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Your pot must runneth over

By now your houseplants are adjusting to winter life inside. Or not. Many potted houseplants fail to grow properly because they are never watered properly. Here’s the right way.
    Every watering should be so ample that an excess of water drips from the bottom of the pot. Of course the pot should have drainage holes in its bottom and sit in a saucer to protect the furniture or windowsill. 
    If a plant’s soil is all the way to the top of the pot, you’ll have a watering problem. When repotting, always leave three-quarters to one inch of free space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of pot.
    If your plants were repotted with a half-inch or less of space between the surface of the potting medium and the top edge of the pot, your solution is to water by slow release using ice cubes. For plants in pots three to five inches in diameter, place two to three ice cubes on the surface of the soil. As the ice melts, the water will enter the soil without overflowing. Judge the number of ice cubes by inspecting the saucer beneath the pot in about an hour. If water is not visible, add another cube or two, and base the number of ice cubes needed in the future on the test results.
    If you are watering your plants by placing water in the saucer and allowing the water to be absorbed through the bottom of the pot, you’ll have noticed salts accumulating on the top edge of the pot. Continuing sub-irrigation of potted plants generally always results in this accumulation of fertilizer salts because the excess fertilizer salts in the soil migrate upward with the movement of the water. The salts appear as yellow-white to gray powder along the edges of the soil surface or on the pot, depending on the type of pot being used. 
    To prevent this accumulation, water the plants from the surface at least monthly or in two to three consecutive irrigations before resuming sub-irrigation.
    It’s that easy, and your plants will thank you by prospering.


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

Fly south for angling adventure and comfort

Icicles hang off my skiff, parked on its trailer in the side yard, as leafless tree limbs thrash the skyline and an icy rain falls, mostly sideways. It’s a grim picture, unless you adopt a southern perspective.
    With crude oil under $50 a barrel, airlines are reviving some sweet deals for an angler with a yen for warmer climes and gamer fish. Florida has some fares under $70 (Fort Lauderdale, each way). Even San Jose, Costa Rica, can now be economically reached, often for under $300 round trip.
    Both locations offer awesome fishing in the next few months. Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach, just north of Miami, are hot for king mackerel, snook, seatrout and redfish from both the piers and beaches, as well as offering an excellent chance to tangle with 20- to 30-pound Jack Crevalle, one of the hardest-fighting gamefish that swims the Atlantic.
    Vinny Keitt (www.pier-masters), who introduced me and two of my sons to some excellent fishing around Boynton Beach, has an enthusiastic outlook for January and February. Vinny teaches how to catch the fish in his neighborhood as well as guiding (on foot) at the many public access beaches and piers for whatever is biting best at that moment. It’s 85 degrees and sunny down there right now.
    January and February will also bring great sailfish action to both Florida and Costa Rica. You’ll find affordable packages online for multiple locations around the Miami area (I recommend Rick and Jimbo on the Thomas Flyer, thomasflyerfishing@gmail.com. The Costa Rican Pacific Coast, particularly the Quepos/Jaco areas, features vast numbers of the glamorous billfish.
    If you don’t mind shopping on foot a bit at the marina, local Costa Rican skippers with open 23- to 25-foot outboard-powered panga boats can put you onto the sails, only minutes offshore, for about $200 a day.
    Fly anglers dreaming of encounters with the legendary light-tackle skinny-water bonefish also have opportunities. Baltimore to Cancun, Mexico, air connection is direct and about $300 round trip if you can select your days. There are bonefish just north of the Cancun resort area for fishers who’ll rent a car and wade-fish the shoreline flats.
    For a guided experience for the grey ghosts, make arrangements on-line for fishing from Cancun south all the way to the Ascension Bay (Punta Allen) area.
    For do-it-yourselfers, driving down the coast from Cancun to Punta Allen, stopping at local motels and wade-fishing the shoreline flats, can also result in some very inexpensive and rewarding fishing adventures.
    All of these areas are among the safest in Mexico, but you do have to use common sense when deciding where and when to explore.
    Anglers hoping to tangle with heavier-weight offshore fish also have some economical options. Direct flights from Baltimore to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on the southern Pacific Coast are available for under $400. January, February and March are the peak of the striped marlin season (100 to 250 pounds). Again, local fishermen operating 23- to 25-foot open pangas are available for hire quite reasonably, as are the larger, sleeker sport fishing boats at higher prices.
    Multiple billfish days are the norm there this time of year. Your only limitation is how much excitement and fish-fighting exertion you can handle. Accommodations range from expensive waterfront luxury to simple fish-camp-quality motels at much more affordable rates.  If you’ve a yen to travel a bit during Maryland’s winter, an adventurous angler has a great many options.

Santa’s a gardener himself, so he knows what’s on your list

T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.
The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of compost danced in their heads.
The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose;
To settle their roots for the long winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow;
Protected the roots of the grasses below.
Then what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.
I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

“To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit;
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.
To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower;
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

“For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble;
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.
For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves;
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

“A fungus agent for her compost pit;
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.
With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path;
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

“And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”
Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

“And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum,
“‘Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.’”

Good health or the Lemming Effect?

Charging into a nearly freezing body of water in the middle of the winter is a tradition for people around the world. Frequently, the plunge is made on New Year’s Day.
    The first New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge is credited to Coney Island, New York, in 1903. Founder Bernarr Macfadden believed that a dip in the ocean during the winter could be “a boon to stamina, virility and immunity.” The Coney Island Polar Bear Club takes ocean plunges every Sunday from November through April, with the largest on New Year’s Day.
    The notion that cold water could have health benefits probably came to America with European immigrants, who believed that cold-water dips, alternating with sauna or steam baths, promoted good health.
    Boston has the second-oldest New Year’s plunge, started in 1904 by a group called the L Street Brownies.
    January brings two plunges to Chesapeake Country.
    The new year begins with a Polar Bear Plunge in North Beach at 1pm. It’s a free event with all welcome. Register by December 28 or on the day ($25) to record the moment with a T-shirt and certificate and support Calvert Meals on Wheels.
    At the end of January, the Maryland State Police and Maryland Special Olympics invite plungers into the Bay at Sandy Point State Park. The 21st annual Polar Bear Plunge has become so large that it stretches over three days, January 26 to 28, with the main event Saturday: www.plungemd.com.
    “The first year I think there were 300 plungers,” says Jason Schriml, of Special Olympics of Maryland. “We are anticipating 7,000 for Saturday this year but will have around 10,000 for all three days.”
    Last year’s plunge raised nearly $2.3 million for Special Olympics.

Scout lures wood ducks to Franklin Point State Park

Wood ducks are swamp-loving birds, so Shady Side, with its historical nickname The Great Swamp, ought to be the kind of place they’d like. All the more so Franklin Point State Park, 477 acres of wood and waterfront on the Shady Side Peninsula, where humans are welcome but not common.
    Wood ducks are welcome, too. To add curb appeal to the park, Boy Scout Reggie Scerbo, 18, of West River, has built and installed seven nesting boxes that satisfy the requirements of the picky and distinctive species.
    The medium-size dabblers have heads shaped like helmets and thick, upright tails. The males stand out like brilliantly colored harlequins. Less visible are the clawed toes that enable them to climb trees to nest in cavities. Lacking trees, they settle for nesting boxes built to just the right specifications.
    “The entrance hole had to face the water, regardless of compass direction,” Scerbo explained. “The height from the ground had to be about six feet, with an oval hole with a diameter of three by four inches. It is also important to put bedding inside the boxes, since wood ducks rely on the rotten wood that would be in a dead or dying tree. A predator guard is also important to keep out snakes, raccoons and other predators.”  
    Reproductive survival is low as the newly hatched ducklings are driven by instinct to flop out of the nest and follow their mother to the water. Nearly 90 percent of wood ducklings die within the first two weeks, mostly due to predation, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program. The vulnerable species was hunted nearly to extinction a century ago.
    Now humans are helping the species recover.
    Scerbo’s box is one of about 1,800 on Maryland public lands, from which some 8,000 chicks were anticipated in 2016.
    The Maryland Wood Duck Initiative recruits volunteers like Scerbo, offering training, site review and box location help as well as providing materials — cypress for the boxes and street sign poles for the supports.
    “Reggie figured out how to make it happen,” said West/Rhode Riverkeeper Jeff Holland. “He worked with experts from the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative to get technical support, cleared the location with the Maryland Park Service and got the help of the Scouts of Troop 249 of Edgewater in assembling and putting in the right place.”
    The ducks helped Scerbo earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
    “We expect a wonderful impact on resurgence of this species in our habitat,” Holland said.

Sure-to-please choices

You’ve tried to choose a gift for the sport in your life, the dedicated angler, canoeist, hiker, shooter or sailor. And you’ve failed.
    The look in an aficionado’s eye on opening a present naively intended to enhance the enjoyment of a particular sport is a dead giveaway. Just what am I going to do with this? Next — but too late to mask the eye movement and expression of astonishment — come effusive explanations of just how special the gift is and how much it is appreciated.
    Here’s how to do better this year. If you are not dead certain that the gift is indeed unique and desirable within the context of that sport —almost impossible if you don’t share the passion — give a gift certificate.
    A certificate for a favorite restaurant is an excellent choice, as is one from a good sporting goods store. If the person in question is keen, sartorial-wise, a certificate from one of the better area clothing stores will may be the ticket. For those impossible to anticipate, I note that liquor stores are beginning to sell holiday gift cards.
    But if you must choose a sporting gift, try something like this. For boaters, a new piece of technological boating gear has recently arrived in retail stores to satisfy a safety requirement of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Weems and Plath electronic flare and emergency SOS light.
    Flares are required to be onboard any craft larger than 16 feet that intends to go on big water or operate at night. Flares inevitably have an expiration date (usually three years hence) and are inherently dangerous to operate.
    This new electronic flare never expires, is safe to use and is superior in terms of visibility and effectiveness of operation. All boaters will eventually possess one of these new devices in lieu of the incendiaries. If you want your skipper to appreciate your thoughtfulness, and to keep safe at the same time, giving one of these new devices is a sure avenue to success.
    LED flashlights are also an ideal gift for the sports inclined, especially the small units with high light output (1,000-plus lumens). These devices can be lifesavers in emergencies. Every car, motorcycle, boat (or other floating or moving conveyance) should have one somewhere onboard.
    They’re also handy for non-sporting occasions as they thoroughly illuminate any dim, dark walks back to an automobile and can effectively (though briefly) blind and ward off anyone who threatens to approach uncomfortably close. The better ones are the size of a small candy bar.
    Another unique LED creation is the Larry Light, a small, inexpensive, bright stick of lights that is directional and magnetized so that it can be attached anywhere there is metal for hands-free illumination of dark recesses. They’re also handy for casual photographic applications.
    The incredibly efficient Yeti brand coolers have become quite popular of late despite their hefty price tags. Yeti also offers hot/cold drink cups and thermos bottles that are unbelievably efficient as well as more affordable. They make an ideal gift for almost anyone.

Get a fast start with my Gouin brew

This is a great time to activate the compost pile. The fallen leaves are rich in nutrients and organic matter. Mother Nature has been using leaves as natural mulch since the beginning of time.
    I begin with my leaf blower, blowing as many leaves as possible under the branches of the shrubs to mulch them over winter.
    For my compost pile, I then use the lawnmower to chop the remaining leaves by mowing the lawn with the blade set at five inches above the ground, starting from the outer-edge of the lawn and working my way into the center. This pushes the fallen leaves into the center of the lawn where I can harvest them easily and transport them to the compost bin. Chopped leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    With the garden hose handy to spray water on the leaves as I load them in the bin, I lay a 10- to 12-inch layer of chopped leaves and cover it with a uniform layer of leftover compost from last year. To hasten the composting process, I sprinkle about one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate per 10 square feet of area and water thoroughly. Each layer of leaves covered with compost needs to be wet in order for composting to start. Dry leaves do not compost.
    If you do not have leftover compost from last year, make your own compost starter by adding a shovel full of garden soil to a five-gallon pail. Add one-half cup of cheap dish detergent and one cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Stir the mixture well, and sprinkle it over each layer of copped leaves added to the pile. The detergent will help in wetting the leaves, and the ammonium nitrate or urea will provide nitrogen to stimulate the microbes in the garden soil into doing their duty. Five gallons of this Gouin brew is sufficient to cover about 30 square feet of composting area.
    The larger the compost pile, the better. Compost piles smaller than five-by-five-by-five feet will not generally become very active until next spring when temperatures warm. However because of mass, larger compost piles are capable of generating and maintaining high temperatures all winter long — providing the composting materials remain moist.
    A long-shank thermometer of two feet or more is helpful in monitoring microbial activity. You can also see the effects of microbial activity by simply digging into the pile on a cold day, watching the vapors rise and feeling the warmth of the compost. If you did a good job of preparing the pile, rising temperatures should be measurable in two weeks or less. You should also notice significant reductions in volume as temperatures rise. This means that the microbes are digesting the leaf tissues and generating heat and carbon dioxide.


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

They’ll keep us company till the osprey return

Right on time, tundra swans
have dropped from the skies over Chesapeake Country like giant snowflakes. They are big birds, weighing 20 pounds or so in maturity with a six-foot wingspan.
    About December 1, perhaps I heard their raucous cries cutting through the dark of night. Four or five days later on Fairhaven pond, I saw a pair of white birds so big that they couldn’t have been gulls. December 10 the evidence was incontrovertible: a pair flapping over the pond, a couple pair more paddling through the water, skirting the skin of ice.
    That’s modern swan time; used to be they’d arrive reliably for Veterans Day, just as the osprey arrive reliably for St. Patrick’s Day.
    Tundra swans are creatures of cold weather, but the freeze in their Canadian nesting grounds sends them south in search of food. They come as families, parents and a cygnet or two, only four months old and making this two-month flight of thousands of miles from above the Arctic Circle. The big birds fly at about 50mph; they follow the freeze south through Canada, feeling along the way.
    The Chesapeake is a historic wintering spot, and they’ll stay with us from now until earliest spring. So you’ve lots of opportunity to meet them.
    See their loose Vs passing overhead, hear their bark and spy the huge birds close up as small flocks float on Bay marsh ponds and coves, long necks stretched to the muddy bottoms to harvest grasses, clams and other small mollusks. Long-distance flying is hard, hungry work, so it may take a while before those elegant, long necks rise to show you the species-signature black beak.

It all goes back to Hansel and Gretel

In one form or another, gingerbread has been popular since at least mediaeval times.
    “Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe — often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Several cities in France and England hosted regular gingerbread fairs for centuries.”
    Gingerbread became especially popular in Germany, where monks baked the confection starting around the 14th century. Lay bakers then started making the treat and took their recipes extremely seriously, guarding them as family secrets.
    Building gingerbread houses likely started in Germany. Records of gingerbread houses start in the 1600s but became really popular after the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812, according to The History Kitchen.
    In the tale, a witch lives in a house made of delicious candy and cookies. The house is a trap she uses to lure children into her home and, eventually, her oven. Somehow the story inspired bakers to create their own baked houses, and people liked them, despite their terrifying associations. Gingerbread houses now range from the simple to the extreme.
    This year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust commissioned a gingerbread house that is astounding. Built by an English cookie making company, the mansion took 15 months and 500 hours to create. It was inspired by Waddesdon Manor and is made up of 66 pounds of butter, 240 eggs and 480 pounds of icing. It is six feet tall and has details that many of us would never imagine going into a gingerbread house, like paintings, beds, chairs and elaborate carpets, all made of confection. See the creation at https://waddesdon.org.uk/whats-on/biscuiteers-manor-in-gingerbread/
    Closer to home, a gingerbread White House is always part of the holiday decorations at The White House. This year’s house is constructed of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
    Fifty-six more pseudo gingerbread houses, each actually made of Lego bricks, represent each state and territory
    If you have $78,000 to splurge, you can order an organic gingerbread house custom made to look like your own home, adorned with pearls and a five-carat ruby from veryfirstto.com.

From boxwood to white pine, you’ve many evergreen choices

Here in Chesapeake Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

A Bonus from Boxwood
    Back in colonial days, gardeners pruned their boxwoods by breaking branches just prior to the holidays for use in making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    To punch holes through the boxwood canopy thus allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant, break branches 12 to 14 inches long. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring. Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods with shears during the summer increases the chance of spreading canker-causing diseases from plant to plant.


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