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The interloper visits Spica and Mercury

Mercury is putting on its best pre-dawn show of 2013, more than doubling in brightness this week, from +1 magnitude to –0.5 (each order of magnitude is exponential, so an increase from +1 to 0 is a doubling). Monday marks the innermost planet’s greatest elongation — its farthest point away from the sun as seen from earth and its highest point above the horizon. Mercury rises a little before 6am and climbs nearly 15 degrees above the southeast horizon before the sun rises more than an hour later. Ten degrees above Mercury is blue-white Spica, but even this first-magnitude star pales compared to Mercury this week.
    First discovered last September, Comet ISON is heading into the inner solar system for the first time, coming within 700,000 miles of the sun November 27. If the comet survives that close encounter, it could live up to the comet of the century billing. If not, the next two weeks are your best chance to spot this long-distance traveler.
    With binoculars or a small telescope, look for ISON one degree to the west of Spica Sunday before dawn and less than one-half degree to the east of the star the next morning. By next Thursday and Friday, ISON will be within 10 degrees of Mercury — well within your binoculars’ field of view. Perhaps by then it will be bright enough to see with the unaided eye.
    Sunday marks the full moon, the Beaver Moon and the Frost Moon according to lore. The full moon floats just six degrees below the miniature dipper-shape of the Pleiades star cluster, while Monday night it is even closer to Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull.
    The full moon’s glow washes out all but the brightest meteors in this year’s Leonid shower, which peaks between the 16th and 18th. Still, the Leonids are active through the month, so patience or luck will likely reward you with a few of these shooting stars.

Here’s your recipe for making them into rich compost

Don’t bag those leaves for the county to collect. Use them in making your own compost. It takes about a bushel of leaves to make a gallon of quality compost, which contains more nutrients and fiber than peat moss and is less acetic.
    Yard debris compost is made by blending grass clippings with fall-harvested leaves. The compost is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium and lots of important trace elements. Because the nitrogen from the leaves drains back into the stems of the branches from which they fell, yard debris compost contains less than one percent nitrogen, which is contributed mostly by the grass clipping.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
–Linda Williams, Annapolis   

A There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a sever state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Since grass clippings are not readily available in the fall, use this recipe to hasten the composting of leaves so that you will have compost ready for next spring:
    1. Build a compost bin that is at least five feet in diameter using snow fencing, turkey wire, pallets or such. The larger the bin, the better. Place the bin where it will not accumulate water.
    2. Fill a five-gallon pail with a shovel full of garden soil, one-half cup dish detergent and a cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer; top off with water. Stir thoroughly to create a soupy mud. The detergent helps wet the leaves, and the nitrogen-containing fertilizer replaces the grass clippings in providing the nitrogen microorganisms needed to build their bodies and digest the carbon in the leaves. The garden soil provides the necessary microorganisms, and the mud also helps wet the leaves.
    3. Place 12 to 18 inches of leaves on the bottom of the bin. First, pass the lawnmower through the leaves to chop them up and hasten the composting process.
    4. Use an empty coffee can or the like to wet the leaves with the muddy water. Before dipping into the muddy water, stir thoroughly to maintain a suspension.
    5. With a garden hose misting nozzle, wet the leaves thoroughly, washing some of the muddy water down through the layer.
    6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until the bin is full.
    7. Check the bin weekly. The composting process can be hastened by dumping your dirty dishwater over the surface of the compost pile. The detergent and grease will help wet the leaves.
    If you need exercise to stay in shape, mix the compost pile by turning it inside-out. Turning the pile in late January or February provides additional aeration, chopping the leaves and eliminating dry pockets that can occur in the initial building.

It’s never too cold to eat

I had been pushing through the brush, briars and a foot of snow for about an hour, short of breath and dumb from the cold. I couldn’t feel my face or most of my fingers in spite of the hand warmers clutched in each of my gloves. Then the baying hounds turned in my direction. Fingering my 20 gauge, I turned to face the dogs and froze. I mean that in every sense of the word.
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Libra’s Zubeneschamali is unique

If you’re up before the sun, you can’t miss Venus, which rises in the southeast by 6am. A half-hour later, this Morning Star is ablaze a good 30 degrees above the horizon, brighter than anything but the moon and the coming sun. As the horizon brightens, Venus climbs higher, growing dimmer until blinking out of view by 7:30am. Wednesday morning, January 29, look for Venus just four degrees above a thin, waning crescent moon before dawn.
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Whole Foods’ confectioners compete to become Top Cake

Cutthroat Kitchen, Cupcake Wars and Top Chef: We’ve grown to love televised cooking competitions.
    Whole Foods Market’s Top Cake competition skipped television for an on-location reality show. To crown the Mid-Atlantic Region’s best cake decorator, Whole Foods invited real people to its Annapolis store to taste and admire. If you showed up early enough, you could even get a ticket to choose a cake to take home.
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The return of Venus and Mercury brings us a chance to see all five naked-eye planets

A day past full, Thursday’s moon rises as the sun sets. The bright light to its upper right is Procyon, of the constellation Canis Minor. Higher still is golden Jupiter, the brightest object in the evening sky aside from the sun and moon. A couple nights later on the 18th, the waning gibbous moon rises a few hours after sunset in the company of Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion....

Propagate a jungle of African violets using my foolproof method

Beyond their good looks and winter bloom, African violets have another charm. They’re so easy to propagate in the home that they raise your self-esteem. Here’s my foolproof method:
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When you can’t fish, shop

Winter will probably continue to sweep its foulness down on us, at least for the next two months. That means we probably won’t be getting out for much leg stretching. One good thing about this time of year is that there are fishing tackle bargains, and many of them are on the Internet.
    I’ve found a number of sites with good deals on quality tackle. But be warned: Shopping on a foul-weather day can become addictive.
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Evergreens to welcome home — and those to avoid

As Christmas approaches, it’s time to bring fresh greens, with their piney aromas, into your home. Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreens to choose from. Many will last through the season, even without water. Others dry up too quickly to come inside.
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This time of year a day is 30 seconds longer

Winter officially begins with the solstice Saturday, December 21. At 12:11pm EDT that day, the sun reaches its most southerly declination, standing still above the Tropic of Capricorn. For the roughly 90 percent of the world’s population that lives in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the first day of winter, the day of the longest night and the shortest day of the year.
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