By Michael Wellik
For over 20 years I have been collecting varieties of gourmet strawberries of several species. This includes Fragaria vesca (alpine), F. moschata (musk), F. virginiana (Virginia) and several heirloom hybrids.
A recent video on YouTube shows pictures and introduces these strawberries:
Growing many open pollinated varieties like this has its challenges. The alpines are the only varieties propagated from seed.
Michael Wellik inspects alpine strawberry seedlings
Our seed produced varieties are sown almost every month of the year. The challenges include dealing with insect and disease pests in our seedling nursery. Another recent YouTube video shows how we do this:
Specifically, we have to deal with heavy populations of fungus gnats and several soil borne diseases like pythium (damping off) and rhizoctonia (root rot). I had little defense against the diseases since my business was and is certified All Natural. All I could do is manage irrigation to control conditions that are favorable for the diseases. For the gnats I was using a Bti formulation called Gnatrol that is not strong on all larval stages of this insect. Large populations of this pest lead to all stages of this pest being present at the same time. Vacuuming the adults was also a control method along with many yellow sticky traps which are really meant more for monitoring rather than controlling this pest.
About 4 years ago my wife, Maureen, watched a segment of on a “green” channel about an ex NFL football player in Michigan who was growing vegetable transplants in his greenhouse using vermicompost from his worm farm. She urged me to produce organic fertilizer using worms. The saga begins.
I setup a “Rubbermaid” bin and purchased some red wigglers to get started. The bin was always very wet from adding food scraps from our kitchen. When the lid was opened the worms were on the sides and the underside of the lid. I guessed that they wanted to escape. There had to be a better way of doing this. I started looking at a lot of different types of bins in an effort to recycle organic materials and produce vermicompost for my strawberry business.
At a time when I was very frustrated with the pest situation and also with the worm bins, I received a large wholesale order from a landscaper from upstate New York. I checked out his website and one interesting thing that I found was that he was brewing a vermicompost tea and spraying it on customer’s lawns. I did a ton of online research and contacted the landscaper for information. My pitiful worm farm wasn’t producing enough vermicompost to use so I purchased a bag from an online supplier. I chose a supplier who had a kit and instructions for brewing tea.
I brewed a 2 gallon batch of tea using 2 oz of vermicompost per gallon of water. The brewing process used an air pump and air stones purchased at a pet store. The first batch of tea was applied to a couple of plug trays as a drench. It was a desperation drench. I was surprised that there were no ill effects of the tea so I brewed more and applied it to more trays. At every irrigation, I drenched with tea. It seemed that the plants were responding and greening up and pest pressure seemed to be easing. I was amazed.
From there I started amending my soiless organic mix with vermicompost. I tested rates of amendment from 10% vermicompost: soiless mix to 100% in 10% increments. There were benefits. It seemed that 20% was the minimal rate and since I didn’t have any of my own production yet I decided to use that rate. The top end of amendment appeared to be 70% vermicompost: soilless mix. Above that rate the plants seemed to be stunted.
To this day I use the same rates as a soil amendment and for brewing tea. Our tea brewer has grown to be a 35 gallon tank [image] and a double outlet air pump. Instead of air stones I’m now using ¼” soaker hose. For the brewing process I now use different additives to feed the microorganisms that are being encouraged to grow during the brewing process. These additives include unsulfured molasses and soluble kelp to grow the good bacteria. To encourage fungal growth humates are added to the brewer. I also purchased a KIS 5 gallon brewer and am comparing it to my home made system. The research never ends but the pest pressure that I once dealt with has subsided. The pests have not been eliminated but they are manageable now.
The business is growing and so is the need for more and more vermicompost. Much of the current testing involves vermiculture and vermicomposting. We are looking at bin designs like the OSCR bin. I built one last fall and am just now in early February 2010 starting to regularly harvest very rich vermicompost. The upside with this system is that harvest is greatly simplified.
Vermicomposting has changed our production system for the best. The business is now sustainable. Organic waste is converted by the worms to a usable product that not only feeds the plants but protects them from pests.
Michael Wellik is a trained entomologist and expert strawberry grower. You can peruse his strawberry selection at The Strawberry Store, and learn about his vermicomposting activities (and business) on his Vermitec website.