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Not all Christmas trees are equal

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


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

Where will he be on Christmas Eve?

Santa Claus is amazing. As you’ll read in this week’s paper, he can wear many faces and be in many places, all at the same time. So you’ll have plenty of opportunity to meet with him from now to Christmas Eve. Then Santa gets down to business, and where he’ll be when is of intense interest to every girl and boy.
    It’s up to the North American Aerospace Defense Command to track his progress.
    The usual business of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is protecting the U.S. and Canada by detecting and warning of attacks from aircraft, missiles or space vehicles. On Christmas Eve, the Command also tracks Santa as he travels around the world in his sleigh.
    “Every year on December 24, 1,500 volunteers staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children (and adults) from around the world,” www.norad.mil reports. “Live updates are provided through the NORAD Tracks Santa website (in seven languages), over telephone lines and by e-mail to keep curious children and their families informed about Santa’s whereabouts and if it’s time to get to bed.”
    Santa Tracker began accidentally in 1955, when a department store in Colorado posted NORAD’s phone number as its tracking hotline. On duty that night, Colonel Harry Shoup answered the numerous phone calls, with his team reporting Santa’s location to each one. The typo led to a tradition eagerly anticipated for over 60 years.
    The service has expanded greatly.
    “Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa website receives nearly nine million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world,” the Command reports. “Volunteers receive more than 140,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children around the globe.”
    Work begins in May to ensure that everything goes smoothly on the big day. On Christmas Eve, satellites, high-powered radar and jet fighters track Santa.
    Follow Santa by visiting the Santa Tracker website at www.noradsanta.org/ or get live updates through the Command’s Facebook, Twitter, You Tube or Google+ pages. There’s also a NORAD Santa Tracker app. A phone number will be listed as Santa’s big night approaches.

Give a little, get a lot

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


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

Coyotes yes, bears no

The region is home to many types of animals, but not many large predators. Historically, bobcats, cougars, bears and wolves lived in Chesapeake Country.
    Coyotes are newcomers. The western species wasn’t seen in Maryland until 1972. Since then, they’ve expanded their territory to all Maryland counties. They’ve thrived in part because they don’t face much competition from other predators as we have no more of similar size.
    “The density of coyotes in Anne Arundel County is low to moderate compared to elsewhere in the state. Our highest densities are in the western counties, lowest are on the Eastern Shore,” said Peter Jayne of Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ game management program.
    Coyotes, he noted, can be mistaken for a German shepherd-type dog.
    “Except they tend to appear slenderer than most dogs. They also have a bushier tail, white outlining the mouth and a longer snout,” Jayne said.
    Bears have been increasing in Maryland over the last few decades. Mostly, they stay in Western Maryland; the closest county with full-time bear residents is Frederick County — and maybe Montgomery County.
    “We don’t get reports of bears in Anne Arundel County except on very rare occasions, maybe one every four to five years,” Jayne said. “It’s generally a young bear that wanders through and then leaves to find a more bear-friendly area. In the near term, it is unlikely a bear will stay. However, over the long term it is possible.”
    If you see either a coyote or a bear, it’s best to quietly back away and observe from a safe place. Also, once you’ve seen one, try to ensure that they are not visiting you as a food source. Secure your trash, don’t feed pets outside and temporarily stop feeding outdoor birds.

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

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

Dig deep for tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulbs

If you want big flowers and more flowers from your bulbs next spring, plant them now. If you wait until the ground starts to freeze, you’ll see smaller flowers and short stems.
    Spring-flowering bulbs can initiate flower buds only if they undergo different stages of cooling. The bulbs you plant this fall have not yet initiated a flower bud internally. If you were to plant that bulb in a flowerpot and grow it in your home or greenhouse, it would grow — but it would not likely flower. Or it would produce a very small, distorted flower. Tulips, narcissus, daffodils, hyacinths and so on can produce a normal flower only after several developmental stages.
    A second reason for planting now: The more roots the bulb can produce before the flower bud development starts, the better.
    Since our springs are so warm, we are not in a good area for growing spring bulbs that flower year after year without losing flower size and quality. To prolong the life of your bulbs, plant them deep, where the soil will remain cooler longer. This means planting tulip, narcissus, daffodils and hyacinths with the tops of the bulbs at least six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. It is best to dig the hole at least 10 inches deep and place a two-inch-thick layer of compost on the bottom before positioning the bulbs. If you are planting the bulbs in groups, place the flat side of the bulbs against the outside wall so that the leaves will droop outward, improving the appearance of the planting.
    Do not put sand in the bottom of the hole. The Dutch plant in a layer of sand so the bulbs can easily be cleaned for exporting, as required by law.
    After planting, cover the bulbs with a blend of equal parts soil and compost. The compost-amended soil will not only feed the bulbs for several years but also will allow easy penetration of the leaves and flower stems through the soil.
    If you are having problems with moles, chipmunks or squirrels eating your bulbs, plant a ring of mothballs inside the circle of bulbs but just below the surface of the soil. The mothballs should not make contact with the bulbs or stems. If deer are a problem in the spring, consider sprinkling granular RepellAll around each bulb planting. The deer repellent should be applied at three-week intervals until the foliage has died back.
    Next spring, do not allow the flowers to set seed if you want your bulbs to flower again the following year. The flowers should be removed as soon as they wilt by simply pinching them off. Leave the stem to die back to the ground. Do not roll or braid the foliage if you intend your bulbs to flower again. Rolling or braiding will prevent the foliage from replenishing the bulbs with the food they need.


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

Gas, oil and battery need attention before the freeze hits

There’s lots to do to winterize your boat and motor, and lots of checklists online and at marine stores tell you how. Let me remind you of the steps that can be the most critical.
    Topping off your boat’s gas tanks and dosing with the correct amount of fuel stabilizer is first on the list of must-do’s. Seek out ethanol-free gasoline (E-0), as it is relatively stable during storage.
    Ethanol is an additive present in 90 percent of all gasoline sold in this country. E-10 contains 10 percent ethanol, and E-15 has 15 percent. Ethanol is mandated by the U.S. government to reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources. Modern marine motors are designed to run on all of the ethanol-added fuels, but problems can occur in extended storage.
    Gasoline itself can absorb a small amount of moisture. Ethanol can accumulate 50 to 60 times more, generally from condensation inside the fuel tank. When the ethanol accumulates too much moisture, phase separation occurs. The fuel separates into two distinct layers, a top layer of (now) low-octane gasoline and a bottom layer of water-rich ethanol. Neither of these is desirable in a modern outboard engine. Both can cause damage.
    If your motor will not start or it suddenly runs poorly, phase separation might be the cause. Do not try adding fresh gas, as it will not effectively mix with the separated fuel. Drain the tank and dispose of the spoiled gasoline at a hazardous waste site.
    The next most important step is changing the lower unit oil. The lower unit of an outboard contains the drive gears and prop shaft, rather like the transmission of an automobile. The gears are lubricated by thick 90-weight oil. It’s a good idea to change it every year.
    Winterizing is the best time, for two reasons. First, so you don’t forget to do it. Second, to be sure the prop shaft seals have retained their waterproof integrity. When drained oil has a white or milk-colored tone, your seals are failing and should be replaced.
    If you do not drain your oil and the engine is stored outside over winter, any water that has leaked into the lower unit will eventually separate from the oil and accumulate at the bottom. When temperatures drop below 32 degrees, that water will freeze. Expansion can crack the unit’s casing, disabling your engine and incurring a costly repair.
    Replacing the seals is not a difficult operation, and manuals and websites describe exactly how to do it. If you prefer to have a professional mechanic handle the operation, be sure that you do it over the winter while their workloads are at a minimum. If you wait for springtime, the busiest time of year for marine mechanics, you may wait weeks.
    The last must-do is to disconnect your engine’s battery. Optimally you should remove it from the boat, store it in a temperature-stable area and place it on a maintenance charger. At minimum, it should be completely disconnected.
    Most boat motors, bilge pumps and general electronics are sophisticated enough to include some monitoring devices that will continue to operate even if the unit is off. While drawing only a miniscule amount of power, they will drain the battery over time, then keep it drained. And you’ll need a new battery come spring.

Give yourself plenty of options for catching stripers this time of year

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. With ice in my cooler, a couple of bottles of water and a box of surface lures, I headed out just before sundown for the mouth of a nearby tributary. Planning a top-water assault to repeat a recent evening’s triumph, my hopes were high.
    Everything was perfect: low light, high water, moving tide and no wind. The only missing element was the fish. I worked up and down the shallow shoreline to no avail. Finally, searching in my boat bag, I discovered a lone Rat-L-Trap. On my third cast with it, I finally came tight with a rockfish. However it was only a 16-incher, and worse, it was alone.
    Looking about in frustration I noticed a group of boats working a distant channel edge. Time was running out as I quietly motored near. One look at my electronic finder explained the fleet’s presence. Scattered marks of sizeable fish suspended at 10 feet were along the edge, definitely a rockfish signature. I drifted and cast through the area, allowing my crank bait time to sink. No success.
    The other anglers appeared to be casting assassin-type baits. I dove into my under-seat storage, praying I had some stashed somewhere. Near the bottom, I came up with a small, weathered box of half-ounce jig heads and a couple of old five-inch assassins in white. That would have to do.
    Keeping an eye on the nearest skiff to see if anyone was actually catching, I finally noticed an angler lean over and furtively lip a fish in the mid-20s up and over the side.
    The boats were crowding each other unceremoniously close. It was getting dark. The action would soon cease, if the presence of so many craft wasn’t forcing it already.
    Flipping my jig out and giving it a chance to sink below the marks, I worked it back with an erratic stop and go. It took two or three drifts and a few dozen casts, but I finally hooked a good fish. Letting it run a bit, I began to think I wasn’t going to get skunked. Then it was gone.
    For another hour, I worked the water. As it grew deep dark and the fleet dissipated, I reconstructed my poor decisions. I should have been on the water earlier … I shouldn’t have wasted so much time working a poor method … I should have had a wider selection of baits. Betting all my chips on surface action in one area was too risky.
    The mouth of this river had become recently popular. I knew that rockfish get lure- and boat-noise shy after just a few encounters. I persisted. Yet I knew better — and will do better the next time.
    For spooky fall fish, assassin-type bodies on jig heads tend to be the most reliable bait. Even better are assassins rigged Texas-style with a bullet-shaped head weight and the hook point buried just under the soft body.
    Such bait is virtually snag-free, a real advantage in working the shallows. It will also fish well in deeper water, and it can be retrieved extra slow, allowing the stripers to mouth it, another real advantage with tentative fish.
    As my ace in the hole, I’ll have four or five small white perch in my live well. They might do the trick in the end. It’s hard for a hungry rockfish to resist the real thing.
    As I headed for home, the skunk smell following me, I swore that the next time I would be better prepared.

Three steps to keep them happy indoors

Some houseplants have to be repotted every six months, while others can stay put for two or three years. Frequency of repotting also depends on container size, quality of care, productivity of the rooting medium and frequency of nutrient applications. Annuals — such as grape ivy, begonias and marigolds — have very vigorous habits of growth and should be repotted at least twice yearly. Foliage plants such as ficus, schefflera and crotons tend to grow slowly and can be left alone for a year or two, depending on the age of the plant and container size.

Step 1: If root-bound, repot
    As you move houseplants in for the winter, check first whether they are root-bound. Knock the plant out of its container, holding the still-potted plant with your fingers on each side of the stem, then turning it upside-down amd rapping the top of the container sharply on the edge of a solid table or bench, dislodging the root ball. If it is covered with a solid mat of roots, the plant is root-bound.
    To stimulate root-bound plants to produce new roots, take a sharp knife, and make four or five cuts through the root mat from the top to the bottom of the root ball. Using your fingers, loosen as many roots as possible, and shake out old rooting medium from the center of the ball.
    Unless the roots of a root-bound plant are disturbed during repotting, the plant will stay root-bound despite having fresh rooting medium and a bigger container.
    If using a larger container is not feasible, apply the bonsai root-pruning practice, cutting out one-third of the root mat to allow new roots room to grow.

Step 2: Use active potting soil
    Repot into freshly blended potting medium. Try this recipe: Mix equal parts by volume garden soil (less for plastic or ceramic pots), compost and perlite. Place in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so that it will remain moist.
    Or improve commercial media by adding one-third by volume compost such as LeafGro. Peat moss-blended media shrink over time; avoid them.
    If you have old potting medium, whether homemade or purchased, make sure it is biologically active. Old potting soil that has been allowed to dry out and remain bone dry for months is biologically dead. To make old dried-out potting medium usable, moisten and blend it with either fresh compost or new potting medium.
    Add all the old rooting medium to your compost pile.
    Place some fresh potting medium in the bottom of the container. Replace the plant, adding and tapping down more medium as you go. Using your thumbs, press the rooting medium firmly into the center of the root ball and between the root ball and the walls of the container.
    Leave a half-inch free space between the top of the root ball and the top edge of the container for proper watering. Finally, bounce the bottom of the container sharply on a hard surface so that the loose potting medium fills in the voids.

Step 3: Water generously
    As soon as you finish potting, flood the surface with water several times until you see excess water flow from the bottom of the container. This washes the medium into cavities around the roots. After the water drains, fill with additional medium. Allow to drain thoroughly before bringing inside.
    A later column will explain indoor watering.


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

You’ve got a treasure; take care of it

Back in the mid-1940s, the advent of the spinning reel made angling a popular America sport. Spin reels opened up light-tackle fishing to millions for the first time. The easy-to-use casting mechanism allowed anglers to throw their line, lure or bait a good distance without worry of tangles.
    Penn spin reels became the saltwater standard of the day. By the mid-1970s, their price approached $100. This was a considerable sum, but they were rugged quality reels made in America. You could count on a Penn. The reels were easily maintained with an occasional squirt of oil, and customer service was great.
    If you had problems with your Penn that you couldn’t handle yourself, it could be returned to the company and refurbished promptly in the neighborhood of $10, as I recall, and that included return postage. People treasured and passed down their Penn reels from generation to generation.
    However at the same time, manufacturing of fishing tackle began to shift to offshore anglers, which resulted in lower costs and increased product competition. Design and materials improvement accelerated as angling became even more popular in the U.S., then worldwide.
    As prices dropped, when a reel was damaged or began to malfunction, it became more convenient to replace it than to bear the cost and inconvenience of shipping and repair. Plus, constant technological advances and better engineering made most newer models superior.
    Today’s reels are nothing short of magnificent, and their costs have risen accordingly. Material and engineering development have matured to the point that these mechanisms are not going to get noticeably better in the foreseeable future. As a result, it’s starting to make sense once again to take care of the gear we have, keep it in good working order and maintain it for its full life expectancy.
    Manufacturers have also sensed this change in the dynamics of the market and improved their customer service. Looking online you’ll find all the better tackle companies offering on-line schematics, parts lists and detailed maintenance instructions. Plus, many websites discuss specific repairs and how to accomplish them on virtually every brand and model of spin reel now available.
    More and more anglers are, once again, providing their own intensive maintenance to their reels to ensure performance and longevity and — while they’re at it — even upgrading mechanisms to include friction-free ceramic bearings, carbon-fiber drag washers, newer high-tech low-friction lubricants and, in general, keeping the gear up to any angling task and in top condition for years to come.
    For anglers, the disposable-equipment culture may at last be over.