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Great for tight spaces or poor soil

A couple of years ago, I initiated a demonstration on growing vegetables in bales of straw using organic fertilizer and chemical. My test consisted of preparing the bales in two ways. On one, I applied three pounds of 4-3-4 Holy Tone Organic. On another, 2.5 cups of 10-10-10 fertilizer. I kept both bales wet until their internal temperatures were equal to those of ambient air.
    Temperatures in the bales treated with 4-3-4 organic fertilizer reached 120 degrees within days. Temperatures in the bales treated with 10-10-10 fertilizer required at least a week before reaching 110 degrees. All of the bales appeared to show signs of decay, with and inky cap and shaggy mushrooms growing on all.
    After the temperatures within the bales dropped to ambient air temperatures, I seeded the bales with kale, as I conducted my test in autumn. All of the bales produced an abundance of kale; there did not appear to be any differences with regards to yield. However, the kale growing in the bales of straw were not as vigorous as those growing in the nearby garden.
    Soon after minimum temperatures dropped to below 28 degrees. All of the plants growing in straw died. Those growing in the garden continued to produce eddible leaves of kale, which we continued to harvest most of the winter. Come spring of 2015, the kale in the garden resumed growth while the kale grown in the bales of straw was dead.
    Last June, I amended the straw bales treated with Holytone organic 4-3-4 with another pound and a half. I amended each straw bale, initially treated with 10-10-10, with another 1.75 cups. After watering the fertilizers thoroughly, I transplanted one Roma tomato and one Accent Sweet pepper into each bale. The plants were irrigated daily until they appeared to be well established as evident by the rapid growth. From that point on the plants were irrigated twice weekly in the absence of rain.
    The tomato plants quickly outgrew the pepper plants, resulting in only one pepper plant surviving. It did not produce any peppers. The Roma tomato plants produced an abundance of tomatoes in all straw bales regardless of the fertilizer treatment. The editor of Bay Weekly will verify the results because she was invited to harvest the tomatoes for canning.
    By September, all of the bales had shrunk to only a few inches thick with many of the roots of the tomato plants penetrating the landscape fabric placed beneath them at the beginning of the demonstration. The remaining residues of straw went to the compost pile.
    Yes, you can grow tomatoes and peppers as well as kale in bales of straw — providing you plant only one species per bale and not try to grow a variety of plants in such a confined space. The most vigorous species will dominate and crowd out the less vigorous species. Each bale will give you two crops.


Grass and Clover

Q    I have a raised vegetable garden I made last year. Over the winter some grass and clover blew in and is growing pretty good. Would it be better to spade or plow the weeds in the soil, or should I pull them out completely before I plant this summer’s crop?

–Dean Castle, via email

A    Pull out the clover and spade under the grass.

Send your gardening questions to The Bay Gardener at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Hardy ornamental plants will survive, so shape them as you want them

Be ruthless. It’s time to chop ornamental grasses and butterfly bushes. Cut them down to the ground.
    Also remove the old flower stems and old foliage of sedum to make room for new growth.
    In addition, it’s time for serious pruning of lilacs that are over-grown or infested with stems borers. Trim azaleas, rhododendrons, cherry laurels and hollies that make it impossible to look out of the bedroom or living room windows. Some of the branches that you cut can be brought in and forced to flower.
    Late winter and early spring are the best times for hard pruning. The roots of all ornamentals growing in your landscape are packed with sugars, carbohydrates and nutrients just waiting to move upward into the stems to produce new branches and leaves. Hardy ornamental plants survive and flourish no matter how drastically you prune them. So you don’t need to fear killing the plant if you remove too much.
    Cut those clumps of ornamental grasses as close to the ground as possible. To eliminate the need to carry away the old dry stems, cut them into pieces six inches or smaller and allow them to become mulch. While you are at it, cut those stems of butterfly bushes as close to the ground as possible. I use a chainsaw to prune my butterfly close to the ground, forcing new branches to emerge from the roots. If the forsythia and weigela shrubs are over-grown or not flowering well, cut those branches close to the ground as well. This is how you force the new branches to originate from the roots and not from branch stubs.
    Overgrown azaleas, rhododendrons, hollies, yews and cherry laurels should have their branches pruned to 12 to 18 inches lower than the desired height. You will avoid having to prune them again in a few years, and regrowth will have a more desirable appearance.
    You don’t have to be a certified professional horticulturist to know how to prune hardy ornamental plants. These plants are survivors and dormant vegetative buds up and down the branches are waiting to burst into active growth. That plant will recover and appear normal in a relatively short time. Trust me.


Plow Pan Is Your Problem

Q    We have been growing perennials, a few annuals and various vegetables and herbs on the same large garden plot for about 13 years. I’ve noticed that the plants aren’t as healthy as they once were, despite the fact that we’ve added soil and fertilizer over the years. What do you recommend to improve the soil for the garden overall and in particular where the perennials are located?
      –Amanda Gibson, Lothian

A    If you have been gardening in the same area for 13 years, and have been tilling or plowing each year, most likely you have developed a plow pan about six inches below the surface of the soil, and it is now affecting drainage and root penetration. The only solution is double digging or sub-soiling. To test my theory, sharpen a broom handle (or use a piece of half-inch pipe) and see how deep you can push it into the ground. Test several areas in your garden. If you can’t penetrate deeper than six inches you have plow pan and need to dig below. If you have a tractor, I have a sub-soiler you can borrow.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Paddlers approach fish and wildlife closely and unobtrusively

Lifting the slender red hull with one hand, I put the single-person kayak in the back of my pickup truck, securing it with a bungee cord and tucking in the double-bladed oar. Within an hour, I was floating over the placid waters of my favorite lake, casting my fly rod to any number of bluegills, pickerel, bass and perch.
    Later that week, I would launch the same craft along a major Chesapeake tributary to pursue white perch and schoolie rockfish with a light spin outfit.
    One of the best things about living in Maryland is our public recreational areas. I’m not talking about places such as Quiet Waters Park, Truxton or even Sandy Point State Park, though they are all great areas to enjoy the outdoors. The public space I’m talking about is the Bay itself and its almost countless tributaries, as well as Maryland’s many freshwater lakes and streams.
    Under federal law, people have access to all navigable waters subject to the ebb and flow of tide, and to all inland (non-tidal) waters capable of being boated. That means that if you’re floating in a watercraft almost anywhere in Maryland, you are in public space.
    That amounts to thousands of square miles of public recreational water including the 2,500 square miles of the Chesapeake, the 3,190 miles of shoreline (up to the high water mark), 40 rivers and innumerable lakes, streams and creeks.
    But you can’t enjoy this vast playground unless you have a boat, which may be easier than you think.
    The kayak boom has accelerated access to Maryland’s waters. This small craft was created by Inuit hunters of the far north some 4,000 years ago. It is a very stable craft due to its low center of gravity, light and easy to propel. In its modern incarnation, it is inexpensive and virtually maintenance-free.
    There are versions available for big water (sea kayaks), special designs for fishing, others for whitewater or saltwater surfing models. There are models designed for up to four people, though solo and two-person kayaks are the norm. All are seaworthy, so you can expect to be safe and secure on any day pleasant enough to make you want to be out on the water.
    Many versions weigh about 40 pounds and can be transported on the top of virtually any vehicle. I’ve even seen them towed on special trailers built to be pulled by a bicycle.
    The general touring or recreational versions will do for most applications. Coupled with a comfortable life jacket and a light two-bladed paddle, it is a marine package almost anyone can afford and enjoy.
    This very unobtrusive craft allows the paddler to approach closely to fish and wildlife, a particular advantage to an angler, wildlife photographer or nature lover.
    Canoes also afford wide access to our calmer waters. Canoes were developed some 10,000 years ago in Scandinavia and are generally considered the first form of watercraft. Of yore, they were crafted from a single log or by covering a light framework with tree bark.
    Commonly used by Native Americans and later by European immigrants, the canoe proved to be the primary source of transportation on the lakes, rivers and streams of North America until the late 1800s. Their light weight allowed them to be easily portaged between navigable waters, and they were built in sizes that could accommodate as many as eight passen­gers and their gear.
    Today’s canoes are constructed of molded synthetic materials that are both light and robust, requiring little maintenance. Many are as inexpensive as kayaks though not quite as stable because you sit higher in the hull. On the other hand, the canoe provides more room and storage. Many models can accommodate up to three or four people.
    No matter which of these light craft you choose, it will give you immediate access to one of the largest aquatic recreational areas in America, and all that access is free.

Asparagus is coming; winter weeds should be going

If you planted a cover crop of winter rye or wheat last fall, most likely the grass is six to 12 inches tall by now. Use your lawnmower to mow the grass as close to the ground as possible. Mowing saves you time in tilling the soil and helps to dry it, making it easier for the tiller.
    Ground left bare will by now be covered with a carpet of chickweed and henbit. Use horticultural vinegar to kill these winter weeds now before they drop their seeds. For maximum control, spray the vinegar on the foliage during a bright sunny day. Within 24 hours, you will see the weeds turn yellow-white with the leaf margins going brown. Friends report good results with a mixture of one gallon of distilled white vinegar with one-quarter cup of Palmolive dish detergent.
    If that bare ground is your asparagus bed, once the weeds have died down, rototill lightly, delaying if the soil is very wet. Before tilling, you can easily remove old stems because most have rotted at the base. Allow the tines of the tiller to penetrate the soil no more than three or four inches so as to not disturb the roots of the asparagus plants, which will soon be sending up shoots
    Readers have asked how to grow white asparagus, which are tenderer than green asparagus and have a milder flavor. White asparagus are grown in the dark. The old method was to hill the beds with soil or sawdust as the spears appeared above ground. The modern method is to build a lightweight frame of wood and cover it with black plastic or roofing paper. As soon as the spears appear, place the covered frames over the beds, lifting every two or three days for harvesting.
    If you have not had your soil tested in the past four years, now is the perfect time to submit a good representative soil sample for testing.
    I recommend sending the soil samples to A&L — now Waypoint Analytical — in Richmond (www.soilandplantlaboratory.com/services/soilsampling.aspx).
    If your soil is a sandy loam or loamy sand, have it tested for all trace elements especially for boron (B). However, if your soil is a loam, silt or clay loam, the general soil test will suffice.
    If you have been growing multiple crops each year, you most likely will need to apply limestone. If you want me to make the recommendations, don’t specify a crop (a savings of $3-$5) and include my email so I’ll get your results: dr.frgouin@gmail.com. Once I have them I’m happy to consult you.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

 

You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t

It was a nearly perfect morning. We had arrived to find our favorite yellow perch spot empty of angler competition, the broad stream running full and clear and a warm sun poking up over the tops of the thick trees lining the far shore.
    With medium-sized bull minnows hooked on shad darts under weighted bobbers, my buddy Frank and I flipped our rigs out into the stream, above a small eddy churning about 30 feet from the shoreline. Both our bobbers disappeared as soon as they drifted close to the edge of the twisting water.
    Setting our hooks, then gently fighting and easing two fat neds to the shoreline, we grinned so wide they almost hurt our faces.
    “Man these are definitely keepers,” I said.
    “Definitely,” Frank concurred, “but we had better check.”
    Agreeing, I hunted in my tackle bag for a measuring tape. It was not to be found.
    “I must have left it at home,” I said.
    Frank was not having any luck either. “I know I had one last year,” he said.
    “Dang. I’m not so positive that my fish is legal,” I had to admit.
    “I’m not sure enough to risk a $200 fine,” Frank agreed.
    After a final desperate search and still coming up empty, I proposed an option.
    “I think a dollar bill is close to six inches. Let’s cut a branch the size of one and a half bills to measure our fish. We should probably add a little length just to be sure, because I’m not positive that a bill is just under or just over six.”
    Both our neds proved legal by this method, and we used the small stick until we limited out.
    We would later discover that a dollar bill is exactly 61⁄8 inches. So we had probably released, unknowingly, a dozen legal keepers.
    We also discovered we had overlooked bringing a fish stringer, pickerel lures, a better quantity and selection of shad darts, heavier sinkers and a minnow net for dipping bait.

Making Your List
    The first trips of the year can be like that. You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t.
    With the benefit of hindsight, Frank and I made a checklist:
    A measuring tape or ruler.
    A five-gallon plastic utility bucket, a great catchall for carrying the various items of your tackle to the fishing site as well as in carrying back any fish you might harvest.
    Two fishing rods per person so that an accident like a broken rod or a reel that has frozen up over the long winter won’t derail your after an hour on the road and a mile hike to the secret spot. It is also handy to have one rod rigged for bobber fishing and the other for bottom fishing.
    A regulation book in case you catch a species you hadn’t planned on and can’t remember the minimum legal size or legal season for possession.
    Extra shad darts of varying weights, sizes and colors, plus small spoons and crank baits, extra hooks of the proper size and hi-lo rigs to set up for bottom fishing. Also bring sinkers and bobbers in enough quantity that you can lose a few in the multitude of snags and low treetops in springtime angling waters.
    A minnow bucket so that you don’t have to purchase yet another when stopping at the bait store; plus a small dip net to allow your hands to stay warm in the chill of spring.
    A line clipper;
    A good knife;
    A small towel or two to keep your hands dry and warm and to wipe off fish or bait slime.
    A hemostat or pliers to aid in divesting your fish — especially pickerel — from the hooks.
    A camera to prevent your being called a liar.
    Boots in the event of a flooded or muddy shoreline.
    A light waterproof jacket or poncho for that day when a warm, sunny sky turns into an dark dowpour.
    A first aid kit, including bandaids, medical tape and disinfectant for fin and hook punctures, plus a small wire cutters should a hook bury in past the barb.
    Last but not least, a fishing license.

A gas giant, that isIt’s a Gas

Jupiter is brilliant from dusk to dawn, rising in the east at twilight, at its highest due south around midnight and low in the west at dawn. The gaseous giant is at its closest, and Tuesday marks its opposition, when it is directly opposite the sun in relation to earth. The planet is at its best for viewing, and even a modest telescope will reveal its colored bands and its four largest moons.
    Mars rises around midnight and is well placed in the south as daybreak approaches. Over the next three months the red planet grows in size and brightness as it moves closer to earth.
    Saturn rises around 1:30am, trailing Mars by 20 degrees. Come dawn it’s high in the south-southeast. The bright star to its lower right is Antares.
    Venus twinkles just above the east-southeast horizon a half-hour before sunrise, while Mercury is a few degrees lower still, and almost lost now against the coming sun.

It’s not such prickly work after all

A Bay Weekly reader who has tried and failed many times asks how to grow cactus plants from seeds.
    It’s possible. Here’s how.
    For growth, cactus plants need full sun, dry conditions except for a few days of rain in the spring, sandy rather poor alkaline soil that’s hot in the day and cool at night. These are exactly the same conditions you must satisfy to be successful in germinating seeds. 
    To prepare a seed germinating mix, blend one-fourth cup of garden soil with two cups of play sand and one rounded teaspoon of agricultural grade dolomite limestone. Moisten with water and mix thoroughly. Place the mix in a metal or Pyrex pan and bake at 200 degrees for one hour, cooling in the oven. By doing this, you are pasteurizing the soil to kill all weed seeds and living organisms that are not common under desert conditions. Put two tablespoons of the sterilized soil in a clean, sterile container or plastic bag. Place the rest of the sterilized soil in a clean, shallow four- or five-inch pan with drainage holes in the bottom.
    Uniformly scatter cactus seeds over the surface of the mix, allowing one-eighth to one-fourth inch between them. Cover the seeds with the saved pasteurized soil using a tea strainer. Water the seeds carefully with a rose bulb or fine sprinkler until water drips from the bottom of the container. Place the pot near a window facing south where it will obtain full sun all day and cool temperatures at night.
    Commercially, cactus seeds are germinated in lighted cycling chambers with 80 degrees of bottom heat for 12 to 15 hours under grow lights and nine to 12 hours of darkness at temperatures 60 to 65 degrees. You can best achieve the commercial germination chamber with a gooseneck lamp with a 40-watt incandescent light bulb. Adjust the light to 10 to 12 inches above the pot and place both in the middle of a room. Turn the light on soon after you rise in the morning and turn it off before going to bed at night. The heat and infrared rays of the incandescent light bulb will not only provide light but also warm the soil during the day. When the light is off, the soil will cool.
    Most packets of cactus seed contain several species, so germination is very erratic, anywhere from a few weeks to a month or more. Check for soil moisture daily. If the soil feels warm, irrigate lightly. If the soil feels cool, withhold irrigation.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

If it’s looking like a curled wood saw, it’s time for a new one

While walking close to the stern of my trailered boat in the drive yesterday morning, I felt a tug. My pant leg had hung up on the outboard’s prop, and for good reason. The edge of the offending blade looked like a curled wood saw.
    Fishing shallow water has its rewards, but it can be hard on boat propellers.
    You’re sometimes navigating where your skiff’s propeller is pushing through sand, silt or worse. You are inevitably going to hit a rock or two, possibly even a boulder.
    If you have a stainless steel prop on your outboard, you must be eternally cautious or have deep pockets. Stainless is expensive and doesn’t easily bend or deflect. While superb for deep-water cruising, stainless props will fracture, or fail when encountering rocks of size.
    Aluminum props are much more forgiving, bending and deflecting from collisions with the hard stuff in the shallows. My propellers for the last few decades have been aluminum for just that reason. Though they can eventually lose their operating efficiency when the blades become too rough or misshapen, replacing them is rather simple.

Know Your Propeller
    Next to the horsepower and torque of the motor itself, the propeller is the most critical link to moving through the water. The propeller and its shape determine, among other things, your top speed, fuel economy and how promptly your craft comes up on plane.
    An outboard prop’s performance essentials are identified by the numbers inscribed on the hub of the prop (which means you have to take the propeller off to determine what they are). These numbers indicate pitch (how far the prop theoretically drives through the water in one revolution, measured in inches) and the prop’s diameter (also in inches). It should also denote the direction of rotation (usually right or clockwise).
    If you are pleased by the past performance of your propeller and merely intend to restore lost efficiency (caused by dents, gouges and misshapen blades), purchase a new one with the same pitch, diameter and rotation direction as your original.
    At propeller-changing time, you can also modify any aspect of your craft’s general on-the-water performance. Choosing less pitch, or a slightly smaller diameter for your new prop can likely generate higher RPMs (engine speed) and a greater WOT (wide open throttle) speed. Expect, though, that the change (as long as the RPM increase is within the safe range of the engine’s specs) may also result in your craft coming up on plane a bit more slowly.
    If you are a shallow-depth dervish intending to cruise the shoalwaters and wanting your skiff to jump up on plane faster, choose a greater pitch or a bit larger diameter prop, recognizing you may lose a little top-end speed.
    One caveat: It is impossible to predict exactly how a different prop will affect your boat’s performance on the water. So when you decide to try a new setup, exercise care in unpacking, installing and running the new unit. If it doesn’t perform as you wish and the parts (and packaging) are still in new condition, you can return it in exchange for another better suited to your needs.
    Don’t discard a banged-up prop. It can come in handy as a backup. If you’re handy and have a hammer and a butane torch, you might restore a dinged aluminum unit to useful condition.

11 minutes a year can really add up

The moon wanes through late-night and early-morning skies this week, reaching last quarter Tuesday. The moon rises Thursday around 9pm, with the bright star Spica trailing about 10 degrees behind. Far to the west of the moon is Jupiter, the next-brightest object. Friday night Spica rises ahead of the moon, but now the two are less than five degrees apart.
    The moon rises just before midnight Sunday followed only minutes later by the red planet Mars, roughly five degrees to the southeast. As sunrise approaches Monday you’ll find them high in the south.
    The moon rises around 1am Tuesday, and now it’s six degrees to the left of Mars. Another red light, Antares, the heart of Scorpius, shines to the moon’s lower left, and it, the moon and Mars form a tight triangle. Ten degrees east of the moon is golden Saturn. The moon and Saturn are spectacular Wednesday before dawn, with the moon just two degrees above ­Saturn.
    Venus still glimmers low above the southeast horizon in the half-hour before daybreak. You may even spot Mercury lower still, though you may need binoculars.
    Monday marks Leap Day, that time every four years when we recalibrate our calendars to celestial time. You see, it takes the earth a little more than 365 days to orbit the sun, so we add a 366th day on each Leap Year to keep things in synch. You might think that Leap Year is a modern development. In fact, it was first enacted by Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago.
    Those early astronomers were able to track the earth’s annual passage around the sun to within 11 minutes — pretty good considering the telescope would not come along for another 1,400 years. While 11 minutes may seem insignificant over a typical year’s 525,600 minutes, it adds up to a full day every 130 years. By the 1500s, the vernal equinox fell on March 11 rather than the 21st.
    Enter Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 wiped from that year the days of October 4th through 15th. Further, he ordained that Leap Years would continue in years divisible by four except those ending in 00 — unless those 00 years were themselves divisible by 400. So back in 2000 we observed Leap Year, but in the year 2100 we will not. This reduces the difference between a solar year and our calendar year to 26 seconds, one day every 3,000 years!
    Again, pretty accurate computations at a time when the abacus was the most advanced mathematical instrument.

Put yourself in its place

Oh, the stories I’ve heard of abuse to cactus. I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings in plant clinics where people wheel in large barrel or drum cacti with decaying centers. Often water was oozing from the bottom where it had begun to rot. One elderly lady arrived in a chauffeured limousine. She sent the chauffeur inside to bring me out to examine her plant, a three-foot-tall Saguaro cactus. Before she would allow me to examine her cactus, she requested my credentials.
    My first question to her, and to the other cacti owners I advised, was where the plant was kept at home. Most often, I was told, in the middle of the living room.
    Where do cacti grow? The desert.
    Cacti growing as houseplants need to reside in an area with full sun.
    Cacti are succulents and store large amounts of water in their cells. Because the epidermal layer is thick between the spikes and covered with a chitin like material, they lose little water by evaporation. In the home, most cacti should not be watered more than once a month and should only be fed with a liquid fertilizer once a year.
    They’ll need repotting every four to five years. The soil can be made by blending 10 percent garden soil with 90 percent sandbox or builders sand. To each cubic foot of cacti soil, add one-half cup of agricultural limestone and blend thoroughly. Heat garden soil at 200 degrees for one hour to kill weeds, insects and worms or grubs.
    Because most cacti have sharp spines, they are dangerous. To handle them, crumble many sheets of newspaper into large, tight balls. Put the paper balls over the spines, pressing firmly into place until you can no longer feel the sharp ends.
    To remove a cactus from its pot, slide a long sharp knife along the inner side the container and the root ball. Tip the container on its side and slide out the root ball. If the root ball does not slide easily, strike the bottom of the container with a rubber hammer or with a two-inch-thick board cushioning a carpentry hammer to prevent breakage.
    The new container should be at least three inches larger in diameter than the old and one to two inches deeper. Measure the depth of the original root ball and add soil to raise the top of the root ball to within one inch from the top of the pot. Stand the plant upright and lift into the middle of the new container. Wear thick gloves and get your hold on paper, not spikes. Use your repotting mix to partially fill the space between the root ball and the wall of the new container. Then wash the new soil into place with a steady stream of water. Add more prepared soil and water until the new soil is level with the top of the root ball.
    For large cacti, repotting will require several hours of intensive labor.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.