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From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as in making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring.
    Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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

The pre-dawn display in the east continues this week, with the waning crescent moon joining the show. Early Friday the moon trails Jupiter by just two degrees, with Mars, Spica and Venus stretching down to their left. Saturday, the moon is between Jupiter and Mars, while Sunday the moon hangs almost equally between Mars and Spica. Then Monday the moon shines barely one degree to the right of Venus, easily within the field of view of binoculars, a modest telescope or a camera. Tuesday you’ll be hard-pressed to spot the last of this thin crescent, now a dozen degrees below Venus. Venus, the brightest of all stars and planets, is sinking lower day by day, while Jupiter, Mars and Spica are climbing higher and rising earlier.
    We’re still a few weeks from the December 22 solstice, but Tuesday is our earliest sunset of the year.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


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

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.

The bright stars of the Summer Triangle linger at sunset, with Deneb in the constellation Cygnus almost directly overhead, brighter Vega in Lyra to the west and Altair of Aquila to the south. As they set in the west, the stars of the Great Winter Circle shine in the east.
    Find the hourglass-shaped Orion, marked by Betelgeuse at the shoulder and Rigel at the foot. From Rigel look to the southeast to Canis Major’s Sirius, the brightest star visible. Higher and to the east is Canis Minor and its star Procyon. Arc the northwest to the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor. To the west is Capella in the constellation Auriga. Below that is Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus, and back to Rigel completes the circle.
    The waning gibbous moon moves through the Winter Circle at the end of the week. By the early morning of December 2, the last-quarter moon is a few degrees below Regulus in Leo the lion, and before dawn December 3 and 4 it is close to the planet Jupiter.
    Well below Jupiter but much brighter is Venus. Midway between them is fainter Mars. Saturday the first-magnitude star Spica is within five degrees of Venus.

How to find hot wintertime fishing

A big El Nino winter is expected, possibly moderating Maryland temperatures. That’s good news for anglers wanting to get in a few extra rockfishing trips, as the season remains open until December 15 on the Bay and year-round oceanside.
    Despite El Nino’s predicted warming effect, however, planning any fishing trip this time of year means getting good information on weather conditions. A 10-day forecast is a good place to start.
    I refer first to the temperatures and, because I have a small skiff open to the elements, eliminate any day predicted to be under 50 degrees, especially as damp, salty air always seems to be extra cold. Even if you have a 30-footer with a heated cabin you will be forced out into the open when the action starts.
    Next, look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Forecast for guidance on wind speed, direction, precipitation and sea conditions. The first two days of the forecast are generally on target. The third day can be fairly accurate; thereafter, refresh your data as your target date gets closer. Expect significant change.
    On the Bay, winds above 10mph are not recommended for open boats. The seas push higher, and the resultant wind chill can make things very uncomfortable, even dangerous.
    Wind direction is also important, especially if it is from the northwest or southeast. Those directions mean the wind is coming the full length of the Bay, and that has an amplifying effect on wave height.
    For real-time local conditions, look to the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System at buoybay.noaa.gov/locations. Constant reports originate at 10 Bay locations. The rule I follow is that if any two weather sources are in conflict, expect the harsher version to be the more accurate.
    If you’re a shore-bound angler, dress warmly, have extra clothing handy and carry a hot beverage. Temperatures should be above freezing; otherwise your line will ice up in the rod guides.
    Fishing the colder months also means the fish will react differently to bait or artificial lures. Expect very hesitant, almost imperceptible bites. If you’re working lures, do it slowly and methodically; when you feel a bump, react deliberately, staying poised to drop back to give the fish another chance if you feel no resistance.
    Bait anglers will have to watch their rod tips like hawks and will still find their baits stolen. Adding scent such as menhaden and shedder-crab oil to your baits can pay extra rewards this time of year. Jumbo bloodworms are worth the extra cost. Rockfish metabolisms have slowed with the declining temperatures, so they will not eat as often or as much as during warmer months. Persistence and patience are critical to success.
    There can be excellent big-striper action in winter around Ocean City (minimum size 28 inches, limit one fish). The inlet, particularly, is a haven for big fish that can be jigged up or caught on live bait. The surf fishing can also be excellent, and fly and light-tackle anglers working parallel to the shoreline, just behind the break, have hooked up with some giants.

There’s a lot to see before dawn

Venus, Jupiter and Mars command the pre-dawn sky, strung out in a nearly straight line above the east horizon. The first-magnitude star Spica crests the horizon a little before sunrise, adding a fourth point in the string of lights.
    Of the three planets, Jupiter is highest, rising around 1:30am. Venus is more than 20 degrees below Old Jove and rises almost two hours later. But once over the horizon there should be no mistaking the Morning Star. About halfway between Venus and Jupiter is Mars, dim and orange-hued compared to the blazing glow of the other two planets. Test your eyes Saturday before dawn, when Mars is within a fraction of a degree of the 4th-magnitude star Zaniah, or Eta Virginis, the seventh-brightest star in the constellation Virgo.
    Before dawn Thanksgiving day, the full moon is high in the west. Less than one degree away is Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull, which the moon will pass in front of in what’s called an occultation.

Fine dog work, great company and challenging birds make for a ­memorable hunt

A double layer of warm technical clothing, heavy brush chaps and a stout hunting coat were barely holding the elements at bay.
    Out front a wild pheasant had just broken from cover, speeding low over dense treetops and right at me. Backlit by the sun, I couldn’t tell if it was a rooster or a protected hen, so I held my fire, waiting for the bird to display its colors. Fingering the safety, I tried to warn my partner of its approach but doubted that he heard me over the roar of the wind across the thrashing prairie grasses.
    I was standing at the end of a South Dakota shelter belt, a quarter-mile line of closely planted trees outside an inner row of thicker evergreens, bordered by smaller bushes and then more evergreens. It was the only cover that could withstand the relentless gale ripping since dawn across the flat agrarian Huron County countryside.
    The belt offered weather protection to the farmhouse and barns some 200 yards distant. As the trees also bordered an enormous harvested cornfield, it also offered ring-neck pheasants an ideal laying up spot on a 30-degree morning.
    Gusting at 50 mph, the wind was at my back and I had to guard against being pushed off balance. Off to my right about 25 yards distant stood my partner, the ramrod of the hunt, Tom Schneider. We were blocking at the far end of a drive that hoped to break some wild, tough Dakota ring-necks out of cover and into range.
    The rest of our party from the Maryland-Virginia area — Jim Zimmerman, Kevin Klasing, Mike Wilkerson and Steve Roth — were pushing from the other end of the shelter belt behind their trained springer and cocker spaniels, in a hammer and anvil movement.
    Then the bird out front lifted from the trees, turned, opened its wings and caught the wind. Its long, graceful tail and iridescent green head — set off by a brilliant white collar — announced that it was a rooster. I threw my gun to my shoulder. The bird’s air speed was boosted by the gale, blowing from a leisurely 30 mph to about 70 in an instant. I fired twice but never came close as the bird zoomed toward the horizon.
    Stuffing two more shells into my gun’s magazine, I peered under the trees and saw a half dozen more roosters running toward us in front of the spaniels. As they neared, pandemonium broke out. Birds were flushing everywhere through the trees and into the wind. Shooting and reloading, then shooting again was as exciting as it gets hunting ring-neck pheasants in South Dakota.
    Wind-burned and exhausted, we all agreed it was one of the best hunts we’d ever had. We seldom came close to downing the legal limit on most days, but we had shared the finest aspects of the wingshooting sport: fine dog work, great company and challenging birds.

Since plastic leaf bags aren’t biodegradable, their residue will remain in the soil for eternity

Use wet-strength paper bags in place of plastic bags for curbside yard debris collection: That’s the plea of the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works.
    I wish the county would make that mandatory, as it has been for residents of Montgomery County since the yard-waste composting program started in the early 1980s. Paper bags compost, while plastic bags have to be ruptured and emptied before composting can begin. Furthermore, the emptied plastic bags — plus some of the contents — have to be dumped into landfills, thus adding to our critical landfill problems.
    Rupturing and emptying plastic bags in large quantities is costly, time consuming and results in shards of plastic becoming part of the finished compost. The equipment is costly and frequently becomes clogged with shredded plastic, requiring down time. Screening the finished compost removes much of the shredded plastic, but there’s always enough remaining in the compost to lower the quality of its appearance. Since black plastic bags are not biodegradable, the residue will remain in the soil for eternity.
    If you compare LeafGro made at the Dickerson composting facility in Montgomery County with the same product made at the Western Branch composting facility in Upper Marlboro, you’ll see the difference. The Montgomery County LeafGro has a uniform rich brown color and smooth texture, while that made in Prince George’s County has shredded black and sometimes white plastic scattered throughout.
    There are other advantages to using wet-strength paper bags. They cost less, are made from recycled paper and cardboard, fold flat, are easy to store and are environmentally friendly.
    Better yet, compost your leaves and put them to work for you as soon as they fall.

Use Leaves for Mulch and Compost
    If you have a leaf blower, use it to mulch by blowing fallen leaves under the branches of your shrubs, hedges and other woody plantings.
    I’ve just gotten my first leaf blower, from daughter Bonnie who thought all of this leaf raking was getting to be too much for old dad. At first, I felt insulted that she wanted to deprive me of good energy-burning exercise. However, on revving up the Stihl blower, I discovered that it was perfect for blowing leaves under my azaleas, hollies and red-top. In the past, I spent hours pushing leaves with a rake under these very same plants. With the blower, I moved twice as many leaves in minutes.
    Leaves are the perfect mulch. They cost nothing and neither alter the pH of the soil nor release toxic levels of manganese, as does hardwood bark mulch. A good deep layer of leaf mulch over the soil will delay its freezing, thus making more water available to the roots. Leaves provide essential plant nutrients upon decomposition, suffocate weeds because they can be piled higher and deeper than bark or wood mulches, do not compete with the roots of ornamentals for nutrients and are dependably available every fall. Mother Nature has been mulching her gardens with leaves for eons.
    I have never in my life purchased a bag of mulch. I have always depended on using the leaves that have fallen from my own trees and shrubs. I’ve also saved the county government money by collecting my neighbors’ leaves and using them. It has always bothered me to see homeowners place bags and bags of leaves at the curb each fall, then in spring bring home bales of peat moss, compost and mulch to use on their landscapes.


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

Look to Taurus for Hyades, Pleiades

The stars of winter are gathering in the growing darkness, with Taurus rising in the east around 7pm. Its brightest star, Aldebaran, marks the bull’s eye. From there, look a few degrees higher for the Hyades star cluster, and from there look another 10 degrees up for the more renown Pleiades cluster. Orion trails the bull, rising around 8:30pm, followed by Pegasus. Far to the west, in a barren section of sky, is fall’s brightest star, Fomalhaut.
    By dawn, Orion and crew are high in the west, while to the east Venus blazes in all its glory. Ten or 15 degrees below the morning star is the second-brightest heavenly object, Jupiter; midway between the two is much fainter Mars, no brighter than any old star.
    The darkness between sunset Tuesday and sunrise Wednesday marks the peak of this year’s Leonids meteor shower. The byproduct of comet Tempel-Tuttle, the Leonids top out at around 15 meteors an hour. Traced back, they appear to emanate from the  constellation Leo.