August 2010

Fighting Fire with Fire – Larry Torches Fire Ants

Just when I thought I’d seen everything (relating to vermicomposting), our good friend Larry “The Garbage Guru” Duke had to go and surprise me!
😆

In this video Larry demonstrates his blow torch method for killing off lots of fire ants in his bed. Let me say right off the bat that this is definitely one of those “don’t try this at home” sorts of approaches – at least NOT indoors (as Larry points out in the video)! To be totally honest, for me this would be a “don’t try this at all” approach – HaHa – being the critter advocate that I am. But as I told Larry, I’ve never had to deal with fire ants in my worm bins (we don’t have them up here – yet). I DO have a childhood memory of their nasty bite though! We were down in Florida for a vacation and I literally ended up with some “ants in my pants” – not a pleasant experience at all! Even some of the ants up here have a pretty annoying bite – so I can only imagine what it would be like to constantly be bitten by fire ants while working with your worm bed!

While I won’t likely be torching my own worm beds any time soon, I am really glad that Larry brought this topic up! Ants can definitely be one of those frustrating worm bin/bed “pests”. I myself do not yet know of a “perfect” method for ant control (and generally just let them be), but here are a few suggestions you may want to test out for yourself:

1) Assuming the ants don’t actually set up a nest in your bed, you may want to see if you can find ant nests on your property, so you can get ’em where they live instead. I’ve read that pouring a pot of boiling water onto an ant hill can be effective.

2) Boric acid is supposed to be quite effective as well, and a mix of borax and honey will certainly be a lot more eco-friendly than some of the other pesticides/traps you can buy. I have never tried it myself though, so I can’t say for sure how well it works.

3) Cinnamon is supposed to be an effective ant repellent, as are various types of mint, although I haven’t had much luck when I’ve tried catmint.

4) Diatomaceous earth is another possibility. I wouldn’t put it in the actual worm bin (not 100% sure how it might affect the worms, not to mention lots of other critters), but if you happen to be using a bin that sits up on legs, adding a little field of it around each leg should ensure that the ants are required to walk across it in order to reach the bin.

5) If your bin is small enough, putting it in a mote of water (maybe with a few drops of dish detergent to reduce surface tension) may discourage the ants from attempting to reach it.

If anyone happens to have their own tips and tricks for getting rid of ants (especially in worm bins/beds) please share your thoughts! This is definitely one of those topics that comes up a lot in reader emails so I know there are a lot of people wondering about this.

Thanks again to Larry for providing us with a different perspective on things, and for just…well…being Larry!
We lova ya, buddy! Don’t ever change!
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Worm Inn Journal-08-27-10

Some of you may be wondering how things how things have been coming along with my latest Worm Inn set-up. As you’ll more than likely recall, a couple of days after I set up the system, I added all the weeny (malnourished) wigglers from my cocoon hatching experiment. Generally, I recommend letting things age for longer than that, but the food waste I was using in this case had been frozen previously, making it much more microbe-friendly once it thawed out (since freezing reduces structural integrity of fruit/veggie wastes). I also mixed in some aged alpaca manure for good measure. Plus, when you consider where the worms were coming from, I could hardly imagine that the slightly-less-optimized-than-normal conditions in the Worm Inn would cause problems!

That being said, it’s been a bit challenging trying to determine how the worm population, as a whole, is doing. I’ve been making an effort not to disturb the system TOO much (rooting around with my hand fork etc), and the worms have made it clear that they want to hang out (at least for now) down in the lower reaches of the Inn. This doesn’t surprise me in the least, since that is where most of the “food”, and of course, moisture, is concentrated. The good news is that I have still been able to find worms – and the worms I’ve been finding are now larger than any found in my cocoon bins. I was even pleasantly surprised this week with the discovery of a mature worm (recall that no worms reached maturity in the cocoon experiment)!

I’ve been finding that keeping a Worm Inn outside is somewhat different than keeping one indoors, as I expected would be the case. The contents of the Inn tend to dry out more quickly, and I’ve found that it’s much more challenging to keep the system free of critters that would be considered “annoying” indoors. Fruit flies in particular have made their presence known. It’s hard to say for sure how they got in, but in all honesty I can’t say I’m too surprised to find them. With plenty of overripe tomatoes rotting in my gardens these days, not to mention plenty of food waste in my trench beds, there seems to be a LOT of fruit flies hanging around the property in general. I’ve been opening up the Worm Inn a fair amount since adding the worms, and a few may have been able to get in as a result. OR, they simply managed to find a way in while it was closed up.

As I mentioned in my Worm Inn set-up post (Worm Inn Journal-08-02-10), Jerry (Worm Inn company owner) was kind enough to send along a nice new system with the stand kit I requested. What I forgot to mention, however, is the fact that this new system somewhat more “advanced” model than the ones I’ve used previously. The most significant upgrade (and something I absolutely LOVE) was the installation of a single zipper, as opposed to the previous double-zipper design. What this means is that instead of having two zipper heads (or whatever the technical term happens to be – haha) meeting – thereby creating a bit of a gap – the single zipper goes all the way around and closes tightly at the other end.

I should also point out that the drawstring tightening system was improved from the previous design. One of the reasons I’ve always recommended my drawstring tie-off method (to ensure a tight closure) when first setting up the system is because the drawstring system in the original models didn’t close really tightly – this wasn’t an issue once the system was up and running for awhile (which is why I would always end up untying my knot), since the lower compost tends to hold its shape, but early on there was more of a risk that worms etc could end coming out of the bottom. Anyway, I just wanted to point this out so that people don’t assume that you have to use the tie-off approach – this is not the case. I still like doing it for a little extra security, but that’s just me!

Getting back to the fruit flies…

With loads of them flying around outside, I wouldn’t be surprised if they somehow managed to squeeze their way in from the bottom. I’ve been amazed with the ability of house flies to somehow get into knotted plastic bags etc, so I can only imagine what a teeny tiny fruit fly could do! This is assuming they didn’t simply fly in while I had the system open (certainly possible as well). One other possibility (although, not in this particular case, as I’ll explain in a minute) is what I like to think of as the “Trojan Horse Little Critter Invasion Technique” (THLCIT for short).

I’m sure most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan horse. The giant wooden horse was given by the Greeks as a “gift” to the Trojans – who they happened to be fighting at the time. Why anyone would accept a “gift” from their sworn enemy is beyond me, but that’s beside the point! Of course, the horse wasn’t really a gift at all – it was a very sneaky way for the Greek army to sneak into the well-protected city of Troy. The Trojans – not being the sharpest tools in the shed – had no clue, when they wheeled the horse inside the city, that there were Greek soldiers hiding inside. Short story a little longer…the Greeks jumped out of the horse in the middle of the night and opened the gates to the city, thus allowing the Greek army to invade and defeat the Trojans.

The point of this little story (and my overall analogy) is that sometimes it’s not so much a matter of critters crawling into your worm composting systems (Worm Inns, bins etc), but rather a case of them sneaking in on materials you happen to be adding to the system. Thankfully, they don’t have the ability to open up the system from the inside, thus letting in all their creepy friends! (haha)
Nevertheless, as most of us know all too well – they don’t need ANY further assistance once they are IN, since they all tend to reproduce like gangbusters!

In the case of fruit flies, when you add fruit wastes – especially in the case of fruit that’s been sitting around for awhile, or which has come from a warmer location – there can actually be fruit fly eggs already laid in the fruit! As alluded to earlier, this almost certainly is NOT how the fruit flies ended up in my Worm Inn. Like I said, I only used food waste that had come from my freezer. Freezing/cooking waste materials is a great way to make sure you are not inadvertently introducing fruit flies etc to your system. I just wanted to make mention of the “THLCIT” so that people can keep this in mind when adding new materials to their worm composting systems – ya never know what sorts of critters may be getting introduced! Another obvious example would be any “living” material introduced from outside – leaf litter, compost, soil, manure etc.

Now don’t get me wrong here – I’m definitely not suggesting that introducing various critters to your system is a “bad” thing – not at all! A lot of times it can actually help a great deal! Just as a quick example, I’ve found that the addition of really well aged manure can help to improve the “balance” in a worm bin – I’ve always suspected that this largely results from the diversity of organisms (including various small predators which will feed on fruit fly and fungus gnat larvae etc) that tend to live in this material.

Anyway – I think that’s enough of an eyeful for now (got a little sidetracked there! haha).
Will more than likely provide another Worm Inn update in a few weeks!
8)

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Cat Litter Vermicomposting-08-25-10

Cat Litter Sunflower
This “Kong” sunflower seems to have benefited from the cat litter compost heap.


It’s been quite some time since I provided an update on my cat litter composting bed. When I checked on it in the spring (see “Cat Litter Composting-04-30-10“), I found lots of worms – mostly concentrated around the outside of the heap. Much of the material was still very recognizable as the compostable cat litter I’ve been using (along with the deposits from the cats of course! haha) – basically orange-brown in color and granular in texture. I think much of the odor was gone by then though (can’t recall for sure).

Well, not too surprisingly, there has been plenty of change over the course of the last ~ 4 months, and the material is now much more uniform in appearance – basically just looking like a nice compost (recall that I had added quite a lot more than just compostable cat litter – there were also lots of fall leaves, corrugated cardboard, and layers of straw).

Cat Litter Vermicompost

The compost has a nice earthy smell now as well. As for the worms – while there are certainly still lots of Red Worms in the bed (especially concentrated in particular spots), I get the feeling that the food/habitat value of the material has declined substantially since, apart from there being fewer worms than earlier in the summer, the worms also seem to be somewhat smaller on average.

As you can see above, I ended up planting a single “Kong” sunflower in the corner of the bed, and it has certainly done just fine (not my biggest one by any means, but it was also planted quite a bit later than most of them).

Once fall arrives, I will likely use the compost a protective mulch for some of my ornamental beds. It should provide them with a nice boost in the spring. I think I might then empty out my designated cat litter composting bin, once again heaping everything in this corner bed, and letting it sit over the winter.

By the way, if you would like to read about actual the set up of this bed (back in the fall), be sure to check out this post: “Winter Cat Litter Composting Bed


**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 systems should dedicated to those waste materials alone (i.e. don’t toss them in your ‘regular’ compost bins), and should not be set up near any water sources. Cat litter shouldn’t be handled at all by pregnant women or young children.

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Vermi Lasagna Gardening-08-24-10


Paul stands with his last remaining corn plant


Hey Bentley! Saw all your updates on the blog and decided it was time to get out there and tidy up. There were virtually no leaves left on my tomatoes, and most were ready to be harvested so out they came. I found that I pulled way too much of the bed apart with the roots of the tomatoes, so I simply cut the stem at the ‘soil’ line. I did pull a few out to show the earthworms, and this was the bed that had no red wigglers in it! They were the native soil worms congregating in the root zone. I included some pics of those. They don’t seem as shy of the light as the red wigglers. I didn’t pull any roots out of the vermi bed, so I’m going out there right after I send this to see what’s going on in there.

I also included a pic of me standing next to my only example of the giant corn that was planted as part of my living fence experiment. It did well considering that we had a very wet spring and early summer. No 20′ tall though. None of my corn really grew well until the hot days came. I was discouraged at the giant’s slow growth so I pulled them all except this one and put in zucchini, since I knew it grew fast. Speaking of zucchini, one of the three I planted was broken by a windstorm, severing the top and thus the growing tip. That’s actually a good thing. I’ve got zucchini growing out of my ears! I didn’t take a picture of that though…

There’s also a pic of my new butterfly friend, and after reading how hummingbirds like your Scarlett Runners I kept an eye out and sure enough they’re here too.

I also harvested my spaghetti squash, not bad for 3 plants, with so much growing in so small an area (corn, beans, squash, cucumbers). The 3 (4!) sisters planting is a success. What can I say, I love cucumbers too! I still can’t access the bed with the compost ecosystem added (composted material and worm eggs) to see what if any worm activity I have. Squash plants are VERY spikey and apparently I’m allergic to whatever is in the spikes. Hence, I am itchy and scratchy right now.







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2010 Tomato Harvest – Round 1

Freshly Harvested Tomatoes

This year I haven’t been nearly as active with my harvesting (and freezing) efforts as I was last year. I’ve certainly picked a fair number of beans and tomatoes (and the odd zucchini), but mostly just for a given meal here and there. As a result, many of my beans have toughened up and/or been munched by critters, making them fit for worm consumption only. I thought I might be heading in the same direction with the majority of my tomatoes, but ended up taking some action this weekend.

I’m sure that a lot of my inaction on the harvesting (specially, harvesting then freezing) front stems from the fact that I ended up quite disappointed with the produce I froze last year. As some of you may recall, I ran into some serious issues with a tomato disease last year and ended up having to harvest most of them while they were still green (see “The Great Green Tomato Rescue“). I’m a serious fried green tomato fan, don’t get me wrong, but I had FAR more tomatoes than could be put to use in a reasonable amount of time. I figured that frozen green tomatoes could be put to good use in soups, stir fries, sauces etc. As it turns out, they just were not appealing at all – so, the vast majority of them ended of as worm food (as did most of the frozen zucchini, chard and beans).

As you can see in the picture above, I have been forced to harvest a fair number of beefsteak tomatoes while they are still green (since these plants are among the hardest hit by the disease this year) – but I also had LOADS of beautiful, ripe grape, cherry and tomatoberry fruit (and expect to harvest many more before I need to chop the plants down). I am much more confident that these can be used for soups, sauces etc during the fall and winter – they should offer much more flavor – not to mention lycopene!
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I have been particularly impressed with the tomatoberries this year. Sure, they didn’t go gangbusters in the bucket systems (although I still managed to harvest a fair number of ripe fruit from them) – but it was another story altogether with the plants that border (or are growing directly in) my worm composting trench beds! Even with my failed support efforts, and some really lousy weather (and lack of care from me) as of late, the plants have done great! Although you might generally think of these as a type of cherry tomato, I’ve found them much more versatile than that – and as you can see, some of them have certainly grown a fair bit bigger than most cherry tomatoes as well.

Tomatoberries

The flavor is definitely sweet enough to enjoy them right off the vine, yet meaty enough to also make them a great addition to a sandwich. I’m optimistic that they will do just fine as a mini “plum tomato” (for sauces etc) as well.

I spent a LONG time preparing my tomatoes for freezing last year – which naturally seems like “wasted time” in hindsight – SO, this year it’s going to be a K.I.S.S. approach all the way. I tossed them in the sink for a soak (to wash off dust/debris etc), rinsed them quickly, patted them off in some tea towels (to avoid excess water in the freezer bags) then bagged them up.

When all was said and done, I ended up with four large freezer bags full (perhaps ~ 20 lb worth) with a small quantity in a fifth bag as well.

I didn’t do anything with the larger tomatoes. The plum tomatoes I picked are pink so I’m sure they will ripen fairly quickly, as will some of the pinkish beefsteak tomatoes. Any of the green tomatoes that don’t end up ripening on their own, or consumed / given away, will likely head right back to where they came from. I’m not the only one who enjoys munching on tomatoes (although I do prefer mine not to be rotten)!
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Vermi-Tomato Take-Down

Sounds like some sort of wrestling event, doesn’t it?
😆

After a period of foot dragging, followed by some humming and hawing I decided once and for all, today, that I was going to take down all my tomato buckets, along with one of my hanging tomato planters. They’ve all been on the decline for the past few weeks, and the drought-like conditions as of late certainly haven’t been helping. Even though most of them were still limping along and producing tomatoes, they were looking terrible and just generally becoming a hassle.

Sooooo…chop, chop!

Of course, I certainly wasn’t going to take everything down without having a good look down below! I wasn’t overly optimistic that I’d find thriving Red Worm populations, but figured it would be interesting nevertheless.

I started with the hanging container. Given the small volume, and the poor shape the plant was in, I actually expected to see the lowest number of worms. As it turned out, it probably had more worms than most of the buckets – although, still not what I would consider “a lot”.

Interestingly enough, it seemed as though most of the worms in this container were concentrated up in the alpaca manure zone at the top (directly under several small burlap bags), and right in the middle where I had also added some burlap in an effort to separate the “black earth” soil (added down in the bottom) from the vermicompost (up top). This burlap layer seems to have retained moisture quite well, and I think that was definitely the key.

Among all the containers dumped today, there were certainly some consistencies – including some things that help to explain why both plants and worms alike did not do all that well.

For one thing – and there are certainly no surprises here – the tomato roots spread extensively throughout the soil/compost. I don’t think that this alone created major issues for the worms (i.e. I don’t think the roots physically forced the worms out) – I should have a better idea once I clean out my larger box systems – but it is fairly safe to say that all those roots contributed to some very dry conditions in these containers. This was then compounded by the fact that the peat/coir components in the “soil” zones became resistant to re-wetting (ever tried to moisten dry peat moss – can be a royal pain!), which helps to explain why water was pouring so quickly out the bottom of these containers whenever I watered. Also likely helps to explain why I found so few worms in the soil zones.

When it comes down to it, I suspect that my Worm Inn tomato garden is simply holding moisture better than these other systems (as are the bigger wooden box systems) and that’s having a major impact on the success of the plants and the worms.

Once I was finished with my root zone examination, I added the materials to various other worm composting bins (including my big wooden bed, pictured below). I’m sure there is still plenty of food/habitat value left in this stuff, and won’t be surprised to find it crawling with worms once it does start to moisten (hopefully we’ll get some rain before October! lol)

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Hilarious BSFL Article

I was really hoping to make more progress with our new “BSFL” (Black Soldier Fly Larvae) section, since adding it to the blog this past spring, but seem to have run into a few difficulties there. While this post doesn’t really “count” in terms of making progress in this department, it feels good to share this with you anyway.

A little while ago, my good vermi-friend, Heather – who is tearing it up on the Dallas worm composting scene, I might add – shared this VERY funny article that appeared in the Dallas Observer (online). If you appreciate sarcastic humor, and don’t mind a few cuss words here and there, I highly recommend you check it out.

It’s called “So, You Want to Be an Urban Chicken Farmer? Read This First“, and here is a blurb from the beginning (link to follow):

It’s weird. Today I have no appetite at all, and I am seriously considering never eating again, but I have been thinking about nothing but food all day and how we don’t think enough about where our food comes from. I mean really comes from. Yesterday when I went home I had a big problem with my wife’s maggotometer.

It’s not really called a maggotometer. I think it’s a Biopod or something. She paid several hundred bucks for it. It’s for her backyard chickens. You put garbage in it, and, lo’ and behold, it grows maggots. Some French genius invented it. I guess I should call it a maggoteur.

Chickens love maggots. The maggots are supposed to deposit themselves into this little bucket. You pull the bucket out, dump out the maggots for the chickens, and the chickens think it’s Christmas dinner. Every morning.

Be sure to check out the full article here: “So, You Want to Be an Urban Chicken Farmer? Read This First

Thanks again, Heather, for sharing this!
😆

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