Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Turning to Gnatrol (Bti) to get rid of Fungus Gnats once and for all

If you recall, a few months ago I wrote of how Kmart sold me a bag of potting soil with fungus gnats, and soon every plant in my house and office seemed to be infested.

I detailed every single tactic I found to try to get rid of them. I tried drying out the soil, but even after all the dirt was bone dry and the leaves started to wilt, watering seemed to bring back the gnats with a vengeance. I tried sprinkling cinnamon but gnats keep showing up. I bought 100 Yellow Sticky Traps, enough to put and put 1-2 on every single plant. While they do a great job of trapping adults they don't seem to be stopping new larvae (remember that it just take one gnat to get through the perimeter alive to lay 200-300 eggs). Finally, I went to both Gardener's Supply Company and Amazon to buy nematodes; none of them seemed to work the first time around which I attributed to them being fried during shipping. But even when I requested replacements, they didn't work either. Drenching the plants with Hydrogen Peroxide didn't seem to do much either.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. It was time for me to turn to Gnatrol (You can purchase Gnatrol for a reasonable price at Amazon). I've admittedly been resisting this option because I've heard that Gnatrol is a "pesticide", and I wasn't keen on adding "dangerous chemicals" to my plants. After all, the point of growing these plants is for me to clear the air, and the last thing I need is for my plants and soil to be poisoning me.

But that's when I did my research. At first glance, Gnatrol sounds scary. It's a "larvacide" with an active ingredient called "Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. israelensis", or Bti. Did I really want to put bacteria into all my houseplants? I mean, putting live parasites (the nematodes) was freaky enough an idea to get used to. The song "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly" kept ringing through my head.

But after reading more about it, Bti is as close to a miracle fix as modern science has come up with. First of all, what they sell isn't live, viable bacteria; the toxicant that kills the larvae is actually a part of the Bti spore. It was actually discovered in 1976 in Israel from scientists who isolated the bacteria from dead mosquito larvae. It's a substance that's deadly to mosquito larvae (as well as larvae of blackflies, midges, and fungus gnats). Specifcially, Bti releases special protein crystals. When the larvae eat them, the alkaline nature of their digestive system causes these crystals to dissolve and be converted into toxic protein molecules that destroy the inside of the larvae's stomach. Long story short, they can't eat and then they go off to that giant Golden Pothos in the sky.

Here's the cool thing about it--because humans, animals, birds, and fish have acidic and not alkaline digestive tracts, the Bti toxins don't have any effect on us. In fact, Bti is used in mass quantities by cities and municipalities worldwide to control mosquito populations. Because it's a bacteria that's found naturally in soils anyway, there's less fear of using it than more dangerous chemical solutions. Another thing that's nice about Bti is that once it's released, the active ingredient will dissipate after about 72 hours, so even if it were harmful to humans, the exposure is limited.

Gnatrol is a consumer version of Bti. I bought the bottle from a seller on Amazon for $2.69 + $5.49 shipping. Now we all know shipping this tiny bottle can't cost $5.49, but still, if I can spend under $10 and get rid of all the fungus gnats, it'll be money well spent.

The bottle you buy for $10 looks tiny, but because all you need is 1/2 teaspoon per gallon for mild infestations and 1 1/2 teaspoons for heavy infestations, this bottle should last for multiple waterings, hopefully enough to eradicate all the fungus gnats. It has a shelf life of about 2 years, so it doesn't make sense to hoard it--at under $10 it's affordable to get infestation by infestation (which hopefully will be years apart).

To use it, I went a little on the heavy side and added about 2 tablespoons to a gallon of water and drenched the soil, When you mix the water and the granules, you end up with basically a bottle full of bacterial gunk, which looks like brown water.

I then went plant by plant, watering it so that the soil was thoroughly moist and a little bit drained on the bottom.

For a few plants where I thought there were no fungus gnats, a few gnats flew out when I watered them. Hopefully this will put an end to them once and for all. I put a fresh set of yellow sticky traps over each plant to see how effective the treatment will be.

So far, I'm cautiously optimistic. While I'd typically see 10-20 (or more) gnats on the sticky traps, a lot of them are clear now, or have 1-2 gnats. They do say to re-apply the solution three times a week. This is because Gnatrol will not affect adult flies after the pupae stage, so if some adults decide to lay more eggs you'll have a fresh batch of Bti for their young ones to feast on.

If you look at the Amazon reviews, most of them are glowing, but some of them complain that the Gnatrol only made the problem worse. In these cases, the likely culprit is that the seller sold them really old granules that were no longer potent, so ironically while they were thinking they were filling the soil with Bti, they just ended up re-watering the soil, creating more fungus, and making it a breeding ground for gnats.

In my case, though, the gnats definitely appear to be finally getting under control. Since I did this about two weeks ago, the number of gnats definitely appear to have lessened both at home and in the office. The biggest test was on the Boston Fern from Kmart that had been infested from day one. The infestation for that had gotten so bad that I enclosed it into two sandwich bag, partially to serve as a greenhouse, but partially because there were so many gnats coming out of this plant it was clear that the roots were thoroughly infested. It sounds a little nasty, but every morning I'd see new gnats buzzing around in the bag and then squash them.

This was ground zero in the war against the gnats. As you can see, the plant is barely larger now than it was many months ago; this is almost certainly due to the gnat larvae feeding at the root. I think what kept the plant fighting was putting it in the bag, where it got ample humidity (something that ferns need).

My first instinct after writing about this plant so many months ago was to toss the plant in the trash, but I felt that would be conceding victory to the gnats. No, I was going to fight this. So I did everything I mentioned in my last post on fungus gnats, to no avail. But I have it a good drench in the Gnatrol which finally seems to be doing something. I still see and squash one or two gnats every few days, but the problem seems to be a lot more under control. My hope is that eventually I'll go weeks without seeing one gnat, and then I'll finally be able to properly repot and fertilize this plant and hopefully see it grow again. It's honestly hard to say if it's too late for this little guy, but fingers crossed. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Strawberry Plants Growing Well, but I Lose the First Strawberry

It's only been a week, and look how nicely the Aerogarden strawberry plants are doing!

Now this is more like it. Every single crown has sprouted leaves, and I can see even see flower buds on a couple of them. 

Shockingly, all the plants after one week are about the same size as the first plant, which has had a month and a half to grow. What a difference delivering plants while they're still alive makes.

Speaking of the first plant, sadly, I saw that the little strawberry I straw growing has shriveled up and turned black, almost looking like a blackberry at this point :(

I went to Google to try to find out what might have caused this. What makes this tough to Google is that there is actually such a thing as real black strawberries, but this isn't one of them.

It's hard to tell what condition caused this (if anyone knows for sure, please leave a comment!). I have a few guesses. It could be that because I didn't even notice the flower until after it had turned into a strawberry, the stunted growth may be a result of a lack of pollination. Or, it could be that because this little strawberry was near the base of the plant and thus continually covered by water every hour, it might have developed rot or a fungus.

In any case, there are plenty more flowers on the other plants, so I won't mourn this little guy too much. Let's hope that future strawberries are big, plump, and red the way they should be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

...and growing, and growing

I usually don't update the blog this quickly, but Aerogarden plants also usually don't grow this quickly. Check out the progress in just one day.

What a difference not cooking in a UPS warehouse makes! The only dilemma now is going to be to try to figure out which plants to throw out to thin it down to six plants. Thank you (finally) Aerogrow, for coming through.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Aerogarden Strawberries Finally Growing

Just two days after planting the latest batch of Aerogarden Strawberry Crowns, here's what I'm seeing:

You might recall from past posts that the original set of crowns was 90% dead and the replacement set they sent was 100% dead. If I wasn't so persistent in wanting to document this process in blog form, Aerogarden Strawberries would probably be dead to me too. 

The one difference is that this time, the plants were delivered to me via UPS Ground, so they were shipped direct to my door in under 4 days. Previously, the plants were shipped via UPS SurePost, which meant they were dispatched from AeroGarden, allowed to sit in what was probably a hot warehouse for days, and then delivered to my door over a week later. 

I hope someone from AeroGrow is reading this, because it's going to save you a heck of a lot of money in the future. Here are some suggestions I have for you:
  1. Do the math. In this case, you had to spend money to mail me my original set of crowns via UPS SmartPost, a second set of crowns via UPS SmartPost, AND a third set of crowns via UPS Ground. You also had to pay your customer service people for answering my calls and responding to my emails. And worst of all, you made me wait over a month to finally get strawberry plants growing. You can save us all (most of all yourself) time and money by baking in UPS Ground shipment into sales of the Strawberry Crowns--heaven knows if people are paying $20 for $0.50 of plants, you can afford it.
  2. Listen to your customers instead of just spewing out a prepared text--while you might have clueless customers here and there, I'll hazard a guess that most of your customers are pretty savvy. So if they tell you that they're picking up the strawberry crowns and they're disintegrating into dust, don't insult their intelligence by saying the plants are "dormant".
  3. Change the photo on your Web site or at least put a big disclaimer to set expectations that customers are not going to receive six beautiful green plants in the mail.
Griping aside, I do appreciate that the customer service reps did send me replacements quickly with no questions asked. 

Okay, now that I have that off my chest, I can start raving. This grow bowl system is really, really cool. I was a little skeptical at first, but that first strawberry plant is doing pretty well, and I have good feelings about the others. The bowl itself is shallow, so instead of roots running deep, evidently they'll run vertically. I was a little afraid of root rot at first, but because the grow bowl fills and drains so quickly, it keeps the growth medium moist but not soaking. 

And so, it's a month later than I hoped it'd be, but it seems that we're on our way to having fresh, home-grown strawberries! 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Aerogarden Strawberry Crowns - Try Try Again

So, here's the latest on my saga with Aerogarden strawberries.

If you recall, I planted my strawberries into my Aerogarden ULTRA as soon as I got them on 9/9. One plant grew nicely but the others were just dried out twigs (in fact, some of them disintegrated into dust when I snapped them in half). The customer service rep insisted that they were in a "dormant" state and they'd germinate eventually, sort of implying that I should be a little more patient and give it more time. But that said, she was kind enough to go ahead and send me a replacement set of crowns, no questions asked.

The replacements arrived on 9/20. The new batch seemed as dead as the other ones, but I threw caution to the wind and planted them. Both packages had been sent UPS Surepost, meaning they were kept in warehouse for multiple days before getting sent to the US Postal Service for delivery.

On 10/6 (more than two weeks later), I still saw no growth at all in any except for the first plant. I wrote to Aerogarden again explaining very clearly that 16 days had passed and there were no signs of growth at all. I got this curious reply:

I was ready to get upset, but no sooner did I get the email above that I got an order confirmation in the mail saying the rep had placed a replacement order of new crowns for me. And happily, this time instead of going UPS Not-So-Surepost, they were going UPS Ground.

Sure enough, I received the order in four days--on 10/10/14. I felt vindicated in writing to Aerogarden at 16 days because after exactly 21 days (okay, 20 days and 15 hours), the new set of plants clearly never grew.

Now ironically, the one plant that grew from the original batch is actually doing really well. In fact, when I looked more carefully, I can already see a little strawberry forming! Odd because I didn't even notice there was a flower there.

But of the replacement set of crowns, not one grew. The only thing close to green is a layer of green algae that's forming on a couple of the plants (at least I hope it's algae).

I opened the new box as soon as I got it. Once again, the crowns didn't look quite like the picture on the Web site, but came wrapped in a plastic bag. 

But right away I felt a difference. While the other two orders were dusty and dried out, feeling the roots through the plastic bag, they were soft and pliable. 

Similarly, when I took the crowns out, unlike the other two shipments which crumbled at the touch, I was able to separate nine distinct roots. 

Looking close-up, you can see that all of them have a little green in them and they look much healthier than the dried-out disintegrated twigs I showed you last time.  

I carefully planted all of them. For some reason it seemed like there was less Coco Chunk than before (perhaps they shrunk as they soaked up water) but thankfully my original Grow Bowl kit had come with more than enough to replenish it.

I also did a complete Rinse and Refill using my new siphon, and refilled the unit with fresh water and nutrients.

So here's what the strawberry garden looks like now. Let's see in a few days if the third time is a charm.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Alternative to Aerogarden's Rinse and Refill Siphon

It's now been over a week since I planted the "new" plants from Aerogarden, and I don't see one speck of green. I fear that yet again, what Aerogrow calls "dormant" plants is really just a bunch of dried out twigs with no life in them. I'll give it a few more days before calling them, but they really, really need to work on their quality control. In the meantime, the one plant that is growing is still doing well.

I've had to refill the water tank a few times. It's a little tricky, because you definitely don't want to fill it when the pump is running, but even when the pump is off you need to be careful to keep slightly below the fill line, or you'll get water all over (and who knows, this might short out the ULTRA yet again).

One phenomenon you notice very quickly when growing Aerogarden Strawberries (or anything in the Grow Bowl) is that the more the bowl fills up and drains with water the gunkier the water gets. Here's a picture of how brown the water is after 2-3 weeks of filling and draining.

Even in a regular Aerogarden, the water can get really gunky and disgusting. And it's a pain to drain the water, especially when the plants are huge and the roots are heavy. As I've shown you in the past, you need to carry the whole thing to the sink, gently lift the plants off without breaking the roots, drain the water, refill it, and set everything back.

Aerogarden does suggest you siphon it and drain it (and conveniently, they sell a product called the "Rinse and Refill Siphon". While I'm usually a big fan of Aerogarden's products (I bought everything from an Oxygen Booster Kit to a Herb 'n Serve Salad Dressing Maker to a Master Chef Herb Guide to ice trays), the Amazon reviews for the Rinse and Refill Siphon are not very promising. They use words like cheap, flimsy, air leaks, and others.

One reviewer very helpfully posted a link for alternatives to Rinse and Refill Siphon in the Automotive department. Admittedly, there's a part of me that feels more comfortable ordering Aerogarden-branded products (which is why I'm their perfect customer--for years I didn't think twice about ordering a light bulb for $12 until I realized there were alternatives).

In this case, I took the reviewer's advice and ended up buying this TRDP14 Siphon Manual Hand Liquid Transfer Pump based on its great reviews.

For $4 shipped, it was a lot more economical than the $12.95 Aerogrow wanted. I tried it out and it worked like a charm.

First, you need to get a bucket, or in my case a gallon milk container. Next, you close the screw valve on top of squeeze bulb. Put the end of the long straight white tube into the place where you fill the Aerogarden with water.

Next, give a few squeezes until the liquid is flowing. Assuming you're holding the pump at the right angle, gravity will take over and the water will flow from the Aerogarden through the flexible tube into your bucket.

Slurp up as much of the water until it's empty. At any point you want to stop (say, if your bucket is getting full), you can open the twist valve to break the siphon, stopping the flow.

Use care removing the siphon device, giving time for the remaining liquid to drain out of both tubes. Last thing you want is for brown gunky water to get all over the place.

Finally, you can dump your old water into the sink or toilet and refill your Aerogarden with fresh water and nutrients.

I'd highly, highly suggest getting this product instead of the one that Aerogrow sells, as it's cheaper, easier to handle. I was debating whether to get the smaller red one of the bigger blue one, but for purposes of the Aerogarden the red one is perfect.