Tango, a feral cat, arrived one day in our garden -- just an ordinary backyard garden that includes vegetables, a few berry bushes and a front border of annual marigolds, zinnias and salvias. But gardens can be designed in all sorts of "themes": a chocolate garden, blue garden, love garden, butterfly garden, salsa garden, memorial garden, perennial garden, prairie garden, wildflower garden, annual garden, formal garden, cutting garden.... Have you ever heard of a cat garden?

Kitty Zimmer of For The Love of Cats (TLC), a no-kill cat shelter in Lodi Township, Michigan, recruited master gardener Monica Milla to create an extraordinary garden just for her retired cats. "There were about 12 to 20 cats at the facility at any given time," says Monica, a cat and garden lover who designed, planted and maintained the cat garden at TLC from 2003 until 2005, when the property was sold.

Designing a Cat-friendly Garden

TLC garden photo before plants were addedTLC garden photo after
TLC garden baby's breath photo
TLC Cat Garden
TLC Cat Garden After Design
Baby's Breath
Before Design Oat, wheat and rye grasses border the walkway A lovely pink cultivar

The TLC deck and garden was fenced and enclosed so the cats could safely come and go. According to Monica, "I'd say they all enjoyed the garden overall, and maybe six especially so." Are you wondering if the cats used the garden as a litter box? Monica said that it wasn't a problem. "There was a peat area in one corner as the designated litter box, that volunteers regularly cleaned."

photo of feral cat 'Emmy'

photo of Valerian photo of 'Sebastian' resting in the garden

Emmy, a feral cat at TLC who stayed in the barn,

also enjoyed the garden.

Here she is chewing on some wood mulch.

Valerian in early spring

Sebastian enjoying the catmint,

stepping stones and lamb's ears

Cats love playing with twigs and sticks, so the natural wood mulch serves a dual purpose: the cats can play with it and it keeps the weeds at bay. Cats also love warmth and sunny spots, which can be provided by slabs of flat stepping stones to absorb the heat of the sun.

In addition to lots of catnip, Monica included these cat-friendly plants for the cat garden: oat, rye and wheat grass, lamb's ears, creeping thyme, valerian, and baby's breath. She selected two kinds of baby's breath, Gypsophila paniculata 'pink' and 'Bristol fairy'.

ASPCA's website lists hundreds of toxic plants, including azaleas, begonias, castor bean, carnations, coleus, dahlias, English yew, foxgloves and baby's breath. Although baby's breath is on the ASPCA's list of toxic plants, Monica claims, "Baby's breath is NOT harmful to cats."

As a master gardener, Monica did a lot of research before deciding on which plants to select. An important discovery she made in her research was that often times it is only a part of the plant that is toxic and the toxicity level depends on which organism ingests it (cat, dog, humans, etc). For baby's breath, Monica says, "It is only the ROOTS that are toxic to some animals, mainly FISH. The roots are rich in saponins. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. Saponins are much more toxic to fish and are not harmful to cats."

You can view more photos of this special cat garden by visiting TLC's website at: TLC Cat Garden, For the Love of Cats.

Click here to read Tango, the Garden Cat ~ part 1: Tango Arrives

Tango the Garden Cat ~ part 2

Tango's Garden Adventure

A s the family sat around the kitchen table eating a healthy dinner with grilled fish, baked potato and fresh salad with red, ripe tomatoes freshly picked earlier that day from their vegetable garden, Becky began thinking about Tango.

What happens to Tango's food if we get a rainy day? If it rains, the dry food will get ruined and he won't get his food that day. "How do we keep Tango's cat food dry?" she asked.

"I know," said Bill, "if we move the food bowl to inside the garage, it will be dry and safe."

"We can't leave the garage door open," replied his dad. His mom's head nodded in agreement.

"Only a crack," countered Becky. "Not the main door, the inside door. No one will see it's open."

Silence filled the room, and then her parents both agreed, "OK, I guess we can try it."

The next day they moved the bowl to inside the garage and left the side door open just enough for Tango to get in. Next to the garage door was a 'Zephirine Drouhin' rose--a thornless climbing rose with a very pleasant rose fragrance -- surrounded by hosta plants around the base. The wide leaves of the hostas would be perfect for giving Tango more camouflaged places to feel safe.

Every day at dinner time, Tango snuck into the yard and walked along the fence under the canopy of the pine trees. Sometimes he would jump into the asparagus (asparagus hybrids 'Martha Washington' and 'Jersey Giant') or tomato 'Tango by the Fence' by artist Carol Mooreraised beds to hide and wait until no one was around--especially the dog Holly--before making his way into the garage. He was a master at being sneaky; no one ever saw him.

Always on alert when he heard any noise at all, Tango would run from the garage to his safest hiding spots, usually somewhere under the bushes in the neighbor's yard.


Every day after school, Becky and her brother, Bill, went out searching for Tango. "Have you seen him?" Becky would ask.

"No, I never see him; maybe it's not Tango eating the food." Bill replied.

"Maybe it's a racoon or squirrel," said Becky's mom. "We have no way of knowing."

Then one day her dad said, "I think we should stop putting it out, I don't want critters in our garage."

"Oh Dad, but what if it's Tango? If we stop, he will hunt more birds and get into our trash, so he has something to eat. That is what feral cats do to survive," explained Becky, who had started reading about feral cats. Her instincts told her it was Tango; she pleaded with her parents to keep putting the food out, just a little while longer.

"OK," agreed her parents.

That night at dinnertime Becky took out some food. "Tango? Tango? Here kitty..." Just as she lifted up the main garage door, a little black head appeared in the side door that was left open. "Tango, it's you! I knew it was you ... I'm not going to hurt you, I'm your friend," she said in a soft, gentle voice.

Tango stood still, his big green eyes closed slowly and opened again, as if to say hello.

Becky reached out toward Tango and he just backed up, but didn't run away or hiss. Happy to have gotten that close, Becky said, "Bye, Tango. Have a good dinner. I'll see you tomorrow." She left the garage and ran in the house to tell everyone what just happened.

"He must be lonely out there; maybe we should try and catch him so he can come in and live with us?" Becky suggested.

"I don't think so, honey," cautioned her parents. "We already have three house cats (Romeo, Snoops and Ruby). And besides, it's been months now and Tango is still not friendly; he runs away whenever he sees us."

Becky's eyes filled with tears; no one said anything. Then her dad said, "We would have to figure out how to catch him, and we would have to take him to the vet to get neutered and shots for feline leukemia and rabies. This could be expensive."

Becky could tell that her parents were hesitant to take in another cat. She went to her room, wiped away her tears and continued reading about feral cats. She fell asleep feeling confident her parents would do the right thing.


L ater, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Bill went with his dad to the garden center to buy a few things for the garden. Becky came down from her room and saw Romeo and Snoops peering out the window, alert to something outside. Holly seemed uninterested, as she rested quietly on the blue oval rug, waiting for Bill and Dad to come home.

'Tango in the Garden' Artwork by Carol Moore The mesmerized house cats, leaning their bodies forward with eyes opened wide, peered out the window. "What are they looking at?" Becky chattered to herself as she wandered over to look too. "Look! Mom...Mom...come, quickly!" she shouted with great excitement. "Look at Tango!"

Her mom raced across the living room to join Becky. They looked across the yard towards the garden, "Oh, he is cute and frisky as a kitten," said her mom.

They could not believe their eyes. There was Tango jumping up into the air and zooming all around the garden. "Oh my gosh, he has friends!" Becky giggled, as she turned to see her mom's eyes wide with surprise too.

"There must be a colony of cats out there. The others look like baby tigers. Look at that striped one go," noted her mom.

The small brown tabby was Tiger. He was happy and frisky as he jumped over Tango, then darted behind a row of dahlias in the back of the garden border. Tiger paused beneath a Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa 'Purple') plant to sit and catch his breath.

Tango jumped the low garden fence and sat beside a yew bush, facing the house. His eyes squinted shut as his face looked upward to soak up the warm sun.

"Look at the grey one," said Becky, "I see Tango and three others. Counting Tango, there are four! I can't wait to tell Bill and Dad."

Unlike Tiger's blend of brown, black and white stripes, Zina--the grey-toned tabby--displayed faint colored markings on her body with a pronounced black stripe down her tail, resembling a zipper.

Becky said with excitement, "Mom, the calico-one just ran behind the horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) and around the gooseberry (Ribes 'Pixwell')!"

Cali also had a tiger-striped tail, but unlike Zina her fur was darker with patchy swirls of rich dark and light brown shades that made her look like a Calico cat from a distance.

They watched as Cali ran completely around the entire garden, tapped on Tango's shoulder and chased him before lunging into a bed of soft asparagus ferns, as though it were a child's play gym full of colorful balls.

The colony loved the garden playground and had a grand time, indeed. Finally, the furry ferals paraded out of the yard and down the neighbor's driveway, all-the-while tagging and leap-frogging over each other, until disappearing under the bushes.


The family would never know that, as they all were asleep that night, Tiger was killed by a car as he was hunting up the street from their house -- a sad ending after such a wonderful day.

Also, that same night, when Becky went to bed, she heard a familiar sound, outside in the darkness. She quickly jumped up and ran to Bill's room, "Bill, wake up, wake up, listen..." They both listened ...it sounded like an animal cry. They both heard that noise before and looked towards the window. The sound of a red fox making his warning call to claim his territory echoed through the night.

"The fox is out there...what will happen to Tango and his friends?" whispered Becky.

Photographs used with permission. All cat garden photos ©Copyright 2009 Monica Milla. All rights reserved.'Tango on the fence' by artist Carol Moore

Tango Artwork Copyright ©2009 Carol Moore. All rights reserved. Tango, the Garden Cat TM is a trademark of Feral Gardens.

Special Thanks to artist Carol Moore for contributing her time and talent in creating the artwork for this garden story, and to Kitty Zimmer and Monica Milla for sharing their story and photos.

Carol provides care to her many grateful barn cats. She is a professional artist from Oregon with a passion for the outdoors, animals and art and creates art for custom commissions and her online galleries. She uses color pencil, water color pencil and/or acrylic-gouache on Stonehenge, Bristol, Canson MiTientes or Arches Watercolor paper. The Original Small Works of Art (OSWOA) of 'Tango by the Fence', 'Tango in the Garden' and 'Tango on the fence' were created with color pencil on Stonehenge (acid free paper).

About the Artist: Click here to visit Carol Moore's gallery

Further Reading:

Tango, the Garden Cat part 3: Home for Christmas by Diana Wind

Cats in the Garden by Benjamin Hill

Garden Books: Visit Dave's Garden Bookworm for books on Theme Gardens

Related Links:

Dave's Garden Pet Discussion Forum, available to subscribing DG members

The Master Gardeners Creating Garden Spaces for Cats by Joanne Brown

A Garden for Cats by Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont