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Three steps to keep them happy indoors

Some houseplants have to be repotted every six months, while others can stay put for two or three years. Frequency of repotting also depends on container size, quality of care, productivity of the rooting medium and frequency of nutrient applications. Annuals — such as grape ivy, begonias and marigolds — have very vigorous habits of growth and should be repotted at least twice yearly. Foliage plants such as ficus, schefflera and crotons tend to grow slowly and can be left alone for a year or two, depending on the age of the plant and container size.

Step 1: If root-bound, repot
    As you move houseplants in for the winter, check first whether they are root-bound. Knock the plant out of its container, holding the still-potted plant with your fingers on each side of the stem, then turning it upside-down amd rapping the top of the container sharply on the edge of a solid table or bench, dislodging the root ball. If it is covered with a solid mat of roots, the plant is root-bound.
    To stimulate root-bound plants to produce new roots, take a sharp knife, and make four or five cuts through the root mat from the top to the bottom of the root ball. Using your fingers, loosen as many roots as possible, and shake out old rooting medium from the center of the ball.
    Unless the roots of a root-bound plant are disturbed during repotting, the plant will stay root-bound despite having fresh rooting medium and a bigger container.
    If using a larger container is not feasible, apply the bonsai root-pruning practice, cutting out one-third of the root mat to allow new roots room to grow.

Step 2: Use active potting soil
    Repot into freshly blended potting medium. Try this recipe: Mix equal parts by volume garden soil (less for plastic or ceramic pots), compost and perlite. Place in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so that it will remain moist.
    Or improve commercial media by adding one-third by volume compost such as LeafGro. Peat moss-blended media shrink over time; avoid them.
    If you have old potting medium, whether homemade or purchased, make sure it is biologically active. Old potting soil that has been allowed to dry out and remain bone dry for months is biologically dead. To make old dried-out potting medium usable, moisten and blend it with either fresh compost or new potting medium.
    Add all the old rooting medium to your compost pile.
    Place some fresh potting medium in the bottom of the container. Replace the plant, adding and tapping down more medium as you go. Using your thumbs, press the rooting medium firmly into the center of the root ball and between the root ball and the walls of the container.
    Leave a half-inch free space between the top of the root ball and the top edge of the container for proper watering. Finally, bounce the bottom of the container sharply on a hard surface so that the loose potting medium fills in the voids.

Step 3: Water generously
    As soon as you finish potting, flood the surface with water several times until you see excess water flow from the bottom of the container. This washes the medium into cavities around the roots. After the water drains, fill with additional medium. Allow to drain thoroughly before bringing inside.
    A later column will explain indoor watering.


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

You’ve got a treasure; take care of it

Back in the mid-1940s, the advent of the spinning reel made angling a popular America sport. Spin reels opened up light-tackle fishing to millions for the first time. The easy-to-use casting mechanism allowed anglers to throw their line, lure or bait a good distance without worry of tangles.
    Penn spin reels became the saltwater standard of the day. By the mid-1970s, their price approached $100. This was a considerable sum, but they were rugged quality reels made in America. You could count on a Penn. The reels were easily maintained with an occasional squirt of oil, and customer service was great.
    If you had problems with your Penn that you couldn’t handle yourself, it could be returned to the company and refurbished promptly in the neighborhood of $10, as I recall, and that included return postage. People treasured and passed down their Penn reels from generation to generation.
    However at the same time, manufacturing of fishing tackle began to shift to offshore anglers, which resulted in lower costs and increased product competition. Design and materials improvement accelerated as angling became even more popular in the U.S., then worldwide.
    As prices dropped, when a reel was damaged or began to malfunction, it became more convenient to replace it than to bear the cost and inconvenience of shipping and repair. Plus, constant technological advances and better engineering made most newer models superior.
    Today’s reels are nothing short of magnificent, and their costs have risen accordingly. Material and engineering development have matured to the point that these mechanisms are not going to get noticeably better in the foreseeable future. As a result, it’s starting to make sense once again to take care of the gear we have, keep it in good working order and maintain it for its full life expectancy.
    Manufacturers have also sensed this change in the dynamics of the market and improved their customer service. Looking online you’ll find all the better tackle companies offering on-line schematics, parts lists and detailed maintenance instructions. Plus, many websites discuss specific repairs and how to accomplish them on virtually every brand and model of spin reel now available.
    More and more anglers are, once again, providing their own intensive maintenance to their reels to ensure performance and longevity and — while they’re at it — even upgrading mechanisms to include friction-free ceramic bearings, carbon-fiber drag washers, newer high-tech low-friction lubricants and, in general, keeping the gear up to any angling task and in top condition for years to come.
    For anglers, the disposable-equipment culture may at last be over.

Just a little care will do it

This summer, I harvested my biggest crop of garlic ever, with my elephant garlic the size of a baseball. I attribute my success to incorporating an inch-thick layer of compost just before planting, mulching the garlic with Maine Lobster Compost just before the ground froze and giving the garlic plenty of room to grow. I planted elephant garlic in a six-by-six-inch spacing and the Italian garlic in a four-by-six-inch spacing. Come summer, I stopped hoeing the weeds as soon as the foliage was sufficiently dense to shade the ground.
    Plant your garlic before November here in southern Maryland. If you have not had your soil tested in the past three years, do. The pH of the soil must be between 6.0 and 6.5 with five percent organic matter and medium to optimum levels of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and boron. Even with five percent organic matter, spade a one-inch-thick layer of your homemade compost or LeafGro into the soil just prior to planting.
    I had problems purchasing garlic bulbs from seed catalogs. In recent years I purchase my garlic bulbs from large grocery stores where you can select firm and well-developed bulbs. Grasp the bulbs and squeeze them gently. If they feel spongy, keep selecting until you have bulbs that feel firm and solid.
    Separate the cloves, making certain that the basal plate is not damaged. Each elephant bulb should give you five or six firm cloves. Using a trowel or a dibble, plant elephant garlic cloves at least six inches below the surface of the ground and Italian or German garlic four inches deep. Rake the soil while filling the holes, and irrigate well. Until new leaves appear above ground, irrigate only once weekly. When the foliage is close to a foot tall, mulch with your homemade compost, Maine Lobster Compost or compost made from crab waste. Maine Lobster Compost used as a mulch is free of weeds as compared to homemade compost.
    Compost made from lobster or crab is high in nitrogen, which is slowly released. This is especially important come next spring when plants are growing. The slow-release nitrogen means that every time you water in the spring, the roots are being supplied with nutrients from the compost. If you mulch with your own homemade compost, I suggest that you apply either an organic or chemical fertilizer as soon as the plants resume growth.
    Next spring, take great care when weeding with an onion hoe. Avoid any contact between the steel of the hoe and the stems of the garlic. To control grasses, I apply Preen at about the time forsythia drops its flowers. Pigweed, lambs-quarters, oxalis and clover will have to removed by hand.


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

When the rockfish wanted to wrangle, I was more than ready

Trepidation is the condition of being uncertain of a situation’s outcome to the point of anxiety. Trepidation was also an apt description of my mental state as I prepped my casting rod and checked the three-quarter-ounce surface popper I had chosen to begin my quest.
    I had just lowered my skiff’s Power Pole anchor onto the far end of a sunken rock jetty that ran for a good 70 yards from a boulder-encrusted shoreline. A few years ago this time of year, I had many a fantastic late afternoon tempting rockfish into attacking virtually anything that splashed or popped through the rips that formed here.
    Over the last few seasons, however, the area had become mysteriously bereft of fish. Though I continued to visit, my efforts had mostly resulted in a lot of nothing.
    As I tried yet once again, I steeled myself for another angling defeat in spite of the excellent conditions: calm water, a good high tide and little wind. Waiting some long minutes for the wake from my skiff’s arrival to dissipate along the empty shoreline, I finally lifted the rod and sent an easy cast arcing out over the water to what had once been a sweet spot in a prominent rip.
    It’s my habit to thumb the cast as it approaches the water, not only to prevent an over-run but also to eliminate any slack in the line and make certain that the lure lands tail-end first. As soon as it splashes I give it a short spurt, my theory being that the prompt movement assures any striped predator alerted to the noise of the fall that that particular creature is alive and attempting to escape.
    My effort to action the plug was a failure — due not to any slack in my line but to something big having already eaten the lure. As I came tight, I added a little extra effort to ensure a hook set. The explosion that followed sent a column of water almost as high as my soaring spirits.
    One of the pleasures of hooking a good fish on a top-water bait is seeing it try to shake loose from the attacking lure’s grasp. This hefty rockfish rocketed from the water sideways, swinging its head and body recklessly across the top of the rip, submerged and re-emerged in a frothy surface tantrum. Then it headed for deeper water.
    After a patient struggle, I led an exhausted and silvery fish into the net. Exhilarated, I removed the lure from the fish’s mouth, took a quick picture and eased it into a bed of ice. I planned to celebrate this victory more than once.
    Another cast toward the same rip was rewarded with an instant blowup. Nerves somehow in check, I managed to keep from striking at the sound of the exploding water. My plug hung suspended about two feet in the air above the roiled surface. As it fell back, it was attacked and, again, sent flying, then sent flying again. Apparently these fish were in a mood to play with their food. Eventually retrieving the lure, I sent it out to a different area. The same thing happened, but this time one of the fish finally caught a hook, and another fight was on.
    This extravaganza went on until dark when, despite the lingering bite, I picked up and headed home. A clear sky and big moon gave me plenty of light to avoid the crab buoys as I exulted all the way home.

Water now or expect poor fall color — and a killing winter

This year’s dry late summer and early fall will put a damper on foliage colors. Don’t expect a long, lingering colorful fall. Many trees are already dropping their leaves due to the drought conditions we are experiencing. There is even premature coloration in the foliage of red maple, dogwoods and sweet gum.
    Much of the early leaf drop can be attributed to the buckets of rain we had during the early parts of summer when trees generated an abundance of growth. Many deciduous tree species produced two and three flushes of growth, resulting in a super abundance of lush green leaves.
    Now that the water has been turned off, the roots are unable to meet the demands of so much foliage, and the trees drop their leaves. Leaves often turn brown just before dropping, but green leaves are also dropping. Sycamore and maple trees are often exhibiting marginal necrosis with the center of the leaves remaining green. Older leaves show the most symptoms.
    If you planted trees and shrubs in your landscape during the past two years, you should be irrigating them thoroughly each week this fall to assure their survival next spring. If they don’t absorb sufficient water this fall, they are likely to experience bark splitting or winter dieback in the spring.
    Woody plants absorb most of their water for winter survival during September and October. If there is insufficient water beneath the bark and near the roots, the bark facing south will likely split or flake off. You need to make certain that the soil surrounding the roots is moist before the ground freezes. Wet soils freeze slower than dry soils, and woody trees and shrubs can absorb water from the soil until the ground freezes. Wet soils don’t freeze as deep as dry soils. So don’t stop watering now.


What to Do When No Grass Grows

Q    Eight days ago, lawn thatched, I aerated, put down lime, fertilizer, fescue seed and straw on bare spots.
    Now, no sign of grass growth.
    Is it too late to scratch what seems to be impacted soil and reseed? We have some 70- to 80-degree weather coming up. But I will be gone next weekend, so watering each day would be a problem.
    I have worked hard and long. My stomach dropped at not seeing new grass come up! How can I save it? Or do I chalk it up, $200 down the drain, as another learning experience and do nothing until next fall?

–Ruth Gross, Bowie

A    If you can’t push a shovel into the soil to a depth of four inches, it means that the soil is too compacted to grow grass. If you can push a shovel into the soil, cover the area with an inch-thick layer of Leafgro and spade it lightly into the upper inch of soil. Then spread new seed evenly over the soil, and rake the seed into the compost-amended soil. Water well: until you see standing water on the surface. Now spread a thin layer of straw over the area. The compost blended with the soil will keep the soil moist for up to four days while you are gone, allowing the seeds to germinate and grass to grow.


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

Give your tackle a good cleaning

As much as we hate to admit it, this year’s fishing season is winding down. It’s suddenly colder, a lot colder than just a half-month ago. Fall’s remaining weeks will be punctuated by periods of frustrating, unfishable, windy weather. However this forced downtime can give the wise angler a head start on winterizing tackle.
    Looking about my study, cluttered haphazardly with an embarrassing number of rods and reels, I see that their once clean and glistening finishes have been overcome by the dull sheen of salt evaporation and fish slime. A few of the outfits have collected samples of amorphous unknown substances.
    Even rigs that I use until winter puts a full stop to fishing need a little maintenance during breezy periods. Renewing reel lubricants and checking drag smoothness can have critical impact in the remaining season, as the possibility of hooking a big fish that will test every aspect of your tackle is never better than at this time of year.
    Over my many seasons, I’ve discovered it’s best to begin the fall maintenance effort by giving everything an outside shower. I start by lining up every rod and reel I’ve used against my front porch and rinsing them with a soft spray from the garden hose, followed by a general soap-and-water scrubbing, then another gentle rinse.
    The rest of winterizing can be done in stages.
    After the general cleaning, use a stiff toothbrush or car-detailing brush dipped in a strong detergent (no abrasives, please) on the more stubborn areas of dirt accumulation.
    Next focus on each rod’s guide to ensure it is clean and has not been damaged. A cracked guide ring that can be hard to see will shred a line faster than a barnacle-coated piling.
    The best test for guide-ring integrity is pulling a short section of fabric cut from pantyhose through the ring. Any defect is snagged by its fine mesh. A damaged guide should be replaced ASAP; it cannot be repaired, and continuing to use a rod with a bad guide is a recipe for angling disaster.
    Then go over all of the rods’ reel seats, first removing the reel, then scrubbing the seat and its locking mechanism and giving it a good application of heavy-duty silicone. Don’t use grease; it will attract and hold dust and dirt.
    Wipe off each reel with a rag moistened with WD-40 as it’s a great solvent, then give it a light coat of silicone as well. Soak down the mono and braid on your reels with a line conditioner, a great antidote for the salt accumulated over the season. If you don’t use a conditioner, that salt will continue to suck the softeners and lubricants out of the line over winter.
    Next, scrub all cork rod handles with a wet sponge or rag (but never a brush) generously anointed with an abrasive cleanser. Rinse them well. When they are thoroughly dry, go over them with pure neatsfoot oil. That will repair the past season’s exposure damage and keep the cork young over the coming winter months.
    Finally, dress the male ferrules on any multi-piece rod by rubbing them with candle wax or paraffin. Thus treated, the sections will never stick together and won’t separate while fishing. Additionally, the thin wax coating will minimize ferrule wear.
    If you subsequently find that you have the need to use an outfit that you’ve already winterized, just think of it as a lucky break. You’re lucky to have another chance to fish again this season and lucky in the knowledge that your tackle is in first-rate condition and up to any challenge the fall finale might bring.

Could these long-necked fish-eaters be a ­looming threat?

I noticed the first few cormorants on the Bay in the early 1990s, though I didn’t think much about their appearance at the time. Cormorants had been absent from the Chesapeake, their numbers driven down by pesticides, particularly DDT. The otherwise large populations stretching across the northeast coast down through Florida cushioned them from total exhaustion.
    Over the intervening years, since the banning of those pesticides, their numbers have been rapidly expanding to include a Chesapeake Bay population. The double-crested cormorant, the species now common throughout the Bay, is a large, heavy-bodied black seabird with a sharp beak (curved at the end for catching fish) and a small patch of yellow-orange facial coloring. During their nesting season, both sexes sport prominent white-feathered crests above their eyes for which they’ve earned their double-crested name.
    Airborne, they resemble a small goose with an even wing beat and often fly in large groups called flights. They are a handsome bird, with a slim head, long neck and graceful profile, Though cormorants have a slender profile, their necks are expandable and they can swallow fish 10 to 12 inches in length.
    As diving birds, cormorants can chase their prey, virtually any species of fish, deep underwater, swimming with the aid of their wings. They are able to stay submerged for minutes at a time and cover large distances underwater.
    Most birds are hollow-boned to aid in flight, but the cormorant’s bones are solid to provide strength as well as weight to help them dive. Their feathers are not completely waterproof, again an aid to diving, and that is also why you see the birds perched, holding their wings open to dry and enable them to once again get airborne. Perched and drying their wings, they have an ominous, dark appearance. Worse, say some commercial fishermen, is their appetite.
    Pound netters suffer particularly as the birds have learned to target their fish traps where menhaden, herring, alewife, perch and rockfish make easy pickings. Flocks can gather quickly and eat ravenously. One area waterman told me cormorants had gathered in the hundreds to devour thousands of small white perch that had become trapped in his pound net.
    Seeing large flights of cormorants this season, I wondered if they could become a problem for free-swimming fish. Maryland Department of Natural Resources confirms a resident Chesapeake population of some 4,000 nesting pairs. Those resident birds annually consume an estimated three million pounds of fish of all species. Northerly cormorants also make the Bay their southern wintering grounds — and bring their appetites.
    Adding to the problem is guano from nesting cormorants, which has killed areas of critical wetlands vegetation. Their presence has also driven other species of native Bay seabirds off their traditional and limited nesting grounds.
    Hunting cormorants was banned during earlier periods of population decline. So we may be seeing another surge in a bird population that can be unhealthy, particularly in sensitive areas such as the Chesapeake.

A short lesson on the difference between aerobic and anaerobic decay

A Bay Weekly reader cornered me at Christopher’s in West River, complaining that her compost pile stinks. She was composting in a rotating drum on an elevated stand. Her complaint: the contents in the drum were slopping wet and the odors so strong that her neighbors were complaining.
    She admitted that she had not read the directions on the drum. “What difference would that have made?” she wanted to know.
    The instructions for enclosed composting systems clearly state that when odors are detectable, add dry matter such as shredded newspaper, dry leaves, straw or hay to absorb the excess water.
    Composting is an aerobic system, which means that the microorganisms digesting the organic matter require a minimum of five percent oxygen. As composting progresses, moisture from decomposing vegetable matter is released into the atmosphere. Closed composting systems such as rotating drums or enclosed bins do not have sufficient ventilation to release that excess moisture into the atmosphere. Thus, moisture condensates on the inside walls of the container and accumulates in the organic waste being composted. When the moisture concentration within the organic waste exceeds 60 percent, oxygen is excluded and the system becomes anaerobic. When the organic waste becomes anaerobic, objectionable odors are generated by the anaerobic digesting organisms. Other by-products from anaerobic digestion are acetic acid and methane.
    The ideal moisture concentration for composting is between 45 and 55 percent. As most vegetable waste such as cucumber, potato, carrot, watermelon, squash, cabbage, lettuce, etc. contain between 80 to 95 percent water, it does not take much to overwhelm the system with excess moisture.
    Enclosed composting systems should be checked two to three times weekly and turned. At the slightest odor, add dry material and turn several times to incorporate it into the wet. Continue adding and turning the unit until the contents feel moist but not wet. At the proper moisture content, composting materials should feel like a moist sponge. If you can squeeze moisture from a handful of composting material, there is too much water. You can help rid some of the excess moisture by leaving the door open, but make certain that you shut it before turning.
    I used composting drums for developing formulas for composting garbage. Garbage tends to be dry, making it necessary to add water in addition to phosphorus and nitrogen. I was able to compost garbage in 30 days, and the drums often developed temperatures of 180 degrees. I turned the drums daily.
    Drums are useless in the late fall, winter and early spring. However, during the normal growing season, they are very efficient when managed properly.
    If your composting unit stinks, it is because you have allowed it to become anaerobic. Keep a supply of dried leaves, hay, straw or shredded paper nearby for immediate relief.


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

Sightings up in warmer weather

Chesapeake Bay sees many migratory visitors, among them Canada geese, tundra swans and rockfish. The list occasionally includes Florida manatees. Colder waters generally keep the species south of us; most venture no farther than South Carolina or Georgia. But some males looking to expand their range can end up as far north as New England.
    “They start their migration in early spring and generally return to Florida in the fall when falling temperatures bring them back,” says Katie Tripp, director of Science and Conservation at the Save the Manatee Club in Florida.
    Many manatees have preferred habitats and will return to the same places year after year.
    In 1994, Chessie the wandering manatee called in many local ports. Newspapers and television recorded Chessie’s amblings. But cooling waters sent chills down the spines of manatee watchers who, fearing the object of their affections might succumb to hypothermia, set out on a Bay-wide chase. An elusive Chessie was at last caught, tranquilized and flown to the warmer Florida waters manatees are supposed to frequent. Apparently the grasses were greener in the Chesapeake. Chessie returned, visiting briefly in 1995 and reportedly again in 1996.
    “Since the early 1990s, there have been over 25 manatee sightings in Maryland,” reports Amanda Weschler, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Sightings are typically made by boaters or citizens on land near the water with photographic confirmation.
    Many more may have visited unseen.
    “They’re large, slow-moving animals, and they don’t breach the water like dolphins or whales, so a lot of the time they don’t get noticed,” says Cindy Driscoll, Maryland Department of Natural Resources State Fish & Wildlife Veterinarian.
    Most visiting manatees are behaving normally, feeding and swimming, and don’t need help returning to Florida. Occasionally, a manatee that is injured, sick or a little lost needs help.
    “The best thing to do if you spot a manatee in the Bay is to call 800-628-9944. That’s the Natural Resources Police number, and they will direct your call to the best responder, depending on the situation,” Driscoll advises.
    The National Aquarium in Baltimore responds when a live marine mammal, including a manatee, needs rescue. Maryland Department of Natural Resources responds to dead marine mammals and sea turtles.


Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.

For my youngest’s 24th, a hard-fighting false ­albacore

It has been quite a while since I heard a reel drag shriek. I had to go to Florida to hear it — not once but three times in minutes.
    My youngest son, Rob, was holding the protesting rig as a powerful fish departed at speed. Harrison, my next oldest at 27, was live-lining a small pilchard farther down the pier when his reel also began to wail as line ripped off the spool.
    Their friend Matt then joined in the cacophony. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his rod jerk down and the reel spool turn into a blur accompanied by another high-pitched drag howl.
    False albacore (average weight eight pounds) are one of the fastest fish in the sea at 40 knots. The boys were getting first-hand knowledge of just how speedy and powerful they can be. A first run in excess of 100 yards is about average on light tackle for this most numerous member of the tuna family.
    At the end of that run they’ve broken off, slipped the hook or paused, momentarily, to wonder where the rest of the school has gotten. That’s not the end of the fight, merely the beginning.
    The fact that all three of my party had hooked up, almost simultaneously, on that Florida fishing pier had nothing to do with my guidance, unless you count selecting the right mentor.
    The most convenient location to fish saltwater around Delray Beach, Florida — where my youngest is living and Harrison and I were visiting — was a long public fishing pier projecting into the ocean along the sandy eastern Florida shoreline.
    I had little firsthand knowledge of the local fishing. That was supplied by Vinny Keitt, a dedicated Florida pier angler who has been teaching the intricacies of that form for almost 30 years. Vinny is a giant of a man. Six and a half feet tall and broad, he presented an imposing figure strolling onto the pier, pulling a custom flatbed with rods, reels, gear and coolers.
    Greeting him was every person on the fairly crowded pier, from 12-year-olds fishing worn family spin tackle to everyday anglers to knowing sports wielding custom-made graphite rods rigged with Van Staals and high-end Shimanos. A well-dressed middle-aged woman proffered a sizeable king mackerel by its tail and exclaimed, “Look, Vinny, just like you taught me!”
    Soft-spoken and with a seasoned teacher’s manner, Vinny, selected a light spin rod rigged with a sabiki — six tiny hooks dressed with white feathers and a one-ounce sinker. Within a few seconds, he reeled back up the rig now wriggling with three or four small pilchard baitfish that had latched on below.
    He then placed a pilchard, nose-hooked and weightless, onto each of our medium spin rods, tossed the baits out and handed us the outfits with a few concise instructions. Within a very short time, each angler was struggling with a two- to three-pound blue runner, a hard-fighting fish of the jack family.
    The bite escalated from there, culminating an hour later in our hookups with the false albacore plus an awesome jump from a 60-pound tarpon before it spit Harrison’s hook.