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A waterspout may get you if you don’t watch out

I focused on drifting the edges of a Bay Bridge pier, where I was hoping a big rockfish would inhale the chunk of soft crab I was presenting below. Conditions ­couldn’t have been much better, with overcast skies and a slack tide. Then my cell phone buzzed.
    I cleared my line and fumbled with my shirt pocket. Finally, freeing the phone, I heard a familiar voice, my neighbor Capt. Frank Tuma, who was fishing a party just to the north of me.
    “Did you see the big waterspout behind you, just south of the bridge?” he queried. “It’s gone now, but for a few minutes I was afraid it was going to get you.”
    I turned and eyeballed the large, dark and menacing cumulus clouds poised low and close to my position.
    “I wasn’t looking in that direction.” I replied. “Maybe I should have been. Those clouds look like they could make bad things happen.”
    It turned out that some nine waterspouts had been sighted in the middle-Bay that morning. Though I had no close calls with a waterborne whirlwind, Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Maryland Natural Resources Police, had been caught up in that nearby spout while on board a patrol boat.
    It is fortunate that nothing more serious than some brief, brisk winds and a short burst of intense rain descended on the police crew. That is sometimes not the case with these mini-tornados.

Their Rise; Your Retreat
    Waterspouts — dark, whirling funnel clouds descending from stormy skies — form in the Florida Keys more than any place in the world. But the spouts are fairly common from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up Chesapeake Bay.
    Fair-weather waterspouts, such as we experienced that day, are spawned by dark, flat-bottomed storm clouds traveling at low altitude. Typically these waterspouts dissipate before causing damage or injury. Tornadic waterspouts borne of severe weather conditions can be more violent.
    During the hot days of summer, fierce late-afternoon and evening squalls often erupt across the Bay. These small, violent storms are capable of producing more intense waterspouts. Winds have been clocked above 150 mph in ocean-borne tornadic versions, often accompanied by heavy seas, torrential rain, hail and intense lightning. They have sunk or damaged watercraft of all sizes. Violent water spouts are suspected to be the source of some of the mysterious accidents in the Devil’s Triangle off the Keys.
    The primary defense while on Bay waters is keeping an active weather channel open on your marine radio. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard broadcast alert warnings whenever and wherever waterspouts are sighted.
    Avoid a spout by heading at a 90-degree angle away from the direction of the funnel. Evasion might not be possible in poor visibility or if a water spout descends from overhead, as apparently happened to the Natural Resources Police crew. So it is wise to steer clear of any area where the mini-tornados are reported.

When water replaces air in the soil, plants die

If plants are wilting in your gardens despite all of the rain we have been having, it is due to a lack of oxygen in the soil. This is a bigger problem in heavy-loam soils than in sandy loam or loamy sands. Heavy soils become saturated with water faster than sandy soils because the pores are smaller and thus exclude all the air.
    The roots of plants need oxygen to function. We have received so much rain that air in the soil has been replaced by water. If the problem persists for more than a couple of weeks, there is a good possibility that root rot will kill plants. Under these conditions, it is not uncommon to harvest carrots with rotted taproots. Or to see tomato plants developing roots near the base of stems to replace the dying roots killed by excess water in the soil.
    The problem is worse in gardens that have been plowed and/or rototilled at the same depth year after year. Working the soil to the same depth once or twice each year causes a plow pan to form below the tilled or plowed layer. Plow pans are a compacted layer of soil that prevents the downward movement of both water and roots.
    Plow pan can occur in both sandy and heavy loam soil but happens more rapidly in heavy soils. To determine if your soil has plow pan, try pushing a half-inch-diameter piece of pipe or dowel into the soil. If you have plow-pan, you will most likely be able to force the pipe only six inches deep. In many instances, I have uncovered plow pans so dense that I was not able to penetrate them with my stainless steel auger.
    The problem can be solved by sub-soiling with a special tractor-mounted attachment, by double digging or by varying the depth of plowing or rototilling season to season.
    Sub-soilers are plow-like attachments that penetrate the soil to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, forcing the soil upward and fracturing the pan layer. Sub-soiling should be done when the soil is as dry as possible to maximize fracturing of the pan layer.
    If you spade the garden by hand, double digging means that when you first press your spade in the ground, you remove a spade full of soil and place it to one side, followed by removing another spade full of soil from the same hole. In other words, you are digging into the sub-soil, thus removing the pan layer, then blending it with the surface layer of soil.
    You can delay the formation of the plow pan by varying the depth that you plow or rototill. One year you plow or rototill at a depth of three inches, the next four inches, the next five inches and the next six inches before returning to a depth of three inches.


Share the Bounty

    Let others benefit from your gardening skills by contributing surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries. The Bay Gardener donates his surplus vegetables to SCAN Food Bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2, which is open for those in need on Thursday and Saturday from 8am until noon.


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

Rockfish crave spot, but in a pinch white perch will satisfy

I strained to keep my severely arced rod from touching the gunnel as I plunged the tip deep into the water. A large and powerful fish about 20 feet down was intent on crossing under my skiff. Had the line, humming from the tension, contacted the hull it would likely have snapped. On the other hand, if the stressed graphite rod banged the gunnel, it could shatter. I was doing my best to avoid either catastrophe.
    My partner in the bow was handling his own critical situation. He had also hung a big fish that was running deep, equally out of control. Things would soon get worse.

Our Shared Affliction
    Mike Fiore and I often planned to fish together, but either the weather or our work schedules had cancelled out each attempt. This time we hoped it would be different. It was, and in more ways than we had imagined.
    Mike and I work together at Angler’s and often exchange information on where the rockfish are hottest, the best new baits and the hangouts for white perch. I knew the 18-year-old was a skilled angler for his age and that he fished the same kind of gear I did, bait-casting tackle, an affliction not shared widely in the Chesapeake. We wanted to compare techniques.
    Finally we were both free on the same day. Meeting in the early morning, we acquired ice and a bag of bloodworms. We’d agreed that we wanted to live-line for stripers, a technique special to the tackle we both favored.
    The problem with our plan was the scarcity of small Norfolk spot, the number-one bait to live-line for stripers. Once on the water we ­couldn’t find spot the right size anywhere. But we did find some smaller white perch.
    We reasoned that if the rockfish had as much trouble as we did finding spot, the spikey white perch just might work. A sharp-spined, thick-scaled perch is a distant second choice, compared to spot, for predatory striped bass. But if they were hungry enough they should eat them.

Bait in the Water
    With barely enough whities for bait, we headed for the Eastern Shore around the area of the Sewer Pipe. Running well out into the Bay a few hundred yards north of the Bay Bridge,  the pipe is the outflow from a sewage processing plant on Kent Island. Protected by steeply piled rock for the entirety of its length, it creates underwater structure that is a magnet for marine life. That marine life often includes big rockfish.
    A small, tight school of fish below produced marks on my fish-finder that strongly indicated striped bass below. Dropping down a couple of wriggling perch, we lightly thumbed our spools, feeding out line and feeling the actions of the baitfish as they strained for the bottom.
    Within seconds, we’d had that double hookup. We kept the big rock separated as long as we could, but as we drew them close the inevitable happened: Our lines crossed. Mike was fishing braid and I mono, so the situation was dire. Under tension, the ultra-thin braid will slice through mono like soft butter.
    Luckily for us the fish were played out and docile. Though we had a line tangle to undo, both stripers (twins at 34 inches) were quickly netted and in the cooler. Over the next hour we then enjoyed another double header (both released as too big) and then two 26-inch singles to manage our last two keepers. (The daily individual limit for rockfish is two fish over 20 inches, only one of which can exceed 28 inches.)
    That day, white perch were on the rockfish menu and rockfish were on our own.

Okra, for beauty and taste

Okra likes it hot.  Soon the cool-loving cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will have been harvested, leaving a large empty space in the garden. Lots of nutrients still in the garden can be used for growing a crop of okra.
    To get a jump, start young okra plants in three-inch pots.  After filling the pots with potting soil, place two okra seeds in each. I prefer Clemson Spineless, but there are many varieties available. The seeds will germinate in five to eight days, especially if the pots are outdoors in full sun. Keep them well watered. After the seedlings are about three inches tall, take a sharp knife or nail clippers and cut out the smallest.
    As soon as the area in the garden is cleared, transplant the young okra two feet apart in rows at least three feet apart. Or plant them in your flower bed. Purple varieties produce very attractive foliage. As they can grow to a height of four feet, they are best used as a background plant. But make certain they are accessible for harvesting the pods.
    Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The plants will start producing beautiful pale yellow hibiscus flowers with purple or red centers within three to four weeks after transplant­ing. Within two to three days after the flowers have wilted, some of the pods will be ready to harvest.
    To assure quality and tenderness, okra pods should be harvested three to four times weekly, especially during hot muggy days when the plants are flowering daily and growing rapidly. Pods longer than five inches will be woody and not palatable. But with some imagination, they can be dried and used in floral arrangements or Christmas tree decorations. Pods can grow to eight to 10 inches long.
    Okra plants will continue to produce pods into mid to late September. However, the later pods tend to become warty looking and are generally not tender.
    Okra can be breaded and fried, brushed with olive oil and baked for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven and sprinkled with salt, used in making gumbo, pickled or added to a tomato, hamburger and onion sauce. When using okra in sauces, always add the cut okra just before serving to avoid the slimy texture that results from over-cooking.
    I have grown okra in my garden in Deale for the past 24 years without failure. I could never grow it when I gardened in New Hampshire because the summers were too short and cool.


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

Nine-year, three-billion-mile mission to study solar system’s outer limits

As the sky darkens, Venus and Jupiter appear low in the west. While the gap between the two planets is growing, they are both inching toward Regulus, with Venus two degrees below the star Monday and Tuesday.
    Dusk reveals Saturn above the southern horizon with the three stars marking the head of Scorpius beneath it and Antares, the heart of the scorpion, a dozen degrees below.
    Mercury makes an early morning appearance low in the east-northeast a half-hour before sunrise. Don’t confuse Mercury with the much-dimmer star Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, high above to the planet’s right. Aldebaran is visited by the thin waning crescent moon before dawn Sunday.
    While you’d need a massive telescope to see it from your back yard, eyes will be on Pluto this week, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, comes its closest to the distant planetoid Tuesday after a three-billion-mile journey. Back then, Pluto was still the ninth planet. As I wrote at the time:
    Thursday, January 19, NASA launched the space-probe New Horizons on a nine-year mission to our solar system’s outermost planet, Pluto. Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto is also the last planet not viewed by a passing earthen spacecraft.
    Two weather delays were not the only pressures weighing on the launch. The project sparked debate over the craft’s plutonium-powered engines and a possible lift-off explosion. But as New Horizons safely cleared earth orbit, it carried another payload, one closing the cosmic loop: a tiny canister bearing cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh.
    Over the next five months, New Horizons will study Pluto and its moons, of which there are at least four detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to NASA, astronomers hope to determine “where Pluto and its moons fit in with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
    On the 14th, New Horizons will be within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface. But at almost three billion miles from earth, data sent from the probe, travelling at the speed of light, will take more than four hours to reach us.
    Thanks to the near-endless power of its plutonium engine, New Horizons will leave Pluto and delve farther still, into the heart of the Kuiper Belt, a region at the solar system’s outer limits made up of countless icy mini-worlds akin to Pluto.

We found success in a pair of fat stripers at the Bay Bridge

Drifting next to the towering structure, I eased my bait over the side. With only a quarter-ounce weight, it took the chunk of soft crab a while to near the bottom. Thankful that the slow tidal current allowed us to work close on the massive piling, I lifted my rod to be sure that my rig wouldn’t get fouled on the old construction debris below. It was irritating to find that my bait was already solidly snagged.
    I pulled harder in hopes that the rig would break loose but with no effect. Easing my skiff up-current to try for a better angle, I realized that my line’s position in the water was changing faster than the boat was moving. I lifted the rod firmly to test my suspicion. That was when it really bent down. My reel’s drag sizzled as line poured out following something big and deep and now headed in the direction of Baltimore.

Our Last Choice
    The morning for once had started exactly as the weatherman predicted. Overcast skies, light winds and moderate temperatures made a perfect day for fishing the Bay. Armed with a fresh supply of menhaden direct from the netter and a frozen bucket of chum, we were as prepared as possible for a good day. But just for insurance, at the last minute I had also packed a half-dozen soft crabs.
    Arriving on-site with my partner Moe, we noted a friend had beaten us to the fishing. The location, at the mouth of a nearby river, had had a hot bite for the last few days, and we expected nothing less than that this morning. However, our friend did not, have good news. Though the conditions were still superb and he had been grinding chum over the side and set up with bait as fresh as ours, he had not had so much as a nibble.
    Cruising the surrounding waters with my eyes glued to the electronic finder, I confirmed his results. Baitfish galore lit up the screen, but we could mark no rockfish or anything that might have been a gamefish. We headed farther south with the assurance that our friend would call us if the fish showed.
    But there were no stripers at our next spot either, despite the presence of a scattered fleet of boats already anchored and fishing. Venturing even farther south and with similar results, we hadn’t so much as wet a line as the morning wore on.
    Off in the distance I saw the Bay Bridge was not yet clustered with boats, a surprise with the holiday weekend so near. The lack of boats meant that either the structure was still empty of fish or that an opportunity was finally upon us.

One Big Pair
    Our first two tries at drifting soft crab among the pilings were blanks, but our next was golden. After finally spotting some good marks on our screen and dropping our baits, Moe was soon fast to a 25-inch striper. Five minutes later at the same spot, my rod was bent to the corks as my own powerful fish headed away deep.
    It took quite a while to get the fish under control and to the boat. At the last minute, it even looked like our net was too small. But Moe managed the hefty striper in and over the side. After that we boated two or three more rockfish that, while over the minimum legal size of 20 inches, looked meager compared to the beauties we already had in the box. We foolishly released them, hoping for more of the big guys.
    That was when a school of white perch arrived and began gobbling up our supply of softies. With our 6/0 hooks intended for stripers we caught few perch, but within 15 short minutes we were out of crab.
    Though we subsequently attempted to fill out our rockfish limits using our fresh menhaden, it was not to be. The bite proved dead wherever we tried. But with a really nice pair of stripers in the cooler it was hard to be disappointed.

Help these fruit trees recover from two bad winters

The winter of 2013-’14 killed the stems of most of the figs in southern Maryland. However the roots were still very much alive and generated an abundance of new stems from the ground. The robust roots produced stems that were able to produce a few figs. But most stems produced no fruit. They would have this year, except for another killing winter this past year.
    At the northernmost range for growing figs, we have to face the fact that extremely cold winters can mean no fruit.
    Don’t expect to harvest any figs this summer. If the winter of 2015-’16 is equally severe, it is unlikely that roots will be able to generate new growth.
    If your fig plants were killed back again overwinter, by now you should see an abundance of new sprouts originating from the roots. Help your fig recover by pruning out dead stems as close to the ground as possible. To encourage the development of strong sturdy stems, break off all weak, thin stems growing from the roots. It’s better to break off the stem than to prune it. If you cut away the stem with pruners, chances are a vegetative bud will develop in the axis of the stump of the stem and the root, resulting in the growth of a new stem. Allow at least ___ feet between the best-growing stems.
    To break a stem from the roots, I use a four-inch-wide board that’s three to four feet long. I place the end of the board near the weak stem and kick it. This causes the weak stem to shear from the roots, making it highly unlikely that another stem will grow in the same area. Do this while the young stems are green. The roots will be pushing up new stems, so you’ll have to repeat at least twice monthly to remove the previous weeks’ spindly stems.
    Once the stems have started to grow, they will benefit from an application of fertilizer at the rate of approximately one pound per 100 square feet. I generally do not recommend fertilizing figs because it makes them grow too tall, producing less harvestable fruit.
    Plant fig trees on a slope facing south or against the south wall of a building to provide maximum winter protection. I have all of my figs growing again the south wall of a brick house. This exposure provides more warmth from reflective heat from the building and early warming of the soil, especially when the ground is not covered with snow. The soil in a slope facing south always warms sooner than the soil on a slope facing any other direction.


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

No need for fireworks here

While you’re waiting for fireworks in the gathering darkness, impress your friends and family with a quick orientation of the celestial lights popping into view.
    First to emerge in twilight’s glare is Venus, low in the west, so bright you might confuse its twinkling with a jet high overhead. With a little more darkness, Jupiter pops into view a little to the right of Venus. To the upper left of the two planets is Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. The three provide a good contrast in brightness, with Venus blazing at –4.6 magnitude, Jupiter outshining any star at –1.8 magnitude, and Regulus still quite prominent at 1.6 magnitude.
    The month began with Venus and Jupiter less than one degree apart, and on July 4th they are still within two degrees of one another. But they are parting ways, with Venus moving closer to Regulus and Jupiter inching to the northwest and the wake of the setting sun.
    By 9pm, Arcturus, the brightest star of summer is directly overhead. Shining at magnitude –0.1, it is the lead star in the constellation Boötes the herdsman, who tends the bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, which contain the Big and Little Dipper respectively.
    To the east of Boötes is the Hercules, most notable for its trapezoid-shaped keystone. Look for the minor constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, between Boötes and Hercules.
    To the east of Hercules are the three constellations that host the Summer Triangle. The smallest constellation, Lyra, hosts the brightest star, zero-magnitude Vega. From there look for first-magnitude Deneb at the head of the Northern Cross, Cygnus the swan. The final point in the triangle is Altair, the eye of the eagle Aquilla, shining at magnitude 0.8.
    Low in the south-southeast at sunset is golden Saturn at the head of Scorpius. The heart of the scorpion, Antares, shines a dozen degrees to Saturn’s lower left of Saturn twinkles fiery orange Antares, not quite as bright.
    Early risers can spot Mercury above the east-northeast horizon about 40 minutes before sunrise. Binoculars will help pick it out of the growing glow of dawn. Don’t confuse it for Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull, much higher overhead.

If you want to catch fish, you can’t wait for a perfect conditions

Even as we headed out, the day already looked challenging. Wind predicted at eight knots was easily twice that, and my small skiff was rocking and rolling under overcast skies. Donning foul weather coats, we soldiered on, ignoring a chill spray blowing down the port side onto both of us.
    The day before in perfect weather, my short morning scouting run met defeat. In my hour cruise over recently productive areas I had marked nothing, no bait and no rockfish. Running out of time (I had to ferry some house guests to catch their planes that day), gloom settled over me. Where had all the fish gone?
    Now we were trying a more northerly area, heading out just after sunup with a good supply of chum and bait. At our target location, we saw that if the weather got any worse, we would have to pull the plug. Instead, it stayed only miserable.
    I had seen widely distributed marks on my fish finder as we arrived, but the boat was heaving about so that the screen got little detail. Were those marks scattered baitfish, rockfish or both? Were they even fish? I couldn’t even guess.
    The alternatives were simple: Keep looking for better marks or hunker down in the snotty weather (did I mention it was beginning to rain?) in hope the stripers would come to us. We threw in our lot with staying put.
    We finally got the anchor set, the chum bag over the side and our four rods rigged and baited and trailing out nicely in the swift tidal current. As usual of late, the currents seemed to be running at least four to five hours later than the printed schedules indicated.
    It took a long and uneasy half-hour for the first striper to find our baits. My rod tip dipped, then plunged down, and line began pulling off my reel. With the clicker making merry sounds, I dropped the reel into gear. My rod bent nicely as I set the hook. Within a few minutes we had a fat, healthy, 22-inch rockfish in the net. Breathing a sigh of relief, we declared the looming skunk banished.
    It didn’t take long for the next fish, but it was too close to the minimum size, 20 inches, to trust in the cooler (they shrink some once iced, and measuring was difficult in the heaving boat), so it went back over the side. Another throwback, then another came on board. Were we going to be swamped by shorties?
    The next fish answered that question. It was another 22-incher, followed quickly by a 23, then another 23 and we were done, two quick limits.
    Now getting our gear cleared became the problem. We had three rigs still in the water after netting the last fish, and two were bent over from fish running with our baits.
    Struggling to boat the extras, we had to face a disquieting trend. The rockfish now coming over the side were bigger than the ones in the box.
    Exchanging a rockfish already in your possession for a larger one more recently caught is called culling and is outlawed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is also a death sentence for the fish. A significant percentage of fish released in this practise, even if they appear vital, expire from the stress, especially with the warmer water of summer.
    Shrugging off temptation we released the interlopers and headed for the ramp in victory.
    That’s when the sun broke through the overcast, the rain stopped and the wind died to a gentle breeze. As we arrived at the ramp there ­wasn’t a trace of the miserable weather we had endured. It was now a balmy, bluebird day.

It’s harvest time

If you planted garlic last fall, the tails should be at least 24 inches tall, and you should be seeing the tops of the bulbs by now.
    If you, like me, planted elephant garlic, flower heads will now be developing at the end of its tall cylindrical stem.
    Most German, Italian and other soft-neck garlics do not flower. 
    On hard-neck garlic, look for swelling and a pale ring forming near the tip. As soon as the swelling appears, remove the flower head using a sharp knife. A friend removed the flower buds by giving the tail a quick snap. In so doing, he pulled the bulbs partially out of the ground, causing his elephant garlic to produce only small cloves. The cloves and entire bulbs were no larger than those of the Italian white garlic growing next to the elephant garlic.
    As soon as the foliage starts turning yellow-green, push it to the ground using the back of a rake or by dragging a log or timber over the plants. This will help prevent neck rot, which can result in substantial loss in storage.
    Whether hard-neck elephant or German, Italian and other soft-neck varieties, garlic can be harvested for cooking at any time after the stems have fully developed. Cloves will be smaller when harvested early.
    Garlic will be fully developed as soon as the foliage starts turning from yellow to brown. If you intend to store some, delay harvesting until most of the foliage has turned brown.
    Braid soft-necked garlic and hang for drying. It is impossible to braid hard-neck garlic, so it is best to tie the stalks in bundles of three and create a chain of them to hang for drying. I hang my garlic in a shady area in an open garage so air can circulate freely. Allow three or four weeks for drying before placing them in storage.
    All garlics are short-day plants, which is why they have to be planted in the fall when they can be exposed to short-light days after initiating growth. If you wait to plant garlic in the spring, you won’t harvest much of a crop.
    Poor crops are why this will be the last year I try growing short-day onions. Over three years, I’ve found the harvest unworthy of the expense, time and effort. Last fall, I planted some in an outdoor bed, some in a cold frame and some in my greenhouse. Only the plants in the cold frame produced decent-sized bulbs.
    Our winters are much too cold for growing short-day onions outdoors without some protection. A deep cold frame or tunnel is required. Nor do short-day onions perform well in a heated greenhouse. My recommendation is to grow long-day or intermediate onions, planting in the spring and harvesting in August.
    If you planted either this spring, the tails should be at least 12 inches long and growing.
    Of the long-day onions, I find Copra to be the best keeper. Our crop of Copra harvested last August lasted through March. Candy and Superstar are sweet and mild but not good keepers. Big Daddy is the best variety for onion rings.
    As with garlic, push the foliage to the ground to prevent neck-rot and help your crop store better. After harvest, braid the onions and hang — mine are in the garage with the garlic — until the weather turns cold in the fall.


Neck Rot Strikes

Help please! The stems of my garlic and of a friend’s have fallen this year and are lying limp on the ground.

–Bill Lambrecht, Fairhaven

 

The garlic should have been harvested as soon as the stems started turning yellow green. It has a bad case of neck rot. Harvest the garlic ASAP and separate the cloves from each bulb, dry them at room temperature and store them in the top shelf of the fridge.


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