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Seach the sky for Berenice’s hair and Ariadne’s crown

The moon wanes to last-quarter Tuesday, rising more than a half-hour later each night, providing an increasingly darker backdrop for sky-watching.
    As the evening sky begins to darken, the first lights to appear are the planets Venus and Jupiter high in the west. Then you might notice golden Saturn aglow in the southeast. The next brightest object to appear is Arcturus, almost directly overhead.
    Arcturus is the third brightest star in the heavens and is the lead star in the constellation Boötes. It is a red giant 36 light years away burning more than 100 times brighter than our sun. Its name is derived from the Greek word Arktouros, meaning guardian of the bear. Boötes follows Ursa Major along the ecliptic, while behind it is the constellation Hercules. Closer to either side of Arcturus, however, are two lesser-known constellations.
    To the east of Boötes shines a semi-circle of severn stars, Corona Borealis, the northern crown. By about 11pm, this constellation is almost directly overhead. In Greek mythology, this is the crown Dionysus gave to his bride Ariadne. Celebrating after their wedding, Dionysus threw the crown into the sky, where the jewels turned into stars and the crown became a constellation. The lead star in Corona Borealis is Gemma, almost as bright as the North Star.
    To the west of Arcturus is Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair, most notable by three not-so-bright stars making a 90-degree angle. The legend of this constellation dates back to Queen Berenice II of Egypt, whose husband Ptolemy III Euergetes was away in battle. Praying to the goddess Aphrodite, Berenice swore to cut off her long, blonde hair if Ptolemy survived. Upon his return, the queen kept her word and placed her locks on an altar in Aphrodite’s temple. The next morning the hair was gone: the goddess of love was was so pleased with Berenice’s beautiful hair that she placed it forever in the heavens.
    Venus is at its best this week, ­Saturday reaching greatest eastern elongation — or in layman’s terms, its farthest from the sun, 45 degrees as seen from our earthbound vantage, and thus at its highest point in our sky. As the sun sets, look for the Evening Star high in the west. Hereafter, Venus ever so slowly inches toward the setting sun. By mid-August, Venus disappears behind the sun, reappearing in the pre-dawn sky a couple weeks later.
    Jupiter shines a dozen degrees to the upper left of Venus. The two planets are closing in on each other on the way to a close conjunction at the end of the month.
    Sunset reveals Saturn in the southeast, and by midnight it is high in the south. Even a modest telescope will reveal the planet’s famous rings, which are right now tilted at their best angle for viewing. Roughly 10 degrees below Saturn is orange Antares, the lead star in the constellation Scorpius.

It’s not there just to look pretty

Good mulch should be dark brown, persist for at least one growing season, be compatible with all the plants in the landscape and control weeds by suffocation only. Superb mulch does all that plus providing slow-release nutrients to feed the plants it is mulching.
    Mother Nature provides us with an abundance of mulches every fall. Fallen leaves and pine needles are excellent mulches satisfying every standard except being dark brown.  I have never purchased a bag of mulch in my life. Leaves are my mulch. When they decompose, nutrients are released into the soil, thus feeding the roots of mulched plants.
    Bark mulches do not contain any of the major nutrients used by plants except for calcium. But bark can contain essential trace elements, such as manganese, that can accumulate in the soil and cause problems. Thus it is important to choose mulch that is compatible with the species of plants being mulched.
     If you insist on purchasing brown mulch, I recommend pure pine, spruce or fir bark mulches. These contain 90 to 100 percent lignins, a source of carbon not easily digested by microorganisms. Thus they do not decompose readily and last on the surface of the ground one to two growing seasons. These mulches also contain polyflavanoids, which are beneficial because they help make essential trace elements available to the roots.
    Pine bark is available as nuggets, ground or as pine fines. The nuggets and ground mulches are the most preferred. Pine fines are generally only recommended as a soil amendment to increase the organic matter and help in lowering the pH of soils. Pine mulches are acidic in nature.
    Pine needles can be used as mulch but have a limited life, lasting only two to three months.
    Pea stone makes good mulch providing it is laid over landscape fabric. Brick chips, volcano slag or crushed granite are also usable mulches. But because of their density, they will sink into the soil unless they are placed over landscape fabric. 
    In the vegetable garden, straw — not hay — works as mulch. Even newspapers can be used, applied in 10 to 15 layers and soaked with water immediately to stop them from being blown away. I use shredded paper because it is easier to spread and, once soaked with water, remains in place better than sheets of newspaper. You need not worry about the ink because most black ink is made from soy while the colored inks are organic. I would prefer the old zinc ink because most of our soils here in the East are low to deficient in zinc, a mineral important in our diet.
    Shredded cardboard also makes good mulch. The advantage of using straw, newspapers, shredded paper and cardboard is rapid decomposition without creating nutrient stress. As they are opaque, they control weeds by the shade they create.
    Black plastic and landscape fabric also make good mulch. Black plastic mulches prevent the loss of water by evaporation. But these must be removed at the end of the growing season. Landscape fabric has another drawback in that weeds such as Bermuda grass, pig weed and nut sedge can grow through the fabric, making it impossible to pull them without damaging the fabric. Removing the fabric at the end of the season is also harder because of weeds that have grown through it.
    Next week, I’ll give you more reasons to avoid other mulches.


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

So many variables are at play it can sometimes be baffling

We arrived at our fishing spot at 9am, two hours after the predicted low tide. Consultations with tide and current charts told us that at our location about a quarter-mile below the Bay Bridge, the incoming tide would just be starting. It ­wasn’t; the current was still going out.
    Anchoring and expecting the change at any moment, we set out our chum bag and flipped our baits over the side. After an hour with no tidal change and no action, we headed farther south, reasoning that the outgoing tide would be starting earlier there. Again we were wrong.
    We debated going down the Bay farther still but decided to stick it out. Our fish finder was showing a substantial population in the waters around us. Logically, we concluded that all that we needed was a tidal change and an increase in current to get the stripers feeding. After all, the tide sooner or later would have to change, right?
    Undoubtedly that was true. Yet four hours later it became clear that it was not going to change while we were there. With the tide still inching out and our baits going untouched, we headed home.
    Tides are the result of the gravitational pull of the moon as it orbits the earth. Ocean tides are regular and predictable. It seemed inconceivable that in the Bay an outgoing tide could continue for over 12 hours.
    I decided to renew my acquaintance with how the tidal functions in our great estuary can behave so erratically. The Chesapeake, I was reminded, has a unique and vastly more complex tidal operation than the ocean.
    The moon sets up the basic tidal rhythm of two high tides and two low tides during a typical 24-hour period. But those tidal surges have to travel the length of the Bay, 200 miles. Much can happen in that distance, and many variables can impact the flow of tidal water.
    One of the more important variables is caused by density differences between heavier saltwater coming up from the ocean colliding with lighter freshwater from the Bay’s tributaries. Because of the Coriolis Effect, generated by the turning of the earth on its axis, the incoming tide is always stronger (and saltier) on the eastern side. The fresher water exits the Bay on the western side’s stronger outgoing tides.
    This difference between salt and fresh creates a stratification of Bay waters and generates a secondary circulatory current with the heavier saltwater tending to sink to the bottom as it moves up the Bay and the lighter freshwater tending to float on top and moving south to exit the estuary.
    There are also secondary currents and eddies created as the water moves over different depths. More than 25 percent of the Bay is less than six feet deep, but the channels coursing down its length often average 50 to 60 feet deep.
    Wind is another factor. Sustained high winds can delay, accelerate or even cancel tidal phases. Northwest winds associated with high-pressure areas can push water away from the Atlantic Coast, resulting in very low tides. Northeast winds and high pressure can create exceptionally high tides.
    The interactions of these many variables can also generate seemingly impossible effects. Occasionally currents flow in one direction on the bottom of the Bay and the opposite direction on the top. An outgoing tide that seems to continue for 12 hours can be caused by conditions some distance away and invisible to those experiencing the phenomenon.
    Considering all these forces, the overall accuracy achieved by our tide and current charts is remarkable. It wouldn’t surprise me if the old saying Just go with the flow was coined on the Chesapeake.

Our atmosphere tints summer moons

The moon waxes through the weekend, reaching full phase Tuesday, June 2. This time of year the moon follows a low, lazy arc above the southern horizon. At such a low angle to the horizon, before reaching our eyes the moon’s light must cut through much more of earth’s atmosphere than in winter, when the moon shines high overhead. Gases and trapped moisture within the atmosphere combine to tint the image we see a red, orange or yellow, which explains the names of June’s full moon: the Strawberry Moon, the Rose Moon and the Honey Moon.
    Friday night, the moon is joined by Spica, the blue-white first-magnitude star of Virgo, which is just a few degrees below and to the right of the moon.
    Saturday the moon has pulled westward and is midway between Spica to its right and Saturn to its left. Sunday the moon is less than 10 degrees to the left of Saturn, and Monday it is just two degrees to the the left of Saturn with red-orange Antares a few degrees below.
    Having just reached opposition, its closest point to earth and dead-opposite the sun, Saturn rises as the sun sets, is high overhead at midnight and sets with daybreak. Shining at zero magnitude, Saturn is brighter than it’s been in eight years. Better yet, its rings are positioned to allow the best possible viewing and appear all the brighter so close to opposition.
    Saturn isn’t the only planet visible after dark. Sunset reveals Venus high in the west and Jupiter 20 degrees higher still. Night to night, Venus is gaining ground on Jupiter leading to a grand conjunction in late June. Monday Venus forms a near-stright line with the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor.
    By late-evening the stars of the Summer Triangle are perched above the east horizon. Farthest west is the brightest and the fifth-brightest star, Vega, of the constellation Lyra. Off to the southeast of Vega and almost as bright is Altair of Aquila the eagle. Closing the triangle is first-magnitude Deneb, the head of Cygnus the swan.

Whenever you can

Everything conspired against my going fishing. When I had the time the weather went bad, high winds or rain, sometimes both. When weather was right, my schedule turned on me: guests from out of town, family gatherings and, of course, work.
    When finally I got a break, it wasn’t until the afternoon that I could get away. The worst part of the fishing day is the high-sun, high-heat of the day from noon until at least 4pm. Then again, everyone knows that the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, so I did.
    On the water by 2pm and supplied with some nice, fresh menhaden and a bucket of frozen foul-smelling chum of the same species, a cooler full of ice and a couple of cold bottles of water, I made my way to a spot just off of the mouth of the Severn in 25 feet of water.
    Anchoring and getting set up took about 20 minutes. I had to re-rig my four rods, as the leaders were kinked and scarred from use and the hooks were not particularly sharp. Cutting off about 10 feet of line, I retied it to the swivels, clipped in some new live-lining sleeves and knotted on a two-foot section of 25-pound fluorocarbon for the leader. I finished with fresh and very sharp 7/0 short-shanked bait hooks.
    Setting my chum bag out about halfway to the bottom, I baited up and set out my rods to begin the wait. Wrong time of day, but the tide was making up and in the same direction as the wind, so my lines streamed out nicely from the stern. All I needed was a little cooperation from the fish.
    Three boats were nearby, and the one I had queried earlier indicated that the bite had been dead, so I prepared for a slow afternoon. Then, almost immediately, one of my rod tips twitched. Retrieving the rod from the holder, I released the reel’s clicker so there would be no resistance on the line.
    The spool began to turn, slowly at first, then more rapidly as a fish swam off with my bait. I counted slowly to six. Then put the reel in gear. When the line came tight, I set the hook.
    As I fought this fish, one of my other outfits had a run, the clicker chattering away. I reached over and threw the reel in gear. The fish hooked itself. I threw the other two outfits in gear as well, still struggling with the first fish.
    It was a long battle. By the time I finally netted the muscular devil, all the remaining rods in the holders had bent over double. Laying the gleaming 31-inch striper, still in the net, on the deck, I attended to the three straining rigs.
    The next outfit had a plump 19-incher, which went immediately back over the side. The second rod proved a disappointment as the fish slipped the hook the moment I picked up the outfit. The last rod, though, after another lengthy fight, resulted in a husky 27-inch fish, almost as fat as the first.
    I considered continuing, given the suddenly red-hot bite. But the thought of deep-hooking a beauty that would only have to be released dampened that urge. Looking around at the other boats nearby, I also saw that my good fortune had apparently gone unshared.
    I gave thanks to the fish gods and put my remaining bait and chum back on ice for another day.

Oh the harm it causes!

In 1976, I wrote “Over-Mulching, A National Disaster” for a national trade journal. Nasty letters came from as far as Oregon and California. Forty years later, over-mulching has become a monkey-see-monkey-do calamity.
     Earlier this spring, I spent several days diagnosing plant problems for several landscape architects. In all but one, the problems were caused by excessive use of nutrient-robbing mulches.
    In several instances, well-established plantings of pachysandra were being suffocated by excessive mulch or starved by mulches containing raw wood. Where raw wood was applied around pachysandra, the plants were yellow green and the vegetation sparse. In the areas where four inches or more of mulch was applied, the pachysandra was dead and the stems rotten. 
    In one landscape, several hundreds of square feet of what was once a well established planting of English ivy was killed after having been mulched with Big Red. About three inches had been applied last year, follow by another application this year. I am frequently asked to recommend an herbicide for killing English ivy; from now on I will recommend a heavy mulching with Big Red. Guaranteed to give 100 percent control, organically.
    I saw azaleas with sparse distribution of small purple leaves and struggling in what appeared to be two to four inches of shredded hardwood bark. Soil tests indicated in excess of 300 pounds of manganese. Any level in excess of 80 pounds per acre is considered toxic to the roots of plants. It’s clear from the soil test results that shredded hardwood bark had been applied repeatedly for several years. Since the property owner had hired several yard maintenance firms over the years, she was not aware of what kind of mulch had been applied.
    In one yard I examined a large planting of boxwood with severe symptoms of decline. Digging around the base of the plants, I saw that they had been mulched several times. Over the years I have seen numerous once-healthy and hardy boxwoods killed by mulch. Boxwoods are shallow-rooted plants and should never be mulched. They are drought tolerant, and enzymes emitted by the roots and leaves prevent many weed species from growing around them.
    Most of the landscape maintenance companies were blaming poor drainage for decline or death. However, as I walked on the lawns adjoining these plantings and in the plantings, I saw and felt no symptoms of poor drainage. I augured holes in these areas and found the soil to be well drained.
    The only landscape where I did not see mulch problems was in a yard where water coming from a newly installed copper roof had flowed. Here, the decline in growth and the loss of plants was due to copper toxicity. I could easily follow the flow of water from the downspouts and areas where the water pooled. The solution to this problem was to divert the water away from the plants until the surface of the copper sheeting oxidizes to a brown or gray-green color.
    More on mulch next week …


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

Telltale signs, and how to fight back

That black and white bird with a red cap and yellow belly is not a traditional woodpecker looking for bugs hiding beneath bark. At work making numerous holes all in a circle around the trunk of your tree is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, who then sucks sap from those wounds.
    In early spring, sap migrates to the phloem, the region just beneath the bark, and these birds are eager to suck those juices. Warm days and cool nights make the sap flow hard and furious, and the sapsuckers know it.  
    Sapsucker damage is easy to identify because the birds make one-half-inch diameter holes that penetrate through the bark into the cambium region. The holes are one-half to an inch apart and circle the trunk, starting from about eight feet above the ground up to where the diameter of the trunk is about six inches. Sapsuckers generally do most of their damage before sunrise and in the evening.
     They generally attack smooth bark trees such as magnolia, maple, cherry, apple, crab apple and ash. But I’ve also seen their telltale signs on pine and cedar. The damage they do can be fatal to some species. I’ve seen a southern magnolia so severely damaged that it had to be cut down.
    Why sapsuckers attack some trees more than others is not known. I have frequently seen two southern magnolia growing side by side, one showing severe damage while the other showed no damage.
    It is not uncommon to see hummingbirds feeding on the sap oozing from the holes as well as bees and wasps when the sapsuckers are feeding in the summer.
    Since sapsuckers tend to be skittish, the most effective remedy is to suspend shiny objects to the branches of trees being attacked. Cut 18-inch-long strips of foil six inches wide; twist the foil into long spiral tubes and tie the streamers loosely on branches with cotton string 10 inches to a foot away from the trunk. Space the foil strips two to three feet apart around the trunk. Use cotton string; if you forget to remove it, the cotton will decompose and fall to the ground. Wire or nylon could girdle the branches as they grow larger in diameter.


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

To experience our past, I had to travel to Argentina

“Seven at 11 o’clock,” I whispered. “They’re headed right for us.”
    My son John tensed and hunched lower behind the foliage of the water blind. So did I. Seconds passed slowly as adrenaline seeped through our systems.
    A group of ducks swung to our right to adjust to the wind direction, then cupped their wings to descend. They were about 20 yards away and just over our decoys when I hissed, “Take ’em.”

The Waterfowling Tradition
    I’ve been an avid waterfowler for well over 50 years, ever since my earliest days at my Pennsylvania birthplace near Presque Isle Bay on Lake Erie. When I moved to Maryland many years ago, it was only natural to embrace the Eastern Shore and its long tradition of duck and goose hunting.
    I also submerged myself in the wealth of literature describing the heydays of waterfowling when the Chesapeake was choked with widgeon grass, eel grass, wild rice and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that stopped to feed on their way to southern wintering grounds.
    Over the years, we harvested some fine ducks and geese from the Shore and had some great hunting experiences. We also saw that the migratory bird populations were a mere shadow of their former numbers. Our sporting activities were really homage to the bygone days of water fowling rather than anything close to the original experience. That was lost to the ages.
    Then last winter a long-time sporting friend told me of a place that was perhaps as close to those days as would ever again be encountered. It was the Pampas of Argentina, a giant plain of grass and agricultural fields interspersed with countless lagoons, small lakes and wetlands. It also was sparsely populated — except for waterfowl.

On to the Pampas
    April and May is early winter in Argentina, and the ducks are in full migratory plumage and movement. They are not the glamorous canvasbacks, mallards and redheads of the old Tidewater. But there are vast numbers of American widgeon and cinnamon teal as well as South American species such as yellow-billed pintail, white-cheeked pintail, Chiloe widgeon, speckle-head teal, rosy-bill pochards and black-bellied whistlers, among others.
    Arising each day at 5am and after a quick breakfast, our party of five would shoot ducks until 10am or so. The limits were generous, but we were under a strict allowance of just 100 shells per gun. In the afternoons, we would drive out to the edge of vast millet and sorghum fields and pass-shoot mourning doves from the endless waves of those birds heading for their evening roosts.
    The experience was as close as we would ever come to reliving the glory days of birding on the Bay.

How to plant spring’s flagrant bloomer and its similars

As you continue your spring planting and transplanting, remember that many popular species perform best in acid soils. Among them are the now-blooming beauties azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, andromeda, Japanese hollies, deciduous hollies and blueberries. Oak and sweetgum trees also like acid soils.
    The best time to transplant these species is early spring and, even better, fall, when they’ve stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    Pruning is best done just after blooming, but never on new transplants.
    Success in transplanting these species can be guaranteed if you follow the following guidelines.
    1. Know the Ph of your soil before planting. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. Find directions at al-labs-eastern.com.
    2. Select a spot where the soil is well drained. None of these species will grow in poorly drained soils.
    3. All of these plants — except the trees — are shallow-rooted. The depth of the planting hole should not exceed 90 percent of the height of the root ball. In other words, 10 percent of the root ball should be above grade.
    4.  Add one-third to one-half compost by volume to the soil you removed when digging the hole. Do not bring in imported soil.
    5. Acid soils are generally low in calcium. Incorporate one rounded tablespoon of gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the compost-amended soil and mix thoroughly.
    6. If roots are tightly meshed around the outside edge of the root-ball after you remove it form the container, take a sharp knife and slash the roots at least one inch deep from top to the bottom of the root ball at three- to four-inch intervals around the entire root ball. Cutting the roots hastens root growth into the new soil.
    7. Water the plant well, even if it is raining, and repeat watering at four- to five-day intervals. Never water plants daily.


Is Your Soil Well Drained?

    To test drainage, dig a hole about a foot deep. Fill with water. Fill it again (some sources say immediately; some say the next day).
    Measure the depth with a ruler. In 15 minutes, measure again. How many inches has it dropped? Multiply by four to determine drainage per hour.
    Below one inch is poor drainage; over six is excessive. Anything in between is good drainage.


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

The modern rockfishing boat is a high-tech warship

My phone rang early. It was my friend Frank Tuma, calling to invite me on a last-minute trolling sortie in the Bay.
    Just east of the Baltimore Light, we set out the side-planer boards.
    Side planers are built of three one-inch-thick wooden or synthetic boards approximately two feet long and 10 inches wide. The leading edge of each board is cut at an angle to direct their path through the water. The boards are held about six inches apart by a series of stainless steel shafts. They are pulled along each side of the boat. Floating vertically like blades in the water, the boards are forced away and held fast by heavy 300-pound-test tether lines.
    We began trolling two umbrella rigs, some tandem parachutes rigged with soft shad bodies of both six- and nine-inch lengths, a couple of basic bucktails plus a Big Tony Accetta spoon, giving the fish a wide spectrum of baits to choose from. White, chartreuse, yellow and green were represented in the array.
    We finally began marking fish as we approached Love Point. A few minutes after making the first turn around the Love Point Buoy, a distinct pop announced that a line had been pulled free of its release clip, and one of the 10 rods bent over hard.
    The only downside to trolling multiple rigs on planer boards is that the boat cannot stop to fight a fish, which might cause a massive snarl of lines and lures.
    That means that an angler may be fighting a fish that can weigh upward of 50 pounds while moving through the water at four knots.
    Carl, the lucky man closest to the rod, was an old hand at reining in big fish and was soon inching the heavy fighter closer and closer to the boat.
    Everyone yelled at the first glimpse of the striper. It was a nice fish; perhaps too nice. Easing the big rockfish the last few feet, Frank finessed it into the landing net.
    The slot limit put in place this year by Department of Natural Resources dictate that only fish 28 inches to 36 inches or bigger than 40 inches can be harvested. This one was over 28 but uncomfortably close to 36.
    Quickly working the 12/0 hook out of its mouth, we ran a measuring tape along the big body. Then we squeezed the tail together and measured the overall length again to make sure that we were adhering to DNR’s exacting method for defining legal length.
    It’s not often that you wish a fish smaller, but at 37 inches, this spawned-out female went back over the side and disappeared into the depths of the Bay to swim another day.
    We hit four more stripers that day. Three were undersized, but one struck with massive force, fighting even harder than the first. There had been a good initial hook set and our angler was handling the fish expertly until it charged the boat. Getting the slack in the line it needed for just an instant, the fish shook itself free.
    We went fishless but had a beautiful day on the Chesapeake. All of us had pulled on at least one rockfish, and we still had many days left in the season to score.


Conservation News

    Warnings have been issued that the seaweed (or wormweed) used in Maine to pack bloodworms may be carrying invasive species. Anglers are advised to dispose of the weed in trash receptacles rather than dumping it into the Bay.
    Commercial menhaden processors (mainly Omega Protein) have been demanding more access to the remaining menhaden population (also called alewife, bunker and pogy). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is apparently considering their requests. Drop the Commission a letter and tell them what you think: comments@asmfc.org; 1050 N. Highland Street, Arlington, VA 22201.