To their owners, cats are fluffy bundles of affection and entertainment. To gardeners, however, they can be absolute pests. The problem is that cats will do exactly what cats want to do and there’s a limit to what you can do about it – especially if you want to stay on good terms with the cat’s owner. The solution is to make your garden, politely, cat unfriendly and you can do this with a strategic choice of plants. Here’s what you need to know.
Cats are very possessive about their own territory
The average cat is very possessive about its own territory, but has zero respect for other cats’ territories. This means that it will claim what it can by leaving its scent there and as long as the scent stays in place it will keep coming back to refresh it. This means that step one in deterring cats is to get rid of cat scents and that means cleaning up where they’ve done the toilet.
Not only do you have to get rid of anything and everything they’ve left behind, you need to get rid of the soil it touched. You might not be able to smell anything on it but cats will. Ideally you will also wipe down surfaces such as fences, especially the posts, where cats might have spayed or rubbed themselves. If at all possible, use ammonia but if that would be bad for the surface, try something with citrus in it.
Cats dislike rough textures
How helpful this will be will depend on your taste in gardening. For example, if you’re into lawn and beds, then you could edge the beds with something harsh-textured like gravel. As a minimum, you could plant seedlings through netting and surround them with straw. This will deter cats, slugs and snails.
Most cats dislike water
There are actually a few exceptions here, but for the most part it’s true. This might not be very helpful for your garden design, but you could try keeping a water pistol handy and squirting it at any cat who enters your garden. It won’t hurt them but they won’t like it one little bit.
Plants to keep cats away
If you don’t want to design your entire garden around deterring cats, but do want to send them a polite message that they’re not welcome, then any strong-smelling plant should do the trick. The obvious exception here is catnip (nepeta cataria), but we’ll talk about this later.
The two kinds of smell cats seem to hate the most are citrus and pepper. Therefore, if you can plant anything with these smells, then there’s a good chance cats will take the hint. It’s not guaranteed, however, if there’s something else really nice about your garden, they may decide just to take their chances.
Plants that cats hate
If you want (or need) to up your game and make it clear to cats that they’re really not welcome, then there are 7 plants cats are known to hate. These are:
- Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum)
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia and L. × intermedia)
- Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) *
- Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
- Rue (Ruta graveolens)*
Scaredy cat plant aka
- Coleus canina (Plectranthus caninus)
Pennyroyal and rue are both toxic to humans if eaten and were included just for completeness. The other five are safe to plant. Here’s what you need to know about them.
Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum)
In spite of the name, you can’t actually eat this plant but you might need to make this clear to other humans as it really smells like you can. The smell is plenty strong enough to deter cats. It’s also plenty strong enough to deter some humans. You might want to try smelling some before you decide whether or not you want to commit to it.
Speaking of commitment, the upside of the curry plant is that it is very robust and hardy and will grow in absolutely terrible soil. The downside of the curry plant is that once you plant it, you are going to have to work to keep it under control, otherwise it can easily take over your whole garden. The tactical move is to keep this one in a container.
There are 47 types of lavender and while they all smell foul to cats, it probably makes most sense to stick with English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) as this is best adapted to the English climate or, more accurately, the relatively warm, dry climate of the south of England. Lavender is unlikely to be hardy enough for outdoor growing in the rest of the UK.
If you are in the south of England, then lavender is a lot easier to grow than it looks. It’s great as a cooking herb and has all kinds of other beneficial properties. If you’re into making your own herbal remedies, then lavender is basically your all-round wonder herb and even if you’re not, most humans love the scent.
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) * – this can be fatal if eaten.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
Very similar comments apply to rosemary. This plant really needs a warm, dry climate to be happy outside (it’s less fussy about sun than lavender). If you have the right climate, then rosemary is super-easy to grow, but, again, you’re only likely to have the right climate in the South of England.
Rue (Ruta graveolens)*- this can be fatal if eaten.
Scaredy cat plant aka Coleus canina (Plectranthus caninus)
If you’re into Latin, no, that name is not a typo. This plant deters both cats and dogs. The common name references the cats (presumably because they’re the more common problem). The Latin name references the dogs, probably because the plant smells like dog urine. IT smells so strongly that humans will smell it, so if you’re going to use this plant, you probably want to do so strategically.
Basically the idea is that dogs respect other dogs, so if they get the idea that a place is already claimed, they will generally move on. Cats don’t necessarily respect dogs, but they don’t usually want to argue with them either, so if they get the idea that a place has already been claimed by a dog, then they will generally move on. Generally means about 70% of the time. The rest of the time, they will either ignore it or go around it.
Another potentially issue with the scaredy cat plant is that it is another plant which has a distinct preference for life in the warm and dry. It’s not as fussy about it as the likes of lavender or rosemary and it will tolerate partial shade. They are, however, definitely not tolerant of cold and certainly not of frost. This limits the options for growing them outdoors other than in the south of England.
Be very careful with catnip (nepeta cataria)
If you want to keep cats out of your garden completely, then whatever you do, never, ever, ever plant catnip (also known as catmint) or you will have every cat for miles around flocking to your garden, no matter what they have to do to get there.
If, however, you just want to keep cats out of a specific part of your garden, you could try a “carrot and stick” approach of planting catnip where you’re OK for them to be and planting something cats dislike where you want to deter them.
Cats will visit anywhere their smell lingers, so you will need to be strict about dealing with cat odours, otherwise any other efforts you make will probably be wasted. If you need to deter cats from your garden, the three things most cats hate in life are strong smells (especially citrus and peppery smells), rough textures and water. The more of these you can incorporate into your garden, the less they’ll like it, but keep human (and animal) safety in mind at all times.