Keep your Cat Happy & Healthy with a Great Garden

Designing the Cat Friendly Garden

I have designed gardens to attract bees, birds and butterflies.  I have also designed gardens for special purposes like energy conservation, no maintenance and for the blind.

I wrote a post previously on landscaping for dogs. Now it’s time to give cats their own post too.

Our furry friends get bored, just like you do, when stuck inside with little to do.  Unless your cat is a voracious reader, they will appreciate all the great outdoors has to offer.  Of course, Kitty is having trouble keeping her svelte figure when all she has to do all day is eat and sleep.  There is little to occupy her senses and no real way to exercise.

Just having access to the great outdoors improves your cat’s mental and physical health.  But how do you keep Kitty safe from the usual perils of urban living: traffic, strange people and other animals.  Well, there are some preety creative solutions available.  For the DIY people, keep reading to find out what goes into a cat paradise.

The Difference between a Cat Friendly Garden and a Cat Garden

I would like to start off with the distinction between a garden that is cat friendly and a ‘cat’ garden.  I’ll talk about both but they are not the same.

A cat friendly garden is including plants and structures that take into account what your cat likes to do in the garden.  A cat garden, on the other hand, is an enclosed space that provides for a cat’s needs, while keeping him away from the usual perils of a free-range cat.  A cat garden is more like a really awesome kennel, lots to do but enclosed.

I know lots of people on both sides of this fence.  If you live in an urban environment a cat garden is the only safe choice.  A suburban or rural home may offer the alternative of a cat friendly garden and not an enclosed purpose built area.

However, the needs of the cat are the same, regardless of whether it is in an enclosed area or your back yard that he shares with you and other pets.

Cat in Grass

Protecting His Domain

What do Cats Like in a Garden

 What a Cat Needs.

  • They want to feel safe while exploring mysterious areas
    • This means protection from other animals, unwelcome people and loud noise and movement.
  • They want to see and not bee seen.
    • High spots to watch over the world
    • Solid shelves, trees, sills, high porches, platforms, wooden fences etc
    • Cat tree – DIY or Purchased.
    • Enclosed spots where they can watch over the world
    • Hidden spots where they can watch over the world
  • Plants and garden features to hide and sleep under like junipers or hostas. 
    • Pretty much any plant the has an arching habit that a cat can get under
    • Taller decorative grasses are a cat favourite.
    • Groups of other garden features that provide a place to slink through and around.  Groupings of pots or statuary works, maybe a bench as well.
  • Scratching Post
    • Good luck with this one.  Given the choice most cats seem to prefer anything but the one you intend them to use.  My cats have always favoured rough wood like a cedar split rail in a fence or the upright on the pressure treated deck.  Whatever it is, it must be solidly secured so they both feel safe and are safe when scratching on it.
  • Shady spots to sleep in
    • Pretty much anywhere that is shady and dry where a cat feels hidden but can see out.

Cat on hay bale

Sly loves watching from this pile of hay.

  • Sunny spots to sleep in
    • Most of the high spots will cover this need.
    • A sheltered sunny spot is needed for cool or cold weather
  • Moving water
    • Include a water source for both a quick drink and for the kitty fun factor.  This could be, which could be a fountain or a pond. Yu culd have fish but if you don’t intend Kitty to play with them, the fish will need protection from claws.  (protective surface net etc)
  • Some sand, mulch or soil to roll in.
    • Could become a defacto litter box, so be careful with this one.
    • Placing wire mesh just below the surface works well to discourage digging.
  • Pigeons/squirrels/mice to watch
    • I wouldn’t suggest attracting small wildlife like mice and squirrels unless your cat is a great hunter and you don’t mind the mess.
    • A bird feeder provides hours of fun for the cat with little likelihood of anything other than bird watching.
  • Some grass is always appreciated,
    • A bit of grass doesn’t need to be very large to make a cat happy. For an apartment balcony a very successful  grass patch could be made by filling an old kitty litter pan with soil and growing bird seeds.  You can also grow grass from seed or sod, in pots.
  • Some plants to eat.  There is more than just catnip.

Cat thyme (Teucrium marum)

Spider Plant – A cat salad bar favourite

Plants that Cats Like

While cats can be notoriously picky eaters, sometimes you just can’t get them to leave the houseplants alone.  On the other hand, you may worry that a plant is poisonous to Kitty.  What is safe for a dog may not be safe for a cat and vice versa.    However, here is a list of plants that are cat approved, both in terms of enjoyment and safe on the tummy.  This list of plants is cat approved.

  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
  • Cat thyme (Teucrium marum)
  • Cat Grass Cactylis glomerata
  • Spider Plant

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

It’s easy to grow and most cats love it, once it is crushed a little so to release the scent.  There are, of course, exceptions.

Catnip usually causes temporary euphoria, sometimes it makes them playful or aggressive. Cats seem to want to sleep after they are finished rolling around and eating their catnip.  But a cat generally wants to sleep, so it is hard to tell if the catnip is the cause.

There is a large range of variations of Catmints (nepeta mussinii) and Catnips. Small kittens and many young cats don’t like it.  Some actively dislike the smell. 

Catnip and Catmint are easily grown and are available as seeds or potted.  They usually self-seed and produce in the second year as well.  Good for drying as well. 

Catnip is a favourite treat.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

The effect of valerian on cats is very similar to catnip. The leaves need to be crushed, usually, for a cat to show much interest.

Valerian is a pretty perennial but it doesn’t smell nice to anyone but your cat. Its blossoms, however, smell like cherry.

Cat thyme (Teucrium marum)

Cat thyme is not a thyme. It is a tender perennial with small, oval leaves so it is kind of like thyme.   It has grey-green leaves which bear fragrant pink flowers in summer. For most, consider it an annual.  Cats react t it much the same a s catnip.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

Cat Grass Cactylis glomerata

This plant Cactylis glomerata, is specifically named cat grass in the UK and is said to be a feline favourite. Hwever, grain grasses will be welcome.

All cats should have access to a bit of grass. Regular lawn grass is fine.  Even if you don’t have a lawn, I have heard of people even spreading a skiff of soil and planting a yearly roll of sod out for Kitty.  Planting a low kitty litter sized container of grass is a popular option as well. 

Spider Plant

Cats seem to adore playing with the leaves of a spider plant.  They smack it and chew it to shreds, sometimes.  Spider plants have provided generations of house cats with hours of entertainment.  But they grow happily in the garden as well.  They just aren’t going to over winter for most of us. 

As cats prefer a spider plant to most other house plants, it can sometimes be grown as a sacrificial lamb to keep your other plants safe from claws. 

Both You and Your Cat Can Enjoy the Following Plants:

  • Wheat Grass
  • Lemongrass
  • Mint
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

Safety precautions for backyard cat adventures

  • Avoid pesticides or weed and feed. 
    • You wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it n anything your cat might eat or lick the water off of.  
    • My suggestion, given over 30 years of gardening, is nothing more toxic than blood and bone meal as fertilizer and corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent should be anywhere near your cat, or you for that matter.  I
    •  know that, that sentiment isn’t shared by many, but I have seen too many people who worked regularly with lawn care products and followed all safety precautions, be diagnosed with cancer to suggest anyone use them.
  • Bring the cats inside when you’re mowing the lawn.
    • Power lawn mowers can propel rocks or sticks that could hit a nearby pet.
  • It is irresponsible to let a cat roam free in an urban environment and dangerous in a suburban and still problematic in a rural area
    • Cats can get lost, get hurt in a fight, stolen, eaten or hit by traffic. They can also get exposed to FIV, if they fight an infected cat.
  • There is no doubt that keeping your cat indoors and providing access to a safe enclosed garden will give them a considerable longer life.  They will be happier and more fit for the effort. You will have lower vet bills and your cat will have a longer, happier and safer life.

Cat Gardens

A Little Heaven on Earth for Your Cat

Step 1 Check the bylaws for regulations and the need for permits.

Step 2 Secure the Perimeter.

In order to keep Kitty safe, you need to make sure she can’t get out, because as a cat, that is probably what she will try first.  It is true that curiosity definitely gets Kitty, in to trouble that she wasn’t looking for.  First step is to make sure the area is secure.

Your furry escape artist doesn’t know what is good for her/ him.   If they think they can get out they will try. If they know they can’t, they will not try, so you need to get this right the first time or face a longer more frustrating road.  Make sure there are no gaps larger than 2 inches anywhere including under the fence. Kitty will eventually decide she didn’t want to get out of her very comfortable, fun filled kingdom, anyway.  A cat is a creature of habit and most stop trying to get out. Once Kitty feels safe in her jungle paradise, she will forget about escaping.  However, until that time comes, keep a watchful eye on them and discourage any escape attempts.

Remember, a cat can jump up on top of high features and use them as a ladder to get over your fence. 

Of course, your less athletic or older cat probably won’t be interested in trying an escape attempt.

Step 3 Add what you can from the Cat Friendly Gardens list above.

Black cat with plantsKitten at water fountain

Step 4 Create a look you are proud to show.

Obviously, this needs to look nice from the outside as well as the inside.  Though I guess your cat might not be as critical to aesthetics.  But you and your neighbours should go Ohhh, not Eww when they see it. Check your zoning bylaws for what you can do and if you need a permit.   

Technically, a cat proof fence is 6 feet high with mesh section an extra 2 feet. Overhang is wire mesh and about a cats length in size. You can get it with plastic mesh but it isn’t as resilient.

The mesh is perfect for growing climbers and other perennials that tend to lean as they get taller like delphinium and yarrow.  Ivy usually goes nuts in a cat garden and makes a beautiful space for everyone.  Add a few hanging baskets for your own Hanging Garden.

Step 5 Decide on Access

Will you have a cat door for free choice access?  Well you provide access manually? Will you provide access so that your cat is safe and comfortable in the summer heat and or winter cold? If you provide water and shade your cat should be fine in the hotter months.  With a sheltered cat house, your cat may enjoy spending some time outside in the winter for exercise and to watch the world go by.  Ideally free choice year round access is desirable for your cat.

Plants to Avoid – Plants Poisonous to Cats

Cats and dogs are not the same in this regard.  Click here to download a list of plants toxic to cats.

Amaryllis has beautiful stately flowers but it shouldn’t be in a cat garden.

Fall Mum

Beautiful fall flowers but like the castor bean on the left, toxic to cats.

What is your cat’s favourite thing to do in the garden? Mine just like to slink about the plants. No doubt pretending to be dangerous jungle cats and then reward themselves for their bravery with a good brisk nap in a warm but secure location.  Leave a comment with your ideas for great cat garden elements.

Want to Learn More About Gardening for Cats?

Keep reading for a reprint of  articles from The University of Vermont and Penn State.

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.

Creating Garden Spaces for Cats

Joanne Brown, Frederick County Master Gardener ProgramWhy do some gardeners consider cats a pain in the neck in their gardens?

Cats sometimes dig up newly planted bulbs, eat prize plants, and attack birds and butterflies that you want in your garden. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.

What are the positives?

Cats help keep the population of voles, mice, rats, and chipmunks down. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania actually has cats on their payroll, as part of their Integrated Pest Management team! And never underestimate the value of cat urine, which is extremely high in nitrogen and perfect for leaves about to be composted.

Why create a special garden space for cats?

Giving cats their own garden space-complete with catnip, a bowl of water, and a comfortable place to sleep-helps keep the cats out of flower beds and vegetable plots. They’d rather hang out in the catnip, roll in the dirt, and sleep in the sun. They’re happy in their own little space.

Where should the cats’ garden space be planted?

Location, location, location! Cats love sun, so plant their garden spaces in full sun, and add a bowl of water and something comfortable for them to sleep on, such as a bench or patio swing. Also, try to locate it in a corner of the yard away from your favorite plants and flowers.

What plants should be included in the cats’ garden?

There are many plants to choose from. Some popular and easy choices are catnip (Nepeta cataria), catmint (Nepeta mussinii), valerian, and, of course, some cat grasses.

Are catnip and catmint easy to grow?

Yes. They both like full or partial sun and well-drained soil. Both are deer resistant, and neither is considered invasive in Maryland. Catnip grows about a foot high, and produces tiny lavender flowers in the summer. Catmint can grow up to 3 feet tall and has small white or lilac flowers in summer. Both are beautifully fragrant in the summer garden, and attract lovely butterflies. And catnip is a rat deterrent.

Do all cats respond to catnip?

Eighty-five percent of domestic cats respond biochemically to catnip, specifically to nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip and catmint. Nepetalactone induces harmless physiological reactions, including psychosexual responses in both male and female cats, which is why it is considered an aphrodisiac. The other fifteen percent do not respond at all to nepetalactone, because they didn’t receive the catnip response gene from their mother. Young kittens almost never respond to catnip, regardless of their genes.

Are domestic felines the only ones who respond to catnip?

No. Some of the large cats, including cougars, bobcats, lions and lynx, respond to nepetalactone as well.

Is it true that cats love having their own salad bars?

Yes, cats naturally crave grasses. Grasses provide roughage and lots of vitamins, especially folic acid. Grasses aid a cat’s digestion and assist in removing fur balls.

So you may want to grow some special cat grasses in their garden space, or just leave a patch of about 3 square feet of unmowed grass for them to munch on. They will love eating it and hiding in it.

How can indoor cats benefit from any of this?

For indoor cats, be sure to grow some special cat grasses for them, which will keep them from devouring your house plants, some of which may be poisonous. And grow catnip for them outdoors and present them with a fresh stem every few days. It will have the same euphoric effect as if they were rolling around in it outdoors.

Are there certain plants that should not be planted in the cats’ garden space?

Yes. Plants that can be poisonous to cats should be avoided. They include azaleas, chrysanthemums, daffodils, hydrangeas, iris, ivy, lantana, marigolds, and wisteria. Tiger lilies are particularly poisonous to cats, and can cause death.

Sometimes gardeners want to keep cats out of their yards. What can they do to keep them away?

There are several natural cat repellents that are safe and easy to use. For example, spraying a vinegar-and-water solution around the base of your acid-loving plants or putting lemon and orange peels around your plants will keep cats away. Putting pebbles, gravel, or small, upright twigs among your plants will also keep their sensitive paws away. Some plants such as the scented geranium, the mosquito plant, and citronella, will also deter cats.

The best choice is a coleus nicknamed “Scaredy Cat” (Coleus canina). It’s a bit pricey but its strong aroma, which is triggered by touch or the sun, keeps cats-and dogs-away. You can plant it in a container and then move it around the garden, protecting different areas of the garden from animals. It has clusters of blue flowers that also give off the strong aroma.

Happy gardening to you and your feline friends!

Audrey
 

Serial entrepreneur and longtime practitioner of sustainable landscapes and sustainable living. An international teacher, speaker and workshop holder. Author of forthcoming book, How to be Happy. Practicing what she preaches in Kilmarnock, Ontario, and Leesburg, Florida

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