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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

Bloom is the best thing to come out of D.C in a long time

The demand for organically grown food continues to increase. Because chemical fertilizers cannot be used in its production, growers must depend on natural sources for nutrients, such as animal manures, compost and green manure crops. The demand for compost is so great that it exceeds the supply.
    The problem may soon be solved by recent developments in processing biosolids.
    Biosolids are the solid materials derived from wastewater processing facilities, also known as sewage-treatment plants. Yes, you know what I’m taking about.
    Yet wastewater treatment has advanced so far that 85 percent of the biosolids in the U.S. satisfy EPA Class A standards. Class A biosolids can safely be use in the production of agricultural crops.
    The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., is the largest plant of its kind in the world. The biosolids generated there are rich in Capital Hill bull @#!$. Now plant engineers have perfected a method of converting biosolids into Bloom, an organic matter rich in nutrients.
    First the biosolids undergo anaerobic digestion. Then excess water is removed, and the biosolids are dumped into a giant pressure cooker that is heated to more than 200 degrees. The pressure is released instantly, causing the tissues in the biosolids to rupture, thus releasing their nutrients. Anaerobic digestion degrades all organic compounds, including toxins. The pressure cooker treatment renders Bloom sterile. After the processed biosolid is removed from the pressure cooker, it is dried. The finished product looks black and has an earthy odor.
    I dedicated over 20 years of my career to research on composting. I have studied its value in nutrition and in controlling soil-borne disease. I have used compost on a great variety of plants, from growing garden vegetables to growing forests in abandoned gravel mines to blending rooting media for growing plants in containers.
    Compost has solved many problems, promoted recycling and has created new industries. Yet I have never achieved with any compost the results I am getting from Bloom.
    My method is blending Bloom with compost to combine the superior qualities of both products. I use a rooting medium containing equal parts by volume of peat moss and compost (made at Upakrik Farm) with 25 percent by volume Bloom. Because it contains seven mmhos/cm of soluble salts, it must be applied sparingly. My tests indicate that the maximum is 25 percent in combination with regular potting medium.
    I am testing it in growing broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, onions, peppers and spinach. I have also used it as mulch on half of the garlic plants growing in the garden. Garlic plants mulched with Bloom in late February are darker green and taller than garlic growing in the same bed without Bloom as mulch.

    Pictured above are cabbage and pepper plants growing for eight weeks with no additions but water as needed. The pepper plants that I have been growing are dark green while the cabbage and broccoli plants are a rich blue-green.
    We recently vertically mulched the large oak trees near my home by augering 320 six-diameter holes a foot deep, starting 10 inches from the trunk of each tree to the drip line of the branches. Each hole was filled with Bloom. Within two weeks, the grass surrounding each hole turned dark green and was growing rapidly. I can’t wait to see how the trees respond. I have vertically mulched these trees with compost every seven years with great results. I feel confident these mulching results will be even better.
        Bloom is not only producing excellent results but is also a consistent product day to day, month to month. What’s more, the Blue Plains process can be completed in days. In comparison, composting biosolids takes months from start to finished product.
        If every wastewater treatment plant that generates Class A biosolids were to include this new technology, growers would be better able to meet the demands for organically grown food. Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville is in the process of establishing facilities for drying and processing Bloom.


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

Trouble’s brewing below the surface

Mother Nature mulches in the fall by dropping leaves from her trees and by laying the blades of grasses or the leaves of herbaceous perennials over the soil. She covers the ground only with the waste she produces.
    We, on the other hand, buy bags of ground bark, chipped wood scraps or colored wood waste from only God knows where, pile it over the soil and call it mulching. I see mulch piled so deep trees seem to emerge from volcanic cinder cones. Roots of shrubs gasp for air and die from suffocation. Dense mulch absorbs most of the rain before it can penetrate to the soil, and plants suffer in drought.
    The leaves that fall to the forest floor in autumn serve as a blanket of insulation, allowing the soil to remain warmer longer and roots able to absorb water longer. The longer roots absorb water, the more resistant they become to damage by freezing temperatures. The leaves will decompose during the growing season, allowing nutrients to return to the soil for roots to absorb.
    Ground bark sold as mulch, on the other hand, contains very few nutrients. Decomposing, the mulch leaves behind clay-like particles called colloids. As colloids accumulate from repeated applications of ground bark, a slime-like layer forms over the soil, reducing air movement. Roots need oxygen, and they generate carbon dioxide. A thick layer of mulch over a colloidal layer can cause a toxic accumulation of carbon dioxide.
    Hardwood bark decomposes faster than pine bark, creating a colloidal layer sooner. Double-shredded hardwood bark mulch decomposes within a year, leaving behind fine organic colloids.
    Repeated applications of hardwood bark and especially double-shredded hardwood bark also raise the pH of soil and accumulate manganese. Since manganese is not very soluble, it accumulates to toxic levels within seven to 10 repeated applications. When the manganese levels in the soil exceed the levels of iron, copper and zinc, roots are unable to absorb iron for photosynthesis. Thus repeated use of hardwood bark mulch is a double-edged sword.
    Novice home gardeners like hardwood bark mulch because it is dark, keeps that color and does not easily wash away. But out of sight, trouble is brewing. Early signs of manganese toxicity are a gradual decline in growth, iron-deficiency symptoms on the newly emerged leaves, stunted growth and extensive branch dieback.
    Often, the only solution is removal and replacement of plants and soil.
    Repeated application of hardwood bark and composted wood chips recently forced one commercial ­blueberry grower to dig up an acre or more of plants. Manganese had accumulated to nearly 400 pounds to the acre, killing the formerly well-established and productive plants. Lowering the manganese from toxic levels took plowing the fields to a depth of a foot to dilute surface soil by blending in sub-soil.


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

The misnamed Jerusalem artichoke supplies both

The Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower cousin that gives both flowers and food. In late August and into September, bright yellow flowers cover its tall stems. Below ground, it is growing tuber-like structures on its roots that resemble pachymorphs of the bearded iris. The tubers are edible.
    This North America native is invasive and must be grown in an aboveground container to prevent it from spreading. I grow my Jerusalem artichokes in a plastic half-barrel with the base partially buried to prevent it from tipping over. They like a rich organic soil that is well drained.
    Plant the tubers in spring. Once started, you will never have to replant — unless you harvest 100 percent of the tubers, which is nearly impossible. Abundant lumpy yellowish-white tubers grow from near the base of the stem to as deep as 18 inches below the surface of the soil. The tubers may be individual or clustered.
    Harvest the tubers in the fall after the stems have died back, using a digging fork so as to not damage them. Start digging from the inside walls of the barrel toward the center. The tubers will be scattered at varying depths. Remove as many as you can find.
    After you have finished digging them up, blend two parts by volume existing soil with one part compost and refill the planter. Plant four to six of the smallest tubers about two inches deep for next season’s crop. Many stems will emerge in the spring.
    Eat the tubers raw or cooked. First scrub them thoroughly with a stiff vegetable brush. Then, working underwater, scrape the corners with a sharp knife to remove the brown areas and soil. The tubers do not have to be peeled. They can be steamed or boiled and mashed like potatoes. Or they can be eaten raw like a radish or shredded and added to salads.
    Go slow at first. Although the tuber is mostly starch, Jerusalem artichokes contain a natural compound called inulin that is not absorbed by the digestive system. It acts like a mild laxative to some people. Before substituting them for mashed potatoes, start with a small sample both raw and cooked.


Spot-Planting Grass

Q    I need to plant grass in bare spots. What is the best procedure?

–Paul Lefavre

A    Use a steel rake or potato digger to loosen the top two inches of soil. Rake an inch-thick layer of compost into the soil and smooth the surface. Sprinkle grass seed into the top layer of soil-compost blend. Water using a fine mist. Sprinkle a thin layer of straw or shredded paper over the seeded area to create about 30 percent shade, then mist again. Mist daily until the seed germinates, reducing to one misting every two days for the first week, then twice weekly until the new grass seedlings develop their dark green color.


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

Hoe them out and bury them — or eat them

Winter weeds have loved mild winter we’ve been having. Annual bluegrass, cardamine, chickweed, henbit and mares-tale, to name a few, are twice the size they were this time last year. Unless you eradicate them now, they are likely to cover the ground by the time you’re ready for planting. They may already be flowering and producing an abundance of seeds.
    Attack them without chemicals with a hoe or pull them out of the ground. Then collect them and bury them deep in your compost bin. If you leave them lying, they will most likely take root and resume growth. These cold-tolerant weeds can remain alive and capable of rooting even if they are all turned upside down. Their fibrous roots will retain sufficient soil to keep them moist and growing and the stems that will come in contact with the ground can form roots.
    Weeds are survivors, determined to thrive and reproduce.
    You can also eat them. Add some snap to your salad with cadamine. Common chickweed has a very mild lettuce flavor. Dandelions are quite mild providing there are no flower buds forming on the plants. Wild mustard should now be ready to be harvest, adding zest to any salad. If you like a vinegar taste, add a little oxalis to the salad blend.


No Sun, No Fruit

Q    We are hoping you can help us with a problem in a fruit orchard. The trees in question are Malus Spartan, Prunus armenica Harlayne, Prunus persica Red Haven
    They were planted about five years ago. They initially produce fruit early in the season, but the fruit ­doesn’t mature. At first the problem was assumed to be birds or other pests, but we’ve tried various bird barriers and still no luck. No amendments have been made to the soil recently. I know we don’t have a lot of information to offer, but perhaps you could provide some initial thoughts about what we should explore?
     Does it look to you like the trees are too crowded with underplanting? Or perhaps the surrounding trees are shading them out? Would it be recommended to move the trees to a different location?

A    You are trying to grow fruit trees under crowded conditions and in partial shade. Also the trees do not appear to have been properly pruned to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which is necessary for fruit to ripen. Fruit trees must be grow only in full sun, and they must be pruned properly for the fruit to be exposed to a certain amount of direct sunlight for ripening.


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

High in calcium and potassium, it keeps lawn and garden soil balanced

Wood ash belongs in the garden or on the lawn, not in the trash can or in the compost bin. Wood ash is basic in nature and an excellent source of calcium, potassium and trace elements. This means ash can be used as a substitute for limestone. A five-gallon pail of wood ash will treat approximately 100 square feet of a garden or lawn with a pH of around 6.0.
    I have divided the vegetable garden into three zones and treat each zone with wood ash once every three years. The wood ash has done such a great job of maintaining the pH of the soil that I have not had to apply lime or potassium on the garden for the past 25 years.
    Select a calm day for applying wood ash, as it is easily carried away by the slightest breeze. I use a trowel to spread the ash from the pail, applying it until the ground appears covered like a heavy frost.
    Wood ash won’t supply magnesium, an element often low or deficient in Maryland soil. Without magnesium, chlorophyll’s efficiency in converting carbon dioxide to sugars is considerably reduced. Since wood ash does not contain magnesium (though limestone does), I also apply Epsom salts at the rate of five to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet depending on the soil test results.
    Don’t dump wood ash in the compost pile. Wood ash is basic in nature, and the microorganisms involved in composting perform best in an environment that is mildly acid. Adding ash will stop the composting process.
    Never use a paper, cardboard, wooden or plastic container to carry wood ash. Ash may appear cool when you remove it form the fireplace or stove, but hot embers can remain buried and when exposed to air can ignite. Put your ash in a metal container and store it outdoors in a sheltered place a couple of days before spreading in the garden. I can remember my grandfather removing ash from the parlor stove and spreading it in the garden only to turn around to see dried corn stalks smoldering.
    Here’s another use for wood ash that’s now largely forgotten. My grandmother dumped wood ash from the kitchen stove into a wire basket in the shed. She then flushed the ash with dishwater several times, collecting the water to make lye soap. Do you remember Grandma’s lye soap — or the old popular song by that name?

Irrigate Your Garlic
    Your garlic plants are thirsty. Neither rain nor snow has provided them with water. February’s extra-warm, sunny days have activated the garlic plants into wanting to grow. Without adequate water in the ground, the tips of the leaves are showing yellowing and brown crispy tissues. Irrigate them now for bigger cloves of garlic at harvest.  Italian, Polish and German garlic is not planted as deeply as elephant garlic, making them more susceptible to drought damage. Soaking the soil with water now also makes the ground less likely to freeze deeply should the weather turn cold again.


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

Attack overgrown plants before this year’s growth starts

If you have overgrown plants that are smothering the house or taking over the landscape, now is the time to strike. Hollies, yews, viburnums, forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons and many more take well to hard pruning. Butterfly bush should be pruned very hard, to within inches of the ground, every year.
    The only plants you can’t prune severely are conifers such as junipers, cedar, pine, spruce and fir. These species do not form adventitious buds, nor do they have latent buds capable of sprouting after all other buds have been removed.
    Brutal pruning to lower the height and spread of plants is best timed when the plants are dormant, meaning several weeks before the soil begins to warm. Well-established vigorous plants have extensive root systems in the ground with an abundance of reserved energy. Early pruning directs that reserved energy to the most viable vegetative buds in the stems. Thus the earlier plants are pruned hard before growth starts, the more new growth they will generate.
    If you are cutting azalea stems the size of your index finger, as soon as temperatures rise you will see hundreds of green buds emerging from under the bark up and down that stem. Each of those buds is capable of producing branches. While the buds are still soft and green, wipe away at least half of them with your fingers. If you allow all of those buds to produce branches, the stems will look like a bottlebrush.
    When pruning forsythia and weigela, always remove branches that have gray bark near the base of the plant. Prune as close to the ground as possible to promote new vigorous stems to emerge from buds at the soil line. Remove all stems smaller than a pencil in diameter. These weak, flimsy shoots will generally not flower and will only droop with the ends of the stems touching the ground and rooting in.
    When pruning lilacs, inspect the larger stems for borer holes. Lilac borers generally attack stems one-and-a-half to two inches in diameter. Cut infected stems near the ground, and either burn or send them away with the trash. Allowing those infested stems to remain will only result in younger stems becoming infested before they approach maturity. You don’t want that because lilac flowers are produced on second-year wood.
    Do not try to rejuvenate any plant whose stump is larger than two inches in diameter by cutting it back to the ground. Stumps are capable of sprouting, but the sprouts will topple when the center of the old stump, which is mostly dead tissue, begins to rot, two to three years after it has been cut.
    To maintain generally well-behaved plants, prune after flowering when the petals are dropping to the ground.


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

Now’s the time to get it right

Step 1 to a productive garden is getting the location right. Plants perform best in full sun and well-drained soil. You can improve other aspects of a garden, but there is no substitute for full sun and a soil that drains properly.
    Next, prepare a soil test. Your soil may do fine for grass and weeds, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for gardening. The pH, nutrient concentration and organic matter in soils are important and can be improved.
    Follow the instructions at A&L Eastern Laboratories of Virginia: www.al-labs-eastern.com. Expect results by mail within five working days. Replies by email take even less time. Add my email to the form — DR.FRGouin@gmail.com — for personal recommendations from the Bay Gardener based on the results.
    Plan for proper irrigation. I am a big supporter of trickle irrigation because it irrigates the plants with 80 percent less water than overhead methods. Since the water is placed just within the root zone of the plants, it is not irrigating the weeds between the rows. Plant foliage also remains dry, reducing the spread of diseases that can occur when plants are irrigated from overhead.
    Vegetable gardens should receive one inch of water per week. Allow a trickle system to run for four to five hours with four to five pounds of pressure in the irrigation line. When irrigating with sprinklers, place a tuna fish can on the soil in the middle of the irrigation area. When the can is full, you have applied one acre-inch of water.

Plant Spacing

Tomatoes: 21⁄2-3 feet

Peppers: 2+ feet

Okra: 18 inches

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower: 12 to 18 inches

Corn 6-8 inches

Lettuce: 6 inches

Bush beans and peas: 2 inches

Root crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips: 1⁄2 inch
-1 inch, thinned to 2-21⁄2 when seedlings reach 2 inches

    Buy a hoe and keep it sharp to stop weeds in their tracks. Cultivation should be shallow so as not to damage roots of crops or to expose dormant weed seeds. Garden soils are loaded with weed seeds accumulated from previous years. Most weed seeds can survive for years; exposure to even a few seconds of sunlight stimulates them to germinate. Thus the less you disturb the soil, the better.
    Simply scraping the hoe on the soil surface to separate the top of the weeds from their roots is all it takes, unless you have waited until the weeds are knee-high.
    Plan for adequate spacing. Annual plants grow rapidly. If they are crowded, the plants will spend most of their energy competing for light, water and nutrients and less energy in producing a crop.
    Plan your planting by the sun’s course. If your garden rows run east to west, plant lower-growing crops on the south side of taller-growing species. In other words, plant the green beans on the south side of the corn or tomatoes and the lettuce on the south side of the green beans. If the crop rows run north to south, it does not matter how you arrange the crops because the sun travels from east to west, resulting in uniform lighting of all plants.


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

Cleaner air may be leaving your plants hungry

Billions of dollars have been spent making the air we breathe cleaner. We may be breathing better, but soil tests indicate that gardeners and farmers will have to add sulfur (S) to the list of nutrients that need to be added as a fertilizer.
    One of the major components in polluted air was sulfur dioxide. That airborne sulfur dioxide provided a continuous source of sulfur for good plant growth. We can also blame some of the sulfur deficiencies to the more highly purified fertilizers being applied. Older fertilizers contained sulfur as a contaminant. Now, few high-analysis fertilizers and water-soluble fertilizers contain sulfur. However, low-analysis fertilizers such as 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 are still often blended from nutrient sources contaminated with sulfates.
    In plants, sulfur is very important in the synthesis of amino acids and proteins. Researchers found that the addition of sulfur to deficient soil increased the yield of seed crops such as corn and soybeans by 10 to 20 percent. The addition of sulfur was also beneficial to the growth of cold crops such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. In reviewing soil test results, I have also noticed that sulfur levels in Southern Maryland are dropping.
    If soil test results indicate deficient or low levels of sulfur, it can be applied in various forms: pulverized, wettable, flowable, granulated and iron sulfate. Choose from other forms as your soil test indicates.
    Should your soil need phosphorus, purchase only single-strength super phosphate.
    If your plants need nitrogen, purchase ammonium sulfate.
    If the soil is in need of potassium, purchase potassium sulfate.
    If your soil needs calcium, purchase calcium sulfate.
    If the soil is in need of magnesium, purchase Epsom salts.
    Compost made from organic waste harvested from areas low in sulfur will also be low in sulfur. However, compost made from seafood waste or biosolids will be rich in sulfur. The nutrients in compost are totally dependent on nutrients in the feedstock being composted.
    You do not want to add sulfur if you are growing onions and garlic, as it will increase their sharpness in flavor. To grow mild onions, select a soil that contains nearly deficient levels of sulfur. Vidalia onions — grown only in Vidalia County, Georgia — are mild because their soils contain very low levels of sulfur.


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

Last year, I started from seed and had my biggest and best crop ever

If you planted garlic last fall, it now needs mulching with compost. I use compost made from either crab or lobster waste. Both have a good supply of calcium and a medium to high level of slow-release nitrogen for when soil temperatures rise above freezing. Mulching also protects these shallow-rooted plants from rapid temperature changes.
    If you plan to grow onions this spring, consider growing your own seedlings. Last year, instead of purchasing seedlings from Texas, I grew all my onions from seed and had the biggest and best crop ever. Since onion seeds are slow to germinate, seeds should be sown in prepared potting blends before the end of January. I highly recommend Copra and Candy. Both are good keepers, and Candy is as mild tasting as any Vidalia onion.
    Sow the onion seeds approximately a quarter- to a half-inch apart on the surface of the soil. Cover lightly by placing potting mix on a piece of window screen and shaking it over the seeds. Water well. Locate the containers where the soil will remain about 80 degrees. Onion seeds will germinate in about two weeks at this temperature.
    Once most of the seeds have germinated, place the container in full sun at a window facing south, as onion plants will grow in cooler temperatures. As daylight hours get longer, you will observe increased growth. Once the seedlings reach three inches tall, start making light applications of liquid fertilizer at three-week intervals.
    By mid March to early April, the onion plants will be five to six inches tall and ready to transplant into the garden. Onion plants are very cold-tolerant and can be planted early. They do best in soils rich in compost. I incorporate an inch or two of compost into the soil just prior to planting.
    If you prefer large onions, space the seedlings at least six inches apart. For smaller onions, space them four inches apart. I grow mine in solid blocks with spacing either six by six or four by six inches. I like the six-inch spacing between rows so that I can cultivate with my onion hoe. After the soil has been prepared, use a dibble to make the planting holes. Then, using your fingers, lift the onion seedlings in clusters from their rooting medium. Separate the seedlings, putting one in each hole. After all of the seedlings have been planted, use a stream of water to wash the soil into the planting holes to cover the roots.
    Once the onions start to bulb in June, stop cultivating the soil between the rows. The slightest amount of mechanical damage to the skin of the bulb will induce rot.
    As soon as the tails of the onions show yellow and browning, use a rake and knock down the tails to prevent neck rot microorganisms from entering the stem. Neck rot will spoil your onions when you put them into storage as summer ends.


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

Put those seed catalogs to good use

Perhaps you have received seed catalogs for the coming spring planting season. On the the front and back cover you will likely be encouraged to order early to receive bonuses or discounts. Many seed companies also offer free shipping for early orders. You can save quite a bit if you take advantage of these special offers.
    My method for ordering seeds begins with selecting at least three different catalogs that I have purchased from in recent years. After I have made an inventory of the leftover seeds from 2016 season, I go through each catalog selecting the seeds I need to purchase for this coming season. Expect to substitute some favorite varieties that are not available. Initially I complete three or more order forms. This is a good task after you have cleared the dinner table.
    After I total the cost from each order form, I compare prices, including shipping and handling and the specials that each catalog offers. Since I am always testing new varieties, I make it a point to review all of the information provided on each variety, especially when my time-tested varieties are not available.
    Before I make my final decision on which catalog I will order from, I check the total cost of the seeds with the shipping and handling charges. Most catalogs have a shipping charge based on the total cost of seeds. I base my final selection of seeds by either subtracting or adding from my wish list seeds to minimize the shipping and handling charge. You can save more money by following this procedure.
    Consider these factors as you plan your order.
    1. Expect to pay more for hybrid seeds because of the labor and technology involved in producing them.
    2. Order only what you expect to use in one season. Not all seeds have the same shelf life. The longer you store unused seeds, the lower the germination rate and the longer the germination time. So pay attention to the number of seeds included in each package. I find that many gardeners order more seeds than needed, thinking that seeds can be stored forever.
    3. Organically grown seeds may not be worth the price you pay. What determines if the fruit or vegetable is organically grown is the method of culture. With chemical fertilizers and pesticides or with compost, animal manures or organic fertilizers and without pesticides?
    Fruits and vegetables grown using conventional methods have the same nutritional value as those grown organically. I recently listened to a discussion between dietitians confirming what a graduate student of mine found in the 1980s in an extensive study comparing the nutritional value of snap beans grown organically versus those grown conventionally. The results clearly indicated that the fiber content and nutritional value were similar. The only difference was harvested yields. Bean beetles and the bean weevils caused a 20 percent loss in beans grown organically.


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