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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.

Baitfishing by water and from shore

Mike Ebersberger has a strategy for big, early season stripers on the Chesapeake. Not a fan of trolling, he prefers baitfishing the rockfish trophy season.
    His method is simple: “Find a place away from other boats, anchor up on the edge of the main Bay channel in 25 feet of water with a muddy or sandy bottom,” says the manager of Angler’s Sport Center. “Drop a couple big chunks of menhaden, the fresher the better, on two- or three-ounce sinkers. Wait for a big rock to come along and inhale one of them.”
    His favorite areas include the Baltimore Light, Podickery Point, Sandy Point, just south of the Western Shore rock pile below the Bay Bridge, and Hackett’s Bar.
    Ebersberger acknowledges that not all of his friends have followed his recommendations, preferring to take their chances trolling. But those that have followed his lead, he says, have caught their fish on light tackle and with hardly any expenditure of fuel.
    Getting an early start is part of the strategy. This time of year, fishing boat traffic and the accompanying engine noise and wake can stifle an otherwise promising bite. Getting on the water and dropping lines at 5am, the legal opening, greatly improves your chance of getting a trophy-sized keeper before the trolling fleet arrives on site.
    If arising well before dawn or dedicating a morning to sport (instead of work) is a problem, fishing the waning light of evening and into the dark can be almost as productive. Rockfish are light-averse and often prefer to begin their dining in the wee hours of the evening rather than in the full blaze of the sun. And you’ll be more likely to have the Bay all to yourself.

Shore Fishing
    Shore-bound anglers have another tactic for the early season: fishing bloodworms from public access fishing areas around the Bay. Not just any bloodworms, nor pieces of bloodworms, but large, whole bloodworms presented on the bottom on 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks.
    Using nine- to 12-foot surf rods and spin reels holding 250 to 350 yards of 20-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid, anglers are scoring trophies with no more investment than a bit of time and a bag or two of
specially select bloodworms.
    Bloodworms are not found naturally in the Chesapeake region. They are harvested by hand from the saltwater mud flats of Maine and shipped to area sporting good stores. The closest thing to a bloodworm in the Chesapeake is an oyster worm, which, while looking almost identical to a bloodworm, is only about two inches long and much too slender to thread on a hook.
    Our migratory striped bass, however, are fresh from the ocean, used to feeding on the bloodworms of the New England littoral and consider a fat six-incher a tasty treat indeed. Even bigger worms are often available directly from Maine and are even more tempting. Try Luke Delano at for eight- to 10-inchers as thick as a No. 2 pencil.
    Favorite spots for these live-bait anglers on the Western Shore are Fort Smallwood Park, Downs Memorial Park, the beach at Sandy Point State Park, Thomas Point Park, Mayo Beach Park and Point Lookout State Park. The Eastern Shore sweet spots are at Betteron Park and Rock Hall at the mouth of the Chester, the pier at Matapeake State Park and the Black Walnut Bulkhead on the southern tip of Tilghman Island.
    Find other locations at

Fishing College

    Dennis Doyle teaches Chesapeake Bay light-tackle fishing at Anne Arundel ­Community College May 9 (filling fast) and June 5 (AHC 362):;

Use this summer to grow big bulbs for fall harvest

I like to plant onions in early April. But if you have not ordered your onion plants yet, there is still time.
    Forget about those onion sets that only produce green onions, or scallions. Grow some real bulbing onions like Copra, Candy, Big Day, Super Star and Sweet Spanish. If you want to grow onions this summer, make certain that you order long-day or intermediate onions. Do not order short-day onions because they will produce only green onions during summer’s long days.
    Onion plants are sold in bunches of about 77 plants.
    Onions grow best in soil rich in organic matter with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. If you have not had your soil tested in the past three years, now is the time to have it done.
    Prepare the planting beds by first spreading an inch-thick layer of compost over the area and tilling it in. Avoid stepping on the prepared soil; it needs to be nice and loose so the small onion plants can be pressed in easily.  
    To maximize production, I plant in beds about 2 feet wide the length of the garden. The average spacing for most onions is four by four inches. To facilitate planting, I have built myself a dibble board. The board is two feet long and four inches wide. Into it I drilled pegs cut from a broom handle and glued to quarter-inch dowels.
    Press the dibble board into the loose soil and insert an onion plant into each hole. The planting holes are evenly spaced so the onions can easily be cultivated with an onion hoe’s narrow blade.  
    After planting, place a shower head at the end of the hose and water the  bed thoroughly so that loose soil is washed into each planting hole.  
    To minimize weeding, I apply Preen three to four weeks after planting. Irrigate the Preen into the soil immediately after applying it.  Top-dress the onion beds in early June.
    As soon as the onion tops start turning brown, in mid to late August, knock the tails to the ground with the back of a rake. You’ll minimize neck rot without having to apply fungicide.
    Eat at once or, for storage, leave in the ground until the tails wilt and dry. Then harvest, braid and hang out of sunlight in open air.

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

The moon visits the Beehive Cluster and more

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter phase Saturday, shining below and to the left of Jupiter. The moon is near the center of the constellation Cancer.
    Were the crab not on the ecliptic, it’s doubtful it would hold its place in the zodiac, as none of its stars are brighter than 3rd magnitude. (The ecliptic is the path of the sun, moon and planets as they circle through our skies.) But what it lacks in bright stars it makes up for in sheer quantity, as it hosts the Beehive Cluster. The Beehive is near the center of Cancer, about halfway between Regulus in Leo and Pollux in Gemini. Seen with the unaided eye, it appears as a dull smudge of light. However, binoculars or a small telescope reveal dozens of individual stars. But there’s even more to the Beehive than that, as it is a stellar incubator with thousands of infant stars.
    With binoculars at hand late Saturday and early Sunday, see if you can spot the ninth-magnitude asteroid Juno just above the moon. Your best chance is around 2am when the moon is about to set and the two appear above the west-northwest horizon.
    Sunday the moon is to the lower left of Jupiter, while above and to the left of the moon is the first-magnitude star Regulus, the three forming a near-perfect triangle. By Monday the moon lies just four degrees below Regulus.
    The five naked-eye planets are visible this week. Venus blazes in the west in evening twilight and sets in the west-northwest nearly two hours after dark. Scour the horizon below Venus for Mercury, appearing 30 minutes after sunset. The innermost planet is surprisingly bright, unlike Mars, which is just a few degrees to Mercury’s upper left. Jupiter shines high in the south as darkness falls and sets a little after 2am. Saturn rises with Scorpius around 10pm and is high in the south come dawn.

Hungry trophy stripers will strike any number of lures

If you’re a Chesapeake Bay angler, the most important day of 2015 came on Saturday, April 18, the opening day of fishing for rockfish and the start of the trophy season.
    Rockfish, or striped bass to the world outside of the Bay, are a migratory fish. Most of the linesides that swim the Atlantic seaboard originate here in the Chesapeake, but the females and a fair portion of the males don’t reside in the Bay for long.
    At about age four these fish leave for a migratory life in the Atlantic, where they grow to much larger sizes. Once in the ocean they swim the coast, sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as South Carolina.
    They return to the Bay only once each year, in spring, to spawn. Catches of striped bass over 100 pounds have been recorded in the distant past by commercial netters; today a 60-pounder is big news — and a mighty big fish.
    Trolling big lures through Bay waters gives boat anglers the best chance of scoring on the giant fish. Since arriving in the Bay from the ocean and heading for their natal waters, they are constantly on the move, never staying in one place for long until they at last arrive at the headwaters of their birth. After spawning, the big females return to the ocean. The big males stick around until the females stop arriving. Then they too return to the ocean, the last of them departing by early May.

Lures to Catch Big Fish
    Big lead-headed jigs are the most popular lure to troll in the Bay, especially when nine- to 12-inch soft-bodied plastic shad are added.
    Included in this category are variations like parachute jigs with flaring skirts of nylon hair, the original natural bucktail hair jigs and simple nylon hair-skirted jigs. Often rigged in tandem, they are included in just about all trolling setups.
    These ersatz baitfish are crafted to emulate in both size and color the menhaden, a favorite food of striped bass. Also called bunker, mossbunker, alewife and pogy, these baitfish reach sizes of up to three pounds. Generally found in schools, the swimming baitfish can appear silver, chartreuse, gold, yellow, purple, green and lavender.
    Big spoons are also popular. Available in more colors and sizes than you can imagine, they are also known for producing a significant portion of the really big stripers boated during this springtime season.
    Arrays intended to represent whole schools of baitfish also attract big stripers. These include umbrella rigs, displaying as many as 10 lures (without hooks, by law) on wire arms like an umbrella. One lure with hooks is tied in the center and a bit more distant. Chandeliers are similar but have additional rings of lures and resemble (of course) a chandelier. Daisy chains are in-line attractors that have any number of sequenced lures, usually soft-bodied shad, spinner blades, tufts of hair or shiny tinsel arrayed on one central line with the last lure in the series bearing the hook.
    All of these lures have but one objective: to trigger a strike from a giant ocean-running rockfish.
    This year the limit is one fish. It can be either from 28 to 36 inches or over 40 inches.
    This regulation was put in place to protect the population of big females of a particular age class. Females of this size can carry upward of a half-million eggs and are critical to the rebuilding of rockfish stocks oceanwide.

Conservation Note

    With the opening of rockfish season, Maryland Department of Natural Resources urges anglers to use a new website and smartphone app — —
to record their catch and share data about Chesapeake Bay sport fish needed to make informed management decisions.