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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

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.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


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

Since plastic leaf bags aren’t biodegradable, their residue will remain in the soil for eternity

Use wet-strength paper bags in place of plastic bags for curbside yard debris collection: That’s the plea of the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works.
    I wish the county would make that mandatory, as it has been for residents of Montgomery County since the yard-waste composting program started in the early 1980s. Paper bags compost, while plastic bags have to be ruptured and emptied before composting can begin. Furthermore, the emptied plastic bags — plus some of the contents — have to be dumped into landfills, thus adding to our critical landfill problems.
    Rupturing and emptying plastic bags in large quantities is costly, time consuming and results in shards of plastic becoming part of the finished compost. The equipment is costly and frequently becomes clogged with shredded plastic, requiring down time. Screening the finished compost removes much of the shredded plastic, but there’s always enough remaining in the compost to lower the quality of its appearance. Since black plastic bags are not biodegradable, the residue will remain in the soil for eternity.
    If you compare LeafGro made at the Dickerson composting facility in Montgomery County with the same product made at the Western Branch composting facility in Upper Marlboro, you’ll see the difference. The Montgomery County LeafGro has a uniform rich brown color and smooth texture, while that made in Prince George’s County has shredded black and sometimes white plastic scattered throughout.
    There are other advantages to using wet-strength paper bags. They cost less, are made from recycled paper and cardboard, fold flat, are easy to store and are environmentally friendly.
    Better yet, compost your leaves and put them to work for you as soon as they fall.

Use Leaves for Mulch and Compost
    If you have a leaf blower, use it to mulch by blowing fallen leaves under the branches of your shrubs, hedges and other woody plantings.
    I’ve just gotten my first leaf blower, from daughter Bonnie who thought all of this leaf raking was getting to be too much for old dad. At first, I felt insulted that she wanted to deprive me of good energy-burning exercise. However, on revving up the Stihl blower, I discovered that it was perfect for blowing leaves under my azaleas, hollies and red-top. In the past, I spent hours pushing leaves with a rake under these very same plants. With the blower, I moved twice as many leaves in minutes.
    Leaves are the perfect mulch. They cost nothing and neither alter the pH of the soil nor release toxic levels of manganese, as does hardwood bark mulch. A good deep layer of leaf mulch over the soil will delay its freezing, thus making more water available to the roots. Leaves provide essential plant nutrients upon decomposition, suffocate weeds because they can be piled higher and deeper than bark or wood mulches, do not compete with the roots of ornamentals for nutrients and are dependably available every fall. Mother Nature has been mulching her gardens with leaves for eons.
    I have never in my life purchased a bag of mulch. I have always depended on using the leaves that have fallen from my own trees and shrubs. I’ve also saved the county government money by collecting my neighbors’ leaves and using them. It has always bothered me to see homeowners place bags and bags of leaves at the curb each fall, then in spring bring home bales of peat moss, compost and mulch to use on their landscapes.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Do your soil and yourself a favor; work easy

Don’t pull out those dead annual flowers; hit them down with the lawnmower.
    Don’t spade or rototill the flower garden, either, because you destroy precious organic matter and risk plow-pan, a compacted layer of soil formed by the plow or rototiller blade.  This compacted layer prevents roots from penetrating deeper into the soil and leads to poor drainage, thus making plants less drought-resistant.
    I have not spaded or rototilled my flower garden for at least 15 years, and it gets better every year. Organic matter accumulates in soil that is not disturbed, which is why more and more farmers are adopting no-till farming practices. No-till uses less energy and increases the organic matter concentration in the soil, reducing the amount of fertilizer needed to produce a crop. No-til also reduces problems associated with plow-pan. 
    Clean up your flower garden by setting your lawnmower to cut at the highest setting and mow the plants, covering the soil with a layer of natural mulch. The stubs of the mowed plants will catch leaves fallen from nearby trees. This natural layer of mulch will smother out winter weeds so that next spring, all you need to do is plant through the mulch. By not spading or rototilling every year, gardening becomes less time consuming, requiring less energy. And you will have fewer weeds to contend with.
    However, if you have a large vegetable garden and follow crop-rotation to minimize disease problems, spading and rototilling the soil is still necessary.
    After removing crop residue, till the soil as deeply as possible and immediately plant a cover crop of winter rye. Winter rye is an excellent scavenger crop that absorbs all available nutrients until the ground freezes. Winter rye also produces an abundance of lignins, organic fibers that resist decomposition, leave your soil friable and help in maintaining a healthy organic matter content.
    Come spring, mow the winter rye as close to the ground as possible before rototilling the soil to a depth no greater than three inches. Shallow tilling is all you need to kill the winter rye for preparing the seedbed. By shallow tilling, you will not only conserve soil moisture but you will also be reducing plow-pan and its problems.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.