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Plants are survivors

The spring of 2016 will be remembered as a short spring and a very short summer followed by a short fall — all within four weeks between March and April. Those 70-degree days in mid March stimulated the vegetative buds in many woody ornamentals to swell, causing the winter bud scales to drop to the ground. This left the buds susceptible to damage by freezing temperatures.
    Some Bay Weekly readers have reported buds on their hydrangeas turning brown and drooping, which has never happened before. Others have reported that the new growth on their Euonymus shrubs is turning white and wilting. Others have reported that that frosty nights have caused their American hollies to develop yellow leaves that drop to the ground. They seem to forget that hollies lose their leaves in spring as they start to grow new leaves. The difference is that this year, the transition from old to new is occurring earlier than ­normal.  
    The peach crop will most likely be sparse this year because most of the trees were in full bloom when the frost hit. Once flower petals begin to unfurl, they lose their cold-hardiness. Late-blooming varieties will produce peaches because their flower buds were still closed at the time of the last frost.
    Early asparagus spears wilted to the ground in the section of the garden where I had tilled the soil to control weeds. Where the garden was not freshly tilled and the soil was firm, the early spears were not affected. The difference is due to the heat loss from the soil, which provides frost protection. Where the surface soil was loose, there was not sufficient heat retention to provide frost protection close to the ground. I have seen similar results in gardens where the asparagus beds are mulched. The mulch prevents heat loss from the ground, resulting in the early-rising spears vulnerable to frost.
    But plants are survivors. By the first of June, everything will just about look the same, regardless of late-frost damage.

Planting Schedule
    If you are anxious to get dirt under your fingernails, this is the time for planting potatoes, onions, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, cauliflower, spinach and bak-choi.
    Delay planting tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash and cucumbers until the second week in May. If you are using stakes or cages to grow your tomatoes, remember to spray them thoroughly with a 10 percent bleach solution before installing them. There is evidence that spores of blight on last year’s tomato plants can over-winter on the stakes and cages.


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

Abundance is the rule on the Argentina Plains

The first bird to approach our floating decoy spread was massive. Its seven-foot wingspread and three-foot beak were also signals that the the creature was not among our intended species. Our guide, Federico, emphasized the situation by whispering, “No tiro, est un jabiru.”
    I stumbled with my Spanish, so our guide tried his English. “No shoot, is the bird that brings the babies.”
    It was a stork. And big enough to carry quintuplets.
    Just after sunrise with temps only a bit above freezing, we were crouched in a waterfowl blind within a large natural drainage system in the La Pampa Province of the Argentina Plains. Because of the earth’s tilt on its axis in relation to the sun, the Southern Hemisphere’s seasons are opposite of the Northern Hemisphere. Our Northern spring is when their Southern duck seasons begins.
    My longtime friend and sporting partner Mike Kelly and I were in one hide, my two elder sons were in another, and Mike’s traveling companions, Jeff and Suzie Boot from the Isle of Man, were in a third.
    La Pampa is a vast, scarcely populated agricultural area with massive acreages devoted to corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, barley, sunflowers, cattle and sheep. It greatly resembles our Midwestern Plains but with a distinction. It is more like the Midwest of a hundred years ago.
    The ecological systems of freshwater drainage ponds and lakes that in America were leveled and plowed under during the last century remain untouched in Argentina. Those two differences, fewer people and unspoiled terrain, provide vast fertile areas for birds and waterfowl. It is a bird and bird lovers’ paradise.
    We hunted (and observed) for about three hours that morning, and harvested a colorful bag of ducks that eventually included rosy-billed pochards; white-faced and fulvous whistlers; yellow-billed and white-cheeked pintails; cappuccino, speckled, cinnamon and Brazilian teals; and Chiloe widgeon. The fowl were as delicious as they were beautiful.
    The afternoons in La Pampa were devoted to dove shooting, a specialty of the Argentina Plains. A number of dove species exist there, especially the eared dove, and because of their fecundity and the mildness of the long breeding season, their populations maintain well over 100 million. One pair of doves lays only two eggs, but the fledglings emerge in little over two weeks, reach maturity quickly and produce a number of hatches themselves within the same season. That can mean hundreds of eventual offspring from the original grain-eating pair each year. To help control their numbers and alleviate pressure on agriculture, the dove-hunting season in Argentina is open year-round.
    These small birds are as delicious as the ducks. Any birds or waterfowl not consumed by our hunting party were intended for delivery to local social services by our outfitters.
    It was great to adventure in an ecological system so abundant that our activities had no discernable effect.

Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and produce smaller flowers

As the trumpets of daffodil petals herald spring, we see clumps growing in roadside banks as well as in gardens. Pretty as they are, the flowers in those large clumps are not as large as those of single plants or smaller clumps. Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and thus produce smaller flowers due to a lower reserve of food.
    Professional gardeners dig up and thin out clumps of daffodils every five or six years. This practice allows them to not only maintain flower size but to also expand plantings.
    If you would like to lift and thin your bulbs, now is the time to take the first step. First, use a large plant label or planting stake with a weatherproof tag to mark the location of each clump to be dug, and identify its flower color.    After the foliage dies down to the ground, give the blubs a couple of more weeks to mature. Foliage will die more slowly in clumps growing under partial shade than those growing in full sun.
    To minimize damage to the bulbs, use a fork spade for digging and lifting out the bulbs. Start digging at least three or four inches away from the ring of dead foliage. Lift the bulbs and spread them on the ground to dry in the full sun for an hour or so. After the soil on the bulbs has dried, remove it by rubbing gently with your hands. Avoid damaging the tunic, the thin papery covering on the bulbs. Do not attempt to separate the bulbs from each other at this time.
    After harvesting, spread the bulbs on a flat surface in a well-ventilated room under cover to finish drying for a few weeks. Then place them in mesh bags or screen storage trays, and store them in a cool, dry place protected from rodents.
    In September, plant the bulbs where you want them to bloom next spring.


Is salt damage reversable?

Q Is there any way to compensate for winter salt damage to trees and ­bushes? Also affected is the grass strip ­paralleling the road.

–Farley Peters, Fairhaven

A Most of the damage caused by salt is due to salinity, which kills plant roots. If the sodium level in the soil is equal to or higher than that of potassium, then the damage is more likely related to nutrition. Have the soil tested to see if there is sufficient potassium.


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

Whenever the weather lets you

When the reel spool began turning under my thumb, I knew it was no ordinary rockfish on the end of my line. Counting to seven, I threw the Abu reel into gear, and when the line came tight, set the hook. Then my rod bent over to the corks and a stiffly set drag howled as the fish really hit the gas. This one had to be trophy sized — if only I could get it to the boat.
    We were anchored up south of the Hackett’s can at the mouth of the Severn River in 35 feet of water on a morning that was glassy calm despite a small-craft warning from NOAA the day before. Not deterred, my fishing companion Ed Robinson checked another forecase, www.intellicast.com, which predicted light winds until almost noon.
    We agreed that if the winds were calm we would head out and fish until the weather turned. Launching my 17-foot skiff, we were on station by 8am. A half-hour later, our four rods were rigged and baited with large chunks of fresh menhaden.
 A chum bag over the stern was spewing small bits of ground fish into the falling tidal current as we guessed that we had only about three hours of ebb left before slack water.

    Then Ed had a run and landed a fat and healthy 23-incher, a good sign there were fish around.
    A few minutes later, my bruiser hit.

How to Fish Trophy Season
    Chumming during Trophy Rockfish Season is a long-odds affair. Because the big fish are spawning and moving alone or in small packs, it is impossible to determine patterns. They don’t stay in one place for very long, so catching reports are mostly useless. Locating legal fish is pretty much a matter of luck.
    With this year’s larger 35-inch minimum size, we guessed it would be even more difficult to find keepers by fishing bait.
    Trolling is the most productive technique during trophy season as you’re covering far more water and using big lures. But if you want to use light tackle you’ve got to fish bait.
    Our four outfits were medium-heavy, six-and-a-half-foot casting rods with Abu 5600 casting reels loaded with 150 yards of 20-pound fluoro-coated mono, with fish finder rigs, two-ounce sinkers and stout 9/0 hooks on 24-inch 30-pound fluoro leaders.

Reeling in a Runaway Train
    It was 20 minutes into the battle before I got a glimpse of the striper. It was definitely a good one. Calming myself and making sure not to force things, I eased it to the side of the boat. Ed got most of the fish into the net. It took both of us to lift it over the gunnel. The lunker’s big tail ran well past the deck-mounted 36-inch measuring tape, so we were sure it was legal. After a quick picture we eased the handsome giant into my fishbox and iced it down.
    Ed had pulled all of our rigs out of the water during the battle to avoid tangles, so it took another 20 minutes to get them cleared, baited and back in the water. After that we didn’t have long to wait.
    One of Ed’s rigs twitched, then the clicker on the reel started screaming as the fish picked up the bait and headed away at speed. It was another runaway train.
    The fight mirrored my own. Almost a twin of the first one, this burly rascal also hung half out of my net as we barely managed it up over the side. Two giants inside of half an hour.
    Done by 10am with two trophies in the box, their tails sticking out and the lid bulging open, we headed for the ramp grinning like fools. An hour later, a stiff north wind pushed up three-foot seas with shore-to-shore whitecaps.

Managed right, planer boards are great for catching trophy rockfish

Fish on! Fish on!     
    The call rang out from the bridge, and we rushed out from the cabin to the stern to determine which of the 18 rods had hooked a trophy rockfish. Seizing a stout trolling outfit that was bent down by an obviously big striper, my friend Mike began to fight the fish to the boat.
    Managing to avoid any disastrous tangles, my buddy finally got the fat and healthy 37-incher on deck. It was the first of a number of catches made possible by planer boards.

Increasing the Odds
    The thrill of trophy rockfish season is getting control of a big ocean-running fish. Trolling many rods at once increases the odds of success. The challenge is avoiding tangling the active line with the many others still in the water. Because of the other rigs, the boat cannot stop lest there be even more disastrous tangles. So the victor has to overcome not only the rockfish’s strength but also the boat’s continued speed.
    A set of connected angled boards towed to either side of a craft as far back as 150 feet, planer boards let you tow multiple lines at various distances and depths without getting them tangled. The result has been an exponential increase in big fish caught, particularly during the trophy season when trolling is by far the most effective technique.

Between Ocean and Bay
    Most of the big striped bass that cruise the Atlantic Coast from Maine to South Carolina are born in our Chesapeake Bay (where we call them rockfish). They only live in the Bay for four or five years, then migrate to live in the Atlantic.
    The vast baitfish schools of the ocean feed our stripers to substantial size, often over 50 pounds and sometimes over 100 pounds. These migratory giants return to the Chesapeake once a year, during the early spring, to seek out their natal waters and reproduce. After they’ve spawned, they return to the ocean.
    Stripers begin spawning as early as February and, depending on water temperatures, can continue into May. But most are done by the third Saturday in April, when the trophy season is scheduled by Maryland law to open. Thus the season is scheduled to target fish that have already strewn their eggs.

On the Downside
    Planer-board fishing does have its downside. To rig and stream out so many outfits is a complicated affair requiring good teamwork and plenty of planning and preparation.
    Maneuvering a craft with a 300-foot-wide trolling footprint can be a big challenge. Despite the usual brightly colored flags marking a ­planer board setup, they can be hard for other boats to see, especially in choppy waters. Pleasure boaters not familiar with the fishing practice may not notice the devices in the water. The consequences of a collision with one of these towed arrays — even of an abruptly forced course change — can be costly in both time and money.
    Each individual trolling lure can include expensive, multi-lure umbrella and chandelier rigs. Multiply the individual lure cost by a dozen or more, and there is a significant investment in fishing gear. Plus a large mixup can take hours to untangle and re-deploy.
    Keep them out of trouble, though, and planer boards catch big fish.

Grow a patch of rhubarb

My old friend Bill Burton and I once discussed eating freshly harvested rhubarb as kids during hot summer days in New England, where every home had a rhubarb patch in the backyard. Bill raved about his mother’s rhubarb-custard pie, while I raved about my mother’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. I can still picture myself sitting on the back stairs of our home with a fist full of sugar in my left hand and a freshly harvested stalk of rhubarb in my right. Before each bite, I would dredge the base of the rhubarb stem in the sugar.
    Those were the days.
    Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit, although we tend to limit its use to making desserts. One of the great features of rhubarb is that it can be blended with other fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears and apricots as the rhubarb absorbs the taste of the fruit. In other words, you can make a tasty blueberry pie using only one cup of blueberries and two cups of chopped rhubarb.
    Rhubarb grows best in well-drained soil in full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, but it will produce spindly stems. Since you consume only the stem, the fleshier the stem the better. Never eat the leaves because they contain oxalic acid, which will cause swelling of the tongue.
    I have seldom seen rhubarb sold in a garden center, though it is commonly listed in seed catalogs. If you order rhubarb for your garden, you will receive in the mail what appears to be a dried-up brown stub. For best results, place it in a cup of water for five days before planting.
    There are various clones of rhubarb with stems ranging from green to various shades of green to red and red only. There is even a clone labeled Strawberry-rhubarb. I can assure you that it does not have a strawberry flavor.
    Rhubarb likes mildly acid soil with a moderate amount of organic matter. When planting rhubarb, I dig a hole the size of a half-bushel basket and add two to three shovels-full of compost and a handful of agricultural limestone, then mix thoroughly.
    Allow the rhubarb to grow without harvesting for at least two years before pulling your first stems. During your first harvest on the third year of growth, remove no more than half of the stems at any one time and allow one month between harvests.
    If you see a flower head develop in the center of the clump, remove it with a sharp knife two to three inches from the ground. Allowing the plant to produce seeds during the first three years of growth will weaken the clump.
    Never try growing rhubarb in a large container or in a raised bed. The roots are sensitive to high temperatures, which will cause the plant to die in mid-summer as rooting media rises in above-ground containers or beds.


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

Their clock is set to the dogwoods

My first cast met with instant success and, as my slim rod bent down, a flashing, silver missile erupted vertically in the middle of the stream, arced over, splashed down and then grayhounded across the roiling current. Hickory shad had returned.
    I knew it was time earlier that morning when I saw the first signs of dogwood blooms in my front yard. With their emergence the hickories had to be on their way.
    Collecting some shad darts in bright colors and some small three-way swivels as well as a couple of bobbers, I chose my two favorite five-foot spin rods and a pair of warm neoprene boots and set off for the upper Choptank on the Eastern Shore.
    Hickory shad arrive each spring to spawn throughout the Bay’s tributaries, with some returning multiple times in their 10-year lifespan. The harvest of all shad and river herring (a close cousin) has been prohibited in Maryland since 1981, as their population has declined due to unwise agricultural practices, urban development and damming. Catch and release, however, is allowed, as cool water temperatures keep the mortality rates low.
    About an hour later I was rewarded by another good fish, and soon another. As the sun warmed the waters, the bite improved. By mid-afternoon I had notched a rewarding number. The best one, an estimated 20-incher, gave me six nice jumps before it came unbuttoned. Hickory shad is one of the more sporting fish that visits the Chesapeake.

Catching Them
    My technique of fishing a pair of shad darts linked by a three-way swivel 18 inches below my bobber is a site-specific rig, chosen to keep the darts just off of the rocky, shallow river bottom and to hold the lures free from snags. Generally it is best to fish the darts — two always seem to draw strikes much better than one — bobber free so you’re able to explore the deeper waters where these fish also lurk. The hook wire on the shad darts is pliable enough to bend back to the proper shape, so be sure you do, otherwise you’ll not be able to keep a fish on your line for more than a second or so.
    I prefer one-sixteenth- to one-eighth-ounce black-tipped orange or chartreuse shad darts, dressed with yellow or white calf tail. But a one-eighth-ounce curly tail jig in bright green is also popular on the Choptank.
    An 18-inch hickory shad is a big one. Four-pound test line is plenty, but six-pound allows the additional luxury of prying a rock-fouled dart off by pulling hard enough to bend the hook.
Spring Fishing Extra
    This time of year you may also encounter late-run white perch and early-run rockfish. The stripers must be released in all rivers, no matter what their size, until June 1. White perch, however, can be kept for the table and are absolutely delicious, with no minimum size or catch limit.

A successful harvest depends on the right bulbs for our hours of light

Onions are good for your health, and generally they are easy to grow. Let me give you some advice on growing them successfully.
    Plant onion sets and you’ll harvest only green onions. Most sets you buy are short-day onions, which produce bulbs only when grown during the winter months with 10 daylight hours or less. Planted in the spring, as daylight hours grow longer, they produce only onion tails, your green onions.
    To grow onion bulbs, you must buy either long-day or intermediate, aka day-neutral, onions. They are shipped in bundles of 75 or more seedlings. Unless you are familiar with a particular variety, I suggest planting two or more varieties. Harvesting will be easier if you keep each separate in the garden, as they’ll mature at different times.
    Onions perform best in high organic soils with a nearly neutral pH.
    The spacing between onion plants is based on the mature bulb size. The most desirable bulb size for kitchen use is one and a half to two and a half inches. For those sizes, use a four-by-four-inch spacing. Bermuda and Walla Walla-size onions need more space; plant them in six-by-six-inch spacing. Those spacings allow room for the bulbs to grow and for you to cultivate between the plants without damaging the bulbs.
    Fertilize two to three weeks after planting and monthly thereafter. Don’t let the soil dry out; onions have a very limited root system, and there is a high population of plants in a limited area.
    Neck rot of onions can be a serious storage problem. Avoid it by knocking the foliage to the ground just as the bulbs begin to mature in late July and August, depending on the variety. Do so as soon as the color of the foliage begins to fade and the tops of the onion tails start turning brown. I use the back of a garden rake.
    Leeks want four-by-four-inch spacing as they do not produce bulbs but do produce thick stems. They have the same growing requirements as onions.
    Garlic planted last fall is now in need of fertilizer. Like onions, garlic plants have a limited root system and respond well to fertilizer and water. Remove the flower buds as they begin to form, mid- to late June, depending on variety. If the garlic plants flower and produce seeds, both bulb and cloves will be smaller. For large cloves of elephant garlic, early removal of the flower stem is doubly important.


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

 

Many will bloom again in your garden, but some are destined for compost

If you received Easter plants, you’ll be able to plant some of them in the garden to enjoy again next year. Others are best recycled by composting them.
    Replant: Potted tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses can be planted in the flower garden. Don’t wait until the plants have died back to the ground. As soon as the flower petals have dropped, transplant them by digging a hole 10 to 12 inches deep, place a couple inches of compost in the bottom of the hole and mix with the existing soil. Carefully remove the root-ball from the container, loosen the layer of roots at the bottom of the root ball and place in the hole. The bottom of the root ball should be at least eight inches below the surface of the soil. Blend one-third by volume compost with the soil removed when digging the hole and carefully backfill around the stems. The bottom of the leaves of the plants should be just above the soil line.
    Many forced Easter lilies are not very cold-hardy. Since the frost seldom penetrates more than six inches in Southern Maryland, the bulbs’ lack of cold-hardiness can be solved by planting them 10 to 12 inches deep. Move the plants outdoors as soon as possible and keep them watered. For maximum effect, plant the bulbs in groups spaced 10 inches apart. If you only have one Easter lily, plant it as described above. If you have many (note that your church likely discards its lilies as soon as they have finished blooming), plant them in trenches. Dig a trench six inches wide and 12 inches deep and blend compost into the bottom soil. Carefully remove the plants from their pots and loosen the bottom roots. Space the plants in the trenches and backfill with soil amended with compost. Don’t worry about covering the bottom leaves with soil. What is important is that the bulbs be planted deep enough that the soil protects them from freezing. Your outdoors Easter lilies will flower next year but not in time for Easter.
    Compost: If you received potted hydrangeas, I highly recommend that you add them to the compost pile. The cultivar of hydrangea used in greenhouses does not have cold-hardy flower buds. If planted outdoors, it will produce attractive plants, but unless we have an extremely mild winter, it will not flower. Hydrangeas for outdoor landscaping are different cultivars.


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

The fish are willing — but is the caster able?

I hung the first rockfish almost an hour into my early-morning effort. The strike wasn’t violent; more a sudden stop followed by a long struggle. I had to put my electric motor into reverse to separate the fish from the structure and bring it onto the side of my boat.
    That fight established the pattern of all the fish I was to catch that day. Each insisted on remaining in one area as opposed to running for deep water. They stayed as close to the bottom as they could. I lost only one, but all the battles were perilous.
    My catch-and-release outing turned into an extended casting effort. The fish on this heavily overcast day were scattered singly among bridge supports, over submerged structures and along docks and jetties in water less than 10 feet deep. It took almost four hours to hang five nice fish.
    If I allowed my skiff to drift in too close, the stripers would either leave or shut off. If I didn’t hold the boat well away from the structure, my chances of drawing a strike were about zero. I had to drop the lure close to whatever structure I was fishing, and I had very few strikes in open water.

Fine-tuning the Caster
    I had rigged up a pair each of casting and spin rigs and armed them with variations of my basic lure, a Bass Assassin on half-ounce jigheads: five-inch Saltwater Shads in four colors, Opening Night, Albino Ghost, Ripper and basic white. Ripper had a strong edge in seducing the bites, though I had a hit or two on just about all the colors.
    I had lost accuracy with winter’s inactivity. Initially my casts tended off target: too short, too long, to one side or the other.
    My effectiveness varied with my equipment.
    With spinning equipment, once I released the throw the cast was done. I was either on or off target.
    With revolving-spool casting rigs, on the other hand, I could make in-flight adjustments by thumbing the spool and changing the trajectory of the bait accordingly, shortening the cast when desired and to a lesser degree moving the lure’s impact right or left. The ability to make those adjustments also depended on quickly shifting my focus from the target to the lure as it flew through its arc. Otherwise, I could never react quickly enough to make the necessary correction.
    About halfway through the morning, I realized that it was the casting I was enjoying. It was satisfying to eventually place the baits just where I wanted them, at long distance and often inches from a concrete pier or just off of a large bolder — particularly with the casting outfits.
    The whirr of the spools was mesmerizing, while comparing casting to spinning made for a more interesting trip. The spin outfits excelled at quick casts to medium distances where pinpoint accuracy was not particularly necessary. The casting outfits were perfect for the more demanding presentations.