ARTICLE BY: AMY CAMPION
Amy Campion is a HPSO Board Member, freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She blogs about gardening at amycampion.com.
They’re a ragtag team, but they help me get a lot of important work done. George, Leonard, and Kevin are my gardening crew, and they’re also my cats. Now, you may think that cats are of little use in the garden. While it’s true they prefer supervising to physical labor, they are good company, and they’ve taught me many valuable gardening lessons. Here are six of them.
#1 Save Some Grass
There’s a war going on against lawns in this country. A growing contingent of environmental crusaders would like to see homeowners do away with turf entirely. For the most part, this war is justified. Lawns waste water and fossil fuels, and they receive shameful amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. But I can’t embrace this crusade completely. George and Leonard and Kevin remind me often of the luxury of feeling cool grass between bare toes.
I’ve removed all of the turf from my front yard and much of it from the back, but I’ve left a modest amount for strolling, stretching, and sunbathing. I take a few minutes during every sunny, warm day to roll around in the grass like a kitty. Seriously. It’s an instant mood-lifter!
#2 Important Paths Should Be Direct
A cat-path worn into the grass in my backyard leads to the entrance of a secret garden. Duck under the fence, and you enter the magical world of Blackberry Forest, my neighbor’s collection of Himalayan blackberries. The path to this wonderland takes no frivolous turns, but goes directly from the cat door to its destination.
When designing the walkway to my front door, I considered a winding path that would take visitors on a meandering journey past my myriad beautiful plants. How grateful they would be! What a glorious stroll they would have on their way to the front door! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that people would probably prefer to march, cat-like, straight to the door. So I made my path direct.
#3 For Paths, Use a Material that Packs Down
When I decided to put pea gravel paths in my front garden, I was afraid my cats would use the gravel as kitty litter. Actually, they took pains to avoid touching the gravel at all, preferring instead to tiptoe along the edge of my planting beds when walking through the garden, or—better yet—to follow the bricks and stepping stones.
After working in it a while, I realized that pea gravel is unpleasant to walk on. It’s squishy and loose, and it scatters everywhere. It sticks to your shoes and follows you into the house. Since I need more gravel to finish the job anyway, I’ll top off the paths with a few inches of quarter-ten. The angular stones will pack nicely and give me (and the kitties) a firmer walkway.
#4 Take Plenty of Breaks
When my cats help in the garden, they work at a sensible pace. Like all self-respecting working cats, they belong to the Feline Workers Union (FWU). This powerful organization has lobbied for (and won) optimal working conditions for all cats in the U.S. Each 15-minute work period must be followed by a four-hour break.
Gardening is hard work. I’ve spent hours at a time turning soil by hand, stripping sod, hauling gravel. I’ve paid for it in the middle of the night when I’ve woken up and couldn’t get back to sleep because my forearms or elbows or shoulders were throbbing. Any cat can tell you—take plenty of breaks.
#5 A Gift for the Birdies
The other day, I was brushing George outside and soon had gathered a kitten-sized ball of fur. I left it in the grass and said to George, “We’ll leave this here for the birdies to take to their nests.” The next day, Leonard sat up straight and his eyes got wide. He gawked as a chickadee made off with a clump of the fur. Leonard watched that spot for 45 minutes, waiting for that bird to come back. Truth be told, I did too.
How satisfying it is to supply the birds with home furnishings! Today I brushed my critters outdoors, and stuck the fur in the joints of a teepee trellis. A goldfinch mama quickly found it and made off with a beak-full. Success!
#6 Plan Your Garden for the View from Indoors
Whatever the weather, there’s always a cat or two (or three) indoors. Often, they’re staring out at the garden. A large picture window in the living room looks out on the front garden, and the back of the couch provides a great perch for watching the world go by. A hummingbird feeder by the front door and salvias near the house provide endless fascination.
When I was planning my front garden, I wanted it to be a showcase garden. I imagined neighbors walking by, and I considered how the garden would appear to them. In reality, I’ve learned that I’m much more selfish than I thought. I, too, stare out that picture window and marvel at the hummingbirds, the flowers, the way the grasses dance in the wind. Go ahead and plant your favorites where you will see them every day—from indoors.
They may seem like slackers with their two-and-a-half-hour workweek, but cats can make valuable contributions to the garden. I consult mine before all major garden projects now. Then we sleep on it. Lesson #7: You Don’t Want to Be Too Hasty in Your Decisions!