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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.

Fly south for angling adventure and comfort

Icicles hang off my skiff, parked on its trailer in the side yard, as leafless tree limbs thrash the skyline and an icy rain falls, mostly sideways. It’s a grim picture, unless you adopt a southern perspective.
    With crude oil under $50 a barrel, airlines are reviving some sweet deals for an angler with a yen for warmer climes and gamer fish. Florida has some fares under $70 (Fort Lauderdale, each way). Even San Jose, Costa Rica, can now be economically reached, often for under $300 round trip.
    Both locations offer awesome fishing in the next few months. Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach, just north of Miami, are hot for king mackerel, snook, seatrout and redfish from both the piers and beaches, as well as offering an excellent chance to tangle with 20- to 30-pound Jack Crevalle, one of the hardest-fighting gamefish that swims the Atlantic.
    Vinny Keitt (www.pier-masters), who introduced me and two of my sons to some excellent fishing around Boynton Beach, has an enthusiastic outlook for January and February. Vinny teaches how to catch the fish in his neighborhood as well as guiding (on foot) at the many public access beaches and piers for whatever is biting best at that moment. It’s 85 degrees and sunny down there right now.
    January and February will also bring great sailfish action to both Florida and Costa Rica. You’ll find affordable packages online for multiple locations around the Miami area (I recommend Rick and Jimbo on the Thomas Flyer, thomasflyerfishing@gmail.com. The Costa Rican Pacific Coast, particularly the Quepos/Jaco areas, features vast numbers of the glamorous billfish.
    If you don’t mind shopping on foot a bit at the marina, local Costa Rican skippers with open 23- to 25-foot outboard-powered panga boats can put you onto the sails, only minutes offshore, for about $200 a day.
    Fly anglers dreaming of encounters with the legendary light-tackle skinny-water bonefish also have opportunities. Baltimore to Cancun, Mexico, air connection is direct and about $300 round trip if you can select your days. There are bonefish just north of the Cancun resort area for fishers who’ll rent a car and wade-fish the shoreline flats.
    For a guided experience for the grey ghosts, make arrangements on-line for fishing from Cancun south all the way to the Ascension Bay (Punta Allen) area.
    For do-it-yourselfers, driving down the coast from Cancun to Punta Allen, stopping at local motels and wade-fishing the shoreline flats, can also result in some very inexpensive and rewarding fishing adventures.
    All of these areas are among the safest in Mexico, but you do have to use common sense when deciding where and when to explore.
    Anglers hoping to tangle with heavier-weight offshore fish also have some economical options. Direct flights from Baltimore to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on the southern Pacific Coast are available for under $400. January, February and March are the peak of the striped marlin season (100 to 250 pounds). Again, local fishermen operating 23- to 25-foot open pangas are available for hire quite reasonably, as are the larger, sleeker sport fishing boats at higher prices.
    Multiple billfish days are the norm there this time of year. Your only limitation is how much excitement and fish-fighting exertion you can handle. Accommodations range from expensive waterfront luxury to simple fish-camp-quality motels at much more affordable rates.  If you’ve a yen to travel a bit during Maryland’s winter, an adventurous angler has a great many options.

Get a fast start with my Gouin brew

This is a great time to activate the compost pile. The fallen leaves are rich in nutrients and organic matter. Mother Nature has been using leaves as natural mulch since the beginning of time.
    I begin with my leaf blower, blowing as many leaves as possible under the branches of the shrubs to mulch them over winter.
    For my compost pile, I then use the lawnmower to chop the remaining leaves by mowing the lawn with the blade set at five inches above the ground, starting from the outer-edge of the lawn and working my way into the center. This pushes the fallen leaves into the center of the lawn where I can harvest them easily and transport them to the compost bin. Chopped leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    With the garden hose handy to spray water on the leaves as I load them in the bin, I lay a 10- to 12-inch layer of chopped leaves and cover it with a uniform layer of leftover compost from last year. To hasten the composting process, I sprinkle about one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate per 10 square feet of area and water thoroughly. Each layer of leaves covered with compost needs to be wet in order for composting to start. Dry leaves do not compost.
    If you do not have leftover compost from last year, make your own compost starter by adding a shovel full of garden soil to a five-gallon pail. Add one-half cup of cheap dish detergent and one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Stir the mixture well, and sprinkle it over each layer of copped leaves added to the pile. The detergent will help in wetting the leaves, and the ammonium nitrate or urea will provide nitrogen to stimulate the microbes in the garden soil into doing their duty. Five gallons of this Gouin brew is sufficient to cover about 30 square feet of composting area.
    The larger the compost pile, the better. Compost piles smaller than five-by-five-by-five feet will not generally become very active until next spring when temperatures warm. However because of mass, larger compost piles are capable of generating and maintaining high temperatures all winter long — providing the composting materials remain moist.
    A long-shank thermometer of two feet or more is helpful in monitoring microbial activity. You can also see the effects of microbial activity by simply digging into the pile on a cold day, watching the vapors rise and feeling the warmth of the compost. If you did a good job of preparing the pile, rising temperatures should be measurable in two weeks or less. You should also notice significant reductions in volume as temperatures rise. This means that the microbes are digesting the leaf tissues and generating heat and carbon dioxide.


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

It all goes back to Hansel and Gretel

In one form or another, gingerbread has been popular since at least mediaeval times.
    “Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe — often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Several cities in France and England hosted regular gingerbread fairs for centuries.”
    Gingerbread became especially popular in Germany, where monks baked the confection starting around the 14th century. Lay bakers then started making the treat and took their recipes extremely seriously, guarding them as family secrets.
    Building gingerbread houses likely started in Germany. Records of gingerbread houses start in the 1600s but became really popular after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812, according to The History Kitchen.
    In the tale, a witch lives in a house made of delicious candy and cookies. The house is a trap she uses to lure children into her home and, eventually, her oven. Somehow the story inspired bakers to create their own baked houses, and people liked them, despite their terrifying associations. Gingerbread houses now range from the simple to the extreme.
    This year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust commissioned a gingerbread house that is astounding. Built by an English cookie making company, the mansion took 15 months and 500 hours to create. It was inspired by Waddesdon Manor and is made up of 66 pounds of butter, 240 eggs and 480 pounds of icing. It is six feet tall and has details that many of us would never imagine going into a gingerbread house, like paintings, beds, chairs and elaborate carpets, all made of confection. See the creation at https://waddesdon.org.uk/whats-on/biscuiteers-manor-in-gingerbread/
    Closer to home, a gingerbread White House is always part of the holiday decorations at The White House. This year’s house is constructed of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
    Fifty-six more pseudo gingerbread houses, each actually made of Lego bricks, represent each state and territory
    If you have $78,000 to splurge, you can order an organic gingerbread house custom made to look like your own home, adorned with pearls and a five-carat ruby from veryfirstto.com.

Sure-to-please choices

You’ve tried to choose a gift for the sport in your life, the dedicated angler, canoeist, hiker, shooter or sailor. And you’ve failed.
    The look in an aficionado’s eye on opening a present naively intended to enhance the enjoyment of a particular sport is a dead giveaway. Just what am I going to do with this? Next — but too late to mask the eye movement and expression of astonishment — come effusive explanations of just how special the gift is and how much it is appreciated.
    Here’s how to do better this year. If you are not dead certain that the gift is indeed unique and desirable within the context of that sport —almost impossible if you don’t share the passion — give a gift certificate.
    A certificate for a favorite restaurant is an excellent choice, as is one from a good sporting goods store. If the person in question is keen, sartorial-wise, a certificate from one of the better area clothing stores will may be the ticket. For those impossible to anticipate, I note that liquor stores are beginning to sell holiday gift cards.
    But if you must choose a sporting gift, try something like this. For boaters, a new piece of technological boating gear has recently arrived in retail stores to satisfy a safety requirement of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Weems and Plath electronic flare and emergency SOS light.
    Flares are required to be onboard any craft larger than 16 feet that intends to go on big water or operate at night. Flares inevitably have an expiration date (usually three years hence) and are inherently dangerous to operate.
    This new electronic flare never expires, is safe to use and is superior in terms of visibility and effectiveness of operation. All boaters will eventually possess one of these new devices in lieu of the incendiaries. If you want your skipper to appreciate your thoughtfulness, and to keep safe at the same time, giving one of these new devices is a sure avenue to success.
    LED flashlights are also an ideal gift for the sports inclined, especially the small units with high light output (1,000-plus lumens). These devices can be lifesavers in emergencies. Every car, motorcycle, boat (or other floating or moving conveyance) should have one somewhere onboard.
    They’re also handy for non-sporting occasions as they thoroughly illuminate any dim, dark walks back to an automobile and can effectively (though briefly) blind and ward off anyone who threatens to approach uncomfortably close. The better ones are the size of a small candy bar.
    Another unique LED creation is the Larry Light, a small, inexpensive, bright stick of lights that is directional and magnetized so that it can be attached anywhere there is metal for hands-free illumination of dark recesses. They’re also handy for casual photographic applications.
    The incredibly efficient Yeti brand coolers have become quite popular of late despite their hefty price tags. Yeti also offers hot/cold drink cups and thermos bottles that are unbelievably efficient as well as more affordable. They make an ideal gift for almost anyone.

From boxwood to white pine, you’ve many evergreen choices

Here in Chesapeake Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

A Bonus from Boxwood
    Back in colonial days, gardeners pruned their boxwoods by breaking branches just prior to the holidays for use in making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    To punch holes through the boxwood canopy thus allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant, break branches 12 to 14 inches long. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring. Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods with shears during the summer increases the chance of spreading canker-causing diseases from plant to plant.


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

Adjust your dress and technique, and you might still catch one

This is the end my friend, the end.
It hurts to set you free.

Rock legend Jim Morrison’s words echo my thoughts as our rockfish season heads to a close on Dec­ember 20. It has been a fine year chasing my favorite Bay species, and I still hope for a few more encounters.
    I’ve gotten in some good December licks in the past. Jigging around the Eastern Shore rock pile at the Bay Bridge has been memorably productive during this last month. Though I’ve been out of action recently with unexpected boat motor repairs and foul weather, I am itching for another chance or two.
    Just a couple of years ago, a friend and I couldn’t get a jig with a small dropper to the bottom for all the big white perch that were schooled there. The reason? Four- and five-pound rockfish would pounce on the rig before it was halfway down. The year before that, a simple two-ounce jig with a lip-hooked minnow slow bumped along deep shell was the key to lots of striped winter action. I’m planning over the next few days to be trying them all, especially a chartreuse Bernie’s Bomber rig, a two-ounce feather-dressed jig followed with a fluorescent yellow Meushaw jig dropper. Stripers will be my target, but I won’t discard any chunky white perch that decide to jump the rig.
    Both rockfish and white perch are at their dinner-table best this time of year, fat as pigs from fall feeding and as firm as tuna from the deep cold water both species prefer this time of year.
    Of course Maryland’s winter weather will always play a role in deciding when to go.
    Since I’m fishing from a light 17-foot skiff, I’ll stick to windless days with temperatures in the mid-50s and won’t stray too far from the boat ramp. Though in my youth, nothing discouraged me until my rod guides started freezing up, the last few years I’ve discovered the December conditions much more uncomfortable than I remembered them.
    Waterproof (not water-resistant) foul weather coat and pants are a must, even on calm sunny days. It doesn’t take much for an errant bow wave to splash onto the boat and soak your clothes. I don’t care what the advertisements say: No matter what you’re wearing, it won’t keep you warm if it’s wet.
    A good hat is a must. Bring an extra along in case the first blows off while you’re at speed. Gloves are handy but don’t expect to keep them dry, so stay away from fleece. Wool is best. It’s also a good idea to bring a hot beverage in a good-quality thermos, as it will keep your core warm and make everything more comfortable. Limit your alcohol intake. In quantity, alcohol gives the illusion of warming you up while actually dropping your body temp.
    Keep in mind that as the water temperatures fall, especially below 50 degrees, fish will search for their prey more and more by smell and less by vision. Adding a strip of fresh bait to your lures or going strictly to live bait will generally improve your results. Using synthesized potions to make your baits more scent attractive can also be helpful. Slowing your retrieves and lure action to match the lower metabolisms of the cold-blooded quarry is wise.
    Expect extreme patience to pay off more than constant relocation and experimentation.

Not all Christmas trees are equal

Not all evergreen trees are equally fire-resistant. The Douglas fir is the most fire-resistant tree, while the popular Fraser fir is the most combustible. Freshness has nothing to do with this comparison. Douglas fir is a low-resin tree, while Fraser fir is a high-resin tree. As the tree dries, the resin becomes highly combustible.
    Assuring that your Christmas tree is a fire-safe tree begins with selecting the right tree. The State of Maryland fire marshal has declared that the most fire-resistant species are Douglas fir, Colorado spruce and Scots pine. This conclusion is based on studies conducted in 1995 and 1996, using fresh-cut trees stored in water prior to igniting.
    Your next consideration after species should be freshness. The sooner after cutting you purchase that tree — if you care for it properly — the more fire-resistant it will be. For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot. Or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in November or even late October.
    As soon as you purchase the tree, cut at least one inch from the base of the trunk and dunk the stem immediately into a pail of 100-degree water. Store the tree in a shaded area.
    When you bring the tree indoors, cut off another inch of from the base, and place the stem into a clean tree stand that will hold at least one gallon of water. Adding floral preservative to the water assures a longer shelf-life, which makes the tree more fire-resistant — providing you always maintain a constant water level.
    Avoid placing the tree near a heat register or radiator, and use only UL-approved lights in good condition. Never leave a lighted tree without supervision. Finally, don’t extend your holiday too long. If you wait for the tree to start dropping needles before removing it from your home, you’re housing a fire hazard.


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

Where will he be on Christmas Eve?

Santa Claus is amazing. As you’ll read in this week’s paper, he can wear many faces and be in many places, all at the same time. So you’ll have plenty of opportunity to meet with him from now to Christmas Eve. Then Santa gets down to business, and where he’ll be when is of intense interest to every girl and boy.
    It’s up to the North American Aerospace Defense Command to track his progress.
    The usual business of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is protecting the U.S. and Canada by detecting and warning of attacks from aircraft, missiles or space vehicles. On Christmas Eve, the Command also tracks Santa as he travels around the world in his sleigh.
    “Every year on December 24, 1,500 volunteers staff telephones and computers to answer calls and e-mails from children (and adults) from around the world,” www.norad.mil reports. “Live updates are provided through the NORAD Tracks Santa website (in seven languages), over telephone lines and by e-mail to keep curious children and their families informed about Santa’s whereabouts and if it’s time to get to bed.”
    Santa Tracker began accidentally in 1955, when a department store in Colorado posted NORAD’s phone number as its tracking hotline. On duty that night, Colonel Harry Shoup answered the numerous phone calls, with his team reporting Santa’s location to each one. The typo led to a tradition eagerly anticipated for over 60 years.
    The service has expanded greatly.
    “Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa website receives nearly nine million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world,” the Command reports. “Volunteers receive more than 140,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children around the globe.”
    Work begins in May to ensure that everything goes smoothly on the big day. On Christmas Eve, satellites, high-powered radar and jet fighters track Santa.
    Follow Santa by visiting the Santa Tracker website at www.noradsanta.org/ or get live updates through the Command’s Facebook, Twitter, You Tube or Google+ pages. There’s also a NORAD Santa Tracker app. A phone number will be listed as Santa’s big night approaches.

Give a little, get a lot

The vegetable gardening season does not end with the first killing frost. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, snap beans and lettuce may have been killed by the first frost. But if you are an avid gardener, kale, collards, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts should still be growing.
    If you planted Brussels sprouts in late July or early August, you should be cutting off the tops of the plants now to force the sprouts along the stems to increase in size. Cutting off the tops stops the plant from growing taller, thus forcing them to direct their energy into growing larger sprouts.
    Follow this practice and your plants will produce nice large sprouts from bottom to top. If the tops are not cut off, you will have small sprouts at the top of the stem and large sprouts at the bottom. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts will be ready to start harvesting just before Thanksgiving.
    Peas will continue producing flowers and pods until the plants are killed by temperatures below 28 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower will only exhibit minimum frost damage at those temperatures. Collards, kale and spinach can tolerate even colder temperatures.
    If you sowed carrots back in July, your harvest will be sweet and tasty. There is nothing like eating freshly harvested carrots during late fall and winter months. Parsnips sowed in the spring will not be ready to harvest until mid-winter, if the ground has not frozen, or early next spring, when they will be at their best. Steamed, stir-fried or ground and blended with egg and flour, there is nothing tastier than spring-dug parsnips.
    The asparagus ferns should by now have all turned brown and be ready to cut, chopped and added to the compost bin. However, avoid composting asparagus plants with red berries clinging to the stems. Those red berries contain seeds that will germinate and quickly become a weed when you spread the compost in your garden.
    If you have not already sowed a cover crop of winter rye where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, snap beans grew during the summer, do it now. Winter rye is the most effective plant to absorb available nutrients in the soil, stop the soil from eroding by wind or water, prevent winter weeds from growing and help in keeping your garden soil fertile. Not all of the nutrients you applied as fertilizer or compost have been utilized by the crop you just finished growing. A cover crop will absorb those nutrients, storing them in the roots and leaves.
    Next spring when you spade or rototill the rye under, the nutrients will be released back into the soil and used by next season’s crops. The incorporation of the cover crop back into the soil helps maintain the organic matter content of your garden soil. A good garden soil should have an excess of three percent organic matter.
    Never allow your soil to remain fallow. Soils that remain fallow contribute to water pollution problems.


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