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Gardening with your pets

Some people look to the groundhog to signal the start of Spring. Others check for the first crocus buds and daffodil heads. As for me, I know that it is officially Spring when the Mole arrives. The Mole has been a visitor (and the bane of my gardening existence) for many years. Neighborhood dogs, feral cats, and even Ryder, our neighbor’s mighty tabby, have all conspired to bring him down. But, the Mole survives year after year. He’s a wily creature—apparently immune to the mole-busting bulbs sold at Lowe’s. And, even though my lavender will eventually look like a very small and determined train plowed through it, I can’t bring myself to employ any harsher methods against the infamous Mole.

Animals are a part of any garden. And, although I’d prefer that the Mole take up his particular brand of soil aeration in another patch of ground, he is as much a fixture in my yard as my neighbor’s dog, Honey, or my own dog, Lady. Being a housedog, Lady only visits the garden—usually when I’m gardening. I can’t say that she’s the most helpful sidekick—although she is particularly useful in clearing old leaves and mulch out of a flowerbed. Her digging spirit is apparently awakened by the scent and sight (occasionally) of the Mole and his cohorts, the chipmunks and squirrels.

My neighbor has a perpetual squirrel and bird utopia set up—with feeders for different varieties of critters, both flying and climbing. She also has several stands of fountain grass that have become the hiding place for our neighborhood cats. There is, apparently, a price for all that free birdseed. Although George and Fionna, both adopted feral cats who now never stray far from their own yard, seldom hold on to anything they catch. They do, however, provide great entertainment for Lady, who fancies herself a squirrel-dog. The squirrels don’t seem bothered by this title and have, in fact, set up something of a Squirrel Mafia. A large colony of them lives in my veteran oak trees and likes to land on my deck and tap on the glass doors—perhaps expecting me to put out peanutbutter crunch for them or a few bowls of sunflowers seeds. Unlike my neighbor, I’m an infrequent squirrel-feeder. So, the squirrels’ demands are sometimes ignored provoking a great deal of chittering and foot stomping on their part. My housebound cats, staring avidly through the glass at the squirrel sideshow, seem to know when the squirrels have been thwarted. Instead of chattering at the glass, they lick their paws in satisfaction. Some of the squirrels, after all, are the size of small cats themselves, having lived a life consisting of regular feedings of critter-treats and granola mix.

This morning, I saw the Mole. I don’t actually see him very often. I was crawling through the evergreen bushes trying to lure a new stray cat into my clutches. I’ve named him Snowshoe (he has white paws) and I’ve been feeding him for about a month. Apparently, I’ve been feeding him quite well, since he wasn’t at all interested in the Mole who was unearthing my monkey-grass with abandon. The Mole was non-plussed by my or the cat’s presence. After all, he has survived many years—no doubt a feat for any mole—and he probably considers the garden and my yard in general his stomping ground.

Here in Tennessee, we have the beginnings of Spring. Leaves are budding, flowers are heading up, and new grass is beginning to make an appearance. Of course, March is a precarious month, as likely to turn to frosts at its end as to mark an early thaw. But, the Mole has never let me down. So, I’ve started sorting my seeds and getting the wintered plants that have lived under gro-lights in my basement for many months ready for transfer to the outside.

Lady and I are gardening fiends. Herb gardens being our particular passion, I plant one for me and one for the critters. Rabbits, chipmunks, and the Mole, of course, do some damage to herb and vegetable gardens. But, neighborhood pets wreak their own special brand of destruction. Ryder, a dead-ringer for Morris the Cat, loved to wallow in my catnip and lemon mint. After an hour or two of Ryder’s attention, most plants never completely recover. He also had a system of stripping catnip flowers from the stalks that I never actually saw, but which left entire plants denuded. Although Ryder has moved to Paris with his people, our new King Cat, George has taken to rolling on the new sprigs of mint. At this point, he mostly gets a dirt-bath, but once the plants are up, I’m sure he’ll enjoy himself immensely. He is, fortunately, a cat of much less girth (and venom) than Ryder.

I know that many gardeners have gardening plans, constructed over the long winter days that include planting schedules, seed orders, and lay-outs of what and where for every plant. I subscribe to a much more haphazard system. Although I have collected a variety of seedlings and seeds (not to mention pots and garden statues) over the snowy months, I never really know what goes where until my knees are in the dirt. I do have a few small rules for gardening—I never plant anything dangerous to animals or children. We have lots of both in our neighborhood. And, I try to avoid any plant that can survive a bit of attention from the Mole, dogs, or cats. Ryder has trained me well. Creeping thyme climbing gracefully up a garden ladder may look lovely, but its delicate strands are no match for large furry paws. The ladder met an unfortunate end and the thyme ended up creeping over stones instead of in the upward direction I’d planned. These days, I stick to hearty herbs like flowering thymes, mints, and lavenders with a few chamomiles, rosemarys, and basils thrown in for good measure. Anything that needs special protection I plant near the lemon tree (soon to leave the basement and take up its usual residence center-garden.) Even Ryder hated the very sight of the lemon tree—the miniature lime tree was also an object of his scorn. And, after a few initial scratches, cats do seem to avoid citrus plants.

Since I do have a few vegetables, I’ve augmented a patch of garden with sand for the carrots. The sight of the sandbag is always of great interest to all neighborhood cats. I’m sure they believe I’m installing a new (extra-large) litter box for them. Our neighbor’s dog, Honey, is also a digger. So, for the last few years I’ve added a plant-free sand/soil patch at the end of the garden. The cats and Honey seem to prefer it—no pesky veggies to get in the way of your digging—and it lets my carrots grow in peace. There are lots of products on the market to keep animals out of your garden. You can choose from sonic devices guaranteed to keep your veggies deer and rabbit free, bulbs to deter moles, and, of course, the never-fail aluminum foil pie-pan on a fence (sure to frighten crows and deer. But, over the years I’ve found that it’s easier just to work around and, if possible, with the animals that are a part of your garden. If I lose a little lettuce to the rabbits, I can always plant more. If George decides to flatten the lemon balm, I can stand it again—and it smells just as nice a little flat. To me, a part of gardening is the joy it brings to everyone, including the furry inhabitants of my neighborhood.

So, this year, why not plant a little extra for your furry friends. Everyone knows that cats love catnip and cat thyme, but they’re nuts for lemon balm and lavender. Dogs love a bit of sand to dig in and don’t mind a good roll in the mint once in a while. And, rabbits will welcome a nibble of whatever. The list of plants below are all animal (and children) friendly and many are quite decorative as well. So, the next time you’re picking out plants and seeds for your garden, why not add a couple of mints to your basket—or even a lavender or two? Watching the attention your garden gets from your little furry friends is well worth the extra work planting.

Friendly Plants:

Cat Thyme
Cat Grass
Mint (Peppermint, Spearmint, Lemon Mint, Cat Mint)

There are other pet-friendly plants out there, but these are a few of my favorites. For a list of toxic and dangerous plants, you might want to consult the ASPCA’s list of toxic plants. It’s very comprehensive and includes fatal plants, such as lilies as well as those that just cause digestive distress like chrysanthemums.

Beverly Forehand

Beverly Forehand is a freelance writer, editor, and social & digital media marketer living in Nashville, TN. Her stories and articles have been published in Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories, FATE, Fine Gardening, Muscadine Lines, the Ghost Story Society, and other publications. She published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and was a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange/All Creature’s Exchange, an animal advocacy newspaper, for many years. She has published a book of ghost stories, Haunted Homeplace: Tales from the Borderlands of Tennessee and Kentucky with 23House Publishing. If you like a scary story with a cat or two thrown in, you can find it at: Her hobbies include cultivating her medieval herb garden and begging her cats (unsuccessfully) to stay off the sofa. Follow her blog at or on Twitter at @Beforehand

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