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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 Please include your name and address.

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.

Without them, Christmas would be a lot less colorful

In equatorial zones, poinsettias grow like weeds. But a touch of our winter is killing. How these tropical natives have become the flower of Christmas is a story of careful science in the greenhouse and ingenuity in marketing.
    “Most mother plants are grown offshore, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Kenya,” says Ray Greenstreet, whose Greenstreet Gardens is a major grower for our homes and for wholesalers.
    In June and July, Greenstreet and other growers bring in cuttings and root them in greenhouses. By late July and early August, plants are transplanted into display pots.
    The length of day light controls the plant’s growth and coloring. Flower buds form only when daylight is less than 12 hours.
    “In the long days of summer, we want to keep them vegetative as they grow to a certain size,” Greenstreet explains. “Then about September 23, days get shorter than nights, which naturally initiates blooming.”
    Traditionally, light and shade were controlled in greenhouses so plants bloomed sequentially. In the last quarter century, plants have been bred for seasonal blooming.
    “Early-season poinsettias bloom around November 15,” Greenstreet says, “and others bloom as late as mid-December. We grow a number of different bloom-response times, so we have nice fresh plants through the season.”
    For shipping around the country, Greenstreet roots about 185 varieties, in colors ranging from whites to mauves and lots of reds.
    “Right before 9/11,” Greenstreet says, “mauve or pink were selling well.” After the terrorist attacks, he continued, “people went back to tradition, and all they wanted for a couple seasons was red or white.”
    Now, variety is back. At Greenstreet you can choose from some 80 varieties, differing in leaf form as well as color.
    Buy your poinsettia when the temperature is above 36 degrees, packaged in a sleeve. Keep it warm in the car and bringing it in. At home, keep it away from drafts at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, in average light and evenly moist. Don’t let it sit in water. Carry it to a sink for watering, and let it drain before you put it back on display.
    Finally, don’t worry if your baby or cat has a bite. Poinsettias don’t taste good but are not toxic, both Greenstreet and Bay Gardener Frank Gouin confirm.

On the hunt in November

The antlered buck posed statue-like in full-focused attention in a valley surrounded, at a fair distance, by the houses of Fairhaven Cliffs. Perhaps he’d seen me seeing him from my perch well above him, but not assuring him safety were I a bow hunter. That hunting season lasts most of November, the month — this odd sighting reminded me — when Maryland’s 227,000 deer are at their most visible.
    November is rutting season, when bucks go in search of mates, and here one was, where deer, especially bucks, are not everyday sightings. The does and their families, our usual visitors, prefer Kudzu Valley, across the village, where groundhogs are the only neighbors. This was not the only buck I’d seen this month, when deer in Chesapeake Country are about as common as squirrels, and just about as oft seen dead along the roadsides.
    Not only are deer out and about in November, they are single-minded, both males and females hormonally driven to mate — as well as driven to distraction. Thus deer-vehicle crashes peak in November as well, bringing death to over 10,000 deer — and often injury to people as well as to their vehicles.
    The end of mating season coincides with the opening of the modern deer firearms season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That’s when most of the deer harvested in a year are taken. Last year 95,863 deer were harvested.
    From November 28 through December 12, hunters will be out in search of deer. So maybe for that time you should leave the woods to them.

How to find hot wintertime fishing

A big El Nino winter is expected, possibly moderating Maryland temperatures. That’s good news for anglers wanting to get in a few extra rockfishing trips, as the season remains open until December 15 on the Bay and year-round oceanside.
    Despite El Nino’s predicted warming effect, however, planning any fishing trip this time of year means getting good information on weather conditions. A 10-day forecast is a good place to start.
    I refer first to the temperatures and, because I have a small skiff open to the elements, eliminate any day predicted to be under 50 degrees, especially as damp, salty air always seems to be extra cold. Even if you have a 30-footer with a heated cabin you will be forced out into the open when the action starts.
    Next, look to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Forecast for guidance on wind speed, direction, precipitation and sea conditions. The first two days of the forecast are generally on target. The third day can be fairly accurate; thereafter, refresh your data as your target date gets closer. Expect significant change.
    On the Bay, winds above 10mph are not recommended for open boats. The seas push higher, and the resultant wind chill can make things very uncomfortable, even dangerous.
    Wind direction is also important, especially if it is from the northwest or southeast. Those directions mean the wind is coming the full length of the Bay, and that has an amplifying effect on wave height.
    For real-time local conditions, look to the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System at Constant reports originate at 10 Bay locations. The rule I follow is that if any two weather sources are in conflict, expect the harsher version to be the more accurate.
    If you’re a shore-bound angler, dress warmly, have extra clothing handy and carry a hot beverage. Temperatures should be above freezing; otherwise your line will ice up in the rod guides.
    Fishing the colder months also means the fish will react differently to bait or artificial lures. Expect very hesitant, almost imperceptible bites. If you’re working lures, do it slowly and methodically; when you feel a bump, react deliberately, staying poised to drop back to give the fish another chance if you feel no resistance.
    Bait anglers will have to watch their rod tips like hawks and will still find their baits stolen. Adding scent such as menhaden and shedder-crab oil to your baits can pay extra rewards this time of year. Jumbo bloodworms are worth the extra cost. Rockfish metabolisms have slowed with the declining temperatures, so they will not eat as often or as much as during warmer months. Persistence and patience are critical to success.
    There can be excellent big-striper action in winter around Ocean City (minimum size 28 inches, limit one fish). The inlet, particularly, is a haven for big fish that can be jigged up or caught on live bait. The surf fishing can also be excellent, and fly and light-tackle anglers working parallel to the shoreline, just behind the break, have hooked up with some giants.

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.