Your dog just dug up half the garden in pursuit of that elusive gopher (good boy!), leaving a gigantic hole in the ground where your rare Himalayan poppy used to grow (bad boy!). Your cat just used that nicely tilled and raked bed full of barely sprouted Mesclun greens as a litter box (well, no use saying anything, it’s a cat after all). You are left with your beloved pet friends and a ravaged garden. These battles will, of course, continue because you and your four-legged companions have vastly different life views. After you have forgiven them their trespasses, however, there are some things you can do in your garden to reward and engage the furry set.
Cats are crazy for catnip. Pet stores have racks of soft toys that incorporate this feline aphrodisiac into their stuffing. Nepeta cataria has been known for its attraction to cats for so long that its botanical name (from the Latin catari, meaning “of a cat”) even reflects this allure. We needn’t bother with describing the particular combination of essential oils it contains; it’s enough to note that its attraction is universal for cats of all stripes from alley cats to mountain lions. It’s also a nice addition to your garden.
Catnip grows as a mounded shrub two to three feet in diameter. Its gray-green leaves are fuzzy to the touch and the plant is fairly drought tolerant. Tiny, pale lavender flowers are clustered at the ends of branches during the summer. Shear the plant once a year to maintain its shape, or snip branches all year long to entice your kitty.
Catmint (Nepeta racemosa) is a close relative of catnip and it seems to be just as attractive to cats. It is even more ornamental and several hybrids and cultivars are available. ‘Six Hills Giant’ grows to two feet by four and ‘Walker’s Low’ is similar in size, but denser. Both are hybrids and will most likely be sold under the name N. X fassenii. Established plants of both catnip and catmint will be able to withstand the caresses of your feline friend, who most likely must have to rub up against the leaves for a few moments and maybe take a nibble or two before moving on. It is this minor bruising of the leaves that releases the volatile oils cats so love. Planting small plants will also involve some bruising and could result in the demise of a very young plant from the overzealous attention of your cat. Start your plants from seed and you can benefit from the advice of an old English ditty, “If you set it, the cats will eat it; if you sow it, the cats won’t know it.”
One thing you may not know is that both catnip and catmint have been consumed by humans for a long time as well. Both species have been brewed as tea and, in greater concentrations, used as herbal remedies for centuries. They are usually prescribed as a carminative, a fact the manufacturers of Beano and Gas-X would probably prefer you not to know.
Most pets, cats and dogs alike, benefit from a nibble on some fresh green grass now and then, although no one seems to know exactly why. Depending on where you live and where your pets are allowed to roam, the grass they have access to may or may not be entirely benign. It is possible to give your animals a pesticide-free and accessible chew by sowing your own little patch of grass. You can find a part of the garden to dedicate to this or even grow a small pot or two of greens just for their consumption. Sow seed of oats, wheat, rye, or barley and keep them watered. In a few weeks, the young blades will be ready for that urge to gnaw on something green.
Another pet-friendly species is pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium. This shade-loving groundcover is a true mint and its pungent scent will remind you of that. Cut stems to refresh your pet’s bed and drive off fleas, or plant it in that cool nook that Fido always finds to lie in. In large quantities it can be poisonous, but your pets won’t be tempted to eat it and probably neither will you. It can be used sparingly in the same manner as any mint for flavoring iced drinks or roasted meat like lamb. Maybe if you give your pets some of their very own plants they will leave your favorites alone. It sure can’t hurt.