I subscribe to a lot of gardening magazines. Each one is a bit different, but there are some things that are common to all of them. At least every other month, a reader writes in to Horticulture or Fine Gardening or Garden Design to ask about ways of keeping cats out of the garden. The litany of feline evils is always the same: they dig, they destroy, they defecate.
I have also noticed that at least one publication every month features a pictorial layout of a lavish garden complete with resident felines. Editors use cats as symbols of domesticity, and garden-proud cat owners probably insist on having them in the pictures. Hubris is not unknown among cats, and I expect that many of them are only too pleased to pose.
I have never had a problem with cats in my garden—either my own cats or anyone else’s. Like the horticulturists at Longwood Gardens, I view cats as valuable members of my integrated pest management team. Although my two older pets have now moved into managerial roles, the two young males continue to keep the mice, voles and other pests at bay. I haven’t lost a tulip bulb in years.
Since I expect a lot from my cats, I have decided that I also owe them some kind of reward. This summer I am going to install some catnip or catmint in the garden.
If I were a thrifty soul, I might just transplant some from the enormous clump of common catnip (Nepeta cataria) that flourishes in front of our summer cottage. It grows tall, 2-3 feet, sports white flower stalks, and has the most concentrated aroma of any catnip I have ever smelled. I don’t know if there is something special about the soil, or the relatively dry growing conditions, but this particular Central New York State catnip can send a cat reeling at about 20 feet. Sidney, normally the most decorous of cats, rubs her face on the leaves until she is completely insensible. Lovejoy and Arthur, the two young males, roll on their backs, wave their legs in the air, and then, if they don’t decide to have a pitched battle first, fall sound asleep. Reilley, an unfortunate victim of Orange Cat Syndrome (which renders cats indistinguishable from throw pillows) merely eats a leaf or two and falls asleep, snoring heavily.
Divine as it is for the cats, I think the common catnip is a little too vulgar in appearance and exuberant in habit for my garden. I will probably try catmint, a somewhat better mannered member of the Nepeta family that is eminently worthwhile in the garden even if you hate cats. The plant catalogs offer several different cultivars of catmint, all of which have spiky blue or bluish-purple flowers. If you have space in the back of the border, you should install Nepeta sibirica, which is tall (up to 48 inches), and blooms for much of the summer. Another tall cultivar, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ can reach 36 inches, and tolerates humidity better than some other members of the genus. Lower growing varieties include Nepetal faassenii, which looks almost like lavender, and Nepeta nervosa. Both can be used as edging plants, an advantage if you have a cat that will trample anything in its wake to get a Nepeta fix.
Native plant fanatics will be quick to point out that members of the Nepeta clan are non-native plants and have the same rampant behavior patterns as all the other denizens of the mint family. This means that they will spread like wildfire in the garden and beyond if given the slightest chance to do so. If your space is limited, it would probably be wise to put your catnip or catmint in a pot, then sink the pot in the ground. That way the cats and butterflies will be happy, and you won’t spend your life plucking baby catnip plants out of your borders, lawn and the cracks between the sidewalk slabs.
Catnip is also well known to herbal medicine aficionados. Apparently back in the good old days before tea was imported from Asia, Europeans steeped the leaves to make a drinkable concoction. While the fumes may drive cats crazy, the tea was thought to promote slumber and stress reduction in humans, settle upset stomachs, relieve fevers and alleviate the symptoms of diarrhea. If catnip tea doesn’t sound appealing, you can also use the leaves in salad, as long as you can prevent your cat from throwing itself into the salad bowl.
Now that blue spiky plants are so fashionable in the garden, catmint might make a good companion for the various cultivars of lavender, salvia and veronica that already hold sway in so many modish planting schemes. Plant it around beds where you want to install spring-flowering bulbs. You may have to tolerate a few extra cats around the place, but rodents will make themselves scarce and you will glory in your crocuses and tulips next spring.