Cats Feed

The Best - and Perhaps Last - Cat Toy You'll Ever Buy

Leather_spider
A handmade cat toy. Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

By Lisa Brunette

Let me introduce you to what we around the farmhouse like to call "the leather spider." Now, Chaco has typically been pretty hard on any toy I've ever brought home, usually breaking it the same day the toy arrives. It's rare that any make it past a few days of play. But I don't actually blame Chaco for this; he's just doing what cats do. The problem is, like too many things these days, most cat toys are cheaply made out of low-quality materials. They ain't built to last. 

Chaco's life changed for the better, however, the day our handmade leather spider arrived. It's lasted not hours, not days, not weeks, but MONTHS. Yep, that's right. I ordered it back in February, and it's still good as new. Good. As. Freakin'. NEW. Take that, cheap world of things!

Chaco_play
Chaco action shot!

The toy is handmade, the "spider" part fashioned out of leather. The wand is wood, and then there's a string made out of sturdy nylon, with a vinyl cap. Usually with a "thing-on-a-string" toy like this, it seriously takes hours if not minutes for Chaco to rip the thing off the string. But this one's still intact after more than six months of frequent play.

It's high-quality, and I think because the "spider" part is leather, it approximates real prey better than most cat toys. While Chaco has often grown bored with other toys, this one he never tires of, and he asks for it pretty much every day, by sitting next to the closet where we keep it and looking up at it, then us, longingly.

Leather_spider2
Image courtesy DementedDesignsShop on Etsy.

Now the leather spider probably costs more than the typical cat deelibob you'd find hanging in the big box store, but add up all the deelibobs you buy each year, replacing them when they constantly break, and I guarantee you this one's a better buy all around at USD 13. Besides, you're supporting a small, independent maker of fine quality things when you purchase the toy from Etsy.

You're also supporting this blog and its free content. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission from qualifying purchases of this cat toy. We are happy to turn you onto "the leather spider" and find it actually kind of satisfying to rave about it here. It's a product we personally love, and so does Chaco!

We wish you and your cat hours of ceaseless joy.

Chaco_play2

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65 Bulbs of Garlic on the Wall...

Garlic hanging 21
Garlic nestled in among the basement rafters, with hyssop, dandelion, and other drying herbs.

By Lisa Brunette

"Take one down, pass it around..." OK, so we didn't exactly begin with 99 bulbs of garlic, but 65 is a lot of garlic bulbs to have on hand. Our basement smells like a pizzeria!

We harvested this bumper crop just before the 4th of July: 65 bulbs of 'Silver rose' garlic, a soft-necked variety. Soft-necked varieties store longer and can be braided. They also do better in our Missouri climate than the hard-necked. We put the cloves into the ground on October 31 (ooo, Halloween!). The order had been for 60 cloves to plant, so how we ended up with 65 bulbs at the end is unclear. Maybe there were a few extra in the order? At any rate, we had more than a 100 percent return on our investment on that batch.

This was actually only half our garlic crop, though; the other half did not germinate at all. Not a single clove. I had also ordered and planted a batch of 60 cloves of the 'Early Italian' variety, and that crop was an abject failure.

What was the difference, besides variety?

Garlic bulb 21
'Silver rose' garlic bulb.

I used a slightly different technique on the Silver rose, and that might have done it. I amended the soil with my secret ingredient: a mixture of coffee grounds and pine sawdust with a little added nitrogen in the form of cat urine. 

Yeah, that's right. Cat urine. Are you appalled? Don't be.

You see, for Chaco's litter box, we use pure pine pellets. It's hands-down the best cat litter I've ever used; it doesn't smell bad, and the urine basically gets absorbed by the pellets, which then break down into pine sawdust. We then truck the sawdust outside to a pot, where it can be used when needed to amend the garden soil. It always gets turned into the soil, where the sawdust breaks down completely, the pine and remnant urine nourishing the soil. Sawdust is never evident on the food part of the plant at harvest. 

Urine is rich in nitrogen, and I know of at least one gardener, my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou, who uses her own as a soil amendment, with good results. I'm not opposed to her method at all, as urine is sterile in healthy individuals, but I already have a ready supply of Chaco's urine, and I like the idea of making good use of it and diverting it from the waste stream. I also know Anthony and I don't have the time to devote to collecting and dispersing our own pee.

Garlic almost ready to harvest in June 21
Garlic almost ready to harvest.

Anthony adds the coffee grounds to the pot of sawdust outside each day when he dumps out his coffee pot from the day before, instead of running the grounds down the disposal or just tossing them into the trash.

I did not use the sawdust-and-coffee grounds mixture on the 'Early Italian' beds, the failed crop. Both beds also received a good dosing of compost tea.

I honestly can't remember if I designed this experiment on purpose or if I simply ran out of the sawdust mix. But we have an experiment nonetheless. At least of sorts. There could be variations in the soil across the different beds, though they were right next to each other. The different varieties alone could have produced the radically variant results, too. Maybe the 'Silver rose' is more suited to my soil conditions. It's a lovely variety, so named for the mottled red-and-pink hue on the inner clove papers.

Garlic ready to harvest 21
Garlic at harvest time, when the bottom leaves go brown.

But the point here is we have enough garlic for the winter, and then some, and I've successfully used spent kitty litter as a soil amendment, which diverts it from the landfill and provides a cost savings to me since I don't have to purchase fertilizer. It's a perfect permaculture loop, too, since I'm using what's produced on-site, without any outside inputs (well, except for the pine pellets in the first place).

By now you might be asking, "What about the cat poo?" That gets removed daily and placed in a hot compost, where it breaks down over a minimum of six months. No poo ever goes into the garden, at least not while it's still, um, poop.

Garlic scapes 21
Garlic scapes on soft-necked garlic.

One odd thing that happened: The 'Silver rose' garlic grew scapes (above) just prior to harvest, which I was informed soft-necked varieties wouldn't do. If anyone can shed light on this matter, please do so in the comments below. The scapes were delicious, by the way.

Garlic harvested 21
A harvested bunch.

One caveat to my garlic success story is that the sawdust/coffee mix isn't a cure-all. Last month I told you about this year's failed potato crop; well, I'd amended that bed with the mix, too, and it wasn't enough to save it. Claire and I are discussing this amongst ourselves, and let's just say that the grand experiment continues!

What grew well in your garden this summer? Any exciting discoveries to report?

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Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

Potato_1
Part of last year's potato harvest.

By Anthony Valterra

Let me tell you a weird story about our cat. We had some problems with water seeping through our basement walls. When this happens, the water is muddy. Even if you clean it up, it leaves a very fine silt behind. One place that ended up having a pretty thick layer was behind the furnace. It was out of the way and hard to get to, so it just sort of built up. We fixed our gutters and created a water garden in the backyard. Our roof runoff fills some drums, and then when they overflow, it runs out to the water garden, as does a French drain to draw water away from the basement. After we did that, we haven't had any problems with water in the basement. But that silt just set back there getting dryer and dryer. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and finally found a nice pile of poop behind the furnace in that lovely soft silt. Well, I guess you can't really blame the cat. The silt is a soft as down, and the furnace makes that spot nice and warm. But still I had to clean up the cat poop and then clean up the silt. The cat went back to his litter box, and all was well.

Potato_4
I ams what I ams, says the cat.

Now I tell you that story so I can tell you this one. We dug up our potatoes last year and had an OK crop. We really don't know that much about growing potatoes, so the soil was probably not the best. We planted on ground that the previous year had been lawn. I read that there is a pest that lives well in lawn and also loves potatoes. So, a lot of our potatoes had suffered a bit. But we planted a good variety, and some came through OK. It makes you realize how important it is not to monocrop when you are trying to grow organically. Anyway, we had enough potatoes to fill a few 5-gallon buckets and felt that we had not grown enough to carry us through winter but certainly enough to reduce our potato purchases. But how do you store potatoes?

Sadly, I should know this. I grew up with parents who backyard-farmed. My dad still grows corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. I should have paid attention growing up, but I didn't. I was too busy reading the latest adventures of Daredevil, Batman, or the X-Men. I had zero interest in gardening. So I started reading various blogs trying to figure out the best way to do it. It is surprising how many ways there are to do a thing. I might write a blog post about storing potatoes and put it in a form that would have helped me. Maybe it will help others.

Potato_2
Into the bucket.

The method we ended up going with was to put the potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket in a layer. Then cover them with sand. Then another layer of potatoes and then another layer of sand until the bucket is mostly full. We read that the sand should be damp but not wet. That was likely a mistake. We think that that might make sense if you are in very dry environment, but it made our potatoes soften. I think this year we will cure them and then try the egg carton method (put the potatoes in egg cartons). We will try to keep the potatoes as cool as possible in the basement without going below 48 degrees. Likely it won't be cold enough for maximum life, but we will see how we do.

Potato_3
Little did these potatoes know what fate awaited them.

But last year it was the sand-in-the-bucket method. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and... I'll bet you know where this is going. Yep, he was POOPING IN OUR POTATOES. If I didn't love the little beast, I might have strangled him. He was pooping and peeing in the buckets and had done a terrific job of getting all the potatoes well desecrated. After a very short debate, we dumped them all.

Potato_5
The best-laid plans...

And that, dear readers, is how we lost our potato crop last year. I'm sure there is some deeper moral or philosophical lesson to be gleaned from all this. But I'm hornswoggled if I know what it is.

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The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

Amorpha fruticosa 2021
Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
Bee on false indigo
A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

Tulip poplar in tulips
A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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It's Time to Honor the Pets Who've Kept Us COVID Company

Chaco_portrait

By Lisa Brunette

It's been a long, hard year with this COVID situation, and let's face it: We couldn't have done it without our pets. 

While our coworkers went from the living, breathing human beings we interacted with on a daily basis to talking heads on a Zoom screen, Rover and Boots became ever-present reminders of the value of physical touch. They rested their heads in our laps, distracted us with their antics, kept our feet warm, offered a reassuring purr and cuddle. Especially for people living alone, this source of daily joy and unconditional love has been nothing short of a lifesaver.

So it's time to honor them, and what better way than with a cool modern portrait?

Chaco's been with us for about five years now, and I'm surprised to admit that we had zero framed photos of him in our house. Of course we take plenty - my recent treatise on ol' kittypants is just a small, representative sampling - but I just hadn't gotten around to framing any. And maybe it's the utilitarian Midwesterner in me - what do you need a picture of your pet for when he's right here in front of you everyday? But as it turns out, a spankin' chi-chi portrait of Chaco was exactly the thing I didn't know I needed in my life until I had one.

Chaco_portrait2

I mean, have you seen anything better? This picture makes me laugh every time I look at it. We hung it in our dining room, where I'm amused by it several times a day.

I know you're green with envy, but I'm about to cure your jealousy: You can get one of these portraits of your pet, too!

In honor of our wonderful animal companions, Cat in the Flock is happy to offer our readers 15% off these stylish, custom pet portraits. Just use the code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout.

Here's a sample from the makers, West & Willow, this time with a dog as subject, and a white background. They have several background choices as well as different options for the frame.

White-bk

To get your portrait with the 15% discount, all you need to do is use this link to head over to West & Willow, and then use the promo code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout. A few notes:

  • Yes, you can get a portrait for any kind of pet, whether bird, iguana, guinea pig, etc.
  • If you have two or three pets and want a group portrait of them, no problem.
  • West & Willow will work with you to create a pet memorial, if that's what you need.
  • No, you can't get human-subject portraits, even if you keep a human as a pet, ha, ha, ha.
  • Make sure you have a good quality digital photo of your pet before you begin the process. The portrait is crafted with it. We used this one for Chaco.

Chaco

Here's the link again:

West & Willow Pet Portrait - 15% Off!

And don't forget to use the code PAWFRIENDS15 at checkout.

I hope you enjoy your pet portrait as much as we enjoy ours.

Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase from West & Willow.

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