Tim Lockley: Cats and gardens not a good fit

By Tim Lockley

This week's column is about a common pest of flower beds and gardens: Felix domestica, the common house cat. Many of you spend a lot of time, money and effort on the preparation and upkeep of your flower beds and gardens. Then, along comes a cat who turns it all into a smelly, unhealthy mess.

Cats do a lot of damage. They destroy seed beds, dig up or chew on recent transplants and use gardens and flower beds as their personal toilets. They also carry such diseases as cat scratch fever, distemper, histoplasmosis, leptospirosis, mumps, rabies, ringworm, salmonella, toxoplasmosis and, as if those weren't enough, plague.

Fortunately, if you can get a cat to leave your property, even for a relatively short period of time, they usually won't come back. Because they are habitual animals, they are easily programmed. Once they find another suitable place to do damage or relieve themselves, they will continue to go to it and leave your yard alone. To get them to leave involves one or more of the following methods.

First you can form a barrier. Chicken wire or hardware cloth can be laid on top of the soil in your garden to stop cats from digging. Use old coat hangers as staples to hold the material in place. Most plants will grow through the openings without hindrance. Mulch can be spread over the wire to hide the material from view. A low-voltage electric wire placed as a single strand at a height of 10 to 20 centimeters above the ground around your garden is an excellent way to discourage cats from trying to get into your garden. A couple of good jolts will convince even the dumbest cat that your flower bed is not a good place for it to be. Once you've managed to get the cat to go some place else, you can remove the wire.

You also can try repellents. Mulch, by itself, is a fairly good repellent, but not all mulches are suitable. You need a large, textured type such as bark or rock mulch. Cats don't like to dig in rough dirt. They prefer soil with the soft texture of kitty litter. If you have a long-haired dog, spread the shed hairs around the garden or place clumps strategically around the bed in open-weave bags. Most cats will go out of their way to avoid the smell of a dog.

Some commonplace household items also may work. Try orange peel, lemon peel, cayenne pepper, coffee grounds, pipe tobacco, oil of lavender, lemon grass, citronella oil, peppermint oil, mustard oil or oil of eucalyptus.

There are some commercial repellents that you might be able to pick up locally at garden centers. Ro-PEl, Thymol and Oil of Anise tend to be effective. Read and follow the label directions. Most contain methylonyketone, which should not be applied around any plants you expect to eat. Apply repellents around the edges of the garden or flower beds, on top of fences and on any favorite cat digging sites.

There are a few other techniques you might want to try. If it's your cat doing the damage, keep it indoors. For you cat lovers out there, an "indoor" cat will live twice as long as one left to its own out of doors. If it's a neighbor's cat, talk to them (the neighbors, not the cat) and explain the situation. Maybe you can work something out. If it's a stray or feral cat, call animal control.

Don't leave food out for your pets. If you leave food out, you will not only attract cats but other pests will show up (possums, raccoons, rats). Light reflection can act as a deterrent. String up some old CDs (with knots between them to keep them apart). Place them around your garden. One of my favorite methods is to place a mouse trap under a layer of newspapers. When a stray cat wanders over the papers, they will set off the trap, startling them. A few of these traps popping off will frighten a cat without causing it any lasting harm -- other than to its dignity.

If none of these things works, you have two more things you can try. Plant some catnip (Nepeta cataria), cat mint (N. mussunii) or cat thyme (Teucrium arum) in an area as far away from the plants you want to protect as you can get. This "trap crop" will attract cats to it and should keep them away. Finally, you can build them their own litter box. A large plastic container filled with play sand will lure the cats away from your flower beds. Replace the sand every month. However, if you have small children, this may not be such a good idea. Remember that partial list of diseases?

Now, there are a few things you have to avoid doing. Do not use moth balls or flakes. Yes, the strong smell might repel a cat. Naphthalene, the main component of these products, is heavier than air and will sink into the soil and could very well damage the roots of those same plants you're trying to protect. No matter the provocation, popping a cat with a BB gun is a no-no. Yes, it's quiet and will give the cat something to ponder concerning coming back to your property. But, in all likelihood, there's someone out there who cares about that cat. Besides, in most communities it's illegal to discharge any type of gun within its corporate limits.

Finally, until you've rid your yard of all cats, wear gloves when you work in the soil. You never know what little gifts some cat is going to leave you.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.