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Features (Green Living)

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.

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.

Treat yellow-green leaves with ­compost or fertilizer

If your hollies are heavily loaded with berries this fall, most likely the foliage will turn yellow-green, downgrading the contrast with the red berries. It takes a lot of energy and nutrients for plants to produce fruit. This is especially true if the branches are heavily laden with large clusters. Heavy-fruiting hollies generally appear chlorotic. This problem can be corrected by applying a nitrogen-rich mulch such as lobster compost, chicken manure compost or lawn fertilizer between the trunk of the plant and the drip line. For hollies, this treatment should be applied now and the trees irrigated weekly until early December.
    If the plants have had pale green foliage all summer long, they most likely are deficient in magnesium. Without soil test results to confirm this diagnosis, I often recommend spreading one-third cup of epsom salts per 10 square feet. Magnesium deficiency is not an uncommon problem with hollies laden with bright red berries.
    Boxwoods that appear yellow-green in the fall often experience excessive leaf drop due to nitrogen deficiency. If the winter is especially severe, many boxwoods will also exhibit bronzing. Both of these symptoms can be prevented by fertilizing the plants soon after the first frost. Applying one-half cup of a lawn fertilizer for every three feet in height or spread is generally adequate. Make certain that you use only a lawn fertilizer that does not contain weed killers. Apply the fertilizer uniformly beneath the drip line of the branches. Since boxwoods are very shallow-rooted, they will quickly respond to the treatment.
    Azalea are also susceptible to early fall discoloration and loss of leaves. Roots are unable to provide sufficient nitrogen for flower-bud development. As a result, nitrogen from the lower leaves migrates upward to the developing flower bud at the tip of the branches. Chlorosis of the bottom leaves is very common on white-flowering azaleas because they flower in abundance. This problem can be solved by mulching them with either Maine Lobster Compost, compost made from crab waste or ammonium sulfate fertilizer. If using ammonium sulfate fertilizer, apply only one tablespoon per two feet of height or spread of the azalea plants. Apply the ammonium sulfate mostly under the drip line of the branches.


What’s Killing My Spruce?

Q    I have a 50-year-old spruce tree that is dying from the bottom up. What would cause this (just old age?) and is there anything that can be done to save it? Thanks for your advice. I love Bay Weekly.

–Mary Jane Gibson, Lothian

A    It is not old age because spruce trees can live 100 years or more. Which spruce is it — Norway, white, black, red, Colorado, Engelmann, Siberian, etc.?  Look at the ground under the branches for holes about the size of a silver dollar. If you see such holes, it is possible that pine mice are girdling the roots. If so, you have to kill the pine mice with poison bait for mice (available at the hardware store). If the trunk is bleeding sap, then the tree is infested with cankers. Or the tree may be suffering from weed killers if you have used them on your lawn.


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

Yes, but do it at the grocery

Anne Arundel Countians are lucky to have their recycling picked up at the curb. With the county’s single-stream recycling program, you don’t even have to sort. Even so, 26 percent of what goes into the trash is recyclable, according to Anne Arundel County Recycling.
    Getting that quarter of our waste out of the trash stream depends not only on the will to recycle but also our knowledge.
    You can find a list that outlines most of what is and is not accepted for curbside recycling on the website www.recyclemoreoften.com.
    How about plastic bags?
    Reading the website left me confused, so I asked direction from Rich Bowen, Recycling Program Manager for Anne Arundel County.
    Most plastic bags that stretch when pulled are recyclable. This includes grocery bags, bread bags, retail bags (even the thicker plastic retail bags) and newspaper bags. Also in this category are zip-top or roll-top food bags and cellophane plastic wrap.
    Not recyclable in Anne Arundel’s program are shiny metallic bags like chip bags.
    Gather recyclable bags together, please, Bowen asks.
    “For curbside pickup, we ask that residents bundle these bags together and tightly tie the bundle so that they don’t come apart during collection or sorting,” he told me.
    Still, curbside recycling is not the best solution for plastic bags.
    “The best thing to do with them,” Bowen advises, “is take them to the grocery store with you and deposit them in the collection bin at the front of the store.”
    The reason is what happens to the bags after you put them out for recycling.
    “The biggest buyer for bags right now is the company that makes Trex decking,” Bowen said. “The composite lumber material uses the plastic bags to make its product. They want clean bags and feel that when the bags are collected with other materials they get soiled by other recyclables so they can’t use them,” Bowen said.
    Also, if the bags come loose during sorting, they can get lodged in the gears of the mechanism that separates paper, metal, glass and plastics. Escaped bags gum up the works, causing the machine to slow down. This results in a slower processing time, which makes costs for recycling all single stream materials increase.
    Many — but not all — grocery stores have obviously located plastic bag collection bins.


Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.
 

Sometimes you need fertilizers

Am I an organic gardener? I’m often asked that question. I suspect that many who read this column conclude that my frequent reference to composting and compost in gardening means I must be an organic gardener. They seem shocked when I say that I use chemical fertilizers in addition to amending my soils with compost. My reasoning is that of a scientist.
    Before my research into compost, my primary area of research was mineral nutrition of plants. My research for the thesis for my master’s degree resulted in the development of a slow-release fertilizer marketed as Osmocote 18-6-12. The three-year study was conducted on yews, a narrow-leaf evergreen common in landscape plantings. At the time, the nursery industry was starting to grow more plants in pots. Nurserymen were using the same fertilizers as in field production. The two are totally different growing conditions. Plants growing in pots require more frequent irrigation, which washes more nutrients through the bottom of the pots. Plants grow faster in pots because of high rooting-media temperatures and better aeration. But the rooting media used for growing plants in pots do not store nutrients well.
    My research and reviews of the results of many other plant-nutrient experts convinced me that it can be very difficult to satisfy the nutrient requirements of plants at different stages of growth.
    My later work in the use of compost in the production of nursery and greenhouse crops reinforced the conclusion that it takes both organic and mineral fertilizers to achieve both plant health and high crop yields.
    In the spring when soils are cool, compost, animal manure and organic fertilizers are unable to generate sufficient nutrients because they require microbial activity to release nutrients. For spring-planted crops such as peas, cabbage, broccoli, onions and cauliflower, chemical fertilizers can provide those nutrients.
    Again when tomato and pepper plants are flowering and fruiting simultaneously, the demand for nitrogen is greater than organics are capable of generating. Plants drop bottom leaves because the nitrogen within them is migrating out of the leaves and moving up the stem. This makes the plants more susceptible to blight.
    In mid-summer when sweet corn is growing rapidly in advance of tasseling, organics are not capable of generating sufficient nitrogen for big, sweet ears. Thus the corn stalks drop their bottom leaves.
    We know from studies on the use of compost to grow bedding plants that the nutrient-supplying power of rooting media containing compost can supply adequate levels of nutrients for only about six weeks.
    Nitrogen is the element plants need in greatest abundance. Organic matter is incapable of supplying all that is needed. Numerous research studies have confirmed my initial research that most plants require five to six times more nitrogen that phosphorus and two to three times more potassium than phosphorus. As day length, moisture and temperature affect plant growth, using the combination of soils rich in organic matter with supplemental applications of chemical fertilizers gives you the best of both worlds.


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

But not so great for forests

Robins and sparrows sing the praises of our unending rain. Their beaks and bellies are filled with wriggling worms.
    Earthworms surface as wet conditions make easy work of relocating. No, worms don’t come up to escape drowning. They are capable of surviving several days submerged.
    The vibration of raindrops sounds like the predatory rumble of moles looking for a snack, causing the worms to head for the surface, where fishermen and hungry birds find them. Some birds have shifted to eating an earthworm-only diet.
    Gardeners also appreciate the nutrient-rich deposits our red wrigglers leave in our compost and soil. But their presence is causing a bit of havoc in our forests.
    “Every one of those earthworms you see on the sidewalks and driveways after a rain is an invasive,” Melissa McCormick says.
    McCormick is a research scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, where she studies the interaction of plants with fungi. Including how invasive earthworms are changing the forest environment.
    “We still have a few native earthworms, but the vast majority are non-natives from Europe and Asia,” she says. It is possible that some of these visitors arrived as early as the first European settlers on this continent.
    As with human invasions, these wormy tourists have pushed out native species and caused trouble in the new land.
    “Forests are adapted to work with native earthworms and fungi to support late successional trees,” McCormick explains. Alien worms eat through leaf litter more quickly, baring soil to invasive plants. By affecting the nutrient cycle in the forest, invasive worms give bacteria and more aggressive fungi a favorable environment.
    The Smithsonian research team looked at populations of earthworms at test sites, digging trenches in blocks of soil and using electroshock to coax the worms out. They then planted tree seedlings to see what fungi grew and how the soil affected their growth. A healthy forest has many diverse layers and ages of trees.
    “Most native plants and trees are dependent on their association with fungi to get their nutrients,” McCormick says. “These large populations of invasive earthworms basically bias the soil against the fungi the trees rely on, especially late successional.”
    The experiment proved that oak, hickory and beech trees did not grow as well with lots of invasive earthworms around. Tulip poplar and red maple — both early successional species — grew just as well if not better.

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay 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.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for 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 in 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.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. 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 during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative 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.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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

Dry fall following wet summer makes a good show

This year will bring spectacular fall foliage coloration — provided it stays dry.
    That’s what I told the Bay Weekly reader asking for my prediction.
    More rain means that more of the leaves will remain green for a longer period of time, thus reducing the intensity of the red, orange and yellow. If we have a dry fall, a higher percentage of the leaves will turn color at the same time. But because of drier conditions, the foliage will not last long.
    This prediction is made based on our abundance of rain that kept the foliage lush all summer long. Thus, the leaves of deciduous trees have generated an abundance of carotene and anthocyanins, the pigments that generate the red, yellow and orange colors in leaves. Those compounds are present in each leaf but masked by chlorophyll. That chlorophyll deteriorates as days cool and daylight hours shorten, and nitrogen — a major component of chlorophyll — migrates from the leaf tissues down the petiole to accumulate around the vegetative bud at the base of each leaf. 
    In years with a dry growing season, foliage is less lush, and deciduous trees have less foliage. If a dry growing season is followed by a dry fall, the foliage will be bright but of very short duration. If the growing season is dry and we have a wet fall, the foliage will be muted but slow dropping from the branches.
    Not all tree species generate the same colors. Maple trees are known for their bright red and orange colors, while the ash tree is easily recognized by its yellow fall color. A hill in New Hampshire is called Red Hill because most of the trees growing there are sugar and red maples. That hill is highly visible; many make a yearly pilgrimage to see it.
    In southern Maryland, we are lucky because we have an abundance of dogwoods that often begin showing their red colors in late summer. Near wetlands, we have sweet gum and black gum, which contribute red to purple-red colors and are most plentiful. Red maples provide a splash of red to orange-red in both wetlands and on hillsides.
    If we have a dry fall, the scarlet oaks should be spectacular with their deep red leaves. Most of the other oak species provide only a limited amount of yellowing before dropping their leaves. 
    Enjoy.


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

Time your pruning for both desirable growth and flowers

While azaleas were blooming mid-month, I passed a home in the Deale area where the bushes were so large that it must have been impossible to look out through the lower part of the front windows. They must have been sheared at some point because the middle of the plants appeared very bushy.
    This is a common problem and one that is simple to correct — once you get out the pruners and get past fear. 
    Well-established azaleas are almost impossible to kill. Their only sure death is by over-mulching or repeated mulching with hardwood bark. The plants are very shallow-rooted; over-mulching them suffocates the roots. Repeated applications of hardwood bark lowers the acidity of the soil and releases high levels of manganese, which prevents iron from being absorbed by the roots.
    If azaleas are well established and growing too well, simply prune them back 12 to 18 inches below the windowsill now, as the flowers are wilting. The sooner you prune the better. Stems up to three-quarters-inch in diameter will sprout new branches by the hundreds. Do not prune all of the stems at the same height. Cut some stems back 12 inches, others 18 and others 24 to give the plant a more natural appearance.
    Within three weeks after pruning, you will see small green dots emerging from the bark. Each of those is a potential branch. If you allow all the green dots to develop, you will get too many branches, giving the plant a bottle brush appearance. To avoid this, in mid-June or early July, use your fingers to rub away half of the developing nubs. These newly emerging branches are soft, succulent and easily removed. In mid-August repeat the process, this time keeping the best-developed and strongest branches and removing the others.  
    Do not fertilize or mulch the plants with compost until after vigorous growth appears on the pruned stems. Keep them thoroughly irrigated during dry periods.
    Since azaleas initiate flower buds beginning in mid- to late September, avoid shearing the plants after the middle of August. Flower buds are initiated at the ends of newly developed branches. If you delay shearing until mid- to late September, you will be eliminating most of the new growth, and the plants will have no flowers next spring.

Help give their migration a future

Since the last Ice Age, monarch butterflies have followed the path of the glaciers in their annual migration. The orange and black creatures are more fragile than the magnolia blossoms now in their short season. Yet in September, tens of thousands of monarchs fly from the midlands of the United States all the way to southern Mexico.
    Again this spring, they rise from the oyamel fir trees to reverse their migration. Those seasoned long-distance fliers reach the southern U.S. before their lives and wings are worn out. By then they’ve laid the eggs of the next generation. The grandchildren of those migrators will reach Canada this summer. Their great-grandchildren will be this season’s Mexican migrators.
    Ours could be the last human generation to witness this epic migration.
    Or we can enlist in the army of revival. The company is good, the purpose inspiring and the story an epic in its own right.
    Until the second half of the last century, no human knew where the monarchs went.
    To solve that mystery University of Toronto zoologist Fred Urquhart and wife Norah formed a continental army. Using a print network of newspapers and books, they recruited volunteers to capture, tag and recover the migrating monarchs.
    One of their hundreds of recruits, Elmer Dengler of Bowie, now wants to enlist you.
    Your first mission won’t be as demanding as Dengler’s. A southeastern Pennsylvania boy who saw the Urquharts’ appeal in a library book, he bred and tagged 1,000 monarchs in a single summer.
    “I got a report back from Dr. Urquhart that one of mine was captured on the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama less than 30 days after I’d released it,” Dengler told Bay Weekly.
    Retired now from a career that took him around the nation as an environmental systems manager, he returned to, he says, “the insect that sparked my career.”
    “The current migrating monarch population is as low as two percent of original levels,” he reports. “Time has almost run out.”
    Loss of habitat is the force pushing extinction. Development, illegal logging and agribusiness threaten the monarch caterpillar’s only food: milkweed.
    Reversing those trends on fronts from planting to policy is the mission of a new continental army organized under Monarch Watch.
    Michelle Obama has already signed on, planting a pollinator garden at the White House. The presidents and prime ministers of Canada, Mexico and the United States have joined forces to create monarch-saving policy.
    Dengler’s mission for you is planting one of thousands of monarch butterfly way-stations.
    “As long as you have a patio or more in terms of sunny outside area,” he says, “you can help the monarchs.”
    Working with the Bowie-Crofton Garden Club, Dengler has assembled kits of 11 monarch-friendly plants for the group’s April 26 plant sale.
    “The butterflies are first attracted to the nectar plants,” he says. “After feeding, they slow down enough to notice the food source plants for their caterpillars and begin to lay eggs.”
    At the sale, you’ll learn all about planting your way-station. But, Dengler advises, “the 50 kits will go early.”
    Learn more about protecting monarchs at www.monarchwatch.org.
    Shop the Bowie-Crofton Garden Club sale Saturday, April 26, 8:30am to noon at Bowie Library. Kits $25: www.bcgardenclub.org.