A garden for cats

While many people want to keep cats out of the garden, if you’d rather invite them in, here are a few ideas for plants and structures, as well as what to avoid.  Giving cats their own space may help keep them out of your flower beds and vegetable plot.

If you live near a road, in an urban area, or even rural one with wild animals nearby in fields and woods, you may want to make your area for cats secure.  Fencing is the means for this, just make sure it is high enough, strong enough if they try to climb it, anchored or buried so they can’t dig under, and has openings not wider than two inches.  You may angle the tops inward so, if they do reach the top of the mesh fence, they can’t really get over.  Watch for nearby high areas from which they can jump over a fence.

Whether or not you need to make your cat area secure, you definitely want to make possible hazards secure and off limits behind shut doors.  This includes chemicals such as pesticides, oil, and antifreeze.  Don’t use slug baits around plants.  Make sure if cats can play around cars that they don’t sleep under them, potentially getting car chemicals on their fur or worse, being there if the car moves.

Because cats will want to eat, sleep, and play in their garden, the plants may become bedraggled, bent, or broken. So, you’ll probably want to tuck the garden behind a garage or in a corner of the yard. It’s also a good idea to isolate it from favorite flowers or your vegetable crops, and away from streets that can be dangerous if not just scary to cats with all their noises.

Although not all cats respond the same way to all so-called cat aphrodisiacs, most will go crazy over catnip (Nepeta cataria). Long before anyone discovered that this plant, a native of Europe, triggered a response in cats, it was used for tea and as a medicinal herb to treat a number of ailments. It is also said to be an effective mosquito repellent. Plant catnip in full sun in well-drained soil.  Plants will grow to a height of 12 inches or more (provided cats don’t chew them down), producing tiny lavender flowers beginning in early summer.

Some cats also will adore catmint (Nepeta mussinii), which induces similar frenzies in them. The plant has silvery leaves, and flowers ranging in color from white to dark blue, depending on cultivar (cultivated variety). The compact plants make a nice place for an afternoon catnap.  For best results, grow in a sunny location.

No cat’s garden would be complete without cat thyme (Teucrium marum) or valerian (Valeriana officinalis). The first is a member of the mint family and has deep green leaves and purple spires. A Mediterranean native, it is not hardy in cold climates.  If planted in full sun in a moist, well-drained spot it may grow to heights of one to two feet. It is related to the herb germander, not the herb thyme, so its common name is misleading.

Valerian, a sedative for humans but a stimulant for cats, is an attractive plant with fern-like foliage and fragrant pink, white, or lavender flowers. At maturity, plants may reach heights of three to four feet. Valerian can be grown in sun or partial shade and is not particular fussy about soil conditions.

Other plants that cats may fancy include creeping rosemary and the tender herb lemongrass (the same as used in cooking).  Both aren’t hardy in cold climates.  If buying any plants for cats, and not starting them yourself from seeds, just confirm with your retailer that pesticides haven’t been used on them.

Just as there are plants to include, there are plants to avoid in the cat garden as they may be toxic to felines.  Keep them away from azaleas, caladium, castor bean, chrysanthemums, daffodils, elephant ears, foxglove, hosta, iris, ivies, lilies and particularly tiger lilies, morning glory, pinks (Dianthus) and lily of the valley among others.  A more complete listing can be found online (www.aspca.org).

In addition to planting a smorgasbord of favorite plants, be sure to leave a patch of loose dirt for rolling and digging. Compost is sometimes even better than dirt for cats, but if you use this in a good flower bed be aware that they may use this for a litter box! You can put some wire mesh under mulch or compost in flower beds to make it less attractive.

Add some shade with a small teepee of boards or half a plastic culvert, burying the bottom few inches in the soil so it won’t collapse in heavy rain or wind or by roughhousing by playful cats. The culvert or similar structure also provides a secure hideout for them, or protection if being chased. It saves them from getting stuck up a tree! Just make sure it is not too large for small kids to climb in and get stuck. It also provides cover in bad weather, as does an open area under porch or nearby shed.

Cats also like to be up high to survey their world, so add a perch if you don’t have a wall or picnic table.  If you have some form of fence, add a board or two at various heights for shelves. A trellis with board on top not only supports vines but gives cats a walking beam.

Cats like to explore, so create some interesting places for them.  This could be as simple as a grouping of pots on a patio, or some shrubs to hide under awaiting possible bugs or mice.

If your cats like to scratch, consider adding a scratching post such as a cedar fence post, or post wrapped in roping or even old carpet.  If they take to scratching on your favorite tree, you’ll need to encircle the trunk with hardware cloth wire mesh.

Consider adding a water feature like small pond for drinking water for your cats. However, if you put in fish, you may need to place a net just under the water surface to protect them! Some cats like to play in moving water, as with small fountains and water cascades.

If you have bird feeders near your garden, make sure that they are high enough so the cats can’t climb up to get birds. I put mine on a pole so I can easily take them down, or on a pulley and rope to lower them, when I need to refill.

Finally, cats like to nibble on grass. So, include some nice grassy plants in your garden or leave a patch of unmown grass near the garden for munching, just make sure the grass you leave isn’t treated with pesticides.  You can buy kitty grass kits at many pet outlets, or simply sow some oat seeds.  You’ll find these at feed stores and at full-service garden stores as they also are used for garden cover crops. A small patch of grass in a sunny spot may afford a favorite place for kitty to sunbathe.

(Dr. Leonard Perry)