Monday, March 16, 2009

A Feline Gardening Dilemma

Spring, the time when a bird's song beckons gardeners as a siren to a sailor, has finally arrived to my portion of Western Pennsylvania. Birds are singing and plants are awakening from their winter slumber, stretching ever skyward as the sun begins to warm the soil. Throughout the garden, lilac buds swell, tulips and daffodils prepare to bloom, and the crocus have already begun to bloom. Even the strawberry plants, which I grow in part as tribute to the memory of my Gram and mainly because my boys and I love to eat them, are emerging and unfurling their lovely green tendrils.
While growing up, I spent every weekend I could with my paternal grandmother. She was an avid gardener and instilled a love of gardening in me. Perhaps it was just the time we spent outside together, or perhaps it was the promise of taking a break as a reward for hard work, a concept which I grew so fond of that she would later tell me I wanted to take a break every 5 minutes. Regardless of the reason, she taught me the value of putting forth effort to achieve a desired goal and that hard work would be rewarded. She grew up on a farm, during the depression, in the rural south. This shaped her in ways I never fully understood until many years later. I did, however, even as a child, understand that she grew flowers for their beauty and fragrance and that she didn't grow fruits and vegetables because she didn't have to. The only exception was one apricot tree. After seeing how much I enjoyed the strawberries and cream one of her neighbors shared with me, she planted a strawberry patch just for me. This event would later become a rather momentous occasion in our history together, but enough reminiscing, I must return to my springtime tale of feline woe.

Yesterday, at first glance, was not an ideal gardening day as it was overcast and around 41 degrees at 11:00 am, but my boys were desperate to get outside and play. Since I'd far rather they expend energy getting fresh air and using their imagination, I agreed that after lunch we'd go out and see if it was warm enough and they could play while I worked on tidying up my gardens. By the time we'd finished lunch the temperature had climbed to a balmy 49 degrees so out we went. I practice organic gardening and have found I'm much more successful in my gardening endeavors by listening to Mother Nature and working with her. At the end of each gardening season, I allow the majority of the leaves in my yard to remain where they fall. The wind distributes them to the flowerbeds and they provide a warm, natural blanket for the plants winter slumber. The first task at hand was removing these leaves and preparing my vegetable patch for the few things I can plant now.

My gardens are cottage style with plants springing up in unexpected places as seeds fall and sprout where they choose. Years ago, I planted a border of flowering herbs in my vegetable patch to attract bees and beneficial insects. The plants have long since escaped the confines of the border and bloom freely throughout the vegetables. I don't mind as it has resulted in adding beauty and fragrance to the vegetable patch while attracting bees for pollination. The downside of this is that I now have several catnip plants growing throughout this area. Where the leaves covered them throughout the winter, they are already growing and the mere process of clearing the leaves away sends out a fragrance that beckons to cats from yards away. Stray cats seem to adopt us, and soon, one of them was happily nibbling on catnip and rolling around in the warm, freshly tilled soil. I don't begrudge him his indulgence of catnip, as I plant it for my feline friends after all, but I envision trampled seedlings in the months to come. If I didn't already have a surplus of house cats, due in part to taking in strays, these garden pests would enjoy a trip to the vet and a home inside but sadly, this is not an option. So, I continue to feed them outside, offer them shelter, and even allow them to sleep inside our enclosed porch next to a heater on cold nights and ponder how to defeat these feline garden nemeses.
My backyard borders 10 acres of natural, undisturbed woodland. I've had to learn to live in harmony with the deer, groundhogs, wild turkeys, and other native residents. I'd like to think the cats should be no different, but I know better. The native residents run away when Ginger, our Brittany Spaniel barks at them. The cats turn an aloof feline shoulder to poor Ginger and continue doing as they please. Herein lies my dilemma. How do I keep the cats out of the vegetable patch while employing economical, organic, environmentally friendly methods? Somehow the cats and I must find a way to exist in my gardens in harmony.

After much research, it appeared that my best options are introducing smells cats dislike (such as citrus peel, coffee grounds, and lavender) and utilizing chicken wire. Unfortunately, these cats must have missed the memo that citrus peel was supposed to keep them out of the garden. Last summer I introduced a recycling bin for coffee grounds in the office and utilized the grounds for mulch around acid loving shrubs and as an addition to my compost pile. My feline friends did tend to avoid the areas where I used the grounds, but since I'm currently between day jobs I'll have to try to encourage a nearby Starbucks to give me their grounds or resort to other methods. In the meantime, I'll try planting my vegetables in small areas at a time so I can surround the area with chicken wire until the seedlings have grown large enough to avoid being destroyed by a frolicking feline. Hopefully, if I allow them access to small patches of catnip, they'll allow me the undisturbed use of the rest of my garden.


Kathy said...

You are such a good storyteller, I loved readin it. Your a kind soul to care for those cats as you do. I am not a cat person, but can totally realate to seeing an animal without a home.
Your grandma sounds like a wonderful lady and the love you have for her, shines through your words. So sweet.
Where in Pittsburgh do you live? I am originally from Irwin/Wendel area. I have an Aunt who lives in Corapolis and Swickley. All our family lives up North in Pa. ~tear
Very nice story and photos!

ArtSnark said...

Those kitties can be a challenge - we have 1 but it seems a dozen neighborhood cats visit him throughout the day. Hmm...maybe it's the catnip. Hadn't thought aboutit.

Your balmy 49 degrees brings me back to my days in the Burgh. Still have a house up there that we rent but we've gotten to used to the Fla temps to go back. I do miss the wonderful museums & fab cemeteries tho

Nancy said...

I've put pine cones around the outside perimeter of some planters but it only helped against the cats that couldn't jump in to the center. My cat now is indoors full time as he does not play well in the sandbox.

Best of luck - enjoyed your blog!

San Diego

Lori said...

we have kitty visitors here too...we used to have outdoor cats, so there is a cat door on our garage...we do keep a food bowl out there for them...and so, they come...i don't know how to keep them out of your flowerbeds...the only cat who gets in mine is the neighbor's cat who thinks he lives here, and he doesn't do too much damage...

Atabbycat said...

I have the same problem, feral kitties and they like to use fresh beds as a litter box. We have 4 x 4 raised beds so are going to invest in chicken wire to staple around the bed loosely and bunch together at the top so it will keep the cats out of the bed and yet be fairly easy to peel back and do whatever in the bed.. these are organic vegetable beds not flowers though. Do cats dis like certain flowers? We plant marigolds and nasturtium to repel some insect pests. Have a great day!

Melinda said...

We have a similar issue. Our own cat is the worst offender, but the neighborhood cats all seem to cut through our yard. I have found that laying newspaper (coffee sacks, cardboard...) over the bed, holding it down on the edges with sticks/logs, and topping with straw does a good job of keeping them out. It seems like a lot of work but since it also keeps weeds out and moisture in, it has multiple purposes and you only have to do it once. You do need to watch for slugs though b/c it does create a nice habitat for them. Perhaps I'll plant some catnip to lure them elsewhere.


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