Homegrown: Feral cats

I live between two or three people who feed and water feral cats. We are in a rural area, so the cats have lots of hiding places and seem to prefer under my front porch.

I have a small flower garden plot where I lose almost every plant I put there due to the cats’ “use” of the area.

I have sprinkled moth balls around the garden, which seems effective, but the moth balls disintegrate.

Will the moth ball residue ruin my planting soil? Do you have another suggestion for an effective deterrent?

— Ole

I’m sorry to hear about your issues!

I’ve talked to lots of people over the years who have fought the same problem.

Once one cat starts using a garden bed as a litter box, they all do and their waste just kills the soil. Nothing will grow! I don’t know if there’s something in the urine or if it’s simply a matter of numbers that does it.

The first order of business is to somehow get the cats to stop using the bed for a bathroom.

Mothballs will help, but as you’ve discovered, they dissipate with time and you’ll have to reapply them over and over (and they shouldn’t hurt the soil as long as they’re dispersed and not buried).

I’ve honestly never been impressed with the commercial dog and cat repellent products either. They work sometimes, but like the mothballs, you have to keep reapplying them.

Another tack you could take is to try to catch the cats at it and make it an unpleasant experience being there.

I’ve heard of people sitting out at night with a squirt bottle of diluted ammonia that they’ll spray at the cats when they appear.

I think having the hose with a nozzle on the end of it and giving them at good soaking would work just as well.

To me, the big drawback to that approach is having to sit out there all night.

Some people have told me they’ve had good success with one of those motion sensor sprinklers. They’re a bit pricey, but it saves you from sitting in the lawn chair all night.

Set it so the spray hits that bed when they’re prowling around in it. Getting soaked a couple of times will usually convince the cats that this is not a good place to be.

Another thing that can help is to cover the ground with something so the cats can’t dig and scratch in it. Some folks have told me that covering the ground with a large cobble or gravel deters them.

I’ve even had people put a layer of chicken wire down on the ground. Cats don’t like catching their claws on it.

Once you stop them from continuing to make “deposits” in your bed, it’s time to think about trying to grow something in it. The truth is that once the soil is in the state yours is, it’s hard to rehabilitate it.

Most people end up digging out the top 6–8 inches of soil and replacing it with fresh soil.

If that’s not feasible, mix in a generous amount of low salt decomposed organic matter. I’d probably spread a 2–3-inche deep layer of the compost and mix it into the soil as deeply as you can go (at least 6 inches).

That may not “cure” the soil immediately, but it should be on its way to improving, which it will do over the next several years.

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Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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