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A healthy garden for a healthy life

Gardening is the most popular of all hobbies, and for good reason. Gardening gives you hours of relaxation and great satisfaction. It is good exercise. It forces you to go outside, bringing you closer to nature. It can be enjoyed by all ages. Getting children interested in gardening can have life-long consequences. On the other hand, you are never too old to start.
    Dorothy Frances Gurney, a poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says it all in God’s Garden:
    The kiss of the sun for pardon;
    The song of the birds for mirth;
    One is nearer God’s heart in the garden;
    Than anywhere else on earth.
     In Maryland, ornamental horticulture is the second largest agriculture income-producing industry. In the U.S., it ranks third. Its popularity increases as we learn more about horticultural therapy and the benefits gained from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially growing your own. Organic gardening has also attracted many into the field.
    Gardens can range in scope from a few potted plants to flowers and herbs to vegetable gardens to an entire landscape. Whatever it’s size, your garden — and satisfaction — will thrive if you recognize that gardening is a science. Many problems can be avoided by following proven practices and by applying the knowledge gained by controlled scientific studies.
    As you imagine your garden over winter, keep a few of those proven practices in mind. Vegetables, fruits, many annual flowers and ornamentals want sun, so locate your garden where it will receive full sun. Nothing — not fertilizers, compost nor pruning practices — can substitute for full rays from the sun.
    Consider your soil, as well. Very few horticultural plants can grow in poorly drained soils. Acid or very alkaline soils are also factors, as many species have very particular preferences.
    Nutrition is as important to the success of growing plants as a proper diet is for our wellbeing. The benefits of organic matter not only include nutrients but also improved soil potential. Chemical fertilizers cannot always substitute equal benefits.


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

Turns out the jolly old elf is a ­gardener himself

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.

The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of compost danced in their heads.

The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose
To settle their roots for the long ­winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow
Protected the roots of the grasses below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all ­gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.

I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.

To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower.
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.

For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

A fungus agent for her compost pit
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.

With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”

Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum;
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.”

–An anonymous gardener’s  take on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 classic

Believe it or not, winter’s here

As the sun sets, look in its wake for Mercury just above the southwest horizon. Binoculars will help. Mercury is on its way up to a fine showing through Christmas and New Year’s.
    Before dawn, Venus, Mars and Jupiter stretch above the horizon in the southeast. A little below Mars is Spica. Saturn rises just before the sun and is far to the lower left of Venus, so low that you may need binoculars to spot it.
    Tuesday at 11:48pm EST, the sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, hovering directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 231⁄2 degrees south latitude. This solstice, literally sun stands still, marks the start of winter for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun rises and sets at its farthest point south, traveling a low, shallow arch from horizon to horizon in the shortest day of the year, with a meager 9 hours 28 minutes of sunlight in Chesapeake Country.
    Watching the sunrise or sunset, you will notice the sun pause for a number of days, but then it slowly inches northward on the sky’s dome. A great experiment for kids of all ages is to use an east- or west-facing window to mark with a grease pen or piece of tape the point where the sun meets the horizon each day or night.
    Solstice coincides with the Ursid meteor shower, which typically peaks at five to 10 meteors an hour but occasionally has bursts of 100 or more. The waxing gibbous moon sets before dawn, so that’s when you’re likely to see the most activity.

Control winter weeds now, as they’ll be bigger come spring

Winter annual weeds tend to sneak up on you.
    Have you looked at your garden lately? When you do, don’t be surprised if you see a green carpet being woven by winter annual weeds. Annual bluegrass, chickweed, cranesbill and henbit are pretty small now. But if you don’t get out there and control them, they will be much larger next spring.
    It takes more than hoeing to bring them under control. If you simply hoe them out of the ground and leave them lie, they will soon generate new roots and resume growth. After hoeing, rake them up and put them in your compost. Adding weeds provides compost with much-needed nitrogen. The weeds are also succulent and full of water, and the little bit of soil attached to their roots provides inoculum to help in degrading leaves. You need not worry about winter weeds contaminating your compost pile with seeds because these weeds are still in their juvenile form and have not started flowering, which they must before they can produce seeds.
    If you prefer not to disturb the soil by hoeing, use horticultural vinegar, to which these weeds are very sensitive. However, you have to spray the foliage thoroughly to obtain good results. Chickweed takes repeated applications because its foliage is very dense with many overlapping leaves. The first application of horticultural vinegar will only kill the exposed leaves. Make a second application after the first layer of leaves has disintegrated.
    Winter weeds will grow all winter long. They can even grow under snow cover. Trying to kill them with organic mulches is a waste of time. I have seen these weeds grow under the cover of mulch. It is surprising how little light they need to survive. However, covering them with black plastic or tarpaper is effective. Avoid black landscape fabric; it has sufficient pin holes to allow them to continue growing.
    Get a jump on spring gardening by controlling winter weeds now.


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

The Geminids can really deliver

Dropping temperatures and long nights — combined with this week’s new moon — make for some of the best sky-watching. The sun still sets well before 5pm, and within another 90 minutes the sky is truly dark. Coupled with the darkness, the cold weather knocks any humidity from the air, providing crisp, undistorted views of the stars and planets.
    As evening twilight deepens, December’s sky is filled with familiar figures. To the west are the lingering constellations of summer, Aquila the eagle, Lyra the harp and Cygnus the swan, the brightest stars from each making the familiar asterism of the Summer Triangle. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, as this time of year it stands upright above the horizon.
    To the north is the familiar shape of the Big Dipper, which is itself a part of Ursa Major, the great bear. Below it is the Little Dipper, host of the North Star Polaris, around which the entire celestial sphere revolves.
    High overhead is W-shaped Cassiopeia the queen and Cepheus the king, which looks more like a bishop’s miter than a king’s crown. Beneath them is their daughter Andromeda, flanked by the square of Pegasus to the west and the hero Perseus to the east.
    Rising in the east in the evening are the constellations of winter. There’s Taurus the bull, pursued by Orion the hunter, his hourglass shape one of the easiest to make out. Trailing Orion is Canis Minor, the Little Dog, and Canis Major, the Big Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. Standing high over the east horizon by 10pm are the Gemini twins.
    Keep your eyes on those two this week, as they are the apparent source for the consistently best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. There’s no interfering moonlight, and unlike other meteor showers, you don’t have to wait until the wee hours for the best of this show. This year’s peak, in the dark hours Sunday to Tuesday, can produce more than 100 meteors in an hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but traced backward they all appear to radiate from Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By midnight this radiant is almost directly overhead.
    The Geminids are unique, in that their parent is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while all other meteor showers are spawned by comets. In either case, as these frozen interlopers near the sun in their orbit around the solar system, some of their matter melts off into bits of stellar debris that burst aflame as they carom into earth’s atmosphere.
    As daybreak approaches, Gemini is high in the west. By that time Jupiter, now rising around midnight, is high in the south, trailed by Mars and much closer to the horizon Venus in brilliant glory

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as in making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring.
    Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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

The pre-dawn display in the east continues this week, with the waning crescent moon joining the show. Early Friday the moon trails Jupiter by just two degrees, with Mars, Spica and Venus stretching down to their left. Saturday, the moon is between Jupiter and Mars, while Sunday the moon hangs almost equally between Mars and Spica. Then Monday the moon shines barely one degree to the right of Venus, easily within the field of view of binoculars, a modest telescope or a camera. Tuesday you’ll be hard-pressed to spot the last of this thin crescent, now a dozen degrees below Venus. Venus, the brightest of all stars and planets, is sinking lower day by day, while Jupiter, Mars and Spica are climbing higher and rising earlier.
    We’re still a few weeks from the December 22 solstice, but Tuesday is our earliest sunset of the year.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


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

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.

The bright stars of the Summer Triangle linger at sunset, with Deneb in the constellation Cygnus almost directly overhead, brighter Vega in Lyra to the west and Altair of Aquila to the south. As they set in the west, the stars of the Great Winter Circle shine in the east.
    Find the hourglass-shaped Orion, marked by Betelgeuse at the shoulder and Rigel at the foot. From Rigel look to the southeast to Canis Major’s Sirius, the brightest star visible. Higher and to the east is Canis Minor and its star Procyon. Arc the northwest to the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor. To the west is Capella in the constellation Auriga. Below that is Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus, and back to Rigel completes the circle.
    The waning gibbous moon moves through the Winter Circle at the end of the week. By the early morning of December 2, the last-quarter moon is a few degrees below Regulus in Leo the lion, and before dawn December 3 and 4 it is close to the planet Jupiter.
    Well below Jupiter but much brighter is Venus. Midway between them is fainter Mars. Saturday the first-magnitude star Spica is within five degrees of Venus.