Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Garden for Cats

Warning: Posting frequency has dramatically increased (this is my second post in two days and my third post in a week). I apologize for any shock and suggest you breathe into a paper bag or have a glass of water to settle your nerves before continuing. —The Management

Nan at Gardening Gone Wild asked us to discuss any design changes we'd made to our gardens to accommodate pets in her post Garden Bloggers' Design Workshop - Pets in the Garden. Well, back in 2003 I created a garden specifically for cats at a no-kill cat shelter in Lodi Township, Michigan. The organization is called for The Love of Cats (TLC) and still exists, though the property with the garden was sold in late 2005. Clio is already comfortable in the Valerian above (it is very calming), so let's all settle in for a trip down memory lane.

Before I started, there was a fenced-in section available.

And four cat-shaped stepping stones the owner wanted to incorporate.

I had to figure out what kinds of plants to plant, and in what design. As an avid gardener and cat companion, I had some ideas about the former, based on plants my own cats had liked over the years. I figured it would be a simple matter of Googling "cats and plants" to find more, but I was surprised that most information is about plants poisonous to cats, not attractive to cats. (And, as it turns out, a lot of plants listed as poisonous are not in fact poisonous to cats unless ingested in impracticably huge quantities. Others may be harmful to other creatures, but not to cats, and/or toxins are only present in part of the plant, which cats don't usually touch, like roots.) So I instead queried my friends who have cats and gardens and also got a lot of input from cat lovers on garden forums online. I narrowed plants down further based on the conditions of the garden (zone 5, full sun, and fairly dry as I couldn't rely on the daily cat-care volunteers, who already had their hands full with other tasks, to remember to water the plants, nor was I able or willing to stop by every few days to water). Fortiantely, as it turns out, cats tend to like plants we consider herbs, so those are a good fit to the conditions.

Some practical considerations led to the design. For example, I knew they needed a litter area and I knew how much my cats enjoy rolling on stepping stones, so those were included. Because the area was full sun and quite hot, with very little natural shade, I added a few plastic structures for shade. There were also water bowls out on the deck at all times; most of the cats were older and moved kind of slowly, so I wanted to make sure they had water on-hand. They could go in and out at will through two cat flaps year-round.

The first day's work: stepping stones laid, and many things planted. The pots indicate where the two heathers, which were still on order, would go.

The cat grass grew in quickly after planted. I got it as organic oat and wheat seeds from the local feed store. Here Onyx, Sebastian, and Simon take a nibble while Niko makes her away along the path. I didn't fill mulch all the way in the first year, figuring cats like the earth, but due to weeds, I mulched everywhere the second season. And, look! The two heathers arrived and were planted.

The catnip bloomed just fine the first year, being an annual and all. And cats weren't the only ones who got their jollies on it!

Although, of course, the cats did get their jollies as well! Nom nom.

Onyx and Simon find that soft alyssum smells and feels nice but rough wood and stones are good, too!

Sebastian says, "Uh huh, yeah. Sleeping in the sun on two kinds of rough surfaces so near the tantalizing scent of catmint is heaven. Ahhhh." And, yes, Sebby looked a lot like James. And not just because they are both orange tabbies, but their facial structure was similar as was their manner and how they walked, etc. Sebby passed away a few years ago, unfortunately.

By the second spring, plants had matured quite a bit and were filling in (excuse this washed out photo!).

The same day, looking the opposite direction.

I love this shot of Valerian just shy of its full glory. Can you see Robin in the photo?

Here's Robin in another part of the garden, in case you didn't find him in the previous photo. He gives the catnip, which grew a lot in a few weeks, a high-five!

Here's what it looked like in February, 2005, under a nice cover of snow. You can see the top mesh extending over the fence here, which prevented any escapees (they couldn't climb it or jump over it, though as far as I know, no cat ever tried to escape).

Onyx was not put off by snow, but other non-barn cats were. He thinks catmint is just as good dried as growing (I cut it back in spring). Ah, refreshing!

In late May of the third year, things are looking perkier still. Um, ignore the invasive dame's rocket in the background. I did not have control over that area!

I like how the catnip looks in buds, right before it explodes.

A view looking west towards the deck. Oat and wheat grass lines the sidewalk. Cats liked to tuck themselves next to the huge lamb's ears. The creeping thyme is HUGE because it's near the rain spout.

A gratuitous shot of the lovely lamb's ear 'Helen Von Stein.' I've never grown lamb's ears as lush or large as those at TLC.

Even with all those plants, sometimes it's nice to nap on the rough sidewalk! If you're wondering about Onyx being in so many photos, it's because he was the cat most frequently outside and least likely to mind the bumbling Hoomin in the garden. In fact, he was with me during much of the initial planting and always continued to help me when I came to do some upkeep. He even came to live with me for a time after the property was sold, but Fiona never took to him. He now lives, as the rest of the cats at TLC, with its owner Kitty in a nice home. Purrs!

Emmy plays with alyssum and Onyx is busy in the catmint. And, look, the heather is doing fairly well. Frances, it's Calluna vulgaris 'Kerstin'!

Wait, what? Emmy's not just playing with alyssum! She can paw the life out of a blue fescue grass (look closely for the clump) and chew on mulch at the same time. She used to be a feral and is very outdoorsy!

The two huge mounds of baby's breath 'Pink' bloomed their hearts out in early June, 2005, white the white baby's breath ('Bristol fairy') in the background hasn't yet bloomed...

By early July, the 'Bristol fairy' baby's breath got pretty big, and Onyx liked it, much as my cat Penelope used to. It's not poisonous to cats, despite appearing on many lists to the contrary.

If you're wondering about a litter area, we created one using peat and compost, lined with fragrant creeping thyme.

Not every cat liked every plant, but every plant was liked by at least one cat! For example, some cats preferred catnip to catmint, and vice versa, and others liked both. Some liked cushy and/or fragrant plants, like the lamb's ears, creeping thyme, and alyssum, and, surprisingly, one cat just loved the prickly yucca, which I left in its original position in a corner. (The only other plant in the original site was a rose, which no cat took an interest in, but which the owner wanted me to leave.) Since planting the garden, I've discovered many cats also like lavender.


  1. What an awesome project! It's clear those cats were in heaven!

  2. This is fabulous! I love those cat stepping stones, for starters, and all the happy catchildren of course are just the best. I like the fence; I'm thinking I should make a cat-garden for them that's fenced in and safe for them to play in so they get to go outdoors more often but still be protected from the rest of the world. Thanks for the idea, the inspiration, and the pretty kitties.

  3. That's my kind of garden Monica, which doesn't surprise you at all. I have Valeriaan in the garden too and all the Bliss kitties love it.

    It's good to see that you've brought much happiness to so many cats with this lovely garden. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I passed the link to your post to some Danish friends who are doing a little garden area for their two cats. I bet they'll love it! I had already seen this project in your links, but it seem that you put up more pictures for this post. Great work! Must have felt so good to see the cats enjoying themselves!!!
    I had to giggle at your comment about Hesperis matronalis as I am acually very keen on this plant. It smells lovely at night! I had no idea it was invasive where you live. Only one little Dame's Rocket in my garden so far... ; )

  5. I was going to ask if that was Dame's rocket out back of the fence. It sure is beautiful. I too like the smell of it.

    Your garden is lovely. I can't get over the baby's breath with the lamb's ear. What a superb pairing. Thanks for sharing this garden. I bet it will be helpful to a great many folks intent on making fun for their beloved cats.

  6. I'm SO glad you shared this for the GGW Design Workshop, Monica. How informative *and* inspiring. What a find!

  7. That's a wonderful garden! Not only did the cats like it, it was also attractive to "hoomins." You put a lot of thought into what cats want and like, and clearly they appreciated it.

  8. Hi

    We're Cat with a garden's Danish friends. What a great project and a great post. We got lots of inspiration for the cat yard we're doing.

    Cliff & Olivia's humans

  9. All those cats look most happy and appreciative of their surroundings Monica. What a great project to be involved in but a shame that the property was sold. I hope it went to cat lovers :)

  10. Oh my gosh..this is the most wonderful garden project ever!! Those cats are so lucky and my two would love that..amazing and interesting about the plants that aren't really poisonous except in large quantities.. Michelle

  11. You did a fantastic job. I just love cats. That first one is beautiful.

  12. Hi Monica, what a beautiful bunch of felines! Every one as lovely as I have ever seen. Clio is magnificent to start things off too, a queen if ever there was one. Your design was fantastic, so sorry it no longer exists except in the minds' memory of the sweet cats. And thanks for the proper introduction to the heather too. :-) Another great plant for a cat garden is pennyroyal, the lowly mint. It is such a flea deterrent that one can see the fleas jump off the cats as they roll on it.

  13. I would of never thought of creating a garden for the kitties, how interesting is that. What a nice shelter to provide a safe but sensory place for cats to be cats. :)

  14. Monica, You did a wonderful job with this project. What a happy place! :-) Keep posting!

  15. Monica, This is such a wonderful post,and the whole idea of creating a garden just for cats is wonderful. Sorry to sound so gushing, but I can't think of enough superlative adjectives here. I volunteer with my granddaughter a few times a month at the local Humane Society, and though they have rooms (the "Catnap Cafe")for the more sociable cats, most are kept in cages. I just hate to see that, but I know they have to for a variety of reasons. I wish every community could have a place like this where unwanted cats could enjoy the freedom of being both indoors and outdoors.

    A great job of landscaping this! Clio is a dead ringer for our Sasha:)

  16. Monica what a wonderful place for the cats to live. I hate that they sold it. I'll bet they don't have a garden in their new location.

    You did a wonderful job designing that one. Very easy upkeep, no mowing yet beautiful and practical. It's perfect.

    BTW, so glad to see you back posting!

  17. Sebastian has the right idea. I can't wait to nap in the sun again.

    I'm a stoned path kind of guy but I think making some of those cat stepping stones is something I need to do. I know a hoomin who would love one.

    My hat's off to you for creating a garden sanctuary for my favorite furry friends.

  18. Aeusserst beeindruckend! Ein wirklich schoener Garten. Mir gefaellt vor allem, wie bunt alles aussieht und wie schnell alles gewachsen ist.
    LG, Bek

  19. I'm embarrassed. The other day, you asked what the upturned flower-pots in the snow were for on PICTURES JUST PICTURES and I explained they were to stop cats sitting on the cuttings . . . and now I realise I should be providing plants for cats to roll on.



    P.S. But lots of inspiration here!

  20. What a wonderful job you have done in the cat garden. They clearly love it and you've chosen your plants so well. I have 2 cats and they can be a bit of a nightmare on the parts of the garden that aren't theirs!

    Lovely post, super photos.

  21. Monica, I forgot to answer your question. I'm a librarian at an academic library, the University of North Alabama to be exact.

  22. Dear Monica, If I were a cat I could be happy in your garden! You've thought of everything...plants to lay on top of, warm rocks to keep a body comfy, plants safe to nibble and a fence to keep me safe. Your kitties are so lucky and I am sure they return the kindness with great kitty affection! I hope they also notice how pretty it is in their little eden. gail

  23. Great post Monica! A foretaste of what's to come from your new project perhaps?

    Sorry you got confused over at my place. I'm doing Out on the Streets quarterly, so everyone has until the end of March to write a post (just like GGW do with GBDW), hence why the sidebar link is up just for this month. In June I'll do another OOTS kick-off post and you can proudly show us your lovel roundabout then. Hope that's clear - give me a shout if it isn't!

    PS I've edited the post to try and make it a bit clearer for evryone.

  24. OH MY GOSH! My favorite two things - gardening and kitties! This post is awesome and you did a great job with the kitty garden!!

  25. What a great garden you designed for those cats! And they looked like they absolutely loved it!

  26. I thoroughly enjoyed your story, Monica, and the photos brought it all to life. What a wonderful garden you made! Obviously those beautiful kitties loved it. What a bunch of sweet cats :)
    I also read your "Today I Leapt" post. Wow! Good for you! That took a lot of courage. Wishing you the very best as you pursue your new path.

  27. Aw, man, I'm a sucker for a good story - kitties, plants, and a happy ending. I've been smiling through this entire story. Thanks so much for all the inspiration on what to plant in my own garden that my kitties will like.

  28. I'm so glad I found this site, most search terms come up with ideas of how to keep cats out of your garden....sacrilege!! Lost my little one in January and am looking forward to embarking on a project like this to welcome new catbabies into my life this spring.

  29. What great ideas--thanks for sharing.

  30. I loved reading about this and seeing the cats and the garden ... I love it! But I also love cats and gardens so of course. Thanks for the pick me up!

  31. do you know where the cat stepping stones came from?? cant find them anywhere on line. thanks!!

    1. The owners of this garden purchased them in 2004 from a catalog, but I don't recall which one.