Photo by Melody

Scat, Cat! When cats are garden pests

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistJuly 19, 2012

A recent “ask a gardener” post said, “Help! Neighborhood cats are using my garden as a litter box. They’ve been apparently doing it for years. How can I stop them?”

Gardening picture

Why do cats like using garden beds for their "business," anyway? Cats like nice garden soil; it's soft on their paws and scratches up easily when they cover up their deposits. The leafy greenery smells good and provides a little privacy. Let's think up some ways to discourage them and make our gardens less inviting.

Scent and texture are major factors in whether or not cats use your garden as a landscaped litter box.

Let's talk about that fluffy garden soil. Maybe we can top it with something cats won't like, while keeping our plants' roots happy below. Consider putting down something to make walking on or scratching in the soil unpleasant - not hurtful, just not nice. If paws in your garden encounter anything prickly, hard, noisy, or sticky, they'll turn around and go the other way. Bark chips, gravel, pinecones, crushed oyster shells, even hardware cloth laid over the surface of the soil might be effective.

Sometimes you just need to stop cats long enough to break their habit of "going" in your garden, so don't rule out temporary use of items from your recycling bin. My cat freaks out if he walks on something that rustles or pops, like crumpled newspaper, plastic grocery bags, or bubble wrap. Avoid using anything that could injure or entangle cats. For example, you might try using crinkly plastic grocery bags, but the handle loops could be a real hazard (just cut them open).

Repeat visitors and new arrivals are both drawn to the scent of previous kitty "contributions." Cats mark their territories with urine, and they not only refresh their markings regularly, they'll also try to "mark out" the scent from other cats. Depending on the area involved, you may be able to clean out the area and apply one of the enzymatic cleaning products made for getting puppy piddle out of the rug. If the area has been used a long time as the local litter box, you may end up digging out and replacing the topsoil in the worst areas.

Then you'll want to add some scents that cats don't like. The often-suggested cayenne pepper isn't a good idea, because it can cause real damage to eyes and noses. But most cats will go out of their way to avoid citrus and herbal scents. Orange peels, coffee grounds, mint plants, marigolds... almost anything with a pungent scent (other than catnip of course!) will make them turn up their noses, shake their heads, and go the other way. Store-bought remedies rely on scent deterrents, but if you don't want to shell out for them, read their labels for additional ideas.

Citrus and herbal essential oils and fragrance concentrates would be easy to use as a short-term deterrent. Choose a scent you'll enjoy but cats will avoid. Lavender, orange, lemon, rosemary, or peppermint oils would be good ones to try. Many cats also object to strong floral scents such as jasmine, gardenia, rosewood, or Aunt Edna's favorite perfume. Sprinkle a few drops onto semi-porous pieces of terra cotta, wood chips, pinecones, or bricks, and scatter them around your garden. Lemon or pine scented cleaning products, dribbled generously around the edges of your garden bed, may also be effective barriers. As a bonus, these scents will often keep voles, rabbits, and other garden nibblers away.

Cats hate water, as a general rule. You can make use of this. The motion-activated water cannon that my father set up in a last ditch effort to ward off deer might be a little extreme, but you could try using an irrigation system to send out a little spray or mist every so often. Keep your hose handy when you're outside, too. A restroom with "shower facilities" won't be nearly as popular with the felines.

One or two cats around the garden may be welcome companions or vole hunters. But if they start making themselves a little too much at home, consider what scents and textures you could use to make your garden feel a little less comfortable.

grey tabby sniffing around potted plant on deckI love cats, but I wouldn't want them using my favorite flower bed as a potty. These ideas are based on what my cats have liked or avoided, as well as on suggestions I've come across. Please share your own experiences and ideas!

The above suggestions are made with the assumption that you don't have a major problem with feral cats. If the issue isn't just with neighbors' cats who are allowed to roam, then consult with your local cat rescue organization, animal control, or county health department.


Photos by Jill M Nicolaus. Mouse over images for additional information -- just hover your cursor over the picture, and a pop-up caption will appear.

The pretty black cat in the first photo is not a garden pest, and I don't want to impugn Mr. Calvin's good name.  He "took up with" my in-laws a while back and became a valued member of their household.

  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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