space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of pot.
    If your plants were repotted with a half-inch or less of space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of the pot, your solution is to water by slow release using ice cubes. For plants in pots three to five inches in diameter, place two to three ice cubes on the surface of the soil. As the ice melts, the water will enter the soil without overflowing. Judge the number of ice cubes by inspecting the saucer beneath the pot in about an hour. If water is not visible, add another cube or two, and base the number of ice cubes needed in the future on the test results.
    If you are watering your plants by placing water in the saucer and allowing the water to be absorbed through the bottom of the pot, you’ll have noticed salts accumulating on the top edge of the pot. Continuing sub-irrigation of potted plants generally always results in this accumulation of fertilizer salts because the excess fertilizer salts in the soil migrate upward with the movement of the water. The salts appear as yellow-white to gray powder along the edges of the soil surface or on the pot, depending on the type of pot being used. 
    To prevent this accumulation, water the plants from the surface at least monthly or in two to three consecutive irrigations before resuming sub-irrigation.
    It’s that easy, and your plants will thank you by prospering.


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

Santa’s a gardener himself, so he knows what’s on your list

T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.
The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of compost danced in their heads.
The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose;
To settle their roots for the long winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow;
Protected the roots of the grasses below.
Then what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.
I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

“To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit;
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.
To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower;
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

“For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble;
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.
For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves;
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

“A fungus agent for her compost pit;
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.
With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path;
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

“And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”
Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

“And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum,
“‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.’”

Get a fast start with my Gouin brew

This is a great time to activate the compost pile. The fallen leaves are rich in nutrients and organic matter. Mother Nature has been using leaves as natural mulch since the beginning of time.
    I begin with my leaf blower, blowing as many leaves as possible under the branches of the shrubs to mulch them over winter.
    For my compost pile, I then use the lawnmower to chop the remaining leaves by mowing the lawn with the blade set at five inches above the ground, starting from the outer-edge of the lawn and working my way into the center. This pushes the fallen leaves into the center of the lawn where I can harvest them easily and transport them to the compost bin. Chopped leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    With the garden hose handy to spray water on the leaves as I load them in the bin, I lay a 10- to 12-inch layer of chopped leaves and cover it with a uniform layer of leftover compost from last year. To hasten the composting process, I sprinkle about one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate per 10 square feet of area and water thoroughly. Each layer of leaves covered with compost needs to be wet in order for composting to start. Dry leaves do not compost.
    If you do not have leftover compost from last year, make your own compost starter by adding a shovel full of garden soil to a five-gallon pail. Add one-half cup of cheap dish detergent and one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Stir the mixture well, and sprinkle it over each layer of copped leaves added to the pile. The detergent will help in wetting the leaves, and the ammonium nitrate or urea will provide nitrogen to stimulate the microbes in the garden soil into doing their duty. Five gallons of this Gouin brew is sufficient to cover about 30 square feet of composting area.
    The larger the compost pile, the better. Compost piles smaller than five-by-five-by-five feet will not generally become very active until next spring when temperatures warm. However because of mass, larger compost piles are capable of generating and maintaining high temperatures all winter long — providing the composting materials remain moist.
    A long-shank thermometer of two feet or more is helpful in monitoring microbial activity. You can also see the effects of microbial activity by simply digging into the pile on a cold day, watching the vapors rise and feeling the warmth of the compost. If you did a good job of preparing the pile, rising temperatures should be measurable in two weeks or less. You should also notice significant reductions in volume as temperatures rise. This means that the microbes are digesting the leaf tissues and generating heat and carbon dioxide.


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

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.