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One of gardening’s incomparable pleasures

There is nothing like sneaking into the garden in mid to late July after the potato plants have finished flowering and stealing a few thin-skinned potatoes. If you hill your potatoes with compost in place of garden soil, you can harvest potatoes without disturbing the plant. At the final harvest, you get the added benefit of potatoes that are almost dirt-free.
    Freshly dug potatoes have a flavor all their own. Mashed, they are nice and fluffy; French-fried, they are always golden and absorb very little cooking oil; baked, they are outstandingly delicious. They bring all these advantages because they are nearly 100 percent starch. As their thin skin needs no peeling, they are packed with vitamins that concentrated immediately under the skin. If you like hash brown potatoes with onions, your garden can provide both because the long-day onions you plant this spring will be bulbing at about the same time you start taking potatoes from the plants.
    Hilling potatoes with immature yard-debris compost in place of garden soil has many advantages. First, it forces you to generate an abundance of compost because it takes a lot to hill potatoes. By the time the potato plants are two feet tall, you will have had to hill them at least three times. For a row 80 feet long, that’s at least five wheelbarrows full. Purchasing that much compost would cost you a pretty penny. Furthermore, the compost you purchase is finished and heavy to handle. Immature compost from the composting bin that you filled last fall has a large amount of partially decomposed leaves mixed with more fully decomposed materials, making it less dense and easy to transport and apply.
    Second, by hilling the potato plants with compost, you can easily push your hands in until you feel an edible potato. As long as you gently remove the potato from the rhizome, you do not retard the growth of the plant.
    Third, as immature compost does not absorb much water, even the smallest rain will penetrate down into the soil where most of the roots that feed the plants are located.
    Fourth, potato beetles do not appear to be as problematic on potatoes hilled with unfinished compost. Entomologists tell me that adult potato beetles are not good navigators. They have no problem taking off, but when it comes to landing, they often miss their target. Instead of flying back to the plant they missed, they walk on the soil. They appear not to like walking on rough surfaces such as unfinished compost. Thus, when hilling with unfinished compost, keep the leaves of the plants from touching the ground.
    There are many years I have not had to spray for beetles. A daily walk through the planting to remove the beetles by hand, dropping them into a container, is all that has been necessary.
    Fifth, by hilling with compost you have added to the organic matter of your garden soil. By rotating my potato planting every year, I manage to apply a uniform layer of compost over the entire garden every five years.
    All that and delicious young potatoes, too.

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A partnership of late dinners

It was getting dark. Exhausted and stinking of menhaden, I fingered a reel, feeding more line into the dwindling tidal current. I had fished since morning and caught at least three or four rockfish mere inches short of the 35-inch minimum, so calling it quits without a keeper was difficult.
    Earlier in the day, I had warned my wife I was intending to fish well into the afternoon.
    “That means you’ll be out there until after nine or so, right?”
    “No. I hope to be home at seven, certainly by eight.”
    At half past eight, I was still fishing and at least an hour from home. Deb, I knew, would not be upset or even surprised, even if I was a good deal later.
    My spouse understands this sort of thing. She is a sculptor. When we first met, I feared the extreme behavior of an artist would fatally complicate our relationship. Instead, it seems to have inured us to each other’s excesses.
    Back in those days, Deborah might be incommunicable for days, pulling endless all-nighters to get ready for a show, despite the slight chance of financial reward.
    She didn’t find it maddening that I spent all my vacation time, and not a little money, flying with our two German shorthairs clear across the country to chase chukar partridge, valley quail or some equally obscure game bird along ridges and mountainsides so steep and remote that many questioned my sanity.
    In our different pursuits, we were almost identically compulsive. We both intrinsically understood the irrationality of our efforts but accepted them in each other.
    Later, as she found success and became even busier, devoting countless hours in her studio, I had expanded mine to pursuing bonefish in the Bahamas, Mexico and eventually down into the Caribbean.
    To further complicate, in the middle of all this we had three sons. That put limits on our scope of adventure. Though much more home-bound, we still followed our passions. I mostly limited mine to hunting and fishing around the Chesapeake. Deb began to teach, restricting her shows to one or two a year, while we raised the boys.
    Our sons are now adults, two in businesses in Florida and the third a sculptor living and working in Baltimore. Outside teaching hours, Deborah has created a loyal following of collectors who occupy her with their constant demand for her work. I’m still a fervent, outdoor enthusiast.
    Which brings me back to the dwindling light as the last of the sun outlined ripples in the current. On a similar night just a few years ago I enjoyed an insanely intense bite of stripers at near midnight not too far from this spot.
    Then I picked up one of the four rods trailing aft. Cranking in line, I unhooked the chunk of menhaden bait and tossed it into the current. Securing the hook and racking the rod, I did the same to the other three outfits. I was packing it in and going home.
    Sitting down to a late dinner and conversation with my wife seemed like a reasonable alternative to spending another few hours trying to seduce a big rockfish. The idea, however, was a little startling. Was I getting old? Or finally growing up?

Why today’s forbidden fish are legal tomorrow

The rockfish bite had been steady. We’d already caught and released a number of undersized fish when a big one hit Moe’s bait hard. The drag hummed as the fish ran, then turned to the side and — before I could clear the other rigs streaming aft — fouled two of the other lines. Dragging the accompanying baits and sinkers, the powerful fish continued to resist. Eventually Moe battled it to the boat and I netted it.
    That fish would have made a great morning if only it had bit after May 16, the start of the second spring season. We were just a few days shy, so the 31-inch fish went back over the side to go about its business while we sorted out the snarled mess left in its wake. All day we would not get a fish over the 35-inch minimum.
    To avoid harvesting fish carrying eggs, Maryland’s trophy rockfish season is timed by Department of Natural Resources to follow the bulk of the rockfish spawn. This year opening day (always the third Saturday in April) appears to be quite correct, for the vast majority of big females harvested this season have been empty of roe.
    Monday, May 16 begins the second phase of the spring season, when the minimum size drops from 35 to 20 inches and the possession limit increases from one fish to two, only one of which may be greater than 28 inches.
    This second phase of the spring season takes into account a couple of things. Migratory females leave the Bay for the ocean soon after spawning. Males, both resident and migratory, generally remain in the headwaters until the females stop arriving.
    That means that we’ll start seeing large (and smaller) males descending the rivers and the Bay in the next few weeks. Migratory males aren’t as big as the females, but there will still be some substantial fish in the mix. The regulatory provision for one fish over 28 inches allows anglers to bag a big striper without wearing too hard on the overall population of the fish.
    Phase two also targets our resident fish (minimum 20 inches). Rockfish born in the Chesapeake remain here for several years before becoming migratory; they are now also descending the tributaries to feed and school up in the main stem of the Bay. Their numbers are considerable and will constitute the bulk of the fish harvested by recreational and commercial anglers throughout the rest of the year.
    The last part of the rockfish season, the summer/fall season, starts June 1, when all of the tributaries are finally opened for rockfish. Creeks, streams and rivers stay off limits until June to protect both resident fish that continue to spawn through May and migratory fish that show up late (there are always a few). Rockfish season in the Chesapeake will then remain open this year through December 20.
    We caught no trophy-sized fish that May morning, but we had many encounters with lively stripers. Using large cut baits (to target big fish and avoid hooking smaller fish), we had lots of runs that resulted only in excitement. Rockfish, however, have large mouths as well as large appetites, and more than a few of the undersized fish managed to get hooked. We promptly released them, hoping at least some would grow up to be trophies.

How to control these and other web-builders

Those white webs expanding in the crotches of cherry, crabapple and Juneberry trees are made by eastern tent caterpillars. Last summer and early fall, the adults laid their eggs in these favorite trees. As the larvae emerge, they spin a web around the nest, giving it protection from the weather. In the evening, the larvae crawl out from under the web to feed on nearby tender young leaves. Just about the time the sun rises, they return to the web for protection. As the population of larvae increases and the larvae increase in size, so does the webbing of the nest.
    As long as the larvae remain under the protection of the web, they are protected from birds and the elements as well as from insecticidal sprays. You will never see birds feasting on these webs. If you poke your finger into one, you will see why birds do not bother them.
    “The defoliation usually does little damage to trees, and rarely do trees die from an infestation,” says Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder.
    The lack of damage is due to timing. Because the caterpillars hatch as soon as the young leaves unfurl in the spring, the tree has put little energy into the leaves and typically re-foliates in June, seemingly no worse for wear.
    Do not try to control the eastern tent caterpillar by torching the nests. Torching with a flaming kerosene-soaked rag tied to the end of a pole is not only dangerous but also causes permanent damage to the tree.
    The best method of control is to spray the foliage nearest the web with an organic pesticide such as Thurcide or Dipel. These pesticides contain the BT bacteria that kill the feeding larvae from the inside out. They are approved for use by organic gardeners. To obtain maximum effectiveness, apply in the evening to the foliage in the feeding area. A single application will provide protection for three to four days; it will take a few days before you see evidence of the treatment. The smaller the larvae, the better the control. As the larvae grow larger, they become more difficult to kill with BT.
    Use a fresh supply of these organic pesticides, not an unused portion from last year. Once the bottle is open, the effectiveness decreases with time. Unless you are going to be using them to control other pests in your garden, such as cabbage loopers, bagworms or corn-ear worms, purchase the smallest container possible.
    In mid to late summer, you’ll see similar webs on a wide variety of woody plants. These are created by the fall webworm. The same treatments can be used to control these pests. In July, you may also see webs on two-needle pines such as Virginia pine and mugo pine. To control the pine sawfly creating them, you’d need the hard pesticide Sevin.

Is My Compost Safe to Use?

Q I shredded some sunflowers in my composter this past fall. I forgot that they are like walnut trees and put out a mild toxin that can negatively affect other plants. Can I use this ­compost? Or should I just throw it out?

–Mike Morgan, Bowie

A The composting process destroys the enzymes that cause the allelopathic effect, so you can use your compost.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Plants are survivors

The spring of 2016 will be remembered as a short spring and a very short summer followed by a short fall — all within four weeks between March and April. Those 70-degree days in mid March stimulated the vegetative buds in many woody ornamentals to swell, causing the winter bud scales to drop to the ground. This left the buds susceptible to damage by freezing temperatures.
    Some Bay Weekly readers have reported buds on their hydrangeas turning brown and drooping, which has never happened before. Others have reported that the new growth on their Euonymus shrubs is turning white and wilting. Others have reported that that frosty nights have caused their American hollies to develop yellow leaves that drop to the ground. They seem to forget that hollies lose their leaves in spring as they start to grow new leaves. The difference is that this year, the transition from old to new is occurring earlier than ­normal.  
    The peach crop will most likely be sparse this year because most of the trees were in full bloom when the frost hit. Once flower petals begin to unfurl, they lose their cold-hardiness. Late-blooming varieties will produce peaches because their flower buds were still closed at the time of the last frost.
    Early asparagus spears wilted to the ground in the section of the garden where I had tilled the soil to control weeds. Where the garden was not freshly tilled and the soil was firm, the early spears were not affected. The difference is due to the heat loss from the soil, which provides frost protection. Where the surface soil was loose, there was not sufficient heat retention to provide frost protection close to the ground. I have seen similar results in gardens where the asparagus beds are mulched. The mulch prevents heat loss from the ground, resulting in the early-rising spears vulnerable to frost.
    But plants are survivors. By the first of June, everything will just about look the same, regardless of late-frost damage.

Planting Schedule
    If you are anxious to get dirt under your fingernails, this is the time for planting potatoes, onions, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, cauliflower, spinach and bak-choi.
    Delay planting tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash and cucumbers until the second week in May. If you are using stakes or cages to grow your tomatoes, remember to spray them thoroughly with a 10 percent bleach solution before installing them. There is evidence that spores of blight on last year’s tomato plants can over-winter on the stakes and cages.

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Abundance is the rule on the Argentina Plains

The first bird to approach our floating decoy spread was massive. Its seven-foot wingspread and three-foot beak were also signals that the the creature was not among our intended species. Our guide, Federico, emphasized the situation by whispering, “No tiro, est un jabiru.”
    I stumbled with my Spanish, so our guide tried his English. “No shoot, is the bird that brings the babies.”
    It was a stork. And big enough to carry quintuplets.
    Just after sunrise with temps only a bit above freezing, we were crouched in a waterfowl blind within a large natural drainage system in the La Pampa Province of the Argentina Plains. Because of the earth’s tilt on its axis in relation to the sun, the Southern Hemisphere’s seasons are opposite of the Northern Hemisphere. Our Northern spring is when their Southern duck seasons begins.
    My longtime friend and sporting partner Mike Kelly and I were in one hide, my two elder sons were in another, and Mike’s traveling companions, Jeff and Suzie Boot from the Isle of Man, were in a third.
    La Pampa is a vast, scarcely populated agricultural area with massive acreages devoted to corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, barley, sunflowers, cattle and sheep. It greatly resembles our Midwestern Plains but with a distinction. It is more like the Midwest of a hundred years ago.
    The ecological systems of freshwater drainage ponds and lakes that in America were leveled and plowed under during the last century remain untouched in Argentina. Those two differences, fewer people and unspoiled terrain, provide vast fertile areas for birds and waterfowl. It is a bird and bird lovers’ paradise.
    We hunted (and observed) for about three hours that morning, and harvested a colorful bag of ducks that eventually included rosy-billed pochards; white-faced and fulvous whistlers; yellow-billed and white-cheeked pintails; cappuccino, speckled, cinnamon and Brazilian teals; and Chiloe widgeon. The fowl were as delicious as they were beautiful.
    The afternoons in La Pampa were devoted to dove shooting, a specialty of the Argentina Plains. A number of dove species exist there, especially the eared dove, and because of their fecundity and the mildness of the long breeding season, their populations maintain well over 100 million. One pair of doves lays only two eggs, but the fledglings emerge in little over two weeks, reach maturity quickly and produce a number of hatches themselves within the same season. That can mean hundreds of eventual offspring from the original grain-eating pair each year. To help control their numbers and alleviate pressure on agriculture, the dove-hunting season in Argentina is open year-round.
    These small birds are as delicious as the ducks. Any birds or waterfowl not consumed by our hunting party were intended for delivery to local social services by our outfitters.
    It was great to adventure in an ecological system so abundant that our activities had no discernable effect.

Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and produce smaller flowers

As the trumpets of daffodil petals herald spring, we see clumps growing in roadside banks as well as in gardens. Pretty as they are, the flowers in those large clumps are not as large as those of single plants or smaller clumps. Crowded bulbs are smaller bulbs and thus produce smaller flowers due to a lower reserve of food.
    Professional gardeners dig up and thin out clumps of daffodils every five or six years. This practice allows them to not only maintain flower size but to also expand plantings.
    If you would like to lift and thin your bulbs, now is the time to take the first step. First, use a large plant label or planting stake with a weatherproof tag to mark the location of each clump to be dug, and identify its flower color.    After the foliage dies down to the ground, give the blubs a couple of more weeks to mature. Foliage will die more slowly in clumps growing under partial shade than those growing in full sun.
    To minimize damage to the bulbs, use a fork spade for digging and lifting out the bulbs. Start digging at least three or four inches away from the ring of dead foliage. Lift the bulbs and spread them on the ground to dry in the full sun for an hour or so. After the soil on the bulbs has dried, remove it by rubbing gently with your hands. Avoid damaging the tunic, the thin papery covering on the bulbs. Do not attempt to separate the bulbs from each other at this time.
    After harvesting, spread the bulbs on a flat surface in a well-ventilated room under cover to finish drying for a few weeks. Then place them in mesh bags or screen storage trays, and store them in a cool, dry place protected from rodents.
    In September, plant the bulbs where you want them to bloom next spring.

Is salt damage reversable?

Q Is there any way to compensate for winter salt damage to trees and ­bushes? Also affected is the grass strip ­paralleling the road.

–Farley Peters, Fairhaven

A Most of the damage caused by salt is due to salinity, which kills plant roots. If the sodium level in the soil is equal to or higher than that of potassium, then the damage is more likely related to nutrition. Have the soil tested to see if there is sufficient potassium.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Whenever the weather lets you

When the reel spool began turning under my thumb, I knew it was no ordinary rockfish on the end of my line. Counting to seven, I threw the Abu reel into gear, and when the line came tight, set the hook. Then my rod bent over to the corks and a stiffly set drag howled as the fish really hit the gas. This one had to be trophy sized — if only I could get it to the boat.
    We were anchored up south of the Hackett’s can at the mouth of the Severn River in 35 feet of water on a morning that was glassy calm despite a small-craft warning from NOAA the day before. Not deterred, my fishing companion Ed Robinson checked another forecase,, which predicted light winds until almost noon.
    We agreed that if the winds were calm we would head out and fish until the weather turned. Launching my 17-foot skiff, we were on station by 8am. A half-hour later, our four rods were rigged and baited with large chunks of fresh menhaden.
 A chum bag over the stern was spewing small bits of ground fish into the falling tidal current as we guessed that we had only about three hours of ebb left before slack water.

    Then Ed had a run and landed a fat and healthy 23-incher, a good sign there were fish around.
    A few minutes later, my bruiser hit.

How to Fish Trophy Season
    Chumming during Trophy Rockfish Season is a long-odds affair. Because the big fish are spawning and moving alone or in small packs, it is impossible to determine patterns. They don’t stay in one place for very long, so catching reports are mostly useless. Locating legal fish is pretty much a matter of luck.
    With this year’s larger 35-inch minimum size, we guessed it would be even more difficult to find keepers by fishing bait.
    Trolling is the most productive technique during trophy season as you’re covering far more water and using big lures. But if you want to use light tackle you’ve got to fish bait.
    Our four outfits were medium-heavy, six-and-a-half-foot casting rods with Abu 5600 casting reels loaded with 150 yards of 20-pound fluoro-coated mono, with fish finder rigs, two-ounce sinkers and stout 9/0 hooks on 24-inch 30-pound fluoro leaders.

Reeling in a Runaway Train
    It was 20 minutes into the battle before I got a glimpse of the striper. It was definitely a good one. Calming myself and making sure not to force things, I eased it to the side of the boat. Ed got most of the fish into the net. It took both of us to lift it over the gunnel. The lunker’s big tail ran well past the deck-mounted 36-inch measuring tape, so we were sure it was legal. After a quick picture we eased the handsome giant into my fishbox and iced it down.
    Ed had pulled all of our rigs out of the water during the battle to avoid tangles, so it took another 20 minutes to get them cleared, baited and back in the water. After that we didn’t have long to wait.
    One of Ed’s rigs twitched, then the clicker on the reel started screaming as the fish picked up the bait and headed away at speed. It was another runaway train.
    The fight mirrored my own. Almost a twin of the first one, this burly rascal also hung half out of my net as we barely managed it up over the side. Two giants inside of half an hour.
    Done by 10am with two trophies in the box, their tails sticking out and the lid bulging open, we headed for the ramp grinning like fools. An hour later, a stiff north wind pushed up three-foot seas with shore-to-shore whitecaps.

Managed right, planer boards are great for catching trophy rockfish

Fish on! Fish on!     
    The call rang out from the bridge, and we rushed out from the cabin to the stern to determine which of the 18 rods had hooked a trophy rockfish. Seizing a stout trolling outfit that was bent down by an obviously big striper, my friend Mike began to fight the fish to the boat.
    Managing to avoid any disastrous tangles, my buddy finally got the fat and healthy 37-incher on deck. It was the first of a number of catches made possible by planer boards.

Increasing the Odds
    The thrill of trophy rockfish season is getting control of a big ocean-running fish. Trolling many rods at once increases the odds of success. The challenge is avoiding tangling the active line with the many others still in the water. Because of the other rigs, the boat cannot stop lest there be even more disastrous tangles. So the victor has to overcome not only the rockfish’s strength but also the boat’s continued speed.
    A set of connected angled boards towed to either side of a craft as far back as 150 feet, planer boards let you tow multiple lines at various distances and depths without getting them tangled. The result has been an exponential increase in big fish caught, particularly during the trophy season when trolling is by far the most effective technique.

Between Ocean and Bay
    Most of the big striped bass that cruise the Atlantic Coast from Maine to South Carolina are born in our Chesapeake Bay (where we call them rockfish). They only live in the Bay for four or five years, then migrate to live in the Atlantic.
    The vast baitfish schools of the ocean feed our stripers to substantial size, often over 50 pounds and sometimes over 100 pounds. These migratory giants return to the Chesapeake once a year, during the early spring, to seek out their natal waters and reproduce. After they’ve spawned, they return to the ocean.
    Stripers begin spawning as early as February and, depending on water temperatures, can continue into May. But most are done by the third Saturday in April, when the trophy season is scheduled by Maryland law to open. Thus the season is scheduled to target fish that have already strewn their eggs.

On the Downside
    Planer-board fishing does have its downside. To rig and stream out so many outfits is a complicated affair requiring good teamwork and plenty of planning and preparation.
    Maneuvering a craft with a 300-foot-wide trolling footprint can be a big challenge. Despite the usual brightly colored flags marking a ­planer board setup, they can be hard for other boats to see, especially in choppy waters. Pleasure boaters not familiar with the fishing practice may not notice the devices in the water. The consequences of a collision with one of these towed arrays — even of an abruptly forced course change — can be costly in both time and money.
    Each individual trolling lure can include expensive, multi-lure umbrella and chandelier rigs. Multiply the individual lure cost by a dozen or more, and there is a significant investment in fishing gear. Plus a large mixup can take hours to untangle and re-deploy.
    Keep them out of trouble, though, and planer boards catch big fish.

Grow a patch of rhubarb

My old friend Bill Burton and I once discussed eating freshly harvested rhubarb as kids during hot summer days in New England, where every home had a rhubarb patch in the backyard. Bill raved about his mother’s rhubarb-custard pie, while I raved about my mother’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. I can still picture myself sitting on the back stairs of our home with a fist full of sugar in my left hand and a freshly harvested stalk of rhubarb in my right. Before each bite, I would dredge the base of the rhubarb stem in the sugar.
    Those were the days.
    Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit, although we tend to limit its use to making desserts. One of the great features of rhubarb is that it can be blended with other fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears and apricots as the rhubarb absorbs the taste of the fruit. In other words, you can make a tasty blueberry pie using only one cup of blueberries and two cups of chopped rhubarb.
    Rhubarb grows best in well-drained soil in full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, but it will produce spindly stems. Since you consume only the stem, the fleshier the stem the better. Never eat the leaves because they contain oxalic acid, which will cause swelling of the tongue.
    I have seldom seen rhubarb sold in a garden center, though it is commonly listed in seed catalogs. If you order rhubarb for your garden, you will receive in the mail what appears to be a dried-up brown stub. For best results, place it in a cup of water for five days before planting.
    There are various clones of rhubarb with stems ranging from green to various shades of green to red and red only. There is even a clone labeled Strawberry-rhubarb. I can assure you that it does not have a strawberry flavor.
    Rhubarb likes mildly acid soil with a moderate amount of organic matter. When planting rhubarb, I dig a hole the size of a half-bushel basket and add two to three shovels-full of compost and a handful of agricultural limestone, then mix thoroughly.
    Allow the rhubarb to grow without harvesting for at least two years before pulling your first stems. During your first harvest on the third year of growth, remove no more than half of the stems at any one time and allow one month between harvests.
    If you see a flower head develop in the center of the clump, remove it with a sharp knife two to three inches from the ground. Allowing the plant to produce seeds during the first three years of growth will weaken the clump.
    Never try growing rhubarb in a large container or in a raised bed. The roots are sensitive to high temperatures, which will cause the plant to die in mid-summer as rooting media rises in above-ground containers or beds.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.