Catnip, catmint are not the same

I often get asked by cat owners how do they grow a decent crop of catnip before their cat rips it out by the roots.

The answer is easy. Grow it in a hanging basket until it gets big enough to fend for itself.

I learned this the hard way.

I have two cats and while one has a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, the other is a catnip junky. Anytime I’ve planted catnip or catmint, which is a totally different but related plant, within a matter of days, my cat has pulled it completely out of the ground and left it flattened and wilted.

I like to sew and do needlework, so I imagined making cute little catnip-stuffed toys for my feline friends to enjoy. Drying and putting together these little trinkets is the easy part. Getting the cat to leave the fresh catnip alone is impossible.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria), and catmint (Nepeta faassenii), are both members of the mint family of plants, Lamiaceae. These plants are easily recognized by their aromatic scent and square stems, but as I mentioned before, they are two different plants. Other members of this plant family include lavender, rosemary, sage, and thyme, although those herbs aren’t as aggressive in the garden as the proper mints like spearmint, peppermint and lemon balm. Plants with the word “mint” in their names will take over a garden and should be planted separately and confined.

In my herb garden from several years ago, I planted mints inside clay chimney flue liners that the husband set in the ground at different heights. The mints cascaded out of their containers and the structures added a bit of garden art to the whole garden, which we loved. (The problem with this, however, is that winter freezing causes expansion and after a few years, the clay flue liners will crack).

Like catnip, cats will lay directly on top of catmint and flatten it down, but unlike catnip, they won’t eat the plants. They seem to enjoy the smell more than the taste. Birds love the seeds, particularly goldfinches. Years ago I had a large clump of catmint in a section of the garden that also had birdfeeders. One morning I looked out to see an entire flock of goldfinches clinging to the tops of the tall catmint plants, feasting on the seedpods. They came back for several days until all of the seeds were gone.

Both catnip and catmint are hardy perennials, which means they will come up each season from the same clump. A lot of folks don’t care for the scent of either plant, but that doesn’t stop them from growing it for the cats and the birds. (If you plant to attract birds, keep the cats out of the garden or you’re just setting them up for execution. If you’re planting it for your cats, don’t put bird feeders nearby).

While catmint plants are medium height, around 18-inches to two feet tall, catnip can get much taller, around three to four feet. Catmint tends to be more civilized, growing straight up and staying in a uniform clump. Catnip is a sprawler and much less tidy.

Catmint’s leaves are a gray-green shade and the pale lavender flowers are borne on tall spikes. To propagate the plant, simply divide the clumps in the spring or fall and replant them. Both catmint and catnip like well-drained soil and prefer full sun, but will tolerate filtered sunlight although they may get leggy. If too shaded, they likely won’t bloom.

I have heard that catmint repels squirrels and chipmunks from the garden, although I’ve not tried to prove this theory. If moles, voles or other small critters are an issue, try putting a few catmint plants around the area and see if it works.

Both plants also are easy to grow. Since tender young seedlings can be delicate, they won’t survive a cat’s curiosity, so it’s best to keep the cats away for at least one season to give the plants a chance to get established.

Both plants are easy to preserve. Simply tie a bundle of stems together I prefer to use rubber bands and hang them in a dry, well ventilated place for about a week. When the leaves are crunchy and brittle, pull them off the stems and store in an air-tight container.