Catnip is a perennial herb well-known for its ability to drive felines crazy. What it's less known for is its potential to help with a variety of human ailments, from anxiety to migraines. Whether you're wanting a treat for the kitties or an addition to the medicine cabinet, growing catnip is the answer.
The plant belongs to the mint family and contains nepetalactone, which is chemically similar to cat pheromones. Cats love the scent of this plant, so dried catnip is often used in cat toys to entice pets to play. I’ve grown catnip in my garden before, but it didn’t last long. I pulled it out once I realized how quickly cats found their way to my garden.
I planted catnip in an effort to please one of the feline visitors in my garden. The sweet grey cat that I call Bento appeared the first week we moved into our home and never stopped showing up. I planted it away from my main beds in an effort to get her to stop plodding all over my plants.
The introducing of catnip had the opposite effect. Cats came in in droves and used my raised beds as a litter box. Now gone from my garden, the problem has been rectified, thankfully! One day, when I finally have my own cat, I’ll be sure to plant a veritable bounty of catnip. It is easy to grow, after all!
I find it funny how catnip affects felines. As a dog owner, seeing cats react to catnip really differentiates the animal species. Cats are calm and aloof most of the time but show them catnip, and they lose it. Dogs are energetic and attention-seeking most of the time and give them a good bone to chew, and they’ll calm right down.
Why Grow Catnip?
Why bother growing catnip in the first place? There are lots of great reasons to plant it, including:
Cats Love It
The herb is safe for pets and cats love it, so whether you have a pet cat or you’re attempting to appease friendly neighborhood cats, the plant won’t harm your furry friends. If you’re a cat owner, it’s a nice treat to give to your feline pal. Dried and added to cat toys, the plant drives kitties wild. They become playful and energetic. Eaten, the herb has sedative and calming effects. The enticing scent of catnip makes it a great training aid. Avoid filling your kitty up with treats and use catnip to help with training.
Plant it in a faraway area of your garden to divert the attention of roaming cats who are already traipsing through your plants. They’ll lose interest in your garden beds and go straight for the catnip. In the home, use catnip to encourage cats to play with certain toys or scratch certain areas of your house and avoid others.
Catnip isn’t just useful for soothing felines. The plant has medicinal properties and was once used as a treatment for a variety of ailments, including stomach upset, anxiety, and the common cold.
The flowering herbs not only attracts cats but also pollinators like bees and butterflies, which are vital to the health of your garden.
Attracts Beneficial Garden Predators
Probably one of the most significant benefits of planting catnip is its ability to attract predators like lacewings and parasitic wasps, which are helpful or controlling specific pest populations.
You can use catnip anywhere you'd use mint: as a tea, chopped into soups and salads, or as a topping for desserts.
Is there any reason to avoid planting and using catnip? The only risk involved for your fur pal is that in some cases – and in large quantities – it may cause an upset tummy. Catnip can also encourage cats to enter into your garden, which not everyone may appreciate.
There are a few varieties of catnip. Some are more suited for the ornamental garden, while others are better if you're looking for something to use medicinally.
True catnip (Nepeta cataria)
This is the one you want if your main objective is to please your feline friends or if you're growing catnip for its medicinal uses. It gets about 3 feet tall and has white blossoms with a faint purple spotting. True catnip is native to Europe, but it has naturalized across the U.S.
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii)
Catmint is in the catnip family, but the plants are different. It tends to have a bushier growth habit and to have showier flowers. The blossoms are purple, unlike catnip's flowers, which are usually white. Catmint doesn't have the chemical compound that drives kitties wild, so it's more useful as a mint substitute or an ornamental.
Lemon catnip (Nepeta cataria citriodora)
As the name implies, this variety has a lovely lemony scent. It's excellent as an insect repellent, and you can use the natural oils in the leaves to keep mosquitos away.
Greek catnip(Nepeta cataria parnassica)
This variety is a little smaller than true catnip, only reaching about 18 inches tall. It has white or pale pink flowers.
Six Hills Giant catmint (Nepeta mussinii faassenii)
This variety is so good looking in the garden that it can be planted as an ornamental. It has a ton of flowers and will bloom a second time in the summer if you trim it back after its first blossom. Six hills giant is extremely drought tolerant and gets 3 feet tall.
Camphor catnip (Nepeta camphorata)
Camphor catnip has pretty white flowers with purple dots. In only grows about 18 inches tall.
Growing catnip is incredibly easy. The low-maintenance plant tolerates a variety of conditions and soil types. The mint-family plant is likely to spread aggressively like its mint cousin. Keep it in a container, if possible.
Catnip is a hardy and perennial in zones 3 and up to zone 9.
While catnip prefers hot weather and full sun, it will grow in partial shade.
This plant is extremely tolerant of poor soils. It’ll grow nearly anywhere, which is what makes it so prone to aggressive growth. That said, if you want your catnip to be happy and potent, plant it in rich, well-draining soil with a pH between 6.1-7.8.
Where to Plant
Careful, catnip will obviously lure cats to your yard. Think about the consequences of planting some right in the middle of your garden. Plant in a container and you can easily move the plant around to more convenient areas should cats become a nuisance. Consider growing it indoors if it’s for your feline pet pals, to prevent contamination as a result of bird droppings or air pollutants.
Staring by Seed
Seeds require stratification to germinate, because of their tough outer coating. Freeze seeds and soak in water prior to sprouting to encourage germination. Sow seeds lightly on the surface of the soil, don’t plant too deep.
The perennial herb returns every year after the winter, so expect it to continually spread over time. You may direct sow in the early spring, once the soil is workable, or in the late fall.
Another option? Take some catnip from a friend or neighbor who has too much to deal with.
Start seedlings indoors and transplant once established if you want to get a head start on planting. Start catnip indoors a few weeks before you want to plant. Seeds germinate within 5-10 days.
Transplant starts once temps have climbed in the spring and the danger of frost is passed. Harden plants off for a few days before setting in the soil. Set out too early, and cats may come for your young seedlings. To prevent seedling damage, cover your crops.
Give catnip 18 inches between plants and rows.
Caring for Catnip
Since it's a member of the mint family, it won't come as a surprise that catnip is relatively easy to care for.
Most varieties are drought-tolerant and prefer dryer spots in the garden. Avoid watering too much as it can cause root rot in plants.
Mulching is unnecessary considering catnip’s vigorous growing habits and tolerance of drought conditions.
After flowering, before the plant begins to self-sow, prune aggressively to prevent the spread of this mint-family plant. Pruning is more likely to be required if plants are grown within a larger garden area. In containers, it’s not as important. Pruning after bloom will also encourage a second blooming period.
Because catnip spreads so readily, it’s not necessary to succession sow.
It’s not necessary to fertilize catnip plants as they tolerate poor soil quite well. Don’t waste fertilizer on these plants.
Problems and Solutions for Growing Catnip
I wasn’t kidding when I said that catnip is easy to grow. The plant is nearly problem-free. It grows much like a weed, so it’s a plant that encounters few problems. Low-maintenance catnip is an excellent choice for new gardeners having trouble establishing other pollinator-friendly plants. Anyone can grow it.
Still, here are a few problems that you might want to watch out for.
Why is it not growing back after the winter?
If the plant is not well established and experiences a deep freeze, there’s a risk that it may not return. Your container may not provide enough protection for your plant. The other reason? Cats may have decimated your crop.
My plant doesn’t look healthy (or it’s dying) what’s going on?
Your plant may have been exposed to a disease. Fungal infections like Cercospora may affect your catnip plant. Treat with fungicide if a fungal disease is suspected and remove plants that are too far gone. Too much water can cause root rot. It could be that you’ve planted it in a spot where the soil doesn’t drain. Remember not to plant catnip in a spot where you previously grew mint.
Cats keep destroying my catnip! How do I prevent this from happening?
If you have a problem with cats trampling all over your catnip, use netting to cover it, and prevent damage. If netting doesn’t work, use sturdier protection like chicken wire to keeps cats away.
As the name implies, this pest looks like a tiny, white fly. They're related to aphids and, like their cousin, they suck the life out of plants. They also leave a honeydew behind that can attract other diseases. Get rid of them by blasting them off plants with a strong spray of water. Then apply neem oil regularly for the next few weeks.
There is hardly a plant out there that isn't subject to the sucking jaws of the spider mite. Luckily, they're fairly easy to control. Blast them off plants with a spray of water and then use a regular application of neem oil.
Mint rust impacts all of the plants in the mint family. It causes orange-red marks to form on leaves. Encourage beneficial insects and give plants plenty of air circulation. Water at the base of plants in the morning. You can also treat with azoxystrobin.
Slugs have been known to take a bite out of catnip. Use your favorite snail control method.
Aphids feed on plants, causing them to have stunted growth or to become weakened. Get rid of them the same way you would whiteflies.
Powdery mildew causes plants to become covered in a fine, white powder. Make sure plants have lots of good air circulation, water at the base of plants, water in the morning so catnip has time to dry, and apply neem oil during the wet season.
Companion Planting for Catnip
Because it grows aggressively (like mint), it’s best to plant catnip separately from tender plants in the garden because they'll quickly be smothered.
Plant catnip in containers and place near aphid-infested crops to encourage lacewings to settle in the garden. The plant is also an excellent deterrent if you’re dealing with potato bugs, asparagus pests, or annoying squash insects. Catnip is also a great repellent for Japanese beetles, which may attack a number of plants including beans.
Plant catnip next to:
Don't plant catnip next to kale or cucumber.
Harvesting and Storing Catnip
Used as a cat treat or in cat toys, catnip is best dried before use. Cut leaves as needed and use to brew tea (which has calming effects) or garnish dishes or add to salads. Flowers and leaves are both edible. To dry catnip, cut full stalks and dry in the sun. Remove and crumble leaves and add to cat toys. Harvest the plant frequently to encourage bushy growth and prevent the plant from setting seed too early. Frequent harvest also helps prevent the aggressive spread of catnip plants.
What are you planning on doing with your catnip plants? Let us know in the comments.