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Halloween falls right in between

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter Thursday, and as darkness falls on Halloween, it shines high in the south, with the bright star Fomalhaut almost straight below.
    As a holiday, Halloween stretches back thousands of years, but not as a day of costumes and trick-or-treating. It coincides with earth’s path around the sun, falling midway between autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
    The Celts of pre-Christan Britain called this cross-quarter day Samhain, celebrating both the end of the harvest and the end of the year. On this night, the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was thought to be especially thin, so people lit bonfires and lanterns from hollowed-out gourds to ward off spirits.
    As Christianity spread, it merged its own holy days with the pagans’ cross-quarter holidays. Imbolc became Candlemas, now better known as Groundhog Day; Beltane gave way to May Day; Lugnasad became Lammas. And Samhain was absorbed into All Saints Day or Hallowmas, marked on November 1, with the night before Hallow’s Eve.
    Now the cross-quarter day coincides with another ritual, setting our clocks back an hour in the return to Standard Time at 2am the first Sunday of November.
    The first week of November provides the best view of Mercury before dawn. The innermost planet reaches greatest elongation November 1, its farthest west of the sun and its highest in our sky. An hour before sunrise, look for it not quite 10 degrees above the east-southeast horizon — roughly the size of your fist at arm’s length. At magnitude –0.6, Mercury is brighter than any nearby star (all but Sirius, in fact), but binoculars may help locate it in the glow of twilight. Don’t confuse the bright planet for Arcturus higher in the east-northeast.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble finding Jupiter. The gaseous giant rises around midnight, and as dawn approaches it is high in the southeast, bluish Regulus and the other stars of Leo the lion stretched out below it.
    Mars is the only planet visible in the evening, shining no brighter than your average star but still a distinct orange-red. Look for it low in the southwest as darkness settles, where it will remain the rest of the year.
    Early November marks the peak of the South Taurid meteor shower. The higher the constellation Taurus, the more meteors you’re likely to see, although the waxing moon will limit you. Still, the Taurids can deliver the occasional fireball.

Straw-Bale Gardening Works

Re: www.bayweekly.com/node/23750

Siberian kale grows happily on bales of straw.
    This summer, I experimented with soilless gardening in bales of straw. The trick is priming the bales with fertilizer. I used 21⁄2 cups per bale of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer minus all herbicides, testing both organic and inorganic.
    I prepared the bales in mid-August, inserting a long-shank thermometer and irrigating two to three times weekly. Priming initiates the composting process. The thermometer monitors temperature, which rises during active composting. When inner temperature again matched that of ambient air, in mid-September, I scattered seeds of Siberian kale over the bales.
    The seedlings grew equally vigorously on bales treated with the organic and inorganic fertilizers.


Save Gita Bean Seeds for Next Year

Re: www.bayweekly.com/node/13348

If you grew Gita beans this summer, by now some of the pods may be three feet long. Harvest those long brown pods and extract the seeds. For the past two years, I have tested saving seeds of Gita and comparing them to seeds purchased every spring for planting. Thus far I have found that the seeds saved are of equal quality to those purchased.
    After harvesting the seedpods, I lay them on a shelf and allow them to dry. When the pods are dry, they split easily and the beans are easily extracted. I then store the seeds in a small plastic, zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator along with the rest of my leftover seeds.
    Gita bean seeds are some of the more expensive you can buy, so saving them from year to year can result in a substantial savings. Last fall I failed to harvest all the bean pods. Gita bean seeds that fell to the ground germinated and grew. Clearly these seeds are quite cold hardy.


White Pines Don’t Like Wet Feet

Q    I live in a townhouse community. The trees in the community are 20 to 25 years old. This last year I have noticed that many pine trees are turning yellow and dying. Any idea of the cause and if we can prevent their deaths?
      –Greg Welker, Bowie

A    I strongly suspect poor soil drainage. We had a very wet growing season, and the soil in Bowie is mostly clay. White pines cannot tolerate poorly drained soils.
    The yellowing symptoms are also due to poor soil drainage. Yellowing of old needles is common, but this season’s yellowing is a symptom of root loss due to excess water.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

While the wind blows, I’m ­getting a handle on things

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale puts the threshold for a half-gale at 20 miles per hour. These stiff Bay winds are projected to be with us intermittently into November.
    Winds like these cheer the hearts of sailboat skippers after the doldrums of summer. But anglers on the Chesapeake suffer at being blown off the water as the season winds down.
    To calm the turmoil that gens up in my angler’s innards when I realize another Maryland winter is fast approaching, I clean my gear.
    Most in need of TLC are the cork handles of my favorite rods.
    Cork is extremely lightweight, odorless, compressible, long lasting and eco-friendly compared to synthetic materials used for the same purposes. It is warm and comfortable to the touch and has a non-slip quality, even when wet, which is why I prefer it to all other materials for my light-tackle outfits.
    This splendid material is increasingly expensive and ever more difficult to find at any price in the better grades used in quality fishing rods. Portugal and Spain produce 80 percent of the cork for world markets, the lion’s share consumed by the wine industry.
    Production is a complex, long-term affair. The material is derived from the bark of the cork oak, which must be at least 25 years old before it can stand harvest without harm. Subsequent extractions can be made every nine years. Luckily, however, the cork oak has a lifespan of 200 years.
    If well maintained, a cork-grip fishing rod will last indefinitely, at least the lifetime of the owner. Proper maintenance is not difficult. Start out by giving the handle a gentle but thorough scrubbing with a sponge and common kitchen scouring cleanser.
    After scrubbing, rinse the handle and put it aside to dry. Inspect for any gaps or flaws in the cork. These should be corrected with good-quality wood filler.
    I like Elmer’s Interior/Exterior Wood Filler in Golden Oak. It is easy to use and closely matches the hue of most cork. Fill the voids and scars on the handle with a small knife or similar instrument. After the filler has completely dried, use 220-grit sandpaper to smooth and blend all surfaces. Then let the filler set up for an extra day or two before proceeding with the final step.
    All cork rod handles should be dressed after cleaning and drying with a generous application of Pure Neatsfoot Oil. This will insure that the cork does not dry out and will protect it from weathering and restore its flexibility and fine tactile qualities.
    If our windy weather finally breaks, cork maintenance is not in vain. A clean, well-oiled handle will not soil easily, and a few extra, late season uses will do hardly anything but give you an extra appreciation for your efforts. You will, after all, have already gotten a good handle on things.

Even eclipsed, this star blinds

If you didn’t already know about the partial solar eclipse just before sunset Thursday, you’re not likely to have solar glasses at the ready. Do not look at the eclipsed sun for even a moment as it can cause lasting eye damage or blindness. But you can still watch safely with little preparation.
    Try projecting the image through binoculars. Cover one lens and aim the other at the sun, pointing the eyepiece toward the floor or a piece of paper until the sun’s orb appears. Bring it into focus, and voila! You may want to use a tripod, and you can use a small telescope in the same fashion.
    Another option for watching the sun is a pinhole projector, a perennial science project requiring only two sheets of white paper and a pin. Poke a clean round hole in a sheet of paper. With your back to the sun, hold the pierced paper between the sun and the second sheet of paper until you see the sun’s inverted image projected onto it. Increasing the distance between the two sheets enlarges the image but decreases its sharpness. Or you can get more elaborate using the same principles with a box large enough to put over your head to create a viewing chamber.
    Here along Chesapeake Bay, the eclipse begins Thursday at 5pm with the sun low in the west. Alas, it will still be in full swing come sunset at 6:17pm.
    The eclipse won’t be your only chance to put a pinhole projector to use. The sun right now is in the midst of a massive solar storm, resulting in sunspots large enough to see with the protected-but-unaided eye.
    Sunspots start as massive magnetic bursts deep within the sun that migrate to its surface. While highly charged, this energy is cooler than the sun itself, thus appearing darker than surrounding areas. Once to the surface, the energy flares into space in what are called Coronal Mass Ejections, which can wreak havoc on satellites and take down sections of the power grid. Already the International Space Station has turned to face away from the sun to limit the damage from this solar storm.
    Out of all this violence comes beauty, too, in the form of the Northern Lights. So keep a lookout, as a solar storm of this magnitude could make them visible this far south. Learn more at SpaceWeather.com.
    The moon returns to view Saturday as a thin crescent very low in the west-southwest. Look to its lower right for Saturn. As the moon waxes into the new week, it shines near the planet Mars.

From pot to rooting medium to placement, these plants have ­special needs

Orchids are becoming one of the most popular potted plants. They have the advantage of long-lasting flowers and very attractive leaves. However, after they have flowered, they are often neglected and only watered on inspiration.
    Orchids are epiphyte, meaning that they obtain most of their moisture from the air through root-like structures. In nature, they live in tropical forests, growing on trunks and branches of trees. The terrestrial forms of orchids, most commonly offered for sale, are sparsely branched with coarse roots.
    The typical rooting medium for growing orchids is fir bark, coarsely ground to provide maximum air movement through the container in which the roots are growing.
    Orchids generally bloom once each year. But with proper care after they bloom, you can have them blooming yearly for many years.
    After the plants have bloomed, you will often notice coarse roots growing outside. This is your cue that the time has come to repot into a larger container. 
    Common potting media guarantees death to the plant. Repot using fir bark.
    Carefully remove the orchid plant from its original container. If the roots are circling to conform to the shape of that pot, gently pull them apart allowing as much of the old fir bark to remain attached as possible. The new container should be at least one size larger than the current container. A shallow container is better than a deep container. Never a container without drainage holes in the bottom because the roots of orchids cannot tolerate standing in water.
    Place a couple of inches of fir bark in the bottom of the container before positioning all of the roots in the pot. Using one hand to support the plant in the middle of the pot, work the fir bark around and between the roots with the other, shaking the plant from side to side and bouncing the container on the potting bench to get the bark down between the roots. With thumbs and fingers, press the bark firmly around the roots.
    Water the plants thoroughly several times immediately after potting to help fine particles of bark fill some of the voids. Water from the top, not by sub-irrigation.
    During winter, the plants should be irrigated twice-weekly and fertilized monthly using a liquid fertilizer. I recommend an organic liquid fertilizer for best results. Do not place the plants near a window, lest they are chilled. Avoid direct sunlight, too. Give your orchids a spot three to four feet from an east- or north-facing window.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The catching is still good if you can stick with the search

We were almost back home when the fish hit.
    Gulls wheeling about and feeding are the single best indicator of rockfish surface action. Having seen not a single bird — much less any stripers — for more than three hours, we were packing this trip in.
    Fishing farther south or north was out of the question, for the wind was kicking up high, wet whitecaps in both directions.
    In a last desperate stop before the marina, we trolled small white bucktails while hugging a lee shoreline. The trip seemed all but over until the rod right next to my head went down with a strike.
    I grabbed it and set the hook. From the force of its fight, I guessed that it was not a giant, perhaps not even a keeper.
    I lifted and cranked the fish slowly and steadily toward the boat with the short spinning outfit that we had put into play as a trolling rod. Assuming we had a schoolie on the line, I was a bit casual about rod handling — until the fish broke water behind the boat.
    The bright black-lined sides of a striped bass were the sight I expected. So I was stunned when a broad, deep olive flank flashed in the light of our overcast sky. It was a white perch and a big one. Spotting the fish at the same time, my two companions yelled in surprise.
    Frank Tuma, a good friend and the captain of Down Time, the 29 foot C Hawk charter boat we were prospecting from, readied a net. But by that time the fish was alongside, and I could see that it was well hooked.
    That big little devil caused more excitement than a 30-inch rockfish. We laid it out and measured it at 13.25 inches, over citation size. Since big perch have become scarce around the mid-Bay the last two years, it was quite a satisfying catch.
    Circling back, we fixed our attention on the finder and saw a tight school of impressive marks about where the big one had hit. Breaking out some light rods, we rigged them with small jigs. We came up with nothing. The school had apparently moved as we had readied our tackle. Try as we might we couldn’t locate it again.

Back for More
    Rotten weather and busy schedules kept us off the water for almost a full week. When Frank and I finally did more prospecting for that school of perch, our effort paid off.
    Our first pass over the lucky area resulted in four big black-backs, all over 11 inches. Subsequent passes netted more brutes. A four-gallon bucket was filling with those mouth-watering white perch.
    When the bite dropped off after an hour or so, our bucket was over half full. Satisfied, we headed toward the Bay Bridge in search of birds and breaking rockfish.
    Gulls were screaming and circling low around a middle bridge support. We tossed jigs and top-water lures into the melee. These stripers were numerous but just undersized.
    But on the fish finder, Frank noticed suspicious marks deep beneath the breakers. Drifting with our perch outfits, we again scored on black-backs. Ten-inch white perch came up and over the side one after the other, and within half an hour we had filled our bucket.
    Cleaning them back at the marina, we had to admire our great luck. We had located not one but two nice schools of the best-eating fish that swims the Chesapeake. What’s more, we had caught enough for a number of wintertime fish fries.
    Colder weather has signaled an end to the Chesapeake’s more comfortable days. But the catching is still good if you can stick with the search. And the fish, when you find them, are fatter and more delicious than at any other time of year.

It’s a crowded solar system

If you’ve been out before dawn you’ve likely seen Jupiter blazing in the east. Early Friday morning, the gaseous giant shines left of the waning crescent moon. The following morning you’ll find it above the moon and forming a loose triangle with the star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion.
    The only other naked-eye planets visible are Mars and Saturn, low in the western sky in the darkening twilight. Saturn is fast on the heels of the setting sun, while Mars is farther to the east. Don’t confuse Mars for Antares, the red heart of Scorpius and roughly midway between the two planets.
    Mars has a close encounter Sunday, when Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) passes within 82,000 miles of the red planet. For comparison, the moon orbits the earth by almost 240,000 miles, and the closest recorded comet to pass us was in 1770 at 1.4 million miles! While a collision isn’t predicted, the comet’s tail will likely engulf the red planet. Even with binoculars you’ll be hard-pressed to see Comet Siding Spring, but a telescope will reveal it above the red planet.
    We have our own close encounter with a comet — Halley’s Comet, no less — in the form of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaks late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The comet hasn’t visited the inner solar system since 1986, but each year at this time earth passes through the trail of debris left behind from its countless orbits around the sun. With the waning crescent moon rising shortly before dawn, you might see from 20 to 25 meteors an hour. They can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace back their path they radiate from the constellation Orion.
    The sun and moon have a close encounter of sorts Thursday the 23rd, resulting in a partial solar eclipse in the early evening. Be warned: Gazing upon a solar eclipse can cause blindness, and a partial eclipse is all the more dangerous, so look only with a solar filter.
    Just as it takes a full moon for a lunar eclipse like the one two weeks ago, a solar eclipse coincides with new moon, when it passes between sun and earth, blotting out the sun’s disc — or part of it in the case of this partial eclipse.
    Hereabouts the show begins at 5:52pm, with the greatest point of eclipse coming at 6:08, when one-third of the sun is blocked from view. Alas, the sun sets at 6:17 before the eclipse is over.
    Again, do not attempt to watch the eclipse without protective eyewear; use the coming week to find solar glasses or another proper filter.

Time to repot for life indoors

Fall is the time to repot houseplants. During the short daylight hours of late fall, winter and early spring, most houseplants don’t produce much top growth. This rule is especially true of plants that live outdoors during the summer.
    For a plant to grow in a container, it needs room for new roots. Plants are root-bound when their roots fill the pot. Root-bound plants generally stop producing top growth, and they often start blooming profusely. If the roots are left undisturbed, the plants often develop mysterious symptoms. If you ignore the symptoms, the plants deteriorate.
    Repotting does not necessarily mean putting plants into larger containers. Most house plants can be repotted by simply removing the root ball from the container, shaking it to loosen the roots, cutting out some roots and cutting other roots in half to make room for more rooting medium. The freshened plant can be returned to the same container.
    What’s in that new medium makes a big difference in the health of the plant.
    Most commercial potting materials contain mostly peat moss, perlite or vermiculite and milled pine bark. These soilless rooting media should not be called potting soil. They are generally amended with commercial fertilizers sufficient to support plant growth for six to eight weeks. Unless you fertilize these plants after two months of growth, they often show nutrient-deficiency symptoms such as yellowing or dropping bottom leaves.
    Amending commercial medium by one-third volume of compost, such as LeafGro, improves them and reduces your need to fertilize.
    You can achieve better results by making your own potting soil or soilless rooting medium.
    For a good soilless mix, blend equal parts by volume of LeafGro, peat moss and perlite. For every gallon of peat moss, add two heaping tablespoons of dolomitic limestone. Peat moss is very dry; moisten it well during mixing. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so it will remain moist.
    To make potting soil, mix equal parts by volume garden soil, compost from your garden or commercial compost and perlite. Place the blend in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using.
    If more than one-third of your potting soils comes from the garden, repot in porous clay pots rather than glazed or plastic one. Unless soil is very sandy, it holds water and can rot roots without good evaporation.
    Plants potted in mixes containing garden soil don’t need as much water or fertilizer as plants growning in soilless media.
    In porous clay pots, plants growing in soilless rooting media will dry out more rapidly, thus requiring more frequent watering. More frequent watering takes more frequent fertilizing.
    Your plants do better when you give them the pot that’s right for their rooting medium.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The fish gods may just deliver

I was re-exploring some old territory higher up in one of our broader tributaries when the strike finally came. Working a quiet shoreline in the early morning, I cast out a half-ounce Saltwater Chug Bug near the broad entrance to a tidal pond.
    With just a soft twitch, the lure spit a bit of water, then sank from sight. I wasn’t sure it had been taken by a fish until my rod tip dipped and the line moved up current. Coming tight, I cinched the fish up, and the surface erupted, removing all doubt.
    Launching my skiff earlier that morning, I made a vague and silent promise of especially good personal behavior if the fish gods would only grant me a few rockfish. Later I realized I should have been a little more explicit.

Fickle Fall
    “It’s not all that difficult to catch a rockfish,” a friend of mine once opined. “What is difficult is catching them the way you want to catch them.” He was talking about top-water fishing in the shallows, and his words are ringing especially true this season.
    Surface fishing in the skinny water is a fall activity and generally best at high tides in early morning or evening. Rockfish don’t feel comfortable feeding around a shallow shoreline unless they have low light and a little extra water under their bellies.
    But my recent efforts had been complicated, and mostly thwarted, by wind, too much of it for comfort or consistently from the wrong direction. If the weather was fishable at all, the stiff autumn breezes tended to either hold up an incoming tide (leaving too little water), push it out too early (same effect) or thrash the area too much for working surface plugs.
    Additional complications were the wild temperature swings and the recent full moon. Those two forces seemed to scatter both the bait and the feeding game fish, making finding them difficult. All of these conditions combined for more or less the same results: very few fish, especially top-water types.

Answered Prayers
    This morning, luck seemed heading my direction. Playing the striper gently, I led it to the side of the boat, lifted it in and took its picture. It was my first landing in days, and I wanted solid proof.
    Throwing back out to the same place resulted in an immediate and enthusiastic reception, but I missed the hook set. Working back to the other side of the inlet, I let the area rest a few minutes before throwing another cast back into the sweet spot. It was rewarded by an instant attack and a fish much bigger than the first.
    This guy zigzagged all over the place, throwing water and raising a ruckus before I won. Then I gave the inlet a good 10 minutes to calm down. Suspecting a good gathering of fish, I didn’t want to flush them out with too much activity all at once.
    That proved wise, as after a decent interval I hooked another fat rockfish, then another. I spent a pleasant time on that one site, hooking a striper, fighting and landing it, then waiting until things calmed down before I resumed casting. Six fish landed and three lost seemed like an excellent return as well as one of the more productive outings I’ve had this fall.
    After the morning’s shallow-water bite died off, I kicked the boat up on plane and headed out to deeper water to find some channel edges to fish.
    In my early morning prayer, I had asked to catch rockfish, and indeed I did. The fish measured only 12 inches, the smallest five.

Its far side is always dark to us

The dark hours at week’s end are still brightened by the glow of the waning Hunter’s Moon, which rises mid-evening and dominates the night sky until daybreak. On clear days this week, you may even see the moon in the west after sunrise.
    Over the weekend, the moon travels with the constellation Taurus. Friday it is 10 degrees to the right of the Pleiades star cluster while the bull’s red eye Aldebaran is a little farther below the moon. The brightests stars of the Pleiades form a small but distinct dipper, which makes up the bull’s back. Saturday the moon is much closer to Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, which makes up the bull’s face. If the moonlight is too much to discern these stars, wait a day or two until the waning moon has shifted to the west.
    Just like here on earth, half the moon is always illuminated by the sun and the other half facing away from the sun. But as the angle between the sun, earth and moon changes, so does the portion of the moon’s illuminated face that we can see. With the moon waning, the angle is closing, obscuring more of the lunar surface behind earth’s shadow. This darkened section of the moon still faces earth and should not be confused with the so-called dark side of the moon. Better to think of that as the far side of the moon, which faces away from earth. The far side is still bathed in sunlight — we are just never in a position to witness it.
    The moon rotates on its own axis, with one side facing the sun for about two weeks and then facing away from the sun the next two weeks. Over billions of years, earth’s stronger gravitational pull has slowed the moon’s rotation to the point that it spins in synch with its pace around the earth. As a result, one side of the moon faces earth only during new phase, when it is between us and the sun, obscured by the light of day. So we never see the far side of the moon.
    Mars and Saturn pop into view in the wake of the setting sun. Saturn is sinking fast and is visible for less than an hour. Mars is well to the east of Saturn but not quite as bright. Don’t confuse it for the similarly hued star Antares, the heart of the Scorpion wriggling below.
    Jupiter rises around 2am and is high overhead in the east as morning approaches. Over the next month this gaseous giant climbs higher and grows brighter in our pre-dawn sky.