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Just how rare are two full moons in one month?

The full moon lights up the night Friday, the second full moon of the month, a Blue Moon.
    The history of the phrase Blue Moon dates back several hundred years, but the meaning has evolved. As far back as the 16th century, it was an expression of absurdity. I’ll believe that when the moon is blue would have the same effect as saying I’ll believe that when hell freezes over.
    Atmospheric conditions can affect the color of the moon. Volcanic eruptions, dust storms and forest fires have filled the skies with enough airborne particulates to turn the moon blue. An 1883 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa caused green sunsets and a blue moon for almost two years. So over time, the phrase became an expression of rarity, as in once in a blue moon.
    Perhaps it is this off-chance, ever-so-slight possibility that lent a dose of melancholy and longing, immortalized in Elvis’ ballad, Blue Moon. “You saw me standing alone, without a love of my own …” But just maybe that Blue Moon would deliver love and happiness.
    Then, in the 1980s, the meaning as a single month with two full moons went viral. In a 2012 column for Sky & Telescope Magazine, Philip Hiscock traces the Blue Moon phrase to a 1946 Sky & Telescope Magazine article that was then quoted in a 1980 radio broadcast of the NPR program Stardate. Read the story at http://tinyurl.com/qhm28h5.
    By today’s definition, a Blue Moon isn’t all that rare. The moon travels through its phases from one full moon to the next over a period of 281⁄2 days. Whenever a full moon falls in the first few days of a month, it’s likely a second Blue Moon will follow at the end of the month. In fact, during leap year a blue moon can even fall in February. A Blue Moon happens on average once every two to three years. But every now and then you might have two Blue Moons within three months, when a typical 28-day February has no full moon; That would leave January with two full moons followed by March with two full moons itself. This will next occur in 2018.
    Blue Moons are in fact as predictable as clockwork. Every 19 years, in what’s called a Metonic cycle, the solar calendar and the lunar calendar are in synch. The ancient Greeks used this as the basis for their calendar, which stood until 46BC with the advent of the Julian calendar. Based on the Metonic cycle, 19 years from this Friday — or 235 lunar months — a Blue Moon will again fall on July 31.
    The next day, August 1, marks another calendar milestone — Midsummer, third of the four cross-quarter days midway between solstice and equinox. The actual midpoint of summer falls on August 7 this year. The day of midsummer, once a pagan holiday called Lughnasadh in honor of the waning, post-solstice sun god, was co-opted by the Church during the early spread of Christianity, becoming Lammas Day, the festival of the wheat harvest, celebrated August 1.
    Look to the west just after sunset for Venus and Jupiter. They’re still only six degrees apart and the two brightest star-like objects in the heavens. But they set within 45 minutes of the sun, and soon they will be lost in its glare.
    That leaves Saturn ruling the night sky. As bright as an average star, the ringed planet appears high in the south at sunset and doesn’t set until after midnight.

Can you spot the International Space Station?

As darkness deepens Thursday, you’ll find the first-quarter moon high in the south-southwest with the bright star Spica seven degrees to its lower right.
    Friday night the moon has pulled eastward and is equidistant from Spica to its right and Saturn to its left. Even closer to the left of the moon is the faint star Zubenelgenubi, which marks the fulcrum of the celestial scales Libra. Train binoculars on this star, however, and you’ll see that it is actually a double.
    Saturday the waxing gibbous moon is just a few degrees above and to the right of golden Saturn with the red star Antares, whose name translates to Rival of Mars, a little beyond the ringed planet. Sunday the moon, Saturn and Antares form a tight triangle, with Saturn a few degrees to the right of the moon and Antares about the same distance below the moon.
    Venus and Jupiter are the only other planets visible this week. They appear low in the west at twilight and are still within 10 degrees of one another this week. Regulus, the eye of Taurus the bull, is a little higher than the two planets, but they all creep a little lower each night.
    The near-full moon will limit the display from the Delta Aquarids meteor shower, which peaks in the wee hours between Tuesday and Wednesday, July 28 and 29. But with a little luck, you might still catch a few brighter meteors streaking across the sky. Best viewing is after midnight. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but tracing their path backward they all appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius.
    If you’re up before dawn Wednesday or Thursday, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of the International Space Station, which shines brighter than any star and moves as fast as a jet. Wednesday it is visible for six minutes, popping into view at 4:55am, 40 degrees above the northwest horizon and blinking out of sight just as quickly at 5:01am, 10 degrees above the east-southeast horizon. Thursday it appears 24 degrees above the north-northwest horizon at 4:02am and disappears five minutes later, 11 degrees above the east horizon. Learn more at http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings.

Big Eye keeps the birds away

For years I have covered my blueberry plants with bird netting just before the berries start turning blue. The netting was suspended from wires stretched on top of eight-foot-tall piles.  After harvest, the netting had to be removed and returned to storage. This was a demanding job that required most of a day. Despite my best efforts, mocking birds and robins always managed to eat the berries. They entered the cage on their own, but once in they were stuck until I freed them. Occasionally, a black snake would become tangled in the bird netting, and I had to spend time cutting it loose without being bitten.
    The bird netting could survive only four or five growing seasons, so purchasing replacement netting was a regular expense. Then I’d have to hand-sew several sheets together to match the measurements of my blueberry patch. Sewing bird netting is quite tedious because it is always catching on something and the material is very flimsy. The job wasn’t over yet because to make certain that the netting was properly positioned each season, I sewed a three-quarter-inch-thick rope at one end. I used the rope to roll the netting for storage and tagged it at one end with the word south to indicate the direction of placement.
    Never again.
    Last year a friend gave me five bright yellow and one black inflatable polyethylene balloons, each measuring 18 inches in diameter when inflated. Each balloon has five large painted eyes, each with bright aluminum centers. Dangling below each balloon is an aluminized plastic strip a foot long and an inch wide. Tied loosely to wires above plants, the balloons move with the wind.  
    Since these balloons have been hanging above the blueberry plants, I have not seen one bird come within 50 feet of them. I only wish the Japanese beetles, which are feeding on my nearby raspberry plants, were as afraid of those balloons as the birds are.


Share the Bounty
    Remember to contribute your surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries to avoid waste and allow others to benefit from your gardening skills.


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

A waterspout may get you if you don’t watch out

I focused on drifting the edges of a Bay Bridge pier, where I was hoping a big rockfish would inhale the chunk of soft crab I was presenting below. Conditions ­couldn’t have been much better, with overcast skies and a slack tide. Then my cell phone buzzed.
    I cleared my line and fumbled with my shirt pocket. Finally, freeing the phone, I heard a familiar voice, my neighbor Capt. Frank Tuma, who was fishing a party just to the north of me.
    “Did you see the big waterspout behind you, just south of the bridge?” he queried. “It’s gone now, but for a few minutes I was afraid it was going to get you.”
    I turned and eyeballed the large, dark and menacing cumulus clouds poised low and close to my position.
    “I wasn’t looking in that direction.” I replied. “Maybe I should have been. Those clouds look like they could make bad things happen.”
    It turned out that some nine waterspouts had been sighted in the middle-Bay that morning. Though I had no close calls with a waterborne whirlwind, Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Maryland Natural Resources Police, had been caught up in that nearby spout while on board a patrol boat.
    It is fortunate that nothing more serious than some brief, brisk winds and a short burst of intense rain descended on the police crew. That is sometimes not the case with these mini-tornados.

Their Rise; Your Retreat
    Waterspouts — dark, whirling funnel clouds descending from stormy skies — form in the Florida Keys more than any place in the world. But the spouts are fairly common from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up Chesapeake Bay.
    Fair-weather waterspouts, such as we experienced that day, are spawned by dark, flat-bottomed storm clouds traveling at low altitude. Typically these waterspouts dissipate before causing damage or injury. Tornadic waterspouts borne of severe weather conditions can be more violent.
    During the hot days of summer, fierce late-afternoon and evening squalls often erupt across the Bay. These small, violent storms are capable of producing more intense waterspouts. Winds have been clocked above 150 mph in ocean-borne tornadic versions, often accompanied by heavy seas, torrential rain, hail and intense lightning. They have sunk or damaged watercraft of all sizes. Violent water spouts are suspected to be the source of some of the mysterious accidents in the Devil’s Triangle off the Keys.
    The primary defense while on Bay waters is keeping an active weather channel open on your marine radio. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard broadcast alert warnings whenever and wherever waterspouts are sighted.
    Avoid a spout by heading at a 90-degree angle away from the direction of the funnel. Evasion might not be possible in poor visibility or if a water spout descends from overhead, as apparently happened to the Natural Resources Police crew. So it is wise to steer clear of any area where the mini-tornados are reported.

When water replaces air in the soil, plants die

If plants are wilting in your gardens despite all of the rain we have been having, it is due to a lack of oxygen in the soil. This is a bigger problem in heavy-loam soils than in sandy loam or loamy sands. Heavy soils become saturated with water faster than sandy soils because the pores are smaller and thus exclude all the air.
    The roots of plants need oxygen to function. We have received so much rain that air in the soil has been replaced by water. If the problem persists for more than a couple of weeks, there is a good possibility that root rot will kill plants. Under these conditions, it is not uncommon to harvest carrots with rotted taproots. Or to see tomato plants developing roots near the base of stems to replace the dying roots killed by excess water in the soil.
    The problem is worse in gardens that have been plowed and/or rototilled at the same depth year after year. Working the soil to the same depth once or twice each year causes a plow pan to form below the tilled or plowed layer. Plow pans are a compacted layer of soil that prevents the downward movement of both water and roots.
    Plow pan can occur in both sandy and heavy loam soil but happens more rapidly in heavy soils. To determine if your soil has plow pan, try pushing a half-inch-diameter piece of pipe or dowel into the soil. If you have plow-pan, you will most likely be able to force the pipe only six inches deep. In many instances, I have uncovered plow pans so dense that I was not able to penetrate them with my stainless steel auger.
    The problem can be solved by sub-soiling with a special tractor-mounted attachment, by double digging or by varying the depth of plowing or rototilling season to season.
    Sub-soilers are plow-like attachments that penetrate the soil to a depth of 18 to 24 inches, forcing the soil upward and fracturing the pan layer. Sub-soiling should be done when the soil is as dry as possible to maximize fracturing of the pan layer.
    If you spade the garden by hand, double digging means that when you first press your spade in the ground, you remove a spade full of soil and place it to one side, followed by removing another spade full of soil from the same hole. In other words, you are digging into the sub-soil, thus removing the pan layer, then blending it with the surface layer of soil.
    You can delay the formation of the plow pan by varying the depth that you plow or rototill. One year you plow or rototill at a depth of three inches, the next four inches, the next five inches and the next six inches before returning to a depth of three inches.


Share the Bounty

    Let others benefit from your gardening skills by contributing surplus fresh produce to local food banks or pantries. The Bay Gardener donates his surplus vegetables to SCAN Food Bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2, which is open for those in need on Thursday and Saturday from 8am until noon.


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

Rockfish crave spot, but in a pinch white perch will satisfy

I strained to keep my severely arced rod from touching the gunnel as I plunged the tip deep into the water. A large and powerful fish about 20 feet down was intent on crossing under my skiff. Had the line, humming from the tension, contacted the hull it would likely have snapped. On the other hand, if the stressed graphite rod banged the gunnel, it could shatter. I was doing my best to avoid either catastrophe.
    My partner in the bow was handling his own critical situation. He had also hung a big fish that was running deep, equally out of control. Things would soon get worse.

Our Shared Affliction
    Mike Fiore and I often planned to fish together, but either the weather or our work schedules had cancelled out each attempt. This time we hoped it would be different. It was, and in more ways than we had imagined.
    Mike and I work together at Angler’s and often exchange information on where the rockfish are hottest, the best new baits and the hangouts for white perch. I knew the 18-year-old was a skilled angler for his age and that he fished the same kind of gear I did, bait-casting tackle, an affliction not shared widely in the Chesapeake. We wanted to compare techniques.
    Finally we were both free on the same day. Meeting in the early morning, we acquired ice and a bag of bloodworms. We’d agreed that we wanted to live-line for stripers, a technique special to the tackle we both favored.
    The problem with our plan was the scarcity of small Norfolk spot, the number-one bait to live-line for stripers. Once on the water we ­couldn’t find spot the right size anywhere. But we did find some smaller white perch.
    We reasoned that if the rockfish had as much trouble as we did finding spot, the spikey white perch just might work. A sharp-spined, thick-scaled perch is a distant second choice, compared to spot, for predatory striped bass. But if they were hungry enough they should eat them.

Bait in the Water
    With barely enough whities for bait, we headed for the Eastern Shore around the area of the Sewer Pipe. Running well out into the Bay a few hundred yards north of the Bay Bridge,  the pipe is the outflow from a sewage processing plant on Kent Island. Protected by steeply piled rock for the entirety of its length, it creates underwater structure that is a magnet for marine life. That marine life often includes big rockfish.
    A small, tight school of fish below produced marks on my fish-finder that strongly indicated striped bass below. Dropping down a couple of wriggling perch, we lightly thumbed our spools, feeding out line and feeling the actions of the baitfish as they strained for the bottom.
    Within seconds, we’d had that double hookup. We kept the big rock separated as long as we could, but as we drew them close the inevitable happened: Our lines crossed. Mike was fishing braid and I mono, so the situation was dire. Under tension, the ultra-thin braid will slice through mono like soft butter.
    Luckily for us the fish were played out and docile. Though we had a line tangle to undo, both stripers (twins at 34 inches) were quickly netted and in the cooler. Over the next hour we then enjoyed another double header (both released as too big) and then two 26-inch singles to manage our last two keepers. (The daily individual limit for rockfish is two fish over 20 inches, only one of which can exceed 28 inches.)
    That day, white perch were on the rockfish menu and rockfish were on our own.

Okra, for beauty and taste

Okra likes it hot.  Soon the cool-loving cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will have been harvested, leaving a large empty space in the garden. Lots of nutrients still in the garden can be used for growing a crop of okra.
    To get a jump, start young okra plants in three-inch pots.  After filling the pots with potting soil, place two okra seeds in each. I prefer Clemson Spineless, but there are many varieties available. The seeds will germinate in five to eight days, especially if the pots are outdoors in full sun. Keep them well watered. After the seedlings are about three inches tall, take a sharp knife or nail clippers and cut out the smallest.
    As soon as the area in the garden is cleared, transplant the young okra two feet apart in rows at least three feet apart. Or plant them in your flower bed. Purple varieties produce very attractive foliage. As they can grow to a height of four feet, they are best used as a background plant. But make certain they are accessible for harvesting the pods.
    Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The plants will start producing beautiful pale yellow hibiscus flowers with purple or red centers within three to four weeks after transplant­ing. Within two to three days after the flowers have wilted, some of the pods will be ready to harvest.
    To assure quality and tenderness, okra pods should be harvested three to four times weekly, especially during hot muggy days when the plants are flowering daily and growing rapidly. Pods longer than five inches will be woody and not palatable. But with some imagination, they can be dried and used in floral arrangements or Christmas tree decorations. Pods can grow to eight to 10 inches long.
    Okra plants will continue to produce pods into mid to late September. However, the later pods tend to become warty looking and are generally not tender.
    Okra can be breaded and fried, brushed with olive oil and baked for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven and sprinkled with salt, used in making gumbo, pickled or added to a tomato, hamburger and onion sauce. When using okra in sauces, always add the cut okra just before serving to avoid the slimy texture that results from over-cooking.
    I have grown okra in my garden in Deale for the past 24 years without failure. I could never grow it when I gardened in New Hampshire because the summers were too short and cool.


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

Nine-year, three-billion-mile mission to study solar system’s outer limits

As the sky darkens, Venus and Jupiter appear low in the west. While the gap between the two planets is growing, they are both inching toward Regulus, with Venus two degrees below the star Monday and Tuesday.
    Dusk reveals Saturn above the southern horizon with the three stars marking the head of Scorpius beneath it and Antares, the heart of the scorpion, a dozen degrees below.
    Mercury makes an early morning appearance low in the east-northeast a half-hour before sunrise. Don’t confuse Mercury with the much-dimmer star Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, high above to the planet’s right. Aldebaran is visited by the thin waning crescent moon before dawn Sunday.
    While you’d need a massive telescope to see it from your back yard, eyes will be on Pluto this week, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, comes its closest to the distant planetoid Tuesday after a three-billion-mile journey. Back then, Pluto was still the ninth planet. As I wrote at the time:
    Thursday, January 19, NASA launched the space-probe New Horizons on a nine-year mission to our solar system’s outermost planet, Pluto. Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto is also the last planet not viewed by a passing earthen spacecraft.
    Two weather delays were not the only pressures weighing on the launch. The project sparked debate over the craft’s plutonium-powered engines and a possible lift-off explosion. But as New Horizons safely cleared earth orbit, it carried another payload, one closing the cosmic loop: a tiny canister bearing cremated remains of Clyde Tombaugh.
    Over the next five months, New Horizons will study Pluto and its moons, of which there are at least four detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to NASA, astronomers hope to determine “where Pluto and its moons fit in with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
    On the 14th, New Horizons will be within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface. But at almost three billion miles from earth, data sent from the probe, travelling at the speed of light, will take more than four hours to reach us.
    Thanks to the near-endless power of its plutonium engine, New Horizons will leave Pluto and delve farther still, into the heart of the Kuiper Belt, a region at the solar system’s outer limits made up of countless icy mini-worlds akin to Pluto.

We found success in a pair of fat stripers at the Bay Bridge

Drifting next to the towering structure, I eased my bait over the side. With only a quarter-ounce weight, it took the chunk of soft crab a while to near the bottom. Thankful that the slow tidal current allowed us to work close on the massive piling, I lifted my rod to be sure that my rig wouldn’t get fouled on the old construction debris below. It was irritating to find that my bait was already solidly snagged.
    I pulled harder in hopes that the rig would break loose but with no effect. Easing my skiff up-current to try for a better angle, I realized that my line’s position in the water was changing faster than the boat was moving. I lifted the rod firmly to test my suspicion. That was when it really bent down. My reel’s drag sizzled as line poured out following something big and deep and now headed in the direction of Baltimore.

Our Last Choice
    The morning for once had started exactly as the weatherman predicted. Overcast skies, light winds and moderate temperatures made a perfect day for fishing the Bay. Armed with a fresh supply of menhaden direct from the netter and a frozen bucket of chum, we were as prepared as possible for a good day. But just for insurance, at the last minute I had also packed a half-dozen soft crabs.
    Arriving on-site with my partner Moe, we noted a friend had beaten us to the fishing. The location, at the mouth of a nearby river, had had a hot bite for the last few days, and we expected nothing less than that this morning. However, our friend did not, have good news. Though the conditions were still superb and he had been grinding chum over the side and set up with bait as fresh as ours, he had not had so much as a nibble.
    Cruising the surrounding waters with my eyes glued to the electronic finder, I confirmed his results. Baitfish galore lit up the screen, but we could mark no rockfish or anything that might have been a gamefish. We headed farther south with the assurance that our friend would call us if the fish showed.
    But there were no stripers at our next spot either, despite the presence of a scattered fleet of boats already anchored and fishing. Venturing even farther south and with similar results, we hadn’t so much as wet a line as the morning wore on.
    Off in the distance I saw the Bay Bridge was not yet clustered with boats, a surprise with the holiday weekend so near. The lack of boats meant that either the structure was still empty of fish or that an opportunity was finally upon us.

One Big Pair
    Our first two tries at drifting soft crab among the pilings were blanks, but our next was golden. After finally spotting some good marks on our screen and dropping our baits, Moe was soon fast to a 25-inch striper. Five minutes later at the same spot, my rod was bent to the corks as my own powerful fish headed away deep.
    It took quite a while to get the fish under control and to the boat. At the last minute, it even looked like our net was too small. But Moe managed the hefty striper in and over the side. After that we boated two or three more rockfish that, while over the minimum legal size of 20 inches, looked meager compared to the beauties we already had in the box. We foolishly released them, hoping for more of the big guys.
    That was when a school of white perch arrived and began gobbling up our supply of softies. With our 6/0 hooks intended for stripers we caught few perch, but within 15 short minutes we were out of crab.
    Though we subsequently attempted to fill out our rockfish limits using our fresh menhaden, it was not to be. The bite proved dead wherever we tried. But with a really nice pair of stripers in the cooler it was hard to be disappointed.

Help these fruit trees recover from two bad winters

The winter of 2013-’14 killed the stems of most of the figs in southern Maryland. However the roots were still very much alive and generated an abundance of new stems from the ground. The robust roots produced stems that were able to produce a few figs. But most stems produced no fruit. They would have this year, except for another killing winter this past year.
    At the northernmost range for growing figs, we have to face the fact that extremely cold winters can mean no fruit.
    Don’t expect to harvest any figs this summer. If the winter of 2015-’16 is equally severe, it is unlikely that roots will be able to generate new growth.
    If your fig plants were killed back again overwinter, by now you should see an abundance of new sprouts originating from the roots. Help your fig recover by pruning out dead stems as close to the ground as possible. To encourage the development of strong sturdy stems, break off all weak, thin stems growing from the roots. It’s better to break off the stem than to prune it. If you cut away the stem with pruners, chances are a vegetative bud will develop in the axis of the stump of the stem and the root, resulting in the growth of a new stem. Allow at least ___ feet between the best-growing stems.
    To break a stem from the roots, I use a four-inch-wide board that’s three to four feet long. I place the end of the board near the weak stem and kick it. This causes the weak stem to shear from the roots, making it highly unlikely that another stem will grow in the same area. Do this while the young stems are green. The roots will be pushing up new stems, so you’ll have to repeat at least twice monthly to remove the previous weeks’ spindly stems.
    Once the stems have started to grow, they will benefit from an application of fertilizer at the rate of approximately one pound per 100 square feet. I generally do not recommend fertilizing figs because it makes them grow too tall, producing less harvestable fruit.
    Plant fig trees on a slope facing south or against the south wall of a building to provide maximum winter protection. I have all of my figs growing again the south wall of a brick house. This exposure provides more warmth from reflective heat from the building and early warming of the soil, especially when the ground is not covered with snow. The soil in a slope facing south always warms sooner than the soil on a slope facing any other direction.


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