Gardening with Cats

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.

Garden cat with echinacea.

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
  • Peonies
  • Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, and chives
  • Parts of the tomato plant
  • Hydrangeas, azaleas, and rhododendrons
  • Foxgloves, lupines, and monkshood
  • Morning glories

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.

*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.