Many gardeners count a cat or two among their favorite gardening companions, and this is certainly true at my house. A master at dispatching wayward moles, Mr. Leon’s presence probably deters other animal invaders as well. I once watched him chase off a deer fifty times his size! Such services are worthy of reward, which is easily done by growing a few great plants for cats.
Of the five plants for cats described below, the first two – catnip and valerian – are so widely adapted and easy to grow that they are included in your Garden Planner plant options. The other cat plants here require special handling because of their limited cold hardiness, but depending on your climate, they may be great fits for your garden.
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is the most popular cat-pleasing plant, because about 80 percent of cats react with glee to contact with nepetalactone, found in catnip leaves and stems. Responsive cats enjoy a psychosexual reaction that lasts up to 15 minutes, after which cats lose interest in the herb for at least an hour. Stems are as easy to dry as any other mint, and dried catnip retains is psychoactive powers for many months when stored in a cool, dry, dark place. A hardy perennial, catnip produces pink flower clusters all summer when the old ones are snipped off from time to time. This is great, because catnip flowers attract pollinators and other beneficial insects in droves. Even if I didn’t have a cat, I would grow catnip because the flowers attract so many bees and tiny parasitic wasps over an extended period of time.
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is sometimes called garden heliotrope because of the wonderful sweet vanilla fragrance of the flowers, which appear in early summer. Cats become excited when they encounter valerian roots, which contain a compound called actinidine that is thought to work as a semi-psychotic stimulant for cats. In the garden, this hardy perennial can shed seed to the point of weediness, so be prepared to cut back the old flowers to control reseeding. As long as they are not in the way, I allow volunteer seedlings to grow here and there, and dig and dry them in the fall. Valerian roots are best dried outdoors, because they give off a sour odor as they dry. I dry them by pinning them to a high clothesline, where my cat can’t reach them, and then store the dried roots in an airtight jar.
- Cat thyme (Teucrium marum) is not a thyme but a germander, a group of fragrant herbs that grows best when given fertile soil, full sun, and great drainage. Cat thyme can grow to two feet (60 cm) when protected from cats with a wire cage, or you can keep a plant in a hanging basket your cats can’t reach. This is an especially good idea in cold climates where winter temperatures dip below about 10°F (-12°C), because you can move your container-grown cat thyme plant to an unheated garage or other protected spot through winter.
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is surprisingly attractive to cats, plus you can use the leaves in cooking. Set out a purchased specimen of this tropical plant in early summer, and allow it to grow in your warmest, sunniest spot until fall. Lemongrass plants are killed by frozen soil, and are best kept in a warm greenhouse through winter. Some gardeners do have luck digging the clump in fall and keeping it through winter indoors, but this is often an iffy proposition.
- Cat grass (Dactylis glomerata) is more commonly known as orchard grass, and it is unusually attractive to cats. Try seeding a shallow tray and place it in a sunny windowsill or beneath florescent lights. When the plants are 3 inches (7 cm) tall, place the cat grass where your favorite feline can nibble and roll freely. Seeds of wheat, oats and rye also can be grown as cat grass.
Of these five plants for cats, cat thyme and lemongrass are the ones most likely to be mangled by pleasure-seeking felines, so you may need to protect them with a kitty-proof wire cage. Sometimes catnip needs protection, too, though it has been my experience that cats wait to be given bruised sprigs of catnip. Until a leaf is crushed, cats don’t seem to know the plant is there. Live valerian plants are immune to cat attack, because the part they want – the root – is safe below ground.
By Barbara Pleasant