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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

Not all Christmas trees are equal

Not all evergreen trees are equally fire-resistant. The Douglas fir is the most fire-resistant tree, while the popular Fraser fir is the most combustible. Freshness has nothing to do with this comparison. Douglas fir is a low-resin tree, while Fraser fir is a high-resin tree. As the tree dries, the resin becomes highly combustible.
    Assuring that your Christmas tree is a fire-safe tree begins with selecting the right tree. The State of Maryland fire marshal has declared that the most fire-resistant species are Douglas fir, Colorado spruce and Scots pine. This conclusion is based on studies conducted in 1995 and 1996, using fresh-cut trees stored in water prior to igniting.
    Your next consideration after species should be freshness. The sooner after cutting you purchase that tree — if you care for it properly — the more fire-resistant it will be. For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot. Or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in November or even late October.
    As soon as you purchase the tree, cut at least one inch from the base of the trunk and dunk the stem immediately into a pail of 100-degree water. Store the tree in a shaded area.
    When you bring the tree indoors, cut off another inch of from the base, and place the stem into a clean tree stand that will hold at least one gallon of water. Adding floral preservative to the water assures a longer shelf-life, which makes the tree more fire-resistant — providing you always maintain a constant water level.
    Avoid placing the tree near a heat register or radiator, and use only UL-approved lights in good condition. Never leave a lighted tree without supervision. Finally, don’t extend your holiday too long. If you wait for the tree to start dropping needles before removing it from your home, you’re housing a fire hazard.


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Give a little, get a lot

The vegetable gardening season does not end with the first killing frost. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, snap beans and lettuce may have been killed by the first frost. But if you are an avid gardener, kale, collards, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts should still be growing.
    If you planted Brussels sprouts in late July or early August, you should be cutting off the tops of the plants now to force the sprouts along the stems to increase in size. Cutting off the tops stops the plant from growing taller, thus forcing them to direct their energy into growing larger sprouts.
    Follow this practice and your plants will produce nice large sprouts from bottom to top. If the tops are not cut off, you will have small sprouts at the top of the stem and large sprouts at the bottom. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts will be ready to start harvesting just before Thanksgiving.
    Peas will continue producing flowers and pods until the plants are killed by temperatures below 28 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower will only exhibit minimum frost damage at those temperatures. Collards, kale and spinach can tolerate even colder temperatures.
    If you sowed carrots back in July, your harvest will be sweet and tasty. There is nothing like eating freshly harvested carrots during late fall and winter months. Parsnips sowed in the spring will not be ready to harvest until mid-winter, if the ground has not frozen, or early next spring, when they will be at their best. Steamed, stir-fried or ground and blended with egg and flour, there is nothing tastier than spring-dug parsnips.
    The asparagus ferns should by now have all turned brown and be ready to cut, chopped and added to the compost bin. However, avoid composting asparagus plants with red berries clinging to the stems. Those red berries contain seeds that will germinate and quickly become a weed when you spread the compost in your garden.
    If you have not already sowed a cover crop of winter rye where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, snap beans grew during the summer, do it now. Winter rye is the most effective plant to absorb available nutrients in the soil, stop the soil from eroding by wind or water, prevent winter weeds from growing and help in keeping your garden soil fertile. Not all of the nutrients you applied as fertilizer or compost have been utilized by the crop you just finished growing. A cover crop will absorb those nutrients, storing them in the roots and leaves.
    Next spring when you spade or rototill the rye under, the nutrients will be released back into the soil and used by next season’s crops. The incorporation of the cover crop back into the soil helps maintain the organic matter content of your garden soil. A good garden soil should have an excess of three percent organic matter.
    Never allow your soil to remain fallow. Soils that remain fallow contribute to water pollution problems.


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Dig deep for tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulbs

If you want big flowers and more flowers from your bulbs next spring, plant them now. If you wait until the ground starts to freeze, you’ll see smaller flowers and short stems.
    Spring-flowering bulbs can initiate flower buds only if they undergo different stages of cooling. The bulbs you plant this fall have not yet initiated a flower bud internally. If you were to plant that bulb in a flowerpot and grow it in your home or greenhouse, it would grow — but it would not likely flower. Or it would produce a very small, distorted flower. Tulips, narcissus, daffodils, hyacinths and so on can produce a normal flower only after several developmental stages.
    A second reason for planting now: The more roots the bulb can produce before the flower bud development starts, the better.
    Since our springs are so warm, we are not in a good area for growing spring bulbs that flower year after year without losing flower size and quality. To prolong the life of your bulbs, plant them deep, where the soil will remain cooler longer. This means planting tulip, narcissus, daffodils and hyacinths with the tops of the bulbs at least six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. It is best to dig the hole at least 10 inches deep and place a two-inch-thick layer of compost on the bottom before positioning the bulbs. If you are planting the bulbs in groups, place the flat side of the bulbs against the outside wall so that the leaves will droop outward, improving the appearance of the planting.
    Do not put sand in the bottom of the hole. The Dutch plant in a layer of sand so the bulbs can easily be cleaned for exporting, as required by law.
    After planting, cover the bulbs with a blend of equal parts soil and compost. The compost-amended soil will not only feed the bulbs for several years but also will allow easy penetration of the leaves and flower stems through the soil.
    If you are having problems with moles, chipmunks or squirrels eating your bulbs, plant a ring of mothballs inside the circle of bulbs but just below the surface of the soil. The mothballs should not make contact with the bulbs or stems. If deer are a problem in the spring, consider sprinkling granular RepellAll around each bulb planting. The deer repellent should be applied at three-week intervals until the foliage has died back.
    Next spring, do not allow the flowers to set seed if you want your bulbs to flower again the following year. The flowers should be removed as soon as they wilt by simply pinching them off. Leave the stem to die back to the ground. Do not roll or braid the foliage if you intend your bulbs to flower again. Rolling or braiding will prevent the foliage from replenishing the bulbs with the food they need.


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Treat yellow-green leaves with ­compost or fertilizer

If your hollies are heavily loaded with berries this fall, most likely the foliage will turn yellow-green, downgrading the contrast with the red berries. It takes a lot of energy and nutrients for plants to produce fruit. This is especially true if the branches are heavily laden with large clusters. Heavy-fruiting hollies generally appear chlorotic. This problem can be corrected by applying a nitrogen-rich mulch such as lobster compost, chicken manure compost or lawn fertilizer between the trunk of the plant and the drip line. For hollies, this treatment should be applied now and the trees irrigated weekly until early December.
    If the plants have had pale green foliage all summer long, they most likely are deficient in magnesium. Without soil test results to confirm this diagnosis, I often recommend spreading one-third cup of epsom salts per 10 square feet. Magnesium deficiency is not an uncommon problem with hollies laden with bright red berries.
    Boxwoods that appear yellow-green in the fall often experience excessive leaf drop due to nitrogen deficiency. If the winter is especially severe, many boxwoods will also exhibit bronzing. Both of these symptoms can be prevented by fertilizing the plants soon after the first frost. Applying one-half cup of a lawn fertilizer for every three feet in height or spread is generally adequate. Make certain that you use only a lawn fertilizer that does not contain weed killers. Apply the fertilizer uniformly beneath the drip line of the branches. Since boxwoods are very shallow-rooted, they will quickly respond to the treatment.
    Azalea are also susceptible to early fall discoloration and loss of leaves. Roots are unable to provide sufficient nitrogen for flower-bud development. As a result, nitrogen from the lower leaves migrates upward to the developing flower bud at the tip of the branches. Chlorosis of the bottom leaves is very common on white-flowering azaleas because they flower in abundance. This problem can be solved by mulching them with either Maine Lobster Compost, compost made from crab waste or ammonium sulfate fertilizer. If using ammonium sulfate fertilizer, apply only one tablespoon per two feet of height or spread of the azalea plants. Apply the ammonium sulfate mostly under the drip line of the branches.


What’s Killing My Spruce?

Q    I have a 50-year-old spruce tree that is dying from the bottom up. What would cause this (just old age?) and is there anything that can be done to save it? Thanks for your advice. I love Bay Weekly.

–Mary Jane Gibson, Lothian

A    It is not old age because spruce trees can live 100 years or more. Which spruce is it — Norway, white, black, red, Colorado, Engelmann, Siberian, etc.?  Look at the ground under the branches for holes about the size of a silver dollar. If you see such holes, it is possible that pine mice are girdling the roots. If so, you have to kill the pine mice with poison bait for mice (available at the hardware store). If the trunk is bleeding sap, then the tree is infested with cankers. Or the tree may be suffering from weed killers if you have used them on your lawn.


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Three steps to keep them happy indoors

Some houseplants have to be repotted every six months, while others can stay put for two or three years. Frequency of repotting also depends on container size, quality of care, productivity of the rooting medium and frequency of nutrient applications. Annuals — such as grape ivy, begonias and marigolds — have very vigorous habits of growth and should be repotted at least twice yearly. Foliage plants such as ficus, schefflera and crotons tend to grow slowly and can be left alone for a year or two, depending on the age of the plant and container size.

Step 1: If root-bound, repot
    As you move houseplants in for the winter, check first whether they are root-bound. Knock the plant out of its container, holding the still-potted plant with your fingers on each side of the stem, then turning it upside-down amd rapping the top of the container sharply on the edge of a solid table or bench, dislodging the root ball. If it is covered with a solid mat of roots, the plant is root-bound.
    To stimulate root-bound plants to produce new roots, take a sharp knife, and make four or five cuts through the root mat from the top to the bottom of the root ball. Using your fingers, loosen as many roots as possible, and shake out old rooting medium from the center of the ball.
    Unless the roots of a root-bound plant are disturbed during repotting, the plant will stay root-bound despite having fresh rooting medium and a bigger container.
    If using a larger container is not feasible, apply the bonsai root-pruning practice, cutting out one-third of the root mat to allow new roots room to grow.

Step 2: Use active potting soil
    Repot into freshly blended potting medium. Try this recipe: Mix equal parts by volume garden soil (less for plastic or ceramic pots), compost and perlite. Place in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so that it will remain moist.
    Or improve commercial media by adding one-third by volume compost such as LeafGro. Peat moss-blended media shrink over time; avoid them.
    If you have old potting medium, whether homemade or purchased, make sure it is biologically active. Old potting soil that has been allowed to dry out and remain bone dry for months is biologically dead. To make old dried-out potting medium usable, moisten and blend it with either fresh compost or new potting medium.
    Add all the old rooting medium to your compost pile.
    Place some fresh potting medium in the bottom of the container. Replace the plant, adding and tapping down more medium as you go. Using your thumbs, press the rooting medium firmly into the center of the root ball and between the root ball and the walls of the container.
    Leave a half-inch free space between the top of the root ball and the top edge of the container for proper watering. Finally, bounce the bottom of the container sharply on a hard surface so that the loose potting medium fills in the voids.

Step 3: Water generously
    As soon as you finish potting, flood the surface with water several times until you see excess water flow from the bottom of the container. This washes the medium into cavities around the roots. After the water drains, fill with additional medium. Allow to drain thoroughly before bringing inside.
    A later column will explain indoor watering.


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Just a little care will do it

This summer, I harvested my biggest crop of garlic ever, with my elephant garlic the size of a baseball. I attribute my success to incorporating an inch-thick layer of compost just before planting, mulching the garlic with Maine Lobster Compost just before the ground froze and giving the garlic plenty of room to grow. I planted elephant garlic in a six-by-six-inch spacing and the Italian garlic in a four-by-six-inch spacing. Come summer, I stopped hoeing the weeds as soon as the foliage was sufficiently dense to shade the ground.
    Plant your garlic before November here in southern Maryland. If you have not had your soil tested in the past three years, do. The pH of the soil must be between 6.0 and 6.5 with five percent organic matter and medium to optimum levels of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and boron. Even with five percent organic matter, spade a one-inch-thick layer of your homemade compost or LeafGro into the soil just prior to planting.
    I had problems purchasing garlic bulbs from seed catalogs. In recent years I purchase my garlic bulbs from large grocery stores where you can select firm and well-developed bulbs. Grasp the bulbs and squeeze them gently. If they feel spongy, keep selecting until you have bulbs that feel firm and solid.
    Separate the cloves, making certain that the basal plate is not damaged. Each elephant bulb should give you five or six firm cloves. Using a trowel or a dibble, plant elephant garlic cloves at least six inches below the surface of the ground and Italian or German garlic four inches deep. Rake the soil while filling the holes, and irrigate well. Until new leaves appear above ground, irrigate only once weekly. When the foliage is close to a foot tall, mulch with your homemade compost, Maine Lobster Compost or compost made from crab waste. Maine Lobster Compost used as a mulch is free of weeds as compared to homemade compost.
    Compost made from lobster or crab is high in nitrogen, which is slowly released. This is especially important come next spring when plants are growing. The slow-release nitrogen means that every time you water in the spring, the roots are being supplied with nutrients from the compost. If you mulch with your own homemade compost, I suggest that you apply either an organic or chemical fertilizer as soon as the plants resume growth.
    Next spring, take great care when weeding with an onion hoe. Avoid any contact between the steel of the hoe and the stems of the garlic. To control grasses, I apply Preen at about the time forsythia drops its flowers. Pigweed, lambs-quarters, oxalis and clover will have to removed by hand.


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Water now or expect poor fall color — and a killing winter

This year’s dry late summer and early fall will put a damper on foliage colors. Don’t expect a long, lingering colorful fall. Many trees are already dropping their leaves due to the drought conditions we are experiencing. There is even premature coloration in the foliage of red maple, dogwoods and sweet gum.
    Much of the early leaf drop can be attributed to the buckets of rain we had during the early parts of summer when trees generated an abundance of growth. Many deciduous tree species produced two and three flushes of growth, resulting in a super abundance of lush green leaves.
    Now that the water has been turned off, the roots are unable to meet the demands of so much foliage, and the trees drop their leaves. Leaves often turn brown just before dropping, but green leaves are also dropping. Sycamore and maple trees are often exhibiting marginal necrosis with the center of the leaves remaining green. Older leaves show the most symptoms.
    If you planted trees and shrubs in your landscape during the past two years, you should be irrigating them thoroughly each week this fall to assure their survival next spring. If they don’t absorb sufficient water this fall, they are likely to experience bark splitting or winter dieback in the spring.
    Woody plants absorb most of their water for winter survival during September and October. If there is insufficient water beneath the bark and near the roots, the bark facing south will likely split or flake off. You need to make certain that the soil surrounding the roots is moist before the ground freezes. Wet soils freeze slower than dry soils, and woody trees and shrubs can absorb water from the soil until the ground freezes. Wet soils don’t freeze as deep as dry soils. So don’t stop watering now.


What to Do When No Grass Grows

Q    Eight days ago, lawn thatched, I aerated, put down lime, fertilizer, fescue seed and straw on bare spots.
    Now, no sign of grass growth.
    Is it too late to scratch what seems to be impacted soil and reseed? We have some 70- to 80-degree weather coming up. But I will be gone next weekend, so watering each day would be a problem.
    I have worked hard and long. My stomach dropped at not seeing new grass come up! How can I save it? Or do I chalk it up, $200 down the drain, as another learning experience and do nothing until next fall?

–Ruth Gross, Bowie

A    If you can’t push a shovel into the soil to a depth of four inches, it means that the soil is too compacted to grow grass. If you can push a shovel into the soil, cover the area with an inch-thick layer of Leafgro and spade it lightly into the upper inch of soil. Then spread new seed evenly over the soil, and rake the seed into the compost-amended soil. Water well: until you see standing water on the surface. Now spread a thin layer of straw over the area. The compost blended with the soil will keep the soil moist for up to four days while you are gone, allowing the seeds to germinate and grass to grow.


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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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