Japanese Cat Baskets

omg that’s cute

Someone help me, I’m obsessed with Japanese cat baskets (稚座 or neko chigura).  Like all traditional Japanese crafts, they are functional and stunningly beautiful.

Mrs. Root Simple and I want to learn basket weaving just to make one of these things. Woven out of rice stalks, there are, thank you for asking, Youtube videos showing how they are made:

And, yes, you can watch cute videos showing their use–say goodbye to office productivity today!

According to Modern Cat (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I read that blog) these things aren’t available in the US, though you can admire this Japanese website that sells them. Guess we will have to make our own.

Note from Kelly:  Say we make one of these…100 hours and 1000 curses later, won’t our kitties promptly adopt their new 稚座 as a scratching post? The Japanese must have figured this out. Back to the  research!

Vital Farms: Pasture Raised, Organic Eggs at Whole Foods

Image from the Vital Farms blog.

Over the weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo West, a massive health food industry convention. Yes, indeed, Fabio was in attendance selling some sort of powdered supplement and I may have seen Ziggy Marley packing up his own bottles of “Coco’Mon” coconut oil. Such are the indignities one encounters on the downward arc of a career in reggae music or romance book cover modeling.

Out of the nearly 2,000 exhibitors of, frankly, health food store junk food, one stood out: Vital Farms, purveyors of eggs from pasture raised hens. The overwhelming majority of eggs in this country are laid by chickens crammed into small cages or, arguably worse, crammed into big sheds.  “Free range,” “cage free” and “organic,” mean absolutely nothing. What makes Vital Farms different is that the eggs they sell were laid by chickens who live outside, during the day, on pasture. Their spokesperson offered to let me tour the farms they contract with, something that, I doubt, any of the big egg producers would offer.

The Cornocopia Institute gives them a “five egg (exemplary)” rating, citing their rotational grazing methods, abstinence from the practice of beak trimming and year round outdoor access for the hens. Vital Farms contracts with several farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Their eggs are available nationwide at Whole Foods and they have expanded into meat chickens.

Now, hopefully, I can recover from the spectral celebrity hallucinations induced by downing hundreds of free samples of things like pro-biotic frozen pizza (I’m not making this up) and caveman power bars. Perhaps a pasture raised egg omelet will wipe away my açaí berry hangover.

Thanks to Dale Benson for suggesting attending this event and for driving, spending a half hour finding a parking space and pointing out Ziggy Marley or someone who resembled Ziggy Marley packing up those bottles of coconut oil.

Solitary Bee Nests: Why Having Bare Ground is Good

Solitary bee nesting sites? Cat added for scale. Photo by Anne Hars.

Just as I was about to arrogantly suggest to my neighbor Anne that she mulch her garden paths, we spotted what I believe to be some sort of ground nesting bee activity. We found neat little holes scattered about the the middle of a dirt path. More appeared today.

According to Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat, 70% of solitary bees (not to be confused with honey bees) build their nests in open, dry spots of dirt. While I’m all for mulch to build soil and suppress weeds, the Xerces Society makes a good case for keeping a small part of your yard bare and thus open for native bee habitat.

In case these are the infamous Los Angeles sandworms, Anne plans on avoiding rhythmic walking in the backyard over the next few weeks.

Insect Hotel

This is old news, but we thought it worth repeating in light of last week’s review of Attracting Native Pollinators.

Above is a picture of the winning design of a native pollinator habitat built by Arup Associates in response to the Beyond the Hive competition put on by the City of London.  The Core77 post we’re linking to has more views and also some pics of the runners up. It might give you some ideas for building your own habitats at home.

Help Us Find the Ideal Urban Chicken Breed

Townes Van Zandt with chicken

We are in the market for new hens and lately it has occurred to us that the best breed criteria for our situation is not a breed which lays most frequently, but a breed which maintains its egg production as it matures–even if that means that it doesn’t produce as many eggs per week as a typical high production hen.

Does that make sense? Because Erik is such a soft touch, we have to maintain a nursing home for hens. It would be great if our ladies would continue to contribute eggs into their dotage. It is less important that they are daily producers in their youth, because the two of us can’t eat that many eggs.

This is not what hens are bred for–I understand that. Laying hens are bred to give as much as they can for two years, after which they are usually culled. Long term laying isn’t much of a consideration. But I thought this trait might be more apparent in some of the heritage breeds.

Let me know if you have an old hen still laying, and what kind of hen she is.

Erik adds this: In The One-Straw Revolution Masanobu Fukuoka mentions he has just such a hen–but he doesn’t go on to tell us the name. Anyone know about Fukuoka’s chickens?

Book Review: Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat

How can we save the world? Simple. Get everyone to read and understand the contents of a new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat. Why? There’s the obvious–pollinating insects provide a huge amount of our food–but they also have a few unappreciated roles.

Without pollinators, plant communities that stabilize river banks disappear. Mammals and birds that eat pollinated fruits perish. But perhaps most importantly, by raising awareness of the needs of pollinating insects we can better appreciate the damage we cause through the use of pesticides. Do we really want to live in a toxic world? A world, like China’s Sichuan Province, so choked with poison that apple farmers have to climb ladders to hand pollinate trees?

And we’re not just talking about honeybees. Attracting Native Pollinators delves into the fascinating world of native bees, bumblebees, wasps, moths and flies, providing a detailed guide on how to tell these species apart, what their nests look like and, most importantly, practical steps that everyone from a homeowner to a golf course manager can take to improve habitat. For instance, one of the most important things we can all do is simply to provide areas of open, sunny ground for pollinating species, such as bumblebees, that nest underground.

You’ll also find instructions for building nesting blocks for native bees and subterranean boxes for bumblebees. There’s also extensive plant lists for North America including both native and common non-native garden plants such as rosemary.

In our own garden we’ve planted a lot more flowering native perennials this year. But I’m also inspired to get a conversation going about creating more habitat for pollinators in public spaces. Los Angeles is full of space that could be planted with drought tolerant, flowering plants to replace the thousands of acres of lawn (mowed weeds, really) and Home Depot hedges. Think about the habitat we could create with all those barren parkways. Who’s in to help? Let’s pollinate a revolution.

Cat Poop Compost Installment #2

Drum full o’ cat litter

WARNING: Human waste and cat waste contain dangerous bacteria.  I fully believe that composting is a safe and sane solution to a waste stream problem–that’s why I’m writing about it, after all– I also know that it can be handled badly. (The stories we hear!) So please, read up on the subject before starting. You should have a solid foundation in regular compost to begin with, because all the basics apply. Take a good composting class or find a compost mentor. Read the Humanure Handbook. For complete safety, all cat/human waste compost should be allowed to sit for two years, and it should not be applied to food crops (but it can go around fruit trees).

***

Last year at the end of July I posted about our experimental cat litter composting solution in The Cat Poop Portal post. It’s been a while since we reported in, and I’ve received some gentle pokes from readers, so this is an update.

Long story short, it’s going slowly. At the time of the last post we’d installed a 50 gallon drum in our side yard. That drum filled up fast. We have two indoor cats now (I think we only had one when this started) and they are slinky little poo machines. Also, we were using pine pellets which require a complete change-out more often than clumping litters, so we managed to fill the drum in about four months. That was faster than I expected, and a little disappointing, but there are two ways to ease this problem.

1) Changing litter, so we use less. Most clumping litters are either clay-based, which is not good for compost, or have sketchy chemicals in them. We’ve recently found World’s Best Cat Litter, which is a clumping litter made of corn. I called World’s Best to make sure there was nothing added to the corn, and they promised me that there’s nothing added to the standard formula–the magic is all in the way the corn is processed. So yes, we’re supporting Big Corn…but what are you going to do? The stuff works really well and is compostable. Now that we’re using it we’ll reduce our overall litter waste volume.  (Of note: our friend John, a madman with six cats, swears by Swheat Scoop, which is wheat based. I don’t find it works for me, but he blames my litter management skills. It’s an alternative.)

2) We’re offloading half-finished cat compost to My Big Fat Worm Bin. Regular readers (and Vermicomposting workshop participants) might remember that composting expert Nancy Klehm had us add a good amount of mature cat litter compost to the mix when we built up the bedding material for the worms. She said she wouldn’t want to foist raw cat litter on the worms, but when it was well broken down they could handle it.

The drum has been, shall we say, resting productively over the winter. Today I went and dug it up to see how it was doing. As with any pile, the stuff on top was less finished–it looked pretty much like a cat box. It isn’t stinky, though, as long as I make sure all the cat poo is buried.

Down lower the material was more broken down. It’s an interesting rusty orange color. But I didn’t get the sense of lots of activity going on. It was a cool pile, and it showed very little insect life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The pile is decomposing, just on a long timeline. But at this rate of decomposition I suspected it would need at least another year of sitting to be fully broken down, and then it would need to rest even longer for safety. Compost made from carnivore and omnivore poop needs a two year cycle to allow the pathogens to die off.

Digging down all I see is decomposing red sawdust

Wanting to move it along faster, I did what I’d do for any compost pile that was a little pokey: I turned it, and added nitrogen and water.* Shoveling 50 gallons of kitty litter is exactly what I want to be doing on any given Saturday! As I shoveled, I decided that if I didn’t already have Mad Kitty Disease, I’d have it by the end of the day. As if to confirm this, Trout sat in the bedroom window over the poo-bin, wearing a peculiar, self-satisfied expression while he watched me slave away over his waste. (Phoebe didn’t join in, because she doesn’t admit to creating waste at all.)

Okay, he doesn’t look smug here because he’s wondering what I’m doing with the camera. Prior to this I assure you he he looked very smug.

But back to business. For those of you who are new to composting, turning a pile stirs everything up, increasing bacterial activity, making the materials hotter. This speeds decomposition. There’s much debate over whether to turn or not to turn and how often to turn, and I’m not going into any of that right now, except to say that humanure piles are not usually turned, and I’d hoped not to do so with this catmanure pile, either, but necessity drives.

Just like turning, adding a nitrogen source to the pile heats it up. All compost piles are a balance between carbon and nitrogen sources, aka “greens and browns.” Too much carbon and your pile is cool and slow. Too much nitrogen and its slimy and stinky. But if you get the balance right, you end up with lovely compost.

In kitty litter composting, the litter is the carbon and the urine and poo deliver the nitrogen. Starting out on this path, I had no idea how the natural carbon to nitrogen ratio in a cat box would play out. Now it seems to me that the ratio is carbon heavy. Cat litter materials, such as compressed sawdust, are really dense carbon sources and need tons of nitrogen to balance them.

So my preliminary finding on this point is that it might be help to add extra nitrogen when you add a new layer of litter. Extra nitrogen could come in the form of green yard trimmings, veg scraps, urine, fresh horse manure, etc. Today, though, I decided to add alfalfa meal because we had some wasting away in the garage. Alfalfa meal is ground up alfalfa. It’s used as a natural fertilizer and top dressing, and is high in nitrogen. Generally speaking, I think nitrogen should be free, but if you don’t have a lot of scraps/trimmings/spare urine around, you could do worse than to have some alfalfa meal on hand to perk up your compost pile if it’s gone carbon heavy.

Mixing in the alfalfa meal and water

When it was all done, I thought my pile looked a little more loved, and I think it’s going to heat up nicely. I was able to move ten gallons of the more mature compost over to the worm bin, but the barrel is still pretty close to full.

Adding the kitty compost to the worm bin

For the near future we’ll probably be able to send about half our litter to the barrel, and the other half will have to go to the landfill. Eventually we’ll get rid of this big mass of pine litter, and I hope that by using the clumping litter will keep the bin from filling up quite so fast, and will somehow reach cat:compost equilibrium.

*To be clear, I added water because the pile was dryish, not because water in itself is a magic activator to be used in all circumstances. If a pile is too wet, I’d blend in dry stuff while turning. The goal is for the materials in the pile to be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.