Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions, and a technical question about composting

© 2011 Joshua Stark

I'm a sucker for resolutions... yes, even though I rarely keep them.  I love lists, first of all, and I love the potential that comes from a new time. 

So, I resolve to: make a duck-proof greens garden; tie 10 or so flies per week; make some wooden doohickey per week; get grass growing again in the back yard (long story, suffice it to say that I now understand that topsoil really is only a few inches deep); and bathe my dog at least once per week. 

The last one is really important, as Irma is getting on in years, and spends cold nights inside.  If I can get her stank under control, as well as her long hair, she stands a chance of getting to stay indoors even longer, and I like that notion.  She's been a wonderful dog, maybe the best dog I've ever owned, and I want her last years to be comfortable. 

Now for the technical question.  I simply cannot hot compost, I've accepted that.  We also get pounds and pounds and pounds of duff from our three gigantic trees, which we often just pile in the leaf bin and send away.  This breaks my heart, of course.  A few weeks ago, then, I tried just a leaf pile, but I quickly realized a problem.

We grow mosquitos. 

We live in a wetlands/riparian habitat zone, and mosquitos love it here.  The wet leaves are, unfortunately, providing quite the breeding ground, and to make matters worse, we have a problem with West Nile virus. 

I'm not afraid of the virus for me or my family - it's as typical, and as potent, as the cold or flu - I'm afraid for our magpie population.  You see, California has the only population of yellow-billed magpies on Earth (Pica nuttalli), and magpies are particularly susceptible to West Nile, even for a corvid.  As far as I know, there hasn't been found a single magpie that can survive the virus. 

So here's the question:  For all you leaf composters, how do you deal with mosquitos?

Thanks for any help.


Nathan Osborn said...

Haven't tried it, but there's a netting that people place over the rain-collection bins. Maybe that would work if placed rather snugly over the compost heap/bin?

Hippo said...

I can't see the direct connection between composting leaves and mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes may find the environment provided by composting leaves agreeable to hang around in but then they like any dark, damp place.

They are breeding somewhere else though. The males do not suck blood, it is only the females that need a blood meal to mature their eggs which they lay in still, stagnant water. The males suck nectar from plants.

If your environment is laced with stagnant pools of water, and don't forget, the water that can collect in an abandoned tyre is enough, never mind a water butt, then there isn't an awful lot you can do about it unless you want to go polluting your environment and pour diesel onto the swamps to kill the air breathing water borne larvae.

You can buy yourself a 'swingfogger'. Basically it looks like a leaf blower but burns diesel the exhausst of which is mixed with an insecticide and creates an artificial fog that knocks down all the mosquitoes and keeps them under control.

Best way, though, is to eliminate their breeding environment which means no stagnant water.

For your compost heap, get yourself some gash timber and make up an enclosed bed, at least three feet deep and start dumping your leaves, grass cuttings and other organic waste into it. Mulching it all before hand helps but isn't essential. I am sure that in the states they will sell, in the garden centres, a mulching/compost enzyme. This is a natural product (think yoghurt) that gets the process going.

Throw in your leaves etc. and then sprinkle a layer of earth and a bit of the enzyme powder over it, tamp it down and then cover with a tarpaulin and leave it to sweat. Every time you add more mulch, repeat the process.

Before long, the bottom will be a rich compost full of the fattest, fish catching worms you could ever wish for.

Keeping it well covered keeps the heat in, and accelerates the process, and keeps the mossies away.

Big compost heaps can also be used for home heating as the process generates a lot of heat. It is an anaerobic process so if you can seal it all in, you can also harvest methane gas. But now I am getting carried away...

Steve said...

I would agree with Hippo. It seems that you may not have enough "other" green material in your compost. When I have too much leaf material it tends to flatten and become a barrier. I've come to mix in table scraps, straw or mulch from the chicken coop to have a more balanced mix of materials.

Steve in Central CA

Josh said...

Nathan, I'll keep an eye out for a cover, thanks for the tip.

Hippo and Steve, I really appreciate the positive attitudes, but I've put any hopes for hot composting on the back burner for now. Steve, I definitely have enough browns for the pile, what with my duck beds, but thanks for the tip.

I've tried covering, I've tried bone meal (the compost starter), I've tried all I could in the time and space I've got, and I never got any heat going. Perhaps it's a cosmological metaphor, I'm not sure... but, I know that I don't want to spend any more time on that particular project, given my current time constraints. Also, I do have a fairly effective worm compost bin going (and you are dead-on, Hippo, about the fish-catching abilities, esp. of our local nightcrawlers; in fly-fishing circles, they are known as a #2 pink nightie).

Hippo, we've had enough precip. to soak the leaf pile to the point that it's holding water (we recorded, I believe, the second wettest December on record. Fresno, to our South, received half it's annual rainfall in one month). Sadly, I'm well versed in the life cycle of the mosquito, but I do really appreciate the information you've provided.