Dinosaurs and Snake Eggs, and More

Most benefits of compost are well-known: it takes out your “garbage,” it fertilizes your plants, it’s teeming with beneficial microorganisms, yadda, yadda, yadda. One too often overlooked plus for compost is the thrill of discovery, discovery of things other than compost in the pile.

Discovery might range from the mundane to the sublime. Among the mundane discoveries is that glint of a lost kitchen fork as it emerges from within the chocolatey pile. Same for the favorite vegetable peeler or the lost stainless steel coffee strainer.

More towards the sublime end of the spectrum would be the dinosaur that surfaced as I was turning a pile a few years ago. A dinosaur! Yes, a small, plastic one that got there from who knows where. 

More seriously sublime was the clutch of about three dozen soft, white eggs about the size of quail eggs that came into view as my pitchfork lifted a clump of compost for turning into the adjacent compost bin. Turns out they were snake eggs, those of a black rat snake. Adult black rat snakeSome snakes give birth to live young, ready to crawl; black rat snakes lay eggs.

I put a few of those snake eggs into a terrarium along with some compost to see if they would hatch. For the uninitiated (me), it’s an eerie sight to see such a traditionally maligned creature emerge from such a welcome, traditional symbol of springtime rebirth. Baby black rat snakes are not black. Instead, bands of dark and light gray run across their backs.Baby black rat snake

Another time, while turning my compost pile, I accidentally disturbed a mating pair of black rat snakes in flagrante delicto.

Ducks and Grubs, and More

White grubs occasionally turn up in my pile, but a couple of days ago, one of my piles was home to at least two dozen of the C-shaped, creamy white grubs resting within. Grubs in compostOn the chance that they were grubs of Japanese beetles, I started picking them out and yelling “Quack, quack.” No, I hadn’t lost my mind; I was calling the ducks over for a treat of beetle grubs. They dashed for each tossed grub as it hit the ground.

And then a mouse, disturbed in my compost turning, made a dash out of the bin and across the lawn. A mouse in a compost bin is not that surprising, although the construction of my bins and my two dogs are pretty good at keeping mice at bay. (I make efforts to limit mouse populations because they can spread diseases such as hantavirus, salmonella, and lymphocytic choriomeningitis.)

One of the ducks took a break from grub hunting to grab the mouse which, judging from the chase the other ducks gave the lucky duck, is more of a gourmet duck food than even the grubs. Soon only the mouse’s tail was hanging out the duck’s beak, and then the mouse was down the gullet. Here’s a video I took of the Duck eating mouse

But Does Compost Really Need Turning?

You might wonder: What’s with all this compost turning? Each of my compost bins holds a half to three-quarters of a ton of compost, each pile gets turned once, and I have a number of piles. Is it worth all that  work?

Turning a compost pile lets me see how the process is chugging along. I keep a record of when a pile was built, and then months later, when it’s turned, how far along it is to being ready to use. After I turn a pile a make a guesstimate of percent decomposition, which is accurate enough for me to know about when it will be ready for spreading.

Turning a pile also lets me get a look at the compost-to-be and then to make any adjustments that might be necessary. I’ll lightly hose down every few inches of turned material, enough to make the ingredients glisten. Anything looking exceptionally dry gets extra water. Occasionally, part of the pile is too wet. I fluff it up as I flip it over into the adjacent bin. Parts of the pile might be compressed into a dense mat. Throwing it into the adjacent bin might be enough to loosen it up; if not, I pick at it with the tines of the pitchfork.Compost pile turned

Turning the pile also mixes up the ingredients more than when the pile was built. Each part of the pile, then, gets new neighbors in the form of new ingredients and new microorganisms.

Turning a compost pile is not absolutely necessary, although it’s probably best to leave a bin intact longer if the pile isn’t turned. On the other hand, I find turning a compost pile not only interesting, but also enjoyable and nice exercise.

Japanese beetles


I grabbed the dustbuster as I walked out to the garden this morning, hoping to inaugurate a new era in Japanese beetle control, who began their summer feeding early this month. The dustbuster was ineffective, the beetles passively dropping from any leaf as soon as the nozzle came within a few inches. Even beetles caught in flagrante delicto decoupled and dropped.
This year’s approach to Japanese beetle control will be laissez-faire. Spraying a chemical insecticide like Sevin is too disruptive to the ecosystem. Most organic insecticides, such as neem oil and pyrethrum, are either of limited effectiveness or require too frequent reapplication. And anyway, the beetles attack too many different kinds of plants to make spraying feasible; I’ve got over a dozen varieties of grapes, a half dozen varieties of roses, many varieties of filberts, and a dozen hardy kiwi vines scattered all over the place, and these are just a few of the beetles’ favorites in my garden.
In past years, I’ve put traps a couple of hundred feet apart at either end of the property. Each morning, the catch bags were stuffed full of beetles. But many of those trapped beetles would not have been on-site were it not for the allure (from sexual and feeding attractants) of the traps. The traps seem to work best when only a few Japanese beetles are in the area.
Japanese beetles can get sick from a fungus that attacks them while they spend late summer to late spring in the soil as white, C-shaped grubs. You can purchase the disease, milky spore disease, with which to infect them. Problem is that the disease is of limited effectiveness: Not enough grubs sicken and die and, even if effective, beetles emerging in summer can fly over from neighbors’ untreated yards.
I’ll probably do a little handpicking, knocking or dropping beetles in early morning, while they are still drowsy, into soapy water, from which an escape is too slippery. Hand to hand combat is satisfying and surely effective (for the ones killed, at least). Japanese beetles emit an aroma that attracts more beetles, so hand to hand combat is also intellectually satisfying in the knowledge that each beetle killed means fewer new ones attracted.
The laissez-faire approach has its merits. Plants tolerate a certain amount of defoliation, the remaining greenery ratcheting up photosynthesis to make up for leaf loss.  And if the plants can just hang on for a few weeks, the beetles then begin their exit anyway, their attention turning to laying of eggs in the ground to hatch into grubs for next year’s beetles. Well watered, lush lawns provide ideal conditions for egg laying and grub development; ‘nuff said.
Flea beetles, which have peppered the eggplants’ leaves full of holes, will not be emulating Japanese beetles and exiting stage left anytime soon. If you grow eggplants, you have flea beetles, except for perhaps the first year or two in a new garden, before the pests have found your site. Other favorites on flea beetles’ menu are radishes, arugula, and turnips.
Flea beetles, in contrast to Japanese beetles, can be feasibly thwarted. A dustbuster, in this case, can be effective if used frequently enough. A thick mulch might interfere with their emergence from the soil. Fine mesh fabrics, — “floating row covers” — act as barriers although I like to be able to see my plants and the cover has to be removed during bloom to allow for pollination of eggplants.
Mostly, flea beetles are a concern with young seedlings, which can be killed, and for commercial growers, because customers don’t like to buy hole-y vegetables. 
Flea beetles hop away when disturbed and my favorite way to do them in is with the “flea beetle trolley” described on page 144 of Lawrence D. Hill’s Grow Your own Vegetables (Faber and Faber, 1971). Quoting Mr. Hill, “A wire in front disturbs the beetles which jump up and stick to the greaseband [flypaper or paper coated with Tangletrap would also work well]. The large wheels prevent sideways jumping.” The trolley works best on masses of leaves of small plants, such as radishes or arugula, rather than on widely spaced, larger plants with tiers of leaves.
Hot pepper may repel flea beetles. Research suggests that commercial “hot pepper wax” reduced flea beetle damage by about a half, so it may be worth a try.
I might take the laissez-faire approach to flea beetles as well as Japanese beetles. I’ll keep in mind that established plants tolerate 10 to 30% loss of leaf area without ill effect.
Sometimes it pays to look closely at your garden plants; sometimes it doesn’t. My general tack with plant pests starts with offering my plants the best possible growing conditions. This means soil that drains adequately and is enriched with plenty of compost and other organic materials to provide nutrients and a friendly microbial environment. It means providing water, as needed. And it means allowing for adequate plant spacing and light. Still, it’s a wide world of insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses out there, as well as capricious weather, so there’s no reason to expect perfection from each leaf and fruit. Much damage is nothing more than cosmetic and is tolerated by plants. 
One nicety of home-grown fruits and vegetables is that there’s no monetary profit needing to be optimized. So some amount of damage is, and also should be, tolerated by us home gardeners.