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 gardeneither my own
cats or anyone elses. 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 havent 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 dont
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 dont 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 wont spend your life plucking
baby catnip plants out of your borders, lawn and the cracks between the
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 doesnt 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
CHANGE IN THE GARDEN