Adventures In Composting

by Categorized: Composting, Ecology, Gardening, Insects, Sustainability Date:

After a summer of hardly gardening at all because of an injured foot, I had such a pent-up desire to get back to the garden. The past few weeks have been spent catching up on chores — weeding, trimming and trying to restore a modicum of order after months of neglect.

allium moly white flower farmBut Sunday, I happily planted bulbs. The weather was balmy and I got them all in the ground. (Somewhat manic when I was still limping, I had accumulated a lot of them: tulips, daffodils, purple Allium ‘Globemaster,’ yellow Allium moly, crocuses, snowdrops, grape hyacinths and scilla campanula.)

At one point I started planting daffodils in an area where we had taken out two ailing hemlock trees. The soil there was pretty depleted and lifeless, so I thought I’d dip into our compost bin and enrich it a bit.

Tulips2We compost in two places: up the hill in a fairly casual heap that does a very slow breakdown, and in an efficient rolling bin we bought years ago at Smith and Hawken, when it still was in business. We keep the rolling composter closer to the house, which is particularly handy during snowy weather. Every spring it is filled with beautiful, rich compost.

On Sunday, though, I almost had a stroke when I started digging in the bin for some compost for the bulbs and noticed scores of pale gray, segmented insects.

larvae-wikipedia commonsMy immediate panicky thought was that I’d tossed in some diseased houseplant that contained a few of the torpedo-shaped grubs or whatever they were, and that they were multiplying and destructive and soon would take over like some backyard version of the insects in “The Matrix.”

At times like these, I thank the stars for the internet.

Turns out our compost bin was rich with black soldier fly larvae. And that’s a wonderful thing.

The larvae are apparently excellent composters. They soldier through decaying food waste, voraciously consuming it and turning it into rich food for the garden.

There’s even a Black Soldier Fly blog — blacksoldierflyblog.com — and at blacksoldierflyfarming.com I can buy 2,000-plus of the larvae for $29.95 (if I weren’t accidentally raising my own).

beneficial-51C-GCMGA14284-black_soldier_flyOn the Modern Homestead blog I learned that the larvae’s high level of feeding activity concentrates such considerable nutrients that the resulting black soldier fly — a wasp-waisted fly with smoky black wings, Hermetia illucens — hardly needs to feed at all. It won’t bite or sting or come buzzing around and isn’t a vector for diseases but mostly spends its time resting on leaves in the sunlight. A fly I could love! (Here’s a fascinating fact sheet.)

And a grub I could love. Watch the larvae go to town in this time-release video, “Black Soldier Fly Cucumber Festival”:

Anyway, what probably attracted them to our compost is that we throw in a lot of coffee grounds.

Tulips1I took a peek in the bin this morning, when temperatures were in the 20s. I hope the larvae were burrowed deep into the warm pile of stuff in there. I don’t know what will become of the larvae when it really freezes. While I’ve composted for years, I’ve never really dug into what actually was occurring as rotting food scraps were magically transformed into black gold. I’m talking with a West Hartford composting expert on Friday, so I’ll let you know what more I learn.

Meanwhile, maggots in my compost? I’m just lucky, I guess.

Photo of Allium moly, via White Flower Farm. Photo of tulips by Nancy Schoeffler. Photo of black soldier fly larvae by Dennis Kress, via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of black soldier fly, via Galveston County Master Gardener Association.  “Black Soldier Fly Cucumber Festival” video, via Black Soldier Fly blog. Photo of tulips by Nancy Schoeffler.

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