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Features (Green Living)

Get out and dig to be ready for spring

If you did a good job of building your compost pile last fall, now is a good time to stimulate more microbial activity.
    Just before Christmas, temperatures in my compost pile dropped below 100 degrees from a high of 130 degrees measured just three weeks earlier. This falling temperature is due partially to a drop in surrounding ambient air and partially to a lower rate of microbial activity.
    Microbial activity in composting can fall because of low levels of oxygen, excessive dryness, less available carbon or fewer sources of nitrogen. For most home composting projects, low levels of oxygen are unlikely unless your compost pile is taller and wider than 12 feet. Exchange of gasses is likely to be fine as leaves are bulky and do not pack easily. Thus, compost cooling is most likely due to a sudden drop in ambient air or dryness.
    To check for moisture, thrust your hand into the compost and squeeze firmly. If the composting waste feels wet like a sponge, there is adequate moisture. If the compost feels on the dry side, drag out the hose and wet the pile down with a heavy stream of water. After the compost appears adequately wet, use either a grub-hoe or digging spade, going as deep into the pile as possible while adding more water. The excess water will drain deeper into the composting mass.
    If possible, empty the composting bin and wet the waste before re-filling the bin. Digging into the composting materials will grind the larger particles into smaller pieces, stimulating greater microbial activity. Ground leaves compost faster than whole leaves.
    Within a week after you’ve reformed the pile, temperatures within it should increase. However, if your compost pile is less than three feet by three by three, it is not likely to give you much temperature rise due to a lack of mass.

Here’s your recipe for making them into rich compost

Don’t bag those leaves for the county to collect. Use them in making your own compost. It takes about a bushel of leaves to make a gallon of quality compost, which contains more nutrients and fiber than peat moss and is less acetic.
    Yard debris compost is made by blending grass clippings with fall-harvested leaves. The compost is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium and lots of important trace elements. Because the nitrogen from the leaves drains back into the stems of the branches from which they fell, yard debris compost contains less than one percent nitrogen, which is contributed mostly by the grass clipping.

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 sever 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 All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

    Since grass clippings are not readily available in the fall, use this recipe to hasten the composting of leaves so that you will have compost ready for next spring:
    1. Build a compost bin that is at least five feet in diameter using snow fencing, turkey wire, pallets or such. The larger the bin, the better. Place the bin where it will not accumulate water.
    2. Fill a five-gallon pail with a shovel full of garden soil, one-half cup dish detergent and a cup of urea or ammonium nitrate fertilizer; top off with water. Stir thoroughly to create a soupy mud. The detergent helps wet the leaves, and the nitrogen-containing fertilizer replaces the grass clippings in providing the nitrogen microorganisms needed to build their bodies and digest the carbon in the leaves. The garden soil provides the necessary microorganisms, and the mud also helps wet the leaves.
    3. Place 12 to 18 inches of leaves on the bottom of the bin. First, pass the lawnmower through the leaves to chop them up and hasten the composting process.
    4. Use an empty coffee can or the like to wet the leaves with the muddy water. Before dipping into the muddy water, stir thoroughly to maintain a suspension.
    5. With a garden hose misting nozzle, wet the leaves thoroughly, washing some of the muddy water down through the layer.
    6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until the bin is full.
    7. Check the bin weekly. The composting process can be hastened by dumping your dirty dishwater over the surface of the compost pile. The detergent and grease will help wet the leaves.
    If you need exercise to stay in shape, mix the compost pile by turning it inside-out. Turning the pile in late January or February provides additional aeration, chopping the leaves and eliminating dry pockets that can occur in the initial building.

Solar, wind and energy-efficient upgrades on the way

Sandy Point State Park is a fine place to soak up the sun. Soon those rays will be turning into energy.
    The Board of Public Works approved a $535,870 contract with Baltimore-based Bithenergy to evaluate, design and install park upgrades, reducing total energy consumption by an estimated 45 percent.

Citizen scientists can reverse the decline

Too many species to count are losing their habitat as native plant communities disappear because of human land management changes and occupation by invasive species. Hundreds of native insects, including many solitary native bees and other critical pollinators, have already vanished.

Latest push to save honeybees

Plants pretreated for insect resistance with neonicotinoids will no longer be on the shelves at Ace Hardware. That’s good news for any bees in the area. A relatively new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids have come under scrutiny as a possible cause of the collapse of honeybee colonies. The chemical pesticide targets an insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis. Bees are apparently as susceptible as pesky bugs.

Big strides toward a healthier planet

48 Days of Blue made waves. By the time the National Aquarium campaign to protect the environment (started on Earth Day) concluded on June 8, World Oceans Day, it had proved that small changes can help to protect the oceans that cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface.

On water and land, our wakes stretch ­farther than we can see

In Edgewater, at Camp Letts, on a tiny peninsula that juts into the Rhode River, erosion could down a might oak. The tree has done yeoman’s work by keeping the soil in place. But even now, as a living shoreline restoration project undertaken by the West/Rhode Riverkeeper seeks to halt the degradation, the soil is sinking between the roots and falling into the river.

When enough people choose to help, large problems can be solved

The ecology of the planet is experiencing a time of rapid change and ­uncertainty. But we all have one very positive decision we can make: to try to make a difference anyway. In other words, to give a damn; it is a choice.

Hidden Harbour Marina honored as Clean Marina of the Year

Chesapeake Country has hundreds of marinas, each unique in its own way. They come in different sizes, different locations, different facilities — and different levels of cleanliness and Bay friendliness.

Can’t get your boat to a pump-out station? One will come to you

If you spend much time on your boat, it’s probably got a head. What you put into the head can’t go into the Bay. It’s against the law to pump effluent into the Bay or its tributaries or within three miles of the U.S. coastline.