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Turn that manure into compost instead of applying it to fields

The new governor of Maryland has made a major error in allowing poultry farmers to continue applying their phosphorus-laden chicken manure on land that is already overloaded with phosphorus.
    What the chicken farmers and the governor are ignoring is scientific evidence that clearly identifies excessive levels of phosphorus in soils as the cause for phosphorus-induced trace element deficiencies, lower yields, lower nutrient values and Bay pollution.
    The smarter strategy is to grow soybeans one year then corn the next. Legumes like soybeans fix their own nitrogen and leave plenty in the ground to grow a crop of corn the following year. If this rotation were followed, farmers would only need to apply potassium when soil call for it. When the soil needs potassium, it can be added as either potassium chloride or potassium sulfate, both cheaper to apply than tons of chicken manure.
    Phosphorus is essential to plant growth. But too much causes other essential plant nutrients to bind to it, starving plant roots. Such essential trace elements as iron, zinc and copper are essential to plant growth, as are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
    In the mid 1970s I was asked by fellow University of Maryland faculty members who specialized in vegetable crops to review soil tests from fields of sweet potatoes near Salisbury. The total phosphorus levels in those soils were so high that they were reducing yields. I recommended they stop applying phosphorus and apply only nitrogen. This was a major change in culture for these farmers because they had been accustomed to applying tons of 10-10-10 before planting each season’s crop.
    So much phosphorus had been applied that it took several years with none before yields started to increase.
    In the early 1980s, rhododendron growers tried dosing their plants with lots of phosphorus to force them into flower under shade. It worked, but it also stunted growth and caused iron deficiency symptoms on the foliage. Full sun alone would have produced healthy tall plants with flowers.
    My conclusion from these and other studies is that plants do not need much phosphorus to be productive.
    Over-applying phosphorus not only leads to reduced yields and lower nutritional value. It also contributes to Bay pollution.
    Allowing farmers to make yearly applications of chicken manure on soils already saturated with phosphorus lowers yields of grain and forage crops. Since most of these farmers do not plant cover crops, their phosphorus-enriched soils erode into the Bay.
    There are other better uses for chicken manure, as compost or as a source of energy. The ornamental horticulture industry — the second largest agricultural industry in Maryland and the nation — is a ready market for quality compost. Yet Maryland has to import compost from as far as Maine to meet its needs. Maryland Environmental Services is well versed in the science and technology of making compost.
    Gov. Hogan, please encourage chicken farmers to form a co-op to manufacture and market compost.

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

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

The waning gibbous moon rises around 8pm Thursday, with Jupiter high above it. Between them is the blue-white star Regulus of Leo the lion. Sunday the moon rises around 11pm, with the white star Spica 10 degrees beneath it. As daybreak approaches Monday morning, the two are even closer together high in the southwest. That evening the moon rises just before midnight, and now it is the one trailing Spica. Before dawn Thursday the 12th, the now-crescent moon shines within 10 degrees of golden Saturn, with Antares, the red heart of Scorpius, a little farther toward the horizon.
    The waning moon leaves the evening sky bereft of its powerful glow, making these next two weeks your best chance to spot  Comet Lovejoy before it’s gone forever — or at least the next eight thousand years. The fifth magnitude comet hovers at the border of naked-eye visibility between the constellations Perseus and Andromeda.
    Binoculars will bring it into view as a faint, oblong smudge, while even a modest telescope will reveal its brighter coma and trailing tail. You might even be able to discern the green-glowing head of the comet and its blue-hued tail. These colors are a tell-tale sign of the comet’s molecular composition, the green from diatomic carbon and the blue from carbon monoxide, both being charged by interstellar ultraviolet radiation. In contrast, naked-eye comets appear white, a result of sunlight reflecting off particles of dust and debris.
    Technically titled C/2014 Q2, the comet is named after amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy, of Australia, who discovered it last August. Lovejoy has identified four earlier comets.
    Night by night, Comet Lovejoy is inching north, from the feet of Andromeda toward the outstretched arm of Perseus. By this time next month it will be one, if not two, magnitudes dimmer and much harder to find as it heads to the outer solar system.
    Closer to home, Venus and Mars hover above the west-southwest horizon at twilight on their way to a fabulous conjunction later this month. They are maybe a half-dozen degrees apart this weekend, the size of your fist held at arm’s length. And Jupiter shines from sunset to sunrise.

Getting to the roots of woody plants

Did you know that when the stems of an oak tree are growing in the spring, the roots are not growing? Conversely, when the top of the plant has stopped growing and has stopped producing new leaves, the roots initiate growth. It’s the same with most woody plants. Most are unable to grow at both ends at the same time.
    In the spring, the stems and leaves are elongating and unfolding, while the roots are busy providing them water and nutrients. At maturity, the full-sized leaves begin sending down compounds such as carbohydrates, hormones and other metabolites used by the roots to produce new roots. In some plants, this cycle repeats itself. Many deciduous species will produce two or more flushes of top growth with brief periods of root growth. In other plants such as pine trees, there is usually only one flush of growth.
    Plants need to grow new roots because nutrients are absorbed only at the tips of roots. Nearly all nutrients are absorbed by root hairs, and these only occur on newly formed roots. As soon as new roots begin to form, the root hairs deteriorate, and that part of the root is covered with suberin, a sugar-like substance that enables the root to absorb only water.
    In other words, most of the roots of plants function as pipes, carrying nutrients and water to the stem when the tops are growing, then carrying metabolites to their own tips when roots are growing.
    This is knowledge you need to transplant trees and shrubs successfully. To assure better survival, growers root-prune plants a year or two before transplanting. To root-prune, make a circle of deep cuts at the plant’s drip line, severing the roots with a sharp spade.
    Wait until after woody plants have stopped producing new leaves in the first flush of growth. Root pruning during shoot elongation and leaf growth often results in severe wilting and loss of foliage, thus weakening the plant. Late-summer root-pruning has another advantage. More buds have formed, resulting in the maximum production of natural hormones that stimulate new roots.
    Annual plants are another story. In annuals, tops and roots grow simultaneously. This is possible because these plants have the advantage of growing only during long days and warm weather.
    Understanding root growth also helps you care for potted plants. Plants grown in containers have limited space for root growth. Keeping the plants in the same container for too long results in root-bound plants. There is no more room for roots to grow. Root-bound plants deteriorate or may flower profusely, wilt frequently and stop growing. Those are signs that it’s time to repot. When repotting, slash or tear apart the root ball to stimulate new roots to grow.

Rabbits make a fine test for hounds and hunters alike

On a cold, crisp morning, ice crinkled underfoot in the brushy field. Clear, dense air carried the clamor of some 25,000 snow geese feeding on a field a half-mile away.
    Then, over that waterfowl music, a hound’s howl broke out about 25 yards in front of me. My guess was that it was Junior, a five-year-old beagle that was part of my good friend Charles Rodney’s experienced pack of rabbit dogs.
    Seconds later, Junior’s soulful wail was joined by his four pack-mates, Slim, Copper, Lou and Jack. The sudden urgency of their baying told us that if they hadn’t seen the rabbit, its scent was red-hot.
    From the midst of the thick stuff, Charles motioned me to move out to the side and ahead to a clearing to try for a shot at the cottontail as the dogs pushed. I arrived promptly and the hounds trailed through, indicating the rabbit was well out in front of us all.
    Don Coleman, the third in our hunting party, had positioned himself a ways behind us in case the cottontail doubled back. At six-foot-five-inches, Don moved easily through the thigh-high grasses. The 83-year-old still pursues rabbits with the passion of his first hunt as a six-year-old in Beloit, Wisconsin.
    This bunny was also experienced and laid a convoluted spoor for the dogs to follow and a drama to unfold. The pack lost and found the scent as we moved along, positioning ourselves but never getting a shot. Finally, out of the corner of my eye I saw a streak of grey-brown fur break out behind Charles heading the opposite way, back into the thicker cover.
    We called out there he goes, there he goes! and moved toward openings that might allow us a shot. But the rabbit was long gone. Rallying the beagles to where we had last seen movement, we began anew.
    The rabbit now circled all the way back to where the dogs first scented him and started to lay a new trail. It takes a seasoned hound to follow the scent of an animal that has crossed over its previous path.
    We waited while the dogs untangled the route, repositioning ourselves from time to time to intercept the wily animal. A disturbed rabbit will run quite a distance, but it is generally hesitant to leave its home territory and tends to circle back. This one had been running about in a 200-by-300-yard swath of cover. We intended to keep it there. If it broke out, it would most likely head for a groundhog hole, and we would lose it.
    Charles, the hunt leader and youngster of our party at 64 (I’m 72), was relentless in powering through the thicker areas along the rabbit’s path to ensure it hadn’t jumped aside and sat. Constantly encouraging his beagles, he directed Don and me to new positions as the dogs moved the rabbit (or the rabbit moved the dogs) through one area and into another.
    At the half-hour mark, the cottontail made a mistake. It hadn’t seen Don move to a new position at the edge of the field and almost blundered into him. Then streaking back into heavy brush, it broke out in front of me. Don and I both had a safe line at it — but only for an instant. Shots echoed out but the rabbit vanished back into the high grass.
    Running to where the cottontail had disappeared, I found only some tufts of fur. It was hit but still on the move. The dogs caught up and continued trailing the rabbit as I followed in hope that it would be lying somewhere nearby. Within about 100 feet, the pack stopped baying and started milling.
    As I neared, Junior emerged from the grass with a furry parcel in his mouth. I accepted the dog’s offering, held it up high and called out we got it! Don and Charles closed on us to congratulate the hounds.
    We had four more chases that morning, each nearly as intense as the first, with only one trickster giving the dogs and us the slip.

Can you spot the naked-eye five?

As the sun sets, look to the southwest for Venus. With a clear view of the horizon, you might spy Mercury below and to the right of Venus at week’s end, but the innermost planet’s viewing days are numbered. Roughly 15 degrees above Venus, look for the ruddy glow of Mars.
    Thursday and Friday evening the thin crescent moon joins the throng, somewhat between Venus and Mars the first night and above Mars, forming a horizontal line with Venus the next. Venus sets within an hour of the sun, while Mars sets around 8pm. But night by night, Venus is gaining about a minute of visibility, closing the gap with Mars in the process and leading to a conjunction of the two later next month.
    As these twilight planets set in the west, another rises in the east. Jupiter is hard to miss, as it is the brightest object in that part of the sky. By 9pm it is high in the east, at midnight is near the celestial zenith, and as dawn nears it is ablaze above the west horizon. A dozen degrees below the giant planet is fainter Regulus, which marks the dot of what looks like a backwards question mark. This asterism is called the Sickle of Leo and makes up the head of the larger constellation Leo the lion. A triangle of stars to the left of the sickle marks the lion’s haunches, the brightest being Denebola, which in Arabic means the lion’s tail.
    Saturn rises in the wee hours of the morning, and by 6am it is well-placed in the southeast. Its rings are tilted our way so that they stand out against the planet’s surface when viewed with even a small telescope. Saturn sits at the head of the constellation Scorpius, with its red heart Antares 10 degrees below the planet and the creature’s body trailing away toward the horizon.
    The moon waxes to first-quarter phase Monday, when it is almost directly overhead at sunset. Wednesday after sunset it is just a few degrees above and to the left of Aldebaran, the glaring eye of Taurus the bull, and the Hyades star cluster. Higher still are the stars of the Pleiades cluster, the Seven Sisters. While the moon’s light may make both clusters appear as fuzzy spots, simple binoculars will reveal many distinct stars in each.

The underground story

Did you know that your bare garden soil is losing its nutrients to winter?
    That’s just what’s happening in your vegetable garden unless you planted a cover crop last fall. And in your flower garden, unless it’s planted with perennials or woody plants.
    Here’s the underground story.
    During the growing season, plants do not utilize all soil nutrients, whether applied as fertilizers or released from animal manures or compost. Nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, magnesium and boron, to name a few, are quite soluble. Unless they are absorbed by roots of plants, they leach downwards into the water table, into streams and eventually into the Bay.
    A good garden soil is biologically active all year long except when soil temperatures drop below 34 degrees. At that temperature microbial activity stops, nutrients are not as soluble and most things stay in place. However, as you penetrate deeper in the soil, temperature rise and nutrients that have penetrated to that depth continue to leach downwards. Thus you want all soluble nutrients to be absorbed by roots before they seep too deep where roots do not penetrate.
    The physical movement of soil particles during periods of freezing and thawing causes soil particles to move about, creating crevices, thus facilitating the downward movement of soil particles as well as nutrients in solution. Established roots help to stabilize soil and prevent particles from either blowing away in drought or washing away through erosion. Both cover crops and perennials absorb available nutrients. When the cover crop is plowed or rototilled under in the spring, its roots, stems and leaves will decompose, and those nutrients, like compost, will be slowly released in the soil.
    While soil temperatures are above freezing, roots are absorbing nutrients. Roots of some species are capable of growing in soil temperatures as low as 36 degrees. Roots can grow all winter as long as the soil does not freeze. Unlike the top of plants, which stop growing when they begin to go dormant in late August and early September, roots continue to grow and absorb nutrients and water.
    I tested this concept in the mid 1970s by transplanting young dogwoods between the greenhouses at the University of Maryland in College Park. Half of the dogwoods were transplanted above a buried steam pipe. Snow there never lasted more than a few days, while between adjoining greenhouse the snow stayed in place. In the spring, I dug up the dogwoods in each area. The root system of the trees where the snow melted rapidly were two to tree times bigger and more fibrous than the roots of the dogwood trees from where the snow remained and were then five to six times larger.
    Never allow land to remain fallow without vegetation. Keeping the soil covered with growing plants not only protects the Bay but also maintains biologically productive soil for you to grow crops. Nutrients belong in the soil and not in the Bay.

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

It’s all a matter of layers

Whether in the sporting field, bird watching, horseback riding, hiking, fishing or other outdoor sports, options in dressing for freezing temperatures have never been better — or more complicated.
    Layering is the one key ingredient no matter what you’re going to do, as I’ve learned from experience. A base layer (undergarment) is followed by a covering layer (shirts and pants) and topped by the over layer (coats and overpants). The advantage of this approach is that as the weather changes or your activities vary, you can always take a layer off, if only temporarily.
    I’ve also found that if your cold-weather activity is mostly sedentary, such as bird watching, hunting, fishing or the spectator sports, the base layer is the most important. Fleece base layers, particularly expedition-weight types, are arguably the most effective.
    Fleece is comfortable next to the skin and holds in your body warmth best. If you’re preparing for sub-zero temps, a full body fleece undergarment is the way to begin.
    I’ve further discovered that the best types of fleece base layers are those with zip necks. Fleece is so efficient that even light exertion can cause you to heat up. Unzipping the top allows that body heat and moisture to escape. When that part of your activity is over, you can zip back up, maintaining a comfortable core temperature.
    Activities that include long periods of high intensity followed by periods of low intensity call for technical base layers. Such clothing is designed to maintain warmth with an emphasis on wicking moisture (sweat) away from your body to the outside of that garment. It can then evaporate or migrate to the mid-layer (where it also evaporates). Choose technical base layers designed for intense activity sports such as mountain climbing, big game hunting and skiing.
    Mid-layer clothing options are much less complicated. Flannel shirts are fine, cotton will do, medium-weight wool is great. Since the base layer has already done most of the work of temperature control, the mid layer is whatever makes you most comfortable.
    The outer layer (coats and over pants) is dictated by weather conditions. Since the development of the breathable membrane for clothing fabrics some 45 years ago, virtually all severe weather clothing has this feature as part of its construction. The membrane or fabric coating allows water vapor (sweat) to be vented out but prevents liquid water from penetrating. It is also a great wind barrier.
    Additional insulation is also an option in outerwear, depending on how extreme the temperatures are going to be and whether you’re wearing a base layer. But generally the final layer is intended for keeping out rain, snow and wind. Keep in mind that the bulkier the jacket (and your cumulative clothing), the more your movements will be hindered.
    Hats are essential as are facemasks and scarves for high-wind conditions. Make sure they are windproof and cover the ears.
    Gloves are application specific; the types you choose depend on what you’re doing. Waterproof and woolen gloves are best around the water. Mittens are warmest if you don’t need to use your fingers. Chemical handwarmers, such as Hothands and Grabber, are also effective. Position them on the back of your hands (where your blood vessels are) to keep your fingers warm.
    Footwear should be insulated if you’re going to be sedentary. Otherwise rely on lightly insulated boots and heavy woolen socks for superior cold and moisture control.
    Above all, be especially careful in colder weather and move inside at the first indications of hypothermia — shivering or a decline in coordination.

Even invisible, it tugs our tides mightily

Look for the waning crescent moon in the southeast before dawn Friday. Golden Saturn is just a couple degrees above, while fiery Antares is less than 10 degrees below. The trio rises around 4am, and by 6am they are well placed above the southeast horizon.
    Tuesday marks new moon — the first of January’s two Supermoons. What? How can new moon be a Supermoon? The criteria for the relatively new term Supermoon isn’t that we can see it, but rather that the moon, sun and earth are all three aligned in conjunction with the moon’s closest point to earth in its monthly orbit, called perigee. This can happen during both full moon and new moon. There will be six Supermoons in 2015, with January, February and March coinciding with new moon and July, August and September with full moon.
    New or full, a Supermoon can create super tides. The alignment of earth, sun and moon at new and full moon creates a gravitational tug resulting in strong spring tides. High tide is higher than normal, and low tide is lower. A Supermoon’s closer proximity to earth adds to the pull, creating even greater swings in what are called perigean spring tides.
    Look for the nascent crescent moon to reappear low in the west just after sunset Wednesday, with Venus just a few degrees to the moon’s left and Mercury between the moon and the horizon.
    Mercury and Venus were one degree apart last week, but now the innermost planet is sinking back toward the western horizon and the glare of the sun. They are still within three degrees of one another Friday, but by Wednesday the gap will have grown to almost 10 degrees.
    Mars is above and to the left of Venus and Mercury at sunset, visible until 8pm. Monday the red planet appears within 15 arc minutes — one-quarter degree — of distant Neptune in a rare planetary conjunction. At magnitude 8, Neptune demands binoculars or better yet a telescope. Start at Mars and scan above and to the left.
    Keep the binoculars handy, and look for Comet Lovejoy Saturday eight degrees west-southwest of the Pleiades star cluster, high overhead above Taurus the bull after dark.

Potted outdoor plants need cold-hardy roots to survive winter

Did you know that the roots of plants are not as cold-hardy as the stems and branches? What’s more, the roots of different plant species are killed at different temperatures. This is information you need to know when selecting plants for growing in above-ground containers that are to remain outdoors all year long.
    Below four feet, soil temperatures seldom drop below 28 degrees. If the ground is covered with mulch or snow, temperatures may be several degrees higher. If the soil is wet at the time it freezes, soil temperatures will also be higher. Dry soils freeze faster and achieve a lower temperature than moist or wet soils.
    In above-ground containers, temperatures will equilibrate to the ambient air within hours of a 10-degree change in temperature. The temperature change will occur faster if the rooting medium is dry. A dry rooting medium freezes faster than a wet rooting medium.
    If you intend to grow ornamental plants outdoors year-round in above-ground planters, select plants with cold-hardy roots. Choices are many, including Alberta spruce, Amur maple, azaleas, birch, chamaecyparis (or false cypress), mountain laurel, Pfitzer juniper, red cedar, rhododendrons and sumac.  The roots of these species can tolerate temperature down to zero and below. However, rooting media should be kept moist during the winter months as well as during the growing season.
    Avoid planting Atlantic cedar, boxwoods, camellia, Chinese hollies, Colorado spruce, dogwood, Japanese hollies, magnolia and viburnums in above-ground pots. Some of these species have roots that are killed at temperatures as high as 24 degrees. In many years, the roots of these species will be killed before the holidays.
    Information on low root-killing temperatures of perennial plants is important when selecting plants for containers and rooftop gardens. On rooftop gardens the problem is not as severe if the garden is installed over a heated building, because heat loss through the roof is generally adequate to prevent rooting media from freezing. However, if the garden is being installed over an unheated parking garage, selecting plants with cold-hardy roots is of utmost importance.

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

Solunar theory predicts fish and animal activity cycles

‘Fishing Charlie’ Ebersberger has spent as many days on the water as any angler in Maryland and arguably acquired more knowledge in his constant conversations with like-minded customers at his store, the Angler’s Sport Center.
    How was the Solunar watch working out? I asked as the instrument celebrated its first anniversary on his wrist. Seems that its predictions of fishing success based on peak times for fish activity are much better than either of us expected, according to the story he told.
    We were after marlin off of Ocean City and had not had any action for quite some time. Our electronic finder was indicating that we were over some good marks but nothing was eating.
    How many fish do you see now? one of the party called out.
    The question wasn’t directed to the finder screen but to my Solunar watch. Its display showed from one to four fish symbols depending on how active the bite was forecast at any particular time. Three to four fish mean a good bite.
    It’s beginning to show three, I said.
    Just then one of the starboard lines went down and fish on, fish on began ringing out from the stern. A few minutes later, my watch face moved into the four fish category. For the next three hours the action was hot and constant.

John Knight’s Solunar Theory
    The Solunar theory of the most productive fishing times was developed almost 90 years ago by an avid angler, John Alden Knight. After years of keeping logs of his frequent fishing efforts, he was perplexed at his inability to predict the best times to fish. He decided to apply scientific analysis to all the information he could gather.
    Starting with over 30 factors that seemed relevant, he eventually eliminated all but three as worthy of further examination. The prime factors, he eventually deduced, were sunrise, sunset and moon phase.
    Tidal phases and currents (caused by the moon moving in orbit around the earth) have long been thought the critical factors in saltwater fish feeding times. Knight discovered it was actually the relationship among the sun, earth and moon that was essential.
    Moonrise and moonset proved to coincide with intermediate or moderate phases of fish and animal activity. Most influential were the meridian periods when the transits of the moon crossed the earth’s line of latitude. High moon and low moon produced the most intense levels for the longest periods.
    Knight eventually worked out Solunar tables based on his theory to predict peak activities when fish (and game animals and birds) would most likely occur for any particular place and time.
    There are, however, mitigating factors that can negate or degrade the Solunar effect.
    A falling barometer generally precedes a period of poor fishing (as well as animal and bird movement) as do high winds, hard rain or snowfall and significant temperature fluctuations. These conditions, of course, are impossible to predict beyond the very near future. Still, they do have to be taken into account.
    Knight’s Solunar Tables have been in constant publication since their debut in 1936. Watches and time clocks have also been developed based on the Solunar formulas to make interpretation of the predictions ever easier.
    Using his Casio Pathfinder, Charlie has confirmed the accuracy of Solunar theory on the Chesapeake over the past season, not only by his own experiences but also with the help of many of his customers.
    “When they ask me what time of day is going to be best, I consult the watch. Whenever I could identify periods showing three to four fish, it was uncannily reliable that the time period predicted would result in up to three hours of great action.”
    If you’re looking to get an edge in the coming fishing season or need one now in hunting, Solunar predictions may be for you.