Cats, Grass, and Window Boxes

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!

One of the best things about living in a house is having a garden: a patch of lawn, a lemon tree for its fruit and shade, culinary herbs for the kitchen, and lavender for its fragrance. Ambitious types grow vegetables and flowers too but I was content with nasturtiums for the vases, and rocket.

And, for me, the best thing about the garden was sitting under the lemon tree reading: there are those who love working in their gardens the way others enjoy painting, writing, cooking, or vegging out in front of the telly. I get all of those, except for the garden thing. I hate the feeling of loam on my fingers and cannot keep so much as a blackjack alive.

Which made it hard when I moved to a flat. I live in one of the older and more ramshackle Rosebank residences, not quite a listed Art Deco block, but old enough so that together with a horrid 60s design, rising damp and minimal parking, we have big rooms, large balconies, and a delightfully old fashioned courtyard garden.

Bliss for the flat cats, of course, who climb the trees,  sharpen their claws, and relieve themselves in full view of anyone who cares to look out the window. For myself though, I don’t think I would get the same enjoyment sitting under the Hibiscus tree in  the communal garden as I did under my lemon tree.

The answer was to transform my balcony into a bower. I planned window boxes of basil, oreganum, marjoram and mints. Tubs of Rosemary, Lavender, Rose Geranium – and Lemon Balm for the mosquitoes. Pots of Alyssum, my favourite flower, and maybe even Violas which are not only beautiful but edible.

A haven, right? Surrounded by scents and flowers and greenery, it would make the perfect retreat for my reclining years. This is, predictably, where my lack of interest and skill comes into play, not to mention that I am cursed with the opposite of green fingers.

My husband the farmer kindly helped out: he is not a vegetable farmer, cows are his thing, but he potted growing herbs for me and prepared window boxes for the abundance of Alyssum I craved. I bought one of those giant packets of Carpet of Snow seeds and followed the instructions to the letter and, after a couple of weeks, was rewarded by tiny little plant heads breaking out of the soil.

My daughter’s cat, the Thug, came to spend the weekend, and dug up most of the baby plants, then shat all over the remainder. Nothing daunted, we tried again with fresh soil and seeds.

This time I sprinkled some incredibly expensive cat deterrent on the soil, sprayed the surrounds with the foul-smelling [although not to cats, apparently] Footsack, and covered the box with colanders and sieves whenever my daughter’s cat visited. I need not have bothered – he didn’t even notice.

My husband told me the best fertilizers used urea. My plants got yellowish and I read that was from a lack of iron. I saw that Epson Salts was like Centrum Multi Vitamin for pot plants. So I put rusty nails [iron] in my watering can, added some urine [urea] and then filled it with water and a few table spoons of Epson Salts. Magic Formula, or what?

Alas, my balcony smelled a bit like a public urinal for a few weeks, but my heartfelt attempts achieved nothing as far as lush growth was concerned. Interesting note: mosquitoes and midges seem to like the smell of public urinals.

Meanwhile, the Rosemary died after a month, the oreganum and marjoram never germinated, and the Lavender was scrawny and sickly and an unsightly embarrassment. Needless to say, I did not even attempt the Viola, pricey Rose Geranium or  obscure Lemon Balm.

The Thug has been living with me for almost five months now since my daughter emigrated, and having a large and luxurious litter tray to himself no longer digs up the window boxes. He probably would except my husband filled them with overpriced plants from the nursery so there is no tempting soil in sight.

I am the proud possessor of a box of Eau de Cologne [some sort of wonderfully scented member of the mint family], Chocolate Mint [it really does smell of chocolate] and an unhealthy little oreganum, the only one I really use with any frequency.

The other box contains a plant that baffles most – an sweet basil with leaves the size of Thyme. My husband said maybe it was stressed, so I gave it a grow stick. It flourished, but the leaves remained the same. There is also garden mint, tall and straggly,  but pride of place goes to the catnip.

Catnip, allegedly the feline marijuana, the plant that makes your mog go moggy: Catnip was unavailable in Gauteng for a month or two but no worries, as our friends Down Under say, mine could have the real thing, fresh, straight from the plant…

It turns out that just because you like wine, doesn’t mean you like grapes: My cats are unimpressed with fresh catnip, showing no interest in it and, to add insult to injury, not only is it an unattractive plant, but it is thriving in the window box, crowding out the Bonsai Basil, and the straggly mint.

Meanwhile, my new pots of Alyssum germinated but showed no signs of flowering, and I noticed that Thug Cat was pulling out the tender green leaves. Not just for fun – he’d bite them, then spit them out. They look a bit like young grass so I took him downstairs to the courtyard garden lawn.

Thug cat may be Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright at home, where it’s just two weak females in the form of me and my little Cosy cat to contend with, but out in the open, in full view of the semi-feral rescue cats who live downstairs, he’s more like Speedy Gonzales, speeding back home. No interest in grass, digging, or sharpening his claws.

So I have started to pick grass for him, bringing it upstairs whenever I notice him eyeing the Alyssum. He loved his grass, and initially devoured handfuls of he stuff with loud purrs. Fresh Catnip = 0: Kikuyu Grass = Full Marks.

But recently the Thug and I have watched from the balcpny as Cosy cat goes on grass-tasting expeditions: he peers down, riveted, as she nibbles at bit of Kikuyu, then follows it with some of the ugly shade grass, planted under the Hibiscus: she’ll then go across and have a bite of horrid furry weed grass, and finish off with that old-fashioned bowling lawn grass planted back in the 60s.

Thug cat watches in disconsolate disapproval: I watch in fascination. Grass is grass to me, but to cats it seems it is as distinctive and individual as different grape cultivars to an oenophile. The Thug will no longer touch his Kikuyu: he looks down at the green Smorgasbord below, then glares at me.

I know he’s thinking “You’re not my REAL mum.”

I’d try and grow different grass cultivars in boxes and pots on my balcony, really I would, except I suspect I have found the only plant I can grow with any measure of success: fresh catnip.



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