Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'I Got Worms' : My Vermicomposting Venture

Add having a worm composting bin to the list of things I never imagined I would ever do. It's right up there with cloth diapering, raising chickens, and beekeeping. I can't even tell you how many times it makes me think of that part in Dumb and Dumber when Lloyd pitches his idea for a worm farm business. I remember how disgusting that sounded back when I watched it in high school. Who would have thought that someday I'd have a small sort of worm farm? Weird.


I'm not entirely sure where I first learned about vermicomposting (aka, worm composting; vermis is the latin word for worms). I've had a regular compost bin the entire time I've lived in my house (eight years this month!) and I'm always glad when I see worms in it. I've never, though, had a whole compost bin devoted to worms.

I started seeing pins on Pinterest about worm composting and I was intrigued. I read about people keeping bins in their small apartments or under the sink in their kitchens. I saw plans for tall worm compost bins that looked kind of like beehives. It seemed like a great idea to have worms eat food scraps and junk mail to help your garden, but it seemed a bit overwhelming, too.

That was until I saw this pin about making a vermicomposting bin out of storage containers. It seemed so easy and doable! I highly recommend checking out her post (especially the really cute video with author's four-year-old son explaining how it works) -- you can find the step-by-step instructions and a lot of good info.  In this post, I'm going to share the process of how I made mine and some insights to how it's working for us. Keep in mind, I'm new to this whole process and am by no means a worm expert (yes, they do exist). That said, it's been pretty simple thus far.

Making the Worm Composting Bin

While we were waiting for the worms to come in the mail (I say "we" because my six-year-old was super excited about the project), I went to the store and picked up a couple storage containers.

I struggled bit trying to find the right storage containers. The instructions I followed called for two 8-10 gallon storage containers. I found plenty of those at good ol' Walmart but all of them were clear. Same thing at Target. The worm bin has to be opaque since worms are sensitive to light, so none of the ones they had worked. I finally was able to find some black 12-gallon containers (so a little bigger than necessary) at IKEA for about $5 each, along with one lid for $2.

So all together the worm bin cost $12 (plus tax). Much cheaper than the pre-made bins that go for around $100 (and that price doesn't include the worms) .

To make the bin, you need to drill some holes in one of the containers. Seeing as I'm pretty inept when it comes to power tools, I just took the container up to my parents' house (we were going there anyway and my worms had just arrived in the mail). My dad took the containers to his garage and took care of things. I wasn't helpful at all; I mostly just stood there and told him all the reasons why I wanted the bin in the first place so he wouldn't think I was nuts (you can find some great reasons for vermicomposting here).

First, he made some small holes on the bottom for drainage; Dad used a 1/8-inch drill bit.

Then he drilled some holes into the sides (higher up above the compost line, for ventilation) with one of his biggest drill bits. The plastic container was a bit flimsy so a few holes were a little cracked but no big deal.

The second bin doesn't need any holes at all. The purpose of the bottom bin is to catch any drainage from the first bin. In the last month that I've been keeping a worm bin, I've found the second bin to not be that necessary. Just keep the worms damp and not soaking wet and catching drainage isn't much of an issue. Not knowing this in advance, I still use the second bin since I have it.


So that the ventilation holes in the first bin don't get covered up, you need to have a something to elevate the main compost bin inside the second. (Does that make sense? Look at the picture below and you'll see what I mean).  To do this, my dad simply cut some blocks of wood from his stash in the garage (did I mention my dad is a talented woodworker? I love that guy.) The blocks are just a few inches tall but they keep the ventilation holes right above the lip of the bottom bin.

That's it -- a homemade worm bin made in about 15-20 minutes, tops. Nothing fancy. That's fine. It's meant to hold worms and their castings (aka, worm poo); I'm keeping it in the garage. I'm fine with it being totally plain.

Filling the Worm Composter

First things first -- you need worms.

Worm composting requires a certain type of worm: red wiggler worms. You can't just go dig around in your yard or go to the fishing bait section and pick up a bunch of earthworms. From what I've read, these specific worms thrive on eating bacteria-laden and rotten food. Getting a pound or two of red wiggler worms is easy. There are lots of places online where you can order them -- even Amazon has listings for worms. I ordered mine from Wiser Worm Farm -- I got a pound of worms for $27, shipping included.

Once your bin has the holes drilled in it, it's ready to be filled.

First, add some shredded up newspaper. I've been using grocery ads that come in the mail, along with my son's book order forms he gets from school (that is, after I'm done spending too much money ordering from them...ahem).

Next, add some dirt. The worms need the grit to help them digest.  As you can see, Max's cousins got in on all the wormy action and they took turns adding the dirt to the bin. (A worm bin is a great educational tool, I think.)

Next, we added some food scraps I'd been collecting for the last couple days (more on what and what not to feed worms later).

Now you can introduce your worms to their new home. Once I dumped them in, the kids started naming them. In our worm bin, there's a little red wiggler named Charles and another named Sammy. It didn't take long for the kids to.realize that it's hard to come up with 500 names.

We poured a little water over the newspaper-scraps-dirt mixture and worms. To top it all off, we added a wet piece of cardboard (to keep the light out from the ventilation holes). Put the lid on and the worms are ready to get to work!

Maintaining Your Worm Bin

It's been about a month since we added our worms to the bin. So far, it's been incredibly easy. It's also so cool to see how it's working. They really do eat your garbage!

There are a few guidelines on feeding worms -- there are foods they can and can't eat. The way I keep it straight is to think of them as a bunch of wiggly little vegans because worms can't eat dairy or meat. Unlike vegans, though, they also don't eat oils or citrus.

What do worms eat? They like fruits and vegetables, breads and grains, eggshells (we've got plenty of those), tea bags, coffee grounds (including the filter. We don't drink coffee at our house, but I've heard that worms love coffee grounds), and shredded newspaper.

I've read that it's best to feed the worms food that's already starting to rot a little. This is where my compost pail comes in. Until just recently, I used this pail to hold kitchen scraps before taking them to the compost pile in the yard; now I use it exclusively for worm food. The amazing thing about this pail is that it can hold the stinkiest, most rotten stuff in it and you can't smell anything when the lid is closed. It's awesome. So, I let the food for the worms sit in there for a day or two and then dump it into the worm bin.

Other things to keep in mind when taking care of worms:

  • Keep the bin's contents damp, but not soaking wet. I keep a spray bottle filled with water next to the bin and give it a few sprays when things are looking dry in the bin.
  • I also have an old hand rake next to the bin to stir things around when I add new food for them. This also helps with ventilation so things don't get too compacted.
  • Don't keep your worm bin somewhere that's too hot or cold. You don't want it to be somewhere where it gets colder than 35 degrees or hotter than around 80. Like I mentioned before, I keep mine in the garage (hence all the random stuff piled around the bin in the picture above).
  • Like with a regular compost pile, the worm composter doesn't stink if you're doing it right. If it stinks, that's when some troubleshooting is needed (maybe it's too wet, there's too much food, etc.). When I open my worm bin, it has a sort of pleasant, earthy smell. I say this not to brag but instead to point out how not-hard keeping a worm bin is.
Just as I'm fascinated by my compost pile outside, I find myself looking at the worm bin the same way. It's incredible to see a little sort of eco-system at work. I have yet to get the castings out and add them to my garden. Once I've done it and made a batch of worm poop tea for my garden, I'll let you know. (Yep. Add "making worm poop tea" to that list of things I never thought I'd do, too.)

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

{This post is linked up to Homestead Barn Hop, Your Green Resource, Simple Lives Thursday, and Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.}

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Adventures in Cloth Diapering: On-the-Go Cloth Diapering

I'm going to level with you: diapering away from home is one area where disposables have cloth diapers beaten. There I said it. No beating around the bush here. Clothing diapering in public bathrooms can be tricky.

That said, on-the-go cloth diapering is not impossible. I mean, I've been doing it with my little guy for the last couple years (he turned TWO a little over a week ago. How is that even possible?!  I swear I just had him a few months ago. Weird.).  In this post, I'm going to tell you how I cloth diaper away from home -- the gear that I use, how I do it, and the occasions when I wave the white flag of surrender.

First, what to pack in your diaper bag...

The three essentials: diapers, wipes, and a wet bag. Let me break it down a bit:

The Wet Bag: The main difference between cloth diapering and using disposable diapers on the go is that you have to take the wet/soiled diapers with you (obviously). That's where the wet bag comes into play. You can use any kind of bag as your wet bag (I've used plastic bags from the store in a pinch), but I prefer using a bag specifically made for cloth diapering. The exterior of the bag is cloth but the inside is made of a waterproof material. These kinds of bags are great for two reasons: one, the good ones don't leak; two, they keep the stink contained. Before I had my baby I did some research and read a bunch of reviews on wet bags and finally decided on one made by Planet Wise. This wet bag is a champ! I can fit multiple diapers in it, it has never leaked (they actually have a special way of sealing the seams of the bag, avoiding the tiny holes often left behind when waterproof fabric is sewn), and it keeps my diaper bag from smelling like..well...diapers. I've put some seriously stinky diapers into this bag and you can't even smell them once the zipper is closed.

Wipes:  I use cloth wipes at home but I don't when I'm away from home. I know there are others that use cloth wipes both at home and on the go, but I just don't bother. In the two years I've been cloth diapering my little guy, I think I've bought around five packages of wipes, at the most. They're convenient and easy to pack. When I'm dealing with a poopy diaper on those changing tables in a public restroom (more on that in a bit), I'm trying to get out of there as fast and discreetly as I can -- having wipes already damp and ready to go is nice. Once I've used the wipes on my baby, I usually put them into the trash or I'll stick them in the wet bag (I'll either throw them in the trash when I get home or they'll find their way into the wash and I throw them away as I'm getting the diapers into the dryer/onto the clothesline).

Diapers:  Pocket diapers are the best for on-the-go cloth diapering because everything you need is right there -- no need to fumble in your bag for a Snappi or a diaper cover. Plus, they're quick and easy to get on your baby. The diaper I like to pack the most: Bummis Easy Fit (the yellow one in the picture above). I like the Easy Fit diapers away from home because the diaper comes in one piece, insert and all -- I can grab them in a hurry when I'm leaving and know that I didn't forget the inserts (yeah, it's happened before). They're also the most compact of the cloth diapers my baby wears.

Optional items: changing pad (it's nice to have a buffer between your baby and the changing surface) and flushable diaper liners (put one in the diaper your baby is wearing before you go. Makes poopy diapers much easier to deal with. More on that in a bit.).

Now that your bag is all packed, you're ready to go. So what do you if your baby needs changing while you're out?

Wet diapers are simple. When you're done changing your baby, stick the wet diaper in your wet bag. Done. Soiled diapers are a bit trickier.

I remember when my little guy was around 6-8 months old, he went through this phase when, no matter what, he pooped whenever we went somewhere. Even with that practice and after a couple years of cloth diapering, I still dread changing poopy diapers when I'm not at home. It's just so much easier at home with the diaper sprayer...

Honestly, I don't have a one-size-fits-all method. You have to sort of improvise, depending on what you're dealing with. (I'm just going to say it now...I'm going to be talking about poo for a while. In depth.)  It all depends on the age of your baby and the consistency of the diaper's contents. (Hey, you were warned.)

If your baby is exclusively breastfed, poopy diapers are no problem; breastfed baby poop is water soluble and doesn't even need to be rinsed off. Just put the soiled diaper into the wet bag and call it good. Once you're home, you can dump the diaper straight into your diaper pail or washing machine.

If your baby is older and isn't exclusively breastfed, you'll need to take a few extra steps once the soiled diaper is off your baby. Once you've gotten the poopy diaper taken off and have a clean one on baby, try to get most of the dirty diaper's contents into the toilet. This is where flushable diaper liners are quite helpful. You just need to dump the liner into the toilet, flush and you're done. If you forgot to put a liner in your baby's diaper before you left home (this would be me lately), you can still try to dump the contents into a nearby toilet but it won't be always be as easy (unless baby's poop is solid and compact, which is always a relief in that situation).

If all else fails, you can put the diaper in the wet bag as is, poop and all, and deal with it at home. It's not the most pleasant of jobs, but I just tell myself that it takes less than five minutes to clean once I'm home. I can deal with five minutes of just about anything. Oh, the things we mothers do for our kids.

{It's worth mentioning that you should ALWAYS have your baby strapped when he or she is on a changing table, especially if you have to leave them for a moment to empty the diaper into the toilet. I remember having to change my little guy once in a public restroom and there was no belt on the fold-out table. I ended up just sticking everything into the wet bag. Just not worth the risk of baby rolling out and getting hurt.}

One last thing: I don't always cloth diaper my boy when I'm away from home. I don't even bother while on vacation (dealing with cloth diapers on 10-hour road trips or all day at Disneyland? Not for me.). I know it can be done. I've read about using cloth diaper services and I've heard of people washing their diapers while staying in a hotel. I just don't. I also skip the cloth diapers when we're camping. I don't quite know how to clean a poopy diaper when there's no plumbing. More power to you if you do cloth diapers on vacation or in the mountains, though. I think you've got to be flexible when it comes to cloth diapering -- do what works for you and your child; otherwise, you will get burned out and even want to give up completely.

In the last couple years of cloth diapering, I've noticed that the whole experience is full of little paradigm shifts. Using cloth diapers is definitely not mainstream; the idea takes a little getting used to. I still get funny/baffled looks from people when I tell them that my little boy wears cloth diapers. Changing cloth diapers away from home is just another one of those little shifts: it's not exactly the norm to pack a wet bag with you. It feels a little funny at first to leave a public restroom, knowing that you've got dirty diapers in your bag, and to then carry them around with you as you finish your errands (it will be our secret. No one will ever know!). But believe me, you get over it really quickly. It will become the norm for you. I've actually gotten to the point where it feels strange to throw a diaper away. I definitely didn't see that paradigm shift coming.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

{This post is linked up to Homestead Barn Hop and Your Green Resource.}
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