view counter

Regulars (All)

Time your pruning for both desirable growth and flowers

While azaleas were blooming mid-month, I passed a home in the Deale area where the bushes were so large that it must have been impossible to look out through the lower part of the front windows. They must have been sheared at some point because the middle of the plants appeared very bushy.
    This is a common problem and one that is simple to correct — once you get out the pruners and get past fear. 
    Well-established azaleas are almost impossible to kill. Their only sure death is by over-mulching or repeated mulching with hardwood bark. The plants are very shallow-rooted; over-mulching them suffocates the roots. Repeated applications of hardwood bark lowers the acidity of the soil and releases high levels of manganese, which prevents iron from being absorbed by the roots.
    If azaleas are well established and growing too well, simply prune them back 12 to 18 inches below the windowsill now, as the flowers are wilting. The sooner you prune the better. Stems up to three-quarters-inch in diameter will sprout new branches by the hundreds. Do not prune all of the stems at the same height. Cut some stems back 12 inches, others 18 and others 24 to give the plant a more natural appearance.
    Within three weeks after pruning, you will see small green dots emerging from the bark. Each of those is a potential branch. If you allow all the green dots to develop, you will get too many branches, giving the plant a bottle brush appearance. To avoid this, in mid-June or early July, use your fingers to rub away half of the developing nubs. These newly emerging branches are soft, succulent and easily removed. In mid-August repeat the process, this time keeping the best-developed and strongest branches and removing the others.  
    Do not fertilize or mulch the plants with compost until after vigorous growth appears on the pruned stems. Keep them thoroughly irrigated during dry periods.
    Since azaleas initiate flower buds beginning in mid- to late September, avoid shearing the plants after the middle of August. Flower buds are initiated at the ends of newly developed branches. If you delay shearing until mid- to late September, you will be eliminating most of the new growth, and the plants will have no flowers next spring.

Let it guide you through the night

Friday evening, look in the wake of the setting sun low in the west-northwest for the nascent crescent moon and Mercury. Mercury is just a few degrees to the upper right, but both are so close to the horizon that you may need binoculars and you won’t have long. Within 90 minutes of sunset Mercury is gone. And that window is shrinking each day. Mercury is surprisingly bright — equal to any star. But don’t confuse its white glow with the much brighter and golden hue of Jupiter, 20 degrees higher.
    By sunset Saturday, the moon has climbed well above the horizon, leaving Mercury in the dusk. Now the thin crescent is just seven degrees below Jupiter, easily the brightest object other than the moon. The moon, Jupiter and Pollux higher still form a near-straight line.
    Sunset Sunday finds the waxing crescent moon well positioned in the west. Jupiter shines 10 degrees to its right, while below and to the left, making a wide triangle, is the first-magnitude star Procyon. The eighth-brightest star in the heavens, Procyon is one of two bright stars in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
    Monday the moon is amid the dim stars of Cancer. Look a few degrees to the right of the moon for a dim patch of light at the constellation’s center. Unlike the sharp, clear light of a star, the hazy glow you’re seeing is the combined light of hundreds of newborn stars within the Beehive Cluster 570 light years away. While our own sun is 4.5 billion years old, the stars of the Beehive Cluster are only 600 million years old, mere infants in the life of a star. Binoculars are enough to distinguish dozens of these lights; a modest telescope reveals many more.
    Tuesday and Wednesday the moon is several degrees to either side of Regulus, the blue-white heart of Leo the lion. Regulus marks the dot at the base of what looks like an inverted question mark, called the Sickle of Leo.
    As twilight turns to darkness, Mars glows like an ember in the south. Far to the lower left is Spica. The red planet sets around 3am.
    Saturn shines in the southeast at sunset, is high in the south around midnight and sets in the west around 4:30am. The ringed planet is flanked by the two brightest stars of Libra — both second-magnitude — Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus appears low in the east. At –4 magnitude, there’s no confusing the Morning Star for anything but an airplane or satellite — except that it holds steady in place until daybreak.

Plan to dig, separate, store and replant in fall

As years pass, clumps of daffodils, narcissus, jonquils and hyacinths become crowded, resulting in smaller flowers. Shrunken flowers mean it’s time to dig and replant. Wait until after all of the foliage has died back to the ground.  
    Mark the location and flower color of clumps to be divided before all the foliage is gone. Make a large plant label and stick it in the middle of the clump.
    Dig with a garden spade, starting at least six inches away from the outer circle of dead leaves.  Assume the bulbs are now deeper than the original planting depth: Bulbs are equipped with contractil roots that pull them deeper in the ground at the end of each growing season. This is a survival feature as bulbs originated in arid regions. Thus when digging bulbs that have been in the ground for a long time, you’ll have to go two to three inches deeper than the original planting depth so the bulbs can be lifted from the ground without damage.  
    After you’ve lifted the bulbs from the ground, shake away loose soil; do not separate the bulbs from each other until after the soil has dried.
    Then separate the clusters of bulbs from each other and thin them, allowing only two or three daughter bulblets to remain attached to each large bulb. Dust the bulbs with a fungicide such as a five-percent solution of Captan. Place them in an onion bag and hang in a cool, dry place to protect them from rodents.  
    In late September or early October, the bulbs will be ready for planting.  To avoid future overcrowding, dig the planting hole at least 10 inches deep and amend the soil in the bottom with compost. The top of the each bulb should be at least eight inches below the surface of the soil. The deeper bulbs are planted, the fewer daughter bulbs they will produce because there is less oxygen available. Less propagating means less crowding.


Stink Bug Report

    A report from the University of Maryland Department of Entomology indicates that research at Virginia Tech found colonies of stink bugs that wintered unprotected outdoors have been killed by severe cold temperatures. 
    If this is true, it will help considerably in reducing the population, but it will not exterminate them. Stink bugs that managed to overwinter in the cracks and crevasses of homes and heated buildings will persist.
    Based on the invasion we are experiencing at Upakrik Farm in Deale, the cold winter has not made a dent in the stink bug population. On warm days, they pour out of their winter hideaways.
    The pheromone traps I tested last fall never attracted a single stink bug.
    The only defense that has been 100 percent reliable in capturing stink bugs is the Bugzooka. This vacuum gun sucks them into the barrel without killing them and smearing their stinking guts on windows or woodwork. It is fun to use and gives you the feeling of sweet revenge. Order at www.bugzooka.com.


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

Hundreds of shooting stars possible this weekend

If you’re not a night owl, you’ll want to set your alarm clock for early Saturday. Before dawn that morning, earth will plow through the trail of a newfound comet, providing what many astronomers are predicting to be the best meteor storm in years.
    Comet 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun over a five-year period, yet it was only discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project. It belongs to a family called the Jupiter Comets, which are steered and propelled by the gas giant’s own gravitational pull. Every so often, these comets come a little too close to Jupiter, and like a leaf buffeted by the wind, their course is set anew.
    That’s what happened in 2012 to Comet 209P/LINEAR. Not only did it alter the comet’s path, but it also warped the centuries-old trails of debris left with every five-year passing. Now the comet’s path comes within 280,000 miles of our own orbit — little more than the moon’s distance from earth.
    Not that the comet will actually pass that close to earth. At its innermost point of orbit, 209P/LINEAR is 90 million miles from the sun — roughly the same distance from the sun as earth, give or take a few million miles. May 29 the comet will be just 5.15 million miles from earth, the ninth closest approach by a comet ever recorded.
    Even at its closest, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to spot this small, dim chunk of ice and rock without a decent-sized telescope.
    In this case the sizzle is far better than the steak, thanks to the countless bits of dust trailing in the comet’s wake after hundreds of years circling the sun. Between sunset Friday and dawn Saturday, earth plows full-steam through these bands of accumulated inter-stellar flotsam.
    Astronomers are predicting a brief but intense period of activity, peaking around 3am with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of meteors an hour. Some models even predict a meteor storm with as many as 400 meteors an hour! And unlike most prolific meteor showers, which streak past in a matter of seconds, those from P/209 LINEAR will drift through the sky like falling snowflakes.
    Cloudy skies? Check out the meteor shower via a live feed starting at 1:30am Saturday at http://tinyurl.com/olywq6k.
    The waning crescent moon won’t interfere with the meteors, but it will make a nice appearance with Venus low in the east before dawn Sunday morning.

Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish

This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
    Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
    Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.

Hooked on Fishing
    Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
    It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
    My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
    For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
    By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
    These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
    In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
    Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
    These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.

And one bright, streaking light

As the sky grows dark, the first light you’re likely to spot is Jupiter high in the west, slipping toward the horizon and setting around midnight. Above it are Pollux and Castor, the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini. Orange-hued Pollux is the 17th brightest star, and white-hot Castor is the 23rd brightest. But at magnitude –2, Old Jove is exponentially brighter.
    Mars is another easy target, appearing high in the south at dark and setting in the west around 3:30am. While it is no brighter than a strong star, its steady red glow stands out among the stars.
    You’ll have to hunt for Mercury amid the ashen light of sunset, when the innermost planet hovers within 10 degrees of the west-northwest horizon. Mercury reaches its farthest point from the sun on the 25th, when it appears 15 degrees above our horizon at sunset and remains visible for almost two hours. These next couple weeks are the best chance all year to see this elusive planet at night. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights look for Mercury between the two stars that mark the horns of Taurus the bull.
    As Mercury sinks toward the northwest horizon, Saturn rises in the southeast. The ringed planet is also making its best nighttime appearance of the year and shines overhead from dusk until dawn. Below it snakes the form of Scorpius punctuated by red-glowing Antares.
    Venus is brilliant as the Morning Star low in the east at dawn. It rises around 5am, and as daybreak nears it blazes from its perch 15 degrees above the horizon. Keep an eye on its leisurely climb and you can spot it shining through the glare of early morning.
    Another bright light pierces the darkness this week, as the International Space Station makes several good appearances. At its dimmest, the ISS rivals any star; at its peak, it can rival Venus. But while the stars and planets give you time to pause, the space station streaks by in a matter of minutes. Traveling 17,000 miles an hour, it orbits the earth every 90 minutes. Unlike the lights from a passing airplane, you aren’t seeing the lights aboard the ISS. Instead, hovering 250 miles over the planet, the station receives plenty of sunlight, which is reflected back to our eyes.
    Friday morning the ISS appears in the southwest at 5:16am, climbing toward the celestia zenith, then disappearing in the northeast at 5:20. Saturday it appears almost 30 degrees above the south-southwest horizon at 4:30am, climbs another 30 degrees, then vanishes three minutes later in the east-northeast. Tuesday the station appears almost directly overhead at 3:42am and shoots to the north before disappearing two minutes later. For more detailed sighting opportunities, visit http://spotthestation.nasa.gov.

The female harvest is the ­tipping point

Maryland’s favorite crustacean is in serious trouble, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2013 Winter Dredge Survey for blue crabs. Once again, the species is teetering at the edge of collapse.
    The numbers approach population levels in 2008, when the feds labeled the fishery a disaster.
    DNR reads this year’s numbers differently: “crabbing is at safe levels,” according to a recent press release. “The crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year.”
    That interpretation begs comment.
    During the six-year period of presumably safe harvest levels, the overall crab population plunged by at least 70 percent. Is that not alarming?
    Commercial and recreational harvest limits are the primary management tools for controlling crab populations. But they went virtually unused for six straight years.
    Anson Hines, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, confirms fears about continuing difficulties with Chesapeake blue crab populations.
    In the 2008 crisis, part of the problem was harvest quotas based on flawed science. DNR had long claimed that the female blue crab spawned only once in her lifetime, so any size mature female could be taken without reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.    
    When that science was revisited, it was found that mature females spawn again and again. The overall female population, quite possibly, was the key to blue crab stability.
    By then, crab numbers were so low that the natural resources departments in both Maryland and Virginia — plus the Potomac River Fishery — began cooperating to rebuild the devastated species for the first time ever.
    In 2008-2009, winter dredging of dormant females in the Virginia portion of the Bay was halted. Maryland attempted to reduce fishing of females down the Bay in the fall. These actions achieved unprecedented protection for females throughout the Bay.
    These moves were a particularly big deal for Virginia because the crabbing industry in the lower Chesapeake depends significantly on female crabs. As the females prefer the higher salinity of the southern waters, their numbers are densest there. That’s also where all blue crabs spawn. This sparsely populated area relies on commercial fishing for jobs and income. Most of the cost of the fishery reduction was absorbed by Virginia watermen.
    The cutback led to a swift and extraordinary population resurgence. Within two years, the blue crab population rebuilt itself. The Bay saw some of its best recent crabbing seasons.
    But with that population build-up came commercial demands for renewed access to the females.
    During all of these periods of crisis, harvest of females continued under varying degrees of limitation throughout the Bay.
    The harvest of immature female blue crabs by the soft crab industry has never abated. Tens of thousands of small (three-and-a-half-inch minimum size), immature, never-spawned peeler and soft-phase females are harvested with scant control over limits.
    Just four years ago, recognizing at some level a population decline in progress, DNR made keeping female hard crabs by recreational crabbers illegal.
    That move generally transferred that portion of the recreational harvest over to the commercial sector. DNR did little else to abate the harvest of the sooks. What followed was the ecological crisis of 2014.
    This situation points to a serious and continuing shortcoming in the philosophy and management of the species. Based on DNR’s own statistics, from 1990 to 2000 the population of reproductive females in the lower Bay declined by more than 80 percent during the spawning season. The population remained at record low levels until 2008 and triggered the declaration of disaster.
    Now again in 2014, populations are back to seriously low levels, quite possibly because of the continuing and substantial commercial harvest of female crabs. Is that policy wise?

It’s good to eat and pretty enough for the flower garden

Asparagus is a vegetable that’s good looking enough to be planted in the flower garden. The foliage makes an excellent garden backdrop or can be used in sunny beds to give light shade to flowers that prefer partial shade.  I remember a flower garden where asparagus provided shade for an under-story planting of impatients and verbena. The effect was most attractive as the asparagus foliage created the impression of looking through a light fog.
    The lacy foliage varies from light-green to purplish-green depending on variety. Several harvests of the spears can be made before you allow the stems to grow to maturity.  
    To keep volunteers from taking over your flower garden, seek to buy male plants. If that’s not doable, dig out the berry-producing female plants.
    Asparagus requires advance preparations and well-drained soil.
    Asparagus are grown from roots purchased from nurseries, garden catalogs or garden centers. The roots are generally packaged in bundles of 10 to 25. Most asparagus roots are dug up in the fall and placed in cold storage for spring planting. However, soil preparation should start in the fall with a soil test. Asparagus is a long-term crop, so the pH and nutrient concentrations should be at their optimum levels from the very beginning.
    In commercial production, roots are planted deep to facilitate harvesting and minimize irrigation. Mechanical harvesters cut spears below the surface of the soil.
    Home gardeners who plant their asparagus roots deep can cut the spears underground, harvesting white-stemmed spears. Asparagus crowns can alternately be planted just a few inches below the surface of the soil. But shallow-planted beds are likely to need irrigating.
     To prepare an asparagus bed for cutting spears below the surface of the ground, remove the top six inches of soil in a trench approximately 12 inches wide. In the bottom of the trench, add a two-inch-thick layer of compost and spade or rototill as deeply as possible. Cover the excavated soil with an inch of compost and blend it with the soil. In the spring, remove about a two-inch layer of soil from the ditch and spread the roots of each asparagus crown, spacing crowns a foot apart. Cover the crowns with two to three inches of the amended soil. Check the trench weekly and add additional soil as the stems elongate. Avoid covering the spears.
    If you are planting the crowns shallow, incorporate a one- to two-inch layer of compost as deep as possible into the soil and dig a three- to four-inch-deep trench for planting the crowns.
    Do not harvest asparagus spears until the beginning of the third growing season. The first harvest should be limited to two or three cuttings. At the end of the harvesting season, mulch the bed with a two-inch layer of compost. For additional growth, spread one-half cup of calcium nitrate per 10 square feet.
    The onion hoe is the ideal tool for weeding asparagus beds.
    I apply Preen only after the harvest is complete with a second application in September to control winter weeds. Preen, which is made from fluoride, is cleared for use on vegetables and will control grasses but only a few broadleaf weeds. It is most effective when applied on clean, cultivated soil and watered or cultivated into the soil immediately. Preen provides weed control for only six to eight weeks.


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

Spread the joy of the night sky

The moon waxes through evening skies this week, reaching full phase Wednesday. Look for it just a few degrees to the west of Mars Saturday. The next night it is flanked with Mars to the right and Spica even closer to its left. Tuesday the near-full moon is five degrees to the right of Saturn and 10 degrees to the left Wednesday. The moon is so bright, you’ll have to hunt for the ringed planet.
    This is Saturn’s best appearance, as the planet reaches opposition, rising around sunset and remaining visible until daybreak.
    Jupiter is high in the southwest at sunset, the brightest nighttime object until the moon rises and an easy target until settnig around midnight. Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemin, which actually appear quite distinct from one another, are just above Jupiter,
    If you have a clear view to the west-northwest horizon, look for Mercury emerging from the haze of evening twilight before setting itself shortly after 9pm. The planet is quite bright and grows more so in the coming nights, appearing higher each night through much of May.
    Venus is brilliant as the Morning Star low in the east during dawn. With binoculars or a small telescope, look to the upper left of Venus for distant Uranus, which is only two degrees away Thrusday the 15th.
    Saturday marks spring Astronomy Day, an annual event begun by California astronomer Doug Berger in 1973. The idea began with astronomers setting up telescopes in busy urban locations so that city-dwellers could be introduced to the joys of the night sky. Now it’s commemorated around the world by friends and family gathering to exploring the heavens together.

Hoe, mulch or a touch of herbicide

The better you control weeds in the garden this year, the fewer weeds you will have next year. Weeds have the capacity of generating thousands of seeds, which means that many seeds scattered on the ground this year will be germinating next year. Not all of the seeds will germinate at once. Many hard seeds can remain in the ground for years, especially if they get buried.  
    Frequent light cultivation while the weed seedlings are small is the best method of control — providing you have the time.
    When cultivating or hoeing, disturb as little soil as possible. The more soil you disturb, the more weed seeds you are likely to stimulate into germination. Most of the weeds in hiding are summer annuals that require being exposed to sunlight to germinate. With ample moisture in the soil, many need only a second or so of light to initiate germination. Many large commercial farms now sow and cultivate their crops at night to minimize weed problems.
    I use a hand-push, single-wheel cultivator with a sharp, flat Nebraska blade that slices the weeds at the soil line. This tool causes little disturbance of the soil, and it can be used with minimum effort. The Weed Bandit is also a good tool for controlling weeds.
    Whatever your tool, it must be sharp. For good weed control when seedlings are young, all that is necessary is to cut the top from its roots.  The roots are not capable of regenerating at this stage of development. You can do all you need by simply scratching the surface of the soil. Controlling weeds that are several inches tall requires more effort and more digging.
    Mulch can also control weeds.  Unless you are using black plastic, mulch tends to make the soil cool. If you are growing tomatoes, peppers or eggplants, delay mulching until the first cluster of fruit is forming. Plastic mulches must be anchored along the edges, lest they blow away. You can mulch with newspaper, but you’ll need 10 to 12 layers to provide adequate weed control. Unless kept wet or anchored, the paper can blow away. Shredded paper or cardboard makes better mulch because both are easily spread and, once wetted down, tend to mesh together and stay put. The other nice thing about using paper is that it will rot in place and leave little residue because it is pure cellulose.
    Straw is often used in the garden, especially around tomato and pepper plants.  However, unless the straw is free of weeds, it can be a source of more and different kinds of weeds next year. Never use hay as it is generally loaded with seeds.
    The only herbicide I feel comfortable using to control weeds is Preen. A fluoride, it is effective only on germinating weed seeds. It has no effect on weeds once they have germinated. It must be applied on clean cultivated soil and watered immediately. I use it in my asparagus bed only after we have finished cutting. I use it in the onion bed two to three weeks after the transplants have been planted. I also use it with carrots, parsnips, radishes and beets after the rows have been thinned to the proper spacing. It is useful in the flower garden applied one to two weeks after transplanting.
    To avoid injury, Preen must be applied as directed. It will provide control of crabgrass, goose grass and a few other weeds for six to seven weeks. This is time enough for the crop to shade the ground and the weeds.


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