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What will happen come May?

Cherry trees starting to bloom, tulip and narcissus bulbs sprouting foliage and forsythia starting to show yellow. The record-high December temperatures are raising questions about many plants. Hardly a week passes without concerned neighbors or Bay Weekly readers questioning me. My answer thus far has been to leave things alone and wait to see what happens in the spring.
    Some things are certain. Flowering cherry trees and forsythia will have fewer flowers come spring. Tulip and narcissus foliage will most likely grow very tall, if the winter low temperatures are not severe. If they are, it will be killed to the ground, and new foliage will replace it.   
    Unless normal winter temperatures come soon, apple, plum, peach, pear and cherry trees may not produce a normal crop. Such species must be exposed to temperatures between 40 and 32 degrees for 100-plus hours for their flowers to open and be pollinated in spring. These low-temperature requirements are called stratification; unless they are achieved, neither flower nor vegetative buds will develop normally.
    Plant growth this spring will be erratic. There will be more lateral than terminal growth. Narrow-leaf evergreen plants such as pine, spruce and fir trees will appear fatter and not grow as tall. Deciduous trees such as maple, oak and birch will often have long terminal stems and few side shoots.
    However, there have been many benefits to this warmer-than-normal December. We’ve all had lower heating cost. Gardeners who planted fall crops such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga and spinach have harvested bumper harvests. The broccoli has been extremely tender and has produced an abundance of large side shoots. Cauliflower heads have been eight to 10 inches in diameter and extremely tender. Kale and collard have not stopped growing tender, new, young leaves, and some of the rutabaga has produced bulbous roots four to six inches in diameter.
    If you planted garlic in the fall, you should have leaves 10 to 12 inches tall. If you mulched them well with compost, you will be harvesting nice big bulbs come June. From the looks of my elephant garlic plants, I anticipate one heck of a harvest come July.
    It will be an interesting spring to observe some of the effects of climate change on our native and introduced plants.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

Watch the moon occult Aldebaran

As the sun sets, the hourglass shape of the great hunter Orion is already well positioned in the southeast. His foot, blue-white Rigel, is to the lower right, while his shoulder, red-orange Betelgeuse, is at the opposite corner to the upper left. The three stars of Orion’s belt point almost straight up from the horizon, and following them up and to the right leads you to Taurus the bull.
    Most prominent in Taurus is its fiery eye, the orange-red star Aldebaran. From there look for the bull’s face, marked by the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. Aldebaran is at one leg of the V, although not itself a part of the Hyades. Higher to the right marking the bull’s shoulder is the Pleiades Cluster.
    Monday the waxing gibbous moon sits at one point of a triangle with Aldebaran and the Pleiades, although you may be hard-pressed to spot the cluster against the glare of the moon.
    Tuesday after sunset look for the moon just right of Aldebaran and the Hyades Cluster. Then, just before 9:30, watch as the moon passes over the bull’s fiery eye, occulting it from view for almost an hour.
    In the hour before sunrise, clear skies in the southeast should allow you to see the four naked-eye planets currently visible. Closest to the horizon are Venus and Saturn. There should be no mistaking Venus, blazing at –4 magnitude. Saturn, roughly 10 degrees higher, is more than 60 times dimmer at magnitude +0.5. Don’t confuse Saturn with the nearby star Antares; the ringed planet shines with a steady yellowish glow, while the not-quite-so-bright star twinkles with a red hue. Antares, Saturn and Venus do, however, form a nice triangle.
    Imagine a line from Venus to Saturn, and extend it another 20 degrees or so to find Mars and farther still for Jupiter. Mars is not as bright as Saturn, while Jupiter is the next-brightest starlike object after Venus. You should be able to tell both from blue-white Spica a dozen degrees above Mars.
    You might be able to spot the last the naked-eye planet, Mercury, as early as Wednesday if you’re lucky. It will be even lower than Venus in the glow of the coming sun. You’ll likely need to scour the horizon with binoculars to first see this fleeting planet, which will present an easier target next week.

When you can’t fish, practice casting

Looking out my front window on a beautiful January morning, I could see that the sun was shining brightly and the wind calm. My eyes settled on the skiff in the driveway, covered with its blue winter-weather blanket. I mused that with a little effort I could pull the cover, hook up the trailer and be on the water inside of 20 minutes. Then I mentioned the thought to Deborah, my long-suffering wife.
    “Great idea,” she said. “It’s all the way up to 35 degrees, and while you’re out there you might help DNR look for the guy that fell overboard near the Bay Bridge the other day. They haven‘t found him yet.”
    “I wasn’t serious,” I countered, “just wishing.”
    The real situation was that I was still recovering from abdominal surgery in early December and forbidden by doctor’s orders from activities that involved lifting anything heavier than a six-pack for at least three more weeks. Launching a boat was out of the question, and springtime had never seemed so far away.
    I reminded myself that the next best thing to fishing was playing with fishing tackle, and I had made promises to myself last season to improve a number of skills. One was my casting accuracy. Lawn casting is a low-impact exercise that would get me out of the house and keep me active.
    I especially needed to work on placing a bait under piers and docks where perch and rockfish hold during warmer months to beat the heat of the climbing sun.
    I had once thought that the fish moved from shallow-water structures to deeper water as the sun rose, especially with a falling tide. However, an accomplished skinny-water angler named Woody Tillery dispelled that idea. Woody’s strategy was based on his experience that, as the sun rose, the fish felt exposed and so tended to congregate in the cooler shaded areas under the piers and docks. The shade rendered the fish mostly invisible to marauding osprey and herons.
    Anglers, however, could cast into those shady refuges as the water level under the structures fell.
    Using that strategy, Woody’s score of white perch was impressive and often included a surprising number of keeper rockfish. It was quite a revelation at the time.
    But I found that method of casting was far from an easy task. An angler needs to practice to become adept, and that is not an on-the-water project. It is an old angling axiom that you can either fish or practice casting, but you can’t do both at the same time.
    I addressed my accuracy issue by constructing light, easily transportable ersatz dock structure with some PVC plumbing pipe and fixtures. Setting up the apparatus on the lawn or a parking lot, I practice casting to and under the target. It’s challenging. The wrist snap necessary to keep the lure trajectory low and accurate is not simple. However, I expect the practice to pay off once I’m back on the water.
    Other techniques for working under or close to these types of structure include flipping, skipping, pitching and shooting. All can be practiced on that same apparatus and are demonstrated in a number of YouTube videos (search on fishing docks). I plan on upping my score considerably next spring by this expansion of my angling repertoire.

The gods do not subtract from an allotted lifespan the hours spent fishing

There is hardly any human activity more restorative, calming, comforting and just plain relaxing than a day on the water attempting to convince a fish to bite your line.
    Lots of popular recreational activities offer competition, strenuous exercise, adrenaline surges and challenge. Fishing promises quiet contemplation, fine scenery and communion with nature — with the outside chance of scoring a healthy meal.
    It is not a particularly strenuous sport. Other than casting out your bait or lure, most of your time and attention is spent waiting for the fish to decide whether or not to eat it. That pretty much puts any pressure for success directly in the hands — or fins — of the fish, leaving your mind free to wander.
    Search the word fishing online, and you’ll get over a half-billion hits. The next most popular sport, golfing, scores scarcely five percent of that number. Not bad for a game that simply requires at its most basic, a pole, some string, a hook and a worm and a good-looking piece of water.
    Children take to fishing like few other activities, which is proof positive of its basically pure and simple nature. Older men revel in its intricacies and total absorption of the self. As the novelist Thomas McGuane said, “Angling is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.”
    I have devoted a great portion of my life to chasing fish and have never regretted a single moment. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the adage, You can never fish too much; it just can’t be done.
    One of America’s favorite sons, the author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, is often credited with saying, “Many men go fishing their whole lives without ever realizing that it isn’t the fish they are after.” That may be the reason that the sport is so consuming and restive. It gives opportunity for philosophical reflection without the actual decision to indulge in such highbrow activity.
    I’ve never slept better than after a day on the water; that alone is an important thing in this fast-paced civilization that we’ve created. Now more than ever, our health and well-being depend on finding ways to relax and take in life.
    The secret of a happy and content life: The best time to go fishing is whenever you can.

A healthy garden for a healthy life

Gardening is the most popular of all hobbies, and for good reason. Gardening gives you hours of relaxation and great satisfaction. It is good exercise. It forces you to go outside, bringing you closer to nature. It can be enjoyed by all ages. Getting children interested in gardening can have life-long consequences. On the other hand, you are never too old to start.
    Dorothy Frances Gurney, a poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says it all in God’s Garden:
    The kiss of the sun for pardon;
    The song of the birds for mirth;
    One is nearer God’s heart in the garden;
    Than anywhere else on earth.
     In Maryland, ornamental horticulture is the second largest agriculture income-producing industry. In the U.S., it ranks third. Its popularity increases as we learn more about horticultural therapy and the benefits gained from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially growing your own. Organic gardening has also attracted many into the field.
    Gardens can range in scope from a few potted plants to flowers and herbs to vegetable gardens to an entire landscape. Whatever it’s size, your garden — and satisfaction — will thrive if you recognize that gardening is a science. Many problems can be avoided by following proven practices and by applying the knowledge gained by controlled scientific studies.
    As you imagine your garden over winter, keep a few of those proven practices in mind. Vegetables, fruits, many annual flowers and ornamentals want sun, so locate your garden where it will receive full sun. Nothing — not fertilizers, compost nor pruning practices — can substitute for full rays from the sun.
    Consider your soil, as well. Very few horticultural plants can grow in poorly drained soils. Acid or very alkaline soils are also factors, as many species have very particular preferences.
    Nutrition is as important to the success of growing plants as a proper diet is for our wellbeing. The benefits of organic matter not only include nutrients but also improved soil potential. Chemical fertilizers cannot always substitute equal benefits.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

Turns out the jolly old elf is a ­gardener himself

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.

The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of compost danced in their heads.

The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose
To settle their roots for the long ­winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow
Protected the roots of the grasses below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all ­gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.

I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.

To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower.
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.

For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

A fungus agent for her compost pit
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.

With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”

Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum;
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.”

–An anonymous gardener’s  take on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 classic

Believe it or not, winter’s here

As the sun sets, look in its wake for Mercury just above the southwest horizon. Binoculars will help. Mercury is on its way up to a fine showing through Christmas and New Year’s.
    Before dawn, Venus, Mars and Jupiter stretch above the horizon in the southeast. A little below Mars is Spica. Saturn rises just before the sun and is far to the lower left of Venus, so low that you may need binoculars to spot it.
    Tuesday at 11:48pm EST, the sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, hovering directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 231⁄2 degrees south latitude. This solstice, literally sun stands still, marks the start of winter for us in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun rises and sets at its farthest point south, traveling a low, shallow arch from horizon to horizon in the shortest day of the year, with a meager 9 hours 28 minutes of sunlight in Chesapeake Country.
    Watching the sunrise or sunset, you will notice the sun pause for a number of days, but then it slowly inches northward on the sky’s dome. A great experiment for kids of all ages is to use an east- or west-facing window to mark with a grease pen or piece of tape the point where the sun meets the horizon each day or night.
    Solstice coincides with the Ursid meteor shower, which typically peaks at five to 10 meteors an hour but occasionally has bursts of 100 or more. The waxing gibbous moon sets before dawn, so that’s when you’re likely to see the most activity.

Control winter weeds now, as they’ll be bigger come spring

Winter annual weeds tend to sneak up on you.
    Have you looked at your garden lately? When you do, don’t be surprised if you see a green carpet being woven by winter annual weeds. Annual bluegrass, chickweed, cranesbill and henbit are pretty small now. But if you don’t get out there and control them, they will be much larger next spring.
    It takes more than hoeing to bring them under control. If you simply hoe them out of the ground and leave them lie, they will soon generate new roots and resume growth. After hoeing, rake them up and put them in your compost. Adding weeds provides compost with much-needed nitrogen. The weeds are also succulent and full of water, and the little bit of soil attached to their roots provides inoculum to help in degrading leaves. You need not worry about winter weeds contaminating your compost pile with seeds because these weeds are still in their juvenile form and have not started flowering, which they must before they can produce seeds.
    If you prefer not to disturb the soil by hoeing, use horticultural vinegar, to which these weeds are very sensitive. However, you have to spray the foliage thoroughly to obtain good results. Chickweed takes repeated applications because its foliage is very dense with many overlapping leaves. The first application of horticultural vinegar will only kill the exposed leaves. Make a second application after the first layer of leaves has disintegrated.
    Winter weeds will grow all winter long. They can even grow under snow cover. Trying to kill them with organic mulches is a waste of time. I have seen these weeds grow under the cover of mulch. It is surprising how little light they need to survive. However, covering them with black plastic or tarpaper is effective. Avoid black landscape fabric; it has sufficient pin holes to allow them to continue growing.
    Get a jump on spring gardening by controlling winter weeds now.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

The Geminids can really deliver

Dropping temperatures and long nights — combined with this week’s new moon — make for some of the best sky-watching. The sun still sets well before 5pm, and within another 90 minutes the sky is truly dark. Coupled with the darkness, the cold weather knocks any humidity from the air, providing crisp, undistorted views of the stars and planets.
    As evening twilight deepens, December’s sky is filled with familiar figures. To the west are the lingering constellations of summer, Aquila the eagle, Lyra the harp and Cygnus the swan, the brightest stars from each making the familiar asterism of the Summer Triangle. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, as this time of year it stands upright above the horizon.
    To the north is the familiar shape of the Big Dipper, which is itself a part of Ursa Major, the great bear. Below it is the Little Dipper, host of the North Star Polaris, around which the entire celestial sphere revolves.
    High overhead is W-shaped Cassiopeia the queen and Cepheus the king, which looks more like a bishop’s miter than a king’s crown. Beneath them is their daughter Andromeda, flanked by the square of Pegasus to the west and the hero Perseus to the east.
    Rising in the east in the evening are the constellations of winter. There’s Taurus the bull, pursued by Orion the hunter, his hourglass shape one of the easiest to make out. Trailing Orion is Canis Minor, the Little Dog, and Canis Major, the Big Dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. Standing high over the east horizon by 10pm are the Gemini twins.
    Keep your eyes on those two this week, as they are the apparent source for the consistently best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids. There’s no interfering moonlight, and unlike other meteor showers, you don’t have to wait until the wee hours for the best of this show. This year’s peak, in the dark hours Sunday to Tuesday, can produce more than 100 meteors in an hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but traced backward they all appear to radiate from Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By midnight this radiant is almost directly overhead.
    The Geminids are unique, in that their parent is the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, while all other meteor showers are spawned by comets. In either case, as these frozen interlopers near the sun in their orbit around the solar system, some of their matter melts off into bits of stellar debris that burst aflame as they carom into earth’s atmosphere.
    As daybreak approaches, Gemini is high in the west. By that time Jupiter, now rising around midnight, is high in the south, trailed by Mars and much closer to the horizon Venus in brilliant glory

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 Please include your name and address.