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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.

July brings the first of three Super Moons

     As twilight settles to darkness, look to the southwest for ruddy Mars beside the ice-blue of Spica until they set around midnight. Mars is the brighter of the two. They will be their closest Sunday, with less than 1.5 degrees separating them. After that, Mars keeps on trucking, setting course for a conjunction with Saturn on August 4.
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How to fight back

     Popular as Knockout roses are, they are not immune to viruses. They are susceptible to witches broom and to rose rosette, which is becoming a frequent problem. Rose rosette is spread by infested pruners and by a microscopic eriophyid mite. 
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Will the Boötids show or no?

Friday’s new moon provides a dark backdrop for the annual Boötid meteor shower, which peaks after sunset that night and before dawn Saturday. Most years the Boötids are a modest shower, topping out at a dozen meteors an hour. But every now and then, it storms.
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The law is a two-way street for drivers and for cyclists

I’m one of those bicyclists that motorists love to hate.
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Pluck off wilted flowers

For more abundant flowers on your rhododendrons and mountain laurels next year, deadhead this year’s flowers as soon as they wilt. By preventing the flowers from setting seeds, you’ll stimulate the branches to flush new growth from waiting latent buds. This is especially true if the bushes are growing in full sun.  
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It’s a matter of angles

June’s full Honey, Mead or Rose Moon falls around midnight Thursday.
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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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