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Keeping the Pets Out of the Garden!

Q. Mike, do you know any way to discourage cats from using my garden as their personal restroom? We live in a rural area, and I love cats, so whenever someone "drops one or two off" in the middle of the night, we just buy more food and welcome them to our family. Unfortunately, they 'use' our vegetable and flower gardens, in spite of the litter boxes we provide in the garage. Help!

            ---Zella Starling; Chandler, OK

P.S. I listen to your show on KGOU, 105.7, from the University of Oklahoma

A. Ha! Nice last name, Zella! (Did you know that despite 'your' reputation as a nuisance, starlings are the only bird that eats Japanese beetles both ways—as grubs in the soil and as airborne adults?)

Speaking of garden pests, that bodacious bevy of ferocious felines must provide you with the most vermin-free landscape in the state! Ah, but even the joy of gardening without moles, voles, mice, wabbits and nasty pocket gophers probably doesn't ease the "ICK" factor when you reach down into nice rich soil hoping to pick a peck of potatoes and come up with a handful of something you definitely weren't looking to grab a hold of. Eeeewwww! Sixteen pads of Brillo and those hands STILL don't feel clean, do they?

The problem is that loose garden soil is a great place for your felines to "cover their feces and preserve the species". Predators like catsbury their waste products so that their prey—those a fore mentioned rabbits, mice, voles, moles and gophers (again, the PLUS side of having kitties in a kitchen garden) won't know their nemesis are near.

Now, before we name a few things that might allow you to safely keep the pest patrol portion of this equation without a side of cat scat, a gentle plea to everyone out there: DON'T USE MOTHBALLS TO REPEL CATS—OR ANYTHING ELSE—IN THE GARDEN! I know some fools endorse using those puerile poisonous pellets for such purposes, but having those nasty little balls of toxic waste around is worse than deep breathing in an asbestos factory! Don't buy them, use them, touch them, or inhale their deadly fumes in any way. They are real kidney killers.
Instead, try one of more of these Seven Secrets of Successful Poop Preventers:
•    The horizontal fencing trick. This is the perfect time of year—before our gardens really get going—to lay chicken wire down on top of your beds, like a carpet. Spring bulbs and garlic greens come up right through it; you can seed crops like lettuce, string beans, and peas right on top; and you can cut holes in the fencing to accommodate perennials and veggie and flower starts. Cats won't 'go' where they can't 'scratch and cover'—and the fencing quickly sinks into the soil, so you won't even see it.
•    Appeasement. Keep a covered litter box (they look like little doghouses) filled with fresh litter out by the garden. The cover keeps rain out, and single cats will use it instead of your petunia patch. Zella—unfortunately, multiple cats will sometimes treat even multiple litter boxes like tribal challenges on Survivor. Each cat will quickly try and mark each box, and then none of them will use any of them. (This is the only instance where cats act more like men than women.) In a situation just like yours, I'd recommend having a large load of sand dumped near the garden for them to use instead. In my experience, if the pile is big enough, they won't treat it territorially.
•    Deterrents. Spread grapefruit and orange rinds around your beds. Many of our listeners swear that citrus peels work great at repelling cats. Or try a commercial dog and cat repellent spray.
•    Water. Personal: Stand by with a 'loaded' hose or a big Super Soaker type water gun and give every cat what comes near a free bath.
•    Automatic: The "Motion Activated Sprinkler". You set it up, attach it to your hose, turn the water on full blast, and—nothing happens! …Until someone or something approaches the garden and actives the sensor. Then the device shoots a couple cups of freezing cold water at them—chasing away, cats, dogs, groundhogs, deer, and tomato-filching neighbors without harming them. (Hang out behind the curtains and watch!) Available at garden centers and in many catalogs. (Get it---"Cat" a-logs? Oh—you're all hopeless!)
•    Scent Them Out. Put a "Piss-off Plant" in every bed! That's the name this HEAVILY scented coleus is sold under in Europe, where it's said to be a big hit. Bred to keep cats AND dogs away (and now bunnies, they newly claim), its called "Scardy Cat" and "Dog's Gone" here in the states. Look for the distinctive large tags of terrified cartoon dogs and cats stuck into the plants at nurseries and garden centers.
•    Give Them a Hot Foot…eh, Paw. If all else fails, spread dried hot pepper flakes or cayenne pepper powder over top your beds. But please make this a last resort: It won't cause long-term harm, but it could be temporarily painful for the poor kitties, who after all, are just 'doing' what comes naturally. (And be aware that all the seeds mixed in with those dried flakes could well produce a pretty little pepper plant ground cover in your raised beds.)
•    Special advice for Wild Cats. If your problem is with truly FERAL (wild) cats, contact one of the organizations dedicated to both improving the lives of those poor abandoned kitties and getting them out of the hair of harried homeowners. I personally recommend "Alley Cat Allies" in Washington, DC: 202-667-3630; www.alleycat.org. They have a great program that offers resources, information, AND a state-by-state list of people and organizations that will help you capture the cats, get them neutered and vaccinated, and perhaps even put them up for adoption. They're a wonderful, one-stop, pro-cat resource for people with feral feline troubles.