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The equinox ushers in fall

Week’s end finds the waning crescent moon in the company of Jupiter before dawn. Around 6am Friday morning, look for the moon high in the east with Jupiter to its lower left. The same time Saturday the moon shines just six degrees from Old Jove. Then Sunday, the now razor-thin crescent is well below Jupiter, while the first-magnitude star  Regulus, is just six degrees away.
    While you should have no trouble spotting the waning crescent moon and Jupiter in the east before dawn, Venus is a trickier target. This Morning Star rises less than an hour before the sun, and that window of visibility shrinks by about a minute each day.  At best Venus is only 10 degrees above the horizon before sunrise, so you may need to scour the eastern skyline with binoculars to pinpoint Venus’ otherwise dazzling glow.
    This time of year before dawn offers the best chance to spot the eerie zodiacal light also called false dawn. You need dark skies away from any urban glare to see the zodiacal light, which glows like milky pyramid of light rising from the horizon an hour or two before actual dawn.
    Unlike true dawn, the zodiacal light is a pale, ghostly glow devoid of the rosy tint from the coming sun, which is caused by light entering earth’s atmosphere. The zodiacal light is actually sunlight reflecting off countless bits of dust and detritus within our solar system that orbit the sun along the same path as the planets. This time of year the ecliptic — the path of the sun, moon and planets — stands nearly straight up with respect to the eastern horizon before dawn.
    At the other end of darkness, Mars and Saturn shine low in the southwest in the early evening. Of the two, Saturn is slightly brighter and is farther west, setting around 9:30pm. Mars isn’t far behind, setting shortly after 10. But while the ringed planet is weeks away from disappearing amid the glare of the sun, Mars remains a fixture in our early evening skies for weeks to come.
    A clear view to the west-southwest immediately following sunset may reveal Mercury burried in the horizon. Binoculars will help, but don’t confuse it with nearby Spica, which is only a couple degrees away through the weekend. They are so close that both will appear in the same field of view using binoculars or a telescope.
    Monday at 10:29pm EDT, the sun is poised directly above the equator somewhere in the vicinity of New Guinea. On that day or the following, the sun rises due east and sets due west, dividing the day between near-equal amounts of daylight and darkness for everyone around the globe. For the 90 percent of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, this equinox marks the beginning of autumn.
    Because of the earth’s 231⁄2-degree tilted axis, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres each receive more direct sunlight and warmth than the other for half the year. Twice a year, earth’s tilted axis and its orbit around the sun come together just so that the amount of light and dark are equal around the globe. Hereafter our time in the sun will grow shorter each day as the sun creeps ever southward of due east until reaching winter solstice in late December, its farthest point south in our skies.

The best time to fish is when they’re biting

The forecast called for rain, but the weather people had proven so inaccurate the last few weeks that we gave the pronouncement little notice. We promised that if Saturday morning broke with anything close to moderate air we were heading out, as we did.
    My buddy and I had also decided to leave the rockfish to the weekenders. A few barely legal stripers were not what we were looking for. We yearned for some sustained pole bending.
    I’d been given a heads-up on good white perch action on the edge of a not-too-distant river channel, and we decided to try that. Perch this year have been surprisingly absent, at least for us. Almost all of our usually reliable spots have been empty of fish of any size.
    We started off working the river shoreline, throwing Rooster Tails and Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounder spinner baits in the shallows, around erosion jetties, docks and next to flooded phragmites, areas that had always been hangouts of at least a few 11-inch blackbacks. We scored exactly one nine-inch perch in an hour.
    Unsurprised we headed out for the deeper channel waters and reached for the worms. Reciting a silent prayer to the fish gods and rigging with top and bottom rigs and flashy size 2 red nickel bait holder hooks, we added an ounce of lead, threaded on generous pieces of worm, and dropped them over the side.
    Our skiff was pushed slowly along the channel edge by a gentle breeze and a barely moving tide. Our rods bent over almost into the water as both of us cranked up double headers of white perch.
    Dropping our rigs back over resulted again in instantly bent rods, again loaded with double headers. Then again and yet again it happened. Our faces were beaming; we were apparently right in the middle of the meat bucket. The now heavily clouded skies could not dampen the glow of great action.
    When a light mist began, we hardly noticed. Though the whities were on the small side and we had lots of throwbacks, the action was non-stop. Gradually our cooler accumulated a few nice keepers.
    The rain soon got steadier and heavier. But with fishing like that, we donned our foul-weather gear and soldiered on. We weren’t sure when the winds would return or these perch would vanish, so we were taking no chances. The best time to fish is when they’re biting.
    The bite stayed red-hot. Even as it poured down hard, we remained enthusiastic. Our count was well past 100 and our hands were sore and torn from the many gill plate cuts and fin spikes in handling the wriggling devils when we at last exhausted our bait supply.
    Later that evening, after a long, hot shower and a glass of brandy, I reflected on the success of the trip, describing to my wife the mad fishing action and the endless downpour.
    She merely nodded her head. When I asked if she thought we were crazy, my spouse replied, “Why no dear, why in the world would anyone think that?”

A pair of planetary pairings

The waning moon rises in the late evening at week’s end and is high in the southwest with the approach of the rising sun. Each night it rises a half-hour later, so that by last-quarter on the 15th it crests the northeast horizon at midnight.
    The moon Saturday night and Sunday before dawn shines a few degrees below the smallest of the three celestial dippers: the Pleiades star cluster. This grouping of stars marks the shoulder of Taurus the bull and is a few degrees to the northwest of Aldebaran, the bull’s red eye. Aldebaran marks one end of another star cluster within Taurus, the Hyades, which is the V-shape of the bull’s face.
    Monday before dawn the moon trails just a few degrees behind Aldebaran. Early morning Tuesday the moon shines less than 10 degrees above Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion the hunter.
    Far to the east of Orion is Jupiter, which rises around 3:30am and is high overhead as daybreak approaches. By that time you might be able to spot Venus low against the horizon. The Morning Star is exponentially brighter than Jupiter, but so close to the horizon and the approaching sun that you may need binoculars to pick her out of the haze. Aligned halfway from Venus to Jupiter is Regulus, the blue-white heart of Leo the lion.    
    The other two planets visible to the unaided eye, Mars and Saturn, form a line of their own with the star Antares to the southwest in the evening sky. The two planets shine at nearly the same magnitude, but their colors make it easy to tell them apart. Not so with Antares, whose name literally translates to Rival of Mars. The red heart of Scorpius is farther to the east and is not as bright as the red planet. In the coming days Saturn sinks ever closer to the horizon, while Mars gains ground moving to the east. By month’s end Mars will be just a few degrees from Antares.
    Summer may be on the wane, but the season’s stars still command the evening sky. As the sun sets, look directly overhead for the zero-magnitude star Vega in the constellation Lyra. By 10pm first-magnitude Deneb, the head of Cygnus the swan, has taken the perch atop the celestial zenith. South of Vega and Deneb is Altair, the eye of the eagle Aquila, and the third point in the Summer Triangle.

You never know what’s going to happen on the Chesapeake

I had done well on my last three sorties. Now my first bite came in less than a minute.
    I had hooked a frisky spot of about four inches just in front of the dorsal with a size-4 black nickel treble hook and sent it over the side. It headed straight down to the Bay Bridge piling I had selected.
    A strong fish took the bait as it neared bottom. Setting the hook,    I felt immediate resistance, a strong headshake, then nothing. I reeled my line back and found that I had lost my spot. Hook, leader and swivel had been cut off cleanly as well.
    Either a toothy bluefish had hit the swivel when the fish I hooked started its struggle. Or the striper had run to some kind of bottom structure immediately after taking my spot and fouled my line on something sharp. I opened a fresh pack of trebles, red nickel models, bent one onto a section of fresh 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and replaced the lost swivel connection.
    I had been experimenting with these rather small treble hooks for a couple weeks, finding that they were excellent at mouth-hooking the rockfish eating my live spot baits. I could come tight much sooner than when using J hooks.
    Over the next three hours, however, my bait count got ever lower as I released spot after spot that had become exhausted swimming down in the varying currents. I couldn’t find a rockfish of any size to take my bait.
    Heading to the Eastern Shore, I redoubled my efforts. Drifting and fishing a wide area, I marked few fish but garnered nothing.
    Skunked, I headed back toward the Sandy Point ramps and home. As I passed by the previously unproductive bridge supports on the western side, I decided on one last try. I had just three baits remaining.

Back to Go
    Amazingly, with the first drop at the support where I had started the day, I was quickly fast to a strong, fat and healthy 25-inch rockfish. Netting and burying that fish in ice and with renewed optimism, I prepared to hook my next-to-last bait and send it down.
    At the last moment, that little fish squirmed in reaction to the prick of my treble and squirted out of my hand and over the side. Now I had the last bait at the last moment, back at the same place I started out. This was going to be very poetic or a major disappointment.
    I took extra care with this bait, then flipped it out next to the concrete pier. As it swam down toward the bottom I could feel it spurt ahead in panic. Something was chasing it already.
    The fish below quickly engulfed my bait and started running. I set the hook, and a very careful battle ensued.
    The fight went my way. Eventually easing the net under a powerful 24 incher, I was relieved to have limited out. But when I pried open the rockfish’s mouth to remove my hook, I noticed something odd. My red treble hook was stuck firmly in the corner of its jaw, just as I expected, but on the other side of its mouth was another embedded treble, a black one.
    It was my original hook cut off on that fish I lost, still attached to the leader and swivel.
    You never know what will happen on the Chesapeake.

Mountain laurel, blueberries and other acid-lovers, too

September is the best time of the year to transplant azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other plants that thrive in acid soils. This is because these species have stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    So take advantage of fall garden center sales. If your existing plantings are too dense or wrongly placed, now is a good time to dig and transplant.
    Here’s how to assure success in transplanting plants that prefer acid soils.
    First, make certain that the soil you will be transplanting into is adequate.  Acid soils are generally deficient in calcium and magnesium, but only a soil test of the area will correctly identify soil conditions. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. 
    Plants like these also need well-drained, high-organic soils. Even if the soil test indicates an ample amount of calcium, I make it a regular practice to mix one-half cup gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the planting soil. To assure an abundance of organic matter, I also blend one-third by volume of compost or pine fines with the existing soil while blending the gypsum with the backfill. Compost adds not only organic matter but also slow-release nutrients.
    Never amend the soil with peat moss, especially when transplanting rhododendrons. Peat moss holds too much water, making conditions favorable for water-borne fungi that attack the roots of rhododendrons.
    All species that grow in acid soils are shallow-rooted. So never dig the planting hole deeper than the depth of the root ball. There is no need to place compost or back-fill under the root ball because of the shallow-rooting nature of these species.
    If you are digging plants that need more space to grow, the outside edge of the root ball you are digging should begin mid-distance between the drip line of the branches and the stem of the plant. If the soil is dry, irrigate the plant well at least two days before you dig.
    After digging, lift the plant by the root ball and not by the stem. If you are transplanting container-grown plants, after removing the plant from the container, use a sharp knife and slash the outside edge of the root ball an inch deep from top to bottom making the slashes two to three inches apart. Since most container plants are grown in soilless rooting media, slashing the root balls and pulling out some of the roots will hasten new root development.
    The top of the root ball should be visible at the surface of the finished grade. Before mulching, water the plants thoroughly to settle the backfill around the roots and eliminate air pockets. A good heavy watering helps to firm the soil in place.
    Apply no more than one inch of compost or pine bark mulch. Never use hardwood bark mulch because it is basic in nature and contains high levels of manganese.
    Azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other acid-lovers will tolerate light to medium shade, but they will produce more flowers and be more cold-tolerant in full sun. In commercial nurseries, all of these species are grown in open fields and sometimes covered with light shade in late fall simply to give the plants a better appearance for sale in the spring.


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

Close as Mercury, far as Neptune

The moon waxes through our evening skies from a thin crescent at week’s end to first-quarter Tuesday September 2. Friday Luna shines just two degrees above the first-magnitude star Spica low in the southwest.
    Sunday the moon appears farther east at sunset, forming a tight triangle with Saturn to the west and Mars to the south. The two planets appear equally bright, shining at magnitude 0.6, but Saturn’s golden glow and Mars’ red hue make them easy to tell apart.
    Monday evening the moon shines at the head of Scorpius, which is marked by three slightly mis-aligned stars. The moon is just one degree above the northernmost of the three, Graffias, shining at magnitude 2.5. Ten degrees southeast of the moon is the red giant Antares, the heart of the scorpion.
    As the sun dips beneath the horizon around 7:40, look in its wake for Mercury low in the west. Binoculars may help you pinpoint this elusive planet. When most people spot Mercury, they are surprised by its brightness, shining around zero magnitude, brighter than most stars. But the innermost planet orbits so close to the sun that it never appears more than a dozen degrees above the horizon during dark hours.
    Mercury has been a fixture of our night sky since the dawn of civilization. The first telescopic observations of the planet were made by Galileo in 1610, but unlike his viewing of Saturn, there was no eureka moment. It was not until more than 350 years later with the fly-by of the Mariner 10 space probe that astronomers learned much more about this elusive planet.
    You may be able to see the farthest planet from the sun, Neptune, before dawn this week. On Friday the outermost planet reaches opposition, when earth is directly between it and the sun. Even with binoculars or a small telescope it will appear as little more than a small blue dot low in the west-southwest amid the dim stars of Aquarius.
    Venus and Jupiter will greet you in the east before dawn amid the glow of the coming sun.

It’s a little late to start seeds but just right to plant seedlings

The best sauerkraut is made from fall-grown cabbage. The best kale and collards have been frosted a few times, growing sweeter with each frost. Fall-grown spinach and lettuce are more tender. Carrots, beets, turnips, rutabaga and kohlrabi are at their best when grown in late summer and harvested in the fall. Both cauliflower and broccoli form tighter heads in fall than in spring. I also harvest many more fall peas than spring peas. If you love Brussels sprouts as much as I do, you must get them started now to harvest a bountiful supply.
    There is more gardening ahead, and now is the time to start sowing seeds. If you planted onions this past spring, they should all be harvested by now — as well as the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. So you now have room to start planting your fall crops.
    I have stopped planting peas in the spring because I can make many more harvests from peas planted in August. The cooler fall temperatures promote continuous growth until the killing frost comes late in fall. Spring-planted peas stop producing pods as soon as the heat comes on.
    August is also a good time to make a planting or two of snap beans. If you make two consecutive plantings about two to three weeks apart, you will be harvesting snap beans until the frost kills the plants.
    If you sowed your seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and cabbage the first week of August, the plants will be ready to be transplanted into rows by the end of the month. Seeds of spinach, lettuce, kale, collards, turnips and rutabaga should have been sown by mid August. To grow the sweetest carrots this side of heaven, the seeds should also have been planted before the middle of August, as should a row of beets for greens as well as for the sweetest roots.
    If you haven’t started your seeds, check the garden centers for seedlings of these cool-weather crops.
    Your soil most likely still holds a plentiful supply of nutrients not utilized by the remaining summer crops. Since the soil is warm, the compost you added to the garden is also releasing nutrients. A fall crop allows you to maximize the uptake of the nutrients already added as well as those released during the decomposition of organic matter.
    If you are not going to plant a fall crop, sow a cover crop of winter rye to absorb all of those free nutrients into their roots and stems. Next spring when you plow the rye back into the ground, the nutrients will be there for that crop.


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

What kind of doublespeak is that?

Sometimes I feel heartfelt compassion for the very difficult job of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Many citizens and not just a few commercial entities demand endless access to the resources of the Chesapeake, while the wise conservation and management of these resources are the sole responsibility of DNR.
    The blue crab is one such resource. One of the more desired, the more profitable and most celebrated of the Bay’s treasures, it has also been over the last 20 years or so one of the Bay’s species most often in trouble. I sympathize with the pressures the Department has to constantly endure in attempting to protect the crustacean from over harvest and depredation.
    Then, DNR destroys my empathy with pronouncements that seem to defy credibility, common sense and logic.
    On a recent occasion, officials stated for the record on a local radio program and in a subsequent newspaper article that any form of moratorium would cause the species more harm than good.
    That ranks up there with the Department’s earlier statement “crabbing harvests remain at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year,” while revealing the blue crab population had plunged 70 percent also during that period.
    Is that not doublespeak? DNR’s own safe harvest levels imply proper population protection that has obviously not been happening. In the case of “more harm than good,” how can not killing some 30,000 pounds of crabs hurt the overall population?
    Unlike the successful rockfish moratorium, a crab moratorium wouldn’t work for several reasons, according to DNR: the short life of crabs (three years or so); the diminishing fertility of females over time; and the increased natural mortality of cannabilistic crabs when the population is dense. DNR also cites the economic harm to Maryland’s blue crab industry.
    I can understand the Department’s reluctance. Every cutback affects the livelihoods of not only 4,000-plus watermen but also the bottom line of many restaurants and seafood markets. But don’t try to tell me that continuing to kill off a resource is really helping it.
    I can understand unpredictable natural mortality and how cold-weather kills and how poor recruitment causes unanticipated short-range population swings. But to continue to allow optimistically calculated harvest levels year after year while that population free falls defies common sense.
    The near future looks grim for the blue crab. Local crabbers report very difficult catches, fewer and smaller crabs and a continuing dearth of females, indicating more population trouble for the future. This assessment is not scientific, but it seems to reflect reality better than anything coming out of Annapolis.
    I respectfully request the Department reconsider its basic resource philosophy because whatever we have been doing is not working.
    Insisting on species health and abundance above all seems wiser and more realistic than any maximum-sustainable harvest policy by any name.
    Paying closer attention to the recommendations of scientists from Bay conservation foundations could also be wise, as they are free from most political and commercial manipulations.
    That is if Maryland officials are committed to the conservation of the blue crab and share the belief that a consistently large and healthy population will naturally result in a flourishing commercial fishery, a satisfied recreational sector and a happy consuming public.
    If, on the other hand, our representatives are primarily committed to short-term commercial-industry stability — fulfilling market and political demands — then we’re on the right track.

Escape urban lights to see this sight

     Each August, as the kids head back to school, the galaxy is tilted  in such a way that the Milky Way stretches overhead in full glory. With Monday’s new moon, this may be the best week of summer to gaze on this river of stars. To fully appreciate it you’ll need dark skies away from any urban glow well after sunset. Give your eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the darkness, tilt your head back and get lost in the glow.
    From Perseus and Cassiopeia in the north-northeast, the Milky Way flows down through Cygnus the swan onto Aquila the eagle. From the eagle’s tail, the glow of stars splits, one section continuing to Sagittarius, the other to Scorpius in the southwest; the dark space in between is called the Great Rift. But this patch of the heavens is not bereft of stars. Our view of them is blocked by masses of interstellar gas and dust. Of course it isn’t just the flowing river of stars that make up the Milky Way but almost every star we see with the unaided eye, including our own sun. All are part of the same spiral galaxy. Our solar system is at the end of one of the spiral’s arms. When we look at the river of stars, we are looking toward the center of the galaxy, through layers of light that combined form the glowing band that we see on a beautiful dark night.
    As evening twilight gives way to darkness, Mars and Saturn appear in the southwest. Mars has been inching toward the ringed planet night by night and will pass below it over the weekend, coming within three degrees. The two planets appear equally bright, but you should have no trouble telling Mars’ reddish hue from Saturn’s golden glow. While you’re comparing colors, look a few degrees to the north of the two planets for the star Zubeneschimali in the constellation Libra. This is the only star with a greenish glow visible to the unaided eye — at least to some. What about you?
    Venus and Jupiter rise in the east-northeast before dawn. Jupiter is first to crest the horizon, but once Venus appears a few minutes later you’ll have no trouble telling the two apart, as the morning star is six times brighter than old Jove. The two planets are joined by the ever-so-thin waning crescent moon early Saturday morning.
    The last of the naked-eye planets returns to view late this week. Look for Mercury Wednesday the 27th immediately in the wake of the setting sun and just a couple degrees from newly emerged waxing crescent moon.

Gardening in bales of straw

     As I prepare my fall garden, I’m walking in the footsteps of an Ohio gardener with poor soil who planted in bales of straw rather than install raised beds. He found his solution in a British gardening magazine on growing vegetables. Now I’m trying it, starting with four bales of straw that I placed in full sun along the edge of my vegetable garden.
    To minimize weed problems, use straw rather than hay. Straw is the residue after the grain has been harvested. Select bales tied with plastic string and not sessile. Both sessile and jute string will decompose and the bales of straw will fall apart. Those tied with plastic string will remain whole because plastic does not decompose. Place the bales of straw on either black plastic or non-woven geotextile ground cloth.  
    Before planting, prime each bale to initiate the composting process. Spread two and a half cups of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer — not mixed with herbicide — over each bale. For organic preparation, spread three pounds of organic fertilizer over each bale. Next wet the bales thoroughly and insert a long-shank thermometer to monitor temperature changes within the bales. The fertilizers will initiate composting in the center of each bale, raising the temperature. Sprinkle the bales with water daily to keep them moist so composting will take place. When temperatures again equal ambient air, the bales are ready to be planted.
    Within five days after I applied the fertilizer on each bale, temperatures within the bales fertilized with Holly Tone Organic reached 120 degrees. The bales treated with 10-6-4 fertilizer increased to only 100 degrees. It took nearly three weeks for these bales of straw to achieve the Holly Tone temperatures.
    By the end of the third week of priming, the bales treated with Holly Tone Organic started producing inky-cap mushrooms; the bales treated with chemical fertilizer followed one week later.
    At the end of the fourth week of priming, temperatures dropped to between 95 degrees and 100 degrees in all of the bales of straw.
    When the internal temperatures are the same as the ambient air, I will plant the bales with broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards. My Ohio model claims to obtain at least two years of growth, sometimes three, from each bale.
    Regardless of the results, I will write about this new method of growing vegetables and share my results and photos. I write now in hopes that you will also try so that we can compare results.
    As my dad always said, “You will never know until you try.”

Outmaneuvering Stem Borers in Zucchini
    Every year, readers complain that stem borers have killed their zucchini plants only after a few weeks of production. I have had the same problem. To enjoy zucchini for most of the summer, I make repeated plantings.
    I’ve tried with no success spreading wood ashes around each hill as recommended by organic gardening magazines. I’ve had moderate success spraying under the foliage with the insecticide Sevin starting as soon as the leaves appeared and repeating weekly.
    This year I sprayed only the stems — not the leaves or petioles — with a jet stream of Sevin, starting under the flower bud farthest away from the roots. I am still harvesting zucchini squash from the original planting with no sign of borer injury. Protecting the stem with Sevin keeps the borer from gaining entry.  
    This year’s succession of plantings resulted in a surplus harvest, which I take to the SCAN food bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2.