When I set out to design a cat-friendly garden for my home in the District, I knew that all the plants I chose had to meet two criteria: they had to be safe for cats and they had to grow well in the D.C. climate. Here are some of the plants I discovered and incorporated into my cat-friendly garden.
Cat grass. Most cats can’t help but adore cat grass. When I plant cat grass, I have to hide the pot while the seeds are beginning to sprout; otherwise one of my cats will mow the tender shoots. The other cat loves to eat it when I feed it to her by hand. Cat grass can be purchased as a plant at pet food stores, health food stores and garden centers. It can also be easily grown by seed and is typically a mixture of oat, wheat, rye and/or barley seeds. I plant it in a wide, shallow pot so that when my cats yank on the grass stems, they will not tip over the pot. Cat grass typically germinates quickly in about seven days.
Catnip. My cats go crazy for catnip, which they show me by rubbing against the plant’s leaves to release its scent. Catnip is great planted on the edge of the garden to give cats easy access to it. In D.C., catnip is an easy-to-grow perennial with white flowers that can grow up to three feet tall. It’s also versatile, as it can be placed in areas with either full or partial sun exposure.
Canna. Although canna is considered an annual in D.C., which is Zone 7b on the U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone Map, protected areas like Capitol Hill and Georgetown with their walled-in sheltered gardens often report having no problem with overwintering, helping their canna last through the cold months. If canna is planted against a brick wall with radiant heat or on a wall close to the house or against a fence, it can often overwinter just fine. Canna is invaluable for being drought tolerant and resilient against humidity, as well as providing color in late summer.
Ice plant. Ice plant is one of those hardy plants you’ll wonder how you ever did without. Ice plant is a succulent that stays low to the ground but has a fantastic spread of up to two feet, allowing it to cover a lot of ground in areas with extensive sun exposure. When other plants are wilting in the District’s hot and humid summer heat, ice plant seems to bloom even more prolifically. While it’s available in yellow, the bright fuchsia pink is especially vibrant in the landscape.
Bee balm. If you and your cats enjoy looking at bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, bee balm is a must-have plant for your cat-friendly garden. Bee balm thrives in the D.C. climate, so you – or, rather, your cats – will have to work hard to kill it. It is a perennial that spreads easily. Even if your cat likes to hide in your garden and sits in or around this plant’s stems, bee balm will quickly regenerate.
Lavender and rosemary. The District at its hottest point in the summer resembles the Mediterranean. As such, taking a cue from plants that do well in hot, dry locations, lavender and rosemary once established become drought-tolerant plants that adore the sun and easily come back every year, in addition to bringing a wonderful scent to your garden. They also both make terrific flowering hedges.
Heuchera. Hostas, ubiquitous in most shade gardens in D.C., are considered toxic to cats. I’ve had hostas in my garden to no ill effect to my cats. However, if your cat is a chewer, you may want to consider heuchera or coral bells instead. Heuchera is just as easy to care for as hostas and it comes in a wide range of leaf colors from green and variegated to browns and purples. A bonus with a heuchera is its tall flowers.
Polemonium. Most ferns are not toxic to cats but if you’re looking for something a bit unique, try polemonium or Jacob’s ladder. Polemonium look like ferns and despite their delicate appearance are cold hardy and can be relied on to survive D.C. winters. In the spring, they send up shoots of purple flowers in addition to gorgeous foliage.
Muscari. Most bulbs are toxic to cats so it’s best to avoid them altogether. However, muscari with its purple, grape-smelling flowers are safe for cats and one of the few bulbs that easily naturalize in the District. Most tulip bulbs do not perennialize anyways so muscari offers the added benefit of being squirrel and deer resistant.