Homemade cat scratcher

I feel like I should apologize to non-cat people for all the cat-related content we’ve been generating of late. This should be the last cat post for a while. (At least until the widdle snugum wuggums does something adorable!)

We picked up this cat scratcher idea from Modern Cat. That version is much more polished than ours, in fact, it’s downright cute. Ours is also too small–we need to add to it a bit. But you can see how it’s made: strips of cardboard coiled up like a a cinnamon roll, duct tape at the breaks. If you go to the original, you’ll see how they finish the edges.

Easy. Kitty likes it.

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.

Bee Hotel

From an old beekeeping book (thanks Steve!),  How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey:

This is probably the finest bee hive in the world. It was built by E. S. Williams, St. Petersburg, Florida, who spent 6 months constructing it. It holds two standard 10 frame hive bodies and a bottom board. The second story lifts off for hive manipulations. It is wired for 110 volt current, has window shades and curtains. The front plastic doors swing easily and fit snugly. There is a flag pole, also a sign, that is not pictured here. This has been displayed at the Kentucky and Florida State Fairs. It is unusual items like this that make a few fair exhibits stand out.

 Not sure the bees appreciate that electricity.

Congrats Denver!

From the Denver Post:  

Denver City Council eases way to own chickens, goats at home

Apparently it was previously legal, but more difficult because you had to pay steep fees and inform all your neighbors. Now, thanks to citizen action by urban homesteaders, the fee has been reduced to 20 bucks and you don’t have to inform your neighbors in order to keep 8 chickens or ducks and up to 2 pygmy goats. No roosters, natch. Congrats Denver! I’m proud to say you’re my home town.

via The Lazy Homesteader’s Facebook

Animal Tracking

A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

Tracking and Gardening

Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.

Support Locally Sourced Kittens

Mrs. Homegrown here:
Our friend, Anne–who stuck us gifted us with our own kitten a couple of months ago, now has a pair of rescued kitties looking for a home. They came to her in bad shape, their tiny little bodies crawling with fleas, so much so that the water of their first bath turned blood red. One was very, very sick with some sort of intestinal bug. He didn’t seem likely to make it, but recovered, thanks to Anne’s 24-hour care.
But those dark days are over. These authentic HaFo SaFo street kitties (HaFo SaFo is a neighborhood in LA, and a blog)  are now healthy, happy, darn cute and ready for permanent homes. They are well socialized to humans, as well as other cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, ducks and turtles.
The kittens are siblings. They have very similar markings, the difference being that one has crisp-edged markings, the other blurry-edged markings. Therefore, the kittens are provisionally known as Sharp and Blurry, or Dodge and Blur. Sharp is a girl, Blurry a boy.  I believe they could be adopted together or separately.
Anne is happy to give them free to a good home. If the adopter wanted to make some contribution toward medical expenses, that would be cool–because Blurry needed about $100 worth of medicine–but it’s not at all required. Most important is that they get a home. 
Remember, kittens are a most excellent source of low-tech entertainment and chemical-free rodent control, an ideal addition to any homestead–guaranteed to be useful throughout the zombie apocalypse!
If you’re interested, send us email at [email protected], and we’ll pass you on to Anne. 
Please be sure to pass this on to any cat-susceptible friends you might have, too. Thanks for your help finding these little guys a home!
Note: Erik is worried this sets a precedent, and that Root Simple will soon become Pet Simple, because we’ll be inundated by requests to advertise pets. So let’s lay this out now–we won’t. That’s not our mission. But Anne is our friend, and she lives just few blocks away from us, and rescued our cat as well as Blurry and Sharp from the immediate neighborhood. Therefore our kitten and these are siblings, of a sort.
Speaking of which…

***

Update on our kitten:

Our kitten is now confirmed to be female. She’s about 12 weeks old now, still very small, compared to adult cats, but all graceful and cat-proportioned (as the photo above illustrates). The toddling, cuddly kitten stage is far behind. Now she spends 80% of her waking hours practicing killing things in ever more spectacular ways, and the remaining 20% getting into trouble by exploring where she should not (knocking over things, missing jumps, falling off ledges, getting coated with dust bunnies). As I said, kittens are excellent source of low-tech entertainment.
As for a name, we’ve been having trouble naming her. Nothing sticks. As of now, she’s named Phoebe, after the formidable, insect-eating birds that stalk our backyard. She’s as much of a hunter as any phoebe–and black, too. Her surname is WoadNyx, because she really needs a witchy name, since she seems to be born of 100% pure Halloween cat stock: Phoebe WoadNyx.
My allergies were really doing well, but just in the last couple of days I’ve turned into a walking snot factory. However, it may be seasonal allergies. It’s so hard to tell. I have faith that this will pass. It has to, really, because Phoebe and Erik are in the midst of a shameless love affair, and I don’t think I can make him choose between us. When she hears him come in, she runs to greet him, like a dog. She sleeps on top of him, purring like an outboard motor. It’s ridiculous. I--I am nothing but the sniffling human who brings her dinner, a fine enough thing to sit upon when The Great One is not around. 
Cats.

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(the above is a contribution to this post by the demon herself)