Growing Your Own Kitty Treats
By C. M. Saracco
The sunny days of Spring are a great time to grow cat grass or catnip for your kitties. Both are easy to cultivate in Santa Clara County, in containers or in the ground. And both are reputed to offer mild health benefits – for example, cat grass can aid digestion and help cats eliminate hairballs, while catnip can reduce anxiety and encourage exercise. Most cats like them. Growing these treats for your cat is actually quite easy. You just need a couple of sturdy containers and a sunny spot indoors or outdoors. If you’re impatient or just don’t want to get your hands dirty, many garden shops carry cat grass and catnip plants. But growing your own is fun and inexpensive and will replenish your plant supply over many months (unsurprisingly, a cat can devour a lot of catnip).
Oat grass (Avena sativa) is the most common form of cat grass, although some seed suppliers also market certain forms of rye, barley, and wheat grasses as “cat grass.” Some places sell sample packs with a variety of seeds. My cats have enjoyed them all. In fact, our late cat Nikki, a 2008 Town Cats adoptee who passed away in 2019, loved to sample cat grass on our patio, as this photo shows. (Editor: see Nikki.jpeg) You can start cat grass seedlings indoors in a heavy-bottomed container any time of the year. (A heavy base prevents grazing cats from upending the pot .) Outdoors, it’s best to wait until soil temperatures reach about 70F, but check the instructions on your seed packet to verify.
Most varieties do best in a sunny location, covered lightly with potting soil (typically ¼ inch deep), and kept evenly moist. Expect seeds to sprout in one to two weeks. When the plants reach three to four inches tall, they’re ready for your kitties to sample. To keep a steady supply of cat grass on hand, plant fresh seeds in new pots at regular intervals. Remove worn-out (or excessively “mowed”) grass and replenish with new stock as needed. Cat grass is an annual plant that can be grown year-round in Santa Clara County. However, if you plan to germinate seeds outdoors during cool months, use a cold frame or plastic cover to help raise soil temperatures. Besides giving your cats something to munch on, cat grasses add healthy fiber and trace amounts of niacin and Vitamin B to a cat’s diet.
A member of the mint family, catnip (nepeta cataria) is sometimes called catswort or catmint. Unlike cat grass, catnip is a perennial herb that can overwinter in Santa Clara County, dying back during periods of heavy frost and reviving when temperatures rise. Here’s what one of our outdoor catnip plants looked like in January. (Editor: see Catnip.jpeg) The spotting on its leaves indicates a little frost damage, but that won’t affect the quality of the catnip. In warm months, catnip produces small pink or white flowers with purple spots that attract bees and other pollinators – a bonus for outdoor gardeners. Once established, it tolerates clay soils and dry conditions well. But beware: the plant can grow more than 3 ft. tall and wide, and it self-sows readily. We’ve had catnip pop up throughout our yard over the years, thanks to seed heads being carried off by birds, neighborhood cats, and probably even our gardening shoes. Catnip is easily propagated by dividing the root ball of an existing plant or even cutting stems and rooting them in potting soil. The plants can also be grown from seeds indoors, usually sprouting in a week or so. Follow the instructions on your seed packet; some suppliers recommend “stratifying” the seeds before planting – in other words, freezing the seeds overnight and then soaking them in water for 12-24 hours before sowing them.
Roughly two-thirds of domestic cats react to a chemical compound (nepetalactone) in catnip, while the rest show little interest in the plant. Cats that react to catnip often exhibit frisky behavior for five to 15 minutes after smelling it. Rolling on the ground, pawing at the plant, and increased playfulness are common reactions. A couple of times a week, I like to take fresh catnip leaves and rub them on a few toys for our cats to discover after they wake up from their naps. However, catnip can also have soothing properties when ingested; in fact, it acts as a mild sedative. Some experts (e.g., petMD) even note that a catnip “tea bath” can help soothe certain skin irritations in cats. Fortunately, I’ve never needed to try that out. I’m happy just offering a few leaves to my kitties now and then.
Edited by Rena Henderson