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If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem

Think again if you think shade trees pretty much care for themselves.
    In the forest, where trees care for themselves, fewer than one percent of seedlings grow to become marketable trees.
    What do you know about how the crotch angle, crossing branches and branch spacing affect tree health? Allowing narrow crotch angles on branches and stems to remain on young trees will result in premature tree damage. Rot is another common problem with narrow crotch angles. Branches that rub against each other result in early breakage. Young trees need to be trained to proper branch spacing.
    Nursery-grown trees raised in containers tend to develop girdling roots as they mature. Most girdling roots can be seen above ground or at the ground level. Look for roots circling or partially circling the trunk. Often the roots are embedded or being absorbed by the trunk. Cut such roots away with a sharp chisel or ax and remove them.  
    Parking your vehicles beneath the branches of the trees, do you consider the 800 to 1,500 pounds of pressure exerted by each tire? Ninety percent of trees roots can be found in the upper 10 feet of soil. The weight of cars and trucks compacts the soil, as do the tires of lawn mowers and the feet of people, including those who enjoy the shade of the branches during the summer.
    The roots of plants cannot grow in soil with 85 percent compaction or more. If you cannot poke a sharp dowel or digging shovel into the ground six inches or more, the soil is too compacted for roots to grow.
    Every year at this time, you rake away the leaves that fall to the ground. In the forest, fallen leaves return both organic matter and nutrients to the soil, hence to the tree.
    Nearly all fertilizer applied in the shade of branches is used by the turf. Very little nutrient from that fertilizer leaches down to the roots of the tree. Applying excessive amounts of fertilizer to satisfy the needs of the tree roots will result in fertilizer burn of the turf.
    Are you your shade trees’ friend or enemy?

Tree Help Needed

Q    In the spring I planted several fig trees. They  seem to be very slow growers and are now only maybe one foot high. I want them to live this winter. Any suggestions on what I should do?
    –C. Buchheister via email

A    If your fig trees are only a foot tall after growing for one year, your soil is deficient and poor. Your fig plants should be four to five feet tall at the end of the first growing season. Have your soil tested. With their limited root system, I doubt if the trees will survive the winter no matter what you do.

Q    Can you advise on how to eliminate the black soot or mold that is covering the leaves on my Nelly Stevens holly trees?
    –Lauren Avery, Millersville

A    The black on your Nelly Stevens holly is sooty-mold. I suspect your holly may be infested with scale insects. Inspect the undersides of the leaves and stems. The scale insects may be white or yellow-brown like small drops of wax. If your hollies are under maple or tulip poplar trees, it could be that the scale is feeding on the trees and the honeydew has drifted on the holly causing the sooty-mold to grow. Sooty-mold is best removed with a strong jet of water from a garden hose or power washer.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

The fast, bouncy motion of the lure brought me fish

My original plan was to get a few big perch for a family fish fry on the weekend. I also hoped to capture smaller ones to live-line for rockfish later in the day at the Bay Bridge. It didn’t quite work out that way.
    With a healthy supply of grass shrimp and some razor clams for the perch, I splashed my skiff and made the short run out to the river channel. Slowly cruising a pattern, I looked for the big school of perch I had successfully worked over the previous week. It had been a mixed bunch of big whities plus a fair number of the little fellas (three to five inches) that might prove tempting for rockfish.
    My clever strategy for the day succumbed to reality. The perch were no longer in residence. Drifting and fishing the grass shrimp and clam and searching hard over a wide area, I discovered that the river’s channel as well as its edges were as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
    Heading out into the Bay I decided to try the Bay Bridge for rockfish anyway. Though my hopes of catching a supply of bait perch had been dashed, I had a fallback. I always carry a box of various sized jigs.
    The fishing jig is named after the dance. Folk dances performed with fast, bouncy motions are called jigs (i.e. the Irish jig), and that is how this lure is worked in the water. Its sudden, jerky movements imitate a small fish in panic.
    Nearing the center bridge span, I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. Birds were whirling, screaming and picking off small baitfish being forced to the surface by the feeding stripers under them.
    I hurried to tie on a quarter-ounce BKD in chartreuse, eased up to casting distance just outside the frenzied flock and pitched my lure. Within seconds, I was tight to a rockfish that put up quite a feisty battle. Netting the fat but undersized fish, I unhooked it and flipped it back over the side.
    Another dozen casts resulted in more small throwbacks, so I paused to reconsider my options. Switching out the BKD for a two-ounce Stingsilver with a small dropper fly attached above, I tried working the bottom, 50 feet down. There is sometimes a larger class of fish under those breaking on the surface.
    This time I hooked what I thought was a much heavier striper. As I drew it close to the boat it turned out to be a double hookup, neither of which was remarkable in size. But then I noticed that one of the struggling fish was a perch. While a 14-inch striper is not particularly impressive, a fat 10-inch perch definitely is.
    Swinging the pair on board, I flipped the rockfish back over the side and the winter-thick perch into my cooler. Subsequent drifts netted more heavy perch and more undersized rock.
    I had to be careful when bringing in these fish. You can horse a schoolie rockfish in quickly for release, but if you try that on a big perch it will too often result in a lost fish. The perch’s mouth structure is much more fragile that the striper’s. Each hookup became a guessing game. I gently fought the fish to the surface, but what fish? Was there a big fat perch on the hook or another throwback striper? Or both?
    After an hour of constant action the sky darkened, the wind picked up and a bit of rain spat down. Declaring victory, I racked my gear and headed back for the ramp. Despite my poor start, I could feed my family. All that good fortune came from dancing a jig.

The lonely star swims with the fishes

Thursday’s full moon is known as the Beaver Moon or the Frosty Moon. It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise. Friday and Saturday the moon is with Taurus, the bull’s red eye Aldebaran high to the left and the Pleiades star cluster higher still. Monday night look for the moon near the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux.
    Mercury is at the tail end of its best pre-dawn appearance of the year. The innermost planet rises in the east-southeast around 5:30 at week’s end and is 10 degrees above the horizon as daybreak approaches. Mercury outshines any nearby stars, but that doesn’t make it easier to spot, but binoculars will help you find it tight against the horizon. Don’t confuse it with Spica a bit higher and to the right or with golden Arcturus much higher and to the left.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting Jupiter before dawn. The gaseous giant rises before midnight and is almost directly overhead before sunrise. The bright star to its lower left is Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. With Venus hidden behind the sun, only the moon outshines Jupiter in our night skies. You can compare the two between sunset Wednesday and sunrise Thursday the 13th, when the waning gibbous moon is within 10 degrees of Jupiter.
    The only other planet visible is Mars low in the southwest as evening twilight gives way to darkness.
    Early November marks the peak of two meteor showers, the South Taurids November 5-6 and the North Taurids November 11-12. Neither is a prolific shower, and both suffer the moon’s bright glare. But they both have staying power, producing a meteor here, a meteor there for days. Better yet, every now and then these slow movers burst aflame, crossing the sky as fireballs.
    Glance to the south after sunset this time of year and you’re not likely to see much except one bright, blue-white star known as the Lonely One. Fomalhaut appears all the brighter due to the company it keeps. Part of Pisces Austrinus, the Southern Fish, Fomalhaut is the only first-magnitude star amid autumn’s dim, ethereal, water constellations. Only after your eyes have had a chance to adapt to the darkness will you see the creatures within this celestial aquarium: Pisces the fish, Cetus the whale, Aquarius the water carrier, Capricornus the sea goat and Delphinus the dolphin.

With catches cut by 20 percent, the species could rebound in two years

You’ll hear the same story from most anyone who fishes recreationally for rockfish (aka striped bass) in Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Coast: There are not nearly as many fish today as there were 10 years ago.
    Science agrees. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — whose task it is to manage the striped bass population — conducted a benchmark stock assessment in 2012. It found that the total population of striped bass has fallen some 30 percent since 2003 with the numbers of spawning age females at a dangerously low level.
    Technically, over-fishing had not yet occurred, the commission allowed, but it was coming.
    On Halloween, fisheries managers from coastal states from Maine to North Carolina met in a 10-hour marathon at Commission headquarters in Mystic, Connecticut. Included were Chesapeake states — Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
    The managers heeded recommendations from recreational fishermen along the Northeast Coast (where catches have fallen as much as 80 percent) and the Chesapeake. The result: recreational and commercial Atlantic Coast harvests were cut by 25 percent; Chesapeake Bay recreational and commercial harvests by 20.5 percent.
    This landmark decision bodes well for the future of our rockfish.
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission succeeded where states have failed. Bay jurisdiction efforts to make smaller reductions in much smaller increments were ­rejected by the other states’ fishery representatives.
    In Maryland recreational fishing, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service director Tom O’Connell expects the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Trophy Season minimum size regulations to increase from 28 to 36 inches, still one fish per angler. The season is anticipated to open, as before, on the third Saturday in April and continue to May 15.
    The regular recreational rockfish season for the Bay will also remain the same: May 16 through December 15. But the minimum size is planned to increase from 18 to 20 inches.
    On the commercial side, the Chesapeake Bay quota for rockfish will drop to 1.471 million pounds (down from 1.925 million pounds). The minimum size for the commercial fishery is expected to remain 18 inches.
    Atlantic Coast recreational fishery limits will drop from two fish to one; minimum size remains 28 inches.    If the plans works, the species could be declared recovered in two years.

Now’s the season, so do it right

Mistakes made when planting shade trees grow up to haunt you.

Mistake 1: Choosing the wrong tree for the wrong place.
    Research the nature and habits of the species you want to plant. Do those qualities match the place you want to plant it and the job you want it to do?

Mistake 2: Planting too close to buildings, driveways, sidewalks or driveways.
    Plant the tree where it will provide shade in areas desired and as a backdrop for the landscape. Avoid planting trees where branches will rub against structures or interfere with traffic. Avoid planting shallow-rooted trees next to sidewalks, roads and driveways. As the tree roots expand away from the tree trunk, shallow-rooted trees will damage walkways and road surfaces. This result is commonest in heavy silt or clay loam soils.

Mistake 3: Planting in heavily compacted soils.
    If you are not able to dig the planting hole with a shovel, the soil is most likely compacted. If you need a crowbar, pick or jackhammer to loosen the soil to dig the hole, it is a waste of time and money to plant the tree. To solve the problem, you need to sub-soil the area and incorporate four to six cubic yards of compost per 1,000 square feet. Roots cannot grow in soil with 85 percent or more compaction.  

Mistake 4: Mistreating roots of bagged and container-grown trees.
    Trees grown in containers develop circling roots. Unless they are disturbed or cut, they will continue to grow in circles. As the trunk of the tree increases in diameter, it eventually makes contact with the girdling root, which has also increased in diameter. To prevent girdling and choking, cut roots near the surface of the root ball. When you see dead and dying branches at the top of a tree — or a tree growing lopsided — the damage is most likely caused by girdling roots. By then it is often to late to salvage the tree.  
    When transplanting trees grown in root-controlled bags, remove the bag. Unless all the fabric is removed from the root ball, the tree will not be able to develop sufficient roots to keep it upright.
    This is also true for trees that are sold as bagged and burlapped (B&B). If the burlap lining the wire basket has a green tint, it means that it is treated with a rot inhibitor. The rot inhibitor will prevent the burlap from decomposing, and the roots within the root ball will not be able to grow in the new soil. The burlap should either be rolled down below to the bottom of the root ball or removed before filling the planting hole with soil.

Mistake 5: Leaving tags on trees and shrubs.
    After planting, remove nametags and marking tapes from stems and branches. Allowing these to remain after the tree is established and growing rapidly will result in girdling and death to the stem or branch.

Mistake 6: Failing to stake.
    All trees 10 feet and taller should be anchored using either ground ties or stakes on either side of the trunk. Pad string or wire with tree ties or pieces of garden hose to protect stems and branches.

Mistake 7: Pruning just before or after planting.
    Plant hormones needed to generate new roots are produced in the buds that grow on the branches. Pruning away the branches at the time of planting will eliminate the source of plant hormones, thus delaying the development of new roots. Delay pruning away branches until after the tree is established. You can determine when a tree has become established by looking for a high proportion of normal sized leaves on each branch.

Mistake 8: Overwatering.
    Newly planted trees should be irrigated only once or twice a week. Irrigate thoroughly or use Gator bags that allow slow irrigation. When using Gator bags, irrigate the trees only once each week until the plants become established. Water established trees less frequently. Never water daily.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Halloween falls right in between

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter Thursday, and as darkness falls on Halloween, it shines high in the south, with the bright star Fomalhaut almost straight below.
    As a holiday, Halloween stretches back thousands of years, but not as a day of costumes and trick-or-treating. It coincides with earth’s path around the sun, falling midway between autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
    The Celts of pre-Christan Britain called this cross-quarter day Samhain, celebrating both the end of the harvest and the end of the year. On this night, the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was thought to be especially thin, so people lit bonfires and lanterns from hollowed-out gourds to ward off spirits.
    As Christianity spread, it merged its own holy days with the pagans’ cross-quarter holidays. Imbolc became Candlemas, now better known as Groundhog Day; Beltane gave way to May Day; Lugnasad became Lammas. And Samhain was absorbed into All Saints Day or Hallowmas, marked on November 1, with the night before Hallow’s Eve.
    Now the cross-quarter day coincides with another ritual, setting our clocks back an hour in the return to Standard Time at 2am the first Sunday of November.
    The first week of November provides the best view of Mercury before dawn. The innermost planet reaches greatest elongation November 1, its farthest west of the sun and its highest in our sky. An hour before sunrise, look for it not quite 10 degrees above the east-southeast horizon — roughly the size of your fist at arm’s length. At magnitude –0.6, Mercury is brighter than any nearby star (all but Sirius, in fact), but binoculars may help locate it in the glow of twilight. Don’t confuse the bright planet for Arcturus higher in the east-northeast.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble finding Jupiter. The gaseous giant rises around midnight, and as dawn approaches it is high in the southeast, bluish Regulus and the other stars of Leo the lion stretched out below it.
    Mars is the only planet visible in the evening, shining no brighter than your average star but still a distinct orange-red. Look for it low in the southwest as darkness settles, where it will remain the rest of the year.
    Early November marks the peak of the South Taurid meteor shower. The higher the constellation Taurus, the more meteors you’re likely to see, although the waxing moon will limit you. Still, the Taurids can deliver the occasional fireball.

Straw-Bale Gardening Works


Siberian kale grows happily on bales of straw.
    This summer, I experimented with soilless gardening in bales of straw. The trick is priming the bales with fertilizer. I used 21⁄2 cups per bale of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer minus all herbicides, testing both organic and inorganic.
    I prepared the bales in mid-August, inserting a long-shank thermometer and irrigating two to three times weekly. Priming initiates the composting process. The thermometer monitors temperature, which rises during active composting. When inner temperature again matched that of ambient air, in mid-September, I scattered seeds of Siberian kale over the bales.
    The seedlings grew equally vigorously on bales treated with the organic and inorganic fertilizers.

Save Gita Bean Seeds for Next Year


If you grew Gita beans this summer, by now some of the pods may be three feet long. Harvest those long brown pods and extract the seeds. For the past two years, I have tested saving seeds of Gita and comparing them to seeds purchased every spring for planting. Thus far I have found that the seeds saved are of equal quality to those purchased.
    After harvesting the seedpods, I lay them on a shelf and allow them to dry. When the pods are dry, they split easily and the beans are easily extracted. I then store the seeds in a small plastic, zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator along with the rest of my leftover seeds.
    Gita bean seeds are some of the more expensive you can buy, so saving them from year to year can result in a substantial savings. Last fall I failed to harvest all the bean pods. Gita bean seeds that fell to the ground germinated and grew. Clearly these seeds are quite cold hardy.

White Pines Don’t Like Wet Feet

Q    I live in a townhouse community. The trees in the community are 20 to 25 years old. This last year I have noticed that many pine trees are turning yellow and dying. Any idea of the cause and if we can prevent their deaths?
      –Greg Welker, Bowie

A    I strongly suspect poor soil drainage. We had a very wet growing season, and the soil in Bowie is mostly clay. White pines cannot tolerate poorly drained soils.
    The yellowing symptoms are also due to poor soil drainage. Yellowing of old needles is common, but this season’s yellowing is a symptom of root loss due to excess water.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

While the wind blows, I’m ­getting a handle on things

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale puts the threshold for a half-gale at 20 miles per hour. These stiff Bay winds are projected to be with us intermittently into November.
    Winds like these cheer the hearts of sailboat skippers after the doldrums of summer. But anglers on the Chesapeake suffer at being blown off the water as the season winds down.
    To calm the turmoil that gens up in my angler’s innards when I realize another Maryland winter is fast approaching, I clean my gear.
    Most in need of TLC are the cork handles of my favorite rods.
    Cork is extremely lightweight, odorless, compressible, long lasting and eco-friendly compared to synthetic materials used for the same purposes. It is warm and comfortable to the touch and has a non-slip quality, even when wet, which is why I prefer it to all other materials for my light-tackle outfits.
    This splendid material is increasingly expensive and ever more difficult to find at any price in the better grades used in quality fishing rods. Portugal and Spain produce 80 percent of the cork for world markets, the lion’s share consumed by the wine industry.
    Production is a complex, long-term affair. The material is derived from the bark of the cork oak, which must be at least 25 years old before it can stand harvest without harm. Subsequent extractions can be made every nine years. Luckily, however, the cork oak has a lifespan of 200 years.
    If well maintained, a cork-grip fishing rod will last indefinitely, at least the lifetime of the owner. Proper maintenance is not difficult. Start out by giving the handle a gentle but thorough scrubbing with a sponge and common kitchen scouring cleanser.
    After scrubbing, rinse the handle and put it aside to dry. Inspect for any gaps or flaws in the cork. These should be corrected with good-quality wood filler.
    I like Elmer’s Interior/Exterior Wood Filler in Golden Oak. It is easy to use and closely matches the hue of most cork. Fill the voids and scars on the handle with a small knife or similar instrument. After the filler has completely dried, use 220-grit sandpaper to smooth and blend all surfaces. Then let the filler set up for an extra day or two before proceeding with the final step.
    All cork rod handles should be dressed after cleaning and drying with a generous application of Pure Neatsfoot Oil. This will insure that the cork does not dry out and will protect it from weathering and restore its flexibility and fine tactile qualities.
    If our windy weather finally breaks, cork maintenance is not in vain. A clean, well-oiled handle will not soil easily, and a few extra, late season uses will do hardly anything but give you an extra appreciation for your efforts. You will, after all, have already gotten a good handle on things.

Even eclipsed, this star blinds

If you didn’t already know about the partial solar eclipse just before sunset Thursday, you’re not likely to have solar glasses at the ready. Do not look at the eclipsed sun for even a moment as it can cause lasting eye damage or blindness. But you can still watch safely with little preparation.
    Try projecting the image through binoculars. Cover one lens and aim the other at the sun, pointing the eyepiece toward the floor or a piece of paper until the sun’s orb appears. Bring it into focus, and voila! You may want to use a tripod, and you can use a small telescope in the same fashion.
    Another option for watching the sun is a pinhole projector, a perennial science project requiring only two sheets of white paper and a pin. Poke a clean round hole in a sheet of paper. With your back to the sun, hold the pierced paper between the sun and the second sheet of paper until you see the sun’s inverted image projected onto it. Increasing the distance between the two sheets enlarges the image but decreases its sharpness. Or you can get more elaborate using the same principles with a box large enough to put over your head to create a viewing chamber.
    Here along Chesapeake Bay, the eclipse begins Thursday at 5pm with the sun low in the west. Alas, it will still be in full swing come sunset at 6:17pm.
    The eclipse won’t be your only chance to put a pinhole projector to use. The sun right now is in the midst of a massive solar storm, resulting in sunspots large enough to see with the protected-but-unaided eye.
    Sunspots start as massive magnetic bursts deep within the sun that migrate to its surface. While highly charged, this energy is cooler than the sun itself, thus appearing darker than surrounding areas. Once to the surface, the energy flares into space in what are called Coronal Mass Ejections, which can wreak havoc on satellites and take down sections of the power grid. Already the International Space Station has turned to face away from the sun to limit the damage from this solar storm.
    Out of all this violence comes beauty, too, in the form of the Northern Lights. So keep a lookout, as a solar storm of this magnitude could make them visible this far south. Learn more at
    The moon returns to view Saturday as a thin crescent very low in the west-southwest. Look to its lower right for Saturn. As the moon waxes into the new week, it shines near the planet Mars.

From pot to rooting medium to placement, these plants have ­special needs

Orchids are becoming one of the most popular potted plants. They have the advantage of long-lasting flowers and very attractive leaves. However, after they have flowered, they are often neglected and only watered on inspiration.
    Orchids are epiphyte, meaning that they obtain most of their moisture from the air through root-like structures. In nature, they live in tropical forests, growing on trunks and branches of trees. The terrestrial forms of orchids, most commonly offered for sale, are sparsely branched with coarse roots.
    The typical rooting medium for growing orchids is fir bark, coarsely ground to provide maximum air movement through the container in which the roots are growing.
    Orchids generally bloom once each year. But with proper care after they bloom, you can have them blooming yearly for many years.
    After the plants have bloomed, you will often notice coarse roots growing outside. This is your cue that the time has come to repot into a larger container. 
    Common potting media guarantees death to the plant. Repot using fir bark.
    Carefully remove the orchid plant from its original container. If the roots are circling to conform to the shape of that pot, gently pull them apart allowing as much of the old fir bark to remain attached as possible. The new container should be at least one size larger than the current container. A shallow container is better than a deep container. Never a container without drainage holes in the bottom because the roots of orchids cannot tolerate standing in water.
    Place a couple of inches of fir bark in the bottom of the container before positioning all of the roots in the pot. Using one hand to support the plant in the middle of the pot, work the fir bark around and between the roots with the other, shaking the plant from side to side and bouncing the container on the potting bench to get the bark down between the roots. With thumbs and fingers, press the bark firmly around the roots.
    Water the plants thoroughly several times immediately after potting to help fine particles of bark fill some of the voids. Water from the top, not by sub-irrigation.
    During winter, the plants should be irrigated twice-weekly and fertilized monthly using a liquid fertilizer. I recommend an organic liquid fertilizer for best results. Do not place the plants near a window, lest they are chilled. Avoid direct sunlight, too. Give your orchids a spot three to four feet from an east- or north-facing window.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.