You’ve put lots of time and effort into your garden. Perhaps you’ve added raised beds with phenomenal soil. Maybe you’ve amended in-ground beds to sheer perfection. And suddenly, the neighborhood cats think your garden spaces are their personal litter box. How do you keep cats out of garden beds successfully?
There are many, many tips suggested online. Unfortunately, a lot of these methods just don’t work well. Sometimes they’re very short-lived. Other times, they’re just completely ineffective.
On the bright side, there are ways that do work to deter cats from your carefully cultivated soil and prevent them from damaging your dahlias. We’ll start by exploring tips that frankly don’t work. After that, we’ll talk about options that are short-lived and that may need to be done over and over. And finally, we’ll cover surefire methods to keep cats away.
So let’s dive into it!
What Doesn’t Work At All
There are quite a few techniques suggested online that just simply don’t work. While they’re among the most common to find suggested, they’re just ineffective or, in some cases, downright silly. Let’s explore a few of these!
Forks, Pointy Sticks, Or Chopsticks
I actually tested this one personally some years ago (as the above photo shows, along with other cat prevention methods such as giant PVC/chicken wire cloches and fabric walls around beds). And let me tell you, forks were one of the worst garden mistakes I’ve ever made. I think I’ll be picking bits of plastic forks out of my garden for years to come.
Plastic forks, you see, are not UV-resistant. They become brittle as they sit in the sun, something I hadn’t considered initially. Not only that, but they’re very easy to knock over whether they’re put in tines-down or tines-up. The cats just push them out of the way. And if you’ve ever watched a kitty on the table with a glass of water, you’ll know cats love to push things!
The same problem is true of pointy sticks or chopsticks. Even if you space them as a field of pointy sticks a couple of inches apart, if the cat is determined, it’ll just push them aside. And, to add insult to injury, they might do what my neighborhood ferals did and knock them over and poop right on them.
There is a plant called the Scaredy Cat Plant. Coleus canina, also known as Coleus caninus or Plectranthus caninus, is said to repel cats with its scent. And it sounds appealing, really; planting plants cats don’t like seems like an easy win. Unfortunately, it’s more likely to deter any human that comes near gardens. The scent it releases is reminiscent of skunks.
Worse, the scaredy-cat plant might actually entice dogs to go roll around in it. If you’ve ever watched a dog roll around in something that smells bad, you might get to see it happen with your prized pet. Unfortunately, Coleus canina is just not effective as a deterrent!
Other live plants that are claimed to deter our feline friends include rue, lemon thyme, lavender, pennyroyal, geraniums, rosemary, or garlic. While these haven’t had any real effect on the cats in my area, I normally grow most of them in my garden anyway. I can’t recommend them as cat deterrent options, but there’s certainly no harm in growing them if you’d like to.
So many magical garden uses are ascribed to eggshells. But in this case, it’s claimed that the eggshells deter cats with their pointy sharp edges.
Unfortunately, cats will march right across them, and the eggshells will crumble under their weight. It doesn’t take much to crack an eggshell, after all, and most adult cats are at least 8-9 pounds and often as much as 12-14 pounds. An already broken shell has no chance against a determined garden pooper.
Methods That Sometimes Work
Sprinkling Herbs On The Soil
The plants that I mentioned above that cats dislike (supposedly) are often spread across the soil’s surface, too. In fact, some recommendations suggest that you prune your plants and then drop them everywhere. If you feel like putting in extra effort, I’ve seen it recommended to dry them out and powder them to sprinkle around.
If cats dislike the plants, the scent of freshly crushed leaves might deter them for a few hours. But once the initial smell fades, usually within 24 hours, it’s just not effective anymore. Most dried plant materials lose their aroma and begin to break down far too quickly.
There are three things that tend to hold their scent a little longer than most other options. Crushed hot peppers like cayenne, some pipe tobacco types, and used coffee grounds may actually keep cats at bay for up to 2-3 days. Cayenne has a nasty side effect, though; if cats walk through it and then lick their paws, it can make them ill. But if you don’t mind sprinkling the coffee grounds from your morning pot of coffee over the garden every few days, you may find some effectiveness in that.
There’s one other option that’s claimed to be effective: citrus peels. It’s claimed that orange or lemon peels spread out across the soil’s surface will turn cats away by their smell. But there’s one problem with this: orange peels will also go moldy and may attract flies or other pests. Citrus peels also look a bit strange spread around the garden.
There is a brand of mat called the “Cat Scat Mat” that is essentially plastic mesh with ¾” spikes on it. To use it, you lay it on the soil’s surface. The spikes are about an inch or so apart, and so it’s virtually impossible for cats to walk across it comfortably.
A similar effect can be gained by using plastic carpet runners with their spikes pointed upward. But with both of these options, you end up with this strange-looking mat on the surface of your soil. You can place it on top of mulches if you’re trying to prevent moisture evaporation from your soil, but that doesn’t make it look any better. Still, it’s quite effective if you can find a way to minimize its appearance.
Along the lines of the prior suggestion, sharp mulch materials may have some effect in keeping cats out of garden beds. Things like pine cones, splintery bark mulches, sharp wood chips, or jagged rocks can be effective for short periods of time.
Unfortunately, unlike the mats, digging through the sharp mulch is an option for the kitty. An outdoor cat is actually quite likely to encounter prickly things like this in the wild. And besides, crushing up hundreds of pine cones or getting splinters every time you work in the garden may not be the best option for you. Rock mulch is the most effective of these, but it also retains quite a lot of heat… something that may not always be what you want.
Did you know you can buy predatorial animal urine? Coyote pee is one of the most common. And yes, animal urine works… for about a week.
Just like the aroma of plant matter, the scent of animal pee fades with time. Hot weather degrades the smell quickly, although it might be very stinky for a little while. Rain dilutes it and washes it away. Kitty may make your garden into their litter box once the scent ebbs away, assuming that the predator has passed.
There is a free solution, but it’s one many people might find distasteful: human urine. As long as you don’t have any medical conditions, using urine as fertilizer is a viable option, and it’s also a way to keep cats away. But just like predator pee, it only lasts for a little while, and it’s most pungent when fresh. You might not enjoy that option.
Oils And Sprays
One of the most popular ways to keep cats out of gardens, according to the internet, is with the use of other smelly sprays. Concoctions of a variety of essential oils, sprays made out of garlic, or other strange homemade remedies are widely touted as effective. And they are… briefly.
The big problem is that the natural oils in many smelly plants like garlic only last for short periods of time when applied to the garden. The sun’s UV rays will break them down rapidly, and the exposure to fresh breezes will dissipate the scent.
In addition, while a lavender-citrus-eucalyptus spray smells good to us, it may not be ideal for cat safety. Many essential oils are actually poisonous to cats. If the cat does walk through your garden right after an application of a spray method like this, it gets all over the cat’s fur. When they lick themselves, they can be seriously harmed. If you do want to try something like this, be sure it’s something non-toxic!
Cat Deterrent Products
There are a number of retail products out there that claim to be natural repellent for cats. Some are granulated, some are liquids. But how effective are they really?
The answer to that question is “somewhat”. Most of them use the same essential oils, powdered peppers, or garlic additives as mentioned in other categories on this list. So they work, but only for a short-term burst of efficacy.
Also, most of the retail options really don’t have appealing smells for us, and you’re still going to want to keep using your garden while you’re treating it with repellent!
Claiming It As A Human Space
Have you ever tried to stare down a cat? This is the garden version of that method, and it can be somewhat effective.
Claiming your garden as your space can involve putting your own shed hair from your hairbrush around the garden or applying your own pee around the perimeter. This marks it as a human space.
Adding items like wind chimes or clickers, spinners, and pinwheels may also make it less appealing for kitty. And of course, removing scat or using a hose to wash down cat markings may reduce the cat visitation.
Unfortunately, many cats are there when you’re not. In the middle of the night, cats may still creep into the space you’ve claimed as your own and repeat their marking. This technique is, as a result, very limited for preventing cats from using your garden as a litter box.
Reducing Their Natural Prey
If you make it inhospitable as recommended above, don’t forget the potential of eliminating their prey. After all, cats like to hunt; it’s instinctual. And if you have fat mice around your compost pile or lots of small birds, they may be drawn to your yard like a kid is lured to the sound of an ice cream truck.
By reducing the number of prey animals available on your property, you may slow down the frequency of cat visits. But this is not guaranteed.
Making A Truce With Kitty
Finally, you could try to make a truce with neighboring cats by providing them their own tribute space as a peace offering. Placing clean litter boxes, or even their own garden “bed” box with no plants in it, might be just what they’re looking for. If you surround the peace offering space with plants like catnip or catmint, you may entice the kitty to go over there instead of into the pea patch or beet bed.
The downside to this method is that you’ll need to keep the litter scooped and ensure that their special space is enough. Depending on the cat, it may or may not be.
Surefire Ways To Keep Them Away
So what ways to keep cats away are left after all of this? Actually, there are quite a few. Let’s explore those!
A Quick Burst Of Water
There’s a reason why cats vs water is one of those common stereotypes in film and TV. Most cats are not really fans of getting unexpectedly wet. And so using water to shoo off unwanted visitors can be extremely effective.
I am a huge motion-activated sprinkler fan. A device like this can be set up whenever you’re not going to be out gardening and is connected directly to the hose. When it senses movement, it shoots a burst of water towards that motion.
These are not without theoretical drawbacks. At first, you may have some slightly overwatered plants in popular spots in the yard. But gradually, the cats will learn that your garden is full of unexpected water. Best of all, it’s a non-toxic, non-harmful method. If you want cats to stay away from the yard, this is a fantastic way to do it.
Fair warning: you will eventually get hit by your own motion-activated sprinkler. It’ll probably happen on that day when you forgot to drink your coffee in the morning, and you will be presented with an unexpected shower. But look on the bright side, you’ll know it works!
Don’t want a motion-activated sprinkler? You can always just use your hose when you’re in the yard to send a spray after prowling kitties. This won’t work when you’re not home but is effective when you are.
Securing Yard Borders
This is the natural extension of claiming your yard as a human space, but it focuses on keeping cats out in the first place. There’s a number of ways to do so.
Rollers, also called roll bars, are round bars that are made to top your yard fencing. When a cat tries to walk along the fence top or scramble over it, the bar spins and the cat can’t get a good grip. They slide back down on the other side of the fence.
Roll bars are also really effective at preventing your dog (or the neighbor’s dog) from hopping the fence. If they can’t hold on to the top, they can’t easily vault over. And that basically doubles the efficiency of your fence. But they can be a pricey solution, so this may be something to consider as a last-ditch effort.
For something slightly cheaper but still effective, there’s another solution. If you do not currently have pets of your own, getting a device that emits high-frequency sounds in the yard may be a perfect solution. These ultrasonic repellents are too high-pitched for the average human ear to pick up, but animals can hear them. In addition, ultrasonic repellents are usually quite mobile. Simply pick up the device and move it to the area that’s most impacted by cats.
Unfortunately, your neighbor’s pets and any pets you might have will be unhappy with these high-pitched sounds. It’s not a solution that will work for everyone, but it is very effective for people who are looking to reinforce any barrier to protect their garden.
What if your exterior fencing is already as reinforced as you can make it, but you’re still finding poop scattered around on the ground in your beds?
Double up on fences by making specific fences around individual beds. These can be elaborate or plain as needed. I use wood and chicken wire to create fence panels on stakes and then tap them into place as needed. You can also create mesh plastic fencing with T-post supports, giant cloches of PVC and chicken wire, or even floating row cover hoop-houses covered with tightly-secured bird netting or floating row cover fabric. Anything that will block direct access to the bed is a good solution here.
One of my favorite setups is built of PVC, shade cloth, and old pallet wood. I have a bed designated for shade-loving plants, so I built a hoop house frame out of PVC to support shade cloth. I then used the old pallet wood to create slatted fencing at the ends of the bed that’s not large enough for an adult cat to get between. On the front access to the bed, the shade cloth is anchored to the ground by a long, weighted piece of PVC pipe. When I need to work in the bed, I simply pick up the weighted pipe, roll up the shade cloth it’s attached to, and put it up at the top of the hoop house while I’m gardening.
Soil Barrier Solutions
We went over “scat mats” earlier, but there are other solutions that prevent digging at the base of your prized plant, too. And they are often cheaper and more effective at the same time.
When you’ve finished preparing your beds in the spring, lay some chicken wire on the soil and secure it with landscape fabric staples (the long, U-shaped wires that you push in to secure landscaping fabric). Your garden will grow up through the chicken wire, but cats won’t be able to dig through it, and the thin wire will be uncomfortable on their paws. Plus, wire is slow to degrade and inexpensive to replace.
Similarly, lattice fencing can work the same way but will cover more of the soil. It’s also a lot more visible but can look really good if you’re growing the right kind of plants in the mesh holes. This option also may reduce weed growth around desired plant types.
Finally, there are always fabric solutions. In some forms of farming, using black plastic or landscaping fabric on the soil around plants not only reduces weed germination but also keeps pests from digging into the soil. You can opt for one of those, or go a bit more organic by using old burlap coffee sacks with holes cut out for each plant.
If you can’t beat them, why not join them? Get your own animals and let them stake their claim on your yard. Having dogs is an excellent deterrent for most feral cats, whether or not the dogs are friendly towards them or not.