How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Catnip
Tired of purchasing old, stale catnip for your kitties? Then try growing this perennial herb at home! Join plant enthusiast Briana Yablonski as she explains how to plant, grow, and care for catnip.
Catnip, Nepeta cataria, offers many benefits. Its bushy green form makes it a welcome addition to ornamental plantings, and its leaves provide uses for cats and humans. Felines turn into happy, wild creatures after rolling in the herb, and humans experience increased relaxation after sipping catnip tea.
Since it is easy to grow and care for, it’s a great choice for beginner and expert gardeners. Just provide some sun, well-draining soil, and a bit of water, and watch it thrive.
If you’re interested in adding greenery to your garden or providing this fresh herb to your kitties, it’s worth growing it at home. Stay tuned to learn how to plant, grow, and care for catnip.
Plant Type Perennial herb
Native Area Europe, Middle East, parts of Asia
Exposure Full sun
Watering Requirements Low to moderate
Pests & Diseases Aphids, spider mites, thrips
Soil Type Well-draining
Hardiness Zone 3–9
What Is It?
Catnip is the plant that transforms house cats into animated versions of themselves. If you have a cat at home—or have watched Instagram reels—you know that rolling in this herb causes cats to flip, rub against the carpet, or zone out. But it is for more than cats. You can also use the perennial herb to create a relaxing herbal tea.
This perennial herb is in the mint family. It grows in clumps and features square stems covered with light green leaves. The leaves are oval to triangular-shaped with serrated edges and a light layer of fuzz. With a height of two to four feet, the green plant fits into herbal tea gardens and ornamental plantings.
Although it is a perennial in zones 3–9, it dies back in the winter. When spring returns, the plants send out new herbaceous growth. Catnip can spread aggressively if left unchecked and is considered invasive in some areas.
The plant produces small white or purple flowers at the top of its stems during summer. These flowers attract pollinators like hoverflies and bees.
Catnip is native to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. However, it has become naturalized in parts of the world, including North America and New Zealand.
The herb is happy in temperate areas with well-draining soil. It can grow well in sand, loam, and clay if there isn’t any standing water.
Catnip grows well in the ground and containers. Since it spreads, planting it in a pot or grow bag is an easy way to keep it contained. If you plant it in the ground, it won’t necessarily take over your entire garden. However, you’ll want to keep an eye on it and prune it if it becomes unruly.
I like to plant it with other perennial herbs like rosemary, lavender, mint, and sage. However, you can also grow it with flowering ornamentals like coneflower and bee balm.
The spring is the best time to plant catnip. The cool weather gives the plants a few weeks to develop strong roots before the summer heat arrives. If you missed the spring planting window, you can also transplant it in early fall.
Wait until the danger of frost has passed in the spring, then set your seedling outdoors. If the seedling germinates indoors, harden it off before planting it outside. Gradually expose your plant to the outdoor conditions over a couple of weeks.
Once the seedling has acclimated to its new environment, find an area with full sun. Inspect the soil and loosen it with a digging fork if necessary. This will help increase drainage and keep the plant happy. Dig a hole a few inches larger than the plant’s root ball. Now, I like to mix in a few handfuls of compost to boost beneficial microbes and nutrients.
Place the seedling’s root ball into the hole, cover it with soil, and water well. Keep the soil moist for the next two weeks as the plant acclimates.
Growing from Seed
You can grow catnip from seed if you don’t mind extra work. Be warned that the seeds can germinate slowly, so you’re better off buying a seedling if you want to harvest catnip in the next month or two. The best time to plant catnip seeds is late winter or early spring.
Start with catnip seeds, well-draining seed-starting mix, and seed-starting trays. Since these seeds germinate better after cold stratification, pop them in the freezer overnight and remove them the following day.
Fill the trays with potting mix, then sprinkle the seeds on the top of the soil, about an inch apart. The seeds require light to germinate, so cover them with a thin layer of vermiculite but not a thick layer of soil. Lightly water the seeds and set them somewhere warm and bright—I like to place a heating mat under my seed trays in the winter since I keep my house on the cooler side.
Keep the soil moist for the next few weeks. You should see seedlings popping up five days to a month after planting. At this point, move the seedlings to an area where they receive 10–12 hours of bright, direct light each day. Thin seedlings to one to two inches apart when they are about one inch tall.
You can transplant the seedlings outdoors when they’re about four inches tall. Just make sure to wait until the danger of frost has passed.
How to Grow
Catnip is easy to grow if you plant it in an area with well-draining soil and full sun. Once the plants are mature, they can handle a fair amount of neglect. They grow well with other plants, including perennial herbs and ornamental flowers.
Catnip grows best in full sun. Plant this herb in an area that receives at least eight hours of daily direct light to keep it happy.
If you’re growing indoors, the best spot is near a south-facing window. Other suitable options include next to a west-facing window or a bright room’s interior. And a sunroom works great if you have one!
Mature catnip plants are drought-tolerant and will survive if you forget to water them for a few days. The seedlings don’t have robust root systems, so they aren’t quite as forgiving. That means you’ll want to keep the soil moist to the touch for at least a month after transplanting.
Aim to water the soil surface rather than the plant foliage. You can use drip irrigation or a hose to water the base of the plant. Keeping the leaves dry will help prevent fungal diseases.
Consider the plant size, temperature, and rainfall when determining how often to water. During dry spells, water your catnip plants about once a week. Watering deeply and infrequently encourages plants to develop deep roots and is a better option than watering the top few inches of soil daily.
Catnip plants grow well in various soil types as long as they are well-draining. If you know a certain section of your garden often pools with water, avoid planting catnip in this area.
If your entire garden is compacted or poorly drained, improve drainage before planting. I like to loosen the soil with a digging fork or broad fork to improve aeration and drainage. Mixing in a few handfuls of compost or peat moss also improves drainage.
Potted catnip grows well in a well-draining soil mix that also holds moisture. A mix based on peat moss or coconut coir works well.
Temperature and Humidity
Catnip plants can tolerate various temperatures and humidity levels (as I said, they’re pretty carefree). They’ll happily grow outdoors in USDA hardiness zones three through nine. While cold winter temperatures cause foliage to die back, plants will regrow the following spring.
If you’re growing indoors, you’ll be happy to know these plants grow well in average household conditions. Temperatures between 60-80°F are perfect, as is moderate humidity.
Catnip plants don’t require fertilizer to thrive. While they’ll happily grow in unamended soil, you can blend in some finished compost or worm castings to boost beneficial microbes and fertility. I like to sprinkle a small handful of these materials around the base of the plant each spring.
Catnip plants are low maintenance, but they do appreciate regular pruning. Fortunately, pruning is synonymous with harvesting! Aim to cut off the top four to six inches of the stems at least once in the spring and again in the early fall. This will encourage bushy growth and strong root systems.
You should also keep a close eye on the plant’s spread. If the plant begins to creep out of its desired area, ensure its roots haven’t spread outside the desired area and remove those that have.
Like most plants in the mint family, catnip is easy to propagate. Both stem cuttings and division are easy ways to form new plants.
Catnip is easy to propagate via stem cuttings if you follow these steps.
- Take a stem cutting. Locate a stem with green foliage that’s free of diseases and pests. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the stem at a 45° angle just below a leaf node. The cutting should be four to six inches long.
- Remove lower leaves. Strip the leaves off the lower half of the cutting.
- Dip in rooting hormone. Dip the bottom of the cutting in a rooting hormone. While this step is optional, it will increase the likelihood that the cutting develops healthy roots.
- Place it in the media. Place the bottom inch of the cutting in peat moss, coco coir, or perlite. Water so the media is moist.
- Cover. Cover the cutting with a plastic container, ensuring the container isn’t touching the top of the cutting. This will help seal in moisture.
- Wait. Keep the growing media moist but not wet for the next two to three weeks. Within three weeks, the cutting will form roots.
- Transplant. Once the cutting has roots, repot it into a larger container or plant it in your garden.
You can also easily divide catnip to break a single plant into multiple plants. The fall is the best time to divide, but the spring also works.
Start by digging up your plant to expose its roots. Next, use a sharp shovel or pair of shears to cut the roots and gently tease apart the plant into multiple clumps.
Harvesting and Storage
As I mentioned above, catnip leaves are useful for both humans and cats. You can harvest these leaves from the spring through fall. While you can harvest it any time of day, harvesting in the morning decreases the chances the sun will wilt the tender leaves.
I like to use a sharp pair of pruning shears to cut off stems a few inches above the ground. Stems will send out new growth from leaf nodes, so leaving a bit of stem allows for continual growth. I then use my hands to remove the leaves from the stems.
Another option is to pick individual leaves off the plant. This option works well for small plants.
You can use fresh catnip in herbal teas or offer it to your cats. However, drying extends its shelf life. If you have a food dehydrator, use it to dry your catnip. You can also bundle it in bunches of three to five stems, then hang it upside down to dry. Ensure the area has low moisture and good airflow.
Once the catnip is dry, store it in an airtight container like a mason jar or plastic bag. While dried catnip won’t go “bad,” it will lose flavor and aroma after a year.
You can provide both fresh and dried catnip to cats. When cats roll around in catnip, they experience an increase in the compounds that increase happiness and decrease pain. The result is cats that roll, flip, and frolic in pleasure.
Fresh and dried leaves also make a wonderful herbal tea. Some people claim this tea has a relaxing effect, but there isn’t much research to back this up.
One of the major challenges growers face with catnip is its aggressive nature. However, the plants are also susceptible to leggy growth and yellow leaves.
Catnip, especially indoor catnip, sometimes takes on a tall, wispy appearance. This leggy growth often signals a lack of light, so moving your plant to a sunnier area improves the problem.
You can also use a pair of pruning shears to trim off the top four to six inches of the plant’s stems. This will encourage the growth of lateral shoots and lead to a bushier plant.
Yellow leaves can indicate issues including overwatering, underwatering, and pests. However, the most likely cause of yellowing leaves is poor drainage or overwatering. Ensure that your catnip is growing in well-draining soil and that you only water when the soil is dry.
Like most plants in the mint family, catnip can spread. If you’re not careful, catnip can take over your entire garden. But this won’t happen overnight. You can keep it contained as long as you prune catnip when it grows outside its desired area. And remember, it also grows well in pots.
Tiny, sap-sucking pests like aphids, spider mites, and whiteflies are common catnip pests. These pests use their piercing/sucking mouthparts to poke holes in catnip leaves and drink the plant juices. Encouraging predatory insects like ladybugs and green lacewings will keep sap-sucking pests in check. If you see aphids or similar pests on your catnip plants, spray them with neem oil or insecticidal soap.
Catnip plants may develop root rot if you plant them in poorly draining soil or water too often. To help remedy this problem, dig up the plants, trim off discolored and soggy roots, and repot the plant in soil with excellent drainage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does catnip repel mosquitos?
Research shows that oil from catnip plants repels mosquitoes. While catnip plants may repel some mosquitos, they won’t provide the same repelling properties as concentrated essential oils.
Is catnip the same as cat grass?
No, catnip (Nepeta cataria) is not the same as cat grass. Catnip impacts cat behavior, and cat grass doesn’t. Most cat grass is oats, wheat, rye, or barley grown as a grass that cats will consume as a natural fiber substitute to help pass excess hair consumed during grooming.
What plants grow well with catnip?
Perennial herbs, including rosemary, lavender, and sage, grow well with catnip. These plants all prefer well-draining soil and serve as ingredients in herbal tea.
Now that you know how to grow catnip and keep it happy, it’s time to get growing! Remember that catnip grows well in the garden and as a potted houseplant, and anyone can grow it at home. Provide lots of sun and excellent drainage to grow plants you and your feline friends will love.