Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Reclaiming Cat Litter - Off the Grid Gardening

RECLAIMING CAT LITER -Off the Grid Gardening

Copyright 2018 by Lori-Ann Willey

Where did this CRAZY idea come from?

Living off the grid is challenging in many ways, but what we find exceptionally challenging is trying to reuse, recycle, repurpose as much of our waste (human, animal, and man-made) as possible.  In the past, I’ve gone into a little detail about our composting toilet and the use of humanure in my gardens.  I’ve also mentioned that I collect moose, deer, bunny, and bird poops in nature as well.  Today, I’ll delve into a little different angle.

Because our cat is a high-end Maine Coon complete with size, markings, and long ear tufts that made even veterinarian's seriously questioned if he is a lynx or not, our cat, named, “AhChoo”, is strictly an inside cat for obvious reasons.  As a result, he pees and poops inside, which means he must have a litter box that we humans tend to for him.  His personal poop and pee attendants, if you will.  

Have you become less than enthused yet?  It’s OK to groan.  Feel free to skip to the last five paragraphs for a shorter reading session. I don’t offend easily, and I know reading about pees and poops isn’t for everyone.

For well over a year now, when we scoop the litter box, Ahchoo’s poops go into a closeable container.  When the mood strikes, I empty it outside in one of three compost piles exclusively for his poops.  Occasionally, I’ll “turn” the pile and add a handful of soil, pine needles, leaves/plants (both alive and dead) just to help aid in the breakdown of the poops into soil form at a faster rate.  I have yet to use any in my garden spots for veggie growing, and I may not.  I might use it to help grow milkweed for the monarch butterflies or use it to help grow grass for my compost piles.  I have three small piles going -one for each year- 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Use it in a veggie garden or not, Ima-Compost-aholic.  Also, like human poops, I like to let it age for two years before I consider using it.

Due to allergies of Paul and myself, and two surgeries the cat had to have, we’ve tried several different brands of cat food and cat litter to see if we can find a litter that doesn’t bother us or the cat.  We finally found one about a year ago.  It is one made of silica sand and hydrolyzed herbs. 

Silica Sand is nothing more than quartz broken down into small pieces the size of sand (remember sand can be pea size, too).  Yep, take a magnifying glass to a handful of sand in your area.  You’ll see clear-ish chunks of quartz scattered about that may resemble rock salt or clear-ish crystals.  While you are looking, you’ll see broken shells, and bits and pieces of other rock types, to include granite, too.  Hydrolyzed Herbs is nothing more than plants that are soaked in water for a while. 

Some of you may remember that I make Fish Hydrolysate (fish juice) for my garden.  The process for making herb hydrolyzed stuff is basically the same.  According to the makers of the cat litter product, the hydrolyzed herbs are a scent attractant that lures the cats to the litter box.  

I wondered if this silica sand is actually silica gel, which would make more sense simply because silica gel is processed with oxygen and water which yields a very porous product that can absorb moisture.  To use it as cat litter makes sense.  I further wondered if the maker of this cat litter broke down plant material (herbs) in water to create the hydrolysate which the silica sand (gel) was absorbed into the crystals and then allowed to dry, keeping the scent of the herbs trapped in the crystals which further acts as an attractant to the litter box by the felines?  I’m speculating, of course, but that makes sense to me.

So, in changing to this cat litter versus the clay-based stuff, one question I had, in the beginning, was, “Is it biodegradable and not harmful to the environment?”  I started researching.  In the past, all safe, used cat litters were used to help fill depressions in the ground around camp, but I  wanted, and needed, it safe to do so.  That is when I learned that silica sand is indeed safe.  I mean, really, they use silica gel beads in everything to help absorb moisture.  Know those little packets found in some foods, bottles, etc.?  That is silica gel. 

Supposedly, and according to the cat litter box, this litter contains silica sand and not silica gel.  However, this type of silica sand is very porous, and despite what the container says, “Silica Sand”, I believe it is actually silica gel.  I’ll tell you why.  Silica sand (quartz) is very hard.  It is stainable, but it does not absorb water.  Whereas, as mentioned above, silica gel is porous and can absorb 40 times its weight in liquid!  Thus, that is the purpose of using silica “gel” as a cat litter -absorption. So, maybe, the cat litter company processed the silica sand with a smaller amount of oxygen and water, so it still falls into the silica sand category?  I don’t know and I’m kinda confused on that.   Why not just say it is Silica Gel?

I could find no real data to support my theory, so maybe they are protecting “Secrets” of the inventors, maybe?   Maybe, they figured no one would ever have the want or need to do research on the topic? 

For an average single cat, the silica takes about 30 days to absorb the cat urine.  After that, the urine will literally pool in the bottom because the silica cannot absorb any more than its fill.  So, my thought process was, “If it takes up to 30 days to absorb liquid, then, I can dehydrate the silica in the sun, and then, soak it in water to filter out the urine.  Right?”  Basically, I wanted to purify the silica again.

I went straight to work.  After 30 days, I changed the litterbox, pailed the urine saturated silica, and up to my garden I went.  After allowing it to dry out for a couple of weeks, I filled the pail with fresh water (rainwater) and let it soak.  Every few days, I strained off the liquid and filled the pail again with fresh water.  I did this until the silica turned from a very urine yellow color to white-white in color.  I deemed the silica free of cat urine …at least color-wise.  With that part of my theory proven, for the next year, I repeated this process with every litter box change.  My next experiment will repeat this process, but then, bake the litter to help “purify” further, and then, see if I can reuse it as cat litter again.  Stay Tuned.

Last fall, I poured all “cleaned” silica sand cat litter into pails with holes in them.  Some of those holes were drilled for prior using (most likely a worm bin), but I go through plastic pails like crazy here, so any that spring leaks due to cracks, I still use, just not for holding liquids, is all.  Such pails are perfect for this experiment!

I set one pail aside that had a little bit of compost stuck to the bottom and sides of the pail.  This spring, that silica sand had absorbed the compost water mix and turned the silica sand black as wet compost. It was quite beautiful.  I strained the crystals into a garden spot, set them in the sun to dry.  When I deemed dry enough, I set the pail of silica sand under the eaves to “clean” it again.  This morning, I deemed them white enough to be “clean”.

Now, onto my experiment and purpose thereof.  I am attempting to use the silicon sand as a growing medium while keeping in mind the Kratky Gardening Method, which is a form of hydroponics.  A few years ago, I developed a method of gardening for my lettuce using an offshoot idea.  It worked amazingly well, using sphagnum moss that I dug and collected by hand (a tedious undertaking) as a medium, and compost tea for added nutrients. This time, I will use the silica sand as a growing medium.

Using Silica Sand as A Growing Medium

If you skipped the first portion of the blog entry because we want to recycle, repurpose, reuse everything possible here, this morning, I started an experiment using used cat litter (silica sand) as a growing medium.

This spring, after the snow melted, I dried the silica sand cat litter in the sun.  I gathered two old, and no longer used food cooler covers, turned them upside down and filled them both with the cat litter (silica sand).   Then, filled them both with water, sprinkled two types of loose-leaf lettuce upon the surface, and then, gently “scrambled” the seeds shallowly into the silica. 

I chose lettuce because they need light to germinate, but also need moisture.  The silica sand is nothing more than a “holder” for the seeds until they sprout, and then, a way for the roots to work through the sand as they grow.  As the roots grow, they drink the water sitting within the silica sand pieces.  Lettuce, they say, have a shallow root system, but it depends upon the kind of lettuce, too.  Loose-leaf have shorter roots.

As I did with the Kratky Method, I’ll feed the plants a compost tea.  Because the compost tea will be brown or tea-colored, I can expect the silica sand to also turn brown.  If this method works, I’ll be saving all the cat’s litter from here on out and eventually have lots of reclaimed litter for growing at least my leafy greens.  I’m anxious to see how all this plays out …tweaking my methods as I go and as the plants grow, too.  Trial and error. 

I hope for success, but I am a realist and expect failures, too.  It is an experiment I just HAD to try!  This silica sand is something I can Reuse, Recycle, repurpose …Reclaim, over and repeatedly.  I hope next to see if I can reclaim silica sand (or, gel) as a cat litter again …and how many times!

Stay Tuned!