The Cat Poop Portal: Litter Box Composting, Installment #1

View up the side yard, looking toward the back yard. The new bin is all pretty and shiny.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I posted about cat litter composting a while back, and got lots of interesting comments and suggestions. If you’re researching the topic, I suggest you check out that post, the comments especially.

Since then, Erik and I have decided on the method we’re going to try. We’re just going to do straight up, classic composting, Humanure Handbook style. The only difference between this style and ordinary composting is that we’ll let this compost rest for two years before we spread it, to be sure the bad beasties die off. And in case they aren’t gone, we won’t spread the finished compost around edible plants.

No, this is not orthodox practice. It is not considered “safe” to compost pet waste–all the standard advice tells you not to– but we’re doing it anyway, because we trust time and bacteria and worms and our own composting skills to make good compost out of cat litter. Also, the standard advice is mostly in reference to a home’s one-and-only compost pile. You would not want to add cat or dog poop to your regular compost pile. It needs to be kept in a separate pile that is managed more carefully.

The biggest challenge in this scheme for us was figuring out where to put yet another compost container. Our yard is already overrun with barrels and bins. Worse, when we thought it through, we realized we needed room for not just one compost bin, but at least two, maybe three, because of the aging issue.You know, fill one up, set it aside, start on another. The barrels pile up!

The solution is our south-facing side yard. That “yard” is a 3 foot wide strip of sun-baked soil that no one ever sees. It’s divided from our neighbor’s side yard (also rarely used) by a hedge of tenacious jade plants. There is no access to the back yard from the side yard. It has been a wasteland for all the time we’ve been here. This year Erik put in two tiny raised planters there to see if he could grow hops on the side of the house. But it is still mostly unused, invisible space–perfect for compost bins.

The only problem was access. It’s an awkward hike around the front house to get to that side yard. It would be no fun to have haul the dirty litter over there. This is where Erik’s genius came to play. He decided to cut a hole in our back yard fence–a little section of fence convenient to our back porch– and make a small door that will let us dump the litter directly into the barrel, which sits on the opposite side of the fence. We’re already calling this the Cat Poop Portal ™.

The Portal from the back yard, looking down on the drum

 The specs:

  • We’re composting in a food grade plastic 55 gallon drum, which we found on Craigslist. It once held brown rice syrup. I prefer to use food grade plastics for compost, especially since we’re dealing with used barrels. Better food residue than chemical residue. 
  • Our drum is white because white was all that was available. I’ve heard white degrades more quickly than the blue or black. Don’t know if that is true, but I have also heard that the lifespan of the drum can be extended by painting or covering it with a tarp. We may do one of those things.
  • Erik sawed off the top of the drum, because it wasn’t the type with a screw off lid. Rather it had a bung hole configuration. (I’m still trying to become blase about tossing around the term bung hole.) This means we don’t have a lid. We’ll just put a piece of cardboard or wood on top, because we’re classy like that. 
  • We drilled lots of 1/2″ air holes in the drum, on the sides and bottom, for air flow.
  • We put a thick layer of straw at the bottom, before we added the first deposit of litter, to provide a little ventilation from the bottom. The barrel is sitting on soil, to allow worms and bugs access.
  • Once the straw was down, we added our accumulated litter. (Yep, that’s right, I’ve been saving my cat box cleanings just this occasion. Waste not want not!) See my thoughts below regarding types of cat litter. Then we wet down the litter really well, and covered it with a topping of clean straw, and topped the drum with a piece of wood. Let the decomposition begin!
  • Note:  Never place a place a poop-filled compost bin near vegetable beds, due to the possibility of bad bacteria leaching through the soil. Ours is remote from anything edible.
The holes inside the 55 gallon drum

Thoughts on the composting:

As I said at the beginning, this is pretty much straight up, normal composting, with the exception of a long aging period at the end. The Humanure Handbook is a good general guide to composting principles as well having special instructions regarding the safe handling of poop. If you don’t know how to compost, I’d start there. That book is widely available, and they have a free pdf on their website. See our resources tab. 


Our cat litter is compostable–we’ve been using both Feline Pine and Yesterdays News–pine and paper, respectively. Compostable litter is made up of a true carbon source–that means plant-based material: corn, wheat, paper and sawdust are all okay. Clay litter, or anything with chemicals in it, would not be appropriate for this. Clay is not toxic, it’s just that it wouldn’t ever break down into proper compost. I don’t know what the clumping kind is made of, so I avoid it–but if your clumping kind is made of unadulterated carbon material, by all means compost it. Litter with baking soda added isn’t a good idea, because it’s salty. Soil does not love salt. I also avoid anything with added scent, because the chemicals used in fragrances are not something I want transferred to my soil.

We’ll soon find out what the carbon to nitrogen ratio is in the typical cat box. The litter is a heavy carbon source. We’ll see how it is balanced by the cat waste (nitrogen), but I suspect we’re going to have to add green stuff, like kitchen scraps, to get it to heat up and decompose. Here’s how we’ll know: if there’s too much carbon (litter), the pile will just sit there, cold and unchanging.

Another thing I predict is going to be problematic about this new cat bin is that we’ll be adding too little material, too slowly. This means it’s going to be very, very slow pile. Mass creates heat. The best piles are big piles. This might have to be addressed by bulking up the pile with material from another source.

My final concern is odor. This is within whiffing distance of both our patio and the neighbor’s window, so we don’t want any cat box miasma drifting around. Initial precautions include covering the surface of the pile with straw, and covering the top of the bin with a board. We’ll see how it goes.

Stay tuned for updates…

Questions about cats

recharging for mayhem

As new cat owners we are puzzled by a few questions regarding cat behavior. Maybe you can help us?:

1) What do cats do all night long when you’re sleeping and they’re not?

2) What is the irresistible allure of the flat object on the ground for cats? (e.g. a piece of paper, a yoga mat, the map you’re trying to read, etc.) What makes them sprawl on said object and refuse to move?

3) Why must our cat make use the litter box when one of us is using the toilet? Why the sharing?

4) And speaking of the litter box, why is changing the litter so exciting for cats? Why does she rush to use the box the moment it’s changed? (Actually, the first time she watched me change the box, she jumped into the empty box and peed, soaking her feet. Now I really hustle to get the litter in there.)

5) And while we’re on bathroom matters, will the flushing toilet always be a source of wonderment, or will she grow out of it?

6) Would it be a very bad idea to push the kitty into the bathtub? She’s always balancing on the sides, looking at the water. It’s very tempting to give her a closer acquaintance with wetness.

7) What is it with cats and bags??? Don’t kittens know that kittens and sacks have a very dark history? Ours not only loves a bag, she likes to be picked up and swung around in the the bag.

8) How is it that our cat gets off on watching mice on YouTube when she has never seen a real mouse in her life? Does the distinctive rodent silhouette come pre-wired branded in their brains?

9) Why does our cat find headphone cords so irresistibly tasty? We’ve lost 4 sets so far. Now that she can jump pretty much anywhere she wants, I have to keep my ipod in a drawer.

10) Why is our kitten intermittently possessed by the devil? Why is my lip bleeding? 

And finally, the bonus question:

Why do cat people talk about their cats all the time?

Cat updates:

  • Did we tell you we decided on Phoebe for a name?
  • My allergies aren’t bothering me anymore. They seemed to get worse before they got better–though pollen may have been the real culprit. The stories of those of you who’ve overcome allergies kept me strong through the moments of doubt, and I came through the other side. Mind over matter!
  •  Phoebe has tired somewhat of Erik as her Sole Object of Affection, meaning I get some kitten love, too. Which is nice.

Why we moderate comments

When you leave a comment on this blog, it doesn’t appear immediately. It’s held for us to approve. We’re not afraid of what our readers have to say (Root Simple readers are always very civil) but we have to protect the comments from the inanities of spam. We thought you’d might like to see some of it, so you know why you have to wait for your comment to go up.
The majority of the spam is of the False Reader sort. These comments are always agreeable and sometimes almost slip past us. Variations on “Thanks for sharing” are a real tip-off, though. Most of these types of spammers will use it, while I don’t know if any real reader has ever used that phrase. I mean, why would you thank us for sharing? We’re bloggers. It’s what we do.


“Thanks a lot for sharing that valuable information. I like how you describe hedgerows.” (Link to an exterminator in new york, commenting on a hedgerow post)

or

“WOW! That is really interesting about the radioactive contamination. How wonderful! Thanks for sharing!” (A link to a tree retailer, commenting on the recent sunflower post)

This agreeable “slide it in amongst the real comments” form of spam is predominant. This week, though, we got a (politely) argumentative one. Impressive!:
“I think it is not Satan’s house plant. That plant is really good for our health. You shouldn’t consider it as evil. Thanks for your insights anyway.” (Link to some virtual office scheme, commenting on our post about the evil asparagus fern, which I refuse to believe is good for anyone’s health.)
I suspect the above messages are human generated, and originate in terrible internet sweat shops. Procedure: find the subject of the post, and plug it into an existing comment template. Robots could do this, but many of the spambots we see aren’t that literate:
“The in the (sic) Barrel3-speed geatures (sic) a simple-minded color scheme with complex geometric frame design to form the utopia of cruisers Comfort Bikes” (Link to a beach cruiser bike, slapped on some totally unrelated post–no mention of bikes at all.)

Simple-minded color scheme? Form the utopia of cruisers? It’s pure Dadaist poetry!

This one may be a robot, or ESL, or both:

“Usefulness and significance of your ides(sic) is awesome. Examine most wanted infinite treasure of online deals, coupons and much more for your dearest brand name. “(A brazen full URL followed this, and it was left on the Bee Hotel post.)

“Most wanted infinite treasure”–lovely! And which brand name is my “dearest brand name”? Arm & Hammer? Something to ponder.

All of us who are in business, whether we be writers or importers or dog trainers or electricians, are encouraged to have a web presence. Books and blogs tell us to go forth and comment upon blogs to raise our profile. So spam doesn’t consist entirely of weird, faceless offshore corporations selling sexual enhancement drugs. Some of it comes from smaller businesses which have paid to have their URLs sprinkled among the the comments of the blogosphere–like those first two examples above from the exterminator and the tree retailer. And some, no doubt, are even generated by the business owner themselves.

Comments planted on our site by businesses are not offensive in their content, but are offensive in themselves, because they are irredeemably false: false discourse, false community. Community is something we treasure, and try to build, so we cannot let false comments stand.

Real human presence cannot be outsourced to sweatshops. It takes lots of time and a deft touch to be a positive internet presence. Not everyone can do it as well. I think the most important thing is to have good product, and professional interactions with your customers. They’ll talk about you on the internet, even if you don’t talk about yourself.

U-Dig-It Folding Shovel

I came across this nice little folding hand shovel called the “U-Dig-it” at a surplus store. It measures 5 3/4 inches when folded and weighs six ounces with the convenient belt holster. I used it this morning to transplant some okra seedlings and I can also see taking this tool camping.

I dig the U-Dig-It design, and I already prefer it to the hand shovel that got buried in the yard somewhere a few months ago. I can see this tool becoming part of my gardening “EDC“.