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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!