Rats!

I know its been a long while, but I’ve not been myself lately. Firstly, I am now more involved with the community–attending my Neighbourhood Council’s Green Committee, signing up to become a member of Ocean View Farm, and seeing what other local steps we can take to help stop food waste from an individual consumer’s perspective. I stepped away from the computer and, more alarmingly, out of my home.

I was also mulling on a new problem: how to create a zero-waste kitchen when all signs point to a serious rat problem in our new neighbourhood. No, I am not being paranoid. We saw them.

First, on moving day, Pyx (one of our cats) and I were enjoying our new view when two brown/grey rats started frolicking in the patio below. I texted Jean-Francois and asked him to keep the compost bin in the garage, until I learn more.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

Two nights later, Pyx is going nuts, asking to be let out and staring intently into the darkened air. Her fur ruffled, and tail fully puffed. Our Japanese Bob Tail was clearly excited.

Three weeks later, Jean-Francois and I saw nine rats playing in the garden below. NINE. Nine, happy, fat, playing rats. Some brown, but most were grey. Clearly, pets and vermin had formed a colony. And the colony was thriving.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

It turns out, one of the other tenants feeds the squirrels. The rats benefit by eating what’s left. And we lose our composting option. Lest anyone suggests keeping the bin in the garage, it is not in the lease. I also suspect we might offend neighbours if we bring food scraps to a bin before our car as part of a nightly ritual performed by greenie-types who have gone off the deep-end.

Before we resort to scaring our new neighbours, we need to control the rats and find a better way of saving our scraps from the bin.

Hence I became civically active and started making friends with local groups. Santa Monica used take food scraps in bins, but they had to stop because of contamination. Apparently apartment dwellers are BIG liabilities–we are temporary residents with a weak connection to common goals. Elected officials work with the easy, visible winning programmes and blame tenants for failures. We are not invested enough, it seems.

Yet, there are options. Inconvenient ones, but solutions that do show commitment. You see, it turns out, that people in downtown Los Angeles have chickens and gardens and want food scraps to keep both happy and healthy. I learnt this at the Mar Vista Farmers’ Market. And, my mind raced. There are possible solutions that will require keeping our kitchen compositor, only, we will need to find a new home for our beloved (now dormant) worms.

The lesson I learnt about being more sustainably pro-active: Answers come when you step out of your door and start talking to your neighbours.

The moral of my story: Be annoying and persistent. It works.

Advertisements

Composting–one year later

About one year ago, Jean-Francois and I adopted a small colony of red wrigglers, following a sustainability session at the Natural History Museum. As proud parents, we immediately set about finding the best bedding, bins, and strategies for keeping our new arrivals happy. The biggest challenge for us, as apartment dwellers in a large complex with strict rules, was finding a bin that would pass as patio furniture. (Since we don’t consider compost trash, we assumed that the rule about trash did not apply.)

We settled on the Worm Factory 360. It looks enough like a Japanese Stone Lantern that it could be argued that it is decorative. We supplement our system with a bamboo compost pail for the kitchen. And, we spend an evening making our worms comfortable.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

Our worms get regular doses of coffee grounds and tea leaves, toilet paper rolls and scrap paper and linens. They also get a lot of egg shells, banana peels, okara (when I cannot find a use for it in time), and bread that goes mouldy.

And they are thriving. Sure, we are still trying to figure out the right mix of brown and green (see pdf below) to add to the mix, but we are learning.

This pdf is useful for helping us determine what browns and greens our worms needs.

At six months, we even expanded our bin by adding a new layer. All winter things moved along fine, albeit a bit slowly. But as Spring set in, so did culture shock.

  1. Our worms were reluctant to move to the new layer.
  2. Worms were escaping both the bin and the balcony.
  3. Other bugs started to appear.
  4. The worm castings on the second layer were WET. We could not get them to dry.

We are now trying to manage moisture, bugs and a growing ickiness-factor (at least on my part, Jean-Francois seems to enjoy mucking around in the compost). And, we have no way to share our worm tea or our beautiful worm pooh with gardeners. The grounds here are landscaped by a company that has no interest in going green.

Any thoughts on how apartment building and condo dwellers can help urban gardens and communities by composting? We are moving to a street lined with apartments, and I’d love to find a community solution that we can advance. It may also be a way to help people eat better and waste less food BEFORE it goes to the compost.

I am not alone either. Others have written about the challenges facing us Urban Composters and some offer solutions. If you are square foot challenged, and lack a green thumb, but really want to try composting, here are a few resources we have found useful:

BTW, I would not recommend the bamboo pail. It looks old and beaten up after two months and is also too soft a material for life on our kitchen counter.

Jars of Shame: An Uglier Side to Food Waste

Food shopping is one of our greatest indulgences. Whether browsing the wares of the shops and stalls at Atwater Market in Montreal or the produce on display in groceries and markets in Japan, Jean-Francois and I enjoy the hunt for new tastes and flavours.

To be honest, we used to horde ingredients. Jean-Francois would chant “In-Greeed-i-ants!” like a possessed madman in a bad horror movie as we shopped. Along the way we  amassed large numbers of jars, bottles, plastic bags of spices, sauces, and other flavours that delighted our tastebuds and encouraged our multicultural gluttony.

But, unlike hoards of books and magazines and trinkets, our collection required regular purging before the refrigerator burst. And we poor hoarders agonized over the forgotten meals, lost experiences as each jar was held up and we asked “What have we used this for recently?” and then poured the insides down the drain.

True, we are better now. We make most of our sauces from scratch, but we occasionally lapse back into bad habits. I took these photos today to show you what I mean.

JarsofSin

37 colourful jars of tasty, wasteful flavours

Just the top two shelves of our refrigerator have 37 jars of our most essential ingredients. They include: maple syrup (used weekly), birch syrup (used three times), rice vinegar (daily), ponzu (weekly), cider vinegar (weekly), two types of soy  sauce (often), 3 tomato based ketchups (often), 3 mustards, two jars of horseradish (??), two salad dressings that we loved in Japan, soup base for emergencies, and a host of chili sauces and chutneys.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

A chutney, one horseradish, and a few of the smaller jars have exceeded their best before dates, but the remaining bottles are still youngish. Still this is food waste, and it is a part of the food waste problem that we rarely think about. And considering the distance travelled by these jars to please our pallets–I am ashamed of us.

This week, it is time for us to rethink our need for ingredients. Just because we miss eating Okonomiyaki with its special sauce, doesn’t mean we need to run to Little Tokyo and buy a plastic bottle of it (as we did a few weeks ago). I googled. I learnt. We can make some with soy sauce, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. We can even get fancy with sugar, dashi, and cornstarch. All of which we have in the pantry.

Starting today we are going to renew our efforts to reduce our refrigerator’s burden. We will not buy another sauce, mustard, ketchup or jarred treat until we have:

  1. Googled to make sure we cannot make it ourselves.
  2. Found enough creative food ideas to use the sauce up in less than two months.
  3. Asked each other if we really need to feed the nostalgia itch.

And, because temptation can be tricky, we will never shop for new ingredients alone.

Dirt cheap

It’s normal to worry about your children — especially if you’re a new parent. Are they getting the right food? Are they too hot, or too cold? Is there excessive stress in their lives? Are they getting too much exposure to the sun? There’s just so much to get right.

Picture of a worm on newspaper

Man's best friend

But here’s something that never occurred to me: it seems that it’s normal to worry about your worms too — especially if you’re new to worm husbandry.

Until last Sunday, I barely gave worms any thought. Before then, they were just little creatures I avoided stepping on after a good rain. I didn’t have the responsibility of having worms under my care … nor did I face the prospect of nurturing a colony of red wrigglers through its next few generations.

That all changed when Bonnie Lee and I attended Dig into Dirt, the first of five Sustainable Sundays events at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. We were there to learn about soil, and in the process we learned a whole bunch about worms and composting, something we’ve been meaning to look into for a while.

The session started with us handling a few worms, and starting to appreciate what interesting little creatures they are. Mine was feisty, a lovely shade of red, surprisingly strong, and fascinating to watch move. I’m not ashamed to say that I felt a kind of affection for the little fellow-gal (she-he is both, as are all his-her brethren), and a sudden desire to bring a few red wrigglers into my home.

Of course, this wasn’t just about discovering an appreciation for worms; keeping worms and composting simply make sense. When you think about it, an ecosystem is an amazing thing. Fed by energy from the sun (usually), it cycles stuff (minerals, carbon, and such) through various forms — forms as fascinating and varied as red wrigglers, Rafflesia arnoldii, naked mole rats, Tiny Tim, and orchid mantises. Whenever we throw things away, we take stuff out of the ecosystem we belong to, and give it to whatever ecosystems thrive in toxic (to us) landfills and sludge. Given how much we throw away, it stands to reason that, eventually, the ecosystem we belong to will run out of stuff; the first thing on that list looks like it will be phosphorus.

Worms can be our partners in helping keep the stuff we need to live available for us to reuse. They produce castings and worm tea which you can use in your garden, not only saving you money, but also quite literally turning the things you throw away into food… and they’re kind of cute in their own way.

Some fun facts about worms and worm composting:

  • Worms eat one half of their weight every day.
  • You can compost indoors — and no, compost doesn’t stink; it smells sweet.
  • Composting can be cheap; all you need to start are some red wrigglers, two Rubbermaid containers, and a drill. (If you don’t mind spending the money, and you’d like something more attractive, there are a few options out there.)
  • A study of 16 households that compost in Vancouver found that the average household avoided putting 915 pounds of waste in the trash each year.

Do you compost? If so, feel free to share tips here — we’ll need them. If not, what’s stopping you?