Colony Management 101: Tootsie Roll Gardens
Feral cat caretakers wear many hats while taking care of their colonies—feeding, cleaning, problem-solving and mediating are just a few. When I teach the Neighborhood Cats Trap-Neuter-Return Certification Workshop in NYC, we start off with a section on community outreach—which often confuses folks who are just there to learn about helping cats.
I usually ask, “Who here has cats who only live in your own yard, if you have one?” (10 hands out of 30 stay up.) “And they never go into your neighbors’ yards?” (5 hands.) “And your neighbors never complain about the cats.” (1 hand up, if we’re lucky.) It’s at that point that they begin to understand why speaking to neighbors is an integral part of colony management. While NYC has a very dense population of both people and cats, I have seen the issue of free-roaming cats and property come up in many locales outside of NYC as well. And with increased chatter about urban and suburban gardening – particularly growing our own food – I’d like to focus on what we can do about free-roaming cats in gardens!
Presence of feces and toxoplasmosis are the two most common garden issues I’ve been asked to address as a feral cat caretaker. The feces complaints are a serious issue because the more the cats are annoying neighbors, the less safe they are due to diminishing public acceptance. And toxoplasmosis is a serious issue because it’s a human health hazard. I encourage everyone to brush up on their toxo facts, courtesy of the CDC. You can also download this pdf that provides a general overview of toxoplasmosis.
There are a number of deterrent methods available to keep cats out of gardens, lumped loosely into two categories: making the gardens unappealing for cats to visit and blocking access to garden areas that cats tend to use.
One of the first solutions offered when it comes to making the garden unappealing for cats is a motion-activated sprinkler for use in the warmer months. Once it’s installed, the garden steward has little to do but watch the cats realize they get wet every time they enter the sprinkler’s range.
Other aversion deterrents are usually scent-based – some folks have had success keeping cats away from garden beds with things like citrus peels and eucalyptus, and recently I’ve seen people using mulch as a deterrent. Coffee has often been recommended, too. While we list coffee on the “ASPCA’s People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pet,” citing its toxicity, it’s safe to use grounds from decaffeinated coffee or caffeinated grounds that have been brewed through a filter, resulting in most of the harmful caffeine being removed. (And P.S., brewed grounds are good for the garden, too!)
Thankfully for us caretakers, the cats are usually drawn to gardens because of the soil, and typically aren’t eating very many flowers or crops. Therefore blocking cats from the soil usually solves the problem, ensuring a “tootsie roll-free” garden! If the plants have enough room between them for the soil to be visible, chicken-wire mesh or window-screening material on the ground prohibits the cats from digging in these areas, which seems to make it less likely they’ll use it as a litter box. People have also used plastic forks or bamboo skewers (pointy side down!) staked into the ground to make it more difficult for the cats to dig in the soil. Depending on what you have planted, garden rocks can also be a good solution!
As with developing any cat deterrent system, it’s always a little trial and error – but you don’t need to be MacGyver to find something that will eventually work and keep the cats’ neighbors appeased.
What have you used to keep cats from “planting” a Tootsie roll garden?
What’s the weirdest property you’ve been asked to keep feral cats off, and what did you do?
Please share your thoughts and tips in the comment box.
Jesse Oldham, Senior Administrative Director for Community Outreach at the ASPCA, founded and directed Slope Street Cats, a Brooklyn-based non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to promoting and facilitating TNR for feral . She also teaches TNR certification workshops on behalf of the Feral Cat Initiative and continues to develop and facilitate feral cat education and information resources as needed within the community with the ASPCA and Feral Cat Initiative.