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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

Put yourself in its place

Oh, the stories I’ve heard of abuse to cactus. I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings in plant clinics where people wheel in large barrel or drum cacti with decaying centers. Often water was oozing from the bottom where it had begun to rot. One elderly lady arrived in a chauffeured limousine. She sent the chauffeur inside to bring me out to examine her plant, a three-foot-tall Saguaro cactus. Before she would allow me to examine her cactus, she requested my credentials.
    My first question to her, and to the other cacti owners I advised, was where the plant was kept at home. Most often, I was told, in the middle of the living room.
    Where do cacti grow? The desert.
    Cacti growing as houseplants need to reside in an area with full sun.
    Cacti are succulents and store large amounts of water in their cells. Because the epidermal layer is thick between the spikes and covered with a chitin like material, they lose little water by evaporation. In the home, most cacti should not be watered more than once a month and should only be fed with a liquid fertilizer once a year.
    They’ll need repotting every four to five years. The soil can be made by blending 10 percent garden soil with 90 percent sandbox or builders sand. To each cubic foot of cacti soil, add one-half cup of agricultural limestone and blend thoroughly. Heat garden soil at 200 degrees for one hour to kill weeds, insects and worms or grubs.
    Because most cacti have sharp spines, they are dangerous. To handle them, crumble many sheets of newspaper into large, tight balls. Put the paper balls over the spines, pressing firmly into place until you can no longer feel the sharp ends.
    To remove a cactus from its pot, slide a long sharp knife along the inner side the container and the root ball. Tip the container on its side and slide out the root ball. If the root ball does not slide easily, strike the bottom of the container with a rubber hammer or with a two-inch-thick board cushioning a carpentry hammer to prevent breakage.
    The new container should be at least three inches larger in diameter than the old and one to two inches deeper. Measure the depth of the original root ball and add soil to raise the top of the root ball to within one inch from the top of the pot. Stand the plant upright and lift into the middle of the new container. Wear thick gloves and get your hold on paper, not spikes. Use your repotting mix to partially fill the space between the root ball and the wall of the new container. Then wash the new soil into place with a steady stream of water. Add more prepared soil and water until the new soil is level with the top of the root ball.
    For large cacti, repotting will require several hours of intensive labor.


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

It’s time to start onions and peppers

Onion and pepper seeds are slow to germinate and slow in their early stage of seedling growth. So if you’re growing them from seed, you want an early start. Now’s the time.
    Sow the seeds in a sterile potting mix rather than garden soil to avoid sprouting weeds and contaminating your seedlings with soil-borne diseases. Fill the pots a half-inch from the top. Tap the pot on a bench several times to eliminate air pockets. Firm the potting mix by pressing three or four fingers across the top of the mix. Sprinkle the seeds across the smooth surface, and lightly cover with fresh potting mix. Use a rose bulb or a fine sprinkler to lightly moisten the potting mix until you see water dripping from the bottom of the pot.
    Germinate these seeds in total darkness at constant temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees. How to get those conditions?
    Once excess water has drained from the bottom of the pot, cover the top with plastic and put it on top of the fridge or near the furnace where temperatures are relatively constant. Check the pots daily to make certain that the potting mix does not dry. Moisten accordingly.
    Onion plants grow in their original pots until it’s time to move them into the garden. Sow their seeds a quarter- to a half-inch apart to give them room to produce thick stems and larger root systems to better survive transplant. Sown closer than one-quarter inch apart, onion seeds will grow thin and spindly seedlings too weak to survive transplant in the garden. To accommodate a good population of seeds, use a six- to eight-inch diameter pot three to four inches deep.
    Pepper seeds can be sown closer together because you’ll transplant the individual seedlings into separate pots as soon as their true leaves appear. The first leaf-like growths are not leaves but cotyledons that provide energy for germination and early growth. Do not transplant the seedlings until you see true leaves.  
    Using a pencil or other object, lift each seedling from the potting mix. Grasp the seedling only by the cotyledon. Grabbing the stem or leaves may harm the plant, but the cotyledons are temporary and will separate from the plant under the shade of the leaves.
    To produce strong, healthy plants for your garden, transplant into four-inch pots in the same potting mix the seeds were sown in.
    Check the potting mix bag to see if it contains added nutrients. If nutrients have been added and if compost is part of the blend, water the pepper seedlings until the excess drips from the bottom of the pots.
    If the mix is free of nutrients or compost, add half the amount of water-soluble fertilizer recommended by the manufacturer. Fertilize at the full rate as soon as active growth begins.
    The amount of nutrients generally added to potting mixes is adequate for approximately one month. After that, use a liquid fertilizer as recommended by the manufacturer.
    Give the young the plants full sun. Check daily to maintain proper moisture.


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

Small gardens can yield big rewards

Short on space or sun but longing for your own fresh vegetables? You can garden with as little as a square foot of space. Dwarf varieties of vegetables grow successfully in limited space, including planter boxes. You can find them in the seed catalogs arriving by mail this time of year.
    Small or not, all vegetables need full sun. For that, no amount of fertilizer can substitute. So watch where the sun falls now, remembering that in full summer it will take a more northerly path. When you find your sweet spot, let its space dictate your garden size.
    When planning, double-cropping will maximize your growing space. For instance, Bibb lettuce and green onions can grow together. In one square foot of space, you can grow four Bibb lettuce plants and eight green onions planted between the lettuces. As soon as you harvest the lettuce, be ready to plant more. As the season will have advanced, this time choose Summer Time lettuce. This variety is heat tolerant, but because it grows larger than Bibb lettuce, only two plants can be grown in one square foot of space.
    You can grow one miniature cabbage plant and eight radishes in a single square foot. The radishes will be ready for harvest in 24 to 30 days, leaving plenty of room for the cabbage to grow.
    Also available in miniature form are bush-type cucumbers and summer squashes. Hot pepper plants by nature tend to be small and highly productive.
    A small-space garden can also have tomatoes. Cluster varieties produce an abundance of fruit in a limited amount of space. The Tiny Tim variety takes up little room in a garden and produces excellent fruit.
    If you yearn for snap beans, consider growing pole beans. Grow them on a trellis, but make sure bean leaves don’t shade the rest of your vegetables. To ensure they don’t block sunlight to other foliage, plant beans on the north side of your garden or make use of a nearby wall using coarse string for them to climb.
    Little Marvel is a delicious shelling pea that grows only 18 inches tall and produces well. I have even seen it grown in flower boxes with the vines hanging down, loaded with pods.
    Whatever you choose to grow, gardens in a limited space need well-prepared soil. A blend of equal parts compost and gardening soil will provide approximately 50 percent of the nutrient requirements. To maintain the soil, supplement with fertilizers at two- to three-week intervals. For container gardens, add about 25 percent sand by volume to the soil mixture for proper drainage.
    Keep your small garden properly irrigated. Water well and deep, avoiding daily watering except in wilting sun.


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

Here’s how I know which to trust

In winter’s grip, there is nothing like a good nursery and seed catalog, full of colorful pictures of thriving plants, to put you in the mood for digging in the soil. These books may even encourage you to build a small greenhouse or hot bed to get started early.
    Which is why mailboxes fill up with seed and nursery catalogs this time of year.
    I receive many more catalogs than I keep because I discard those with altered images or illustrations to describe what they have to offer.
    There’s a difference between an honest-to-goodness nursery or seed producer and the books sent by wholesale distributors. Most wholesale distributors publish thin-paper catalogs full of pictures that have been enhanced using intensive colored ink or have colorful illustrations of plants and fruit. They also tend to run specials such as two to three plants for the price of one or two to three packets of seeds for the price of one.
    On the other hand, a quality nursery or seed catalog business will most often provide a business history, including location and the number of family generations involved. They will also include information on breeding and propagating practices and photographs of their fields and staff. Most of this type of information is missing in catalogs of wholesale distributors.
    Did you know that by law, catalogs that advertise plants must include in the ad the scientific Latin name of the plant, including genus and species. This is because the English name of plants can change from one part of the country to another, while the Latin name never changes.
    I save good seed and nursery catalogs for at least three years, using older ones as references. All nursery and seed catalogs have sensational new introductions every year, most often posted on the first few pages. To learn if the variety has survived the test of time, I locate the new and improved variety that appeared three years earlier and see if it appears in the 2016 catalog. If I find that variety in the 2016 catalog with even more glorious description, I know that it has gained good reviews and they are bragging. If the description has not changed, it means that the variety is still under study.
    Seed and nursery companies are in business for making money. Their intent is to offer only what sells. Since thousands of dollars are spent in developing new varieties, they cannot afford to carry varieties that do not sell.


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

Give them light, but go easy on water and fertilizer

In winter’s short daylight hours and cooler temperatures, houseplants require less watering and fertilizing. But they don’t want to be neglected. In winter and early spring, give plants as much light as possible. Even placing them near a lit lamp during evening hours will help considerably in keeping good health. Incandescent bulbs consume more energy, but because they emit red light waves that can be absorbed by the chlorophyll in the leaves, they are better for plants than LED or florescent bulbs.
    Fertilize at least monthly at half concentration. Follow the watering rule when you apply liquid fertilizer, adding enough water so that some drains from the bottom of the container.
    Poor watering is a problem I see often in troubled houseplants. Frequently, only the upper half of the root ball appears to have been watered. The lower half is as dry as the Sahara Desert.  Often, there is a visible line of fertilizer salts accumulating between the wet and dry regions with concentrations sufficient to burn roots in the fertilizer zone.
    Never apply slow-release fertilizers in fall or winter, as they are engineered to release their nutrients during active growth. Adding slow-release fertilizers now will likely cause fertilizer burn as they release nutrients faster because the soil is constantly at room temperature during this period of low light intensity and poor growing conditions.
    Don’t put African violets near a window. African violets perform best in diffused light and near-constant temperatures. In windows, the plants are exposed to cooler temperatures in the evening and warmer temperatures during daylight hours. Unlike many plants that would benefit from such a temperature change, African violets will cease to flower and may even exhibit cold damage on the foliage. Place them in the middle of a well-lighted room for more constant temperatures.


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

What will happen come May?

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


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

A healthy garden for a healthy life

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


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

Turns out the jolly old elf is a ­gardener himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as in making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring.
    Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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