mouse in seed pail

Mouse feasting in bucket of stored grass seed. P.Cooper photo.

Mice are seeking places to spend the winter and actively moving from outdoors to just about any protected area, including our homes, garages, shed and cars. They need shelter from the wet and cold weather like us and prefer to take advantage of areas humans have already created. Any dry and relative warm spot with access to food or an area to store scavenged food will do nicely. Car engines are another favorite nesting spot as they are sometimes warm and provide great protections from predators and weather. Mice will chew on wiring and filters under the hood causing considerable damage and cost for repairs.

House mice can live outdoors in good weather, but some will live in houses year round. They can have 8 litters of young per year with 5 to 6 babies each time. That is a lot of mice! Nests are usually made with 3o feet of a food source to keep the mother in close range with her young. Most often mice are active during the night.

mice in bird house must be evicted when old enough

Mouse family nesting in a birdhouse.

First line of defense to keep mice out of houses is to be preventive by sealing up or blocking points of entry. Seal cracks and crevices with spray foam around foundation where the sill plate attaches the frame of the home. Make sure doors and windows fit properly and use weather stripping. Mice can flatten their skeleton and cartilage to fit through a ¼ inch gap. They commonly squeeze through small gaps around wires and pipes entering the home. Mice are great climbers of trees and sides of buildings to gain access to attics and wall spaces. Trim overhanging tree branches, and prune back foundation planting from touching the house. Keep grass, brush and vegetation away from foundation. Inside the home, eliminate clutter which serves as hiding spots and nesting material. Attic and dryer vents can be covered with hardware cloth and caulk the edges.

Eliminate food sources for mice. If you are feeding the birds, you are also feeding the mice. Spilled seed on the ground attracts mice and other animals closer to the house. Cat and dog food left out all day in a dish for on demand feeding for your pet offers mice an anytime buffet, too. Store dry animal food, including dog biscuits in a hard, metal container.  Mice can chew through very hard plastic containers with their gnawing teeth.

Repellents are available which claim to keep mice away. One type emits a high-frequency sound humans are not likely to detect but animals do not like. Caution should be used as pets may not like either. Some versions are made for use under car hoods to keep mice out of engines. Scented mouse repellents are available containing various mixtures of peppermint, cloves, hot pepper capsaicin. Planting mint around the foundation is reported to work as a deterrent. Some folks claim mothballs will repel mice, but this is not a legal use of the product, and in practice mice have been known to relocate the stinky orbs out of their area.

Mouse control will be needed if your find activity or signs of mice inside the home. Sometimes you can hear them chewing on the wooden structure making up the house. Finding the tell-tale black droppings which look like a small grain of rice, only black, is means for action in that area.

mouse trap

Mouse trap places with the snap end against wall.

Control options are traps or poisons. Traps should be placed where you find the droppings. Mice prefer to run along the edge of the wall rather than out on the open floor. Place set traps butted up against a wall. Peanut butter is a great bait to use to attract them to the trap. There are many different traps on the market from the old-fashioned wooden base snap traps to battery operated traps with a metal plate which electrocutes the mice. I saw a new one which uses a funnel system and extremely small and strong rubber bands which snaps over their head causing a quick a death. There are also humane live traps where the mouse enters, the door closes behind it, and then you take the trap and mouse outside to release it still alive, just take it far away from your house.

Poisons are rodenticides regulated by the federal government. Always read and follow label directions. Mouse poisons can affect other non-target animals by directly eating the poison, or up the food chain if another animal or bird eats a mouse that ate the poison.  Also mice do not always leave the building after ingesting the poison, sometimes dying in the walls creating an odor as they decompose in an inaccessible site. Insects can find the carcass to assist in the decomposition process which brings another problem of bugs or flies into the home. Once the dead animal is completely decomposed, odor and insects should go away.

-Carol Quish

Dawn before the storm November sunrise Pamm Cooper photo

Dawn before a November storm

 

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

-Albert Camus

November is the time of falling leaves and bare trees, perhaps a first snow, woolly bears and the arrival of northern birds that come down to stay for the winter. Geese fly overhead in their v-formations, remaining autumn fruits are visible on trees and shrubs and the weather is definitely shifting toward the colder end of the spectrum.

wooly bear in November 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Woolly bears travel late in the year and the amount of rust or black is only indicative of its stage of development, not the severity of the coming winter

Most northern birds that migrate here for the winter typically arrive in late September or early October. This year many stayed in the north until recently as temperatures there remained warmer than usual and food was abundant as well. The first juncos I saw arrived on October 30, but that is just in my area, but it is the latest arrival of that species since I started keeping track of such things.

cowbirds on fall migration Horsebarn Hill UConn

Cowbirds on migration Horsebarn Hill UConn

This past October was one of the warmest on record, and anyone with some annual flowers in their gardens may still have some blooms now in  November. I had Mandevilla vine, Thunbergia, salvias, Cuphea ( bat-faced heather), Mexican heather, Tithonia sunflowers, Cosmos, balloon milkweed, ivy geraniums, fuschias and several more annuals still blooming  on November 5. Native witch hazels and some perennials like Montauk daisies, butterfly weed and some hyssop varieties are also blooming. As of today, though, with temperatures in the low 30’s, most annuals should fade away into the sunset.

fuschia still blooming November 3 2019

Fuschia still blooming on November 3, 2019

Mandevilla vine in bloom November 3 2019

Mandevilla vine still blooming on November 3 2019

geraniums blooming November 2 2019

Geraniums still blooming in Manchester on November 3, 2019

October being so warm, many trees still have some leaves, although oaks, dawn redwood and Bradford pears are the main ones with leaves right now. Some sugar maples slow to turn color this year are fading, but many Japanese maples are still full of colorful leaves.

maples

Sugar maple on left and Japanese maple on right

old-house-with-bittersweet-and-japanese-maple-rte-154-november-13-2016-pamm-cooper-photo

Old house with bittersweet and a Japanese maple in full autumn color

This is the time of year when it becomes evident where paper wasps built their nests. According to farmers in earlier times, perhaps mostly by experience and observation, the position in height of these nests was an indicator of the amount of snow to come during the winter. The lower the majority of wasp’s nests, the less snow, and vice versa.

paper wasp nest in chute of wood chipper November 2019

Paper wasp nest in the end of a wood chipper chute

There are many plants that are great to use for fall interest. Fothergillas has a wonderful orange-yellow leaf color into November, and Carolina spicebush has a nice yellow color right now. Several viburnums, winterberry, many Kousa varieties and native dogwoods have fruits that are of  interest for fall and even winter color. Red osier dogwoods also have red twigs that are a standout in the winter landscape if pruned periodically.

cranberry viburnum berries

Viburnums can add colorful interest in the landscape for both fall and winter

blueberry fall color

Blueberry fall leaf color

Honey bees and some syrphid flies are still active as long as food sources remain. Witch hazel is valuable as a food resource for many late season pollinators. Also, the American oil beetle, a type of blister beetle, can sometimes be seen crawling over lawns in early November on its way to find a suitable spot to overwinter. Stink bugs and other insects are still out, but soon should be seeking shelter for the winter as temperatures drop. The invasive brown marmorated stink bugs seek shelter indoors, while native species remain outside.

honey bee on Montauk Daisy

Honey bee on a Montauk daisy

syrphid fly on Cosmos November 2019

Syrphid fly visiting Cosmos flower November 2019

Animals like deer and coyotes may sometimes be seen out and about on sunny fall days. Deer will eat crabapples and acorns, as well as smorgasbord items like Arborvitae hedges and other plants that pique their interest and taste buds. Sometimes they will nibble on young crabapple twigs and those of other small trees and shrubs. If this is a problem, consider wrapping lower branches loosely with bird netting or something else breathable for the winter. Squirrels have been known to clip off the flowers of hydrangeas and cart them off to line their nests.

coyote hunting during the day in fall 2019

Coyote hunting for voles and chipmunks along a small brook during the day

When autumn leaves are just a memory, sunrises and sunsets can provide a spectacular display of color during the fall and winter months. Sometimes there will also be a pre-glow red or orange color in the sky that will light up trees and houses just before dusk. The color will only last for minutes and changes can get more brilliant as the sun settles down over the horizon. In the morning, colors are at their peak just before the sun arrives over the horizon.

pre- sunset December glow 12-3-15

Orange glow just before fall sunset

The warm weather is retreating into fond memories, and the cold and bare landscape is coming to stay for a few months. As Clyde Watson wrote in his poem-

“November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows…”

Pamm Cooper

Did you know that October 26th is National Pumpkin Day? At least, it is according to the unofficial National Day Calendar. I would have thought that a special day for pumpkins would fall on October 31st but it seems that there are already several other honorees on that day, including Halloween, World Cities Day, and National Doorbell Day. That last one at least seems to make sense, given the number of doorbells that will be rung by trick-or-treaters. Those adorable trick-or-treaters will pass by many carved and illuminated pumpkins adorning steps and porches.

Carved Ct field pumpkins crop

More than 2 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown in the United States each year and unfortunately about 1/3 of them end up as waste in our landfills and the other 1/3 may get composted. When pumpkins are carved and then set outside as decorations they begin to decay immediately. We’ve all seen sad-looking jack-o-lanterns that have collapsed in on themselves as they rot.

That is a lot of food waste. In China, where their pumpkin production is almost 6 times that of the US, most pumpkins are eaten in soups, in congee (a delicious slow-cooked rice dish), or even made into flour. The consumption of pumpkin in the US is often limited to desserts, with pumpkin pie winning by a landslide. I’d have expected Thanksgiving, or at least a day in late November, to be Pumpkin Pie Day, but it seems that December 25th has that designation. Who decides these things? I like to make a pumpkin sweet bread that has cinnamon-sugar sprinkled generously over the top prior to baking. And pumpkin is a key ingredient in the homemade dog cookies that Sir and Ellie enjoy when they visit.

Many cuisines around the world treat pumpkin as a savory vegetable, not a sweet fruit. Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in Africa use pumpkins in soups, stews, or just roasted. Here are some sugar pumpkins that have been stuffed and baked. Sugar pumpkins, also known as pie pumpkins, are smaller and rounder than carving pumpkins, with thick, sweet flesh. I removed the tops, keeping them for a lid to put back on to serve them. The seeds and pulp inside the small cavity were removed and then I baked them for an hour at 350°F until a sharp knife easily pierced it. While they were baking, I sautéed onions, apples, dried cranberries, and pecans. When the onions were soft, I added cooked wild rice, rosemary, salt, pepper, and some maple syrup. This mix was stuffed into the cooked pumpkins and then baked again for another 20 minutes to meld the flavors.

Roasted pumpkin seeds are another popular way to utilize more of the pumpkin. Rinse them in a colander as you separate the seeds from the pulp, soak them in a saltwater solution for about 30 minutes then rinse them again before spreading them on a tea towel to dry a bit. Heat an oven to 300°F. Toss the seeds with a little melted butter and some coarse salt and then roast them for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are a golden brown, nutritious snack. Spices can be added to the melted butter prior to tossing the raw seeds in it, giving you many sweet and savory options. I guess you could make pumpkin spice pumpkin seeds if you desired.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop in the genus Cucurbita which also includes winter squashes, zucchini and summer squashes, and ornamental gourds. The native Americans were already growing pumpkins when the Europeans arrived. The Connecticut field pumpkin is a large (15-25 lbs.) heirloom variety that may be descended from the pre-Columbian species that made their way to New England from northeastern Mexico where they had been cultivated for thousands of years.

CT field pumpkins

Connecticut Field Pumpkins

There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins squashes on the market now in so many shapes, sizes, and colors. Recent visits to farm stands and nurseries showed just how unusual some of these can be. The pale yellow Cotton Candy is petite pumpkin with an almost-white flesh.

Blaze has lovely deep red-orange stripe accents.

New England Cheddar, on the left, and Jarrahdale, on the right, are pumpkin varieties that have pale hues.

Pumpkins that are guaranteed to get some attention are the ‘warty’ varieties. Galeux d’Eysine, featured in the image on the left, is also known as ‘Peanut’ for obvious reasons.

Victor, Warty goblin, and Goosebumps are all orange warty varieties.

The pumpkins and squash that are in the species Cucurbita maxima and are among the largest available. The grey Jarrahdale pictured previously is in that category as are the Cinderella, on the left, the blue Hubbard on the right and an Atlantic Giant below.

So carve or cook a pumpkin today!

Nathan

Susan Pelton

UConn Home & Garden Education Center

All images by Susan Pelton

The past few weekends have had at least one absolutely delightful day to garden. With fall comes final harvests and clean up. While I tend to leave some seed plants like coneflowers, asters, sunflowers, anise hyssop and grasses for the birds, the vegetable garden gets a pretty thorough going over to try to reduce any overwintering sites for insect pests.

Every week I’ve been pulling up a handful or two of carrots. This year I grew a short orange one called ‘Mokum’ as well as ‘Yellowstone’, a longer, jumbo yellow carrot. ‘Mokum’ is a perennial favorite with sweet orange flesh. Scrubbed hard enough with the vegetable brush, it doesn’t even need peeling to be enjoyed fresh or cooked. As you can see from the picture, some of the yellow carrots were good-sized while others were small. Most likely, my dismal thinning attempt was to blame for the size variations.

carrots yellow and orange 2

Carrots Yellowstone and Mokum.

For some reason, my beets were plentiful but roots did not get as large as they usually do. ‘Cylindra’ and ‘Bull’s Blood’ are favorites as young leaves are tasty in salads. Perhaps I picked a bit too many? Both are heirlooms and seem to have few disease or insect problems. They are so good roasted or boiled until fork tender and served with a generous pat of butter.

beets 2 -2

Beets Cylindra and Bull’s Blood

For the past few years, I’ve been growing onions from seed. It is not that difficult although they must be started indoors in February or so. This year I grew the heirloom, ‘Red Long of Tropea’. It is a 3 to 4-inch long, Italian heirloom, which needs about 90 days from transplanting until harvest. This cute, torpedo-shaped onion has a mild, sweet flavor and I have been enjoying it in my salads since late August. When starting onions from seed, they can be grown in a small flat or pot. Don’t plant so many seeds that plants are in competition with one another but enough so that you only need to sow one batch. I keep them together in the flat as they develop and also when hardening off. They are separated when transplanted into the garden. I like to use a shredded paper mulch around my onion plants as the slender green leaves stand out and a thin layer is formed keeping moisture in and weeds out.

onions red long of tropea 2

Onion Red Long of Tropea

Leeks are still waiting to be harvested but they will keep in the ground for a while longer. ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ tomatoes are tiny but very sweet. There are still several dozen ripening on the vine. Also, I always let some lettuce, radishes and Asian greens go to seed. If I am lucky, I get a second crop just for waiting. Hopefully, these small, self-seeded lettuce plants will be ready to harvest in a few more weeks.

lettuce seedlings 2

Self-seeded green leaf lettuce

Tall cutting ageratums and zinnias are still in bloom. My new favorite zinna is ‘Zinderella Peach’, which I purchased from Park Seed. It has a great color plus it seems to be less susceptible to powdery mildew than some of the other varieties I grow. It’s true what they say about zinnias, the more you cut, the more you’ll get.

Zinnia Zinderella Peach 2

Zinnia Zinderella Peach

My ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory really has me miffed. This has been the second year that I have gorgeous green, leafy plants and few blossoms. No, I have not been overfertilizing with nitrogen. Other plants in that bed are blooming just fine and I only add a little organic fertilizer in late May before planting. I would like to hear any feedback from others growing this variety – are yours blooming normally? My best guess is that the nighttime temperatures have been going down too low in August, which makes for great sleeping weather but not temperatures that trigger these tropical vines to flower. Luckily, it got warmer in September and the plants are now covered with buds – just in time for our first frost of course! So far, all I have gotten is one blossom. The curious thing is that my Moon Flower, another member of the morning glory family, with huge, sweet-scented, ghost white blossoms that open in the evening, bloomed earlier than it usually does. So what gives? I really think this is due to nighttime temperature changes but I am open to other suggestions.

morning glory no flowers 2

Lots of leaves on this Heavenly Blue morning glory but only 1 blossom so far this year.

morning glory buds 2

Will these buds have time to open?

So enjoy these beautiful fall days while you can. Savor autumn delights like pumpkins, asters, mums, corn mazes, apple picking, hay bales and the like. It won’t be long before the winter winds start to blow.

mums in window box 2

Mums and kale in the window boxes. Nice looking out or looking in.

Dawn P.

cobrahead weeder and red gloves

It is harvest time in the vegetable garden, doing end of season gathering of squash this week. The vines of the honeynut butternut and spaghetti squash have all withered and dried signaling the squashes are ready to be picked. Once the color deepens and skins toughen the fruit should be cut from the vines and cleaned up. I wash them in a slight bleach solution to remove any fungi and bacteria that might cause rot once they are placed in storage in my cool hatchway to the basement where they will not freeze. Wrapping each in a sheet of newspaper to keep them from touching is an added measure to help retard decomposition.

Squash harvest 2019

Back in the garden I pulled all of the vines to add to the compost or burn any diseased plant remains. Insect problems from this year might over winter in the plant debris so cleaning up the beds is recommended. While I am there, I scrape the soil with my 20 year old CobraHead hand-weeder, my favorite tool. When held horizontally it only disturbs the top inch or so of soil while I remove any weeds without bringing up many weed seeds from deeper in the soil which might germinate next year. Even though I am only disturbing shallow depths of the ground, some insects come crawling, wiggling and moving out of what they thought was a safe place to spend the winter. It is amazing to sit on my little garden stool and watch the life emerge from what at first glance, appears to be lifeless or dormant.

cobrahead weeder

First to emerge from the soil was a crazy snake worm, (Amynthas agrestis). They are an invasive species from distant lands of Korea and Japan, and do not belong in my New England garden. They move in an ‘S’ pattern and rather quickly, but they are no match for my fast, gloved hand to grab and toss into a repurposed ricotta container rescued from the recycle bin to live another life as a worm container of death. A few more swipes of the CobraHead and several more make an appearance only to be promptly deposited to the dreaded, dry plastic vessel too tall from them to slither out.

snakeworms 2

Normally worms are considered a beneficial being in the soil, but not snake worms. They damage the soil by eating large amounts of organic matter and leaving behind their castings (poop) which resembles Grapenuts cereal, small granules of black matter. Their castings change the micro biome of the soil making plants less likely to survive. There are not legally allowed control measure for obnoxious invaders except for hand removal of them. There is some research work being done at the University of Vermont and more around the Great Lakes as the snake worms are having a very large detrimental effect on the forest floor in those areas. Crazy snake worm adults will die when the ground freezes, but they leave behind their eggs, called cocoons, which will survive the cold to hatch next spring.

The next critter that made an appearance was an earwig. My gardens have always had a lot of these brown decomposers of dead plant material, but occasionally I they will feed on live leaves, flowers and fruit. Normally they do very little harm, despite their fierce looking pinchers on their butt end. They use their forceps for defense and offense, and will pinch skin if you hold one in your hand. Earwigs overwinter in the adult stage, coming out of their dormant period in the spring to ensure their population continues yet another year.earwig 10-19

Grubs are the larval stage of beetles. There are many beetles which inhabit soil and above ground spaces. Most lays eggs in or on the soil, which hatch into grubs that feed on plant roots. Grubs in the lawn can cause significant damage, so do grubs in the vegetable garden when they feed on the roots of my vegetable plants. As a general rule, I squish grubs when I find them in my vegetable beds, even though some adult beetles may be considered beneficial by feeding on other pests. In my garden, the Asiatic garden beetle is the predominate one, causing lots of feeding damage on my leaf crops. They love basil, effectively stripping plants seemingly overnight.

The vibrations of my scraping the soil seemed to bring armies of squash bug nymphs and adults to surface where I was working and to adjacent areas yet to be disturbed. This was the squash bed and I expected the squash pests to be where the cucurbit crop was grown, but I didn’t anticipate the crowd that came to see why I was unearthing their winter abode. Only the adult stage is listed as overwintering, but I found many nymphs not yet developed to their mature adult stage. I hope the cold will kill them so I don’t have to squish many more.

squash bug adult 10-19

Adult Squash Bug

 

The final insect I found while digging wasn’t crawling or moving. It was the resting stage of a moth, which species, I do not know. It was the pupa without many identifying features. I have yet to find a book just on moth pupae, but I am still looking. Once I found the pupa of a tomato hornworm, identifying itself by the hookshaped ‘horn’ on the end of the pupal case. I wish I had taken a photo of that one!

pupa, moth 10-19

-Carol Quish

 

zinnias 10-19

 

pearl crescent on aster Early fall 2019

Pearl Crescent butterfly on aster

“The crickets still sing in October. And lilly, she’s trying to bloom. Tho she’s resting her head on the shoulder of death, she still shines by the light of the moon.”
― Kevin Dalton – Faubush Hill

As we leave summer behind and head into the cooler weather with shorter days and falling leaves, there is still a breath of life left in the landscape. Crickets and katydids are still singing at night, and an occasional note from a tree frog may be added to the mix. Dawn and dusk can offer a brilliant color just before sunrise or sunset, and the constellations of the autumn sky make their appearance once again. It is a time of peanut pumpkin, the reappearance of winter constellations like Orion and the raking of leaves.

peanut pumpkin Galeux D'Eysines copyright Pamm Cooper

The aptly named peanut pumpkin Galeux D’Eysines

sassafras fall color

Sassafras leaves in autumn

There are still flowers blooming for the butterflies and bees that are still around. Annuals like lantana, salvia, and Mandevilla vine will die out as we get some hard frosts. Asters, obedient plant, some goldenrods and other perennials are still in bloom for a little while longer. I have an annual balloon milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, that still has flowers, and little ants visit them daily.

green Agapostemon. bee 2019 Mt Rd

Agapostemon bee on goldenrod

Trees like oaks and crabapples are loaded with fruit this year, which is great for the animals and birds that eat them. Turkeys are especially found wherever seeds and acorns are in abundance.

young male turkeys Mt Rd 9-13-2019 blue necks and heads

Young male turkeys passing through

Butterflies are still active, and those butterflies that migrate, like painted ladies, monarchs, buckeyes and sulphurs, can be found visiting any flowers that have sufficient nectar to fuel their flights south. Bumblebees and many other native and non-native bees are also active, and may be found on the same flowers.

buckeye 2019

Common buckeyes are migrating

One of my favorite caterpillars, the strangely named turbulent phosphila, is found only on greenbrier (Smilax sp.) in late September through October. The caterpillars feed in large groups and later are found feeding in pairs or alone. In the last instar this black and white caterpillar is decorated with what appears to be a maze running along its back.

early instar phosphilas 9-30-2019

Early instar turbulent phosphila caterpillars feed together

turbulent phosphila final instar

Late instar turbulent phosphila

Paniculata hydrangeas, named for their cone-shaped flower panicles, are late bloomers that remain attractive they age, some changing their flower color as they age. Bobo™, Little Lime® and Little Lamb are a few of these varieties of panicle hydrangea that have a nice color change.

Bobo® Panicle Hydrangea hydrangea paniculata 9-30-2019

BoBo hydrangea flowers in early October

Migrating birds are coming through and can often be wherever there are berries or insects available. Check out cedars and poison ivy for yellow-rumped warblers that love the berries of both these plants. They will also eat seeds of goldenrods and other native plants as they travel south. The elegant great egret can sometimes be found inland at this time of year hunting in wetlands. This bird is the size of a great blue heron, but is white with black legs.

great egret Airline swamp Pamm Cooper photo

Great egret

Fall is a great time to travel to scenic places in our small state. The historic Gurleyville grist mill on the Fenton River near the UConn campus features all the original grinding equipment used there until the 1940’s. It is the only stone mill of its kind in Connecticut. The West Cornwall covered bridge and Bulls’ Bridge in Kent are the only two covered bridges in Connecticut that accommodate cars, and both span the Housatonic River. The Cornwall bridge offers spectacular autumn views of the river and surrounding hills.

Gurleyville grist mill

Gurleyville grist mill

Cornwall covered bridge

West Cornwall covered bridge

Enjoy the fall, already a warm one so far, and remember to look up as clouds and darker blue skies contrast nicely in the cooler days of autumn. Even raking leaves, although a chore for many, may bring an abstract moment of delight as a brilliantly colored or patterned leaf is happened upon. As A.A. Milne wrote  ‘The end of summer is not the end of the world. Here’s to October…”

raking leaves abstract Pamm Cooper photo

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have had a home compost bin going in our backyard for a good twelve years now. We a started out with a bottomless, stacking, heavy-duty plastic bin that has three open square sections that fit one on top of the other with a jointed lid that opens halfway. The method of that system was to open the lid on its hinge and dump in whatever was being fed to the compost pile. As the level rose in the bin (let’s call it bin 1), you were supposed to remove the cover, take the top section, which is basically an open square, and place that on the ground. It would then become the bottom layer of bin 2.

We would scoop the composting matter out of bin 1 with a pitchfork or shovel, turning it over and dumping it into bin 2. The process was repeated until the level in bin 2 rose to the top of the bottom square and the amount in bin 1 decreased enough to remove the second level. This was then placed on the bottom tier of bin 2 and the shoveling process was repeated until the third tier could be placed onto bin 2 and then covered with the lid. Needless to say, it was a fair amount of work and in order to use any finished compost that it might have generated involved another step. In the process of transferring the pile to the new ‘bin’ we would screen it for any usable finished compost. What I liked about this system was that the open base sat directly on the ground which made it easy for the earthworms to get in there and do their thing. It’s still in use in our yard but more as a holding bin at this point.

We received the gift of a tumbling composter from our daughter and son-in-law a few years ago (it’s the same model that they have) and it has made the composting process much easier. The fact that it rotates means that we don’t need to continually turn it over with a shovel, we simply give a few good spins each time we add raw material to it. It also has two compartments, one for new material and one for compost that is in the works. When the new side is full the ‘in the works’ side is usually ready to be used. You simply place a tarp or low bin under the barrel, rotate it so that the opening is at the bottom, slide the door open, and the compost dumps out. OK, sometimes it doesn’t just fall out and needs a bit of encouragement, especially if it is still pretty moist. We will add this to the tiered bin if we aren’t ready to use it right away.

Our bins, side by side

Dog waste composterOur son and his fiancée returned to Connecticut this year and they have embraced all things gardening and environmentally friendly, including composting. They even have an in-ground dog waste composter as they have two adorable fur-babies who provide plenty of material for it. It’s basically a septic system for dog waste. Dog waste shouldn’t go into a home compost pile that is used in a vegetable garden as it doesn’t get hot enough to destroy the harmful pathogens that may be present. Additional info on composting do’s and don’ts can be found at the UConn Soil and Nutrient Laboratory’s Composting Basics fact sheet.

However, what I really want to tell you about is a beneficial visitor to Luke’s backyard compost bin. It started with an image that he sent to me of a little black flying insect that he said were all over the outside of their first compost bin which was simply a 30-gallon plastic storage bin that they had drilled holes into. What I saw was a little bluish-black fly with two wings so I immediately suspected that it was a member of the order Diptera.

Adult fly on storage bin, image by Luke Pelton.jpeg

Further investigation revealed it to be a black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. I got to see it in person the next time that I stopped over and the first thing that I noticed was that its shiny body seemed metallic and almost wasp-like with a very narrow ‘waist’. It may remind you of the mud dauber wasp Trypoxylon politum with its shiny blue-black exoskeleton. And there is a good reason for that. The soldier fly is considered a mimic fly, using its appearance as a form defense as it tricks predators into thinking that it is capable of stinging them. But these harmless flies do not sting; in fact, they don’t even bite since they don’t have mouth parts or digestive organs. They subsist on nectar and water, living off of fat reserves from their larval period. The adult female will lay her eggs, up to 500, near decaying matter but not on it so that she does not transmit any pathogens from the waste. And then the really interesting stuff happens.

The larvae of the soldier fly are among some of the most efficient waste-consumers ever to exist. As soon as they hatch they begin to consume waste, double their body weight per day, a process that they can extend for up to 6 months if the conditions are unfavorable for their development. They start out 1 mm, .04 inches, in length and can reach up to 27 mm, 1.06 inches, within two weeks. The image below shows many different sizes cohabiting.

BSF larva 1 image by Jamie Zimmerman.png

Their diet can be any kind of organic waste; kitchen scraps, animal manure, and even coffee grounds, although coffee grounds alone aren’t good long-term as it boosts their metabolism and makes them overly active (does that sound familiar?).

As they eat they can actually raise the temperature of the compost pile, a benefit as higher temps also help to speed up the composting process. They eat waste before it has a chance to decompose and start to smell. Their frass, or poop, is an odorless residue.

BSF larvae 3 crop

When it is time to pupate, the larvae go through a stage known as prepupae wherein they stop eating, empty their guts of any of any undigested remains, and then their chewing mouth parts become climbing mouth parts as they head to drier areas to pupate for the next week or two before the adult fly emerges to begin the cycle again. Some of the larvae in Luke’s bin may be emigrating to a new home in our bin this weekend so that we can also employ their amazing abilities, at least until the temperatures descend below 32°F. Black soldier flies do not survive the extreme cold of a Connecticut winter so we can only hope that they will return to the area in the spring. As I tried to get images of them I learned two things about them: The larvae prefer to be out of sunlight as they moved very quickly into darker areas and the adult flies are even quicker!

Getting a good image was difficult as they do not sit still but fortunately Bugwood had some great ones, as seen below. The image on the left was taken by Marilyn Sallee, Bugwood.org and the image on the right by Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org.

The black soldier fly is an amazing little creature that is quickly emerging as an important economic and ecological member of our world. The grown larvae are high in protein and fat making them a desirable food source for poultry, some livestock and even humans. If they are fed a diet of fish-trimmings they can actually contain omega-3 fatty acids. Although Diptera species account for only 2% of the edible insects consumed worldwide as of 2012 this number may increase as the wonders of this little marvel are researched further. Just in case you want to start searching for recipes.

Susan Pelton

Images by Susan Pelton, Luke Pelton, & Jamie Zimmerman except where noted.

UConn Home & Garden Education Center