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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 Please include your name and address.

A sweet potato the size of a turkey

This sweet potato could be the vegetarian answer to the Thanksgiving turkey.
    It looks the part, though Birgit Sharp — who grew the lookalike at American Chestnut Land Trust’s Double Oak Farm in Prince Frederick — calls it The Swan.
    At 25 pounds, nine and one-quarter ounces, it’s big enough to do the job.
    Certainly, it’s proof of the providential bounty of the earth and the ingenuity of its human farmers. It’s the product of hugelkulture beds, an innovative technique of farming in mounds of decaying wood debris and organic matter.
    Sharing the bounty is also commonly practiced at Double Oak Farm, as staff and volunteers grow organic vegetables, fruits and herbs for donation to Calvert County food pantries. Stewardship of this good earth is a fundamental value of American Chestnut Land Trust, founded in 1986 to preserve natural woodlands surrounding Parker’s Creek.
    Word is still out on whether the potato will meet the knife at a Thanksgiving table.

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 Please include your name and address.

Clean up to improve next year’s crop

Tomato blight attacks your tomatoes by way of the leaves. The blight starts at the bottom of the plants and progresses upward. The lower leaves turn yellow-green, and oblong spots with concentric rings in the middle appear mid-leaf. Soon the leaves brown and fall. Plants are weakened and, without shade, fruit sunburned. So you don’t want to give the blight a foothold, for it will spread.
    If you have tomato plants still in the ground, destroy any that are contaminated; avoid composting unless  temperatures in the  pile exceed 140 degrees.
    If you have already placed your tomato cages and stakes in the garden shed, you may want to take them out of storage for treating.  The spores of tomato blight can overwinter on the wire cages or stakes that support plants during the growing season.
    A recent research study demonstrated that tomato plants grown with new cages and new stakes have far fewer incidences of blight than plants grown with previously used cages and stakes. Microbiologists were able to culture spores of the organisms that cause blight in tomatoes from cages and stakes in both fall and spring.
    But treating used cages and stakes with a diluted bleach solution prior to storage and before placing them around the tomato plants in the spring significantly reduced the blight problem, the researchers also reported.
    They recommend spraying the cages with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part by volume of bleach and nine parts by volume water). Spray the wires until they drip, making certain that the joints are thoroughly soaked. If you use stakes, dipping them in the same percent solution brings the bleach into all of the pores of the wood, plastic or steel. Vessels for dipping can be made from a large diameter piece of plastic pipe or a piece of gutter capped at one end. Wear latex gloves to avoid skin contact with the bleach.
    Growing tomatoes in the same soil where potatoes were grown the previous year also resulted in greater occurrence of blight in tomatoes, the researchers reported. The blight appears to be carried over on the unharvested small potatoes left in the ground. If you grow both tomatoes and potatoes in the same garden, let a full year lapse before rotating tomatoes to where you previously grew potatoes.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Know where your oyster comes from — and howOysters in Season

Oysters are Maryland’s catch of the season. Oystermen and women are tonging, diving and dredging for Crassostrea virginica in a season that runs October 1 through March 31.
    Last year saw 393,588 bushels harvested with a dockside value of $17.3 million. “The second highest total in at least 15 years due to healthy oyster reproduction in 2010 and 2012,” according to DNR Secretary Mark Belton.
    Nowadays, however, the oysters we eat are increasingly coming from farms rather than wild harvest. Oyster aquaculturists lease sections of water and bottom, plant their own seed and, a couple of years later, harvest their own crop.
    Those oysters keep oyster eaters happy while wild oysters are nurturing a healthy Bay, filtering gallons of water and — given a chance — raising reefs where countless other creatures dwell.
    Ask where your oysters come from, and you’ll be doing good for the Bay.

The one that got away

Perhaps at birth I got an extra dose of the hunter-gatherer gene. Maybe it was early exposure to a rural life with family and friends who thought fishing a desirable skill. Whatever the reason, I have a strong affection (perhaps compulsion) for the sport.
    As a result, I will be troubled, sometimes relentlessly, if I’ve experienced angling failure.
    Such is the case after a misadventure three long months ago, affected nothing of any significance and involved no witnesses other than myself, but it lingers in my subconscious, haunting me.
    I was fishing off Podickery Point on a sultry summer day under ideal conditions: calm water, still winds and a nicely moving tide. Chumming is not my first choice of angling, though I find it pleasurable and relaxing to cede success to the whims and appetites of the fish.
    The rockfish action had been good at that location. I expected no less that day, despite an occasional plague of marauding cow-nosed rays. If they showed up in any numbers, hooking and releasing these powerful but undesirable creatures would be a nuisance.
    There was no sign of rays, but the rockfish bite turned out slow. After three hours, I had only one fish in the box to show for my efforts. At 26 inches, it was a nice fish but not all that I was seeking. Refreshing the baits every 20 minutes on my four-rod setup, I decided to make a change.
    I replaced one of the baits, cut menhaden, with the biggest of the heads I had removed from the baitfish. The head is not usually good bait, being hard, large and offering little meat. But sometimes big stripers prefer these baits.
    Nothing much happened for almost a quarter of an hour. Then the outfit baited with the head began to sound off with the chatter that announces a slow and determined run. After a fair pause, I slipped the Abu reel in gear and set the hook.
    The result was a solid resistance; no run, no headshake, just firm resistance. Then the fish moved off steadily, as if hardly concerned. I tightened up the drag and leaned into it, bending the medium-heavy powered rod down to the corks and straining the 20-pound mono until it started to hum.
    That only caused the critter to hasten its down-current run. After some 50 yards, it turned and headed back and off to one side. I’d had visions of a real giant on my line; now I experienced a sudden doubt and disappointment, recalling similar encounters before — with big rays.
    Yes, it had to be a ray. Then it made a run like a ray move, virtually cementing my conclusion. Some 100 feet off the starboard side, a wingtip, I thought, broke the surface, followed by a heavy splash and a renewed run against my stiff drag.
    I tried to horse the thing toward the boat, but to no avail. The fight was nearing 20 minutes before I regained any amount of line. Heaving and reeling, I brought it ever closer. Then, as it approached, the devil crossed behind the boat, tangling with two of my three lines remaining in the water.
    Disgusted, I snubbed the run, dropped the rod down beside me on the deck and grabbed the monofilament with my hand, taking a half wrap and pulling the beast and the entangled lines up toward me at the stern. That’s when I finally saw it.
    It wasn’t a ray at all. It was a great rockfish with an eye the size of a half-dollar and shoulders as thick as an old dock piling. My heart stopped as the fish turned and took the accumulated lines directly into the motor’s submerged propeller. I barely felt the tug as they parted and the giant swam free.

Mermaid and Bride of Frankenstein top Homstead’s Critter Crawl

Critters pranced, bolted, held back and had to be dragged, but — despite the name — none crawled at the Critter Crawl at Homestead Garden’s Fall Festival. Twenty-nine costumed dogs were strutting their stuff, as were their owners, often wearing pared costumes. A terrier wore prison stripes for bad behavior, a shepherd sprouted reindeer horns, a pit bull turned into a frog.
    In the end, judges from Homestead Gardens and Bay Weekly gave top honors to cuteness. Bella the Chihuahua, costumed as a mermaid by human companion Holli Lawler, won first place and a basket of dog goodies. Runner-up was whippet Havana, dressed as Bride of Frankenstein by human companion and Southern High School grad Ingrid Horton, a costume designer and seamstress by trade.

Runner up Havana with companion Ingrid Horton.

A cover crop of winter rye is the ultimate in nutrient recycling

Planting a cover crop in your garden is good for the soil. It also contributes to improving the quality of Bay waters. Soil should never be exposed to rain and wind. Most of the brown, muddy water you see while boating on the Bay is colored by soil that has washed from adjoining lands or streams.
    As soon as you finish gardening in late summer and fall, plant winter rye in your garden. Winter rye is a great scavenger plant because it absorbs all available nutrients and stores them in roots and stems. Since it is deep-rooted, it absorbs nutrients that have leached down in the deeper soil, and its roots help to fracture the hardpan soils created by repeated plowing or rototilling. Its roots are rich in lignins, fibers that are slow to decompose and that improve soils making them more friable, thus more suitable for growing plants. Then, when the roots, stems and leaves of rye plants are plowed or rototilled into the ground, they decompose, providing nutrients to the plants in your garden next season. In other words, cover crops, often called green manure crops, are the ultimate in nutrient recycling and the best in preventing the loss of soil and nutrients by wind and rain.
    The complaint that I hear most often from gardeners who have tried winter rye as a cover crop is that it is difficult to turn under in the spring because it makes very dense vegetation. This is a self-inflicted problem because those gardeners have applied too much seed. The application rate of winter rye seed to establish an effective cover crop is one to one and a half pounds per 1,000 square feet. This information is often printed on the package, but who reads directions?
    Mow the winter rye before plowing or rototilling the garden, and you’ll achieve good incorporation of the chopped stems and roots with one or two tries. 
    It takes approximately two weeks for the decomposition to start releasing nutrients, so I advise preparing the soil two to three weeks in advance of planting. The soil will be exposed during this short period, but the roots will help retain it. What’s more, microorganisms will actively be fixing any available nutrients in their effort to decompose the new organic matter.
    Topsoil is a precious commodity and natural resource. Keep the soil where it belongs and out of Bay waters.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Perfect your cast to battle with autumn’s big fellas of the Bay

Our skiff was slowly drifting off of the Western Shore, just below the Bay Bridge, pushed by a light northwesterly wind along with the beginnings of a falling tide. My eyes were glued to some strong arches on the fish-finder indicating we were passing over a pod of good fish holding close to the bottom in about 20 feet of water. Bending on a 3/0 Half and Half (a Deceiver-style fly with a Clouser-type head) in chartreuse and white, I lifted my stiff nine-foot rod and started to cast.
    Beginning with a roll cast directed to our rear and about 60 degrees off the line of drift, I worked a short length of the 350-grain, sink-tip fly line out. Just as it touched the water I cast again, working a bit more line out, and yet again, until I had the full 30 feet of black, high-density line extended. Then, as that heavy line touched the water one last time, I made a hauling, sidearm backcast, shooting the dark tip and about 25 feet of running line to the rear.
    As the cast straightened out behind me, I changed the plane of my forward cast to almost straight overhead and began a strong forward haul. As the line leapt out in front of me forming a narrow loop, I made a circle with the index finger and thumb of my left hand and guided the rest of the pile of line (about 40 feet of it) laying on the deck, sizzling through the guides and out over the water.
    The weight of the sink tip took the fly deep as I stripped off another 10 feet of line from my reel and fed it into the drift. Allowing a full 10 count to let the line get close to the bottom, I began a slow strip-jerk retrieve to impart the motions of an injured baitfish on my streamer. About the time I imagined the fly was reaching the area behind us where we had marked the pod, the line came tight. I cinched the fish up hard, and another autumn fly rod battle was on.
    Usually, the long rod is associated with sweetwater and the more pleasant months of the year. Casting a tiny Adams upstream in May to tempt a dimpling trout or working a small popper in June along the spawning beds for bull bluegills are more usual pursuits.
    But the less comfortable chill of autumn sends another signal to the long-rod enthusiast of Chesapeake Bay. This is just the time to break out the eight- and nine-weight saltwater rods, tie on a 20-pound leader and do some serious battle with the big fellas of the Bay, our rockfish.

How to Do the Chuck ’n’ Duck
    Casting a heavy-taper floating line over shallow water (six feet or less) with big, bright streamers and poppers can be a relaxing and especially enjoyable saltwater tactic. But the window of opportunity is inconveniently short, usually lasting only an hour or so after first light. As the sun climbs, the light-sensitive stripers tend to move to a deeper stratum until evening. Unless a fly angler can find large stripers actively feeding and breaking on the surface, fishing a floating line is no longer an option.
    If you want the bigger rockfish you’ve got to follow ’em deep, and that means using a high-density sinking line. Sink-tips, as they are called because only the first 20 feet is heavily weighted, can work depths of 15 to 25 feet.
    Sink-tip lines come in various weights, usually measured in grains (1,000 grains to an ounce). A 350-grain line is intended for eight- and nine-weight rods, 450 grains for 10- and 11-weight rods, etc. The heavier the rod and the heavier the line, the deeper you can reach and the larger the fly you can throw. Keep in mind the axiom, bigger fish want bigger baits.
    Casting these lines requires some adjustments to your normal casting stroke. It is wise to prepare by lawn casting before taking your show on the water. The technique of throwing sink-tips is sometimes called the chuck ’n’ duck, you’ll understand why the first time you try it.

Here’s the one way to kill kudzu and bamboo

These very invasive species cannot be killed by spray during the summer months. They grow so rapidly that the week killers knock back only the top of the plants and not the roots.
    To kill the roots of perennial plants, the weed killer must translocate downward into the roots and rhizomes. For kudzu, you need only to kill the roots. For bamboo, you must kill both the roots and the rhizomes, the underground stems from which new bamboo canes appear.
    Only during the later part of October and early November does the food produced by the foliage of both these invasives translocate down into the roots and rhizomes. The combination of shortened daylight hours, warm days and cool nights sets the stage. In early fall, these plants build up a food supply in their roots so that they can generate strong growth the following spring when soils warm and daylight grows longer.
    Spray when foliage on the plants is abundant. Choose a bright sunny day when the soil is moist so that the foliage to be sprayed can absorb the weed killer.
    Follow the recommendations provided by the manufacturer for mixing glyphosate (Roundup) with water. To assure greater penetration, add one teaspoon of ammonium sulfate to each gallon of spray to be applied. Wear protective clothing and rubber boots to thoroughly wet the foliage. Use low pressure and a coarse spray to avoid drift. Cover nearby desirable plants with plastic sheeting. Repeat the spray treatment in seven to 10 days. 
    The kudzu vines will die back to the ground as usual, and if you do a thorough job of spraying, they will not be resuming growth next spring. The bamboo will show signs of dying in about one month following the second application. If you followed the directions, you should not observe any new growth of bamboo next spring, except perhaps at the outer edge of the planting. This can be a problem when there is not adequate bamboo foliage that can be sprayed. If this occurs, allow that bamboo to grow uninterrupted next summer and repeat the treatment that fall.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.