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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

A short lesson on the difference between aerobic and anaerobic decay

A Bay Weekly reader cornered me at Christopher’s in West River, complaining that her compost pile stinks. She was composting in a rotating drum on an elevated stand. Her complaint: the contents in the drum were slopping wet and the odors so strong that her neighbors were complaining.
    She admitted that she had not read the directions on the drum. “What difference would that have made?” she wanted to know.
    The instructions for enclosed composting systems clearly state that when odors are detectable, add dry matter such as shredded newspaper, dry leaves, straw or hay to absorb the excess water.
    Composting is an aerobic system, which means that the microorganisms digesting the organic matter require a minimum of five percent oxygen. As composting progresses, moisture from decomposing vegetable matter is released into the atmosphere. Closed composting systems such as rotating drums or enclosed bins do not have sufficient ventilation to release that excess moisture into the atmosphere. Thus, moisture condensates on the inside walls of the container and accumulates in the organic waste being composted. When the moisture concentration within the organic waste exceeds 60 percent, oxygen is excluded and the system becomes anaerobic. When the organic waste becomes anaerobic, objectionable odors are generated by the anaerobic digesting organisms. Other by-products from anaerobic digestion are acetic acid and methane.
    The ideal moisture concentration for composting is between 45 and 55 percent. As most vegetable waste such as cucumber, potato, carrot, watermelon, squash, cabbage, lettuce, etc. contain between 80 to 95 percent water, it does not take much to overwhelm the system with excess moisture.
    Enclosed composting systems should be checked two to three times weekly and turned. At the slightest odor, add dry material and turn several times to incorporate it into the wet. Continue adding and turning the unit until the contents feel moist but not wet. At the proper moisture content, composting materials should feel like a moist sponge. If you can squeeze moisture from a handful of composting material, there is too much water. You can help rid some of the excess moisture by leaving the door open, but make certain that you shut it before turning.
    I used composting drums for developing formulas for composting garbage. Garbage tends to be dry, making it necessary to add water in addition to phosphorus and nitrogen. I was able to compost garbage in 30 days, and the drums often developed temperatures of 180 degrees. I turned the drums daily.
    Drums are useless in the late fall, winter and early spring. However, during the normal growing season, they are very efficient when managed properly.
    If your composting unit stinks, it is because you have allowed it to become anaerobic. Keep a supply of dried leaves, hay, straw or shredded paper nearby for immediate relief.

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You’ll enjoy the best flavor and pound out your aggression

The best sauerkraut is made from freshly harvested cabbage grown during the fall months. I make about 20 pounds of sauerkraut every two to three years and store it in canning jars.
    Choose cabbages that form tight dense heads and can be uniformly shredded into pieces approximately one-eighth of an inch thin. I prefer Flat Head Dutch be­cause the tight, dense heads can easily be shredded. Heads can weigh five pounds or more.
    For best flavor, pack and shred cabbage the day it’s harvested from your garden or at your farmers market.
    I make my sauerkraut in a stone crock because it can withstand the heavy pounding required to crush the cells of the shredded cabbage. Alternatives are stainless steel pails or food-grade five-gallon plastic buckets. For the latter, place a wooden disc the diameter of the bucket under it to prevent bouncing.
    A shredding board is a good tool because it has at least three cutting blades that shred the cabbage. For many years I shredded the cabbage with a very sharp chef’s knife, but I did not have the uniformity that I get from a shredding board.
    Peel away all loose leaves until the outer leaves are firmly attached to the head. Wash the cabbage under cold water and pat dry with a clean towel. Shred a three-inch layer of cabbage into the container and sprinkle with a tablespoon of salt. For every five pounds of shredded cabbage, add three tablespoon of canning salt. Kosher salt is ideal.
    With a clean sauerkraut pounder or a wooden dowel two to three inches in diameter, pound cabbage and salt until you start hearing a squishing sound. Add another layer of cabbage and salt and repeat the pounding. By the time you have pounded half of the shredded cabbage, you should have cabbage juice surfacing. If not, keep pounding until juice becomes visible.
    Continue until you have used all of the cabbage or your container is within four inches from the rim. Cabbage juice should cover the top layer of shredded cabbage.
    Place a dinner plate on the shredded cabbage and juice to direct the fermentation gasses to the outside edge of the container. Cover the dinner plate with a water lock made from a two- or three-gallon plastic zipper bag half filled with water. Seal the bag and place it over the plate; this will allow the fermenting gasses to escape but keep air out.
    Store in a cool dry place for six to eight weeks. The longer you allow it to ferment, the whiter the sauerkraut.
    On removing the water lock and plate, you will find a discolored surface layer. Using a large serving spoon, skim and discard this layer, rinsing the spoon in clean water after each scraping.
    Freeze your sauerkraut in plastic zipper bags or can it in in sterilized glass jars submerged in boiling water for 10 minutes.

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Credit our summer rain

Composting is a science nature has been using since the earth was created. It has only been in the last five decades that we have begun to understand what it does and how. I remain constantly amazed that such a simple process can be so complex. Understanding the pro­cess is the key to producing a quality compost that will benefit the soil in your garden in numerous ways.
    If you make your compost in open bins, you have no doubt made your best compost ever. The compost bins that I filled with last fall’s leaves and on-going vegetable waste from the garden and the kitchen is ready to use. Vegetable kitchen waste added to the compost the last week in July decomposed in less than two weeks.
    Credit the abundance of rain in June and July.
    I make it a practice to wet down my compost bins weekly during the spring and summer, but the downpours did a better job of keeping the composting piles wet than we can.
    In mid-June, I shoveled the composting waste from a large bin into a medium bin, filling it to the brim. By the first week in August, the medium bin had already shrunk to half the volume.
    This rapid rate of decomposition is a prime example of the importance in keeping decomposing organic waste moist. While the composting piles were shrinking rapidly, I measured temperatures of 140 degrees and above. This is an ideal temperature for composting, generating a final product that is nearly free of weed seeds and disease-causing organisms. As the composting materials began to cool in late July, the beneficial organisms that are accumulated on the surface enter the pile.
    When temperatures in the compost are close to the temperature of ambient air, the compost is not capable of providing nutrients because they are being absorbed by organisms active in composting. Most of the nutrients from the compost are not released until those organisms start dying out.

Beware the Harlequin Beetle

    With temperatures in the 90s, weather conditions have been perfect for the harlequin beetle to reproduce and attack plants in the vegetable garden. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and even horseradish plants have been its prime source of food. This hungry, colorful insect can vary in size from the head of a straight pin to slightly larger than a pencil eraser. It actively feeds all day and lays its eggs in the fold of leaves. Any insect that can devour the leaves of a healthy planting of horseradish in a matter of weeks demands immediate attention. Garden books recommend controlling them by hand-picking, but 39-plus days of 90-degree temperature must have shifted their reproductive capability into high gear, because large colonies of pin-sized hatchlings seem to appear daily.

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Dog vomit mold and artillery fungus are likely candidates

The abundance of rain this summer has created ideal conditions for the growth of artillery fungus and dog vomit mold. Gardeners who apply a fresh layer of mulch each spring are prime candidates for both problems. I have already seen one case of dog vomit mold, and I anticipate calls complaining that the color of their houses suddenly appears darker.
    Dog vomit is a slime mold that grows readily on organic matter such as hardwood bark mulch. Its name describes its appearance. It pops up in dark, shaded areas that can remain moist for several days. It will first appear as a bubbly dirty-white-to-pinkish blob five to eight inches long and two to three inches wide. Within a day or two, it will turn brown making it appear as if a dog dropped a load from the other end. Depending on how soon you discover it, it may have an odor.
    There are no chemicals you can use to rid the area of this slime mold and no chemicals you can use to prevent it. If you discover it in your landscape the only solution is to sweep it away with a rake and hope that it will not return. There is strong evidence that it is a more common problem where hardwood bark mulch is used and a lesser problem where pine bark mulch is applied. I have also seen it on colored mulches made from discarded pallets.
    Artillery fungus is the result of a saprophytic fungus releasing millions of black spores that are carried by a wind or a slight breeze. We have the proper conditions for artillery fungus to appear. Many years ago, extension agents on the Eastern Shore were overwhelmed with phone calls from people whose houses overnight changed in color from white to brown-black. In every instance, the homeowners had applied a fresh layer of mulch under and around their garden and foundation plantings. There appeared to be no differences among the types of mulches used.
    Those homeowners who took immediate action and power-washed the exterior of their homes were spared the expense of having to paint them. Those who allowed the fungus spores to dry on the siding had to scrape and sand before it could be painted.
    Both of these problems are unpredictable. But our recent weather — frequent heavy rains, high temperatures and high humidity — remind me of those years when both dog vomit mold and artillery fungus were problems. Beware.
    I have never experienced either of these on my property. I avoid them by not applying bark or wood mulches. I am a strong advocate for using compost as mulch. Bark contributes nothing of nutritional value to the soil, while compost provides nutrients. Plus the composting process kills disease-causing organisms and only beneficial organisms remain.

Heat Shock in the Garden

Q    Why are my green pole bean blossoms falling off? No beans in sight.

–Buddy Rapczynski, Lusby

A    It has been too hot. Cool the plants by misting them with water twice during the heat of the day.

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If you use this powerful herbicide, be sure you use it right

Roundup has its uses, but before you consider spraying the herbicide, you should know what it’s good for — how damaging it can be and where it does no good, even ill.
    Roundup kills plants by degrading the mitochondria in the roots. I began studying Roundup in 1976, when it was called glyphosate. Our research established rates of application, best time of application, plant response and phytotoxicity on desirable plants. Since then, we have learned a great deal more about Roundup and the care you should exercise when using it.
    • Never spray when the target weeds are under drought stress. To achieve effective control of weeds, the foliage should be mature. Leaves give a good indication of maturity. If 50 percent or more of the leaves on the weeds are fully grown, the Roundup will be absorbed and migrate down toward the roots. If fewer than half the leaves are mature, the Roundup will only burn the top growth. The weeds will generate new top growth from the crown or roots.
    • Never spray on smooth-barked tree trunks. Smooth bark can absorb the glyphosate, resulting in severe yellowing of the foliage, even death to the young tree
    • Avoid using Roundup to spray around raspberries, figs and other desirable plants that generate rhizomes. Roundup will travel through rhizomes to plants that have not been sprayed. This is why Roundup is so effective in controlling Bermuda grass or wiregrass.
    • Roundup should never come in contact with the roots of plants, including roots extending from the bottom of plant containers. Aggressively growing plants often send roots out through the drainage holes. The spray may affect and kill visible roots.
    • Roundup is not effective in controlling waxy foliage plants such as English ivy and vinca — unless fortified with either ammonium sulfate or household ammonia. The wax covering the leaves keeps the spray from penetrating into the leaf tissues. A teaspoon of ammonium sulfate or one tablespoon of household ammonia per gallon of spray enables the Roundup to penetrate into the leaf tissues and migrate down the vines to the roots. For best results, spray both English ivy and vinca in September.
    • Kudzu and bamboo are best controlled by spraying Roundup amended with ammonia or ammonium sulfate in mid- to late October before the first frost.
    • Brambles, honeysuckle and other weeds can be killed by using half to one-quarter the package-recommended concentration of Roundup in late September and early October. When sprayed late in the growing season, all the Roundup migrates down to the roots.

Share Your Harvest
    Vegetable gardens are feast or famine. Don’t let those zucchinis grow to baseball bat size or green or yellow beans form seeds in the pods, only to be discarded. Your local food pantry will gladly accept fresh fruit and vegetables. Food pantries as well as food banks are an excellent point of distribution that will benefit many. Many local churches operate food pantries. I give my surplus to the South County Assistant Network (SCAN), which operates a food bank every Thursday and Saturday from 8am to noon at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2 near the intersection with Rt. 258 in Lothian.

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There may be a fungus in your soil

Every year, a number of readers complain that their garden did not produce as much as last year’s.
    If your garden is on poorly drained soil, you can blame some of the problem on wet feet. All vegetable-producing plants demand well-drained soils. Soils that tend to remain wet for several days after a hefty rain can cause roots to rot, thus reducing crop yields.
    Or your problem could be a fungus.
    If your garden is small and you are unable to rotate crops every year, there is a good possibility that certain fungi are accumulating, resulting in poor root growth. Four soil-borne diseases commonly affect roots: Fusarium, Pythium, Rhizoctinia and ­Phytophtora.
    The most effective method of preventing these diseases is to rotate where you plant crops each year. Crop rotation breaks the cycle.
    If your garden is too small to allow rotation, you can try any of three other methods of solving the problem of soil-borne diseases.
    One is to heat-sterilize the soil once every three years. In early July, rototill or spade the soil and moisten thoroughly before covering the area with a sheet of four-millimeter, clear plastic, sealing the edges to the ground. The clear plastic will create a greenhouse effect, causing a heat buildup sufficient to kill most of the disease-causing organisms. The plastic should remain in place well into early August. In addition to disease-causing organisms, most of the weed seeds and rhizomes will also be killed. However, this means that you will not be gardening on the third year.
    Another method of control is to incorporate, just before planting, a one-inch-thick layer of active compost like LeafGro, lobster compost or homemade compost from the previous year. Compost must be fresh for the naturally occurring beneficial organisms to neutralize the disease-causing organisms.
    The third method is to plant a cover crop of winter wheat or winter rye in late August, while tomatoes are still being harvested. The cover crop will also absorb residual nutrients, prevent soil erosion and improve the soil.
    Your cover crop must be actively decomposing before planting in the spring. The rapidly decomposing organic matter will promote the establishment of beneficial organisms that help control the disease-causing organisms.
    So next spring, you must keep the soil moist and rototill or spade the area two to three weeks before planting.
    Isn’t nature marvelous?

Harvest the Sweetest Corn
    If you like eating truly sweet, sweet corn, harvest the ears before the sun rises and refrigerate immediately. Better yet, dunk the ears in ice-cold water before placing them in the refrigerator.
    If you harvest sweet corn in the heat of the day, the kernels will be filled mostly with starch. During the heat of the day, the sugars in the kernels are converted to starch. The sugars produced in the leaves during the day are translocated to the kernels during the cool of the night.

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Lusby and Spooks

Lusby was so full of energy when we acquired her that I concluded she was nuclear-powered. Thus the name Lusby, for the location of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. The one thing she does not do much of is lie around doing nothing.
    Her breed has been identified as a North Carolina dog, a species with ties to the dingoes that crossed the Bering Strait with migrating humans, and she is very independent. She will not fetch for my wife Clara or me but will fetch for children who visit the farm to cut their own Christmas trees. If she remembers visitors from previous visits, she will show off by running at high speed in circles. She loves to ride in the back seat of my pick-up truck but will not ride with me in the golf cart.  
    A rescue dog from death row in Georgia, Lusby has become a true farm dog. She considers herself the guard of the farm. She has nearly eliminated the ground hogs and has helped reduce the rabbits that occasionally invade the garden. When large birds fly above the farm, she will run beneath them barking, which is her effort at keeping them airborne.
    She guards the farm by staying outside all night but lets us know by around 6am that it’s time for us to let her in so she can take a rest.

•   •   •
Spooks was a Norwegian forest cat who arrived at Upakrik Farm on Halloween night in 1995.  He scared Clara that night when he jumped seven feet two inches from the ground to the window ledge of the bathroom and his two green eyes stared at her as she brushed her hair.  He then jumped five feet from the bathroom window ledge  to the window ledge of our bedroom, where I fed him cat treats. As he was a stray, we did not allow him to enter the house that night. We fed him outdoors for several days until Clara let him inside. Upon entering the kitchen, he sat in front of the refrigerator, where my wife swears she heard him say milk.
    After spending several weeks searching for his owner without success, we adopted him. Soon Spooks became my cat and followed me around the farm, becoming a great mouser. He was also an acrobat. He climbed a tree every day, then came down head first like a squirrel.
    While I was replacing barn siding, Spooks studied the beam-and-rafter arrangements. The next thing I knew, he was meowing from a beam feet in front of me. I laid a plank between the roof, where I stood, and his beam so he could join me.  He then climbed to the peak of the barn roof, where he enjoyed the scenery.
    While I was cleaning gutters on the house, Spooks climbed the ladder and joined me on the roof.  As he stayed after I climbed down, I waited to see how he would come down. He came down the ladder one rung at a time, head first. We later learned that squirrel-like descent is a characteristic of a Norwegian forest cat.

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Crop rotation keeps you harvesting into winter

If you planted potatoes, you could already be harvesting. Since potatoes are grown in wide rows, the ground they occupied will be ideal for planting a fall crop of peas and snap beans.
    If you have harvested cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi, use the space vacated for okra. If you planted a spring and early-summer crop of snap beans, the free space can be used for planting fall and winter crops of carrots, beets, kale, collards, turnips, rutabaga, radishes and ­lettuce.
    Please note that the replacement crops are different from those planted in the spring. This practice, known as crop rotation, is a very effective means of minimizing disease problems.
    As soon as the first crop of sweet corn is harvested, consider planting large Ford Hook lima beans. Leave the corn stalks in place, with the lima bean seeds planted between them so the emerging seedlings will use the stalks to climb on, making the harvesting of the lima beans easier on the back. Lima beans grow best during the warmest part of summer.
    If you are not a fan of lima beans, consider using the area for growing cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi or radishes after the corn stalks have been removed. In place of pulling out the corn stalks, cut them down as close to the ground as possible and push the lawnmower over the stumps. Transplant the seedlings between every third or fourth stalk.
    Fall and winter vegetable crops absorb residual nutrients from the soil. Plants do not utilize all of the nutrients applied at planting time and as side dressing. Unless these nutrients are absorbed by the roots of plants, they will leach down into the groundwater. If you don’t plant a fall crop to absorb those residual nutrients, you should sow a cover crop of winter rye at the rate of three pounds per 1,000 square feet.
    Fall crops tend to be sweeter than spring and summer crops. The combination of warm days and cool nights promotes the translocation of and accumulation of sugars in the edible portions.
    Fall-grown peas can be harvested until the first killing frost. Carrots and beets can remain in the garden all winter long and harvested as needed providing the ground is not frozen hard. If you plant three different varieties of Brussels sprouts — such as Churchill, Oliver and Diablo — you can enjoy eating fresh Brussels sprouts from early October until January.
    To maintain the organic matter concentration in my garden soil, I sow winter rye between the rows in late September, before mid-October. The late planting of winter rye minimizes competition for water and nutrients and does not shade the crop but protects the soil from erosion and allows you to walk in the garden when the soil is wet without getting mud on your shoes.

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Get cutting to ensure big-flowering mums and azaleas

With all the rain we have received this year, azaleas and chrysanthemums have produced an abundance of new growth. If you want those plants to produce an abundance of flowers — this fall for chrysanthemums and next year for azaleas — get out your shears this week.
    Chrysanthemums are short-day plants, which means that they will start initiating flower buds around mid-August. Prune any later than this week, and they will produce fewer flowers, which will be smaller in size and on shorter stems. Later pruning won’t give the plants adequate time to generate new branches for flower buds to develop. For chrysanthemums, flower buds are not only developed at the ends of each stem, but also in the axil of the uppermost leaves.
    Azaleas generally stop producing new vegetative growth in mid- to late- August. As soon as the tops of the plants stop growing, they begin generating flower buds at the ends of every branch. If you wait to sheer azaleas in August, the plants will not have adequate time to produce new branches upon which flower buds can be produced. Since woody plants such as azaleas are slow to recover from being sheered, there needs to be sufficient time for them to produce two to three inches of new growth before initiating buds.
    When you prune, do it right. When cutting azaleas, always allow at least one, preferably two, inches of new growth to remain on the plant. If you sheer the top of the plant back to its original height, the new growth will have to originate from last year’s growth, which will result in fewer new branches for flower bud initiation. With one to two inches of new growth remaining on the plants, new branches will emerge from the axils of the existing leaves, resulting in more dense foliage with many branches upon which flower buds can grow and flower next spring.

Footnote for Azaleas
    If your azaleas lost most of their lower leaves last winter, you may wish to apply ammonium sulfate fertilizer after the first killing frost this fall. The loss of lower leaves is a clear indication that the plants are not absorbing sufficient ammonium nitrogen. Pruning will result in a greater need for ammonium nitrogen because there will be many more branches and flower buds to feed. By fertilizing with ammonium sulfate after the first killing frost, you will have not only healthier looking plants in the spring but also a greater abundance of flowers.

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What you’ll gain (and lose) — plus how to get started

Growing vegetables in raised beds is highly recommended when there is limited space, or if your soil does not drain well or is stony. But to be successful, the selected site needs at least eight to 10 hours of full sun if your intent is to grow tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, eggplants, squash, cucumbers and snap beans. With less than eight hours of direct sun, you will be limited to growing lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli and kale.
    Raised beds give you the advantages of good drainage, additional growing space and easier management because you have less bending. There are disadvantages, too: having to irrigate more frequently, higher summer soil temperature, colder fall and spring soil temperatures and problems using power equipment such as tillers.
    A common mistake in establishing raised beds is using commercial potting blends, which are engineered for growing plants in pots and small pans. These shallow containers allow water to accumulate at the bottom, in a perched water table, within reach of the roots. Because commercial potting blends are rich in organic matter and porous materials, they have a high air-filled pore space, which does not make for good water retention. This means having to irrigate and fertilize frequently to obtain a desirable crop. The combination of higher growing media temperatures and low water-holding capacity demands frequent irrigations. More frequent irrigations result in a greater loss of nutrients as water moves through the soil.
    You’ll do better by manufacturing your own soil by purchasing subsoil containing 50 to 60 percent sand. Do not purchase topsoil, for it will be full of weed seeds and live roots of perennial weeds. Subsoil, the layer beneath, the topsoil, is relatively free of weed seeds and roots. Blend the subsoil with one-third by volume of compost if your raised beds are a foot or less in height. If the raised beds are deeper than a foot, fill to within three inches of the top edge and cover the soil with a two-inch-thick layer of compost. Spade or rototill the compost into the upper six inches of soil.
    Regardless of which method you use to fill the raised bed, allow at least two weeks before taking soil samples for testing. Since most subsoils tend to be acidic, most likely it will be necessary to add limestone, but without soil test results, the exact amount cannot be estimated.
    If your interest is in organic gardening, top-dress each year with a one-inch-thick-layer of compost prior to spading or tilling in the spring. Compost has a mineralization rate between 10 and 12 percent, which is essential to maintain a proper nutrient level for the garden to be productive. The mineralization rate is highly dependent upon soil temperature, and raised beds have a higher soil temperature than gardens.
    For conventional gardeners, follow the recommendations on the fertilizer bag. Commercial fertilizers tend to be acidic, so your soil should be tested every three to four years. Apply additional compost at least once every three to four years when using conventional gardening practices. Organic particles in compost deteriorate with time, and you are seeking to maintain a three to five percent level of organic matter for carefree gardening.

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