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Our new home welcomed us by testing our resourcefulness

Clara and I moved piece by piece to our new home in Deale. We started moving our belongings from College Park on Thanksgiving Day of 1990, using our station wagon and neighbors’ trucks. Most of the move was made on weekends. Mid-week, one of us would make the trip to Deale to feed Pumpkin, the cat left behind by the previous owners. We selected the name Upakrik Farm while eating dinner in a restaurant in Wayson’s Corner on a return trip to College Park.
    We finished our moving on December 24.
    That’s when we discovered that the furnace was not working. The cause was simple: The fuel tank was empty.
    We had purchased the house with the understanding that there was oil in the tank. But there was no external gauge. A calibrated stick had to be inserted through the fill pipe to measure the amount of oil still in the tank. We hadn’t measured the level, though we’d conserved fuel oil, setting the house thermostat at 55 degrees during the move. Now what oil had been in the tank was all gone.
    Our urgent call to the fuel oil distributer gave us no hope. Because we were new to the area, no delivery would be made until our credit was verified. On Christmas Eve, verification was impossible.
    But there was a small wood-burning boiler connected to the oil-fired boiler, and about a cord of wood was left behind the garage. I used experience and knowledge I’d gained from working for my dad, who was a plumbing and heating contractor, to disconnect the electrical wires to the circulator pump of the hot water system, fasten a plug to the wires and connect the circulator to a duplex outlet. This was necessary because the circulator would not function unless the oil burner was operating. I then fired up the wood boiler to warm the house. The wood-fired boiler required a fresh supply every hour to keep the house confortable.
    So we were pretty warm as we spent our first Christmas at the farm putting things in their proper place and getting organized. We were warmer still when we hopped into the hot spa in the family room to bathe in warm bubbly water. Both our girls drove up from College Park to join us.
    Southern Maryland Oil made a delivery of fuel on December 26, and I reconnected the circulating pump to the oil burner circuit.
    Despite that first day, we have never regretted moving to Deale from College Park. The solitude of living in the country has combined with many new friends to make us appreciate life to its fullest.


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

Fish, fowl, venison — and winter greens

Eating wild is a priority at my family’s table. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we feature treats we’ve harvested from the wild. Following are a few favorites.

Appetizers

Rockfish Ceviche

Two rockfish fillets or other firm, white fish (about 1.5 lbs.), sliced into pieces approximately
½ x 2 inches
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil.
1½ large sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise, then very thinly sliced
2 to 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, chopped
4 lemons
4 limes

    Put fish in glass. Add all ingredients, then gently mix. Add freshly squeezed juice of lemon and lime to cover the ingredients in the bowl. Gently mix again so that all pieces are exposed to the juices. Cover and refrigerate at least five hours, better yet, overnight.
    Taste and adjust spices. Serve drained on a bed of lettuce with a garnish of thinly chopped spring onions plus a side of French or artisan bread or your favorite crackers.

Broiled Breast of Dove

    Wrap each dove breast in a piece of thick-cut, smoke-cured bacon. Broil in oven, turning once.
    Remove when bacon begins to crisp. Serve with a dusting of paprika.

Entrées

Waterfowl Medallions

    Fillet breast meat from a goose or duck and, slicing against the grain, cut into medallion-sized pieces abou three-quarters-inch thick. Marinate overnight in olive oil, rosemary, minced garlic, salt and pepper.
    Drop pieces individually onto a hot cast-iron skillet and quickly brown both sides. Remove and store in a shallow bowl in warm oven.
    Deglaze the skillet with one-half stick butter and one-quarter cup brandy. Drizzle over the browned medallions. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Venison Tenderloin

    Cut a 12- to 18-inch section of venison tenderloin, rub with coarse-grained salt and puncture thoroughly with a fork. Marinate overnight in olive oil, chopped basil and generous amounts of minced garlic and fresh-ground black pepper.
    Prepare grill and scatter wet mesquite chips over charcoal (if using a gas grill, wrap wet wood chips in foil and puntcure several times with a fork). Cook covered but with vents open. Turn once. Remove when internal temperature of the roast reaches 120 degrees. Cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes.
    Melt one stick butter, add a good squeeze of fresh lemon, stir and drizzle over sliced tenderloin. Serve garnished with pickled green peppercorns and a dusting of paprika.

Collard Greens

    Rinse, stem and chop two pounds of greens. Combine in saucepan two bottles of beer, two tablespoons olive oil, one-half cup chopped country ham and salt and pepper. Add greens and simmer until tender.
    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!

There is more to victory than lights and superstition

About the annual Army-Navy football game, superstitions abound.
    When I lived across from the Academy, I’d get up in the chilly dark of morning and stand on the cliff, waving good luck to the busses parked along the seawall to leave with the Brigade.  
    When my wife and I moved to Annapolis, I needed a new ritual. Now I decorate the tulip magnolia in front of our house. When I can no longer watch Navy screw up on the field, I go outside and string the lights. The rule is that I must finish by game’s end.
    I realized early in this year’s game that I was going to be spending most of the first half outside. Navy looked out of sync, and Army was knocking the players around like rag dolls.
    But in the middle of the second quarter with Army leading 7-0, I panicked. Many of my light strings were dead. I needed more lights.
    At the Rite Aide, where I had purchased my lights about five years ago, the cupboard was bare. So, I headed for the Home Depot on Defense Highway, listening on the radio to Omar Nelson bemoaning the Navy running strategy and predicting that the Mids would have to start passing if they were going to win the game. Home Depot had shelves to the ceiling filled with lights. But not the simple, non-LED, 100-foot string of white lights I was looking for.  
    At the Home Depot in Parole, the only lights left were those icicles that drip from every gutter, even out of season.
    Where could I get some lights?
    Then I remembered True Value Hardware on Forest Drive.
    Traffic was light, no doubt because everyone was home watching Navy’s lethargic performance. On the radio, Army was driving for another score, and it was fourth and one from Navy’s 30 with under three minutes to go in the half.
    I had to find some lights. And fast!
    As I sailed by Heritage Baptist Church, Navy miraculously recovered an Army fumble. Omar Nelson was practically screaming into his microphone, Pass it to Tillman!
    As I pulled into True Value, Navy scored — on a pass to Tillman. The point after was good and the half ended with the score tied 7-7.
    I really like an old-fashioned hardware store, and Jared Littmann has a great one. I was glad to return to the scale of shopping where birds do not occupy the rafters and I do not get lost.
    Transfixed, I walked narrow aisles crammed with all sorts of neat gadgets until I came to the aisle with the Christmas lights. I found what I thought I was looking for, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to open the box. A guy merrily stocking shelves smiled and confirmed that I had found the right ones.
    I bought five boxes of lights for $25 and headed home.
    When I walked into my house Navy was marching down the field. But the drive stalled at the Army 30, and the Mids tried a 45-yard field goal. I was shocked when it sailed through the middle of the uprights. Navy was leading for the first time in the game.
    Then Army got the ball and started marching toward the Navy goal line.
    It was time to finish decorating my tree.
    I had all these new lights and I was totally psyched to do the best job ever. Using my jump rope technique, I swung the lights slowly back and forth, then looped them over the branches. I was in Zen mode and couldn’t miss my target.
    I had no idea what was happening with the game, but I knew that Navy was going to win.
    Back inside, I saw Navy recover another Army fumble and begin eating up big yards as they headed for another score. This time a goal-line scrum on third down that looked more like rugby than football put Navy ahead by 10 with under four minutes to play.
    Army wasn’t finished. They started rolling down the field. When the drive stalled on the Navy 35, Army trotted out their field goal kicker, who nailed a 52-yard zinger.
    I must confess that I was silently rooting for him to make it.
    After 12 years of Army heartbreak, I felt sorry for the team. I wanted Navy to win, but I cheered when Army’s kick sailed through the uprights.
    It was now down to an onside kick. I am sure that Navy fans all over the globe were freaking out. I was calm as could be. Navy was going to catch the kick, run out the clock and secure a 13th straight victory.
    It was dark by now, and my Christmas lights sparkled in the tree outside my window.
    I stood in my living room at attention as the Army players cried their way through their battle hymn before singing Navy Blue & Gold with the Brigade.
    The Army-Navy game is special. There is nothing like it in sport. As a former midshipman from the Class of ’75, who did not graduate, I know the sting of defeat.
    But this year I learned an important lesson. There is more to victory than lights and superstitions. Army was more inspiring in defeat than Navy was in victory.

Put these tools — not useless ­garden gadgets — under the ­Christmas tree

I hope you had a laugh over my column on useless garden gadgets two weeks back. This week I’m turning serious, suggesting useful tools the gardeners on your holiday shopping list will want and use.
    The Garden Bench and Kneeler is great, especially for us older gardeners. Getting down on your knees is easy; getting up is hard. The Garden Bench and Kneeler pad is easy on the knees, and the handles are a great help in getting up. I have had mine for years. When you get tired, turn the kneeler up and you have a bench to sit on.
    The Garden Stamp or Dibble Board is ideal for maximizing garden space as it provides the proper spacing for transplanting or sowing seeds. Different boards are made for different crops. Rake the garden smooth before pressing the board into the soil. Then sow seeds or transplant in the indentations made by the stamp. I have made them for my own garden using old broomsticks, dowels and scrap lumber.
    Gator Bags or Arbor Rain Bags are very effective for transplanting trees and shrubs and for keeping young trees alive, without wasting water, during drought. Installed around the base of newly planted trees or shrubs and filled with water, the bags release the water slowly into the soil for days so the root ball stays moist until new roots grow out into the soil. They’re also easy to fill.
    The Garden Weed Torch is a great way of killing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, in gravel-mulched beds and along ditches without having to use weed killers. A quick flash from a flame kills weeds without damaging concrete or stones, and it doesn’t leave any residue.
    Okatsune Shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are great for cutting plants. Long handles make them easier to use.
    Pruners and loppers by Felco and Corona keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. For pruning branches eight to 12 feet above your head, use long-reach pruners. Carry hand pruners in a sheath attached to your belt to prevent injury.
    The Soil Knife is a great tool for dividing perennials, for digging holes when transplanting and for lifting seedlings from the soil. Mine is a Japanese gardener’s knife with a blade about two inches wide and cupped for digging, so it can be used in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. Also purchase the sheath for carrying it.
    Soil thermometers are useful in determining when to start planting certain crops. For instance, corn seeds should not be planted until after the soil is 60 degrees or warmer. A long-shank thermometer is helpful in monitoring microbial activity in compost piles. An active compost pile should read 130 to 140 degrees. When temperatures drop below 100 degrees, it is time to turn the compost.    
    The Weed Stick and Weed Wick are safe and effective for applying herbicides with minimal environmental impact. The Stick and Wick apply the herbicides only in a limited area, thus preventing potential problems associated with sprays. Apply the chemicals based on manufacturer’s recommendations.
    The Weed Bandit hoe is my favorite because of its long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I like the small Weed Bandit for hoeing onions and closely planted plants, and the medium blade Weed Bandit for all other weeding work.


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

The Geminid meteors are unique

This week’s celestial highlight is the annual Geminid meteor shower, which peaks late Saturday and before sunrise Sunday. This coincides with the rising waning moon, which just shy of last-quarter still shines quite bright. Fortunately, the Geminids are some of the brightest “shooting stars,” and given patience and a dark spot away from urban glare, you could still expect to see one or two meteors each minute. Plus the Geminids generate a fair number of meteors for several days before and after the peak.
    Like all meteor showers, the Geminids occur as earth passes through a trail/stream of cosmic dust and detritus. As these bits of rock and ice hit our atmosphere, they burst into flames. While the end results are the same, the source of the Geminids’ debris trail is unique. In every other case, these trails of debris are left by comets orbiting the earth in the same way as the planets. The source of the Geminids, however, is a five-kilometer asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon, that passes between the sun and Mercury every 1.4 years.
    And where comets orbit the sun with a long tail releasing a trail of flotsam, 3200 Phaethon has no tail but somehow produces a trail of debris anywhere from five to 500 times larger than any spawned of comets. Instead of a tail of its own releasing fragments as it’s heated by the sun, 3200 Phaethon pulls bits of dust and debris into its wake as it travels the solar system in a way astronomers are still trying to explain.
    Many meteor showers have been seen since the dawn of civilization, but not the Geminids. They were first noted in 1862 — simultaneously — by an American and a British astronomer, who each recorded an average of 14 meteors an hour. Year by year, that number grew, even as astronomers searched for the shower’s source. Then in 1983, armed with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, they found 3200 Phaethon to be the parent of the Geminids. By that time, the shower had grown to an average of 120 meteors an hour under good conditions!
    With clear skies you can see the spawn of 3200 Phaethon anywhere in the dark sky, but all point back to the constellation Gemini.
    While you’re at it, look for Jupiter rising in the east-northeast around 10pm and high in the south come dawn. Saturn rises just ahead of the sun in the east-southeast. And Venus and Mars are both visible after sunset.

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

Decking your halls, from trees to poinsettias

Buy a Fresh, Safe Christmas Tree
    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 late October or early November.
    Fresh-cut Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce are the most fire-safe Christmas tree species, ranked by the State Fire Marshal based on research conducted by the Bay Gardener in cooperation with the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers.
    Fraser firs are not fire safe. Do not buy them.
    Once you bring the tree home, cut an inch from the bottom of the trunk and place in a bucket of 100-degree water. Keep the tree and bucket in the shade until you are ready to bring it indoors. When you bring it in, cut another inch from the trunk and immediately place it in water. Make certain there is always water in its stand. A good Christmas tree stand should hold at least one gallon of water.

Wreaths and Roping, Too
    Most of the Christmas wreaths and roping sold in big-box stores, grocery stores and many garden centers are made in New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, the West Coast and Canada starting in October. Few of these facilities have climate-controlled cold storage for keeping greens fresh prior to shipping. Most are stored on the floor in sheds and barns and sprinkled with water when they appear to be drying. By the time they reach Maryland, they have already lost a high percentage of their moisture.
    At Upakrik Farm, I wait to make wreaths and roping until Thanksgiving week to assure freshness. I store them on the barn floor in stacks no greater than 10 deep to prevent compression and to assure adequate moisture. I sprinkle the wreaths and roping daily to keep them moist and cool to maintain freshness. Because I sell only freshly made wreaths and roping, I have many repeat customers at the Riva Road Farmers Market. There is no substitute for freshness.

Gather Greens in Your Garden
    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.
    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 immerse them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

If You’ve Got Winterberry Holly, Bring It In
    Winterberry shows at its best this season, inviting you to cut it for Christmas decorating. The native deciduous forms of holly grow as shrubs six to eight feet tall. At this time of year, the ends of the branches are filled with clusters of bright red berries.
    Use extreme care when cutting the stems to minimize shedding berries from the stem. Once they are cut, do not put them in water. Since the berries shrink very slowly, they will remain attractive for a month or more indoors. Thus, they’re ideal for making dry arrangements or for decorating the Christmas tree.
    Holly berries are not poisonous, though neither do they taste good.

Keep Poinsettias Pretty
    The brightly colored bracts and dark green leaves of poinsettias make them the ideal Christmas plants. Varieties are better now than ever before. Now available in many shades of red, white, pink and speckled, they retain their bracts and leaves longer with minimal care.
    And no, they are not poisonous.
    Keep your poinsettia fresh looking by careful watering. Check the growing medium daily for adequate moisture by pressing your finger into the medium halfway between the stem of the plant and the wall of the pot. If the medium feels cool and moist, there is adequate moisture. If the medium feels warm and dry, water thoroughly.
    Add water until it flows through the bottom of the pot. If water flows immediately through, the medium is too dry to absorb water. Soak the pot in a basin or pail of warm water for 30 minutes to an hour. Drain the plant before returning it to its place.
    Avoid overwatering. Poinsettia roots are very susceptible to rot.


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

When there aren’t 24 hours in a day

The full moon rises at sunset Friday and sets at daybreak Saturday morning. Look for it less than about two degrees from Aldebaran, the heart of Taurus the bull. December’s full moon is known as the Cold Moon, the Long Night Moon and the Moon Before Yule. And as we approach winter solstice, these are the longest nights of the year.
    In fact, Sunday marks a turning point in the tug between light and dark, with the earliest sunset of the year at 4:45. Why, you may ask, is the earliest sunset separated from the shortest day of the year by two weeks? Two factors come into play, one celestial the other of our own contrivance.
    Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun creates a skew in the exact point of solstice — the overall shortest day — and the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise, which won’t occur until January 4 for us along Chesapeake Bay.
    Additionally, modern timekeeping bases each day on a 24-hour cycle. However, the time between one sunrise and the next — or one sunset and the next or high noon from day to day — seldom adds up to an even 24 hours. The cycle of a solar day is dictated by the time it takes for the earth to make one full rotation. And the speed of earth’s rotation changes, spinning faster when closer to the sun, as it is this time of year, and spinning slightly slower when it is farther away in June, July and August.
    So while the time of sunset will hold for the next week or so, we will continue to lose another six minutes of sunlight in the early mornings before reaching solstice December 21 and more still until January 4.
    Venus is slowly pulling away from the sun, appearing for a few minutes in our early evening sky before disappearing below the southwest horizon. At week’s end this evening star sets roughly 40 minutes after the sun, but each night she appears a little higher and remains visible more than a minute longer than the night before. Even so, you may need to scour the horizon with binoculars to see this planet so early in its evening apparition.
    Mars, too, comes into view as the sun sets, quite a bit higher than Venus but also dimmer. Shining at first-magnitude, the red planet is as bright as the average star — enough to be seen during full moon. While pulling away from earth, it nonetheless maintains its brightness through December and remains in view until setting around 8pm.
    Around 10pm, Jupiter rises in the east-northeast, the brightest object at that time other than the moon. By dawn it is high in the south, with the much fainter blue-white star Regulus 10 degrees to its lower left. The night of the 10th, Jupiter trails the waning gibbous moon by about the same distance. The two travel together throughout the dark hours, shining high in the southwest as dawn approaches.
    If you’re up in the hour before dawn, you may be able to spot the return of Saturn. It is quite low in the east-southeast as the sky begins to lighten, another target perhaps requiring binoculars to see amid the growing glare. But each morning it creeps a little higher and by month’s end is visible a full hour before sunrise.

Good for laughs but not much else

Here’s my short list of useless gadgetry to avoid as you shop for the gardeners on your holiday list. I found them in the gardening catalogues now arriving in the mail.
    Bulb planters are a gadget I find useless. Instructions with such tools recommend that tulip, narcissus and hyacinth bulbs be planted six inches deep. Most topsoil layers are often less that six inches thick, which means that by following such instructions you are planting bulbs on subsoil. Subsoils are low in nutrients, tend to be acid and often compacted. It is no wonder most bulb crops planted with bulb planters survive only a season.
    There is no substitute for digging a 12-inch-deep planting bed for bulbs, amending the subsoil with compost, adjusting the pH to near 6.5 and planting bulbs with their tops six inches below the soil surface.
    Fertilizer tree spikes may sound like a good idea, but their effectiveness is questionable. We tested these spikes without measuring any benefit to the trees. However, we did observe tufts of lush green grass growing around each spike.
    When you drive a fertilizer tree spike into the ground, you compress the soil around the spike, thus limiting root growth because roots will not penetrate soils with compaction of 85 percent.
    There is no substitute for augering holes four to six inches in diameter and 10 inches deep at two- to three-foot intervals and filling the holes with compost. Start from five to 10 feet from the tree trunk and extend beyond the drip line.
    Compost starters are another waste of money. Any good garden soil contains all the microorganisms essential for inoculating a compost bin. Compost from an active compost pile also makes a good compost starter. I have found that most compost starters are dry. If used as directed, they will require a month or more for the microorganisms to become active. They function best when moistened and stored at room temperature for three to four weeks before mixing them in the new compost pile.
    The Aqua Farm Hydroponic Fish Food Tank tickled my funny bone, but that’s about all it is good for. Growing plants on top of an aquarium won’t work. It is impossible for fish to generate all of the nutrients plants need. Fish feces is very low in nitrogen because fish use most of the nitrogen from their food. A Deale fish farm tried this concept with no luck. The only way fish can contribute to the growth of plants is after they die and are composted. Native Americans grew gardens by burying dead fish in the soil before planting their crops.
    As a scientist who has worked with soils and plants for more than 60 years, I find it hard to believe that a $50 piece of electronic equipment can provide sufficient information needed to grow plants. In this case I am referring to the 4-way Soil pH, Moisture, Fertilizer and Light Meter. This instrument has three prongs you insert in the soil to obtain all this information. Its single probe three-way analyzer will supposedly provide you with soil pH, fertility and temperature. Also amusing are the manufacturer’s instructions.
    Roots spread out well beyond the stems of plants. They travel the path of least resistance, branching and clustering when they find an area rich in organic matter and nutrients.  Studies on the root distribution of tomato plants have demonstrated that a single root may extend 15 feet from the base of the stem, penetrating as deep as 20 inches.
    No gadget can replace taking good soil samples and having your soil analyzed by a reputable soil-testing laboratory such as A&L Eastern Laboratories.
    Skip the VegiBee Garden Pollinator, too. Unless you are growing greenhouse tomatoes, there is no need for either the single- or five-speed variety. Tomatoes growing outdoors are self-pollinated by the wind shaking the plant. In the greenhouse, where there is no wind, the single-speed pollinator model will do the same job as the five-speed model at half the price. It is a waste of money purchasing one of these for growing tomatoes in the garden regardless of the claims made by the manufacturer.
    Nor should you fall for the red Tomato Crater for growing softball-sized tomatoes. Research has demonstrated that mulching tomato plants with red plastic will increase yields because of red light reflecting back to the foliage. Red light has long been recognized for enhancing plant growth. However, I find it hard to believe that a disc 11.5 inches in diameter can reflect much red light once it is shaded by the foliage of the plant. Furthermore, the disc does little to conserve soil moisture as compared to the red plastic mulch.
    Next month, I’ll report on useful garden gifts.

After six days pheasant hunting, we were exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic

“Congratulations,” my wife, Deborah, said to me over the phone early that morning. “You boys have managed to put yourselves in the coldest spot in the whole country, and that includes Alaska.”
    I was pulling on a pair of thick woolen socks while outside swirling snow was accumulating in the parking lot of our motel. In De Smet, South Dakota, the outside temperature gauge read five degrees above zero as we prepared to go ring-necked pheasant hunting. A stiff 30-mile-per-hour breeze made the wind chill calculation minus 20 degrees.
    A reasonable person would, perhaps, have hesitated, saying to himself, Maybe it would be wise to wait for another day. That kind of good sense is not often found among dedicated bird hunters. Besides, the number of wild pheasants in South Dakota was predicted to be the highest in years.
    The pheasants themselves were hardly inconvenienced by the descending frigid mass of arctic winter air. The ring-neck is a century-old immigrant from Northern China, where it was also no stranger to extreme winter conditions.
    Introduced to America in 1881 by Judge Owen Denny, the U.S. Consul to China, this superb game bird immediately adapted to our continent, especially the agricultural areas and particularly South Dakota, which long ago proclaimed itself the Pheasant Capital of the World.
    As we transferred our dogs into insulated kennels in the beds of two four-wheel-drive vehicles, it was obvious that the pups were not going to be bothered by the cold. Brewster, a four-year-old English cocker spaniel endowed with a delightful personality and boundless energy, was already rolling and frolicking in the parking lot snow drifts as we sorted things out.
    Along with Brewster were six field-experienced springer spaniels — Astrid, Buck, Gino, Penny, Sony and Susie — plus Sandy, a big muscular yellow Labrador whose role it would be to bust through any cover too stout or snow drift too deep for our mid-sized spaniels.
    The 10-day bird-hunting trip had been meticulously planned and put together by Tom Schneider with Meade Rudasill, both Annapolitans, avid wing shooters and springer spaniel fans. They had been making this pilgrimage for ring-necks for 20 years.
    This year they invited me to join the adventure along with their three other companions and gun dog handlers, Kevin Klasing of Mt. Airy and Jim Zimmerman and Tim Wachob, both Pennsylvanians.
    Below-freezing weather had one advantage: Ring-necks, particularly the roosters, yard up or gather in flocks under such conditions. They also seek out the densest cover for protection, usually close to an energy-dense food supply such as corn. If South Dakota has anything in large quantity besides ring-necked pheasants, it is cornfields.
    This year, especially, it had cold as well. That five-degree morning was just the beginning. Within two days, the temperature had fallen to minus 11 and the wind chill to 40 below. But ring-neck hunters are a hardy lot; with proper clothing and mad determination, we managed an exceptional hunt.
    Switching out dogs on a regular basis and selectively hunting only the smaller (about a quarter-mile or less), denser patches of cover kept our energy levels up. We also returned frequently to the trucks for restorative warmth. Almost every day we bagged our limits of roosters (three per gun per day; hens are protected from harvest) though it often took us to closing time (5pm) to get it done.
    We did not keep track of the shells we expended. The ring-neck can quickly attain 65 mph in level flight. Add in a 30 mph tail wind, you’ve got a particularly difficult target to bring to bag. By the end of six days in the field, we were just about out of ammunition, exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic.