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Citizen scientists join the search for other life forms

With summer comes longing for adventure. Motivated to engage with nature and be a part of something bigger, I signed up to study the parasite Loxo and mud crabs at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Small by any standard, the white-fingered mud crab, aka Atlantic mud crab, is “small as a flea” or large as an inch, according to Smithsonian scientist Alison Cawood. This small crustacean plays a large part in our Bay’s ecosystem. A key indicator species, it preys on oysters, barnacles and worms, at the same time serving as a snack for birds, fish and other critters.
    It is also the unwilling host of a “bodysnatching parasite,” an invasive species called Loxothylacus panopaei. A pointy headed member of the barnacle family, Cawood explains, Loxo burrows into the mud crab during its molt, when it’s most vulnerable, and hijacks its body. It does this dastardly deed by injecting fewer than 200 cells into the crab’s nervous system. Once in, these cells take over. The crab becomes “a barnacle in a crab suit.” Loxo even uses the crab to carry its offspring, parasitic larvae, in its external sack.
    With a five-minute instructional how-to and tiny forceps, our group of 12 pull mud crabs out of small milk crates filled with mud and oyster shells, all gathered from sample sites on the Rhodes River. The result of our intricate game of I Spy is a jar full of lively crabs to be further studied for zombification by scientists and lab-certified volunteers.
    Our final task is to check another team’s milk crate remains for missed mud crabs. These crabs would be not only examined for the virus but also cataloged by number and size for another ongoing study.
    We volunteers were the subject of that second study, our accuracy factored with age, time spent, educational level and previous field study experience. This is important for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which depends on some 6,000 hours annually of volunteer research in its ongoing studies.
    If you take the time to get scientific this summer, you will learn odd things and find it rewarding. For upcoming opportunities for citizen scientists, check Bay Weekly’s 8 Days a Week.

Don’t over-handle your onions

Onions are bulbing. Disturbing the plants now will reduce the storage life of the bulbs. Keeping your onion patch free of weeds is important, but from now until harvest you’ll want to weed by hand. An onion hoe may damage bulbs.
    The keeping quality of onions depends on strong and healthy plants. So you should irrigate your onions in drought. Since onions are generally shallow rooted, they should receive a minimum of one inch of water each week. I irrigate my onions twice weekly if we don’t get adequate rain. Use a rain gauge near your garden rather than depending on weather reports to measure precipitation.
    As soon as the majority of the onion tails turn yellow-brown-green, use the back of a steel rake to knock the tops down horizontal to the ground. Allow the tops to soften and start turning yellow-brown before harvesting.
    For maximum storage life, never remove onion skins from the bulbs. The outer layer reduces the transpiration rate of the bulbs, extending their storage life.
    I braid most of my onions, allowing the bulbs to remain attached to the tops. For storage, I hang them in an open garage, in the shade. The onions with the smallest necks are the best keepers and should be saved for later use. The first onions you should eat are those with fat necks, for they have a shorter shelf life.
    The bulbs of braided onions should be separated by gently pulling without disturbing the outer skin of the other onions.
    I store unbraided onions in small baskets hung from the ceiling of the garage. This allows air to circulate through the onions, minimizing rot problems. Check the baskets of onions every two to three weeks and remove any onions that are softening.


More about Bloom

Q    I really like the results I am seeing using Bloom after reading your article. Should I be concerned about heavy metals coming thru to be absorbed in my vegetable garden produce?

–Jan Fergus, via email

A  Bloom is a class A biosolid. Class A biosolids do not contain heavy metals. Today 85 percent of all biosolids generated in the U.S. are class A. The only heavy metals we are concerned with are lead and cadmium. Metals such as iron, copper, zinc, ­nickel, chromium and manganese are essential plant nutrients or needed by soil organisms.

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

Our battle against heavy winds, stalled tide and slack current paid off

Small-craft advisories and a forecast of 15- to 20-knot winds made canceling our planned outing a no-brainer. For those who chose to disregard the warnings, however, that day proved to be a placid beauty with five-knot winds, a slight overcast and a red-hot rockfish bite almost all day long off Hackett’s Bar.
    Re-assembling the next day, this time for promises of a five-knot westerly breeze and a strong falling tide, we motored out of Sandy Point and headed south. I had shoo-shooed my buddy Moe into leaving his foul weather gear in his truck (“no rain possible,” said I), only to have him inform me, a bit after we came up on plane, that he was getting drenched from bow spray.
    That westerly breeze had turned into a wind. I had to stop and give him my stowed waterproof, perhaps about 10 minutes too late. Remaining in the lee of the nearby Western Shore for the journey south, we were going to be in for a rough day.
    Throttling down and cruising out past the green can at Hackett’s and into the chumming fleet anchored there, we marked no fish. Continuing on our southerly heading, within a half mile we encountered a few promising marks on the finder. They were scattered fish, probably stripers, though I was unsure of their size.
    Setting our anchor in 35 feet of water, we swung with the wind, pointing our stern at the Eastern Shore. The full-moon high tide was to have peaked at 6am that morning. Since we launched about two hours later, I was sure we would have a firm, outgoing current.
    Dropping the chum bag over the stern proved me wrong, as the chum sank straight down. We baited and cast our rigs only to watch as the lines listlessly drifted back to the boat.
    Rockfish are generally loath to bite on a slack tide. We were stalled at full flood with no discernible current, the wind sending an occasional wave slapping chop over our stern. The over-sized bilge pump, intended for just such a situation, kept us safe and dry. But the hull buck and the side-to-side rock made it hard to keep an eye on our rods.
    The situation was not good. It was too early to quit and go home, but the wind gave no sign of laying down. Our only hope was to wait for the tide to fall, which might get the fish feeding. An hour later, we were still waiting.
    Then I noticed a rod tip bouncing a bit more enthusiastically than the others. Picking up the rig, I felt some life at the other end. Since the conditions were so abominable, I glanced back at my finder screen to see what possibly could be down there. Holy moly!
    The screen was lit up like the Fourth of July. What that school of rockfish was doing there I have no idea. They might have wandered right under the boat and encountered the falling chum. Or we had somehow blundered upon their favorite lair. In any case, below us was a crowd with marks of all sizes. We were into one fish after ­another for the better part of an hour.
    A goodly number were schoolies that proceeded to delight in seizing a bait from under the boat and screaming off to filch it at a distance or to suddenly drop it out of perfidy. There were, however, a few in the 24- to 29-inch range that encountered the sharp, 5/0 hooks and were eventually wrestled on board.
    Then, mysteriously, that wretched wind died, the seas calmed and the crazy bite was over. With a lovely limit of fat stripers on ice we pulled the anchor and headed home over now-gentle waters.

This year, the winged swimmers are protected

One sunny afternoon with no breeze and the air hot and sticky, fishing was becoming a drag. We were ready to pack it in when the line zinged. With a leap of excitement, I grabbed the reel and began the labor of dragging the catch in. This would be no easy feat as the line doubled over.
    We were both tired when I lifted up my prize: a tiny baby cownose ray.
    This majestic giant of the Chesapeake is near and dear to my heart. As a girl, I have fond memories of watching their tips break a still surface of the morning water, like dancers. These schooling brown rays make our backyard their home when they arrive in early spring to mate and eat, through fall. Bottom feeders, rays do eat clams and oysters but not to the extent once believed.
    Because they were thought to be hungry hazards to some of our favorite resources on the Chesapeake, including crabs, rays were targeted for hunting and harvesting. Bow-fishing for rays became a niche sport.
    Now these creatures are protected by a moratorium through July 2019, passed unanimously by Maryland senators. The moratorium is timed to allow scientific observation and study of the species to see what effects these rays actually have on the aquatic ecosystem.
    When you’re out on the water this summer, catch a look at their effortless glides. If you happen to hook one, enjoy the fight, then carefully release it. Rays are strong and slippery with whip-like tails.

Even with compost you can overdo it

Recently a Bay Weekly reader complained she could not grow cauliflower or broccoli. The plants grew big and lush but never produced edible heads — all this despite the large amount of compost she added to her garden soil each year.
    My response was too much of a good thing. Compost is a good source of not only long-lasting fiber but also slow-release nutrients. For every percent of organic matter in soil, an acre of soil generates 10 pounds of nitrogen each year. If your soil contains five percent organic matter, that translates to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.
    Growing a good crop generally requires between 100 to 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. If your soil contains 12 percent organic matter, you should not have to apply any nitrogen fertilizer to achieve optimum plant growth — providing all other nutrients are present at optimum levels. If your garden soil contains 15 percent organic matter or more, plants are likely to produce super-lush growth. Leafy plants such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard, celery and fennel should produce bumper crops. Cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and okra will likely produce large vigorous plants but limited fruit.
    This same problem occurs when you apply too much nitrogen fertilizer. Several years ago a Bay Weekly reader complained that his tomato plants grew like trees but hardly produced any tomatoes. As I was not able to diagnose the problem, based on our discussion over the telephone, I invited him to Upakrik Farm and requested he bring the bags of fertilizer he used. He brought a bag of 10-10-10 and a bag of urea. He said he used urea and not calcium nitrate as I had recommended in one of my Bay Gardener articles because the store manager said calcium nitrate was not available but urea would substitute. Urea contains 45.5 percent nitrogen while calcium nitrate only contains 15.5 percent nitrogen. In other words, the excessive amount of nitrogen from the urea caused the tomato plants to remain vegetative rather than producing fruit.
    Monitoring organic matter content in your soil is another good reason for having periodic soil tests, which also measure pH and nutrient levels.


Are Strawberries Perennial?

Q If you want to get several years of picking strawberries from the same plants, would you leave them alone after picking or would you mow the top leaves off? I know that the commercial guys plow them under each year and replant for the next year, but I had a decent crop this year and hate to till them in.

–Frederic Ames, Shady Side

A    The traditional method of growing strawberries is to rototill under the mother plants, leaving the daughter plants to produce next year’s crop. By doing so, the same bed can produce berries for three to four consecutive years. However, crown mites, often called cyclamin mites, cause crop failure on the fourth year.


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

Firefighters save Lassie look-alike Siri

Anne Arundel County Firefighter Brian Doyle and his team were out on the water training when they got the call. A dog trapped down a hole near Edgewater needed rescuing.
    His Special Operations Confined Space Rescue Team jumped into action, splitting up so that some could get their special rescue rig from the Jones Station firehouse while the rest headed to the scene.
    In what appeared to be a collapsed well, Siri was trapped. At eight feet, the hole was too deep for the collie mix, a Lassie look-alike, to crawl out. Complicating the special operation, the rain-drenched soil was too soft to hold weight directly. To rescue Siri, they would have to get creative.
    First, they cleared brush. Then, avoiding power lines, the team strung a ladder over the hole at about a 45-degree angle. In a harness and rigging line, Doyle was lowered into the hole.

    “It was a tight fit going down,” said the broad-shouldered fireman. The bottom was cavernous, so Doyle had to scan the dark hole to locate the dog. Even stuck in the mud, Siri happily wagged her tail. Good thing, for Doyle had to secure her in webbing, then hold her in a big bear hug while the pair were hoisted to the surface.
    “The owner was smart to call in professionals,” Doyle said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
    For their effort, the team was honored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which rewarded them with a plaque, The Engine 2 Diet vegetarian cookbook and a tin of vegan cookies.

Biosolids are safe for food ­production; here’s why

Since I became involved in composting biosolids in the early 1970s, technology for processing wastewater has undergone major changes. Back then, most wastewater treatment facilities had only primary or secondary treatment technology. At the same time, industries were dumping all kinds of waste into sewer systems.
    The Clean Water Act promoted by president Lyndon Johnson led to major changes that now enable us to convert solid waste into usable products while returning more carbon to the earth. The act stopped wastewater dumping into our streams, lakes, Bay and oceans. It established a Biological Waste Management Laboratory managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Studying the science of composting, this laboratory has developed efficient composting systems.
    The Clean Water Act also mandated that wastewater be returned clean to our waterways. Wastewater processing facilities were upgraded to secondary and tertiary systems. Tertiary systems not only return crystal clear water but also generate biosolids that are classified Class A, meaning they can be used to produce agricultural crops.
    The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C., is the largest plant using the world’s most advanced water treatment technology. Blue Plains processes 300 million gallons of wastewater each day and generates 450 wet tons of biosolids.
    The biosolids are heat-treated to 350 degrees under 87 pounds pressure per square inch. Then they’re infused with active anaerobic microorganisms, and the material moves into the digester. Anaerobic microorganisms are more aggressive in digesting organic carbon compounds than the aerobic microorganisms active in composting. The biosolids remain in the digester for 18 days before filter presses remove excess water.
    The end product is Bloom, a superior soil conditioner.
    Already self-feeding, its production is moving to energy neutral. The digester generates methane gas, used to cook the biosolids. Blue Plains is also installing solar panels over the sludge activators to reduce operating costs.
    Within three years, similar systems will be operating across the country.
    Advanced wastewater treatment and biosolid digestion are only part of the reason you can now safely use processed biosolids in producing food crops. Hard pesticides such as DDT and Chlordane have long been eliminated from use. Pesticides in home use have limited shelf life and are biodegradable. Along with pharmaceuticals, they are destroyed by microbial systems and by the heat.
    Because iron sulfate is added to precipitate the phosphorus from the water, Bloom is not 100 percent organic under current guidelines.
    Bloom is now sold at Homestead Gardens.


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

While not a beautiful swimmer, the channel catfish provides the sweetest flesh a seafood fanatic can hope for

Pulling on my weather gear, I headed out in the morning gloom to hook up the skiff. The forecast was poor, but I had cabin fever and had to get out on the water.
    The white perch were up the trib shallows, I felt sure, and there is no better cure for poor weather than the promise of a good perch fry that evening. Now all I needed was the fish.
    Taking my lightest rods and an ample supply of Rooster Tails and Captain Bert’s spinner baits, I splashed my boat at the local ramp, double-checked my gear and headed out. I was the lone boat to launch that morning. Either I knew something that no one else did, or vice versa. It kinda turned out versa vice, but in the end it worked out.
    It took almost an hour to get the first fish. They weren’t hanging on the shoreline, as I had assumed, but were almost 25 yards out, scattered across the flats. A nine-incher started the game off, and I slipped it back over the side as too small. I soon regretted that move.
    The next fish was about five inches, the next six, and for about a half hour they stayed in that range. Then I lost a good one, at least it had felt like a good one. By then the sky was hanging heavy and the forecast for a day in the 70s looked like so much meteorological wishful thinking. I was getting uncomfortable, and the wind was freshening.
    Perch anywhere near frying size insisted on not showing up. But I persisted. With no Plan B, I did not have much choice. Throwing in the towel and heading in for a hot shower and a hotter cup of tea was crowding my options more than I cared to admit.
    Then my luck changed. At the end of a long cast, I got a firm take, a very firm take. The sound of a singing drag and a rod bent over to the corks, even on a light rod, can give a guy an instant lift, which is exactly what happened.
    You can’t really have a slam-bang battle with six-pound mono and a five-foot spin rod. But the fight can be as tense as any struggle with a trophy rockfish when dinner and the success of the day are at stake. As the fish surged one way then another, a notion took hold.
    If it was a big perch, then it was a really big one. The fish had not come closer in over five minutes of give and take. Plus, I doubted that a giant whitey would be lurking with all those throwbacks. If it was a striper it could mean trouble. It felt substantial, but I feared it would not be over the 20-inch minimum.
    On the other hand, even though it consistently took drag, it did not make a rockfish’s traditional long run in the three-foot depths of the flat. There was a lot of head shaking going on, and the fish stayed deep and fought in short, brutal rushes.
    Eventually the scrapper neared the boat, and I reached for the net. Through the dim, rain-stained waters I caught the first glimpse of my antagonist, a long golden flank flashed through the murk. I was overjoyed.
    The channel catfish is not a beautiful swimmer. It is, however, substantially constructed of firm flesh of the sweetest tooth a seafood fanatic can aspire to. Its tough, rubbery mouth, once punctured by a hook’s barb, does not often slip free. I was pretty sure this one was coming in the boat.
    As I deposited the fat, struggling 21-inch beauty in my fish box, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had my fish fry.
    To affirm that, within another 15 minutes the Chesapeake gave me a twin of the first fish, another fat golden channel cat. There would be enough for company.

He’s keeping the species alive

It’s a dark and stormy night, the moon is shaded by clouds. The only light streams from our headlamps and the revolving beam of a nearby lighthouse. The rain is pelting sideways, and the water is above our ankles. Tired and cold but hopeful, our trio trudges down a Calvert County beach at 3am, scanning the turbulent water for a prehistoric monster.
    Suddenly in the surf, someone spots a dark silhouette, like a rock … we draw closer, anxious with excitement. It is indeed what we’ve been searching for: a horseshoe crab. Park ranger Chelcey Nordstrom removes the sand around the base of the male, revealing a second larger female crab buried beneath.
    “Horseshoe crabs on shore should be left alone unless they need help being flipped back over. This is true especially when they are stacked on top of each other, which can sometimes be hard to see.”
    A species more than 300 million years old, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, seeks out the beaches of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay to mate, lay their eggs and raise young in these shallow and protected waters. Horseshoe crabs can live 20 years or longer and can travel up and down the east coast. But the species is in trouble, due in part to predation and overharvesting. They are also used actively in medical testing because of their copper-based blood. However, little is known as to why they choose our beaches, where or why they travel or many other habits.
    Data gathered from our Anne Arundel Community College’s science class findings will be used in an ongoing study by college professor Paul Bushman to shed light on these unanswered questions. Last year’s student study group attached radio tags to crabs found, and hopefully collection of those same tagged crabs this year will reveal where they went, how far they traveled, how long they stayed in each location and other curiosities about these ancient creatures. Armed with this new information, advances can be made to further preserve this unique species.

Break the rules and root vegetables won’t grow

A Bay Weekly reader complained that most of the carrots, radishes, turnips and salsify he harvested from last year’s garden had branched roots. My immediate diagnosis was that he must have added a lot of compost to the soil before planting. When root crops are planted in soil rich in freshly applied compost, they tend to produce branched and fibrous roots.
    According to his description, he had applied only two wheelbarrows of compost to a garden approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet long. Since most wheelbarrow tubs hold between two and three bushels, that amount of compost should not have caused the problem.
    I next asked what kind of compost. LeafGro, he said, incorporated into the soil with a rototiller. Had he had his soil tested? Yes, and I had made recommendations for him based on spring soil tests.
    Stumped so far, I asked how he planted his garden. As soon as he told me that he had sown all of the seedlings in trays and transplanted them in the garden, the problem was solved. Direct sowing is recommended on the seed packets, but he wanted all of his seedlings evenly spaced so that he would have perfect rows.
    Never, never, never transplant root crops. Seeds of carrots, parsnips, salsify, radish, beets, turnips, rutabaga, etc., should always be sown directly into the garden soil. Any disturbance to the roots once the seeds have germinated will cause branching.
    A couple of years ago, another Bay Weekly reader said he could no longer grow carrots and parsnips in his garden. Since he lived in Deale, I stopped by his home and walked into the garden. I sharpened a half-inch diameter piece of broom handle and tried to push the sharpened end into the soil. Four inches was as far as it would go.
    I asked what he used to till the soil. He showed me the Mantis tiller he had used to prepare this same garden bed for at least a dozen years. That was the problem. Repeated tilling had formed a plow-pan, a compacted layer of soil caused by the bottom pressure of the tines of the tiller. Farmers have the same problem from repeated use of plows.
    To solve his problem I recommended that he apply three to four cubic yards of LeafGro per 1,000 square feet and rent a hefty rototiller with six to eight horsepower. After spreading the compost evenly over the garden area, he was to set the tiller to dig as deeply as possible. Soil testing told him what else was needed to make plants grow better.


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