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How to create a safe cat garden your cat can’t resist

Cat snacking on fountain grass, a cat-safe ornamental grass perfect for your cat garden.

Last updated Jun 22, 2020 @ 4:02 pm

Create a cat-safe garden to enrich your cat’s environment. But which plants are safe for cats to eat?

If you show your cat the grass menu and ask him what he’d like to snack on, he’d likely choose the “Sprigs of grass sprinkled with a bit of morning dew” or the simple “After hours Catnip platter”, nothing too fancy really. But what if you could offer up a kitty jungle to provide dappled shade and fragrant scents, some hiding and stalking spots from which to launch a ninja attack, or just a simple snack or two from kitty’s very own all-you-can-eat-garden buffet? Now that’s something special any cat would welcome!

How to create a cat-safe garden

Below is a list of non-toxic plants and flowers that I have grown in our catio. Not only is it safe for cats to eat or nibble, but they provide the closest thing to a natural outdoor setting; where they can fall asleep on a thick patch of grass, or just ‘hide’ behind some foliage while stalking bugs. Scent plays a huge role in cat environment enrichment and if your cat has access to an outdoor enclosure, this is the perfect sight to spruce up your cat garden with some cat-safe garden greens. Cats love exploring their world by finding new and interesting smells around them. This means, just like Ferdinand The Bull, they also love to just stop and smell the flowers, even if the plant is not necessarily on the snack menu. When setting out to explore different plant options for your new cat garden it’s important to ensure the complete safety of your cat.

Cat snacking on fountain grass, a cat-safe ornamental grass perfect for your cat garden.
Mr. Jack loves to snack on Blue Oat grass. This is one obligate carnivore that loves his greens too!

A simple to navigate website called Pethelpful lists popular plants that are toxic to cats. Also, have a look at the ASPCA website which has an exhaustive list of toxic and non-toxic plants. I found this site really errs on the side of caution as it lists plants that may only cause slight stomach discomfort but nothing serious. Still, better to be safe than sorry, especially if you know your furry friend is indiscriminate and loves his greens, especially since cats may react differently to the same plant.

Cats are essentially obligate carnivores, so why do they chew on grass?

One explanation for cats eating grass is that it helps to bring up hairballs and offers relief from an upset tummy. Cats in the wild eat every part of their prey, including indigestible parts like bones and feathers. Eating grass is like fiber with no significant nutritional value for cats, but helps to expel undigested matter. For your spoiled little Miss Diva cat who doesn’t hunt, this undigested matter is her hairball. Some cats are more prone to throwing up than others so don’t be alarmed if you see evidence of grass-infused hairballs on your carpet. If you would like a step-by-step tutorial on growing cat grass, check out our Ultimate Guide to Growing Cat Grass.

Below is a list of container plants that are all safe for your furry friends.

Please note, these are plants we have personally planted in our own catio. Always check with your veterinarian if you are unsure about something that your cat has ingested.

Plants safe for cats include:

  • Blue oat grass
  • Carex (gold)
  • Purple fountain grass
  • Lemongrass
  • Coneflower (Echinacea)
  • Cornflower (Bachelor’s Button)
  • Jacobs Ladder (Polemonium  Bressingham Purple, Polemonium Caeruleum Brise D’anjou (barrel), Polemonium Reptans Touch of Class
  • Catmint (Nepeta Mussinii ‘Walkers Low’)
  • Catnip (Nepeta Cataria) in hanging baskets
  • Spider Plants
  • Violas
  • Torenia
  • Petunias
  • Impatiens (New Guinea and Sunpatiens)
  • Nasturtiums
  • Watercress
  • Snapdragon
  • Zinnias
  • Valerian (cats love the root!)
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Thyme
  • Lemon Balm
  • Coriander
  • German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) Beware: English Chamomile (Chamaemelum mobile) is toxic to cats!
  • Swedish Ivy
  • Polka Dot Plant
  • Sunflowers
  • Boston Fern
  • Japanese forest grass /Hakonechloa macra
  • Japanese blood grass / Imperata cylindrica
  • Creeping Jenny
  • Sedum stonecrop
  • Ice plant
Actinidia Kolomikta or Kiwi Vine
Actinidia Kolomikta
White and pink variegation in the leaves of the Actinidia kolomikta. cats love the woody stem and leaves. They have never damaged the plant and it’s still thriving.

On the outside periphery of the catio, we have planted a hardy vine called Actinidia Kolomikta, also known as a Kiwi Vine, a relative of the popular Silver Vine, or Actinidia Polygama. This vine also contains a compound called actinidine which is a cat attractant, similar to nepetalactone in catnip. Many sites mention that cats love this so much that they will end up destroying the plant. I have not found this to be the case. In Early Spring, however, they do like to rub their cheeks against the bare stems with a little more enthusiasm and they seem to love hanging out in this corner of the catio all summer long. We call it the Vine Corner.

During the first growing season, it had reached all the way to the top of the catio in three months and has never been targeted by bugs. The pink and white variegation in the leaves are absolutely beautiful and this color display only shows after the second growth year. I have also planted giant (Benary) zinnias along the outside perimeter and despite mid-summer attack by those ghastly aphids and Japanese beetles, zinnias put on a marvelous blooming display. They reach up to four feet tall and provide even more shade and cover for cats who wish to take a nap on the tiered benches, which would otherwise be blasted by the sun all day!

Actinidia Kolomikta or Kiwi Vine provides ideal shade for sleepy cats in their catio
The Vine Corner, or in this instance, The Sleepy Vine Corner. Chirpy Cats house rule number 1, Let sleeping cats lie.
Giant Sunflowers add a happy glow, and everyone loves them!
Sunset background over backyard catio with tall sunflowers
Sunflowers at a cheery sparkle at sunset

Giant sunflowers are perfect for adding a tall curtain of shade around the catio. Their large petals and foliage provide ample shade for the cats’ catnip tunnel just below it. Planted on the outside perimeter in between the Vine, they tower up to six feet tall and their showy cheery faces last until late Fall. They attract birds and bumblebees so your cats have bird tv all day long.

The seeds only have to be sown for the first season, after that the sunflowers do come back every year. You don’t need to sow too many as these lovelies are so large that they can dominate and overshadow other plants around them. So less is more in this case. But if you don’t mind a large sunflower jungle, go for it! We certainly did that in the first year when planting for the first time and the squirrels were not complaining!

Caution: Groundhogs love to eat the sunflower sprouts! Once your sunflower sprouts reach 6-8 inches they are right at the top of a groundhog’s snack menu. For this reason I sow an extra bit of sunflower seeds in a far corner of our backyard. This way it attracts them to their own patch of spouts and keeps them away from the sunflower sprouts that I want to protect.

The Cats’ Picks

Catnip Nepeta Cataria

Cat find catnip hanging basket in the catio
Wow Ma! look, I found the catnip basket!

Here, Jimmy Fancy Feet, our polydactyl cat, marvels at his precious find!

As to be expected, this one tops the list. There is nothing better for a cat than discovering the jackpot, the hanging baskets at both ends of the catio! Sometimes I pick the leaves and break them to release the scent and offer it to them on the ground, where they can safely writhe, wriggle and drool about in ecstasy, and in safety! The rest of the plant is harvested and left to dry out for three months in the shed. This provides a good winter-long supply of catnip for the kitties as well as tea for the humans! Check out our step-by-step guide on how to grow catnip from seeds, no green thumbs needed.

Catnip is thought to be a natural flea repellent. When you’re pinching off the leaves from your catnip plant to encourage bushier growth, offer the leaves as a treat for your cat. Rubbing it on your cat’s coat or letting them roll in it, which they often do, may act as a flea repellent. If your cat is spending time in an outdoor enclosure or catio, this is the same as being an outdoor cat and it’s always best to err on the side of caution. You may want to get additional protection such as flea collars or other commercially available flea repellents. We are lucky that we have not had a flea infestation in the Chirpy Cats household so far!

Lemongrass
This is a favorite of both the humans and cats and I think we love it for the same reasons, well, almost. While the cats love chewing the long lush leaves, it also keeps mosquitoes at bay so it’s an added bonus to the humans. It also makes a refreshing summertime iced tea!

Lemongrass for cats
Mr Jack and Scout having a catnap next to the lemongrass plant.

Spider plants Chlorophytum
With their long ribbon-like leaves these popular houseplants are definitely high on the cat snack menu. We leave the spider plant babies to happily hang out of the pots for kitties’ snacking pleasure. They double up as cat toy too as they appear to ‘fountain’ out of the containers and sway in the wind. The spider plant is an all-around winner. It appears on the list of NASA’s clean air study, proven to mop up toxins such as formaldehyde and xylene found in indoor environments. We also keep two spider plants in hanging baskets indoors and leave the trailing baby plants hanging over the cat’s bar stool at their ‘watering hole’. Interesting to note is that spider plants are said to have a mild hallucinogenic effect on cats when they eat them as they contain opium-like chemical compounds. I would love to research more about that, but in the meantime, I am happy to serve up this tried and tested firm favorite with my furry cat garden critics.

Ornamental grasses

These grasses add a wonderful splash of texture and color to your potting cat garden, so how wonderful that most are non-toxic to our furry friends. In addition, they are a popular favorite with the cats too.

Japanese forest grass
I have two pots of these mixed with purple violas at the entrance of the catio and the cats always first stop here for a nibble. The two brothers Ollie and Baggy have a liking for the violas leaves and stems as well as the grass and it’s really funny to watch them masticate like a bunch of cows in a field. Sometimes there is actually a queue of cats waiting at the same plant for a snack. The contrast of the chartreuse green with the symphony of pinks and reds from the impatiens, violas and petunias, provides a setting which will be appreciated by the humans too!

Japanese blood grass
With its tall green blades at the base and blood red tips, this beautiful ornamental variety of grass is also a crowd pleaser.

Carex
There is a wide variety of carex grass, some are plain deep green and others are variegated with white and green. This seems to last all season right up until late autumn. At the start of winter, this is the variety that I bring indoors to set up their winter watering hole, where the plant will last all winter. The carex variety is the cats’ go-to snack. We like carex gold and carex red rooster carex buchananii.

Blue Oat Grass
The lovely blue-grey leaves cascade over their pots all through the season. Not all the cats like these spiky blades but we always see Mr. Jack tuck right in! See photo above (first picture)

Cat eating Japanese blood grass, a cat safe ornamental grass
Mr. Jack snacks on Japanese Blood grass.
Non snacking plants, just for fun and color

While all the plants are safe for the cats to nibble, not everything in the catio is on offer as a snack. The tall and bushy stems and flowers of the catmint, which is planted in rectangular pots are often used as a hiding and stalking point. The big barrel of purple fountain grass, together with the trailing and lush Swedish ivy, provide plenty of shade. In addition, the scent of the Swedish ivy with its lemon peppery notes does not go unnoticed by the cats. The Jacobs’s Ladder blooms are often touched by curious noses and whiskers for a sniff and perhaps a little cheek grazes and then a lie down for an afternoon catnap. Last summer, my latest new addition to the catio included Creeping Jenny, which is perfect as a fountain accessory plant and also offers a little shade as it hangs over the tiered platforms.

Cats love grazing on grass and these are plants safe for cats to eat
Clockwise from left: Ollie hides in some foliage, Jimmy wants a bit of purple fountain grass, Scout considers the red rooster leaves and Jimmy’s at the Japanese Blood grass again.

Want to know which toxic plants to avoid? Emily, the site owner of Catalogical, has put together a comprehensive list of toxic plants to avoid, 470 to be exact! It’s a very easy-to-understand list, using common household names easy to remember and pronounce when verifying with your garden center expert.

You do not have to go overboard with your first cat garden. Start simple. Choose a few from the list above and experiment with what works for your space and hardiness zone. When you visit your nursery, ask about toxic and non-toxic plants as the staff are often quite knowledgeable on the subject of plants and pets. Whenever introducing new plants to your cat, even if they’re from the safe list, always observe your cat’s behavior when they’re grazing. Watch out for any adverse reactions, but above all, have fun planning your safe garden, kitty will thank you with a thousand love blinks!

So, what type of greens is on your cat’s menu? ‘Sprigs of grass with a splash of morning dew‘ or the ‘After hours Catnip platter‘? Please chirp us a line in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this post, pounce over to how to create your cat’s very own watering hole.
Thinking of building a catio to allow your cats to conquer new cat garden kingdoms? Pounce over how to how to build a catio your cats will love!

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grey tabby cay snacking on blue oat grass in a catio garden

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About the author

The Lady Cat
The Lady Cat

Whiskers make me smile.
Coffee is good for you.
And cats are for life.
Helping cats live enriched lives with their people.
(Yasaar Nakchbendi)

11 Comments

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  • Do any of your cats have food allergies? My Sophie has a strict diet and I’m wondering if you know of a plant that she might be okay with. I will check out the ASPCA site as well. Thanks for another very informative post!

  • None of my cats have allergies per se, but my older boy, Earl Grey, had colitis. A new food regime has fixed that. It’s worth mentioning though, that he has the most sensitive stomach of all the cats and he loves eating grass, with no side effects. All varieties of carex grass seems to be good. Wheat grass is also popular and can be grown from wheat sprouting seeds bought at health food stores or grocery stores.

    The baby plants that hang from the spider plant hanging baskets are also very safe for cats to nibble and provide endless entertainment for curious felines.

    Although all of the plants mentioned in this post is safe for cats, I still monitored each cat’s reaction to the plants. Be prepared for the occasional hairball throw up with slivers of grass in there too!

  • What a wonderful cat garden! Our humans have “black thumbs” so it’s a challenge for them to even grow cat grass for us!

    • Thank you Dragonheart, I also thought I would kill anything green before I started, but now I can’t wait for gardening season. The kitties have now dictated what they like so I have to keep going and please them! Ornamental grasses in the Carex genus are hard to kill and of course so is the good old ‘nip! For indoors, try Japanese forest grass in a pot, as they don’t mind shade.

    • Thank you, Rosa! As cat guardians, it’s nice to know that there are many plants that are safe for our kitties. I have listed the ones that were tried and tested by the Chirpycats themselves!

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