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Features (Good Living)

A fresh-cut Douglas fir is the safest tree you can buy

Believe me when I say that not all Christmas trees are created equal. I know because I was assigned to set fires under the five most popular Christmas species.
    In 1995, I was asked by the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and the State Fire Marshall’s office to research the most fire-resistant species. I tested white pine, Scots pine, blue spruce and both Douglas and Frazier firs. The State Fire Marshall set the rules. I rolled a single sheet of newspaper into a ball about 10 inches in diameter. I placed the ball against the lowest branches of the tree, then set it afire.

Ancient Ailing Oaks

Q    I live in the St. Margaret’s area near the Bay Bridge. In my neighborhood, many, if not most, of the old oak trees are dead or dying. These are original trees in an area that was never farmed; I’m sure many of them are well over 100 years old. It is so distressing since they are beautiful and I love them and because it costs $2,000 to $3,000 to have them cut down. Do you know why they are dying? Is there anything I can do to save them? I think they are red oaks, though my tree identification skills are poor.
    Thanks so much for your help. I read your column every week and thoroughly enjoy it.
    –Linda Williams, Annapolis

A    There is no way that I can determine the cause of death without seeing the conditions in which they are growing. I have cherry bark oak trees in my yard that are over 150 years old. I keep them healthy by vertical mulching every four to five years. When I moved here 22 years ago, they were in a severe state of decline, but after being vertically mulched, they revived. I suggest that you contact Mark Emmel at 301-345-2981. Mark is a good arborist and is familiar with vertical mulching.
Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Fresh-cut trees of each species were delivered to me at Upakrik Farm and stored — some with, others without water — at 70 degrees with lights on for eight hours. Trees were held in storage for three and six weeks prior to testing.
    We set the fires in the Fire/EMS Training Academy’s burn building at Cheltenham, with several Christmas tree growers watching. Each variant of the experiment was replicated three times and videotaped for evaluation by fire marshals from three counties and from the state office.
    White pines generated lots of smoke regardless of the amount of time in storage. They were immediately rejected by the fire marshals.
    Frazier firs were also rejected. Stored without water, they burned readily after three weeks of storage. After six weeks, they exploded into fire.
    Douglas fir was approved as the most fire-safe tree because even after six weeks of storage without water, it did not ignite. Scots pine and blue spruce were also approved.
    We repeated the experiment in 1996 with exactly the same results.
    As a Christmas tree grower, I attribute the Douglas fir’s fire-safe performance to its low resin content. My knives and pruners remain clean even after days of shearing. This is not true with the other species tested.
    As a result of this study, the State Fire Marshal established COMAR 12.03.04, allowing only Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce in public buildings. Each tree must be accompanied with a tag identifying the farm where it was grown, date of harvest and species. Before the tree is moved indoors, two inches must be cut from the base. Tree stands must hold a minimum of two gallons of water. The tree must stay indoors no longer than four weeks.
    To keep your house fire-safe this Christmas season, follow these recommendations.

The interloper visits Spica and Mercury

Mercury is putting on its best pre-dawn show of 2013, more than doubling in brightness this week, from +1 magnitude to –0.5 (each order of magnitude is exponential, so an increase from +1 to 0 is a doubling). Monday marks the innermost planet’s greatest elongation — its farthest point away from the sun as seen from earth and its highest point above the horizon. Mercury rises a little before 6am and climbs nearly 15 degrees above the southeast horizon before the sun rises more than an hour later. Ten degrees above Mercury is blue-white Spica, but even this first-magnitude star pales compared to Mercury this week.
    First discovered last September, Comet ISON is heading into the inner solar system for the first time, coming within 700,000 miles of the sun November 27. If the comet survives that close encounter, it could live up to the comet of the century billing. If not, the next two weeks are your best chance to spot this long-distance traveler.
    With binoculars or a small telescope, look for ISON one degree to the west of Spica Sunday before dawn and less than one-half degree to the east of the star the next morning. By next Thursday and Friday, ISON will be within 10 degrees of Mercury — well within your binoculars’ field of view. Perhaps by then it will be bright enough to see with the unaided eye.
    Sunday marks the full moon, the Beaver Moon and the Frost Moon according to lore. The full moon floats just six degrees below the miniature dipper-shape of the Pleiades star cluster, while Monday night it is even closer to Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull.
    The full moon’s glow washes out all but the brightest meteors in this year’s Leonid shower, which peaks between the 16th and 18th. Still, the Leonids are active through the month, so patience or luck will likely reward you with a few of these shooting stars.

The law is a two-way street for drivers and for cyclists

I’m one of those bicyclists that motorists love to hate.
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You’re never too young to compete as a triathlete

Bay-area dads had a Father’s Day blast watching their kids dive into the 2014 Truxtun Park Triathlon in Annapolis. My dad was blown away as his two daughters crossed the finish line after a 100-meter swim at the park pool,  five-mile bike ride and one-mile run along the Silopanna Trail and halfway around the track at Bates Middle School.
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There’s still time to get the kids signed up for fun this summer … but don’t wait

Planet Hope Land & Sea Camp

Ages 5 to 17 learn how to sail on 14-foot dinghies. Camps cover water safety, capsize recovery, rigging, terminology and basic sailing skills in a fun and exciting atmosphere. Five-day sessions from June 9-Aug.11 at Herington Harbour South, Rose Haven: 410-867-7177; www.sailingcamp.org.

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John Smith was right

The Chesapeake is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.
–Captain John Smith, 1608
The Bay seemed like a god when I was growing up. It was filled to the brim with opportunity: a fishing spot, a refreshing cool-down, a glassy surface to explore by boat.
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In simplicity, I find plenty

It was late October when I launched my kayak from Jackson Landing into the Patuxent River. I wondered what I would find during the lull between migrations. The osprey had already settled into their South American winter quarters, the ducks and swans were still on their way from northern shores. September’s abundance of wildflowers had faded; only remnants of purple asters remained, the rest gone crunchy and brown....

A St. Patrick’s Day visit from Southern Maryland to Southern Ireland

America goes green on St. Patrick’s Day. From beer to dress to hair (and once upon a time, the Chicago River), green is the color of choice.
     In putting on the green, we’re not alone. St. Patrick’s stomping grounds is doing its own greening, returning to its roots to recapture a way of life and an economy rising from the Old Sod.

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The lessons at Anne Arundel Community ­College’s Culinary Institute will last well after the new yearBob Melamud

Food eaten between November 1 and New Year’s Day contains no calories. I suspect I’m not alone in honoring this conviction. Yet a lifetime of stepping on the scale January 2 has convinced me that our cherished belief is a cruel urban legend.
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Courthouse Square now looks a lot like Christmas

On December 3, the Parish Hall At Christ’s Church in Port Republic bustles with four dozen Calvert Garden Clubbers preparing to decorate the county courthouse with evergreens harvested a day earlier at four local farms.
    “We call it the Greening,” says cochair Mary Berkley.
    Wearing monogrammed aprons, they work likes elves trimming magnolia, grapevine and boxwood for wreaths, fragrant sprays and evergreen ropes.
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