A GARDEN FOR CATS
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
While many people want to keep cats out of the garden, if you'd rather invite them in, here's what you do. Create a garden for your feline friends by planting catnip, catmint, and other plants they love. In fact, giving cats their own space may help keep them out of your flower beds and vegetable plot.
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.
Prepare the soil as you would any new garden, working plenty of organic matter and fertilizer into the soil. Clay and sandy soils especially will benefit from the addition of compost or peat moss. Water frequently throughout the season.
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 nine to 12 inches, producing tiny lavender flowers beginning in early summer.
Most cats also will adore catmint (Nepeta mussinii), which induces similar frenzies in cats. The plant has silvery leaves, and flowers ranging in color from white to dark blue, depending on variety. The compact plants make a nice place for an afternoon catnap. For best results, this cultivar needs to be grown in a sunny location.
No cat's garden would be complete without cat thyme (Teucrium marum) or valerian (Valeriana officianalis). The first is a member of the mint family and has deep green leaves and purple spires. A Mediterranean native, it may grow to heights of one to two feet if planted in full sun in a moist, well-drained spot. 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, also goes by the name garden heliotrope. It's 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.
The one drawback of planting this is that it may attract rats although that won't be a problem if your cats are good hunters or you plant plenty of catnip, a known deterrent to these undesirable rodents. Valerian can be grown in sun or partial shade and is not particular fussy about soil conditions.
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 flowerbed be aware that they may use this for a litter box! You can put some wire mesh under mulch or compost to make 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.
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!
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. Then sit back, relax, and watch your pets enjoy their new outdoor space.