August 2009

Can Mosquito Dunks Kill Fungus Gnats and Fruit Flies?

Mosquito Dunks

This is a question I am hoping to answer via some experimentation in the near future.

Some may recall that I tested out the nematode, Steinernema feltiae, as a fungus gnat killer last year and found that it was reasonably effective. The problem was that it was a fairly expensive solution, and generally would require ongoing applications in order to keep the gnats at bay over the long haul. Incidentally, I also tested Steinernema against fruit fly larvae, but I discovered one of the other limitations of this biocontrol organism – that being heat intolerance (at least I am pretty sure that’s what the main issue was).

And if those limitations aren’t enough – perhaps I should remind you of the fact that Red Worms have been shown to kill these nematodes as well!

I have read that some people have used ‘mosquito dunks’ successfully to control fungus gnats, so I’ve decided to try them out myself. The advantage of this approach (assuming it works) is that the dunks are a lot less expensive (especially when you consider how long a package will last in comparison to nematodes), and just generally less of a hassle to deal with.

I’m thinking that if I simply immerse a small chunk o’ dunk in a container of water (a full dunk is apparently enough to treat 100 sq ft of water area, so using a full one might be a bit of overkill – haha), then use that water to moisten an infested habitat, it should (hopefully) work.

I’m definitely not as optimistic about the effectiveness against fruit fly larvae, but you never know. Fruit flies are in the same Order (Diptera) as gnats and mosquitoes, but I don’t know if there is enough similarity. The particular strain of bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (say that three times fast!) is specific to dipteran pests, while other strains are used against beetle larvae, caterpillars etc – so that gives me some hope.

The key will me to make sure there is enough of this bacteria in the test systems that it ends up being ingested.

Anyway – I will be getting some experiments up and running in the next week or so, and will write a post once I am ready to roll.

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Vermicompost Vitality

Here’s a question from Corey:

Thanks in advance for all your work and info! It’s truly
appriciated. I have what may seem to be a silly question, but here it
goes : Does harvested vermicompost lose its virality/vitality over
time during storage? My concern is that harvested casings during the
off growing season would sit unused for a few cold months before being
incorporated into the garden-may lose its potency. Just a thought –
but it never hurts to ask –

thank you!

Corey in PA

Hi Corey – that is actually an excellent question (which is why I decided to post it on the blog). The short answer is definitely “yes” – but there are lots of factors involved (and potential scenarios) here so I certainly won’t leave it at that!

Using high quality vermicompost soon after it is harvested will almost certainly provide you with more benefits than if you use the material after it’s been sitting for 5 years. Unlike a fine wine, vermicompost doesn’t really improve with age (haha). A short ‘sitting’ period can definitely be advantageous in some situations however. You’ll notice I mentioned “high quality vermicompost” – well the stuff that often comes out of the bottom of a ‘Rubbermaid’ tub type of worm bin generally doesn’t fall into this category, in my humble opinion. This is especially true if there are no drainage holes.

This material will very often be overly wet, with anaerobic zones – and may in fact not even be finished vermicompost. Material like this should allowed to sit someplace where excess moisture can drain away and there is plenty of air flow to aid with the drying process and provide plenty of oxygen to allow the aerobic microbes to finish the job.

In the case of the really good quality stuff – material that is harvested from some type of flow-through system for example – the storage stage isn’t really needed, and it will likely be at its peak for beneficial microbial activity. If it is left to sit, microbes will gradually start to die off and/or become inactive since there won’t be all that much ‘food’ value left – it will be rich in humus and thus highly stabilized.

Now don’t get me wrong here – if we take the scenario you mentioned, in all honesty I don’t think you will lose a signficant amount of the potency during the winter months of storage – especially not if you are able to store the material in a cool, relatively dry (don’t let it completely dry out though) spot. Perhaps in your basement somewhere? The cool temperatures (and low moisture content) will slow down the microbial activity, thus also slowing down the ‘aging’ of the vermicompost.

You might also think about doing a gradual freezing of the material. While I probably wouldn’t recommend simply throwing a bag of fresh vermicompost straight into a chest freezer, if you start storing the material in an outdoor shed in the fall, my hunch is that you’ll get a higher percentage of microbes becoming inactive (forming resistant cysts), rather than being quickly killed.

Perhaps you have a spare fridge somewhere? I would think that this could be a good way keep your material fairly fresh as well.

By the way – some other ways you can really speed of the decline of your vermicompost include letting it sit out in the rain and/or hot summer sun. Precipitation is basically just going to wash away a lot of the ‘good stuff’, while the hot sun will likely just end up sterilizing the material.

Anyway – I hope this helps, Corey! Thanks for the great question.

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Worm Composting Potato Tower – Update

Worm Bed Potato Towers

I wanted to write a quick update for everyone today re: my Worm Bed Potato Boxes. As the title of this post implies, they have now been officially upgraded to ‘Worm Composting Potato Towers‘! Whoohoo!

Thanks again to all those of you who chimed in and educated me about this type of system!

My dad was over yesterday and we worked together to create (and install) some wooden collars for my potato boxes – effectively increasing the volume of each, and thus the potential potato growing space. This morning I added a lot more aged manure into each of the boxes, although I still have quite a lot of room for more.

We’ve been enjoying some absolutely fabulous gardening weather for the last week or so, and it’s expected to stick around for at least the next little while. I am amazed by how much of a positive impact it’s had on many of my garden plants, including the potatoes.

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to add another level this year given how late in the growing season it is (and the fact that the worms continue to settle the material), but I suspect that even this one extra layer could end up making a big difference.

Anyway, I’ll continue to keep everyone posted!

Previous Potato Box Posts
Worm Bed Potato Gardens
Worm Bed Potato Gardens – Update

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Vermicomposting Trenches – 2009 – Update

Vermicomposting Trench

It’s been a little while since I wrote my last trench-related post, so I thought it might be a good time for an overall update. It has definitely been an interesting year on the trench (and gardening-in-general) front – lots of encouraging results, but also some important lessons learned.

Unlike last year, this summer has been exceptionally cool and dreary. August has been much more ‘normal’, which is certainly a relief, but June and July were less-than-ideal for my heat- and sun-loving crop plants.

As you may recall, this year I expanded my vermicomposting trench network, and switched over to bedded horse manure as my main food stock (although I have still been adding my own food waste, and grass clippings). The worms have definitely been thriving in the trenches – happily converting everything into rich worm compost for the benefit of the nearby plants.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with my sandbox trench garden this season. I decided to try growing sweet corn and pole beans, but have also let a few left-over potatoes (last year I grew potatoes and pumpkins) do their thing.

Vermicomposting Trench - Sweet Corn

My dad (a retired cultural anthropologist) inspired the bean/corn combo when he explained how/why North American indians used to grow these two crops together. Corn is a nutrient-demanding crop, so the beans (which fix nitrogen in the soil) help out in that department, while the corn stalks act as natural supports for the climbing bean plants

Pole Bean Growing Up Corn Plant

So far, this definitely seems to be a winning combination! Even though I live in corn country, and have been bored to tears by this plant for most of my life, I must say that there is something really cool about having your very own big ol’ corn patch in a suburban backyard. It adds a small (but welcome) element of added privacy in my yard (something that’s been sorely lacking in previous years), while simultaneously giving local pedestrians something interesting to look at. Having a crop of pole beans in the mix is just an added bonus.

This year my ‘pumpkin patch’ simply got moved over to my main trench garden (benefiting from one of my 2009 trench expansions). I love the idea of growing our own Halloween pumpkins (the bigger the better), so I suspect the pumpkin patch will be part of my garden(s) for many years to come.

Thus far, the pumpkin plants have done very well – especially in the past few weeks (with some extra heat, sun and rainfall)!

Vermicomposting Trench - Pumpkin Patch

After growing my pumpkins in the sandbox garden last year, I am all too familiar with the tendency of ‘winter squash’ plants to basically take over a rather large patch of backyard real estate. This year my plants seem to be even a little more ‘pushy’ – barging their way right into the corn patch! Trying to reclaim their old stomping grounds perhaps?

Vermicomposting Trench - Pumpkins

Last year I cut the pumpkin plants back a lot, in an effort to keep things neat, and so I’d still be able to mow the lawn in this part of the yard. This year however, I’ve decided to have more fun with the process, basically leaving the pumpkin plants to roam as much as they please.

My favorite place in the yard now is actually the very back corner of the sandbox garden, where I can basically hide out in the foliage! Behind me is my new sunflower garden, and in front – my corn and pumpkin patches.

As I alluded to above, this year’s gardening efforts haven’t ALL been quite so rewarding! As you can see in my very first image, my tomato plants got off to an excellent start (essentially forming a tomato plant hedge along my fence), albeit a rather slow one due to the cooler temps. The same was true for my zucchini plants – which once again looked like they were straight out of Jurassic Park!

Jurassic Park Zucchini Plants

Unfortunately my over-confidence got the better of me, and I learned a very valuable lesson about proper plant spacing! Last year I crammed my plants in pretty tightly, but managed to get away with it – which I’m sure is at least partially due to the fact that we had fantastic gardening weather (hot, sunny, but still with lots of rainfall) last summer.

I think all that success went to my head, and I ended up cramming plants in even more tightly than before. The problem is, when you crowd together a bunch of plants that are all growing really well, you create dense zones of vegetation with greatly reduced air flow. Add cool, damp weather into the mix, and it’s not really too surprising I ended up getting burned.

So what’s the damage?

My zucchinis have still been producing reasonably well (can you imagine how badly off a zucchini plant would have to be in order to not produce any fruit? haha), but the tell-tale signs of plants in distress are very evident – the zucchinis have been growing quite slowly, and quite a few of them have started rotting right on the plant when small. I guess this is what you get when you try to grow four plants where should be at most two!

On the tomato front

My roma tomatoes have been hit by some sort of serious foliar disease – I suspect it is either ‘Early Blight’ or ‘Septoria Leaf Spot’ based on the appearance, but it’s been a while since my last plant pathology class (haha), so I’m not 100% sure. The growth of these plants has been so dense, and I didn’t even realize I had a problem until my ‘hedge’ started looking a little lopsided (when some of the plants were in really serious trouble). The disease starts on the leaves/stems close to the ground and works its way up – so if you are not attentive, by the time it makes its presence known it will be too late to really do anything about it.

Diseased Tomato Foliage

If I had simply planted two or three fewer plants, and paid a bit more attention, I suspect this could have been avoided altogether.

Despite the damage from the disease, I am still hopeful that I’ll be able to get a decent crop of romas. All the plants have quite a few green tomatoes on them, so we shall see. My ‘patio tomatoes’, which are planted next to the romas, seem to be doing perfectly fine, so I’m at least happy about that! I have also let a couple of tomato ‘weed’ plants spring up in other locations without getting yanked, so we’ll see how those do as well.

All in all, despite the extensive damage to may favorite crop plants (tomatoes, that is), I am still very pleased with the results of my ‘vermi-gardening’ efforts this year. I will actually be writing about some other Red Worm gardens I’ve been testing out with great success in the near future.

I’ll be sure to provide a final trench wrap-up post at the end of the season as well.

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Toad Fruit Fly Trap

A little while ago I received an email from a reader named Simon, who was interested in sharing his rather unique approach to dealing with fruit flies.

Simon’s suggestion was to employ small toads as fruit fly predators. Originally, I thought he simply meant that you could toss a toad in your worm bin and that would be that.

Of course, this didn’t sound like the best approach to me, since toads would likely need at least SOME light in order to thrive. Further email exchanges with Simon served to clarify the issue – what he had actually been doing initially was keeping the worms and toads together in a semi-lit container. Subsequently, he moved the toads to their own small terrariums.

So how are they supposed to eat the fruit flies in the worm bin?!?

The key here – just as it is with the cider vinegar traps – is to lure the fruit flies into the terrarium and ensure that it’s not easy for them to escape once inside. What Simon did was cut a small hole in the terrarium lid and put some window screen over top.

Alternatively, if you have a small terrarium with no lid, I would think that covering it with plastic wrap then punching lots of small holes would work as well.

While certainly a bit more involved than setting up a simple cider trap, what I like about this idea is the fact that you would REALLY go all out in terms of tempting the fruit flies. Simon suggested putting a banana peel inside the terrarium, but any collection of fruity material would work well, and would likely be even more inviting than cider vinegar – just imagine how many fruit flies you could attract with a little heap of melon chunks!

According to Simon, when the toads are really small they aren’t all that efficient at capturing the fruit flies. Also, he points out the fact that as toads get older (and bigger) their habitat requirements grow substantially as well.

I would think this could work very well with a variety of amphibians and lizards – especially ones that don’t grow all that big.

In some ways, I think this is more of a fun, interesting way to get rid of some of your fruit flies, and a nifty way to feed your pet frog/toad/lizard, rather than a super-effective fruit fly reduction tool. But you never know!

Anyway – thanks again to Simon for sharing his idea! Hopefully some of you can test this out for yourselves and let me know how you make out.

P.S. Another possible idea just came to mind as well. For those of you who don’t have arachnophobia, you might even think about creating a little spider terrarium using this same method for luring in the fruit flies – sure beats having spiders all over your house, right? This might actually be a fun science project as well.

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Cat Litter Composting – 08-07-09

Compostable Cat Litter...Composting
Backyard composter dedicated to cat litter composting, moving along quite nicely with the assistance of fungi and numerous other organisms.

It has been ages since I last wrote about cat litter worm composting, and a couple of recent emails from readers (focused on this topic) reminded me of the fact that it’s something I’ve been wanting to revisit for a while.

As some of you may recall, my original experiment involved setting up a Rubbermaid worm bin specifically for the purpose of determining whether or not Red Worms would consume cat poop. Even though I had started using compostable cat litter at the time, I was worried about the potential issues with salts and ammonia (both very bad for worms), so I decided not to add the clumps to the bin.

The initial results were very promising – it quickly became clear that the worms were more than happy to feed on this waste material. After a while, I basically just left the bin to sit without any further additions however (you know me!!). Every so often I would check on it and add some water (it was an open tub system, so it dried out fairly quickly), but that was about it.

Despite the neglect, a sizable population of (small) Red Worms developed, and basically converted everything (leaves, cardboard, cat poop) into worm castings. I’m happy to report that I finally took pity on them a few weeks ago, and dumped the contents of the bin into various outdoor systems where the worms will undoubtedly find a habitat much more to their liking!

So what about all the cat litter waste?

Obviously, I wasn’t about to start sending it to the landfill again – so I needed to come up with some way to deal with it in a more eco-friendly manner. As such, I designated one of my backyard composters as a cat-litter-only compost bin. Since I was adding everything (clumps, poop and all) this time, and since I had a LOT of it (I’d been bagging it up for several months), I figured there was no point even thinking about trying to add composting worms.

My hope was that over time the older materials would eventually mellow out due to decomposition and I might be able to successfully introduce worms at some point. I left the lid off during some rainy periods, and occasionally watered it with a watering can, hoping this would help to flush out some of the excess salts.

Initially the composting seemed to proceed at a very slow rate, with the volume of material in the bin remaining relatively stable. Strangely enough, after my last big addition of cat litter waste (I tend to let it accumulate for awhile before adding it), the level of material in the bin seemed to go down quite quickly all of a sudden. I also noticed a lot of mushrooms growing in the material (as you can see in the image above) just afterwards.

Yesterday, when I was taking some pictures for this blog posting, just for the fun of it I decided to have a peek at the material in the bottom of the bin. I was curious to see how well decomposed it might be. When I pulled up the compost access door I was shocked to see a bunch of fat, vigorous Red Worms wiggling away. Upon closer examination I discovered that the material was not only loaded with worms, but it’s also contains countless cocoons!

Worms Happily Composting Cat Litter Wastes

I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times during my years of vermicomposting, but I have to say that this was one of the best discoveries. I thought for sure that this bin was going to be completely inhospitable for quite some time. Finding such an abundance of huge worms down in the bottom already is a good sign that (compostable) cat litter vermicomposting is definitely a viable option!

I’ve read that worms hatching from cocoons into a new habitat will be able to adapt to that environment far more readily than any worms introduced from another habitat (unless of course that other habitat is very similar). This may help to explain the thriving population of worms. The composter was basically empty this spring when I started using it, but I’m sure there were plenty of cocoons that survived the winter (I’ve had Red Worms in this system before).

Anyway – with the worms doing so well in this system now, I’ll certainly be interested to see how well they keep up with (and tolerate) all the new material I add. I also have another new system (in my head) that I’ve been meaning to make and test out – primarily as a nifty pet waste (vermi-)composter.

I’ll certainly keep everyone posted! I’m also going to add a pet waste vermicomposting section to the ‘Hot Topics’ page.

Previous Cat Litter Composting Posts

Cat Litter Vermicomposting
Cat Litter Composting – Update
Cat Litter Composting – 12-02-08
Cat Litter Composting – 01-05-09

Note: Cat litter composting warrants some caution, and should generally only be attempted by those with previous composting experience. Any dog or cat waste composting system should be separate from your regular composting systems. Cat litter shouldn’t be handled at all by pregnant women or young children.

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He’s 7 Years Old…and He’s Got Worms

I like to think that I was somewhat precocious when I was a young kid – as an extremely avid birdwatcher (and amateur naturalist in general), and painter – but what’s interesting, is that I never really had the entrepreneurial bug back then. Ok, well there was the one summer my older brother and I sold golf balls and nightcrawlers (both gathered from a local golf course). But that’s it!

Nevertheless, the ‘bug’ did eventually hit, and now I just can’t help but be inspired when I learn about young people starting up their own businesses. Ryan Reynolds is certainly no exception!

I first learned about Ryan while recently checking through some links that had been submitted to our Worm Composting Business Directory [UPDATE: directory is no longer active]. The name of his business, “I’ve Got Worms”, caught my attention right away – I never cease to be entertained by the phrase (ever since watching “Dumb and Dumber” for the first time), and as you can see, I even make use of it here on the site (look left – haha). Believe it or not, I’ve even been working on a video series with the same name!

Great minds think alike, I guess!

Naming aside, what REALLY caught my attention when I visited the site was that fact that Ryan is definitely NOT your average worm farmer! First and foremost, he started his business – based in Provo, Utah – back in March, when he was still in Grade 1!!

But I don’t want to steal the poor guy’s thunder here – long story short, I got in touch with Ryan ask him about his business and see if perhaps we could put together a write-up about it for the blog. Here is what he had to say (along with some pictures he sent me):

I started I’ve Got Worms! because the street I live on is too dangerous for lemonade stands. I’ve always wanted to find ways to make money so when my mom told me about composting worms, I was excited! My investors (mom and dad) helped me out with the start-up costs except for my hard earned $1. They gave me a loan at 0% interest on condition that I payed all that money back before I kept any for myself. I got my worm bin finished March 5th, the same day my worms came (2 pounds to start out). I’ve never seen that many worms before! Holding them is weird.

Since then, I’ve been able to pay off my investors and reinvest in my business so that now I have a bin full of worms that are just growing (I can’t sell any of them because I’m trying to get enough so that I can just sell my own worms) and another bin of worms to sell.

My favorite thing about my business (besides the money!) is I get to help the world be a little cleaner. I love recycling cardboard and newspaper for my neighborhood and I love helping other people start vermicomposting too. And we’re already getting tomatoes that we grew in vermicompost and they’re the best I’ve ever tasted (oh yeah, I trade vermicompost for my mom’s time whenever she has to help me with emails or phone calls or anything. She says it’s a great trade and by the looks of the garden, I’d have to agree!).

Ryan cutting cardboard for new bedding. He uses a shredder for the newspaper but then rips or cuts the cardboard. It takes him a while to get the bedding done for a vermicompost starter kit, but he listens to books on CD while he’s working so it’s not too bad.

My least favorite part of my business is touching the worms. Well, not the worms exactly but the bedding. My hands get so dirty because the vermicompost sticks to them when I’m mixing the bedding or checking on my worms or sorting them, but it’s worth it. Mom laughs at that because she thinks most boys don’t mind getting their hands dirty but I still don’t like it. And sorting the worms for sales is pretty hard too. I like it best when my friends or mom have time to help me. I’m thinking about saving up for a worm sorter, but so far I sort everything by hand.

Ryan holding a few of his worms.

The funniest experience I’ve had with my business is when we first started, we didn’t know that you have to leave the lights on at night so the worms won’t get out. Or maybe we knew but we thought the worms were doing OK without it. Well, the next morning we went down in the basement where my bin was and there were worms everywhere!! Luckily we saved most of them. Now we always keep the lights on them for a few days when we get a new shipment.

Ryan checking on his worms. He says they look great!

Oh, and another favorite thing about my business is handing out business cards whenever I’m out with my mom or dad running errands. I love how surprised people are to see me and find out that I’m the President of my own business.

Ryan posing with his latest batch of worms. He’s up to 12 pounds now and excited for his business to grow even bigger.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Ryan for sharing his story here on the blog. I’m sure he will be a source of inspiration for many people – both young and old!


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