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Help plot the stars and shine a light on light pollution

With the moon waning through pre-dawn skies, this week marks the year’s second Globe at Night backyard observing drive, which aims to enlist you in charting the night sky. The goal: “to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to a website from a computer or smart phone.”
    This month’s target constellation is Orion. To get started, log onto the Globe at Night website — www.globeatnight.org — where you’ll find star charts of Orion custom-tailored to your viewing area. Then, find a dark location and see how many stars you can spot compared to those shown on the charts. Finally, upload your results on the website or through the Globe at Night smart-phone app. You can make and tally as many observations as you like from the same or several locations. Based on the results, astronomers can gauge the effects of light pollution across the earth.
    Sunset reveals Jupiter high overhead. Shining at the feet of the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, Jupiter rules the heavens in brightness for much of the night.
    Saturn is on prime display by midnight, and Thursday it should be all the easier to spot as it travels within a few degrees to the left of the moon. The moon and Saturn remain together through the night, and by dawn Friday you can find them low in the south. Farther to their right are Mars and Spica.
    If you’re up before dawn and have a clear view to the east, you’ve probably noticed the morning star Venus. Blazing at magnitude –4.9, Venus is at its brightest of the year. Wednesday, ­Venus is joined by the thin crescent moon just to the left. The two are just as close before dawn Thursday the 27th.

Sow slow-germinating seeds now

As you know from last week’s calendar of when to sow what, now into early March is the time to sow seeds of onions and shallots, begonias and coleus, petunias and impatients. These very fine-seeded species require special treatment. Here’s what to do.
    Buy a commercial seed starter that’s a sterile fine mixture of peat moss, pine bark and fine vermiculite amended with limestone to adjust the pH to near 6.5.
    Sow onions and shallots in four-inch pots with drainage holes. The seedlings will grow in these containers until you transplant them to the garden. Fill the pot to the top with seed starter; scrape away the excess. Bounce the bottom of the pot several times on your work surface to eliminate air pockets. Smooth the surface of the growing medium. Now uniformly spread 30 to 40 seeds over the surface. Watering the seeds will cover them with medium as it causes additional settling.
    The seeds will germinate best at temperatures between 75 to 80 degrees. The top of the refrigerator supplies the heat to make an ideal germinating table. As soon as seedlings appear, move the pots to a window facing south for maximum sunlight — or into a greenhouse. Irrigate as needed. Fertilize after seedlings have grown two to three inches tall. Use either fish emulsion or a diluted commercial water-soluble fertilizer.
    For starting seeds of begonia, coleus, impatients, petunia and so on, salad trays — the plastic kind you fill at salad bars — are ideal. Using an ice pick or a pointed knife, punch holes uniformly across the bottom, spacing the holes one inch apart. Punch from the inside out. Next add at least one to two inches of seed-starting mix. Using plant labels, divide the surface area of the starter mix so that each species gets approximately two by two inches. Scatter the seeds uniformly over their area, label each species and sprinkle with water until the excess drips out the container’s bottom. Snap the clear cover closed and place the container on top of the refrigerator.
    As soon as the seeds start to germinate, move the container to a window facing south or to a greenhouse. To prevent the build-up of heat within the salad bar container, lay a pencil or wooden dowel half-way between the hinge and the front edge of the container, across the length of the container and wrap with a rubber band to keep the cover partially closed. The seedlings will be ready to transplant into larger pots as soon as they can be lifted.

Next week: Transplanting seedlings.

Now’s the time to pack the things you’re sure to need

A number of tools can make an angler’s life easier. The most important of these are often needed multiple times a day. Many are the frustrated anglers who have overlooked them.
    I’m frequently surprised by the number of experienced fishermen and women who have to rummage around in their pockets or tackle bags to find a tool to cut their line when changing terminal tackle. If you’re using braided line, you’ve found that not every line clipper will manage its thin diameter and tough composition.
    Your line cutting device should be designed to include braid and should always be carried in an easily available location on your person. Keep in mind that an angler’s hands are often fouled by fish slime or bait offal (or both) at the precise moment the device is needed. Having to plunge one’s dirty mits into pockets looking for a line cutter is always unpleasant.
    A clipper or proper cutting pliers on a belt holster is handy. It will inevitably save any angler time and trouble. Plus, if I’m fishing with you, you won’t have to bother me by asking to use mine.
    The second necessary item is a small folding utility knife. I’ve carried a scout-type knife for years, and there’s hardly a day on the water I don’t use it. Searching through tackle boxes and bags for a screwdriver or a hole punch, can opener, bottle opener or cutting tool is unnecessary if you keep one of these in your pocket.
    The curved beak can opener, by the way, also excels at picking out particularly nasty backlashes and knot tangles. A Swiss Army knife with its combination of tools also works well, particularly the Tinker model.
    The next most important everyday item is a long needle-nose pliers suitable for extracting a hook from deep within a fish’s mouth or throat. Even when using circle hooks, a busy day of fishing will inevitably result in hooking a throw-back fish (in a difficult-to-reach location. The proper tool, close at hand, makes the hook’s removal much less traumatic for the fish and allows you to return it to the water promptly.
    A stout wire cutter is also essential. Sooner or later, the odds are that you or someone in your party will get a fishing hook imbedded somewhere on their person. Prepared anglers can retrieve their wire cutters, snip the hook off with just an accessible part of the shaft protruding, dose the area with a disinfectant and then tape the protruding shaft firmly down and out of the way.
    The unfortunate victim can continue fishing and afterwards visit a medical center to have the remains of the hook removed with the aid of a local anesthetic and get the necessary shots and antibiotics.
    If you don’t have a wire cutter on hand, your day on the water is suddenly over. Hook-removal techniques are endlessly touted by instruction books and videos, but, I have never seen the large rockfish hooks used on the Bay removed on-site without the accompaniment of pain and often some ugly tissue damage.
    A good-quality fillet or fish knife is also an item that should be included with your tackle. A sharp knife is absolutely necessary for the precise cutting and preparing of baits. At the end of the day, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to marina fish cleaning facilities, it will save you much fuss and bother by helping you reduce your catch to fillets before heading home. I use a freshly honed, five-inch, Russell, curved-blade, boning knife.
    A small but powerful flashlight with fresh batteries is another particularly useful item that is somehow often overlooked. Though most fishing trips are planned for daylight hours, the launch often occurs before dawn and the return sometimes happens after dark. Finding boat keys or anything dropped is much more problematic if you have to search by feel.
    The final must-have item in your gear bag is not really a tool, but it can be critical. Always store at least one small tube of high SPF sunscreen somewhere among your gear. Staying out on the water means a nasty burn unless you have some on hand.
    Fish fully prepared. You’ll never regret it.

This nebula is alive with stars

As the sun sets, one of the first constellations to appear is Orion, already high in the southeast, and by 8pm looming in the south. With its geometric, hourglass shape, Orion is one of the easiest constellations to spot and one of the most rewarding to study. The brightest star is blue-white Rigel to the lower right, marking the hunter’s left knee. Opposite to the upper left is the red-giant Betelgeuse, punctuating Orion’s raised right arm.
    Marking the hunter’s opposite shoulder is Bellatrix, meaning female warrior. While nowhere near as bright as Rigel or Betelgeuse, Bellatrix is still the 22nd brightest star. Juxtaposed to the constellation’s lower left and marking the hunter’s right knee is Saiph, bright enough to stand up to the glare of this week’s bright moon.
    Perhaps even more recognizable are the three almost perfectly aligned stars of Orion’s belt, Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak. The belt points down toward Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest of all stars. Following the belt the other direction leads to Taurus the bull and its red-orange star Aldebaran.
    Hanging perpendicular from the belt is another, fainter line of stars that forms Orion’s sword. One of the objects in the sword isn’t a star at all but rather a blazing and massive illuminated cloud of stellar gas, the Orion Nebula, or M42. At 1,400 light years distant, the Orion Nebula shines at fourth magnitude, appearing as a fuzzy patch to the unaided eye. Binoculars reveal M42’s light as distinct stars, while even a modest telescope hints at the vast number of stars lurking within the clouds. But what really stands out is the luminosity as opposed to individual points of light. Nestled within the clouds like a celestial incubator are thousands of nascent stars, their light diffused and spread through the gas.
    The beacon of light above Orion is Jupiter. It is visible all night before finally setting in the northwest around 4am. Mars rises around 10:30pm and is high in the south around 3am. Saturn rises after midnight, well to the left of Mars and high in the south with dawn. By that time Venus is well positioned above the east horizon, having risen around 4:30. There’s no missing this morning star, unless you mistake it for a plane or some other unidentified flying object.

Here’s what to sow when

It’s time to start on your garden.    
    Sow slow-germinating small seeds inside in late February through March. These include begonia, celery, impatient, petunia, snapdragon, etc. These small seed plants are not only slow to germinate but slow to grow.
    Wait until March to sow larger seeded plants. Broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and pac choi should be sown so that the plants will be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. The seeds of these plants also germinate and grow best in cooler temperatures. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.

What’s Next for Forced Bulbs?

Q  My forced bulbs, amaryllis and paperwhites, have finished flowering. What can I do to bring them back next year?
    –Sandra Olivetti Martin

A  Are the bulbs in gravel or in soil in pots? If they are in gravel, plant them in a mix of half potting soil-half compost, put them near a window facing south and keep them growing until you can plant them outdoors in full sun come spring. In soil, give them some liquid fertilizer. Next fall after the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs, plant them in pots, place them near the foundation of the house on the north side and mulch heavily with leaves held in place with chicken wire. Near early December, bring in a few pots of potted bulbs and start forcing them. Do not fertilize them again until they have flowered.

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

    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March, under 80-degree temperatures. Pepper seeds require two to three weeks to germinate and seedlings are slow to grow initially.
    Seeds of tomatoes, calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflower and zinnia germinate rapidly, and the seedlings also develop rapidly. Seeds of these species can be delayed five or six weeks before they are transplanted into the garden. This prevents the seedlings from becoming root bound, which will permanently stunt their growth. If you want to grow extra large plants, start them in five- and six-inch containers.
    Many seed catalogs publish seeding schedules, but you must know your climate zone and growing conditions, such as growing in a cool or heated greenhouse or on the window sill. The heated greenhouse in full sun provides the ideal growing condition, while the window sill is the least desirable situation for growing plants, especially those that require full sun.
    If you are growing plants on a window sill, rotate them daily (weekly if that’s the best you can do) to prevent them from leaning toward the light. Follow the same rule if you have a lean-to greenhouse that faces south.
 

That means you forgot to feed them

Are your azalea leaves yellowing and dropping? The loss is more than winter’s toll. You could have prevented it if you had mulched your azaleas with one or two inches of compost in early to mid-September or applied one-quarter cup of an ammonium-based fertilizer soon after the first frost.
    Lacking that help, nitrogen is now translocating from the older leaves to the flower and vegetative buds at the ends of the branches. During late fall and winter, buds are enlarging in preparation for spring when the flower buds open and vegetative buds produce new stems. If the roots of plants cannot provide sufficient nitrogen to the ends of the branches after the plants have stopped growing in the fall, nitrogen from the older leaves will migrate out of these leaves and move up the stem to where terminal flower and vegetative buds develop. Nitrogen is the only plant nutrient that can move about after its initial distribution when plants were in active growth. The translocation of nitrogen is most active in the fall when temperatures are above freezing.
    The leaves of white-flowered azaleas yellow before falling. The leaves of red- and pink-flowered azaleas generally turn red to purple-red just prior to leaf drop.
    This same problem occurs with American holly, especially female hollies that produce an abundance of berries. The production of holly berries requires an abundance of nitrogen. If the roots cannot supply the nitrogen needed, buds will rob the nutrient from the leaves. However, with hollies, the nitrogen is translocated rather uniformly from all of the existing leaves, which causes the uniform yellowing of the foliage. Under severe nitrogen-stress, hollies will drop leaves extensively.

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

Now Playing In the Sky Near You

Winter, spring, summer or fall, there’s always a blockbuster overhead on any clear night.
    Mercury still clings to the west-southwest horizon a half-hour or so after sunset at week’s end. It is surprisingly bright, but you may need binoculars to pick it out amidst twilight’s glare. Catch this one while you can, as it’s on its final showing.
    Sunset finds Jupiter high in the east, easily the brightest nighttime object other than the moon, which pays the gaseous giant a visit early next week. Whereas Earth has but one moon, the king of planets has more than 60 moons, four of which you can see through a small telescope or even binoculars. Io and Europa are roughly the size of our moon, while Callisto and Ganymede are half again as large. In fact, Ganymede is larger than Mercury.
    By 9:30pm, Jupiter is almost directly overhead, surrounded by The Great Winter Circle, an asterism of seven of the 25 brightest luminaries. Just to the east of Jupiter are the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, the 23rd- and 17th-brightest stars respectively. Shifting your gaze clockwise to the north you’ll find golden Capella, the sixth-brightest star. Continuing now to the southwest, look for Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the bull, the 14th-brightest star. From there, look to the south for Rigel, the foot or Orion the hunter and the seventh-brightest star. You’ll find the brightest star of all, Sirius of Canis Major, at the southern edge of the circle, followed to the east by Procyon of Canis Minor, the 8th-brightest star. Within the Circle but not part of the actual asterism is the 11th-brightest star, Betelgeuse, marking Orion’s shoulder. The waxing gibbous moon is also within the Circle throughout much of this week.
    Mars rises around 11pm and is less than five degrees from Spica, the 16th-brightest star in the heavens. As daybreak nears, the two are high in the south. Trailing behind the two and rising 90 minutes later is Saturn, a steady golden light as bright as the average star.
    Finally, in the hour before sunrise, the brightest star-like object crests the southeast horizon. Nothing aside from the sun and moon outshines Venus, which is at its most brilliant this week, although it will remain a fixture in our pre-dawn skies until autumn.

Four fishing flicks to see you through February

When you can’t go fishing, you might as well watch a good fishing movie. Here are four sure to hook you.
    Captains Courageous was filmed in 1927 and plays as well today as it did almost 90 years ago. Based on the 1897 novel by Rudyard Kipling, Captains details the adventures of Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Batholomew), a privileged and spoiled young man recently expelled from his exclusive boarding school.
    Taken by his father on an overseas business trip as a form of counseling, Cheyne is swept overboard off the coast of Newfoundland. Rescued by a passing Grand Banks fishing schooner, the youngster is unable to convince his rescuers to interrupt their journey to return him to port. Instead, he must accept a low-wage job to cover his keep until the boat’s scheduled return three months hence.
    Cheyne soon finds that bragging, cheating and complaining do him no good among rugged fishermen. Under the guidance of Manuel, a Portuguese-American seaman played by a brilliant Spencer Tracy, Cheyne learns the way of life at sea and the skills of a fisherman.
    Blossoming under the harsh conditions, the lad changes before our eyes into an admirable young man. He is eventually reunited with his father, who is overwhelmed that the son he believed lost at sea is still alive but even more so at the maturing changes his son has undergone.
    Fast forward to 1944 for To Have and Have Not, a multi-layered World War II film set in Fort de France, Martinique. On the first level it is a conflict story. Humphrey Bogart plays an American sport fishing captain (Henry Morgan) who, plying his trade on the island, gets involved smuggling for the French resistance.
    Cover girl model Lauren Bacall, in her first movie role at age 19, was brought in to spice up the movie’s romantic interest, thus a love story is the second level of the film. Off-screen she and Bogart actually fell in love, the third level. And at that point in the film the celluloid begins to smolder.
    Add in some great character acting by Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael, and you’ve got a hooker of cinematic art — You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?
    1958 gave us another fishing classic, The Old Man and the Sea, again starring Spencer Tracy. Taken from a 1952 novella that won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer that year and led to a Nobel Prize, the film retains many of the book’s internal (and classic Hemingway) monologues.
    A Cuban fisherman in his waning years hooks a giant blue marlin far offshore and battles him for three exhausting days. See the film to find out what happens next. If you already know, view it to renew your experience with both Hemingway and Tracy, two masters at the peak of their craft.
    The best recently released fishing movie is 2011’s odd Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A wealthy Yemeni sheik falls in love with fly fishing for salmon while living in England and decides to bring that experience to the desert-living people of his native land.
    He and his attractive British financial consultant manage to finagle the cooperation of Britain’s leading expert on salmon, icily played by Ewan McGregor, who reluctantly signs on to the seemingly impossible challenge.
    From there the film becomes a love story, a political satire and a charming work of art. If you’ve ever suspected the sanity of fly anglers, this film will confirm your suspicions.
    Enjoy this quartet these cold winter nights and replay them any time the fishing is slow.

Give plants the right lights, and they’ll grow in any season

Plants don’t like freezing temperatures any more than we do. But many will be perfectly happy to grow indoors, encouraged by fluorescent lights.
    Under lights, you can grow plants, including vegetables, up to 10 inches tall.
    Success depends on choosing the right setup. Many systems are on the market, but not all are of equal quality. Beware of those made entirely of chrome-plated steel. They are susceptible to rusting from the fertilizers used for growing. Chrome-plated shelves and trays are especially vulnerable. Stainless steel or plastic-coated shelves and trays will outlast all others.
    Nearly all the lighting fixtures are designed to hold Grow-lux fluorescent bulbs. Grow-lux lights emit both the blue and red rays of light, and both are necessary for photosynthesis and flower production. For maximum effectiveness, the uppermost foliage of the plants must be placed within inches of the light source. Grow-lux lights are recognized for their light quality and not for their light intensity.
    To improve the light intensity of your growing chamber, consider including a warm white fluorescent bulb for every two Grow-Lux lights in the light bank. Adding warm white bulbs is especially important when growing tall plants or plants with varying heights. Only warm white fluorescent bulbs emit the red light essential for photosynthesis with sufficient intensity to penetrate the foliage to a depth of eight to 10 inches. Cool white fluorescent bulbs emit only low levels of blue light, which is not as essential for photosynthesis as red light.
    High intensity lighting fixtures can be built using a combination of power-groove fluorescent tubes and 60-watt incandescent bulbs. This sort of setup is used to supply lighting in commercial growth chambers. However, these power-groove fluorescent tubes generate so much heat that fans must be used to circulate the air.
    Meeting the irrigation needs of plants growing under artificial lights can be challenging. Plants growing under Glor-lux lights require less water than plants growing under warm white fluorescent lights due to cooler rooting media temperatures. Because the red waves from warm white fluorescent bulbs penetrate deeper, rooting media are warmer and dry out faster.
    Avoid overcrowding plants under artificial lights. As the plants increase in size, provide additional space for them. A good rule of thumb is to never allow the foliage of one plant to touch that of an adjoining plant. Allowing the plants to grow under crowded conditions will give you tall spindly plants with weak stems and yellowing leaves at the bottom.

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

Get help, for free, from techies smarter than you

As soon as I purchased my new skiff some three years ago, I had to have the latest and greatest fish-finder/GPS machine. I got it installed, but once I turned it on, problems followed. The software on my machine had some initial problems that were later corrected. Still, I needed to load a new version of the operating software.
    That simple operation involved downloading the updated system from the manufacturer’s Internet site onto a computer, transfering it to a storage device and plugging that into my finder/GPS unit for automatic update. I somehow botched the operation and had to send the unit back. The manufacturer reloaded everything and promptly returned it.
    Doing some Internet research on my new unit, I quickly set a few basic parameters and barely touched the settings again. It worked well, much better than the 15-year-old unit I’d had before, but I couldn’t help thinking I wasn’t using the machine’s full potential. This winter I decided to fix that.

Beneath the Iceberg
    The electronic fish-finder is the most revolutionary tool available to anglers. It’s a tool with a story that dates back to the sinking of the Titanic.
    The part of the iceberg hit by the cruise ship was underwater and unobservable to the navigating crew. After that disaster, work immediately began on how to detect below-surface objects. First developed was an echo-ranging apparatus based on the navigational methods of dolphins.
    Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian working for a U.S. company in Boston, patented the first workable sonar —Sound Navigation and Ranging — device in 1912. Submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II greatly accelerated its development, first by Britain, then the U.S.
    The fish-finders we use today are spinoffs of that defense technology. Over the years, they have become so accurate and complex that they are prohibited from export by U.S. law. They’re so sophisticated that many anglers — I being a poster boy — fail to get the most from their units. There are just too many options for a simple fisherman like me to comprehend, let alone remember how they interact.

Learning the Machine
    There is, however, a solution for us technologically inept. Almost all retailers of such units have at least one employee expert in their setup and use. In talking to a number of them over the last week, I have found them all eager to help, especially during the slow times of winter. Just disconnect your unit from the boat and take it to the store.
    The expert there can hook it up in-house and go over the settings, explain the options and suggest changes for your type of fishing.
    There also may be software upgrades available from the manufacturer. These are generally free and can be downloaded pretty easily.
    It is wise to call ahead to make sure that the right technician will be on hand and that they service your brand.
    If you have a GPS (the satellite-based Global Positioning System) unit combined with your fish-finder, you can review it as well. You can also discuss aftermarket products, such as navigational map overlays.
    Wintertime is slow for both marine stores and anglers. Availing yourself now of the expertise that the stores offer will pay off in fish in the box and fun on the water in 2014.