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Last winter was hard on this easy-to-grow fruit tree — but not fatal
The winter of 2013-2014 was so severe that it killed fig trees back to the ground. Many plants also suffered severe rabbit damage at the base of the young stems with smooth bark. Rabbits eat the smooth brown bark at times when other food sources are scarce.
 
As we are located at the northern climatic range for growing figs, we need to anticipate winter damage at least once every 10 to 15 years. According to my records, the last time fig plants were killed back to the ground was during the winter of 1997-1998.
 
If the stems and branches are not exhibiting new growth by early June, the tops of the plants have been killed. However, if you look closely at the ground beneath you should see new shoots emerging from the roots.
 
Cut the dead stems as close to the ground as possible and use them next winter for starting the fire in your fireplace or wood stove. Fig wood ignites very quickly and makes good kindling. 
 
Allow the new shoots to grow two to three feet tall before thinning. To avoid crowding, allow at least 3 feet of space between new stems. Select only the more vigorous stems to develop and prune out the unwanted ones. Do not simply break them away but use clean, sharp pruners to remove stems close to the roots. If you break the unwanted stems, you are likely to see additional sprouting that you will have to remove later.
 
This year’s new growth will not produce figs. If you do see figs developing in the axils of the leaves, rub them away with your hands. Allowing the fruit to develop on the new growth will weaken and dwarf the stem.
 
Allow the new stems to grow five to six feet tall before pruning away the tip of each. Tip pruning will stimulate multiple branching, which will provide more fruit for the coming years and prevent the stems from getting too tall. Preventing the stems of figs from growing above six feet facilitates harvesting. 
 
I have never fertilized my figs in the 20 years that I have been growing them here in Deale. Fertilizing figs makes them difficult to manage. If the summer foliage has a good dark green color, it is best not to fertilize them. The plants will tolerate a wide range of soils and are not sensitive to different soil pH.  
 
Figs are a fruit crop that I recommend to home gardeners because they require little attention and never need to be sprayed. Pruning to facilitate harvesting is all the attention they need. 
 
If rabbits are a problem there are several preventions. Surrounding the area with two-foot-tall chicken wire is the simplest if you have an extensive planting. If you only have a few plants, there are white plastic wraps that expand as the trunk grows. You can also solve the problem by loosely wrapping the trunks with two layers of chicken wire.
 
There are several varieties of figs offered by mail order nurseries.  I grow Brown Turkey (pictured) and Golden Egyptian. I have not seen any differences in hardiness between these two varieties.  Both were killed to the ground this winter.
Some days, they listen
It was an ideal morning at Hacketts Bar (38° 51'; 76° 25'). A flood tide was just making up, a gentle southerly wind caressed the waters and the sun was hidden by a thin cloudbank that permitted just the right amount of warmth to permeate the air. 
 
The anchored fishing boats were strung out more or less in a line from just off of the green can in 25 feet of water due east to depths of 40 or more feet. We had anchored up in the middle, our chum bag trailing from a stern cleat and our baits settling nicely. Within minutes, we had action. 
 
My fishing partner was Vince Ransom who had accompanied his wife, Tarin Fuller, down to Annapolis from their art gallery, Iandor Fine Arts, in the Ironbound area of Newark, New Jersey. They were spending a few days with my sculptor wife and me in an artists’ meeting combined with a bit of fishing.
 
Vince once lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, becoming an insatiable angler, but he had been unable to continue his sport since moving to New Jersey. I hoped to help him remedy that.
 
We had four rods out using cut menhaden for bait. His was the first to go down. I netted a nice seven-pounder for him a few minutes later, and his long fishless spell was finally broken. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,” he said. His demeanor had changed, his whole frame relaxing, his face beaming.
 
Usually when you’re trying to show someone an especially good time on the Bay, things don’t go the way you planned. This time was different. Vince must have had a pile of charitable acts banked in his karma bin because his baits were seldom without some kind of attention from the rockfish.
 
We had several throwbacks and a few shorts, but we released all the fish under 23 inches and little by little we accumulated some very nice rock in our cooler. For the last fish, we chose to hold out for over 30 inches. That strategy is often self-defeating and this time appeared no exception. The bite stalled. 
 
We made to pull up our gear when I had a good run. I missed the strike, but we stayed put, thinking a new school of fish was arriving. But nothing happened until we made ready to move yet again. Vince immediately had a strong fish on, but the hook pulled.
 
Our remaining bait was running low with all the attention from the throwbacks, and we were also running out of time. But I believed Vince had some special juju, and we were going to capitalize on it or go home short a fish.
 
By this time getting a bite with every decision to move had become a running joke. We began threatening a move whenever we had gone a while without something nosing our baits. Eerily, a bite or a fish (though not a keeper) was almost always the result.
 
Finally, with just a chunk or two of menhaden left, I called out over the stern: “This is the very last time. We are going to go, and we need a big fish, not one of these little guys you’ve been sending us. And we need it right now, or we really are going home.”
 
I know that sounds silly. But what is more preposterous is that Vince’s rod promptly bent over in the holder, line screaming off the reel. Fifteen minutes later I netted a gleaming, 34-inch striped bass fat as a fireplug, the biggest fish landed on my boat this year.
 
If you’ve been on the water long enough, you know that peculiar things can happen.

When you get your fish, all’s right with the world

When you’ve gone through a long series of skunks — as anyone who has fished much has — you start questioning your skill. Where were you going wrong? What else could you do? Serious uncertainties also creep in: Was the past season’s long string of successes real?
    That’s about the way I was thinking the other day, anchored a bit south of Hackett’s with only one other boat near. The finder screen was lit up like a fireworks display, but once again my baits went untouched.
    After almost an hour, one of the rod tips began to twitch. It stopped. I lifted the rig and moved the bait just an inch or two but felt no resistance. My heart was heavy. It had been a long spring with virtually no success chasing rockfish. Either the weather or the bite — or both — had been consistently horrible.
    The morning had started badly. Having gone to bed with excellent weather and good tides forecast for dawn, I opened my eyes at the appointed hour to the sounds of an approaching jet. Then I realized that it wasn’t airplane noise at all, it was thunder, lots of it.
    Another fishing trip scratched, I feared. Would things never go my way? Then, as if in answer, rain drummed down on the roof as if being poured from a giant bucket.
    I got up, reluctantly, to call my partner to cancel. But by the time I had a cup of coffee and picked up the phone, the skies had cleared and the sun was bright. Could lady luck be smiling at last? Or was she toying with us?
    Once on the Bay, we looked out over calm waters and a nicely moving incoming tide. It was looking good, but I steeled myself for more disappointment, reminding myself that dry spells make the good bites that much more enjoyable. But it was getting to be a very difficult sell.
    Then a rod tipped down with a serious run, the reel chattered as line poured out and all of those dark thoughts vanished. Feeling the weight of a good fish heading off against the drag, I smiled.
    It was a lively fight for a few minutes before my partner slipped the net under the six-pounder — and just that quickly our day had changed.
    As I buried the thick fish in ice and gave my buddy, Moe, a fist bump to celebrate the end of our rotten luck, another rod slammed down hard in its holder, and a 10-pounder took off for the other side of the Bay.
    With a couple of throwbacks and a pulled hook or two, we collected our limits in short order. The summer had officially started, and that miserable series of fishless days receded into the dim and forgettable past.
 

Time your pruning for both desirable growth and flowers

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

Let it guide you through the night

Friday evening, look in the wake of the setting sun low in the west-northwest for the nascent crescent moon and Mercury. Mercury is just a few degrees to the upper right, but both are so close to the horizon that you may need binoculars and you won’t have long. Within 90 minutes of sunset Mercury is gone. And that window is shrinking each day. Mercury is surprisingly bright — equal to any star. But don’t confuse its white glow with the much brighter and golden hue of Jupiter, 20 degrees higher.
    By sunset Saturday, the moon has climbed well above the horizon, leaving Mercury in the dusk. Now the thin crescent is just seven degrees below Jupiter, easily the brightest object other than the moon. The moon, Jupiter and Pollux higher still form a near-straight line.
    Sunset Sunday finds the waxing crescent moon well positioned in the west. Jupiter shines 10 degrees to its right, while below and to the left, making a wide triangle, is the first-magnitude star Procyon. The eighth-brightest star in the heavens, Procyon is one of two bright stars in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
    Monday the moon is amid the dim stars of Cancer. Look a few degrees to the right of the moon for a dim patch of light at the constellation’s center. Unlike the sharp, clear light of a star, the hazy glow you’re seeing is the combined light of hundreds of newborn stars within the Beehive Cluster 570 light years away. While our own sun is 4.5 billion years old, the stars of the Beehive Cluster are only 600 million years old, mere infants in the life of a star. Binoculars are enough to distinguish dozens of these lights; a modest telescope reveals many more.
    Tuesday and Wednesday the moon is several degrees to either side of Regulus, the blue-white heart of Leo the lion. Regulus marks the dot at the base of what looks like an inverted question mark, called the Sickle of Leo.
    As twilight turns to darkness, Mars glows like an ember in the south. Far to the lower left is Spica. The red planet sets around 3am.
    Saturn shines in the southeast at sunset, is high in the south around midnight and sets in the west around 4:30am. The ringed planet is flanked by the two brightest stars of Libra — both second-magnitude — Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus appears low in the east. At –4 magnitude, there’s no confusing the Morning Star for anything but an airplane or satellite — except that it holds steady in place until daybreak.

Plan to dig, separate, store and replant in fall

As years pass, clumps of daffodils, narcissus, jonquils and hyacinths become crowded, resulting in smaller flowers. Shrunken flowers mean it’s time to dig and replant. Wait until after all of the foliage has died back to the ground.  
    Mark the location and flower color of clumps to be divided before all the foliage is gone. Make a large plant label and stick it in the middle of the clump.
    Dig with a garden spade, starting at least six inches away from the outer circle of dead leaves.  Assume the bulbs are now deeper than the original planting depth: Bulbs are equipped with contractil roots that pull them deeper in the ground at the end of each growing season. This is a survival feature as bulbs originated in arid regions. Thus when digging bulbs that have been in the ground for a long time, you’ll have to go two to three inches deeper than the original planting depth so the bulbs can be lifted from the ground without damage.  
    After you’ve lifted the bulbs from the ground, shake away loose soil; do not separate the bulbs from each other until after the soil has dried.
    Then separate the clusters of bulbs from each other and thin them, allowing only two or three daughter bulblets to remain attached to each large bulb. Dust the bulbs with a fungicide such as a five-percent solution of Captan. Place them in an onion bag and hang in a cool, dry place to protect them from rodents.  
    In late September or early October, the bulbs will be ready for planting.  To avoid future overcrowding, dig the planting hole at least 10 inches deep and amend the soil in the bottom with compost. The top of the each bulb should be at least eight inches below the surface of the soil. The deeper bulbs are planted, the fewer daughter bulbs they will produce because there is less oxygen available. Less propagating means less crowding.


Stink Bug Report

    A report from the University of Maryland Department of Entomology indicates that research at Virginia Tech found colonies of stink bugs that wintered unprotected outdoors have been killed by severe cold temperatures. 
    If this is true, it will help considerably in reducing the population, but it will not exterminate them. Stink bugs that managed to overwinter in the cracks and crevasses of homes and heated buildings will persist.
    Based on the invasion we are experiencing at Upakrik Farm in Deale, the cold winter has not made a dent in the stink bug population. On warm days, they pour out of their winter hideaways.
    The pheromone traps I tested last fall never attracted a single stink bug.
    The only defense that has been 100 percent reliable in capturing stink bugs is the Bugzooka. This vacuum gun sucks them into the barrel without killing them and smearing their stinking guts on windows or woodwork. It is fun to use and gives you the feeling of sweet revenge. Order at www.bugzooka.com.


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

Hundreds of shooting stars possible this weekend

If you’re not a night owl, you’ll want to set your alarm clock for early Saturday. Before dawn that morning, earth will plow through the trail of a newfound comet, providing what many astronomers are predicting to be the best meteor storm in years.
    Comet 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun over a five-year period, yet it was only discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project. It belongs to a family called the Jupiter Comets, which are steered and propelled by the gas giant’s own gravitational pull. Every so often, these comets come a little too close to Jupiter, and like a leaf buffeted by the wind, their course is set anew.
    That’s what happened in 2012 to Comet 209P/LINEAR. Not only did it alter the comet’s path, but it also warped the centuries-old trails of debris left with every five-year passing. Now the comet’s path comes within 280,000 miles of our own orbit — little more than the moon’s distance from earth.
    Not that the comet will actually pass that close to earth. At its innermost point of orbit, 209P/LINEAR is 90 million miles from the sun — roughly the same distance from the sun as earth, give or take a few million miles. May 29 the comet will be just 5.15 million miles from earth, the ninth closest approach by a comet ever recorded.
    Even at its closest, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to spot this small, dim chunk of ice and rock without a decent-sized telescope.
    In this case the sizzle is far better than the steak, thanks to the countless bits of dust trailing in the comet’s wake after hundreds of years circling the sun. Between sunset Friday and dawn Saturday, earth plows full-steam through these bands of accumulated inter-stellar flotsam.
    Astronomers are predicting a brief but intense period of activity, peaking around 3am with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of meteors an hour. Some models even predict a meteor storm with as many as 400 meteors an hour! And unlike most prolific meteor showers, which streak past in a matter of seconds, those from P/209 LINEAR will drift through the sky like falling snowflakes.
    Cloudy skies? Check out the meteor shower via a live feed starting at 1:30am Saturday at http://tinyurl.com/olywq6k.
    The waning crescent moon won’t interfere with the meteors, but it will make a nice appearance with Venus low in the east before dawn Sunday morning.

Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish

This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
    Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
    Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.

Hooked on Fishing
    Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
    It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
    My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
    For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
    By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
    These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
    In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
    Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
    These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.

And one bright, streaking light

As the sky grows dark, the first light you’re likely to spot is Jupiter high in the west, slipping toward the horizon and setting around midnight. Above it are Pollux and Castor, the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. Orange-hued Pollux is the 17th brightest star, and white-hot Castor is the 23rd brightest. But at magnitude –2, Old Jove is exponentially brighter.
    Mars is another easy target, appearing high in the south at dark and setting in the west around 3:30am. While it is no brighter than a strong star, its steady red glow stands out among the stars.
    You’ll have to hunt for Mercury amid the ashen light of sunset, when the innermost planet hovers within 10 degrees of the west-northwest horizon. Mercury reaches its farthest point from the sun on the 25th, when it appears 15 degrees above our horizon at sunset and remains visible for almost two hours. These next couple weeks are the best chance all year to see this elusive planet at night. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights look for Mercury between the two stars that mark the horns of Taurus the bull.
    As Mercury sinks toward the northwest horizon, Saturn rises in the southeast. The ringed planet is also making its best nighttime appearance of the year and shines overhead from dusk until dawn. Below it snakes the form of Scorpius punctuated by red-glowing Antares.
    Venus is brilliant as the Morning Star low in the east at dawn. It rises around 5am, and as daybreak nears it blazes from its perch 15 degrees above the horizon. Keep an eye on its leisurely climb and you can spot it shining through the glare of early morning.
    Another bright light pierces the darkness this week, as the International Space Station makes several good appearances. At its dimmest, the ISS rivals any star; at its peak, it can rival Venus. But while the stars and planets give you time to pause, the space station streaks by in a matter of minutes. Traveling 17,000 miles an hour, it orbits the earth every 90 minutes. Unlike the lights from a passing airplane, you aren’t seeing the lights aboard the ISS. Instead, hovering 250 miles over the planet, the station receives plenty of sunlight, which is reflected back to our eyes.
    Friday morning the ISS appears in the southwest at 5:16am, climbing toward the celestia zenith, then disappearing in the northeast at 5:20. Saturday it appears almost 30 degrees above the south-southwest horizon at 4:30am, climbs another 30 degrees, then vanishes three minutes later in the east-northeast. Tuesday the station appears almost directly overhead at 3:42am and shoots to the north before disappearing two minutes later. For more detailed sighting opportunities, visit http://spotthestation.nasa.gov.

The female harvest is the ­tipping point

Maryland’s favorite crustacean is in serious trouble, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2013 Winter Dredge Survey for blue crabs. Once again, the species is teetering at the edge of collapse.
    The numbers approach population levels in 2008, when the feds labeled the fishery a disaster.
    DNR reads this year’s numbers differently: “crabbing is at safe levels,” according to a recent press release. “The crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year.”
    That interpretation begs comment.
    During the six-year period of presumably safe harvest levels, the overall crab population plunged by at least 70 percent. Is that not alarming?
    Commercial and recreational harvest limits are the primary management tools for controlling crab populations. But they went virtually unused for six straight years.
    Anson Hines, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, confirms fears about continuing difficulties with Chesapeake blue crab populations.
    In the 2008 crisis, part of the problem was harvest quotas based on flawed science. DNR had long claimed that the female blue crab spawned only once in her lifetime, so any size mature female could be taken without reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.    
    When that science was revisited, it was found that mature females spawn again and again. The overall female population, quite possibly, was the key to blue crab stability.
    By then, crab numbers were so low that the natural resources departments in both Maryland and Virginia — plus the Potomac River Fishery — began cooperating to rebuild the devastated species for the first time ever.
    In 2008-2009, winter dredging of dormant females in the Virginia portion of the Bay was halted. Maryland attempted to reduce fishing of females down the Bay in the fall. These actions achieved unprecedented protection for females throughout the Bay.
    These moves were a particularly big deal for Virginia because the crabbing industry in the lower Chesapeake depends significantly on female crabs. As the females prefer the higher salinity of the southern waters, their numbers are densest there. That’s also where all blue crabs spawn. This sparsely populated area relies on commercial fishing for jobs and income. Most of the cost of the fishery reduction was absorbed by Virginia watermen.
    The cutback led to a swift and extraordinary population resurgence. Within two years, the blue crab population rebuilt itself. The Bay saw some of its best recent crabbing seasons.
    But with that population build-up came commercial demands for renewed access to the females.
    During all of these periods of crisis, harvest of females continued under varying degrees of limitation throughout the Bay.
    The harvest of immature female blue crabs by the soft crab industry has never abated. Tens of thousands of small (three-and-a-half-inch minimum size), immature, never-spawned peeler and soft-phase females are harvested with scant control over limits.
    Just four years ago, recognizing at some level a population decline in progress, DNR made keeping female hard crabs by recreational crabbers illegal.
    That move generally transferred that portion of the recreational harvest over to the commercial sector. DNR did little else to abate the harvest of the sooks. What followed was the ecological crisis of 2014.
    This situation points to a serious and continuing shortcoming in the philosophy and management of the species. Based on DNR’s own statistics, from 1990 to 2000 the population of reproductive females in the lower Bay declined by more than 80 percent during the spawning season. The population remained at record low levels until 2008 and triggered the declaration of disaster.
    Now again in 2014, populations are back to seriously low levels, quite possibly because of the continuing and substantial commercial harvest of female crabs. Is that policy wise?