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Last year, I started from seed and had my biggest and best crop ever

If you planted garlic last fall, it now needs mulching with compost. I use compost made from either crab or lobster waste. Both have a good supply of calcium and a medium to high level of slow-release nitrogen for when soil temperatures rise above freezing. Mulching also protects these shallow-rooted plants from rapid temperature changes.
    If you plan to grow onions this spring, consider growing your own seedlings. Last year, instead of purchasing seedlings from Texas, I grew all my onions from seed and had the biggest and best crop ever. Since onion seeds are slow to germinate, seeds should be sown in prepared potting blends before the end of January. I highly recommend Copra and Candy. Both are good keepers, and Candy is as mild tasting as any Vidalia onion.
    Sow the onion seeds approximately a quarter- to a half-inch apart on the surface of the soil. Cover lightly by placing potting mix on a piece of window screen and shaking it over the seeds. Water well. Locate the containers where the soil will remain about 80 degrees. Onion seeds will germinate in about two weeks at this temperature.
    Once most of the seeds have germinated, place the container in full sun at a window facing south, as onion plants will grow in cooler temperatures. As daylight hours get longer, you will observe increased growth. Once the seedlings reach three inches tall, start making light applications of liquid fertilizer at three-week intervals.
    By mid March to early April, the onion plants will be five to six inches tall and ready to transplant into the garden. Onion plants are very cold-tolerant and can be planted early. They do best in soils rich in compost. I incorporate an inch or two of compost into the soil just prior to planting.
    If you prefer large onions, space the seedlings at least six inches apart. For smaller onions, space them four inches apart. I grow mine in solid blocks with spacing either six by six or four by six inches. I like the six-inch spacing between rows so that I can cultivate with my onion hoe. After the soil has been prepared, use a dibble to make the planting holes. Then, using your fingers, lift the onion seedlings in clusters from their rooting medium. Separate the seedlings, putting one in each hole. After all of the seedlings have been planted, use a stream of water to wash the soil into the planting holes to cover the roots.
    Once the onions start to bulb in June, stop cultivating the soil between the rows. The slightest amount of mechanical damage to the skin of the bulb will induce rot.
    As soon as the tails of the onions show yellow and browning, use a rake and knock down the tails to prevent neck rot microorganisms from entering the stem. Neck rot will spoil your onions when you put them into storage as summer ends.


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

Once upon a time, this fish meant food and sport in early spring

Mention the word gudgeon to any Bay angler, and you’ll usually get a quizzical look. It was not always so.
    The gudgeon (Gobio gobio) is a small (up to five inches) schooling fish of the carp family that lives in our brackish waters but spawns in fresh water. They will sometimes appear in good numbers in our tributaries in early springtime, sprint to more lonesome areas to procreate, then disappear to whence they came.
    Francis F. Beirne, a Maryland historian, documented the gudgeon runs in his 1951 tome, The Amiable Baltimorean (reprinted in 1984), as a long-ago springtime obsession. Describing schools of the little fish in the “tens of thousands pulsing up the Gunpowder watershed” in the early 1920s, he noted crowds of waiting anglers, armed with slender cane poles, sewing thread for line, a small bobber and a tiny hook baited with a pinch of worm.
    The catches were often in the hundreds. Cleaned, dusted with seasoned flour and fried a crispy brown, along with red-skinned potatoes, the gudgeon were a gourmand’s treat. Over intervening years the runs have fallen with the quality of our waters.
 

    The presence of gudgeon each springtime is not limited to the Gunpowder River; the fish can be found in most of our freshwater tributaries. Their timing is impossible to predict, but most schools appear coincidently with those of the herring and hickory shad. Dogwood blossoms predict the peak of the season.
    The fish are rarely caught accidentally because of their small size and smaller mouths, so an angler has to be fishing for them purposefully with hooks originally designed for trout flies (size 22 through 14), lightly weighted and fished off the bottom, usually with a tiny bobber. Rarely these days, the schools can be spotted nearer the surface circulating through the swifter waters, awaiting the proper conditions to continue upstream to spawn.
    Approaching the fish with a fly rod, a floating line and a tiny, bright-colored silver or gold fly can also be an effective method of catching them. Hildebrandt Lure Co. makes a small, Flicker Spinner fly rod lure in size 0 (1⁄32 oz.) that may be effective and can also be used with a light spin rod with a small bobber for casting weight.
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources does not regulate gudgeon specifically. It is considered in the same vein as our other common minnows and can be harvested similarly. For hook and line or dip net, there are neither limits nor closed seasons. Keep in mind, though, that their numbers are limited, so if you happen upon a good concentration of them, moderation is prudent.
    It may seem like an outsized labor to catch such a diminutive fish, but it connects us to an old Maryland angling and dining tradition.

Put those seed catalogs to good use

Perhaps you have received seed catalogs for the coming spring planting season. On the the front and back cover you will likely be encouraged to order early to receive bonuses or discounts. Many seed companies also offer free shipping for early orders. You can save quite a bit if you take advantage of these special offers.
    My method for ordering seeds begins with selecting at least three different catalogs that I have purchased from in recent years. After I have made an inventory of the leftover seeds from 2016 season, I go through each catalog selecting the seeds I need to purchase for this coming season. Expect to substitute some favorite varieties that are not available. Initially I complete three or more order forms. This is a good task after you have cleared the dinner table.
    After I total the cost from each order form, I compare prices, including shipping and handling and the specials that each catalog offers. Since I am always testing new varieties, I make it a point to review all of the information provided on each variety, especially when my time-tested varieties are not available.
    Before I make my final decision on which catalog I will order from, I check the total cost of the seeds with the shipping and handling charges. Most catalogs have a shipping charge based on the total cost of seeds. I base my final selection of seeds by either subtracting or adding from my wish list seeds to minimize the shipping and handling charge. You can save more money by following this procedure.
    Consider these factors as you plan your order.
    1. Expect to pay more for hybrid seeds because of the labor and technology involved in producing them.
    2. Order only what you expect to use in one season. Not all seeds have the same shelf life. The longer you store unused seeds, the lower the germination rate and the longer the germination time. So pay attention to the number of seeds included in each package. I find that many gardeners order more seeds than needed, thinking that seeds can be stored forever.
    3. Organically grown seeds may not be worth the price you pay. What determines if the fruit or vegetable is organically grown is the method of culture. With chemical fertilizers and pesticides or with compost, animal manures or organic fertilizers and without pesticides?
    Fruits and vegetables grown using conventional methods have the same nutritional value as those grown organically. I recently listened to a discussion between dietitians confirming what a graduate student of mine found in the 1980s in an extensive study comparing the nutritional value of snap beans grown organically versus those grown conventionally. The results clearly indicated that the fiber content and nutritional value were similar. The only difference was harvested yields. Bean beetles and the bean weevils caused a 20 percent loss in beans grown organically.


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

Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky

Shivering, I resettled my stool, a plastic five-gallon pail, and reached for the skimming spoon. Easing over to the two holes we had spudded in the six-inch-thick ice an hour earlier, I scooped the already thickening slush threatening to close them. Meanwhile, I hoped that my mother hadn’t noticed her favorite slotted spoon missing from its peg in the kitchen.
    That long ago late January, temperatures were in the low teens as a friend and I perched, cold and uncomfortable, on the middle of the solidly frozen Presque Isle Bay. The sheltered piece of water is formed by a sandy 3,200-acre peninsula about halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo on Lake Erie.
    We were keeping a close eye on the tiny ice fishing poles perched at the edge of the two ice holes. Around us were scattered the trophies of our angling efforts: yellow perch, crappie and a few bluegills, frozen rigid within minutes on the ice.
    It takes at least four inches of the hard stuff before it is safe to venture forth. (Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky). When that happens, you are in a mesmerizing environment.
    The problem with Maryland winter, from my perspective, is that temperatures usually don’t remain low enough for long enough to support winter sports, like ice fishing.
    Except for one spot: Deep Creek Lake State Park. The largest lake in the state with 69 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 25 feet, Deep Creek is in Garrett County at the southern edge of Meadow Mountain in the Allegheny Highlands, where it frequently gets cold enough, long enough, to fish through the ice.
    Yellow perch are one of the more common catches there, fat and muscular in readiness for their impending spawn. Big crappie, too, often over 12 inches, plus large bluegills and occasionally some walleye, pickerel and northern pike.
    Garrett Hoffman is a recognized ice-fishing expert there, fishing the area since he was nine years old. A DNR-certified guide, Hoffman also has the specialized equipment to enjoy the sport to its fullest.
    Tip-ups are small ice fishing outfits designed to be placed right in your 10-inch diameter fishing hole. A small attached flag springs up smartly when you get a bite. The springing action also produces enough tension to set the hook, so all you have to do is reel in your catch.
    Small (24-inch) specialized spin rods are also available for jigging, one of the more productive methods of enticing the slow-moving fish, swimming in 33-degree water, to bite. Fathead minnows are the best bait, but wax worms and maggots work too.
    From a comfort standpoint, the most important gear for ice fishing is the fishing shanty, a pop-up shelter comfortably seating two or three anglers, keeping them warm if not toasty and protecting them from all but the wildest windstorms.
    Hoffman also has the proper ice auger to drill fish holes and strainer spoons to keep the holes ice-free. He is also the only ice guide in the area — if not the state: 301-616-6232.

Anne Arundel County offers just the right raw ingredients

Anne Arundel County has more horses than any other county in the nation. It follows that we also have more horse manure. Some of that horse manure occupies precious landfill space or is dumped near streams, thus contributing to Bay pollution.
    Anne Arundel County landfills also have too much of another organic waste, nitrogen-rich food waste produced by an abundance of restaurants. Like yard debris, neither of these organic wastes should be occupying landfill space. Landfills are costly to construct and maintain. Both food waste and horse manure can easily be converted into compost.
    In the early 1980s, the Bay Gardener was involved in writing the state law that prohibited the dumping of yard debris into landfills and established yard debris composting facilities. One such facility is located near Upper Marlboro, just a mile from the Anne Arundel County line, near the intersection of Route 4 and Route 301. Operated by Maryland Environmental Services, it is one of the locations that manufactures LeafGro.
    Last month, the Anne Arundel County Council and the County Executive approved the composting of horse manure and restaurant waste on South County farms in facilities between five and 10 acres. The legislation has established strict standards that limit the area for compost to 25 percent of total acreage. Prohibited from composting are dead animals or waste from processing facilities. The new legislation also limits proximity of composting pads to adjacent properties, occupied dwellings and streams. The composting must be done on a non-porous pad, and the facility must be managed by an operator certified in the science of composting. The location of any such facility must be pre-approved. Also considered in the legislation is road access to the facility.
    The Maryland Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying managers of composting facilities. Certification requires a training program and rigorous written exam. As Maryland was the first in the nation to establish a commercial composting training program, I prepared many of the questions that are included in the certification exam. Managers must be knowledgeable in the biological processes, monitoring equipment, standards and management procedures.
    The Maryland Department of the Environment is responsible for inspecting and assuring that the facilities are properly managed and that sanitary conditions are maintained. Maryland’s composting facilities have been operating for the past 30 years without creating problems while producing such compost products as LeafGro, Orgro and Veterans Compost. Many municipalities compost their own yard debris, making it available to residents at a minimal charge, following standards established within their jurisdictions without creating odors. Near Exit 1 on the Baltimore Beltway, a composting facility processes 180 to 200 tons of Baltimore sewage sludge each day without creating an odor problem, producing compost called Orgro.
    Composting is an exact science. It requires blending the proper amount of feedstocks; in this case horse manure with restaurant waste. The amount of carbon and nitrogen in each are determined by established laboratory testing methods. After these two materials are blended properly in the correct amounts and placed in windrows, moisture levels are maintained between 50 and 60 percent and oxygen levels are maintained above five percent. Temperatures within the piles will average between 140 and 160 degrees within 24 to 36 hours. When oxygen levels drop below five percent, the windrows are turned with specialized equipment to introduce more oxygen into the mixture. Some composting facilities draw air, using fans, through the composting piles to maintain oxygen at the proper level. Only when the temperatures within the piles achieve those near ambient air is the compost ready. The process will generally require 80 to 100 days, depending on the time of year and the volume being composted. The resulting compost has a rich earthy smell.
    The microorganisms that digest the carbon in the horse manure, while using the nitrogen from the restaurant waste, are the same microbes found in garden soils. The same process occurs on the forest floor. Science has discovered that under ideal conditions, these microorganisms will gladly work overtime.
    The only by-products of composting are water vapor, heat and carbon dioxide. There are no toxic gasses released during composting.
    Gardening has become the most popular hobby in the nation. Ornamental horticulture is the second largest income-producing agricultural industry in Maryland, second to poultry. Potted plants are all grown in soil-less blends containing one-third to one-half by volume compost. With more people demanding organically grown food, the need for compost far exceeds the supply. Compost is a great soil amendment and a good source of slow-release nutrients.
    I have spent more than 30 years conducting research on using compost made from sewage sludge, animal manures, yard debris, crab waste, garbage, paper-mill sludge and more. Composting is the ultimate in recycling, and it can be done safely and efficiently. Although composting is an old agricultural practice, today’s composting technology is as different as the Model A Ford is to today’s hybrid cars.


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

Black squirrels once were common in America before European migration

Peering out the front window with my first cup of coffee this morning, I was rewarded with the sight of at least a half dozen squirrels cavorting on my snow-covered lawn, running up and down the trees, chasing each other and creating a maelstrom of snow powder and furry activity.
    One of the frisking rascals, I noticed with surprise, was melanistic, a black phase of our common gray squirrel. Though fairly rare (one in 10,000) these days, the jet-black variety is a handsome mutation and jogged some interesting facts loose in my memory.
    Winter storm warnings of about two inches of snow had been choking the airwaves. Despite having been born and raised around the snow-bound Great Lakes and immunized to such hysterics, I did begin to feel concern for the neighborhood critters. Which is why I had piled an ample supply of corn and seeds under the sheltering hull of my trailered skiff for the squirrels and birds.
    This, of course, made my yard quite a gathering place for local wildlife, including the black squirrel (which, I later found, regularly lives about a block away). Black squirrels, I also discovered, were much more common in America and perhaps even dominant in many large areas before Europeans began migrating to North America.
    Heavily forested with mature hardwoods, the dense canopy of the pre-settlement forests was not readily penetrated by sunlight. Dim light provided an advantage to the darker coloration of the melanistic squirrel variety. They were not as visible as the grays were to the many owls and hawks that were their principle predators.
    Agricultural, however, soon changed that. Clearing the forests to provide for shelter, fuel, farming and livestock likely left the darker-colored squirrels more visible in the now semi-forested areas. Since black offspring are common only when both parent squirrels are black (the black gene being recessive), the black variant began to give way to the gray as the dominant squirrel variety.
    Today the gray is far more common throughout their ranges. But exceptions remain. When I arrived in this area to work for the Department of Agriculture, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I was surprised to note a large number of black squirrels in the parks surrounding DuPont Circle and the Executive Office Building grounds. I distinctly recall one female, quite friendly, that lived near my apartment and sported a tiny rhinestone collar.
    It turned out that the National Zoo had imported 18 black squirrels from Canada (where they remained relatively common) during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). They were released on zoo grounds, quickly became acclimated, then spread throughout the city, which had previously lacked any appreciable squirrel population.
    Today, Maryland (at College Park and Joppatowne), Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, among other states, are noted as having populations or concentrations of black squirrels. Their exact source is undetermined or at least undocumented. More I don’t know, just as I don’t know how this one came to my yard.


Seen any black squirrels? Tell us where and when: editor@bayweekly.com.
 

A triumph of hope over experience

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson got it as right about New Year’s resolutions as about his original subject, marriage. That thought struck me as I attempted to set personal goals for the New Year, hoping these meet with more success than usual.
    I’m going to have to exercise to increase my energy and endurance throughout the winter if I am to mount the kind of fishing campaign I intend to begin in just four short months.
    Resolution Two is to simplify my tackle. Over the years I have accumulated an excess, to the point of hindering my activities. An angler does not need to choose from 100 lures when on the water. A dozen will do. I know many an angler who excels with less than half a dozen.
    Divesting myself of all of these lures is not without pain. I’ll have to find someone who wants them, for I can’t throw them away, and there is no practical market for used fishing lures. And I must do it well before the next season begins so there is no temptation to hold on to them.
    Resolution Three is to cull my outdoor clothes. My wife pointed that out just last week as she gathered used items for a Purple Heart collection. A lucky fishing shirt is difficult to resign to the rag bin, even if its elbows are holed. A significant portion of my many ball caps suggest they may also be well past their due date. I must send them all off without pity.
    Last comes the most painful resolution of all. I had some great angling successes last season but also some disappointments. I told myself that the brutal August heat dampened the bite for the following months as well. I was wrong.
    I have come to acknowledge my reluctance to rise early in the morning as the reason my later season fell off.
    Six o’clock may be early in the spring when the water temperatures are in the 50s and the bite will only get better as the sun brings more warmth to the depths. But from mid-August on, the fish will be on the move at the first blush of light when the water is at its coolest and most comfortable for them.
    That means rising at no later than 4am — and not just one or two mornings, when I feel conditions may be perfect, but every morning to give all of my sorties a better chance of success. The thought of that early hour brings tears to my eyes. But again, it must be done in 2017 or my freezer will be empty again next winter.

Your pot must runneth over

By now your houseplants are adjusting to winter life inside. Or not. Many potted houseplants fail to grow properly because they are never watered properly. Here’s the right way.
    Every watering should be so ample that an excess of water drips from the bottom of the pot. Of course the pot should have drainage holes in its bottom and sit in a saucer to protect the furniture or windowsill. 
    If a plant’s soil is all the way to the top of the pot, you’ll have a watering problem. When repotting, always leave three-quarters to one inch of free space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of pot.
    If your plants were repotted with a half-inch or less of space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of the pot, your solution is to water by slow release using ice cubes. For plants in pots three to five inches in diameter, place two to three ice cubes on the surface of the soil. As the ice melts, the water will enter the soil without overflowing. Judge the number of ice cubes by inspecting the saucer beneath the pot in about an hour. If water is not visible, add another cube or two, and base the number of ice cubes needed in the future on the test results.
    If you are watering your plants by placing water in the saucer and allowing the water to be absorbed through the bottom of the pot, you’ll have noticed salts accumulating on the top edge of the pot. Continuing sub-irrigation of potted plants generally always results in this accumulation of fertilizer salts because the excess fertilizer salts in the soil migrate upward with the movement of the water. The salts appear as yellow-white to gray powder along the edges of the soil surface or on the pot, depending on the type of pot being used. 
    To prevent this accumulation, water the plants from the surface at least monthly or in two to three consecutive irrigations before resuming sub-irrigation.
    It’s that easy, and your plants will thank you by prospering.


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

Santa’s a gardener himself, so he knows what’s on your list

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.
Then 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.’”

Good health or the Lemming Effect?

Charging into a nearly freezing body of water in the middle of the winter is a tradition for people around the world. Frequently, the plunge is made on New Year’s Day.
    The first New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge is credited to Coney Island, New York, in 1903. Founder Bernarr Macfadden believed that a dip in the ocean during the winter could be “a boon to stamina, virility and immunity.” The Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes ocean plunges every Sunday from November through April, with the largest on New Year’s Day.
    The notion that cold water could have health benefits probably came to America with European immigrants, who believed that cold-water dips, alternating with sauna or steam baths, promoted good health.
    Boston has the second-oldest New Year’s plunge, started in 1904 by a group called the L Street Brownies.
    January brings two plunges to Chesapeake Country.
    The new year begins with a Polar Bear Plunge in North Beach at 1pm. It’s a free event with all welcome. Register by December 28 or on the day ($25) to record the moment with a T-shirt and certificate and support Calvert Meals on Wheels.
    At the end of January, the Maryland State Police and Maryland Special Olympics invite plungers into the Bay at Sandy Point State Park. The 21st annual Polar Bear Plunge has become so large that it stretches over three days, January 26 to 28, with the main event Saturday: www.plungemd.com.
    “The first year I think there were 300 plungers,” says Jason Schriml, of Special Olympics of Maryland. “We are anticipating 7,000 for Saturday this year but will have around 10,000 for all three days.”
    Last year’s plunge raised nearly $2.3 million for Special Olympics.