Excerpt from “Gardening with Cats,” Yankee Magazine, August 1982
For me, gardening with cats began 18 years ago. At that time I had a heavy investment in Dutch bulbs, mainly tulips but also crocuses, daffodils, and scillas. Each autumn I purchased and planted a good number of tulips, and each spring a good number never came up. I thought of them as annuals; “monthers” would have been a better term, for they disappeared in the soil before the following spring. Mice grew fatter, and every September they peeked from holes near and far to see where their winter crop was being planted. Obviously they had tulipomania. The only place I saw tulips in flower was in catalogs — and in my friend Throckmorton’s garden. Throckmorton, a bachelor, is our village green thumb. He even grows his own garbanzos.
One day I asked Throckmorton the reason for his success with tulips. He pointed proudly to his seven cats, who were then eating dinner with him at the table, and asked if I would like to rent one. His rates were based on the day or hour. A day rate was out of the question for I had no intention of feeding one of Throckmorton’s felines in the manner to which she was accustomed; and no cat could rid our garden of mice in an hour. So I temporized.
Then, on a crisp star-filled evening in late fall, I stepped out onto the back porch for a breath of fresh air. Something furry rubbed against my leg. I looked down upon a most beseeching half-grown calico. “You’re new in the neighborhood, aren’t you?” I asked. She didn’t answer but motioned toward the door, no doubt aware that the refrigerator was full of milk and salmon, and that behind it there might be a mouse or two.
That was Captain Kidd, so named because of a black patch over her left eye. She performed her tasks nobly and swiftly, winter weather permitting, and the following spring there were tulips in bloom in numbers for the first time, and the crocuses prospered, too. Captain Kidd paid little attention to the areas in which daffodils and scillas were planted, for mice usually avoid eating these bulbs, which are bitter to their taste.
Captain Kidd was on duty for several years, but we still had to plant a few new tulips each autumn because they suffer from the accelerated ten-little Indian syndrome — plant ten one year, have eight the next, six the following, and so on. Mice apart, there is a natural attrition with most kinds, although one little species of tulip from Turkestan, Tulipa tarda, doubles its numbers in our garden every few years and seems adapted to New England life, provided the bulbs are planted in a sunny, well-drained spot — away from mice.
Eventually Captain Kidd went the way of all good cats, the tulips declined, and I took a wife. Mary Ann wanted a Labrador retriever, but we compromised on three cats. First on the scene was Minette, a tortoiseshell whose summer residence is an old stone sink atop a defunct well with a hand pump in back. On either side of the stone sink are containers with mixed plantings of marigolds, sweet alyssum, lobelia, or whatever other annuals strike our fancy in a particular year. At one end of the sink is a little stone bowl that holds water — and Minette’s fascination. She sits next to it for hours, apparently dreaming of goldfish gone by, famous mice of the past, and voles and shrews to come.
Felix, short for Felix Femina (a play on the species name for lady fern and so chosen after Felix’s sex belatedly became clear), is a four-year-old who happens to resemble a new tuxedo. She has lemon eyes and is a percher. Felix is half-sized because of an accident in her youth with a garage door, which left her with one lung and a mediocre appetite. She is a good hunter, though not as effective as she would have us believe. Last summer we found the remains of a weasel on our lawn, and she played with it for two days — when we were nearby. I suspect that the weasel, which must have been very old, deaf, and infirm, maybe even a great-great-grandparent, was killed by Minette, and Felix was taking credit. Weasels in their prime are not apt to be killed by any cat, except perhaps a bobcat. It became clear that Felix was not responsible when, shortly thereafter, a half-grown gray squirrel chased her down a large lilac and across the lawn. Felix the Faker, but a good cat anyway. She comes when called. Sometimes.
Every family with cats to speak of has a fat cat. Marigold is ours. She is Felix’s sister but nearly double the size, a typical brown and gray tabby whose fur is better to look at than pet. Marigold has an even disposition. She hates everybody and everything: other cats, human beings, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners. There is one exception — dinnertime. Then she becomes very friendly, rubbing against the waiter’s leg and issuing a minute-long miaow as mournful as a freight train whistle.
Marigold would just as soon spend her day three-quarters asleep in the perennial border, shaded by a clump of bee balm and occasionally taking a desultory one-paw swipe at a butterfly or hummingbird, neither of which she is adept at bringing down. She does better with plants, though, and I have found her on more than one summer day stretched out on a clump of the (once) gracefully slender yellow-flowered onion, Allium flavum. We grow a dozen kinds of alliums, and Marigold leaves her mark on most, not distinguishing between the uncommon and the mundane species.
In fact, most cats have an appreciation of — sometimes an obsession with — certain garden plants. We learned this when we planted catnip (Nepeta cataria) in the kitchen garden several years ago. This plant was a constant source of contention between Minette and Felix, and innocent bystanders of the green world became so trampled that the catnip had to be relocated to the periphery of our land. We also found it wise to insert a few cut twigs of the very thorny Japanese barberry in the soil around the catnip to allow the plant time to become re-established before the onslaught. I know of cats killing the golden goose, so to speak.
Catnip has escaped from garden to field and roadside by seed and root. We have succeeded with it both ways, but for those who like tradition there is a rhyme from England that may appeal: “If you set it, the cats will get it; if you sow it, the cats won’t know it.” In fact, not all cats relish catnip. Should yours be one of these, you can always console yourself or count your blessings with a mild herbal restorative, catnip tea, made from the steeped leaves.
Garden heliotrope (Valeriana officinalis) is another plant the foliage and roots of which possess an oil that delights felines, so much so that some people know it by the name of cat-valerian. It is an old-time perennial herb that came to America from Europe with the settlers. Garden heliotrope, which should not be confused with true heliotrope, a tropical plant grown as an annual for its sometimes fragrant purple flowers, usually grows three to five feet tall. It has small compound leaves that loosely resemble a ladder, and in early summer clusters of dainty white, light pink, or lavender flowers that are very sweetly scented. Plants vary, and the taller sorts need to be staked or cut back sharply to look good through the season. Like catnip, garden heliotrope has become a wayfarer along roadsides, growing from seed or root stolons along sunny or lightly shaded banks.
There is a little-known hardy vine related to the kiwi fruit that has a strong attraction for cats, Actinidia polygama. I recall that we once received some plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It being March, the plan was to grow them temporarily in a small alpine greenhouse before planting them in the open ground. The actinidias were indeed grown temporarily. It seemed that every cat in the neighborhood was attracted through the open vents in the alpine house, and within several days all of the actinidias were dead. Little wonder that this plant hasn’t become well established in gardens!
Minette, Felix, and Marigold don’t require Actinidia polygama to keep them content, thank goodness. They ask little, except perhaps Marigold, and have served the garden well. True, the cats have caused a few awkward situations. One day the head of the local unit of the Audubon Society came for tea on the terrace with Mary Ann and me. As we were sitting, Felix came from nowhere with a sparrow in her mouth, parked under the president’s chair — and began to dine. Everyone smiled limply, except Felix. And the sparrow.