Archive for the ‘Composting’ Category

Home Sweet New Home: Can You Move GREEN?

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Why? My husband and I bought a house, decorated the entire thing, and moved! What a stressful and exciting month and a half for us.

Which has made me think. What should and can we do to limit our negative environmental impact during our move? It isn’t just the environment I want to protect; I want to protect our family’s health. I don’t want to inhale unnecessary chemicals or accidentally allow toxins to absorb into our skin. But how much money can I spend to take these precautions, and what precautions do I need, anyway?

We had some tough decisions.

For example, I wanted to paint our home with an environmentally safe, no VOC paint such as Mythic Paint (recommended by Practically Green), and we needed quite a bit to paint all but 3 walls in our new home. We could get conventional paint for free from my husband’s work, though. Which do we choose? In this particular case we chose to use a low-VOC conventional paint and leave the house open for several days before we moved in (we had two weeks before we needed to move out of our apartment). We did not have access to good respirators while painting but we did make sure to buy reusable latex paint and odor respirator masks, paint with all the windows open, and break frequently to fresh air. We made sure to wear these masks when doing other mudding and sanding work, too. Not perfect, of course, but better than doing nothing.

Next, how to get rid of the weeds and grasses that reclaimed about 40 percent of our stone driveway? My mother-in-law wanted to use a conventional weed killer, of course, but that was out of the question; I wasn’t about to spray poison on the driveway, walk on it, and then bring it into our home on my shoes. I knew I could use a safer and all-natural week spray but, let’s face it, it’s still a poison meant to kill. We decided instead to use a rake to pull out the nuisance plants by the roots. It’s tough work and time consuming but it doesn’t require a single chemical. As the plants whose roots remain in the ground grow back I’ll use boiling water to spot-kill weeds and grass. Boiling water kills the plant at its roots, Healthy Child Healthy World says, though it doesn’t discriminate from wanted and unwanted plants. In this case, that’s irrelevant, as the nuisance plants are surrounded by rock. Boiling water also kills weed seeds.

We planted four fruit trees, two apple species and two peach species, so we can have nearly organic fresh fruit in the future. We’ll be able to control the substances used on our trees and can control the methods used to deter pests. After our trees were in the ground we applied a layer of worm castings around the base. of each tree. Using compost also helps build the soil for a healthier lawn and garden, including supporting the good organisms that allow your space to flourish. Compost is almost always safer for your family, of course, but it’s also better for your plants. Chemical fertilizer is fast releasing and much of it seeps past the roots and into underground water supplies, never being absorbed by the plants you want to nurture. Compost is slow-releasing; nutrients enter the soil gradually, meaning you don’t get the immediate turbo charge like chemical fertilizers but you will see prettier plants over a bit more time.

Your plants will be healthier, too. Chemical fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the three main nutrients needed by plants. However, plants need other nutrients, too, found in compost but not in most fertilizers including natural fertilizers. Compost delivers these other essential nutrients. Think of it like this: we used to think that all humans needed for a healthy diet was the right proportion of macronutrients: carbs, fats, and proteins. Then we realized that vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, play an important and essential role in keeping us healthy and feeling good. In the same way, plants need more than just the right proportion of N-P-K. They need nutrients found only in decomposing matter.

Discussion:

Did you move or make improvements to your home? What steps did you take to keep your family safe?

Sources:

Healthy Child Healthy World: Kill Weeds Without Herbicides

Healthy Child Healthy World: Natural Garden Care

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Shoo, Fly, Don’t Bother Me, Because I Really Don’t Want to Spray Chemicals in My Home

comic by Geek And Poke: Fruit FliesHow Do I Get Rid of Fruit Flies Without Using Chemicals?

I noticed a week ago that a few fruit flies were buzzing around some herb seedings which my husband planted and which we kept inside our house. They hadn’t found my worm bin yet but I knew that if they did their population would sky-rocket.

Yesterday I had to admit they found it.

It seemed like more fruit flies were around even though a few days earlier my husband had replanted the seedlings outside. I noticed they were zooming around a plant I kept in our kitchen window. Then I looked down.

I swear they attacked my face. Fruit flies were zooming everywhere and a few knocked into my face! They’re prolific but not the smartest creatures, are they?

I was really disgusted. Frustrated and with a bad attitude, I sat next to the bin for a good ten minutes on the hunt. I waited for a fly to get near and then I would swat at it with a wet hand (it’s easier to catch fruit flies when your hand is wet). When I realized my effort was not the most effective I tore myself away, washed the dozen flies off my hand while attempting not to look at them, and scrubbed my hands with all the vigor I could.

Maybe I need a timeout.

I hate fruit flies. I’ve dealt with them before, usually in the summer months when my fridge is full and I have fruit in a basket on the table. Once in college I had a hyacinth plant in which fruit flies made a home. Rather than deal with the flies I tossed out the plant, and they quickly dies out when I removed the fruit and kept crumbs off the table. But how do I get rid of flies living in and around a bin of moist earth and food scraps?

I did not want to use chemicals, especially around the worms, so I went online for answers. I had visited Red Worm Composting before for answers so I visited there first, but I found that other sites basically said the same thing.

Three Steps to Getting Rid of Fruit Flies

  1. Find the source of the infestation and remove all food sources. Is a garbage can sitting full? Empty it. Do you have old bananas in the pantry? Eat them or wash and cover them. If you have a worm bin, remove any undigested food scraps until the fruit flies are gone. Also make sure there aren’t other food sources nearby such as crumbs on the floor or a dirty garbage disposal.
  2. Vacuum all the adults you see. This helps keep egg layers from laying more eggs and is a very effective step in crashing your fruit fly population. Keep a vacuüm nearby for the next few days so you can suck up the adults as you see more.
  3. Make apple cider vinegar traps. Pour some apple cider vinegar into a bowl or cup and add a drop of dish soap. (The soap decreases the surface tension of the water.) Cover the container with plastic wrap and poke a few holes for the flies to enter. It’s amazing how well this works. If you don’t have apple cider vinegar you can use a sweet-smelling alcohol, too. As a matter of fact, El Trapiche, the organic coffee and sugar cane plantation I visited in Costa Rica, used similar traps for beetles; they hung two cups, one inside the other with a bit of space between the two, from trees and filled the bottom cup with guaro, a slightly sweet alcohol distilled from sugar cane. Place the container near the source of flies. Depending on the size of the problem you may want to use multiple traps.

The most important thing is to take these steps as soon as you notice fruit flies in your home.

Immediately after taking these steps I noticed a huge difference in the number of visible flies, now temporarily at zero (I’m very thorough). I also made sure my bin had plenty of bedding by adding a bit more shredded newspaper on top (I vacuumed a bit of it in my effort to get every last adult fly).

Though in my frustration I gave them an extra day of breeding, today I have high hopes that the fruit flies will be completely gone in a few days.

By the way, if you feel like you have little flies crawling all over your scalp and body when you’re finished (like me, eek!), take a shower. Even though the problem is most likely in your head your skin and scalp follicles will feel much more normal and your brain will know those pests are gone!

Worm Poo, By Any Other Name, Would Still Smell As Sweet

Did I fix my smelly worm problem?

Fourteen days passed since I decided to leave the worm bin alone. Two weeks ago it was smelling, and healthy worm bins are not supposed to smell. What would it be like today?

I ventured over to the bin, opened the lid, and took a whiff. Hmm. No smell! I moved away the top bedding to see how much food my worms had eaten. To my surprise it was pretty much all gone!

I did smell something at this point though—the smell of sweet earth. I had heard humus from bacterial composting smelled lovely, but worm castings? Turn out worm poo smells great too!

I broke up bedding that slightly compressed on the surface and put it back in the bin. Then my husband went to the fridge to see if he could find any leftover food gone bad. We were in luck; wrapped in aluminum foil were two small roasted beets left from our Passover feast, now showing the first signs of mold. Delighted, I put pieces of beet on top of the soil and re-covered it with the newspaper shreddings.

It’s funny how my perceptions of old food has so quickly changed. Previously I would have wrinkled my nose at bad food. Since I began composting with worms I have begun to think of moldy or stale foods as terrific food for my worms to convert to fertile soil.

Smelly Worms?

What Do I Do When My New Worm Bin Smells?!

When I returned to St. Louis from Milwaukee three days after I started my worm composting bin I was excited to see my wigglers’ progress. As I moved close I realized I could smell an unpleasant odor, not strong but not friendly either, and certainly not a good sign. I opened the lid, pushed aside the top bedding and saw (and smelled) plenty of squishy rotting food in the form of gooey spinach and romaine salad leaves, moldy bits of paper, and leftover grits and other food crumbs that looked like thoroughly chewed and spit out bread. I wasn’t expecting the kitchen scraps to have been completely eaten in three days, and the mold in the contained environment only aided in the decomposition process. However, worm bins are not supposed to smell. That’s a sign I did something a bit wrong.

Troubleshooting

The Problem: A Smelly Worm Bin

From what I’ve read, a smelly worm bin could be a result of four things:

  1. Not enough air
  2. Too wet of an environment
  3. Too much food compared to the number of worms living in my bin
  4. No/not enough dry top bedding

I was careful about the moisture and hadn’t added additional water so I was pretty sure the moisture level was adequate. It may have been I didn’t have enough air circulation. Most likely, though, was that I put too many scraps in the bin for the relatively small number of worms I purchased. I decided to attempt to solve this problem first and leave altering the air circulation as Plan B.

The Remedy: Additional Shredded Newspaper + Time

My solution was to let the bin sit untouched with no additional food scraps until the smell dissipated, assuming it would dissipate at all. I re-covered the food scraps and then added some additional shredded newspaper bedding on top to help absorb odor.

Did it work? I’ll find out tomorrow!

Give Some Worms a Home and They’ll Eat Your Trash (with slideshow)

Make a DIY Indoor/Apartment Worm Bin

My worms came Friday!

They were actually supposed to come Wednesday or Thursday and I was extremely concerned when the mailman delivered only circulars. My husband and I were scheduled to leave at 11 a.m. Friday for a leadership convention for our community building business but I could not leave before the worms came; the worms wouldn’t likely survive a weekend on my porch and I would not be responsible for the death of 500 of God’s creatures. Luckily the mailman came early Friday, around 11 a.m., and our trip was delayed only one hour as we finished constructing our red wigglers’ new home.

This is how we did it.

Home and Apartment Composting – Constructing an Indoor Worm Bin


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  1. Choose a container for your worm bin.
    • Your container should be longer than it is wide, such as a 10-gallon plastic storage bin shaped like the one in the picture, because composting worms are surface dwellers. I chose an 18-gallon bin which we already owned, meaning I shouldn’t fill it proportionally as full.
    • It also should be opaque; worms don’t like the bright light.
  2. Create aeration holes. Have you ever taken to long to take your trash to the dumpster and it began to smell foul? Aerated garbage is decomposed by aerobic bacteria, but when air cannot get to the garbage anaerobic bacteria begin decomposing the food scraps. These anaerobic bacteria in the nearly-sealed trashcan create terrible odors, and this is known as the trashcan effect.
    • To avoid the scraps in your worm bin from smelling you’re need to drill several holes in the sides of the bin to let in air.
    • Drill a few holes on the bottom, too, to let water drain if things accidentally become to wet in the bin.
    • Setting your finished bin on a tray will keep any excess liquid off your table or floor.
    • The holes don’t need to look special, straight or non-straight lines do just fine. I got a little creative, though, and used a dry-erase marker to trace a design on my bin before I drilled holes.
    • The worms won’t want to leave your bin, either, because a dark, moist place with a constant supply of food is heaven to them. For extra insurance make sure you use a small bit. The smaller the bit, though, the more holes you’ll need. Use your best judgement; though not ideal you can always add more later if needed.
  3. Worms need (1) bedding, (2) moisture, (3) air, and (4) food. Before populating the bin you’ll need to create an ideal environment for them by making them appropriate bedding.
    • Find something light, fluffy, and made of organic materials to use as bedding such as shredded newspaper or junk mail, shredded paper cups, or used paper towels. I used old newspaper and a partial bag of unused small animal bedding to which our newest pet rat was allergic.
    • Wet the bedding in a bucket of water and then squeeze all the excess water from the material so that the bedding is damp like a wrung-out sponge. Alternatively, use a spray bottle to thoroughly moisten all bedding. It’s important the bedding is moist because worms are mostly water and need to stay moist. The water also helps the worms stay cool as heat is produced from the decomposition process.
    • Place the moist bedding in the bottom of the bin while separating the shreds of paper/animal bedding. This keeps the bedding light and breathable rather than compact and suffocating.
    • Top the bedding with at least 2 inches of organic soil or soil from your yard. (Buy soil if bringing in garden pests concerns you.)
  4. Populate your bin. You’ll want to buy composting wormsor get some from a friend who already composts with worms. Carefully remove the worms and place them in your bin.
    • Any packing materials made of organic material can go right in the bin with them.
  5. Add dry bedding on top. Use more shredded newspaper or junk mail to create several inches of cover for the worms.
    • Top bedding will also cover food scraps, thereby discouraging fruit flies and absorbing and blocking odors.
  6. Feed your worms! Keep food scraps from the compressed environment of the landfill by feeding them to your worms!
    • Move the top bedding to one side, put in your food scraps (such as the salad mix I didn’t eat fast enough, pictured), and recover the scraps with the bedding! (To ensure smells stay at bay cover them with a thin layer of soil.)
    • If your family consists of only one or two people I recommend only adding food to one side of the bin at a time to make composting easier. If your family is larger you’ll want to start a second bin while the worms finish eating the food scraps from Bin 1. (Take out some of the worms from Bin 1 and place them in Bin 2.) When everything looks composted in Bin 1, hand-harvest the compost and move the worms into Bin 2.

Things to keep in mind

Troubleshooting: If things get smelly your bin either needs more air, things are too wet, or you’ve put too much food in the bin too fast. Stop feeding the worms for a while to remedy the food and moisture pileup. If things stay smelly add a few more air holes. Troubleshooting is easy, so just experiment!

It’s so easy to create a worm bin and even easier to maintain it. I am so glad I have a way to keep more of my garbage out of the landfill and even happier that I’ll soon have a nutrient-rich worm casting compost in which to plant my seedlings! (My mother is happy, too, because I promised some of it to her for her sick yard!)

Worm castings make some of the most prized compost, and any compost you don’t need would make a very thoughtful gift for your gardener friends and neighbors. Still have compost leftover? Sprinkle it in a community yard or around some trees. The plants will appreciate the nutritious treat!

Buy Here

Suggested Resources

Book: The Urban/Suburban Composter: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony and Apartment Composting

Video: Apartment Composting 101: Vermicompost with Barb Finnin

I Just Adopted 500 Wriggling Pets

Eisenia fetida on compost bin

Photo Attribution | Toby Hudson | Compost worms (eisenia foetida) that have risen to the lid of a compost bin during a rainy spell.

I ordered composting worms today!

It seems like a pound of red wiggler worms, the amount recommended for two people by the book The Urban/Suburban Composter: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony, and Apartment Composting by Mark Cullen and Lorraine Johnson, can normally be purchased through online stores for between $20 and $40 plus shipping. Eventually, however, I found cheaper prices on eBay and bought 500 worms (approximately a half pound) from new_organic_farmer. (I decided to go with 500 instead of 1000, which is approximately a pound, to save a little money; I estimate, from my reading, that it’ll take 2-3 months for their population to reach 1000, meaning we’ll likely have to compost a bit slower at first).

I had no idea how to tell how well the farmers took care of their worms except that “organic,” of course, means pesticide-free so I had a hard time taking this into consideration when I bought my (pet) worms. (I always take care to remember that all living organisms are not just a means to an end, they are an end and deserve respect.)

Worms Used For Composting

Two common types of worms used for composting include the Red Wiggler Worm (Eisenia fetida; aka red worm, manure worm, tiger worm, ) and the European Nightcrawler Worm (Eisenia hortensis). Both are surface dwelling worms, though the European Nightcrawlers are a bit larger (making them popular bait worms) and tend to live slightly deeper in the ground than the Red Wiggler. Both thrive living near rotting material such as decomposing fallen leaves; the Red Wiggler also lives in rotting manure. Both worms also tolerate living in highly worm-populated areas. Therefore, both live very happily in farmed compost bins!

You can view pictures of both worms side by side here

I’m Going to Live with Worms

A Can of Worms Won't Open Itself - Worm Composting

Deciding to Compost

Today, Earth Day Eve, I decided to compost. I’ve been thinking about it the last few weeks since I took the quiz on PracticallyGreen.com and saw “compost kitchen food waste” as a suggested action item. I’ve been a lazy environmentalist for a while and wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle composting, especially since I live in a fairly small apartment. But, the site prompted me to do some additional research.

I checked out a few sites and bought a used book on Amazon, The Urban/Suburban Composter: The Complete Guide to Backyard, Balcony and Apartment Composting by Mark Cullen and Lorraine Johnson, and after reading the first few chapters I knew for certain I wanted to finally do it. But what method? There are so many different types of composting and I knew next to nothing about any of them. Basically, all those different types fall into seven categories.

Composting Methods

  1. holding units (including heaps)
  2. turning units
  3. mulching
  4. soil incorporation
  5. anaerobic composting
  6. worm composting, and
  7. cover crops/green manuring.

When we think of home composting we generally think of holding units (heaps, bins), turning units (tumblers, or rotating bins), anaerobic composting, or worm composting. I needed a composting method that could be used in minimal space, wouldn’t smell, wouldn’t attract bugs, and could require some effort but not a ton (as my husband and I tend to be forgetful–okay, and sometimes lazy; we’re lazy environmentalists).

Anaerobic composting relies on bacteria and microorganisms that thrive in airless conditions. It be done it a sealed bucket or a commercial bokashi system, which appealed to me because of its ease of use–you simply put food scraps in and let it decompose, no turning/aerating involved–and because the commercial systems have spigots to harvest compost tea. However, it can be very, very smelly unless you buy an accelerator in the form of a colony of microorganisms ready to dig in to your trash. Of course, you’d have to buy a new bag each time you harvest the compost or else deal with the smell. The real deal breaker for me was that food scraps have to be collected and put in the bucket all at one time, and I wanted something I could add scraps to a little at a time.

Aerobic composting relies on bacteria and microorganisms that require air, meaning the compost either needs regular poking or stirring (as in with holding units), rotated (as with tumblers), or turned (as with some heaps, soil incorporation, and green manuring). I quickly decided that tumblers, which only require a short moment to rotate, would be better for us since we sometimes got lazy. We could even make a small DIY tumbler out of a round, lidded paint bucket set in a crate and set outside of our door on the walkway.

Worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, uses worms (or bugs or fungi in other types of vermicomposting) to break down scraps of food, paper plates, and other organic material. This immediately sounded interesting to me–I loved the idea of hundreds of wiggly pet worms in my kitchen–but it made my husband grimace. Yet it did seem to be the most recommended method for apartment dwellers as the risk of pests and odors (though these can always be remedied) is almost none, except perhaps the annoying fruit fly.

There was another concern to consider: what would I compost? We don’t have a yard so grass and garden clippings wouldn’t be available composting material. We have pet rat and bird bedding (yes, we have rats! two: our furry Rascal and our hairless Ratticus. we also have two lovebirds, Peach and Cherry) and food scraps. Mostly food scraps, which are considered “green material.” Which method wouldn’t need a whole lot of “brown” like dead leaves?

Worm Composting.

(And my husband said yes!)

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