Dear Miss Floribunda,
What is the best way to keep cats out of my garden? There are feral cats around, and I also see domestic cats that are allowed out or have slipped out of their houses marauding in my yard. I don’t like to see them flopping, digging, and squatting in my flower beds, and most of all, I don’t like them attacking birds at the feeders I’ve set up. I’ve heard about a sprinkling system that is motion-activated, but I can see that backfiring on me. Recently a neighbor told me about a plant called “Scaredy Cat,” which repels them. Would that work? Would anything?
Feline-Unfriendly on Longfellow Street
The best way to keep cats out of your yard is to get a dog, but if you don’t like having your flower beds dug up, that is obviously self-defeating. I wouldn’t recommend the plant popularly known as “Scaredy Cat” (Coleus canina) because the skunky odor not only offends and repels cats but everyone else. Attractive plants that repel felines without repelling you are lavender, rue, rosemary, and the curry plant. Cats dislike citrus smells in general, so you might make a mulch of shredded orange and lemon peels. They also dislike the smell of coffee grounds, which is a good addition to mulch, though quite acidic. You could mix a little chelated lime or ground eggshells with them to correct the Ph. You can get coffee grounds in quantity from coffee shops at the end of the day, often free or at minimal cost. If you wanted to be nice to the kitties while diverting them from your other flowers, you could give them a separate section filled with plants that attract them: catnip, of course; pink-flowered valerian; cat grass (Dactylis glomerata); mauve-flowered catmint. In fact, any kind of mint will do the trick.
Now, how do we keep cats away from the bird feeder? Cats don’t like to hurt their paws on rough surfaces. A bird feeder on a nice slippery pole surrounded by sharp stones, sea shells, pine cones, or egg shells would be a safe place for birds. Some people use chicken wire around their feeders, but it isn’t particularly attractive. Plastic carpet runners can be cut up and placed with the rough side up and lightly covered with dirt. This would also suppress weeds in your flower beds, as would the stones and shells. My Cousin Catbane has had success with a mulch of glass marbles, which is very pretty but expensive.
Sharp mulch could possibly help deter other predators. Let me try to bring in a little balance here because I’m not sure cats deserve all the blame they receive these days. There are many other threats to small birds in our area, and some such as hawks, foxes, and coyotes prey not only on birds but on stray cats and those escape-artist domestic cats that defy the city ordinances and manage to get outside. Fortunately, song birds such as robins have an average of four families each spring to make up for the large attrition rate of eggs and babies from such nest robbers as raccoons, possums, squirrels, snakes, and yes, other birds. And then insects such as blow flies get in the birdhouses and nesting boxes and suck the blood of their hosts. Cleaning these places periodically with vinegar not only repels insects, by the way, but cats and other climbing predators as well.
Another thing I would like to bring to your attention as a gardener and homeowner is that stray cats feed far more on rodents than they do on birds: that means moles, voles and shrews as well as the field mice and rats that can invade homes and spread disease. (Remember the bubonic plague? It has reappeared, even in the U.S. New studies are also revealing the role rodents have in the development of Lyme Disease.) Voles chew roots off of plants and the bark off fruit trees, which is a menace to the trees’ survival. Rosarians know that voles are one of the greatest threats to a rose garden and while moles don’t eat plants, the tunnels they dig do disturb them. Those who love their lawns dislike the mounds mades by moles. In addition, these creatures feed on the earthworms your soil needs. Although shrews do eat harmful slugs and grubs, they also eat small birds.
In short, while it is of course important to protect birds, it should not be necessary to stigmatize cats as Disneyesque villains. I too have read and loved Beatrix Potter stories and “Wind in the Willows” but cannot ignore the fact that in the real world some of those charming characters are harmful vermin that we should be grateful to cats for controlling.
The Hyattsville Horticultural Society will be taking a field trip to Chesapeake Natives nursery at Mount Airy Mansion in Rosaryville State Park on Saturday morning, September 19, in lieu of a meeting. Feel free to join us. For details go to the HHS website at www.hyattsvillehorticulture.org.