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If you want to amuse the fish gods, announce your plans

It was the simplest and most delicious of meals. A thick rockfish fillet anointed with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse-grain salt, fresh-ground pepper and dill and broiled long enough to brown both sides. Served with the fish were the first ears of Florida Silver Queen corn, boiled for only four minutes, plus thick slices of fresh tomatoes also treated with olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkled with chopped basil.
    The dinner had taken a little over 20 minutes to prepare. The complete operation, however, involved many difficult hours. There’s an old saying to the effect that if you want to give the fish gods a chuckle, announce your plans.
    Foolishly I had proclaimed how good the bite would be on the opening day of the second rockfish season May 16 and just how readily I would procure large and tasty fillets for a springtime meal that very evening.
    When I peered out my window that Monday morning, I saw that opening day was going to be a washout as a drenching rain would fall all day. My plans were as sodden as my newly planted raspberry bushes, at that moment threatening to float down the driveway.
    My angling efforts during the latter weeks of the trophy rockfish season had resulted in lots of close calls. We had caught and had to release a surprising number of fat stripers up to 32 inches but landed few of the legal 35-inch minimum. I expected a superb bite when the minimum size fell to 20 inches.
    The day after the deluge dawned with great weather. But much to my surprise, the areas from above the Bay Bridge to below Hackett’s were pretty much rockfish desert. The thousands of marks I had seen on my finder in previous weeks were no longer there.
    Oh, there was a blip here or there. But the fish-rich scene painted by my angler sonar in early May was no longer there, though I searched from the Baltimore Light down south past Tolley’s Point. Questioning fellow anglers later that day confirmed my experience. There were lots and lots of long faces on the second day of the second season.
    The problem with stripers, an old waterman had confided, was that the rascals have tails. They can and will often be many miles away within a short time. As there was also no evidence of the gatherings of baitfish that had previously teemed in the mid-Bay, I could only surmise that right around opening day the baitfish had left with the stripers following.
    Still, I persevered. Jigging some areas and fishing cut bait in others, I worked for more than six hours to get a single bite. That lone 23-inch rockfish was it for the day.
    The meal my wife and I shared that evening was worth every moment it took to acquire it. There is nothing to compare to dining on a rockfish caught the same day.
    I managed to score some nice fish later in the week, though rockfish still have not returned in their previous plentitude. I am confident, however, that fishing will continue to improve — but not so confidant that I will tempt the fish gods again by flaunting my plans.

Test your soil to put them to work

Horticulture is a science, not a guessing game.
    I can remember my pipe-smoking, tobacco-chewing grandfather putting garden soil in his mouth to taste if it was sweet or sour. I was impressed at the time, but looking back on his method of testing soil, I know it would have been impossible for him to make any determinations of the pH or of nutrients by taste.
    Just as doctors rely on blood tests as guides to their patients’ health, in agriculture, we rely on soil test results. Soil testing supports both the health and nutrient value of plants. A deficiency of one or two essential soil nutrients reduces not only yields but also the level of nutrients within plant tissues that will be ingested by humans or animals. Soil that is deficient in zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, calcium, etc. will produce plants that are equally deficient, which will have a direct effect on your health.
    If you have applied 10-10-10 fertilizer on your garden or lawn for many years, it is likely that your soil has too much phosphorus. That excess can, in turn, result in reduced crop yields and plants deficient in zinc, iron, copper and manganese. The excess phosphorus binds these nutrients, making them unavailable to the roots of plants.
    This is the problem farmers experience from repeated applications of chicken manure, which is rich in phosphorus. In that case, the excess phosphorus in the soil is making the soybeans or corn grown there deficient in essential elements. Humans or animals eating those grains will not get a nutritionally balanced diet.
    Too much phosphorus causes still more problems. When soil erodes and enters Bay waters, phosphorus attaches to clay particles. When these clay-laden soils penetrate silt fences and enter the Bay, the phosphorus is released, adding to the water’s nutrient-concentration problems.
    Another element, boron, is also secretly at work in your soil. If you are gardening in a sandy loam or loamy sand, boron deficiency is likely. Plants do not require much boron, but its deficiency affects yields and storage life. You have likely seen the result without recognizing it. The brown punky blotches you sometimes see beneath the skin of an apple tell you that the fruit was grown on boron-deficient soil.
    Without soil testing, you won’t know the invisible forces at work in your soil.
    I can now give you a choice of two laboratories for your soil testing:
    • A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratory, now known as Waypoint: (804-743-9401; 7621 Whitepine Dr., Richmond, VA 23237).
    • AgroLab, Inc.: (302-566-6094; 101 Clukey Dr., Harrington, DE 19952). Request a soil-testing kit, including instructions on how to take qualitative soil samples.
    Include my e-mail address ( on the information sheet to have results sent to me for interpretation. Include your own e-mail address as well so I can forward you my recommendations.
    Good recommendations depend on a good sample. To represent your current soil conditions, take at least five core samples to a depth of six inches in six different locations in your lawn or garden. Mix the core samples thoroughly in a clean container. Remove about a cup of soil for testing. Spread the sample on a clean piece of newsprint to dry overnight before mailing. On the form, identify what’s to grow in that area. Results are typically returned within a week.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

One of gardening’s incomparable pleasures

There is nothing like sneaking into the garden in mid to late July after the potato plants have finished flowering and stealing a few thin-skinned potatoes. If you hill your potatoes with compost in place of garden soil, you can harvest potatoes without disturbing the plant. At the final harvest, you get the added benefit of potatoes that are almost dirt-free.
    Freshly dug potatoes have a flavor all their own. Mashed, they are nice and fluffy; French-fried, they are always golden and absorb very little cooking oil; baked, they are outstandingly delicious. They bring all these advantages because they are nearly 100 percent starch. As their thin skin needs no peeling, they are packed with vitamins that concentrated immediately under the skin. If you like hash brown potatoes with onions, your garden can provide both because the long-day onions you plant this spring will be bulbing at about the same time you start taking potatoes from the plants.
    Hilling potatoes with immature yard-debris compost in place of garden soil has many advantages. First, it forces you to generate an abundance of compost because it takes a lot to hill potatoes. By the time the potato plants are two feet tall, you will have had to hill them at least three times. For a row 80 feet long, that’s at least five wheelbarrows full. Purchasing that much compost would cost you a pretty penny. Furthermore, the compost you purchase is finished and heavy to handle. Immature compost from the composting bin that you filled last fall has a large amount of partially decomposed leaves mixed with more fully decomposed materials, making it less dense and easy to transport and apply.
    Second, by hilling the potato plants with compost, you can easily push your hands in until you feel an edible potato. As long as you gently remove the potato from the rhizome, you do not retard the growth of the plant.
    Third, as immature compost does not absorb much water, even the smallest rain will penetrate down into the soil where most of the roots that feed the plants are located.
    Fourth, potato beetles do not appear to be as problematic on potatoes hilled with unfinished compost. Entomologists tell me that adult potato beetles are not good navigators. They have no problem taking off, but when it comes to landing, they often miss their target. Instead of flying back to the plant they missed, they walk on the soil. They appear not to like walking on rough surfaces such as unfinished compost. Thus, when hilling with unfinished compost, keep the leaves of the plants from touching the ground.
    There are many years I have not had to spray for beetles. A daily walk through the planting to remove the beetles by hand, dropping them into a container, is all that has been necessary.
    Fifth, by hilling with compost you have added to the organic matter of your garden soil. By rotating my potato planting every year, I manage to apply a uniform layer of compost over the entire garden every five years.
    All that and delicious young potatoes, too.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

A partnership of late dinners

It was getting dark. Exhausted and stinking of menhaden, I fingered a reel, feeding more line into the dwindling tidal current. I had fished since morning and caught at least three or four rockfish mere inches short of the 35-inch minimum, so calling it quits without a keeper was difficult.
    Earlier in the day, I had warned my wife I was intending to fish well into the afternoon.
    “That means you’ll be out there until after nine or so, right?”
    “No. I hope to be home at seven, certainly by eight.”
    At half past eight, I was still fishing and at least an hour from home. Deb, I knew, would not be upset or even surprised, even if I was a good deal later.
    My spouse understands this sort of thing. She is a sculptor. When we first met, I feared the extreme behavior of an artist would fatally complicate our relationship. Instead, it seems to have inured us to each other’s excesses.
    Back in those days, Deborah might be incommunicable for days, pulling endless all-nighters to get ready for a show, despite the slight chance of financial reward.
    She didn’t find it maddening that I spent all my vacation time, and not a little money, flying with our two German shorthairs clear across the country to chase chukar partridge, valley quail or some equally obscure game bird along ridges and mountainsides so steep and remote that many questioned my sanity.
    In our different pursuits, we were almost identically compulsive. We both intrinsically understood the irrationality of our efforts but accepted them in each other.
    Later, as she found success and became even busier, devoting countless hours in her studio, I had expanded mine to pursuing bonefish in the Bahamas, Mexico and eventually down into the Caribbean.
    To further complicate, in the middle of all this we had three sons. That put limits on our scope of adventure. Though much more home-bound, we still followed our passions. I mostly limited mine to hunting and fishing around the Chesapeake. Deb began to teach, restricting her shows to one or two a year, while we raised the boys.
    Our sons are now adults, two in businesses in Florida and the third a sculptor living and working in Baltimore. Outside teaching hours, Deborah has created a loyal following of collectors who occupy her with their constant demand for her work. I’m still a fervent, outdoor enthusiast.
    Which brings me back to the dwindling light as the last of the sun outlined ripples in the current. On a similar night just a few years ago I enjoyed an insanely intense bite of stripers at near midnight not too far from this spot.
    Then I picked up one of the four rods trailing aft. Cranking in line, I unhooked the chunk of menhaden bait and tossed it into the current. Securing the hook and racking the rod, I did the same to the other three outfits. I was packing it in and going home.
    Sitting down to a late dinner and conversation with my wife seemed like a reasonable alternative to spending another few hours trying to seduce a big rockfish. The idea, however, was a little startling. Was I getting old? Or finally growing up?

Why today’s forbidden fish are legal tomorrow

The rockfish bite had been steady. We’d already caught and released a number of undersized fish when a big one hit Moe’s bait hard. The drag hummed as the fish ran, then turned to the side and — before I could clear the other rigs streaming aft — fouled two of the other lines. Dragging the accompanying baits and sinkers, the powerful fish continued to resist. Eventually Moe battled it to the boat and I netted it.
    That fish would have made a great morning if only it had bit after May 16, the start of the second spring season. We were just a few days shy, so the 31-inch fish went back over the side to go about its business while we sorted out the snarled mess left in its wake. All day we would not get a fish over the 35-inch minimum.
    To avoid harvesting fish carrying eggs, Maryland’s trophy rockfish season is timed by Department of Natural Resources to follow the bulk of the rockfish spawn. This year opening day (always the third Saturday in April) appears to be quite correct, for the vast majority of big females harvested this season have been empty of roe.
    Monday, May 16 begins the second phase of the spring season, when the minimum size drops from 35 to 20 inches and the possession limit increases from one fish to two, only one of which may be greater than 28 inches.
    This second phase of the spring season takes into account a couple of things. Migratory females leave the Bay for the ocean soon after spawning. Males, both resident and migratory, generally remain in the headwaters until the females stop arriving.
    That means that we’ll start seeing large (and smaller) males descending the rivers and the Bay in the next few weeks. Migratory males aren’t as big as the females, but there will still be some substantial fish in the mix. The regulatory provision for one fish over 28 inches allows anglers to bag a big striper without wearing too hard on the overall population of the fish.
    Phase two also targets our resident fish (minimum 20 inches). Rockfish born in the Chesapeake remain here for several years before becoming migratory; they are now also descending the tributaries to feed and school up in the main stem of the Bay. Their numbers are considerable and will constitute the bulk of the fish harvested by recreational and commercial anglers throughout the rest of the year.
    The last part of the rockfish season, the summer/fall season, starts June 1, when all of the tributaries are finally opened for rockfish. Creeks, streams and rivers stay off limits until June to protect both resident fish that continue to spawn through May and migratory fish that show up late (there are always a few). Rockfish season in the Chesapeake will then remain open this year through December 20.
    We caught no trophy-sized fish that May morning, but we had many encounters with lively stripers. Using large cut baits (to target big fish and avoid hooking smaller fish), we had lots of runs that resulted only in excitement. Rockfish, however, have large mouths as well as large appetites, and more than a few of the undersized fish managed to get hooked. We promptly released them, hoping at least some would grow up to be trophies.

How to control these and other web-builders

Those white webs expanding in the crotches of cherry, crabapple and Juneberry trees are made by eastern tent caterpillars. Last summer and early fall, the adults laid their eggs in these favorite trees. As the larvae emerge, they spin a web around the nest, giving it protection from the weather. In the evening, the larvae crawl out from under the web to feed on nearby tender young leaves. Just about the time the sun rises, they return to the web for protection. As the population of larvae increases and the larvae increase in size, so does the webbing of the nest.
    As long as the larvae remain under the protection of the web, they are protected from birds and the elements as well as from insecticidal sprays. You will never see birds feasting on these webs. If you poke your finger into one, you will see why birds do not bother them.
    “The defoliation usually does little damage to trees, and rarely do trees die from an infestation,” says Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder.
    The lack of damage is due to timing. Because the caterpillars hatch as soon as the young leaves unfurl in the spring, the tree has put little energy into the leaves and typically re-foliates in June, seemingly no worse for wear.
    Do not try to control the eastern tent caterpillar by torching the nests. Torching with a flaming kerosene-soaked rag tied to the end of a pole is not only dangerous but also causes permanent damage to the tree.
    The best method of control is to spray the foliage nearest the web with an organic pesticide such as Thurcide or Dipel. These pesticides contain the BT bacteria that kill the feeding larvae from the inside out. They are approved for use by organic gardeners. To obtain maximum effectiveness, apply in the evening to the foliage in the feeding area. A single application will provide protection for three to four days; it will take a few days before you see evidence of the treatment. The smaller the larvae, the better the control. As the larvae grow larger, they become more difficult to kill with BT.
    Use a fresh supply of these organic pesticides, not an unused portion from last year. Once the bottle is open, the effectiveness decreases with time. Unless you are going to be using them to control other pests in your garden, such as cabbage loopers, bagworms or corn-ear worms, purchase the smallest container possible.
    In mid to late summer, you’ll see similar webs on a wide variety of woody plants. These are created by the fall webworm. The same treatments can be used to control these pests. In July, you may also see webs on two-needle pines such as Virginia pine and mugo pine. To control the pine sawfly creating them, you’d need the hard pesticide Sevin.

Is My Compost Safe to Use?

Q I shredded some sunflowers in my composter this past fall. I forgot that they are like walnut trees and put out a mild toxin that can negatively affect other plants. Can I use this ­compost? Or should I just throw it out?

–Mike Morgan, Bowie

A The composting process destroys the enzymes that cause the allelopathic effect, so you can use your compost.

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

Plants are survivors

The spring of 2016 will be remembered as a short spring and a very short summer followed by a short fall — all within four weeks between March and April. Those 70-degree days in mid March stimulated the vegetative buds in many woody ornamentals to swell, causing the winter bud scales to drop to the ground. This left the buds susceptible to damage by freezing temperatures.
    Some Bay Weekly readers have reported buds on their hydrangeas turning brown and drooping, which has never happened before. Others have reported that the new growth on their Euonymus shrubs is turning white and wilting. Others have reported that that frosty nights have caused their American hollies to develop yellow leaves that drop to the ground. They seem to forget that hollies lose their leaves in spring as they start to grow new leaves. The difference is that this year, the transition from old to new is occurring earlier than ­normal.  
    The peach crop will most likely be sparse this year because most of the trees were in full bloom when the frost hit. Once flower petals begin to unfurl, they lose their cold-hardiness. Late-blooming varieties will produce peaches because their flower buds were still closed at the time of the last frost.
    Early asparagus spears wilted to the ground in the section of the garden where I had tilled the soil to control weeds. Where the garden was not freshly tilled and the soil was firm, the early spears were not affected. The difference is due to the heat loss from the soil, which provides frost protection. Where the surface soil was loose, there was not sufficient heat retention to provide frost protection close to the ground. I have seen similar results in gardens where the asparagus beds are mulched. The mulch prevents heat loss from the ground, resulting in the early-rising spears vulnerable to frost.
    But plants are survivors. By the first of June, everything will just about look the same, regardless of late-frost damage.

Planting Schedule
    If you are anxious to get dirt under your fingernails, this is the time for planting potatoes, onions, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, cauliflower, spinach and bak-choi.
    Delay planting tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash and cucumbers until the second week in May. If you are using stakes or cages to grow your tomatoes, remember to spray them thoroughly with a 10 percent bleach solution before installing them. There is evidence that spores of blight on last year’s tomato plants can over-winter on the stakes and cages.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

Whence such a name?

What happened across the Bay at Kent Island to give Bloody Point and the Bloody Point Lighthouse that chilling name?
    Nobody knows — for certain.
    How’s that?
    “Many of the names of locations have been lost over time due to the fact that ownership changes hands,” explains Maya Davis of the Maryland State Archives. “Often time new owners change the name of the property.”
    Nonetheless, there are stories. Christopher Haley, research director for the ­History of Slavery in Maryland for the Maryland State Archives, outlines the top contenders.
    Story 1: In the early days of the colonies, the land that would become known as Kent Island was inadvertently given to two people who represented two colonies — one from Maryland and the other from Virginia. The mistake, unnoticed until one had established a town, led to a bloody scrimmage.
    Story 2: Native Americans were massacred at the point. Supposedly, the Native Americans were invited to an interview with the colonists who killed them without warning.
    Story 3: A pirate convicted of stealing a small boat and killing the three crewmembers was executed and his body hung at Bloody Point to warn others against such crimes.
    Story 4: The point was a place where slave ships threw ailing captives overboard. This heinous practice has been documented in other places, so it could have occurred in the Bay.
    All the stories are bloody, but what’s the truth?

Chesapeake Curiosities investigates regional oddities and landmarks to increase understanding of our unique local culture and history. Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to

Happy Mothers Day to Linne’s two-toed sloth Ivy

Does Hallmark make cards for sloth mothers? Not likely, so let’s send a special Happy Mother’s Day wish to Ivy at the National Aquarium. Ivy, a Linne’s two-toed sloth, gave birth to a baby girl, named Fern, two weeks ago.
    The baby sloth is the newest ­addition to the Upland Tropical Rain Forest and the sixth sloth born at the National Aquarium.
    “We’re thrilled to welcome Fern,” says Ken Howell, curator of the Rain Forest exhibits.
    Mother and daughter are doing so well that they’re back home in the exhibit. But you’ll have to look sharp to spot them. Sloths are well camouflaged.
    Ivy came to the exhibit in 2007 from a captive breeder. She gave birth to Felize in 2015, Scout in 2013, Camden in 2012 and now Fern.
    Baby sloths tend to be a bit on the clingy side. They start eating solid foods within a couple of weeks after birth but remain with their mother for nearly a year. Fully grown, Linne’s two-toed sloths will reach the size of a small dog, about 12 to 20 pounds. When she’s ready, baby Fern will be fed a diet of green beans, sweet potatoes, grapes and other fruits. It can take up to a month for a sloth to digest a single meal. Now you understand where the term sloth got its meaning.
    In the wild, this species is common in South America’s rain forests, where they spend their lives among the treetops, mostly hanging from their four-inch claws. With two claws on their front feet and three on the back, these nocturnal creatures are ideally designed for life in the canopy. They can sleep up to 20 hours a day. Sloths even mate and give birth while hanging upside-down.
    Linne’s two-toed sloths are not endangered like their cousins, the maned three-toed sloth and pygmy three-toed sloth. All sloths are however threatened by continued habitat loss and fragmentation of forests, which forces them to come to the ground to travel to additional trees. On the ground, they become easy prey and face injury and death trying to cross roadways.

Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and produce smaller flowers

As the trumpets of daffodil petals herald spring, we see clumps growing in roadside banks as well as in gardens. Pretty as they are, the flowers in those large clumps are not as large as those of single plants or smaller clumps. Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and thus produce smaller flowers due to a lower reserve of food.
    Professional gardeners dig up and thin out clumps of daffodils every five or six years. This practice allows them to not only maintain flower size but to also expand plantings.
    If you would like to lift and thin your bulbs, now is the time to take the first step. First, use a large plant label or planting stake with a weatherproof tag to mark the location of each clump to be dug, and identify its flower color.    After the foliage dies down to the ground, give the blubs a couple of more weeks to mature. Foliage will die more slowly in clumps growing under partial shade than those growing in full sun.
    To minimize damage to the bulbs, use a fork spade for digging and lifting out the bulbs. Start digging at least three or four inches away from the ring of dead foliage. Lift the bulbs and spread them on the ground to dry in the full sun for an hour or so. After the soil on the bulbs has dried, remove it by rubbing gently with your hands. Avoid damaging the tunic, the thin papery covering on the bulbs. Do not attempt to separate the bulbs from each other at this time.
    After harvesting, spread the bulbs on a flat surface in a well-ventilated room under cover to finish drying for a few weeks. Then place them in mesh bags or screen storage trays, and store them in a cool, dry place protected from rodents.
    In September, plant the bulbs where you want them to bloom next spring.

Is salt damage reversable?

Q Is there any way to compensate for winter salt damage to trees and ­bushes? Also affected is the grass strip ­paralleling the road.

–Farley Peters, Fairhaven

A Most of the damage caused by salt is due to salinity, which kills plant roots. If the sodium level in the soil is equal to or higher than that of potassium, then the damage is more likely related to nutrition. Have the soil tested to see if there is sufficient potassium.

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