Recently, I decided to start gardening selfishly—although perhaps I should say I decided to continue gardening selfishly.
There are a number of ways in which a garden can be a force for good in the world.
A garden can do social good by providing food for an individual, family, or community.
A garden can support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators—which in turn supports our ability make food.
A garden can support wildlife beyond pollinators by providing food and habitats for birds, small amphibians and reptiles, and invertebrates like bugs, worms, snails, etc.
A garden can support water management, either by being efficient in its use of water or by mitigating flooding by absorbing rainfall.
A garden can help support and preserve populations of native plant species.
My garden… doesn’t really do any of those. I mean, I grow some food, and I have some pollinator plants and plants that provide seed for birds. I have one or two native plants. My planting containers are probably better than bare concrete as far as managing water goes. But my garden isn’t really designed around any of those purposes.
Instead, my garden is an entirely selfish endeavor. Its purpose is to lift my mood and give me something to do. And maybe that’s enough?
Like most of the northeast, we had some unseasonably cold weather last weekend. I had already planted several cold sensitive plants and was worried that they’d freeze and die. I devised some covers out of old clothes and bedsheets for the beans and basil seedlings. I didn’t manage to get everything under cover though.
It turns out, I probably needn’t have worried. Everything pulled through—even the beans that didn’t get covered.
The patio is almost all concrete, which traps heat. In winter, or during a cold snap like the one we just had, it’s often quite useful. I can often start gardening a little on the early side and continue later into the fall.
The difficult months for my garden are July and August, but I’m slowly learning how to deal with those—mainly by carefully selecting which plants I try to grow. I suspect the beans will be fine this summer. We’ll see how the basil does.
Interestingly, my perennial salvia (Blue Hill) has put out some flower buds. I’m not really sure if this is normal timing for it. I got this plant last June. It thrived last summer, and was already lush and green even in early March. We had a strangely warm winter, so it may have just gotten an early start, or it might be that the cold snap tricked it into thinking it was later in the year than it actually is. Either way, I’m eager to see how the salvia does this year, especially since these will probably be the first flowers to bloom on the patio this year.
When I’m in the garden, the cats are usually with me. They seem to enjoy being out in the fresh air,* and Leo especially enjoys chomping on plants.
This has meant that I’ve had to modify my plant selection in order to keep them safe. A remarkable number of plants are toxic to cats, including:
Daffodils, hyacinths,† tulips, lilies, and irises
Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, and chives
Parts of the tomato plant
Hydrangeas, azaleas, and rhododendrons
Foxgloves, lupines, and monkshood‡
I don’t grow any of the plants listed above, and I usually spend a good bit of time checking if a plant I’m interested in is reasonably cat safe.
I say reasonably because some plants are more toxic than others. Most of the ones listed above are pretty bad for cats, and can even kill them.
I do, however, grow some plants that could have some mild effects, such as mint and rosemary. Even catnip can be dangerous in large quantities. In addition, some cats, like Leo, will inevitably throw up the plants that they eat onto the carpet. (That seems to be part of the fun for them.)
For other plants, I make concessions about location: Hostas are also toxic to cats, so I only grow them in front of the house, where the cats are not allowed to go. Eventually, I may grow some other shade-loving plants that aren’t cat friendly, such as hellebores (lenten roses) and dicentra (bleeding hearts) out front as well.
The big exception to all this is snake plants. They’re toxic, but I have some in the house because Leo shows no interest in them and they do well in low light.
At some point, if I can figure out a way to keep them out of the cats’ reach, I may try growing chives and other, less cat-friendly people food.
If you’re thinking of growing a plant, I recommend first checking out the ASPCA’s lists of toxic and non-toxic plants. It’s not a complete list, but it’s the most comprehensive one I’ve found.§
If you just want some suggestions for getting started, though, I recommend snapdragons, petunias, alyssum, pansies and violas, cornflowers, and cosmos for ornamentals. For edibles, chard, beets, lettuce, the broccoli and cabbage family, cucumbers, and most squash seem pretty safe.
Some beans do contain toxins that break down when cooked, but most are fine to grow around cats. You should probably avoid castor beans, though. Hyacinth beans are fine to grow, but can be tricky to cook properly.
Finally, if you’re not familiar with sweet peas, they aren’t edible and are toxic to animals and people. Edible peas (ie, garden peas, English peas, snow peas, and snap peas) still often have pretty flowers, though.
Footnotes *Or what passes for fresh air in the city. †Grape hyacinths are a different species and are listed as cat-safe by the ASPCA. ‡These are often featured in cosy/country mysteries. §Sometimes, a plant isn’t on either the toxic or nontoxic list, and you have to decide if you’re going to risk it.