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Whenever you can

Everything conspired against my going fishing. When I had the time the weather went bad, high winds or rain, sometimes both. When weather was right, my schedule turned on me: guests from out of town, family gatherings and, of course, work.
    When finally I got a break, it wasn’t until the afternoon that I could get away. The worst part of the fishing day is the high-sun, high-heat of the day from noon until at least 4pm. Then again, everyone knows that the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, so I did.
    On the water by 2pm and supplied with some nice, fresh menhaden and a bucket of frozen foul-smelling chum of the same species, a cooler full of ice and a couple of cold bottles of water, I made my way to a spot just off of the mouth of the Severn in 25 feet of water.
    Anchoring and getting set up took about 20 minutes. I had to re-rig my four rods, as the leaders were kinked and scarred from use and the hooks were not particularly sharp. Cutting off about 10 feet of line, I retied it to the swivels, clipped in some new live-lining sleeves and knotted on a two-foot section of 25-pound fluorocarbon for the leader. I finished with fresh and very sharp 7/0 short-shanked bait hooks.
    Setting my chum bag out about halfway to the bottom, I baited up and set out my rods to begin the wait. Wrong time of day, but the tide was making up and in the same direction as the wind, so my lines streamed out nicely from the stern. All I needed was a little cooperation from the fish.
    Three boats were nearby, and the one I had queried earlier indicated that the bite had been dead, so I prepared for a slow afternoon. Then, almost immediately, one of my rod tips twitched. Retrieving the rod from the holder, I released the reel’s clicker so there would be no resistance on the line.
    The spool began to turn, slowly at first, then more rapidly as a fish swam off with my bait. I counted slowly to six. Then put the reel in gear. When the line came tight, I set the hook.
    As I fought this fish, one of my other outfits had a run, the clicker chattering away. I reached over and threw the reel in gear. The fish hooked itself. I threw the other two outfits in gear as well, still struggling with the first fish.
    It was a long battle. By the time I finally netted the muscular devil, all the remaining rods in the holders had bent over double. Laying the gleaming 31-inch striper, still in the net, on the deck, I attended to the three straining rigs.
    The next outfit had a plump 19-incher, which went immediately back over the side. The second rod proved a disappointment as the fish slipped the hook the moment I picked up the outfit. The last rod, though, after another lengthy fight, resulted in a husky 27-inch fish, almost as fat as the first.
    I considered continuing, given the suddenly red-hot bite. But the thought of deep-hooking a beauty that would only have to be released dampened that urge. Looking around at the other boats nearby, I also saw that my good fortune had apparently gone unshared.
    I gave thanks to the fish gods and put my remaining bait and chum back on ice for another day.

Oh the harm it causes!

In 1976, I wrote “Over-Mulching, A National Disaster” for a national trade journal. Nasty letters came from as far as Oregon and California. Forty years later, over-mulching has become a monkey-see-monkey-do calamity.
     Earlier this spring, I spent several days diagnosing plant problems for several landscape architects. In all but one, the problems were caused by excessive use of nutrient-robbing mulches.
    In several instances, well-established plantings of pachysandra were being suffocated by excessive mulch or starved by mulches containing raw wood. Where raw wood was applied around pachysandra, the plants were yellow green and the vegetation sparse. In the areas where four inches or more of mulch was applied, the pachysandra was dead and the stems rotten. 
    In one landscape, several hundreds of square feet of what was once a well established planting of English ivy was killed after having been mulched with Big Red. About three inches had been applied last year, follow by another application this year. I am frequently asked to recommend an herbicide for killing English ivy; from now on I will recommend a heavy mulching with Big Red. Guaranteed to give 100 percent control, organically.
    I saw azaleas with sparse distribution of small purple leaves and struggling in what appeared to be two to four inches of shredded hardwood bark. Soil tests indicated in excess of 300 pounds of manganese. Any level in excess of 80 pounds per acre is considered toxic to the roots of plants. It’s clear from the soil test results that shredded hardwood bark had been applied repeatedly for several years. Since the property owner had hired several yard maintenance firms over the years, she was not aware of what kind of mulch had been applied.
    In one yard I examined a large planting of boxwood with severe symptoms of decline. Digging around the base of the plants, I saw that they had been mulched several times. Over the years I have seen numerous once-healthy and hardy boxwoods killed by mulch. Boxwoods are shallow-rooted plants and should never be mulched. They are drought tolerant, and enzymes emitted by the roots and leaves prevent many weed species from growing around them.
    Most of the landscape maintenance companies were blaming poor drainage for decline or death. However, as I walked on the lawns adjoining these plantings and in the plantings, I saw and felt no symptoms of poor drainage. I augured holes in these areas and found the soil to be well drained.
    The only landscape where I did not see mulch problems was in a yard where water coming from a newly installed copper roof had flowed. Here, the decline in growth and the loss of plants was due to copper toxicity. I could easily follow the flow of water from the downspouts and areas where the water pooled. The solution to this problem was to divert the water away from the plants until the surface of the copper sheeting oxidizes to a brown or gray-green color.
    More on mulch next week …

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

Telltale signs, and how to fight back

That black and white bird with a red cap and yellow belly is not a traditional woodpecker looking for bugs hiding beneath bark. At work making numerous holes all in a circle around the trunk of your tree is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, who then sucks sap from those wounds.
    In early spring, sap migrates to the phloem, the region just beneath the bark, and these birds are eager to suck those juices. Warm days and cool nights make the sap flow hard and furious, and the sapsuckers know it.  
    Sapsucker damage is easy to identify because the birds make one-half-inch diameter holes that penetrate through the bark into the cambium region. The holes are one-half to an inch apart and circle the trunk, starting from about eight feet above the ground up to where the diameter of the trunk is about six inches. Sapsuckers generally do most of their damage before sunrise and in the evening.
     They generally attack smooth bark trees such as magnolia, maple, cherry, apple, crab apple and ash. But I’ve also seen their telltale signs on pine and cedar. The damage they do can be fatal to some species. I’ve seen a southern magnolia so severely damaged that it had to be cut down.
    Why sapsuckers attack some trees more than others is not known. I have frequently seen two southern magnolia growing side by side, one showing severe damage while the other showed no damage.
    It is not uncommon to see hummingbirds feeding on the sap oozing from the holes as well as bees and wasps when the sapsuckers are feeding in the summer.
    Since sapsuckers tend to be skittish, the most effective remedy is to suspend shiny objects to the branches of trees being attacked. Cut 18-inch-long strips of foil six inches wide; twist the foil into long spiral tubes and tie the streamers loosely on branches with cotton string 10 inches to a foot away from the trunk. Space the foil strips two to three feet apart around the trunk. Use cotton string; if you forget to remove it, the cotton will decompose and fall to the ground. Wire or nylon could girdle the branches as they grow larger in diameter.

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

To experience our past, I had to travel to Argentina

“Seven at 11 o’clock,” I whispered. “They’re headed right for us.”
    My son John tensed and hunched lower behind the foliage of the water blind. So did I. Seconds passed slowly as adrenaline seeped through our systems.
    A group of ducks swung to our right to adjust to the wind direction, then cupped their wings to descend. They were about 20 yards away and just over our decoys when I hissed, “Take ’em.”

The Waterfowling Tradition
    I’ve been an avid waterfowler for well over 50 years, ever since my earliest days at my Pennsylvania birthplace near Presque Isle Bay on Lake Erie. When I moved to Maryland many years ago, it was only natural to embrace the Eastern Shore and its long tradition of duck and goose hunting.
    I also submerged myself in the wealth of literature describing the heydays of waterfowling when the Chesapeake was choked with widgeon grass, eel grass, wild rice and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that stopped to feed on their way to southern wintering grounds.
    Over the years, we harvested some fine ducks and geese from the Shore and had some great hunting experiences. We also saw that the migratory bird populations were a mere shadow of their former numbers. Our sporting activities were really homage to the bygone days of water fowling rather than anything close to the original experience. That was lost to the ages.
    Then last winter a long-time sporting friend told me of a place that was perhaps as close to those days as would ever again be encountered. It was the Pampas of Argentina, a giant plain of grass and agricultural fields interspersed with countless lagoons, small lakes and wetlands. It also was sparsely populated — except for waterfowl.

On to the Pampas
    April and May is early winter in Argentina, and the ducks are in full migratory plumage and movement. They are not the glamorous canvasbacks, mallards and redheads of the old Tidewater. But there are vast numbers of American widgeon and cinnamon teal as well as South American species such as yellow-billed pintail, white-cheeked pintail, Chiloe widgeon, speckle-head teal, rosy-bill pochards and black-bellied whistlers, among others.
    Arising each day at 5am and after a quick breakfast, our party of five would shoot ducks until 10am or so. The limits were generous, but we were under a strict allowance of just 100 shells per gun. In the afternoons, we would drive out to the edge of vast millet and sorghum fields and pass-shoot mourning doves from the endless waves of those birds heading for their evening roosts.
    The experience was as close as we would ever come to reliving the glory days of birding on the Bay.

How to plant spring’s flagrant bloomer and its similars

As you continue your spring planting and transplanting, remember that many popular species perform best in acid soils. Among them are the now-blooming beauties azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel, andromeda, Japanese hollies, deciduous hollies and blueberries. Oak and sweetgum trees also like acid soils.
    The best time to transplant these species is early spring and, even better, fall, when they’ve stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    Pruning is best done just after blooming, but never on new transplants.
    Success in transplanting these species can be guaranteed if you follow the following guidelines.
    1. Know the Ph of your soil before planting. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. Find directions at
    2. Select a spot where the soil is well drained. None of these species will grow in poorly drained soils.
    3. All of these plants — except the trees — are shallow-rooted. The depth of the planting hole should not exceed 90 percent of the height of the root ball. In other words, 10 percent of the root ball should be above grade.
    4.  Add one-third to one-half compost by volume to the soil you removed when digging the hole. Do not bring in imported soil.
    5. Acid soils are generally low in calcium. Incorporate one rounded tablespoon of gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the compost-amended soil and mix thoroughly.
    6. If roots are tightly meshed around the outside edge of the root-ball after you remove it form the container, take a sharp knife and slash the roots at least one inch deep from top to the bottom of the root ball at three- to four-inch intervals around the entire root ball. Cutting the roots hastens root growth into the new soil.
    7. Water the plant well, even if it is raining, and repeat watering at four- to five-day intervals. Never water plants daily.

Is Your Soil Well Drained?

    To test drainage, dig a hole about a foot deep. Fill with water. Fill it again (some sources say immediately; some say the next day).
    Measure the depth with a ruler. In 15 minutes, measure again. How many inches has it dropped? Multiply by four to determine drainage per hour.
    Below one inch is poor drainage; over six is excessive. Anything in between is good drainage.

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

The modern rockfishing boat is a high-tech warship

My phone rang early. It was my friend Frank Tuma, calling to invite me on a last-minute trolling sortie in the Bay.
    Just east of the Baltimore Light, we set out the side-planer boards.
    Side planers are built of three one-inch-thick wooden or synthetic boards approximately two feet long and 10 inches wide. The leading edge of each board is cut at an angle to direct their path through the water. The boards are held about six inches apart by a series of stainless steel shafts. They are pulled along each side of the boat. Floating vertically like blades in the water, the boards are forced away and held fast by heavy 300-pound-test tether lines.
    We began trolling two umbrella rigs, some tandem parachutes rigged with soft shad bodies of both six- and nine-inch lengths, a couple of basic bucktails plus a Big Tony Accetta spoon, giving the fish a wide spectrum of baits to choose from. White, chartreuse, yellow and green were represented in the array.
    We finally began marking fish as we approached Love Point. A few minutes after making the first turn around the Love Point Buoy, a distinct pop announced that a line had been pulled free of its release clip, and one of the 10 rods bent over hard.
    The only downside to trolling multiple rigs on planer boards is that the boat cannot stop to fight a fish, which might cause a massive snarl of lines and lures.
    That means that an angler may be fighting a fish that can weigh upward of 50 pounds while moving through the water at four knots.
    Carl, the lucky man closest to the rod, was an old hand at reining in big fish and was soon inching the heavy fighter closer and closer to the boat.
    Everyone yelled at the first glimpse of the striper. It was a nice fish; perhaps too nice. Easing the big rockfish the last few feet, Frank finessed it into the landing net.
    The slot limit put in place this year by Department of Natural Resources dictate that only fish 28 inches to 36 inches or bigger than 40 inches can be harvested. This one was over 28 but uncomfortably close to 36.
    Quickly working the 12/0 hook out of its mouth, we ran a measuring tape along the big body. Then we squeezed the tail together and measured the overall length again to make sure that we were adhering to DNR’s exacting method for defining legal length.
    It’s not often that you wish a fish smaller, but at 37 inches, this spawned-out female went back over the side and disappeared into the depths of the Bay to swim another day.
    We hit four more stripers that day. Three were undersized, but one struck with massive force, fighting even harder than the first. There had been a good initial hook set and our angler was handling the fish expertly until it charged the boat. Getting the slack in the line it needed for just an instant, the fish shook itself free.
    We went fishless but had a beautiful day on the Chesapeake. All of us had pulled on at least one rockfish, and we still had many days left in the season to score.

Conservation News

    Warnings have been issued that the seaweed (or wormweed) used in Maine to pack bloodworms may be carrying invasive species. Anglers are advised to dispose of the weed in trash receptacles rather than dumping it into the Bay.
    Commercial menhaden processors (mainly Omega Protein) have been demanding more access to the remaining menhaden population (also called alewife, bunker and pogy). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is apparently considering their requests. Drop the Commission a letter and tell them what you think:; 1050 N. Highland Street, Arlington, VA 22201.

Fruiting plants need feeding

As you move tomato plants into your garden, here’s some advice to help improve your harvest.
    First, limit the amount of fertilizer and compost you apply when you transplant your tomato plants. Applying too much high-nitrogen fertilizer or high-nitrogen compost will produce extra-large plants and few late tomatoes.
    It’s in the production cycle that tomatoes need nitrogen.
    A fruiting plant must absorb nutrients sufficient not only to produce fruit but also to continue growing, producing more foliage, flowers and fruit. In other words, a mature tomato plant is much like a pregnant woman, eating for two to remain healthy and produce healthy offspring.
    That’s when the tomato plant is most nutritional needy, too. And that’s when early blight strikes.
    For a decade I have been studying methods of preventing early blight. Since 2009, I have had no early blight symptoms. I attribute that success to keeping my tomato plants nutritionally happy. Nitrogen is the key to a plant’s nutritional health.
    Nitrogen passes to upper-growing points or fruit from older leaves. Losing nitrogen makes those leaves susceptible to blight-causing microorganisms. If you supply tomato plants with sufficient nitrogen for the bottom leaves to remain strong and healthy, they are less likely to succumb to infection.
    Thus for the past five years, I’ve scattered a rounded tablespoon of calcium nitrate 15.5-0-0 around the base of each plant as soon as I see the first cluster of tomatoes form. During the growing season, I watch the bottom leaves of the plants closely. When those leaves start to turn yellow-green, I make a repeat application of calcium nitrate. Generally only two applications are needed per growing season.
    I selected calcium nitrate because mature plants absorb nitrate nitrogen more efficiently than they do other sources of nitrogen. Plus, the calcium in calcium nitrate helps build stronger cell walls and prevent blossom-end rot. There is lime in the soil, but the calcium in lime is only four percent soluble while the calcium in calcium nitrate is 100 percent available. Calcium is as important in plants for making strong cell walls as it is in humans and animals in making strong bones and teeth.
    If you are an organic gardener, apply at least two inches of compost around tomato plants as soon as you see the first flowers. Lobster waste or crab waste compost has the highest levels of calcium of all composted products available. Irrigate through the compost.

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

Keep it simple to start

The thrill of catching a trophy rockfish leads to a second act in the kitchen and a third at the table, for rockfish are very good to eat.
    It’s high season here in the heart of rockfish country, where Maryland recreational and commercial anglers catch more than four million pounds each season.
    Having made my own share of that catch, I have experimented with any number of approaches and made a couple of basic discoveries on how to prepare this delicious fish.
    First and foremost: Don’t overdo it. Complex recipes with multiple ingredients, flavors and cooking sequences will generally overwhelm the succulent flavor of the fish.
    My standard strategy is to keep it simple.
    Starting with a fillet or two, blot the fish dry, coat lightly with a good olive oil and add a generous amount of salt and pepper, fresh-chopped dill and a dusting of paprika.
    Put fillets under the broiler in a shallow pan as close to the heating element as you can for 10 to 15 minutes or until the fish is browned on top and flakes firmly.
    Vary this dish by adding a simple sauce. The basic is tartar sauce, served on the side. Never use a ready-made variety. It is too easy to make your own, and it is invariably better.
    Chop small a half-dozen cornichon pickles and a heaping teaspoon of capers, if you like. Mix with two or three heaping tablespoons of an olive oil-based mayonnaise (Hellman’s is my favorite) and add a good squeeze of lemon to taste. You’ll never do it any other way.
    For a special occasion or guests, make a quick Hollandaise sauce. Put two egg yolks, two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and a good pinch of cayenne pepper into a glass bowl and whisk them well. Just before serving, melt a stick of butter in a saucepan until it just starts to brown. Slowly add it to the egg yolks while constantly stirring until the sauce is well mixed, smooth and frothy.
    Pour the Hollandaise over your fillets with a few capers sprinkled about for a great presentation. Or serve the sauce on the side in a warm gravy boat, so that your guests can decide how much to use.
    If your true love is fried fish and you’ll never be satisfied with it prepared any other way, I recommend the following method.
    Mix well an egg, a tablespoon flour and just enough beer or cold soda water to make a medium-thick slurry. Spread over a large dinner plate a generous amount of Panko (Japanese bread crumbs). Rinse and dry the fillets well, then dip them in the slurry, coating them thoroughly. Next, place them in the Panko, pressing down firmly to completely cover with crumbs. Refrigerate for an hour or more in advance of preparing the meal.
    In a large, heavy skillet pour in about half an inch of peanut oil (corn oil will do almost as well) and heat to about 400 degrees or just before it begins to smoke. Ease in each fillet and turn when the first side is golden brown. Remove when both sides are crispy, and serve immediately with a side of the tartar sauce described earlier or a spicy hot sauce such as Texas Pete’s or Cholula.
    Side dishes can be almost anything. I recommend fresh asparagus, now in season, fresh sliced tomatoes in their time or diced and steamed new potatoes with butter and parsley. A chilled Pinot Grigio goes great with the broiled fish; Rockfish Pale Ale goes especially well with the fried variety.

After almost 4,000 days in space, this probe died for science

This week Mercury shows its best face in homage to the Messenger spacecraft, which crashed into the planet early morning April 30.
    The craft was launched in August 2004 and reached Mercury in March 2011, the first to orbit the innermost planet. Since then it has circled Mercury more than 4,100 times, compiling more data in the process than everything combined before that.
    Thursday, April 30, scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab cut life support on their prodigy, and shortly thereafter the craft fell from orbit, plummeting to the surface at more than 8,750 miles an hour. Messenger was already running on borrowed time, having exhausted its traditional fuel supply, but programmers were able to supplement it with helium onboard for other reasons. Now that, too, is exhausted.
    “I guess the end is coming,” the Messenger team posted earlier on Twitter “After 10 years, spacecraft will end life as just another crater on Mercury's surface.” A big crater, more than 50 feet wide.
    The elusive planet is not only difficult to spot, it had been difficult to study before Messenger. Less than 45 percent of Mercury’s surface had even been photographed, and that decades ago. In its four years in orbit, Messenger sent more than a quarter-million photos back to earth. it found volcanoes, discovered polar caps of frozen water and studied Mercury’s chemical makeup.
    Mercury “is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our solar system formed and evolved,” NASA explains on its Messenger website. “Mercury is an extreme: the smallest, the densest, it has the oldest surface, the largest daily variations in surface temperature — and it’s the least explored.”
    Mercury reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on May 7, climbing 20 degrees above the horizon. Look for it low in the west just after sunset this week. You may need binoculars close to sunset when it’s at its highest, but by 9pm it should easily be visible as it prepares to set. Much-brighter Venus is 20 degrees higher, and Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull is 10 degrees to Mercury’s left.
    These are the last nights to see Mars, which is even deeper in the glare of sunset than Mercury. Jupiter shines high in the south at nightfall, while Saturn rises around the same time. Look for the just-past-full moon near Saturn Monday and Tuesday night.

Prune buddleia, forsythia, weigela and privet with a heavy hand

To rejuvenate, some plants must have their stems pruned near the ground. The plants I’m describing each have a large root system, so the crowns will send up numerous new stems.  
    The butterfly bush (buddleia), for example, should have all its branches cut down to within inches of the ground every year in early spring. Severe spring pruning encourages the development of strong stems that will flower more profusely. I use a chainsaw to prune my buddleia at the beginning of March, which encourages the plant to flower sooner.
    Forsythia needs proper annual pruning. I make it a habit to prune one-third of the branches on my forsythia plants every year as soon as the petals fall. I start by removing the older stems with gray bark. I then remove all branches originating from the base that are smaller than a pencil in diameter as well as branches that are arching toward the ground. If you allow arching branches to touch the ground, they will root, and before you know it your mother plant will have produced daughter plants, and soon you will have more forsythia plants than you know what to do with. Forsythia grown without pruning will often die because of over-crowding of the branches.
    If you’ve fallen behind on the job, prune both species close to the ground as soon as most of the flower petals have fallen. If you prune now, new vigorous stems will emerge from the roots within a few weeks. Allow these stems to grow all summer long without further pruning. If the plants are in good condition, the new stems will grow to a height of five to six feet by mid July, and their bark will be brownish-yellow.
    Weigela also blooms better if one-third of old branches are cut out each year. Use the same approach as described for forsythia, removing the biggest woody branches. Shaped forsythia plants look awful, but weigela can be pruned for size, branch by branch as far back as one-third. Cut them back to a point where two branches meet. Untended weigela can take hacking, cutting all branches back to about four inches above ground level.
    Privet hedges that are old or have not been properly shaped often lose their bottom branches and leaves, making them appear top-heavy. Such hedges can be rejuvenated by simply cutting all of the stems very close to the ground and allowing new young stems to grow. The earlier in spring you prune them the better.
    The training of a new hedge begins as soon as the majority of the stems have grown 12 to 16 inches. To build a uniform hedge, pull a string the length of the hedge 10 inches above the ground, and prune away all stems that are above the string. Repeat after the new stems have grown another 12 to 16 inches, this time cutting them back to 20 inches above the ground. Continue until the hedge has achieved the desired height.
    To retain foliage from top to bottom, always shape the hedge so that the top is narrower than the bottom.  If you allow the top of the hedge to grow wider than the bottom, the top will shade the lower branches, which will lose their leaves.