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Soon these pullets will be laying eggs

Right about now spring chickens are no longer the cute, fuzzy bundles they were just five weeks ago. Just like human children, they have begun maturing — at first by bits. Now they look like mini adult chickens.
    So it’s a good thing most chick purchases are not for cuddly cuteness but for modern homesteading.
    For now, new chicks are still dependents, requiring extra attention food, shelter and water. Chicks must maintain a body temperature of at least 90 degrees when brought home, with diminishing temperatures after that. They are pullets, the proper name for hens of this transitioning age, no longer chicks but not yet laying.
    Novice chicken farmer Susan Nolan of Lothian has six chickens in her developing flock, two Barred Rock, two Red Stars, one Andalusian Blue and one New Hampshire Red.
    From now until early fall, she gives them two heaping scoops of feed a day. Just like the kids at home, the chicks are messy eaters, leaving more on the ground than in their bellies.
    By early June, they can leave the shelter of Nolan’s home to live in their own residence, the coop.
    Around September, they’ll be feeding Nolan and her family approximately three to five eggs a week per chicken.
    Read more on raising egg hens at:
www.bayweekly.com/node/17991.

Death by herbicide is the first step toward no-till farming

This spring, Chesapeake Country meadows turned from green to the color of straw. It’s been a strange sight and one you’ll see more of in coming years. No, it’s not a symptom of climate change. It’s a step in no-till farming.
    No-till farming offers many advantages over conventional farming.
    Plowing, disking and cultivating destroy soil structure and organic matter and cause soil to compact and to lose moisture, thus requiring ever more energy and more powerful equipment. Turned soil is exposed to wind and water erosion. Dormant weed seeds, which infest our soils, are exposed to sunlight, which can give them the push to germination in a few seconds.
    No-till farming, on the other hand, promotes the accumulation of organic matter. With more organic matter, soil needs less fertilizer, keeps its moisture, avoids compaction and is protected from erosion. But the first step, conversion from conventional to no-till, requires greater dependency on chemical weed killers called herbicides.
    The quick spring change from green fields to gold means the vegetation was sprayed with Gramoxin. Gramoxin is a restricted-use herbicide used to kill either annual weeds or a cover crop of winter rye or wheat. The applicator must be certified to use Gramoxin.
    A more gradual change of color over seven to 10 days suggests the chemical herbicide was glyphosate, pioneered as Roundup by Monsanto. This chemical is used most on peren­nial weeds.
    Weed killers in agricultural use generally have a short lifespan. They are applied in ounces per acre and decompose by light, heat and microbes. As no-till promotes the accumulation of organic matter, there is an increase in microbial activity, which helps keep soil productive.
    In no-till farming, the only soil disturbed is a thin slice where both the seeds and fertilizers are injected into the soil. With less soil disturbance, the weed population diminishes with time, thus reducing the need to apply weed killers in the future.
    The immediate advantage is most noticeable during drought years. No-till crops are more drought-tolerant because the soil retains more water.
    It takes about three years before farmers begin to measure the full benefits of no-till farming. As organic matter accumulates, there is less fertilizer needed to optimize crop yields. With less soil compaction, the roots of crops are able to penetrate deeper for water and nutrients.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at [email protected] Please include your name and address.

Mack the Lab is Maryland’s chief apiary sniffer

Cybil Preston and her bee dog Mack the Lab are official heroes in the state of Maryland.
    Like all heroes and superheroes, Mack rose from a troubled past. He was a puppy in a dissolving family where three small children took up all the time the mother had to give. Preston came to the rescue, sensing Mack had the brains to pick up new skills. He did.
    Preston, Maryland’s chief apiary inspector, needed a new sharp-nosed dog to continue the nation’s longest — and only — canine apiary inspection program. The most famous of the five dogs who held the Maryland job was Klinker, who was featured in a National Geographic segment before retiring in 2014.
    Bee dogs, as the apiary inspectors are known, can sniff out a killing disease. The American foulbrood bacterium kills both pupae and pre-pupae in bee colonies. It spreads in a vegetative form as well as through spores, which means if a hive is infected, any tools used even, potentially, the hive itself may have to be destroyed.
    American foulbrood gets its name from the country in which it was discovered and its foul smell, “like chicken manure,” Preston says. The human nose can detect the scent only if the hive is opened, Preston says, “while Mack need only walk past.”
    He stops and sits to signal an infested hive.
    Mack works only in the cold, below 52 degrees, when bees are dormant, so he isn’t stung. One sting on the nose taught handler and dog that lesson. Mack works on the Preston family farm in his free time, at his master’s side, sidetracked only by a game of Frisbee.
    Quick, cost effective and extremely accurate, bee-sniffing dogs are a key part of Maryland apiculture and agriculture, keeping bees at work pollinating crops.

Mack’s sensitive nose helps Maryland’s chief apiary inspector Cybil Preston find bee hives infested with American foulbrood.

With resident rockfish season, ­fishing becomes catching

Trophy rockfish season ends Monday, May 15. On Tuesday, May 16, the second Chesapeake Bay rockfish season begins. At the change, the size limit changes from one fish of over 35 inches to two fish 20 inches or larger, only one of which may be longer than 28 inches.
    Legal fishing areas are limited to the main stem of the Chesapeake from the Hart-Miller Island Dike south to the Maryland-Virginia line plus Tangier Sound and Pocomoke Sound; and the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers and their tributaries. No rockfishing in other rivers, tributaries or creeks, bays or sounds. The geographical limits protect rockfish that continue to spawn in these waters into June.
    Making the transition to angling for resident fish, which will now mostly measure under 30 inches, will mean shifting both equipment and technique.
    This time of year begins light tackle heaven. As rockfish forage in shallower water, they can be pursued on medium-weight spin and casting rods. With the spawn mostly done, patterns emerge as to where the fish can be found.
    As the average size fish will now be about 23 to 24 inches, in tackle drop down to hooks 5/0 and under, leaders 20 to 25 pound or less and lures six inches and under.
    More specifically, trollers should begin dropping back to six-inch sassy shads on their bucktails and parachutes as well as using smaller spoons and swimming plugs. As waters warm, fish begin holding deeper, so additional weight may be needed to present the baits at the necessary depths.
    Chumming, chunking and bottom fishing produce better, as stripers form larger schools, hold in one location much longer and start the post-spawn feed. Alewife, menhaden and bunker (all the same baitfish under different names) continue to be the prefered bait for rockfish. Shore-bound anglers can also rely on bloodworms — jumbos if they can be found — to tempt better-sized fish.
    For now, shore-bound angling is limited to locations that border the Bay proper, among them Sandy Point, Matapeake and Point Look Out state parks. Note that Jonas Green Park and Romancoke Pier, both popular fishing areas, will not be legal until June 1.
    Resident rockfish will now also begin holding on structure such as bridge piers, jetties and along the deeper (five to 10 foot) points and rocky shorelines. This will make them accessible to jerk baits such as Bass Assassins, BKDs, Rapala X-Raps, Rat-L-Traps and similar swimming plugs. At first and last light they will be susceptible to top water baits in the areas along these same structures.

Feed new plants or warm the soil

Like air, soil is slowly warming. When soil temperatures are below 60 degrees, soil microorganisms are rather inactive and plants have fewer nutrients to absorb. As the soils warm, the microorganisms become active and more nutrients become available.
    The conventional gardener can readily solve this problem by side-dressing with a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle Gro or by sprinkling calcium nitrate, ammonium sulfate or a complete fertilizer near the plants and cultivating it into the soil. This practice will stimulate the plants into early growth. Never allow granular fertilizers to remain on the surface of the soil if you want your money’s worth, for some of the nitrogen will be lost into the atmosphere.
    The solution to cool soil is more complicated for organic gardens, where growth depends on the microorganisms in the soil digesting the organic matter and releasing nutrients.
    Organic gardeners can solve the problem by blending blood meal or fish oil with the soil prior to planting. Another method is to cover the area one to two weeks before planting with a sheet of clear plastic, anchoring the edges of the plastic into the ground. The clear plastic will provide a greenhouse effect and warm the soil. At planting time, remove the clear plastic and cover the row to be planted with black plastic strips 12 to 18 inches wide. Using a sharp knife, cut an X and transplant through the plastic, which will help keep the soil warm and smother weeds.
    I rely on soil test results in making fertilizer recommendations. However, testing is done at room temperature, so soil may contain adequate amounts of nutrients that may not be available in cool soils. This is why water-soluble starter fertilizer is recommended when transplanting in early spring. Water-soluble starter fertilizer provides instantly available nutrients that early spring-planted crops need for optimum growth.
    If you are transplanting plants grown in peat pots, tear away the top of each pot before planting. Allowing the tops of the peat pots to protrude above the soil will result in water being wicked away from the root ball. Plants can die of drought despite the soil surrounding the peat pot being moist. I prefer tearing away the entire peat pot to ensure that the garden soil makes direct contact with the root ball.
    If you are transplanting plants grown in plastic pots or cell packs, examine each root ball before planting. If the roots cover the entire outside edge of the root ball, crush the root ball to disrupt the root system. By crushing the root ball, you will be forcing new roots to grow into the garden soil. Allowing the roots to remain undisturbed often results in delayed establishment or stunted plants.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at [email protected] Please include your name and address.

Bats have a colony of mothers

Who knew that bats make excellent mothers? You and I do, thanks to Maryland Department of Natural Resources bat biologist Dana Limpert, who speaks highly of the brown bat.
    “They take excellent care of their young. If a baby falls out of the roost or is injured, the mother will recognize its calls and rescue it.”
    Myotis lucifugus is small, about three and a half inches with a wingspan of nine to 11 inches and weighing less than half an ounce. Their name comes from their long brown fur. Brown bats live throughout Chesapeake Country, especially near water for drinking.
    A female bat gives birth to one or two pups every spring, late May to early June, with twins common hereabouts. During pregnancy and after birth, mother and pups reside in a “maternity colony” that can range from five to several hundred of the winged mammals. Think about a Yaya sisterhood on an animal level.
    Babies not yet able to fly attach themselves to mom immediately after birth and feed on her milk for the first few weeks. When momma bat gets hungry, she leaves her pups in the colony cluster and goes out to hunt for bugs. Upon return she licks faces, recognizing her pups by scent and call.
    In a month or so, pups join their mother in catching and eating bugs.
    Recent developments in gene identification have shown that all members of a colony are related. Colonies live in tree trunks, caves and barns. Eventually — in the fall for females and a year later for males — the pups leave their mothers’ sides to start their own families. The mothers will rejoin their male counterparts in forming a bigger colony to mate, hibernate and begin the cycle anew.
    DNR wants to know if you see bats to help in population studies and preservation of the species, which is under fungal attack: https://tinyurl.com/DNR-bats.

Look up; they’re all around you

Drifting high across most landscapes this time of year, sometimes to altitudes of 16,000 feet or more, are airborne travelers that few people notice, though the fliers may number in the thousands.
    They are spiders seeking new ­territories.
    These ballooning or sailing spiders are generally the smaller of the many spider varieties and are borne aloft by winds on gossamer filaments, usually three, spun by the spider, forming a pyramid canopy that can carry them for miles, sometimes thousands of miles.
    Primarily a migratory activity, especially for young hatchlings, sailing or ballooning is a natural mode of transportation that disburses the spiders from their nesting or home site. When they are ready to travel, the spiders instinctually climb high in the trees or onto higher terrain and spin their webbing. Then, standing on tiptoes, they wait for the wind to bear them away.
    Because of their size they are difficult to see, but you can sometimes spot them on a sunny day by looking up for their long, silvery threads. On a recent fishing trip on the Chesapeake, we were rewarded by spotting a dozen or so of the travelers, a few of which found refuge on our skiff, disappearing into the nooks and crevices as soon as they landed.
    Aerial arachnids that come down on the Bay are not doomed, as they are so light that, with their naturally water-repellent feet, they can skate or scamper across the water’s surface, often to great distance, eventually reaching more hospitable territory. Or nature’s airborne rangers can spin new webs and wait to be carried aloft again.

Silt does not happen by itself

Farmers, homeowners and contractors are all responsible for making silt that clogs our streams, rivers and lakes and pollutes the Bay. Farmers who after harvesting their crops allow the soils to be fully exposed to the weather all fall, winter and spring are guilty. Homeowners who wash down their driveways and sidewalks in place of sweeping them are guilty. Contractors who bulldoze the earth to clear land for roads, homes, shopping centers and more are also guilty.
    Removing the vegetation allows exposed soil to be carried away by wind and water. The lowest point on land that water can travel is sea level. Thus, dust containing sand, silt and clay settles in the lowest points. Moving water carries soil and deposits sand as the flow of water decreases. The silt is carried farther to eventually settle to the bottom of slow-moving streams. Clay floats out into the Bay, clouding the waters and preventing bottom vegetation from growing, as well as carrying nutrients that feed algae that, when it dies, causes eutrophication.
    The early tobacco farmers were notorious for allowing their fields to remain barren after harvesting. Those farming on slopes lost tons of topsoil each year due to erosion. Most of the silt recently dredged from Rockhold Creek originated from old tobacco fields in the watershed. Even now when a sod farm starts to harvest sod, Rockhold Creek runs chocolate-brown following a heavy rain. Coloring the water is the silt in the topsoil that has washed into the creek. Most will settle to the bottom before it reaches the Bay. What enters the Bay are clay particles in suspension.
    The loss of topsoil and the siltation of our rivers and streams can be prevented by never allowing soil to stand exposed. As soon as a crop is harvested, the land should be planted either with another crop or a cover crop of wheat, rye, millet, Sudan grass or buckwheat. This rule applies to the home gardener as well as to farmers.
    When farming on slopes, contour-farming practices should be applied together with strip-crop farming. Strip-cropping plants wide strips of grass between plots of cultivated crops. The grass strips prevent the sand, silt and clay from washing away.
    Buffer zones or riparian strips of 125 to 150 feet wide of grasses or natural vegetation should be required between cultivated fields and open bodies of water. I encourage farmers to build berms of compost two feet high and two feet wide planted into tall fescue on the riparian strip. Compost is an ideal natural filter that will absorb clay and keep nutrients from flowing to the water during heavy rain.
    It should be unlawful to clean the driveway and sidewalks with water. That water carries dirt, oil, animal droppings, etc. into the storm drains. All storm drains empty into nearby streams that eventually flow into the Bay. A good push broom not only provides exercise but also pushes all of that crud onto the lawn or garden, where it becomes part of the soil. Oil will be degraded by the microorganisms in the soil.
    Before any construction begins, contractors should be required to establish a buffer zone around the construction site and install a silt fence with Filtrex filled with compost on the low side of the silt fence to capture the clays and nutrients. Compost has been proven to be an excellent filter of clays and nutrients. If the silt fence is to remain in place for more than a year, the Filtrex should be seeded with tall fescue to use the nutrients absorbed by the compost. Only clean water should be allowed to exit construction sites.
    If we all did out part in keeping soil where it belongs, our agricultural soils would be more productive, there would be less need to apply fertilizers and the water in our streams, rivers lakes and the Bay would be crystal clear and blue as it was meant to be. Progress should not be measured by polluted water or by polluted air.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at [email protected] Please include your name and address.

This novice was hooked, even though her big fish got away

Her rod was bowed over with strain, the line hissing out against the drag and the muscles of her arms tensed with the force of a good fish running hard. Julie’s face, however, was bright with a smile. She was checking off a significant item on her life list and was enjoying every minute of it.
    Her fifth fish of the day would measure 31 inches. That was the closest we would get to landing a 35-inch keeper. But failing a keeper did not dampen her enthusiasm. “I’m hooked,” she said. “This is more fun than I could possibly imagine.”
    Julie Wheeler’s rockfish adventure started at a family gathering in the midst of one of last winter’s colder months. My wife’s cousin and the  same age, Julie was born in Baltimore but married and left Maryland with her husband for a New England life. For a time she skippered a 31-foot cruiser in the Atlantic, but she had never caught a striper.
    Having returned to Baltimore a few years ago to live closer to her family, Julie longed to catch a rockfish. I promised to help her as soon as the season opened.
    Our day on the water last week was one of the more beautiful so far this early season. The wind was a mere wisp, the water flat calm and the temperatures moving into the 80s. The trophy rockfish season is an ideal time to tangle with a larger class of fish.
    The bite was constant, with no more than 15 or 20 minutes between fish. While we waited we traded stories about relatives, the Chesapeake, rockfish in general and were entertained by the first of the season’s sailing spiders flying across the Bay, held aloft by long strands of silvery webbing that occasionally caught up our rod tips.
    We were chumming and chunking fresh alewife, and the four rods that we streamed aft southeast of Hackett’s green can were frequently hooked up, sometimes two at a time. The smallest fish we released that day was 24 inches. The largest we never got to measure.
    It was later in the day that Julie managed a straining rod out of its holder. “This is the big one. It’s really strong,” she said. She could hardly hold the rod vertical. Sitting down and planting the rod butt at her waist she began to slowly haul back, then wind the rod tip down, almost to the horizontal, then lift it again, stroking and gaining a little line each time.
    For a beginner, she was a fast learner who had quickly become comfortable with rod technique. “I’m not sure I can get this one” she said when all the line she had just gained went pouring back off the reel on another of the fish’s runs.
    “No, just take your time,” I assured her. “It’s not going to get away. Just keep the pressure on it.”
    It turned out that I was wrong. Just as she began another attempt to turn the fish back toward us, the rod sprang upright, “Oh, he’s gone!” she cried.
    “Keep reeling,” I said. “Maybe it’s coming to the boat.”
    But it wasn’t. It had somehow spit the hook.
    “Losing the big one is all part of fishing,” I assured her. “It wouldn’t be a sport if you got them all.”
    “Yeah, maybe,” she replied, unconvinced. “Let’s get that line back in the water. Maybe it will come back.”
    We finally pulled the plug after about seven hours of effort. All Julie could talk about on the ride to the ramp was how soon we could get back on the water for another try. She wanted to get some keepers, learn how to clean them and get them prepared for a meal. I’m guessing that the Bay has not seen the last her.

Fish in the Classroom goes to college

Whoever heard of taking fish back to the water?
    Trout Unlimited did, and that’s why my Anne Arundel Community College environmental studies class of 25 students is carrying buckets of trout to the Little Paxtuxent River near Savage Mill.
    Trout Unlimited believes that the best way to conserve and create more coldwater fisheries is to partner with local hatcheries and release trout into local rivers. The fingerlings we release are Kamloops rainbow trout, grown from some 9,000 embryos supplied by the Albert Powell State Hatchery to be raised in classrooms across the state.
    In the national Fish in the Classroom program, trout are raised in low-income schools by kids who might not have another opportunity to understand water ecology and stream preservation. Teachers can ask to have their classes included in the free program.
    Rainbow trout are not Maryland natives, but they do provide good fishing and eating. Maryland’s native brook trout, a key indicator species, are greatly reduced because of urbanization and rising temperatures.