Okay, I probably know what you’re thinking… who wants cats in the garden? Well, if you already have outdoor cats or if your neighbor’s feline friend enjoys roaming about your property, then it’s inevitable that at some point they will visit (or have) the garden. Rather than fighting an unending battle of the cat-turf wars with multiple attempts at repelling these kitties, why not do the opposite and create a pet-friendly garden just for them.
When placed in the right location, it may even thwart them from venturing into unwanted areas of your garden. Read on for tips on creating a cat-friendly garden.
My mother loves to garden but she also has a large assortment of cats too. Although these are largely indoor kitties, they have a designated area all their own outdoors in which they are free to roam about. Mom calls it the “cat palace.”
This cat-friendly garden is fenced in so the cats cannot get out, so there’s no worry of predators getting to them or the cats venturing into dangerous areas, like the road. They are free to come in and out through the kitty door (just like many dogs have). Within its walls of safety are plenty of structures for climbing and plants that are safe for them to nibble on.
They also have multiple dirt-filled areas in which to “relieve” themselves. Of course, this type of setup may not be for everyone, so here are some other cat-friendly garden ideas.
First and foremost, cats are naturally curious with a need for exploration. Choosing a location in the backyard just for them can help keep your furry friends appeased. They love to climb, hide, and pounce. With this in mind you will want to include climbing structures like cat posts, fencing, and trees.
Give them some hiding places too, along with shade for those hot days lulling about. Shrubs are great for this and don’t forget some evergreen varieties too, not only for seasonal interest but for added cover in winter. Planting them close together can help create fun hiding spaces too, where they can pretend to stalk their prey (or each other), and pounce out to attack.
Create designated play areas for younger felines and don’t forget to include mounds of dirt, mulch, or sand for them as well. Cats typically go potty in the same place, so this can help deter them from going into your prized garden spaces. Mulched pathways will provide a soft landing. Active cats enjoy playing, so you can peak their interest by adding suitable toys attached to strings and tied to branches. Throw in a few balls and scratching posts as well.
Just as the dog has a sheltered spot to go to, you can even include a “cat house” for your feline to hide in. Alternatively, placing the garden area near an outbuilding will give that added sense of security that some cats need.
Choosing plants for your cat’s garden space must be done with care. Hardy, but safe, plants is obviously an important consideration. Since cats enjoy chasing things, those that attract butterflies may be a good choice. In fact, attracting insects in the cat garden is a good thing in that you want to avoid using any toxic pesticides that could be harmful.
A number of plants may not be suitable for your feline and may even be poisonous, so choose your plants carefully. Here are some plants you can add to create safe gardens for cats:
While most vegetables are deemed relatively safe, the foliage of some, like potatoes and tomatoes, are not a good idea to have where you expect your furry friend to be roaming about. What is a safe veggie you can add to your cat’s garden?
Members of the cucurbit family, which includes cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins are safe for cats. The vining types are good choices for providing hiding spaces as well as hanging fruits to climb on or play with.
Runner beans can also be used in your cat-friendly garden to create secret hideaways and provide shade. You can even make a bean teepee for them! If your cat nibbles on them, which in all likelihood they won’t, they are not considered toxic.
The well-worked, healthy garden soil you count on to grow an abundant crop of vegetables can look like a giant play area to neighborhood cats. These neighborhood pests like to roll in cool soil, uprooting seeds and seedlings, or worse, they turn it into a personal restroom. A few changes in the garden can protect the vegetables from cats without stunting the plant's growth or affecting production and harvest. Most ways to protect a vegetable bed aren't even noticeable by anyone but the cat.
Move all bird feeders away from the vegetable garden. Cats may destroy plants when trying to stalk birds at the feeder.
Push a 6-inch-tall stake into each corner of a newly seeded bed or a bed with small transplants in it. Drape a length of nylon netting over the stakes to discourage cats from walking or digging in the garden. Remove the netting once the plants grow too tall.
Cut a length of chicken wire to fit over the bed, using wire cutters. Lay the wire on top the soil between the rows of vegetable plants. Cats can't dig through the wire and they usually don't like walking on it, but it won't inhibit the vegetable growth.
Spread 2 to 4 inches of straw mulch over the soil. Cats enjoy rolling in bare dirt or using it as a litter box, but mulched soil is less attractive. Mulch also suppresses weeds and retains soil moisture for your vegetables.
Sprinkle crushed pepper, ground cayenne pepper or citrus rinds around the vegetable plants, since these items sometimes repel cats. Alternatively, apply a commercial cat repellent spray following package instructions. Repellents require frequent reapplication after rain or heavy irrigation.
Any good cat garden must include catnip of course. If Kitty can be convinced to leave the plant alone until it flowers, he will love the buds and blooms. I’ve rarely been able to keep my cats out of the catnip to get it to that point.
Consider adding valerian in addition to catnip. While it is calming to us, it has the reverse effect on Kitty. Some cats that aren’t genetically programmed to respond to catnip do react to valerian.
Herbs you regularly use in cooking can also enrich Kitty’s palate. Obviously your obligate carnivore cat doesn’t need the herbs in his diet, but he will enjoy a nibble. They provide micronutrients and health benefits as well.
These herbs are generally considered safe for cats to nibble:
Definitely skip anything in the onion/garlic family. They cause damage to Kitty’s liver. Oregano, bay, peppermint, and tarragon are all likely to cause vomiting and diarrhea. That’s not the result we are looking for.
To my plants, I added some rocks and some garden figurines. The rocks were from my yard along with some smaller decorative rocks I had in a vase. The figurines were in the garden section at Walmart and they have stakes in them so the cats can't knock them over. Aren't they cute?
I planted the catnip seed pods in a separate pot so it didn't get too crowded. They go right on top of the dirt and if kept moist, they will sprout in about a week. I know Orion and Pete are going to love having more fresh catnip to munch on. If I'm lucky I might even get a cuddle of thanks or two out of them.
This is Pete. Pete likes to eat plants. Pete is the reason that I made this cat garden after he ate some of my Valentine's Day flowers. Harumpf. It's a good thing he's funny and gives good cuddles because he doesn't always think things through.
Thankfully he didn't get sick! Some common houseplants and flowers that are toxic to cats are lilies, philodendron, aloe, begonia, and poinsettia to name a few. It is best practice to check if a particular plant is toxic to your cats before bringing it home or put it in a hanging planter that your cats can't get to.
This is Orion. He is more inquisitive and investigates while Pete is more of an all-in kind of guy. Orion is an incredibly picky cat who barely eats cat food, much less a plant. Instead, he prefers to sniff and rub against the plants.
Cats and humans have a long history together. For thousands of years, cats have provided both companionship and pest extermination services to humans in return for affection and food. In some cases, a lot of affection and food. When I look at my relationship with my cats, I’m convinced they domesticated me.
Balzac, the Backyard Sheriff
According to the RSPCA, there are about 3.3 million pet cats in Australia, ASPCA figures show about 80 million cats in the USA and estimates for Britain are about 8 million cats. If you’re reading this, you probably live with one (or more), and are keen to set up a garden they can enjoy. So let’s begin.
Choose cat-friendly garden plants
Like when designing any garden, aim for safe and enticing elements, positioned in cat-friendly arrangements to direct your audience’s attention. A too-neat garden won’t provide any cat-friendly places in which they can sit, hide or play. A dust or dirt patch is a good start, allowing your cat to indulge in a dust bath during warmer weather. Similarly, an area of lawn grass can provide a cool place to sit, and a safe surface to scratch.
Perfect – a dust bath and grass scratching zone in one
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is the obvious choice for a cat garden, though your cat may not necessarily feel its effects. Responsiveness to catnip is a genetic trait, which, sadly, most Australian moggies lack. But many pure- and mixed-breed cats will still find themselves lured by this quaint and easy-to-grow herb.
Cat grass is another gem. They are easy to find and quick to grow, offering cats a pleasant snack or play area. Common species of pet grass include orchard grass (Dactylitis glomerata), oat grass (Avena sativa), rye grass, wheat grass, and barley grass.
Cat eating catgrass. Photo LisaSympson
Tall, trailing, and foliage plants will provide plenty of cover to satisfy a cat’s stalking instinct. To fill your garden with colour, go for sunflowers, cosmos, asters, orchids, bromeliads, African violets, alyssum, zinnias, and geraniums. Planting corn, squash, cucumber, beans, basil, and dill will also supply you with food at the end of each growing season.
Plants with overhanging leaves and branches may be kept in large pots, spaced apart to allow cats to thread a path between them. Maidenhair ferns, spider plants, areca palms and ponytail palms will create interesting movement and textures for a wandering cat.
Take care to avoid plants that are toxic to cats. These plants may not be as appetising or attractive as the other options in your garden, but it’s still safest to avoid lilies, tulips, azaleas, dracenas, birds of paradise, baby’s breath, amaryllis, lantana, pothos, cyclamen, daffodils, potato, daphne, and morning glory. The ASPCA Pet Care site offers an exhaustive list of plant species toxic and non-toxic to cats.
Create cat chill-out zones
Though cats are busy and playful, they relish spending their downtime in cosy, safe spaces. What’s safe for a cat may seem counter-intuitive for a human, but you’ll find some success if you design around these basic principles:
Higher is better. Or at least slightly higher than another cat might be. Rocks, tables, pedestals, statues, bird baths, stumps, and bollards can serve as platforms for cats to attain the above-ground altitudes they prefer. Ropes and ladders would be a welcome addition to trees, giving otherwise stranded cats a way to get back down.
Mona checks out a safe hiding spot
Caves are safer. Rocky nooks and alcoves provide sturdy shelter for a cat in need of a hiding place. Cats prefer a nook that leaves them less open to a surprise attack or pouncing from overhead, so aim for a structure with height, depth, or ‘round the corner’ access from the entrance, allowing your cat to retreat as far from threat as possible. Where you can’t include an actual cave, clusters of shade plants, and small clearings between bushes will suffice.
Views are nicer. Indoors, cats often place themselves in doorways, or in halls between rooms. This location offers maximum vantage of their surroundings. Outdoors, designate spaces where your can may remain concealed from view while still keeping an eye on activity in the garden.
Lilah among the leaves. Photo Kirsten Hancock
Of course, you may not need to go to the trouble. Sometimes you cat get by with just a chair, bench, or cardboard box left in the right spot.
Prepare damage control
Keep your veggie patch safe from heavy paws, pee, and poo by investing in a barrier, such as chicken wire, to fence off or cover your food growing zones. This will also keep out peckish mice, rabbits, moles, voles, and birds. In the past, we’ve stuck bamboo stakes around freshly planted seedlings to make the garden bed an inconvenient place for a cat to walk. Not pretty, but a decent stop-gap until the plants take over.
Dora surveys the vegetable garden
It may help to create secluded ‘dead zones’ around the garden where a cat can relieve itself and declare its territory. Bury a small amount of soiled litter at these sites as a scent marker, and ensure adequate shelter and privacy so your cat feels safe.
Strong smells may be used to deter cats from areas of the yard. Fragrant plants like rosemary, lavender, rue, lemon verbena and lemon thyme can make areas less attractive. Likewise, fresh citrus peel may urge a cat toward the more amicable garden spaces.
Even cats like to stop and smell the roses
Cat with belled collar Photo Jamesington
While birds and other garden creatures are naturally cautious of predators, you can lessen the chances of seeing one half-eaten by placing a bell on your cat before letting it outdoors. If you keep a birdbath in your garden, ensure the vicinity is clear of foliage that might be used for sneaking cover. Bird feeders should be placed up high and away from platforms that may be used as feline access paths, perhaps with deterrent plants close by.
© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
In cat-unfriendly communities, or homes close to bushland, or areas with aggressive cat populations, a cat run or netted enclosure is the best option, rather than letting your cat roam around. Free-standing cat runs come in a variety of designs and configurations to suit a range of backyard styles. Or if you’re feeling game, you could build one, joining cat owners from all over the world who have created spectacular mazes and obstacle courses to keep their kitties entertained.
Where required by law, you can add cat-safe angled nets and containment paddles to keep your cat on your property. The Gold Coast City Council Keeping Cats contained booklet outlines a range of options for compliant backyards.
With the weather warming up, remember to leave a bowl of fresh drinking water out for your cat. We’re also approaching flea and tick season around Australia, so check your cat’s fur regularly, especially around the shoulders and back of the neck, and administer prevention and control treatments as needed.
Gardening for indoor cats
Now, full disclosure – my cats stay indoors. For years, we’ve lived in rentals either near a busy road or in neighbourhoods with erratic drivers, limiting our options for dreamy free-range cat gardens.
As an enclosed household increases your cat’s exposure to its surroundings, take greater care in selecting plants when ‘landscaping’ for indoor pets. Safe indoor plants include orchids, tillandsia, calathea, spider plants, zebra plants, echeveria, jade, kalanchoe, several species of ferns and palms, and many types of kitchen and windowsill herbs.
Instead of lawn, fake grass matting can offer an enticing rough surface for scratching or rolling around on. Cover escape gaps in window and balcony railings with bamboo screens or planter boxes, and make cat un-safe spaces inaccessible with pot plants and ornaments.
Designate cushions and sitting spaces near windows, so your cat can comfortably enjoy the view. You can give your cat even more interesting things to watch by adding a bird feeder, bird bath or water feature outdoors.
Do you have a cat-friendly garden? Tell us about it in the comments!
Planting sturdy evergreens in your garden can help your cat to feel protected and offers hiding places. Hedging can also help your cat to feel less threatened by the presence of other cats, although there is no guarantee that they won’t venture into your garden.
Cats also like to be up high to give them a look out point to check for danger. A good idea is to fix shelves to external walls or stacking crates in a corner that gives them a view of the garden. If you don’t have a wall, adding a table or bench will also work just as well.
We all know cats love to sleep. Adding a sheltered cat house with a blanket in or placing an old cushion out will encourage them to choose your garden as their favourite catnap spot.
Make sure to know the botanical name as well as common names of plants, as some go by the same common name.
Even though many plants are safe, some pets, like humans, may have a sensitivity or allergic reaction to certain substances, so it’s important to observe your pet’s behavior for any possible signs of distress. If your pet exhibits any symptoms of illness, seek advice from your veterinarian or local emergency clinic immediately. Delaying treatment can result in serious injury or death.
Also, remember that fertilizers or pesticides used on plants may be toxic, so be sure to read labels carefully before using around pets.
If you believe your dog or cat has ingested a poisonous plant, call these 24-hour resources for immediate advice:
For a more comprehensive list of pet-safe plants, see the ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants List.