How to keep worms happy in hot weather

Tips for keeping your worms comfortable in the heat. 


People usually think of Sydney as a sunny, happy place. It is, mostly. There is also a level of extremity that takes some getting used to. A day that begins at 35 degrees might plummet to 22 within minutes of the antarctic southerly wind belting through (laundry pegs are essential). The city itself is a concrete heat sink. New housing developments lack trees, which help to pull water from ocean onto land to regulate temperature, and provide shade for people and roads. We’re smashing heat records, a rain storm destroyed the roof of our last apartment, and the occasional tornado rolls through. Applying local indigenous knowledge of the seasons makes so much more sense than the imposed European framework of spring, summer, fall, and winter. We are in the ‘hot and dry’ currently. Labels aside, temps over 30 degrees are normal at least half of the year. At times it’s even hotter, with heat waves in the low 40s lasting for days. Like humans, worms don’t thrive in extreme heat. Weather above 30 degrees celsius can stress worms and even kill them.

Here are a couple of tips to manage worms in the heat:

Shade: Make sure your little guys are in a shady spot. If you lack options for where you can locate the worm farm, a hessian sack or an an umbrella can be repurposed to create shade – in fact it’s the perfect way to get more use out of a broken umbrella.

Balanced bedding: Add newspaper and bits of cardboard to keep their home balanced between carbon and nitrogen and nicely aerated. Toilet paper rolls, newsprint and egg cartons all work well. Make sure the bedding is overall a bit moist.

Reduced feeding: Worms don’t eat as much in the heat, so reduce the volume or pace of feedings leading up to and during a heat wave.

Make popsicles: Freezing and/or blending scraps helps your worms digest them faster and doubles as a way to cool the tray temperature. Worm popsicles!

Block ice: On scorcher days, when I don’t want to add any more food scraps, I put a bucket of ice, frozen as a block, into the feeding tray. I keep this block on hand through the summer so I’m always prepared for a heat wave. You could use any sort of container that will accommodate the expansion of water as it freezes.

A hot day here or there isn’t the end of the world, and worms are still fairly resilient. My worms survived a heat wave above 40 last year when I was out of town and couldn’t give them some ice. Probably because they were already shaded, had decent bedding, and weren’t overfed in the lead up.

A little ode to sauerkraut (and why you should make it yourself)

Sauerkraut is super. And making it at home means zero waste. 


Did you catch this food diary slash interview with Moonjuice founder and actual (not really) space cadet?

You really ought to. Go, I’ll wait.

Now let’s think about how, for most of human history, and still for many humans today, having any food at all was pretty super. Nutritious food, prepared in an accessible way and within financial reach for the masses is worth celebrating.

One of the way humans could store and preserve precious food before refrigeration was through fermentation. Cheese is just fermented milk, bread is fermented wheat, and so on. It’s used everywhere, we just mostly don’t take notice.

More than just a way to preserve food

Fermentation also helps by adding good strains of bacteria back into western digestive tracts. Gut bacteria is being studied to find out more about its affect on mood and weight. One day maybe we’ll be able to map the human microbiome the way we’ve mapped the genome.

Consider that you might not actually be you, but almost a giant SCOBY, or a host. Your intestines hold a weird and wonderful mix of helpful microbes that assist in processing the food we eat. In fact everyone’s microbiome is different. It’s a symbiotic arrangement where ecosystem rules apply – disrupt things too much by destroying habitat and things might get a bit crazy. Case in point, if you ever been prescribed antibiotics, you’ve probably also been told to pair the dose with plain yogurt, which has some of the same strains of bacteria that help keep your downstairs vestibule healthy. Food can indeed be thy medicine.

If you’re interested in this stuff, the book Gut by medical doctor Julia Enders is an entertaining and very down to earth read, replete with funny illustrations by her sister, on the whole digestive system

Why you ought to try making your own sauerkraut

It’s soooo much cheaper that store bought:  Last I checked, store bought sauerkraut will set you back $15 – $18 a litre here in Sydney. By comparison, one head of cabbage costs $4 and made about 3 litres in my last batch, pictured here.

It’s actually easy: It’s only two to three ingredients: cabbage, unrefined salt and optional whole spices (I like coriander or fennel). It uses a low tech method – shred the cabbage, sprinkle salt on top, pound until juicy, pack in a jar, leave on the bench and wait 2 – 3 weeks. Takes a bit longer in winter, goes a bit faster in summer.

No new packaging: Whether it’s plastic or glass, we all use way too much, even if it actually does get recycled. Why get a new glass jar when you can reuse what you have?

The no-whey sauerkraut method I use

Sauerkraut recipes are literally everywhere because they are pretty much the same, except that some call for whey and some only use salt. After experimenting with both methods over the years, I definitely prefer the results from with salt only – crispy and brightly flavoured. Whey ferments have tended to go mushy on me.

I started with and still use a method based on fermentation legend Sandor Kratz’s instruction. He recommends about 3 tablespoons unrefined salt for every 5 lbs (about 2.5 kilos) of veg. Here’s a link if you need more detail. Side note, I highly recommend his amazing book, the Art of Fermentation.

The salt acts to encourage the growth of lactic acid bacteria strains – the good guys – that are already present on the cabbage. You’ll know if things are going well if the mixture starts to bubble after a few days. The aroma should be fairly innocuous.

Tips

  • I prefer red cabbage since it’s pretty when added to dishes, and has more vitamin c.
  • A fermenting crock with stones for weight is great, but a basic glass jar with shoulders works too.
  • Remember to keep one of the outer leaves of the cabbage to cover the mix and make it easier to push down and submerge into the liquid. The main rule for fermenting is that whatever is under the liquid line is in a safely acidic environment and stays food safe.
  • A fine whitish mould on top is fine, but colourful blues and reds in moulds are no bueno and a sign that something’s gone wrong.
  • Some recipes say to leave on the bench for a few days, but I allow my batches to go for closer to 3 weeks to let the good bacteria and complex flavours develop. Test as you go to see what you prefer.
  • A kitchen scale is extremely helpful when dealing with brines and weight based measures. I got mine at the op shop.
  • Unrefined salt means sea salt or another non-iodine variety.
  • Once you have the basic recipe, have fun and experiment with different spices or chilis and add ins.

Good sense bubbling to the surface

Sauerkraut is good for you, simple and cheap to make and is a perfect way to add an extra umami kick to food. One giant batch every six months is more than enough for me, and I put it on everything. I add a tablespoon to grain bowls, salads, avocado toast, you name it.

 

3 ingredient zero waste lip balm recipe

Here’s a three ingredient formula for a versatile zero waste lip balm that I use on my lips, cuticles, and as the base for my DIY zero waste deodorant. 


3 ingredients, no packaging

This basic balm recipe uses only three ingredients, all of which can be found unpackaged here in Sydney:

  • cacao butter
  • coconut oil
  • beeswax

It’s inspired by a lip balm I had long ago from Lush (Honey Trap, I think) that was great for cuticles and lips alike. I began making my own once I found out how simple this kind of thing is, and when The Soap Dispensary opened and started offering refills of these ingredients in only the amounts I needed. My recipe is a bit simpler than Lush’s, but works just as well.

zero waste lip balm ingredients

Melt and pour method for making the balm 

Melt all three ingredients in a 1:1:1 ratio in a mason jar set into simmering water. Stir to combine, then pour into silicone moulds or small reused lip balm tins. The mixture will harden as it cools to room temperature. If you’re in a hurry, put the moulds in the fridge.

You can usually find silicone ice cube trays at the op shop – that’s where I got these heart shaped moulds.

Variations on the lip balm recipe

For meltier bars, reduce the relative amount of beeswax. For harder bars (or in summer) increase the beeswax. You can also mix and match oils, butters and waxes if you don’t have cacao or coconut or beeswax – the trick is to start with the roughly 1:1:1 mixture of oil, butter and wax, and then adapt to your climate and preference. The more liquid your ingredients are, the softer the balm will be. I use this combo of cacao, coconut and beeswax because I can find it all packaging free, and cacao butter smells like chocolate!

Uses for the everything balm

I usually make a couple at a time since extras are great as gifts, or stored for later in an upcycled candle jar. The little bars can be remelted and mixed to make DIY paste deodorant.

How to clean tough toilet stains (the zero waste way)

Here is a beautifully straightforward Zero Waste method to descale your toilet bowl easily and inexpensively without using bleach, a chisel, or a power washer indoors. 


Raise your hand if you have limescale

Wait, what is limescale? I’d never had to deal with it before I moved to Sydney. It’s usually caused by the minerals in hard water, so it’s a bit of a mystery, as Sydney has soft water. Perhaps not as soft as Vancouver.

Anyway, our toilet rather unfortunately developed a cement-like stain in the bottom of the bowl and at the water line, over a period of about a year, in spite of regular cleanings. It starts with a greyish cast, but can turn an unsightly brown colour if rust also develops. I don’t have to tell you, a brownish mark on the bottom of a toilet bowl looks gross and unclean, even if it’s just mineral buildup from the water itself. Which is why I took a dramatic before picture, but ultimately decided against posting it. It was bothering me, and would no doubt bother our rental agent upon our eventual departure.

But you know what bothers me more? Household chemical arsenals that could rival a m#th lab. I resent the ease with which we can buy this stuff when a few, simple and inexpensive, ingredients can do a fine job.

My permaculture-ish approach to household cleaning

I strive for cleanliness, rather than sterility, the latter of which is a fool’s errand – nature hates a vacuum. It should surprise no one to hear that I don’t buy commercially made all purpose cleaners, window cleaners, or toilet cleaners. What I do buy is vinegar, bi-carb (baking soda), castile soap, sea salt, and hydrogen peroxide. I can refill all but the hydrogen peroxide locally. If motivated, I could make vinegar, salt, and maybe even the castile soap myself.  Bonus points for all these being super inexpensive.

Now these are all fine for the outside of the bowl, but I struggled to figure out how to clean this hard calcification on the bottom of the toilet bowl. Elbow grease wasn’t doing it. While searching some forums for descaling tips, I saw a lot of dubious advice – use hydrochloric acid/WD40/coca cola, use a chisel / screwdriver / sandpaper, replace the toilet, or my personate favourite, use a power washer….indoors. It seems our perception of the scale of the challenge of the task really frames the level of response we think it deserves. Looks like concrete? Try a jackhammer! Who knows, they probably all work, but there was this one infrequently mentioned ingredient that caught my attention: citric acid.

What is citric acid?

You might recognize the name from the kitchen context, where it’s used in jam, tofu and cheese making, food dehydration, and more. Citric acid is found in citrus fruits, highest in lemons. It’s what makes citrus taste sour. If you dehydrated lemon juice, you’d be making citric acid crystals. I was intrigued because on the whole it sounds gentler at least than chlorine bleach or an acid we donned safety goggles for in high school science lab. At least if the citric acid didn’t work, I could use it in the kitchen.

citric acid from lemon

The test: can citric acid clean my toilet?

I bought a small amount of citric acid crystals from the supermarket to test. I first experimented with a tablespoonful and left it for about an hour. This seemed to work at the edges only – the size of the patch reduced. It held promise but it wasn’t the overall miracle I was after. So next I added 35 grams (about a third of a cup, eyeballed) to the toilet bowl and let it sit overnight. The crystals sunk to the bottom to do their work.

In the morning, there were some greyish patches of debris floating on the water’s surface. A flush revealed the miraculous result: ceramic perfection. It worked! All the cement-like rock solid crud was completely gone, dissolved. And there was no scrubbing, chiseling, or power washing required. All this for a total cost of $1.40 (AUD).

I should mention that in drought-prone Australia, toilets are mostly low-flow, meaning there is only a small amount of water in the bowl (as seen in the pic) as compared to in North America (and the flush action still works fine, if not better). For the latter, a full bowl might be better partially emptied, or the amount of citric acid increased. Next time I will try using less and let it stand for a longer period. However, now that I know the secret, I’ll probably use a dabs here and there to prevent the issue in the first place.

Would lemon juice work instead of citric acid?

Yes, but you’d need lots of it to get the equivalent amount of citric acid. An ounce of lemon juice only has about 1.5 grams of citric acid, but of course this will vary from fruit to fruit. If you live where lemons are abundant, go for it, and also consider that as a general rule later in the season the lower the acid level, meaning you’d need more of them. I could probably only buy two or three lemons for the same price, so citric acid is more cost effective.

Ultimately citric acid is not the only solution. The trick is using an acid on the limescale, so probably vinegar would work too. If you make kombucha, you can easily make vinegar. If you’ve done so and used this to clean the toilet, I’d be curious to hear about it.

Is this really a Zero Waste solution?

I want to clarify that I didn’t actually buy the citric acid in bulk or unpackaged. However, I’d still consider this part of a Zero Waste approach, because…Zero Waste is an approach.

  • Compared to the commercially sold limescale removal alternatives (CLR for example), I significantly reduced the plastic in the packaging, and, in fact, the volume of packaging.
  • I needed to use only a small amount to work.
  • I didn’t need to buy rubber gloves or a face mask to protect myself from chemical burns or respiratory damage.
  • If I needed to, I could actually make this substance myself, which fits in with a permaculture approach.

Since I have a bit leftover, I’m also interested to experiment with a citric acid solution as a shower glass cleaner. The water marks on the glass are likely caused by the same mineral buildup, and while my bi carb scrub followed by vinegar spray works okay, what if I didn’t have to scrub? Have I mentioned I’m lazy?

A word of caution on DIY and ‘natural’ cleaners

I subscribe to the idea that we should, as a society, reduce the volume and breadth of industrial chemicals we produce when we’re really not all that clear on their interactive and cumulative effects in the ecosystem. However, please keep in mind……

Natural isn’t always better

The widespread use of the term ‘chemical-free’ and irks me, not only because it’s scientifically inaccurate, but because it also suggests no harm, and reinforces the pervasive and damaging belief that natural is always better, and never harmful. That belief is harmful. ‘Natural’ cleaners are still made of chemicals. Essential oils can be toxic, asbestos is a natural substance, etc. Chemicals are not by definition harmful and natural is not by definition safe. Science is not a religion, it’s just controlled testing, and believe it or not, some science people are testing things like the impact of vinegar on microbes. Good people. Useful stuff.

Some cleaners don’t play well together

Given that we’re still using chemicals when we DIY, it means the normal rules of chemical reactions apply. I don’t own bleach, but if you do, keep in mind that you should never, ever mix acids with bleach. Citric acid and vinegar are both acids. If there are any chemists stopping by, feel free to comment below if there are any other bad combos I should add. I would definitely suggest labelling your concoctions at the very least with what it is and what it shouldn’t be mixed with. You may know what’s in their, but your children, roommates, or partner may not.

Citric acid cleans toilets easily and cheaply

I really felt clever learning this little hack and am excited to share it with you. I love it when a solution is simple and inexpensive, because Zero Waste should be accessible for everyone. Have you ever used citric acid for cleaning? I’d love to hear about it.