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Good for laughs but not much else

Here’s my short list of useless gadgetry to avoid as you shop for the gardeners on your holiday list. I found them in the gardening catalogues now arriving in the mail.
    Bulb planters are a gadget I find useless. Instructions with such tools recommend that tulip, narcissus and hyacinth bulbs be planted six inches deep. Most topsoil layers are often less that six inches thick, which means that by following such instructions you are planting bulbs on subsoil. Subsoils are low in nutrients, tend to be acid and often compacted. It is no wonder most bulb crops planted with bulb planters survive only a season.
    There is no substitute for digging a 12-inch-deep planting bed for bulbs, amending the subsoil with compost, adjusting the pH to near 6.5 and planting bulbs with their tops six inches below the soil surface.
    Fertilizer tree spikes may sound like a good idea, but their effectiveness is questionable. We tested these spikes without measuring any benefit to the trees. However, we did observe tufts of lush green grass growing around each spike.
    When you drive a fertilizer tree spike into the ground, you compress the soil around the spike, thus limiting root growth because roots will not penetrate soils with compaction of 85 percent.
    There is no substitute for augering holes four to six inches in diameter and 10 inches deep at two- to three-foot intervals and filling the holes with compost. Start from five to 10 feet from the tree trunk and extend beyond the drip line.
    Compost starters are another waste of money. Any good garden soil contains all the microorganisms essential for inoculating a compost bin. Compost from an active compost pile also makes a good compost starter. I have found that most compost starters are dry. If used as directed, they will require a month or more for the microorganisms to become active. They function best when moistened and stored at room temperature for three to four weeks before mixing them in the new compost pile.
    The Aqua Farm Hydroponic Fish Food Tank tickled my funny bone, but that’s about all it is good for. Growing plants on top of an aquarium won’t work. It is impossible for fish to generate all of the nutrients plants need. Fish feces is very low in nitrogen because fish use most of the nitrogen from their food. A Deale fish farm tried this concept with no luck. The only way fish can contribute to the growth of plants is after they die and are composted. Native Americans grew gardens by burying dead fish in the soil before planting their crops.
    As a scientist who has worked with soils and plants for more than 60 years, I find it hard to believe that a $50 piece of electronic equipment can provide sufficient information needed to grow plants. In this case I am referring to the 4-way Soil pH, Moisture, Fertilizer and Light Meter. This instrument has three prongs you insert in the soil to obtain all this information. Its single probe three-way analyzer will supposedly provide you with soil pH, fertility and temperature. Also amusing are the manufacturer’s instructions.
    Roots spread out well beyond the stems of plants. They travel the path of least resistance, branching and clustering when they find an area rich in organic matter and nutrients.  Studies on the root distribution of tomato plants have demonstrated that a single root may extend 15 feet from the base of the stem, penetrating as deep as 20 inches.
    No gadget can replace taking good soil samples and having your soil analyzed by a reputable soil-testing laboratory such as A&L Eastern Laboratories.
    Skip the VegiBee Garden Pollinator, too. Unless you are growing greenhouse tomatoes, there is no need for either the single- or five-speed variety. Tomatoes growing outdoors are self-pollinated by the wind shaking the plant. In the greenhouse, where there is no wind, the single-speed pollinator model will do the same job as the five-speed model at half the price. It is a waste of money purchasing one of these for growing tomatoes in the garden regardless of the claims made by the manufacturer.
    Nor should you fall for the red Tomato Crater for growing softball-sized tomatoes. Research has demonstrated that mulching tomato plants with red plastic will increase yields because of red light reflecting back to the foliage. Red light has long been recognized for enhancing plant growth. However, I find it hard to believe that a disc 11.5 inches in diameter can reflect much red light once it is shaded by the foliage of the plant. Furthermore, the disc does little to conserve soil moisture as compared to the red plastic mulch.
    Next month, I’ll report on useful garden gifts.

Tundra swans return to Chesapeake Country

“The first tundra swans of the season have arrived in Columbia Cove, Shady Side.” Randy Kiser‎ posted the news on Bay Weekly’s Facebook page on Thursday, Dec. 13, documenting their arrival with this photo.
    Two mornings later I saw the snow-white birds at Fairhaven marsh pond, three on Saturday, then eight on Sunday.
    Swanfall is Bay chronicler Tom Horton’s word for this moment in time, coined for his 1991 book with photographer Harp: Journey of the Tundra Swans. “The birds seem almost to drop from the sky,” he writes.
    They do drop upon us, suddenly here. Some time in March, they will leave us. Last year their going was late, after the osprey had made their March 17 arrival. Their going is never quite such a surprise, for they talk about it, gathering flocks barking like dogs for days before the big pick up. They leave from here, familiar after four months feeding and basking in our temperate clime.
    After eight months’ absence, their arrival out of nowhere is always a surprise. Like the snow they come from the frozen north, big white flakes falling from the sky.
    Swansdown, I call it, after the soft white powdery cake flour of the same name.
    Indeed, there’s a lot of air, feathers and down about a swan before you get down to flesh and bone, all eight to 24 pounds of it. Still, they are big birds, four to five feet long with 66-inch wingspans. Unlike ducks, which could, from a distance, be any old mallard or a rare visitor, tundra swans are unmistakable. Size, neck length, and color — even to their all-black bills and feet — give them away. So do their vocalizations, loud calls of hoonk or woo-hoo.
    Not as gainly as snow is the feet-first landing that has them walking splashily on the water for some distance, wings akimbo, before settling into grace. Take off requires effort too, as they run across the water before lifting on powerful whistling wings. From which comes the nickname whistling swan.
    These annual arctic visitors and their gray-scale cygnets need a clean Bay, full of grasses and clams, to make their 4,000-mile trip worthwhile. That’s our job.

A fat eel is the best winter bait

I could feel my bait strongly swimming downward next to the bridge piling. Judging its descent at a couple of feet off bottom, I thumbed the reel spool, both to keep it out of any rubble it might dive into and to incite its efforts to escape. It briefly struggled against the increased resistance. That was all that was necessary. Something powerful grabbed the bait then swam away.
    A five-count allowed about 25 feet of line to slip under my thumb. I slowly raised my rod tip, then lowered it to allow a little slack in the line. Hoping the rockfish had the bait well back in its jaws, I dropped the reel into gear and waited for the line to come tight. When it did, I struck back hard.
    My rod bent in a severe arc. I could feel the heavy headshakes of a good fish transmit up the line. Then the striper took off running, headed for the general direction of Baltimore. There was little I could do to stop it.

The Art of Eeling
    More than any other seasonal change, cold alters fishing tactics and baits for stripers. One of the better tempters, especially for large winter-run stripers, is the eel. Called big rockfish candy because the whoppers love them so much, eel is one of the surest bets for seducing a trophy rockfish this time of year.
    The one downside to eeling, as its more dedicated practitioners call it, is handling the slimy devils. Slipperier than a bucket of eels, is an old saying. They are impossible to grasp with a bare hand and a challenge to control if you do manage to get hold of one.
    Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Keeping the snakelike creatures restrained in a net bag in your live-well or an aerated bucket will allow you easy access to them. Using gloves or a piece of rough cloth simplifies holding them until you can manage to get them on a hook.
    One of the better alternatives I’ve found is to store them on ice. I use a small lunch-pail-sized cooler with a good layer of ice (or better yet reusable plastic ice blocs) on the bottom covered by a thick wet towel. The snakes become dormant when stored this way and will live for quite some time, days even, if maintained cold and covered by another layer of wet towels.
    They can be easily handled in this passive condition using just a piece of towel or a cloth glove. Once you’ve hooked them up and tossed them in the water, they quickly regain their vigor.
    Put them on your hook in a way rockfish favor. Because rock have very small teeth, they will usually attack a larger bait toward the head to immediately control it. Your hook should be toward the head of the eel, where the fish is likely to strike.
    Sliding the point through the corner of their eye sockets gives the hook a solid purchase. Some anglers prefer to hook them under the chin and out the top of the mouth, particularly if the eels are to be fished weighted on the bottom. Others, especially anglers drifting their eels suspended under release bobbers, hook them lightly under the skin at the back of the head. There is rarely a need to place a second hook farther back on an eel. In fact, using a second hook on this writhing critter will lead to an impossible-to-unravel tangle.
    Once a striper strikes, allow it to swim off with the bait. Give it time, a five-count at minimum, to subdue the prey and work it back in the throat in preparation to swallowing. Use a strong short-shanked hook, at least a size 4/0, that can withstand a good deal of pressure because your chances of hooking a really big rockfish will never be better.

Farewell Fish and Eel
    The rockfish headed toward Baltimore that day probably arrived within not too many minutes. Somehow, during that express-train run, the hook pulled free. I lost the fish, but my hands did not stop shaking for quite a few minutes, and it wasn’t from the cold.

At Thanksgiving, this year’s garden continues giving

This year’s garden was one of my most productive in recent years, despite its late start as I recovered from a fall last November. With help from family members, including grandchildren, the garden was planted in mid-May.
    Even so, we harvested nearly a bushel of onions, which were braided and hung in the garage until recently. This year’s turkey stuffing will contain those garden-grown onions. The Crocket snap bean crop was outstanding, as was the harvest from the yard-long Gita pole bean plants.
    My 14 tomato plants were so productive that in addition to feeding the children and their families, I delivered many half-bushel boxes to the SCAN food pantry at St. James Parish in Lothian.
    I shared my ample okra crop with fellow Ruritans, who also enjoyed harvesting my Gita beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons while I vacationed in Maine in late August and early September.
    From six separate plantings of sweet corn, five harvests were better than expected. The last was not ready until early October; its ears were only partially filled and small.
    There were a few disappointments. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower were small due to being planted late. My garlic crop was thin because I was unable to keep up with the weeds. Peppers under-produced, too. A granddaughter came to help me transplant, but because I could not convince her to tear the roots of the transplants, the plants never fully established and produced only a few peppers each.
    This late in the year, the garden will bless our Thanksgiving table with fresh as well as frozen and canned vegetables. Fresh from the garden we’ll serve roasted Brussels sprouts, kale chips and raw salad of shredded carrots and kohlrabi — plus peas from the freezer and stewed tomatoes from the canning library.
    Leaves of kale will be spritzed with olive oil and baked at 400 degrees until crisp, approximately 10 to 15 minutes, then sprinkled with onion or garlic powder. This kale is the product of my successful experiment growing in the bales of straw, where both organic and chemical fertilizers did well.
    The Brussels sprouts will be cut in half, brushed with olive oil and baked in a covered dish for 15 minutes at 400 degrees, then baked uncovered for an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until the edges of the cut surface turn light-brown.
    The salad is made by shredding and blending together equal amounts of carrots and kohlrabi to be drizzled with real maple syrup made by my brother in New Hampshire.
    Peas harvested in October were blanched for five minutes in the microwave, chilled and bagged for the freezer. On Thanksgiving Day, they will taste as if they had just been harvested from the garden. We’ll put them in a Corning dish, microwave for five minutes and, as soon as they’re removed, sprinkle with Butter Buds.
    When tomatoes were plentiful in August, I peeled and processed 28 pints, each with a teaspoon of salt. On Thanksgiving Day, several pints of stewed tomatoes will be dumped into a large bowl with two tablespoons of light brown sugar per pint and a generous portion of fresh dill from the garden blended in, then microwaved for only three or four minutes before serving.
    Grow a garden, and you’ll eat this well at Thanksgiving and all year long.

Hibernation is convenient when you live in a shell

Wiggling antennae poke out from under coiled shell of the second-most prolific species on earth, the gastropodal snail. On land and in oceans and freshwater, 43,000 snail species live. North America has 500 land species, which brings them, usually stealthily, to all our gardens.
    But you won’t see them this time of year, for many snails hibernate from October until April. Hibernation is convenient for snails as they carry their beds on their backs. In dry areas, snails can hibernate for years.
    Covering their bodies with a thin layer of mucus to prevent drying out, snails live off the stored fat in their bodies. They dig a small hole in the ground and bury themselves or find a warm patch to slumber the winter away. Then, they close off the entrance of their shells with dried mucus — called an epiphragm — that hardens into tough skin. This snail-made mucus door prevents predators from harming them during hibernation and keeps them warm and cozy all winter.
    The epiphragm is usually transparent and sometimes glues the snail to a surface, like a shady wall, rock or tree branch. In hibernation, a snail’s heart slows from about 36 beats per minute to only three or four, and oxygen use is reduced to one-fiftieth of normal.
    Snails often group together over winter. If you find one, expect many more in that protected hiding place. They burrow under loose flaps of bark, behind stacked paving slabs, around planters and pots and in gaps and holes in walls.
    “I retire within myself and there I stop. The world is nothing to me,” said the snail in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snail and the Rosebush. And with this, the snail withdrew into his house and blocked up the entrance.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem

Think again if you think shade trees pretty much care for themselves.
    In the forest, where trees care for themselves, fewer than one percent of seedlings grow to become marketable trees.
    What do you know about how the crotch angle, crossing branches and branch spacing affect tree health? Allowing narrow crotch angles on branches and stems to remain on young trees will result in premature tree damage. Rot is another common problem with narrow crotch angles. Branches that rub against each other result in early breakage. Young trees need to be trained to proper branch spacing.
    Nursery-grown trees raised in containers tend to develop girdling roots as they mature. Most girdling roots can be seen above ground or at the ground level. Look for roots circling or partially circling the trunk. Often the roots are embedded or being absorbed by the trunk. Cut such roots away with a sharp chisel or ax and remove them.  
    Parking your vehicles beneath the branches of the trees, do you consider the 800 to 1,500 pounds of pressure exerted by each tire? Ninety percent of trees roots can be found in the upper 10 feet of soil. The weight of cars and trucks compacts the soil, as do the tires of lawn mowers and the feet of people, including those who enjoy the shade of the branches during the summer.
    The roots of plants cannot grow in soil with 85 percent compaction or more. If you cannot poke a sharp dowel or digging shovel into the ground six inches or more, the soil is too compacted for roots to grow.
    Every year at this time, you rake away the leaves that fall to the ground. In the forest, fallen leaves return both organic matter and nutrients to the soil, hence to the tree.
    Nearly all fertilizer applied in the shade of branches is used by the turf. Very little nutrient from that fertilizer leaches down to the roots of the tree. Applying excessive amounts of fertilizer to satisfy the needs of the tree roots will result in fertilizer burn of the turf.
    Are you your shade trees’ friend or enemy?


Tree Help Needed

Q    In the spring I planted several fig trees. They  seem to be very slow growers and are now only maybe one foot high. I want them to live this winter. Any suggestions on what I should do?
    –C. Buchheister via email

A    If your fig trees are only a foot tall after growing for one year, your soil is deficient and poor. Your fig plants should be four to five feet tall at the end of the first growing season. Have your soil tested. With their limited root system, I doubt if the trees will survive the winter no matter what you do.

Q    Can you advise on how to eliminate the black soot or mold that is covering the leaves on my Nelly Stevens holly trees?
    –Lauren Avery, Millersville

A    The black on your Nelly Stevens holly is sooty-mold. I suspect your holly may be infested with scale insects. Inspect the undersides of the leaves and stems. The scale insects may be white or yellow-brown like small drops of wax. If your hollies are under maple or tulip poplar trees, it could be that the scale is feeding on the trees and the honeydew has drifted on the holly causing the sooty-mold to grow. Sooty-mold is best removed with a strong jet of water from a garden hose or power washer.



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

The fast, bouncy motion of the lure brought me fish

My original plan was to get a few big perch for a family fish fry on the weekend. I also hoped to capture smaller ones to live-line for rockfish later in the day at the Bay Bridge. It didn’t quite work out that way.
    With a healthy supply of grass shrimp and some razor clams for the perch, I splashed my skiff and made the short run out to the river channel. Slowly cruising a pattern, I looked for the big school of perch I had successfully worked over the previous week. It had been a mixed bunch of big whities plus a fair number of the little fellas (three to five inches) that might prove tempting for rockfish.
    My clever strategy for the day succumbed to reality. The perch were no longer in residence. Drifting and fishing the grass shrimp and clam and searching hard over a wide area, I discovered that the river’s channel as well as its edges were as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
    Heading out into the Bay I decided to try the Bay Bridge for rockfish anyway. Though my hopes of catching a supply of bait perch had been dashed, I had a fallback. I always carry a box of various sized jigs.
    The fishing jig is named after the dance. Folk dances performed with fast, bouncy motions are called jigs (i.e. the Irish jig), and that is how this lure is worked in the water. Its sudden, jerky movements imitate a small fish in panic.
    Nearing the center bridge span, I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. Birds were whirling, screaming and picking off small baitfish being forced to the surface by the feeding stripers under them.
    I hurried to tie on a quarter-ounce BKD in chartreuse, eased up to casting distance just outside the frenzied flock and pitched my lure. Within seconds, I was tight to a rockfish that put up quite a feisty battle. Netting the fat but undersized fish, I unhooked it and flipped it back over the side.
    Another dozen casts resulted in more small throwbacks, so I paused to reconsider my options. Switching out the BKD for a two-ounce Stingsilver with a small dropper fly attached above, I tried working the bottom, 50 feet down. There is sometimes a larger class of fish under those breaking on the surface.
    This time I hooked what I thought was a much heavier striper. As I drew it close to the boat it turned out to be a double hookup, neither of which was remarkable in size. But then I noticed that one of the struggling fish was a perch. While a 14-inch striper is not particularly impressive, a fat 10-inch perch definitely is.
    Swinging the pair on board, I flipped the rockfish back over the side and the winter-thick perch into my cooler. Subsequent drifts netted more heavy perch and more undersized rock.
    I had to be careful when bringing in these fish. You can horse a schoolie rockfish in quickly for release, but if you try that on a big perch it will too often result in a lost fish. The perch’s mouth structure is much more fragile that the striper’s. Each hookup became a guessing game. I gently fought the fish to the surface, but what fish? Was there a big fat perch on the hook or another throwback striper? Or both?
    After an hour of constant action the sky darkened, the wind picked up and a bit of rain spat down. Declaring victory, I racked my gear and headed back for the ramp. Despite my poor start, I could feed my family. All that good fortune came from dancing a jig.

With catches cut by 20 percent, the species could rebound in two years

You’ll hear the same story from most anyone who fishes recreationally for rockfish (aka striped bass) in Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Coast: There are not nearly as many fish today as there were 10 years ago.
    Science agrees. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — whose task it is to manage the striped bass population — conducted a benchmark stock assessment in 2012. It found that the total population of striped bass has fallen some 30 percent since 2003 with the numbers of spawning age females at a dangerously low level.
    Technically, over-fishing had not yet occurred, the commission allowed, but it was coming.
    On Halloween, fisheries managers from coastal states from Maine to North Carolina met in a 10-hour marathon at Commission headquarters in Mystic, Connecticut. Included were Chesapeake states — Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
    The managers heeded recommendations from recreational fishermen along the Northeast Coast (where catches have fallen as much as 80 percent) and the Chesapeake. The result: recreational and commercial Atlantic Coast harvests were cut by 25 percent; Chesapeake Bay recreational and commercial harvests by 20.5 percent.
    This landmark decision bodes well for the future of our rockfish.
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission succeeded where states have failed. Bay jurisdiction efforts to make smaller reductions in much smaller increments were ­rejected by the other states’ fishery representatives.
    In Maryland recreational fishing, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service director Tom O’Connell expects the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Trophy Season minimum size regulations to increase from 28 to 36 inches, still one fish per angler. The season is anticipated to open, as before, on the third Saturday in April and continue to May 15.
    The regular recreational rockfish season for the Bay will also remain the same: May 16 through December 15. But the minimum size is planned to increase from 18 to 20 inches.
    On the commercial side, the Chesapeake Bay quota for rockfish will drop to 1.471 million pounds (down from 1.925 million pounds). The minimum size for the commercial fishery is expected to remain 18 inches.
    Atlantic Coast recreational fishery limits will drop from two fish to one; minimum size remains 28 inches.    If the plans works, the species could be declared recovered in two years.

Swine seek your Jack-o-lanterns

Maizie, Pumpkin and Scarlet love pumpkins. They devour them like pigs because, well, they are pigs. Now they want your leftover ­Halloween Jack-o-lanterns.
    Over 1.4 billion pounds of pumpkins are sold in the United States every year, 80 percent in October, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many are displayed at Halloween and at Thanksgiving, then tossed in the garbage. That’s a lot of rotting pumpkins. Pumpkins don’t decompose well in landfills, giving off methane gas as they break down, which plays a role in climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
    So the trio of swine at Historic St. Mary’s City is doing its civic duty gobbling these big orange fruits.
    Historic St. Mary’s City is collecting pumpkins for the plantation pigs through mid-December. Deliver new or used squash to the bin outside the Visitor Center, 18751 Hogaboom Lane.
    Shriveled and carved retired Jack-o-lanterns are just fine by these swine. The carved grins and grimaces amuse the staff and satisfy the pig’s appetite, too. Either way, they’re full of vitamins.
    If you have large numbers to share, contact Aaron at 240-895-4978; aaronm@digshistory.org.

Now’s the season, so do it right

Mistakes made when planting shade trees grow up to haunt you.

Mistake 1: Choosing the wrong tree for the wrong place.
    Research the nature and habits of the species you want to plant. Do those qualities match the place you want to plant it and the job you want it to do?

Mistake 2: Planting too close to buildings, driveways, sidewalks or driveways.
    Plant the tree where it will provide shade in areas desired and as a backdrop for the landscape. Avoid planting trees where branches will rub against structures or interfere with traffic. Avoid planting shallow-rooted trees next to sidewalks, roads and driveways. As the tree roots expand away from the tree trunk, shallow-rooted trees will damage walkways and road surfaces. This result is commonest in heavy silt or clay loam soils.

Mistake 3: Planting in heavily compacted soils.
    If you are not able to dig the planting hole with a shovel, the soil is most likely compacted. If you need a crowbar, pick or jackhammer to loosen the soil to dig the hole, it is a waste of time and money to plant the tree. To solve the problem, you need to sub-soil the area and incorporate four to six cubic yards of compost per 1,000 square feet. Roots cannot grow in soil with 85 percent or more compaction.  

Mistake 4: Mistreating roots of bagged and container-grown trees.
    Trees grown in containers develop circling roots. Unless they are disturbed or cut, they will continue to grow in circles. As the trunk of the tree increases in diameter, it eventually makes contact with the girdling root, which has also increased in diameter. To prevent girdling and choking, cut roots near the surface of the root ball. When you see dead and dying branches at the top of a tree — or a tree growing lopsided — the damage is most likely caused by girdling roots. By then it is often to late to salvage the tree.  
    When transplanting trees grown in root-controlled bags, remove the bag. Unless all the fabric is removed from the root ball, the tree will not be able to develop sufficient roots to keep it upright.
    This is also true for trees that are sold as bagged and burlapped (B&B). If the burlap lining the wire basket has a green tint, it means that it is treated with a rot inhibitor. The rot inhibitor will prevent the burlap from decomposing, and the roots within the root ball will not be able to grow in the new soil. The burlap should either be rolled down below to the bottom of the root ball or removed before filling the planting hole with soil.

Mistake 5: Leaving tags on trees and shrubs.
    After planting, remove nametags and marking tapes from stems and branches. Allowing these to remain after the tree is established and growing rapidly will result in girdling and death to the stem or branch.

Mistake 6: Failing to stake.
    All trees 10 feet and taller should be anchored using either ground ties or stakes on either side of the trunk. Pad string or wire with tree ties or pieces of garden hose to protect stems and branches.

Mistake 7: Pruning just before or after planting.
    Plant hormones needed to generate new roots are produced in the buds that grow on the branches. Pruning away the branches at the time of planting will eliminate the source of plant hormones, thus delaying the development of new roots. Delay pruning away branches until after the tree is established. You can determine when a tree has become established by looking for a high proportion of normal sized leaves on each branch.

Mistake 8: Overwatering.
    Newly planted trees should be irrigated only once or twice a week. Irrigate thoroughly or use Gator bags that allow slow irrigation. When using Gator bags, irrigate the trees only once each week until the plants become established. Water established trees less frequently. Never water daily.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.