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Features (Gardening)

Put those seed catalogs to good use

Perhaps you have received seed catalogs for the coming spring planting season. On the the front and back cover you will likely be encouraged to order early to receive bonuses or discounts. Many seed companies also offer free shipping for early orders. You can save quite a bit if you take advantage of these special offers.
    My method for ordering seeds begins with selecting at least three different catalogs that I have purchased from in recent years. After I have made an inventory of the leftover seeds from 2016 season, I go through each catalog selecting the seeds I need to purchase for this coming season. Expect to substitute some favorite varieties that are not available. Initially I complete three or more order forms. This is a good task after you have cleared the dinner table.
    After I total the cost from each order form, I compare prices, including shipping and handling and the specials that each catalog offers. Since I am always testing new varieties, I make it a point to review all of the information provided on each variety, especially when my time-tested varieties are not available.
    Before I make my final decision on which catalog I will order from, I check the total cost of the seeds with the shipping and handling charges. Most catalogs have a shipping charge based on the total cost of seeds. I base my final selection of seeds by either subtracting or adding from my wish list seeds to minimize the shipping and handling charge. You can save more money by following this procedure.
    Consider these factors as you plan your order.
    1. Expect to pay more for hybrid seeds because of the labor and technology involved in producing them.
    2. Order only what you expect to use in one season. Not all seeds have the same shelf life. The longer you store unused seeds, the lower the germination rate and the longer the germination time. So pay attention to the number of seeds included in each package. I find that many gardeners order more seeds than needed, thinking that seeds can be stored forever.
    3. Organically grown seeds may not be worth the price you pay. What determines if the fruit or vegetable is organically grown is the method of culture. With chemical fertilizers and pesticides or with compost, animal manures or organic fertilizers and without pesticides?
    Fruits and vegetables grown using conventional methods have the same nutritional value as those grown organically. I recently listened to a discussion between dietitians confirming what a graduate student of mine found in the 1980s in an extensive study comparing the nutritional value of snap beans grown organically versus those grown conventionally. The results clearly indicated that the fiber content and nutritional value were similar. The only difference was harvested yields. Bean beetles and the bean weevils caused a 20 percent loss in beans grown organically.


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

Anne Arundel County offers just the right raw ingredients

Anne Arundel County has more horses than any other county in the nation. It follows that we also have more horse manure. Some of that horse manure occupies precious landfill space or is dumped near streams, thus contributing to Bay pollution.
    Anne Arundel County landfills also have too much of another organic waste, nitrogen-rich food waste produced by an abundance of restaurants. Like yard debris, neither of these organic wastes should be occupying landfill space. Landfills are costly to construct and maintain. Both food waste and horse manure can easily be converted into compost.
    In the early 1980s, the Bay Gardener was involved in writing the state law that prohibited the dumping of yard debris into landfills and established yard debris composting facilities. One such facility is located near Upper Marlboro, just a mile from the Anne Arundel County line, near the intersection of Route 4 and Route 301. Operated by Maryland Environmental Services, it is one of the locations that manufactures LeafGro.
    Last month, the Anne Arundel County Council and the County Executive approved the composting of horse manure and restaurant waste on South County farms in facilities between five and 10 acres. The legislation has established strict standards that limit the area for compost to 25 percent of total acreage. Prohibited from composting are dead animals or waste from processing facilities. The new legislation also limits proximity of composting pads to adjacent properties, occupied dwellings and streams. The composting must be done on a non-porous pad, and the facility must be managed by an operator certified in the science of composting. The location of any such facility must be pre-approved. Also considered in the legislation is road access to the facility.
    The Maryland Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying managers of composting facilities. Certification requires a training program and rigorous written exam. As Maryland was the first in the nation to establish a commercial composting training program, I prepared many of the questions that are included in the certification exam. Managers must be knowledgeable in the biological processes, monitoring equipment, standards and management procedures.
    The Maryland Department of the Environment is responsible for inspecting and assuring that the facilities are properly managed and that sanitary conditions are maintained. Maryland’s composting facilities have been operating for the past 30 years without creating problems while producing such compost products as LeafGro, Orgro and Veterans Compost. Many municipalities compost their own yard debris, making it available to residents at a minimal charge, following standards established within their jurisdictions without creating odors. Near Exit 1 on the Baltimore Beltway, a composting facility processes 180 to 200 tons of Baltimore sewage sludge each day without creating an odor problem, producing compost called Orgro.
    Composting is an exact science. It requires blending the proper amount of feedstocks; in this case horse manure with restaurant waste. The amount of carbon and nitrogen in each are determined by established laboratory testing methods. After these two materials are blended properly in the correct amounts and placed in windrows, moisture levels are maintained between 50 and 60 percent and oxygen levels are maintained above five percent. Temperatures within the piles will average between 140 and 160 degrees within 24 to 36 hours. When oxygen levels drop below five percent, the windrows are turned with specialized equipment to introduce more oxygen into the mixture. Some composting facilities draw air, using fans, through the composting piles to maintain oxygen at the proper level. Only when the temperatures within the piles achieve those near ambient air is the compost ready. The process will generally require 80 to 100 days, depending on the time of year and the volume being composted. The resulting compost has a rich earthy smell.
    The microorganisms that digest the carbon in the horse manure, while using the nitrogen from the restaurant waste, are the same microbes found in garden soils. The same process occurs on the forest floor. Science has discovered that under ideal conditions, these microorganisms will gladly work overtime.
    The only by-products of composting are water vapor, heat and carbon dioxide. There are no toxic gasses released during composting.
    Gardening has become the most popular hobby in the nation. Ornamental horticulture is the second largest income-producing agricultural industry in Maryland, second to poultry. Potted plants are all grown in soil-less blends containing one-third to one-half by volume compost. With more people demanding organically grown food, the need for compost far exceeds the supply. Compost is a great soil amendment and a good source of slow-release nutrients.
    I have spent more than 30 years conducting research on using compost made from sewage sludge, animal manures, yard debris, crab waste, garbage, paper-mill sludge and more. Composting is the ultimate in recycling, and it can be done safely and efficiently. Although composting is an old agricultural practice, today’s composting technology is as different as the Model A Ford is to today’s hybrid cars.


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

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.

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.’”

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.

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.

Give a little, get a lot

The vegetable gardening season does not end with the first killing frost. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, snap beans and lettuce may have been killed by the first frost. But if you are an avid gardener, kale, collards, peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and Brussels sprouts should still be growing.
    If you planted Brussels sprouts in late July or early August, you should be cutting off the tops of the plants now to force the sprouts along the stems to increase in size. Cutting off the tops stops the plant from growing taller, thus forcing them to direct their energy into growing larger sprouts.
    Follow this practice and your plants will produce nice large sprouts from bottom to top. If the tops are not cut off, you will have small sprouts at the top of the stem and large sprouts at the bottom. Most varieties of Brussels sprouts will be ready to start harvesting just before Thanksgiving.
    Peas will continue producing flowers and pods until the plants are killed by temperatures below 28 degrees. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower will only exhibit minimum frost damage at those temperatures. Collards, kale and spinach can tolerate even colder temperatures.
    If you sowed carrots back in July, your harvest will be sweet and tasty. There is nothing like eating freshly harvested carrots during late fall and winter months. Parsnips sowed in the spring will not be ready to harvest until mid-winter, if the ground has not frozen, or early next spring, when they will be at their best. Steamed, stir-fried or ground and blended with egg and flour, there is nothing tastier than spring-dug parsnips.
    The asparagus ferns should by now have all turned brown and be ready to cut, chopped and added to the compost bin. However, avoid composting asparagus plants with red berries clinging to the stems. Those red berries contain seeds that will germinate and quickly become a weed when you spread the compost in your garden.
    If you have not already sowed a cover crop of winter rye where tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, snap beans grew during the summer, do it now. Winter rye is the most effective plant to absorb available nutrients in the soil, stop the soil from eroding by wind or water, prevent winter weeds from growing and help in keeping your garden soil fertile. Not all of the nutrients you applied as fertilizer or compost have been utilized by the crop you just finished growing. A cover crop will absorb those nutrients, storing them in the roots and leaves.
    Next spring when you spade or rototill the rye under, the nutrients will be released back into the soil and used by next season’s crops. The incorporation of the cover crop back into the soil helps maintain the organic matter content of your garden soil. A good garden soil should have an excess of three percent organic matter.
    Never allow your soil to remain fallow. Soils that remain fallow contribute to water pollution problems.


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

Dig deep for tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulbs

If you want big flowers and more flowers from your bulbs next spring, plant them now. If you wait until the ground starts to freeze, you’ll see smaller flowers and short stems.
    Spring-flowering bulbs can initiate flower buds only if they undergo different stages of cooling. The bulbs you plant this fall have not yet initiated a flower bud internally. If you were to plant that bulb in a flowerpot and grow it in your home or greenhouse, it would grow — but it would not likely flower. Or it would produce a very small, distorted flower. Tulips, narcissus, daffodils, hyacinths and so on can produce a normal flower only after several developmental stages.
    A second reason for planting now: The more roots the bulb can produce before the flower bud development starts, the better.
    Since our springs are so warm, we are not in a good area for growing spring bulbs that flower year after year without losing flower size and quality. To prolong the life of your bulbs, plant them deep, where the soil will remain cooler longer. This means planting tulip, narcissus, daffodils and hyacinths with the tops of the bulbs at least six to eight inches below the surface of the soil. It is best to dig the hole at least 10 inches deep and place a two-inch-thick layer of compost on the bottom before positioning the bulbs. If you are planting the bulbs in groups, place the flat side of the bulbs against the outside wall so that the leaves will droop outward, improving the appearance of the planting.
    Do not put sand in the bottom of the hole. The Dutch plant in a layer of sand so the bulbs can easily be cleaned for exporting, as required by law.
    After planting, cover the bulbs with a blend of equal parts soil and compost. The compost-amended soil will not only feed the bulbs for several years but also will allow easy penetration of the leaves and flower stems through the soil.
    If you are having problems with moles, chipmunks or squirrels eating your bulbs, plant a ring of mothballs inside the circle of bulbs but just below the surface of the soil. The mothballs should not make contact with the bulbs or stems. If deer are a problem in the spring, consider sprinkling granular RepellAll around each bulb planting. The deer repellent should be applied at three-week intervals until the foliage has died back.
    Next spring, do not allow the flowers to set seed if you want your bulbs to flower again the following year. The flowers should be removed as soon as they wilt by simply pinching them off. Leave the stem to die back to the ground. Do not roll or braid the foliage if you intend your bulbs to flower again. Rolling or braiding will prevent the foliage from replenishing the bulbs with the food they need.


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

Treat yellow-green leaves with ­compost or fertilizer

If your hollies are heavily loaded with berries this fall, most likely the foliage will turn yellow-green, downgrading the contrast with the red berries. It takes a lot of energy and nutrients for plants to produce fruit. This is especially true if the branches are heavily laden with large clusters. Heavy-fruiting hollies generally appear chlorotic. This problem can be corrected by applying a nitrogen-rich mulch such as lobster compost, chicken manure compost or lawn fertilizer between the trunk of the plant and the drip line. For hollies, this treatment should be applied now and the trees irrigated weekly until early December.
    If the plants have had pale green foliage all summer long, they most likely are deficient in magnesium. Without soil test results to confirm this diagnosis, I often recommend spreading one-third cup of epsom salts per 10 square feet. Magnesium deficiency is not an uncommon problem with hollies laden with bright red berries.
    Boxwoods that appear yellow-green in the fall often experience excessive leaf drop due to nitrogen deficiency. If the winter is especially severe, many boxwoods will also exhibit bronzing. Both of these symptoms can be prevented by fertilizing the plants soon after the first frost. Applying one-half cup of a lawn fertilizer for every three feet in height or spread is generally adequate. Make certain that you use only a lawn fertilizer that does not contain weed killers. Apply the fertilizer uniformly beneath the drip line of the branches. Since boxwoods are very shallow-rooted, they will quickly respond to the treatment.
    Azalea are also susceptible to early fall discoloration and loss of leaves. Roots are unable to provide sufficient nitrogen for flower-bud development. As a result, nitrogen from the lower leaves migrates upward to the developing flower bud at the tip of the branches. Chlorosis of the bottom leaves is very common on white-flowering azaleas because they flower in abundance. This problem can be solved by mulching them with either Maine Lobster Compost, compost made from crab waste or ammonium sulfate fertilizer. If using ammonium sulfate fertilizer, apply only one tablespoon per two feet of height or spread of the azalea plants. Apply the ammonium sulfate mostly under the drip line of the branches.


What’s Killing My Spruce?

Q    I have a 50-year-old spruce tree that is dying from the bottom up. What would cause this (just old age?) and is there anything that can be done to save it? Thanks for your advice. I love Bay Weekly.

–Mary Jane Gibson, Lothian

A    It is not old age because spruce trees can live 100 years or more. Which spruce is it — Norway, white, black, red, Colorado, Engelmann, Siberian, etc.?  Look at the ground under the branches for holes about the size of a silver dollar. If you see such holes, it is possible that pine mice are girdling the roots. If so, you have to kill the pine mice with poison bait for mice (available at the hardware store). If the trunk is bleeding sap, then the tree is infested with cankers. Or the tree may be suffering from weed killers if you have used them on your lawn.


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

Three steps to keep them happy indoors

Some houseplants have to be repotted every six months, while others can stay put for two or three years. Frequency of repotting also depends on container size, quality of care, productivity of the rooting medium and frequency of nutrient applications. Annuals — such as grape ivy, begonias and marigolds — have very vigorous habits of growth and should be repotted at least twice yearly. Foliage plants such as ficus, schefflera and crotons tend to grow slowly and can be left alone for a year or two, depending on the age of the plant and container size.

Step 1: If root-bound, repot
    As you move houseplants in for the winter, check first whether they are root-bound. Knock the plant out of its container, holding the still-potted plant with your fingers on each side of the stem, then turning it upside-down amd rapping the top of the container sharply on the edge of a solid table or bench, dislodging the root ball. If it is covered with a solid mat of roots, the plant is root-bound.
    To stimulate root-bound plants to produce new roots, take a sharp knife, and make four or five cuts through the root mat from the top to the bottom of the root ball. Using your fingers, loosen as many roots as possible, and shake out old rooting medium from the center of the ball.
    Unless the roots of a root-bound plant are disturbed during repotting, the plant will stay root-bound despite having fresh rooting medium and a bigger container.
    If using a larger container is not feasible, apply the bonsai root-pruning practice, cutting out one-third of the root mat to allow new roots room to grow.

Step 2: Use active potting soil
    Repot into freshly blended potting medium. Try this recipe: Mix equal parts by volume garden soil (less for plastic or ceramic pots), compost and perlite. Place in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so that it will remain moist.
    Or improve commercial media by adding one-third by volume compost such as LeafGro. Peat moss-blended media shrink over time; avoid them.
    If you have old potting medium, whether homemade or purchased, make sure it is biologically active. Old potting soil that has been allowed to dry out and remain bone dry for months is biologically dead. To make old dried-out potting medium usable, moisten and blend it with either fresh compost or new potting medium.
    Add all the old rooting medium to your compost pile.
    Place some fresh potting medium in the bottom of the container. Replace the plant, adding and tapping down more medium as you go. Using your thumbs, press the rooting medium firmly into the center of the root ball and between the root ball and the walls of the container.
    Leave a half-inch free space between the top of the root ball and the top edge of the container for proper watering. Finally, bounce the bottom of the container sharply on a hard surface so that the loose potting medium fills in the voids.

Step 3: Water generously
    As soon as you finish potting, flood the surface with water several times until you see excess water flow from the bottom of the container. This washes the medium into cavities around the roots. After the water drains, fill with additional medium. Allow to drain thoroughly before bringing inside.
    A later column will explain indoor watering.


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