Growing Catnip

Tips for growing catnip (Nepenta cataria). How to start from seed and cultivate in the garden. Advice on harvesting and drying for winter use by cats.

Catnip (Nepenta cataria) is a perennial herb than causes most cats to fall into a state of unbridled ecstasy, complete with half-lidded eyes and copious drooling. It is rare for a cat to be unresponsive to this plant, and since it is harmless to them, there is no reason to deprive your pets of the pleasure. The very best catnip is grown in your garden and dried for use in the winter. The dry catnip available in pet stores is a pale imitation of the real, fresh item, and does not even belong in the same category as what you can preserve for kitty's winter enjoyment.

THE NATURE OF CATNIP

Catnip is a member of the mint family and a perennial, which means it will come back every year from a single planting. It will also self-seed, giving you lots of baby plants to share with friends as the years go by. This is an attractive plant, growing to three feet or more and producing bluish flowers in mid-summer. The leaves are light green, slightly furry and have an attractive scalloped edge. As with all members of the mint family, the stems are square and hollow.

Catnip is easy to find in the spring. Most garden centers and large home-supply centers sell it, along with other herbs. Mail-order nurseries are also a good source. However, be sure that you do not buy an ornamental catnip by mistake. There are now at least four different types of "catnip" grown as ornamentals. They will not get kitty high or even slightly tipsy. You want common catnip, Nepenta cataria.



If you decide to grow your plants from seed, start about eight weeks before the last frost in your area. Consult an almanac or call the local extension agent if you are unsure of the date. Start the seed in two-inch pots, using sterile potting mix. Moisten the soil mix, press the seeds lightly down and cover with a tiny bit of mix. Cover the pots with plastic, and keep warm. The top of the fridge is a good place for the seeds to germinate. Expose the young plants to full sun as soon as they start sprouting, and do not allow them to dry out. Gradually acclimate the plants to outside conditions, and plant them outdoors when the danger of frost is past.

CULTURAL REQUIREMENTS

As with most herbs, full sun, adequate moisture, and reasonable soil are all that is needed. Catnip will grow happily in patio pots or as a part of the vegetable or flower garden. Nearly pest-free, the worst damage usually comes from outside cats that discover the plants before they get well established. If your pet is allowed outdoors, by all means show him the plants. After the initial delight wears off, they usually leave the plants alone to grow strong and tall. Catnip can survive long periods of drought once it is growing well. In fact, this often intensifies the aroma by concentrating the essential elements that kitty loves.

HARVEST AND STORAGE

You can begin harvesting catnip as soon as the stems get to about one foot tall, and continue cutting all summer. In mild climates, the plant will maintain a low rosette of leaves and can be picked through the winter. During the summer, you can cut a few sprigs of fresh catnip for kitty whenever you want to give him a treat. Don't be alarmed if kitty eats all the leaves.

Cut the stems when the leaves are dry of morning dew and hang upside down in an airy, shaded place to cure. When completely dried and crunchy, crumble the leaves into a paper bag and discard the stems. Store in plastic bags under lock and key. It has been my experience that many cats are able to open cupboards and remove bags of catnip. Most cats will have no trouble tearing open a plastic bag to get at the catnip inside.

When you give your cat toys filled with catnip, remember to keep a few extras inside the bag for later. Pom-poms of yarn are very nice cat toys that can be purchased at craft shops or made at home. A few of these kept in with the dried catnip will ensure a ready supply for rotating.

© High Speed Ventures 2011