Guest Post: The Cat Garden

Reprinted with permission from Yasaar Nakchbendi, Chirpy Cats. Copyright June 23, 2014.

Let’s face it, all cats need in terms of greens is a patch of grass and perhaps some catnip to keep the them happy. But what about a kitty jungle to provide dappled shade and fragrant scents, some hiding/stalking spots from which to launch a ninja attack, or just a simple snack? Below is a list of non-toxic plants and flowers that I have grown in my cats’ catio. Not only is these safe for them to munch on, but they provide the closest thing to a natural outdoor setting, where they can fall asleep on a thick patch of grass, or just ‘hide’ behind some foliage while stalking bugs. They also love to smell the flowers even if the plant is not necessarily on the snack menu.

  • Blue oat grass
  • Carex (gold)
  • Purple fountain grass
  • Lemongrass
  • Jacobs Ladder (Polemonium  Bressingham Purple, Polemonium Caeruleum Brise D’anjou (barrel), Polemonium Reptans Touch of Class
    Catmint (Walkers Low)
  • Catnip Nepeta Cataria (in hanging baskets)
  • Spider Plants
  • Violas
  • Torenia
  • Chamomile
  • Petunias
  • Impatiens (New Guinea and Sunpatiens)
  • Nasturtiums
  • Watercress
  • Snapdragon
  • Zinnias
  • Valerian
  • Rosemary
  • Peppermint
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Coriander
  • Chamomile

Actinidia Kolomikta

On the outside periphery of the catio we have planted a hardy vine called Actinidia Kolomikta, also known as a Kiwi Vine or Silver Vine. This vine also contains a substance which is a cat attractant, similar to nepatalactone in catnip. Many sites mention that cats love this so much that they will end up destroying the plant. I have not found this to be the case. In early spring, however, they do like to rub their cheeks against the bare stems with a little more enthusiasm and they seem to love hanging out in this corner of the Catio all summer long. During the first growth season the plant had reached all the way to the top of the catio in three months, and has never been targeted by bugs. The pink and white variegation in the leaves are absolutely beautiful and this colour display only shows after the second growth year. I have also planted giant (Benary) zinnias along the outside perimeter and despite mid-summer attack by those ghastly aphids and Japanese beetles, zinnias put on a marvellous blooming display. They reach up to four feet tall and provide even more shade and cover for cats who wish to take a nap on the tiered benches, which would otherwise be blasted by the sun all day! I have also tried giant sunflowers for this area which works really well as they grow up to six feet tall.

The Cats’ Picks

Catnip Nepeta cataria
As to be expected, this one tops the list. There is nothing better for a cat than discovering the jackpot, the hanging baskets at both ends of the catio! Sometimes I pick the leaves and break them to release the scent and offer it to them on the ground, where they can safely writhe, wriggle and drool about in ecstasy, and in safety! The rest of the plant is harvested and left to dry out for three months in the shed. This provides a good winter-long supply of catnip for the kitties as well as tea for the humans!

Spider plants (Chlorophytum)
With their long ribbon-like leaves these popular houseplants are definitely high on the cat snack menu. We leave the spider plant babies to happily hang out of the pots for kitties’ snacking pleasure. They double up as cat toy too as they appear to ‘fountain’ out of the containers and sway in the wind. The spider plant is an all round winner. It appears on the list of NASA’s clean air study, proven to mop up toxins such as formaldehyde and xylene found in indoor environments. We also keep two spider plants in hanging baskets indoors and leave the trailing baby plants hanging over the cat’s bar stool at their ‘watering hole’. Interesting to note is that spider plants are said to have a mild hallucinogenic effect on cat when they eat them as they contain opium-like chemical compounds. I’d love to research more about that, but in the meantime I’m happy to serve up this tried and tested firm favourite to my furry cat garden critics.

Ornamental grasses
These grasses add a wonderful splash of texture and colour to your potting cat garden, so how wonderful that most are non-toxic to our furry friends. In addition, they are a popular favourite with the cats too.

Japanese forest grass
I have two pots of these mixed with purple violas at the entrance of the catio and the cats always first stop here for a nibble. The two brothers Ollie and Baggy have a liking for the violas leaves and stems as well as the grass and it’s really funny to watch them masticate like a bunch of cows in a field. Sometimes there is actually a queue of cats waiting at the same plant for a snack. The contrast of the chartreuse green with the symphony of pinks and reds from the impatiens, violas and petunias, provides a setting which will be appreciated by the human’s too!

Japanese blood grass
With its tall green blades at the base and blood red tips, this beautiful ornamental variety of grass is a also a crowd pleaser.

Carex
There is a wide variety of carex grass, some are plain deep green and others are variegated with white and green. This seems to last all season right up until late autumn. At the start of winter this is the variety that I bring indoors to setup their winter watering hole, where the plant will last all winter. The carex variety is the cats’ go-to snack. We like carex gold and carex red rooster carex buchananii.

Blue Oat Grass
The lovely blue-grey leaves cascade over their pots all through the season. Not all the cats like these spiky blades but we always see Mr Jack tuck right in!

Non snacking plants / Just for fun and colour
While all the plants are safe for the cats to nibble, not everything in the catio is on offer as a snack. The tall and bushy stems and flowers of the catmint, which is planted in rectangular pots is often used as a hiding and stalking point. The big barrel of purple grass, together with the trailing and lush Swedish ivy, provide plenty of shade. In addition, the scent of the Swedish ivy with its lemon peppery notes does not go unnoticed by the cats. The Jacobs’s Ladder blooms are often touched by curious noses and whiskers for a sniff and perhaps a little cheek graze and then a lie down for an afternoon catnap. Last summer, my latest new addition to the catio included Creeping Jenny, which is perfect as a fountain accessory plant and also offers a little shade as it hangs over the tiered platforms.

Also have a look at the ASPCA website, at its exhaustive list: Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants. I found this site really errs on the side of caution, as it lists plants that may only cause slight stomach discomfort but nothing serious. Still, better to be safe than sorry, especially if you know your furry friend is indiscriminate and loves his greens. As well, all cats may react differently to the same plant.

You do not have to go overboard with your first cat garden. Start simple. Choose a few from the list above and experiment with what works for your space and hardiness zone. When you visit your nursery, ask about toxic and non-toxic plants as the staff are often quite knowledgeable on the subject of plants and pets. Whenever introducing new plants to your cat, even if they’re from the safe list, always observe your cat’s behaviour when they’re grazing. Watch out for any adverse reactions, but above all, have fun planning your safe garden, kitty will thank you with a thousand love blinks!

Author_photoYas_BaggyYasaar has a BA in Fine Art and graphic design and works as a project manager in visual display. When she leaves her day job she can be found on her blog at Chirpycats.com where she expresses her love for all things feline, with a special focus on cat environment enrichment and gardening for cats. Yasaar makes miniature sculptures of her cats from her homemade cold porcelain clay and gets her inspiration from writing haiku. She loves to travel and Aoshima Cat Island in Japan is a destination on her bucket list.

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