A sprig of catnip or a toy stuffed with the intoxicating herb is a surefire way to catch the attention of even the most reserved and aloof family cat. But catnip isn’t the only plant that can send kitties into a frenzy of entertaining antics from repeatedly rolling in the herb to munching on the leaves and then racing around the room. Closely related catmint can have a similar effect. All the excitement is brought on by nepetalactone, a chemical that is structurally similar to a particular feline pheromone. Scientists have found that catnip and catmint contain higher quantities of nepetalactone than other members of the mint family, which explains why these two plants are tops with tabbies. Here’s how you can delight your cat by growing your own catnip and catmint.
Catnip vs. Catmint
Catnip and catmint both belong to the genus Nepeta in the mint family. They both have square stems that are typical features of mint plants. And they each produce spikes of tiny, two-lipped flowers that are a valuable food source for pollinators. When touched, their aromatic leaves release a mint-like scent that some people find a little pungent and “skunky.” Both plants are fast-growing and drought-tolerant. But if you’re wondering if you should grow catnip vs. catmint, these plants differ on a number of key features.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a vigorous perennial plant with a somewhat weedy appearance in the landscape. It has a rangy, branching shape and forms 3-foot-tall drifts of gray-green foliage. Small spikes of white flowers appear here and there between spring and fall, but aren’t very showy.
There are a few different types of catmint, but in general these all have a more tidy-looking, compact, mounded appearance than catnip. Plus, these perennials produce pretty spikes of purple flowers for weeks at a time throughout the summer.
When it comes to attractiveness to cats, that can depend on the individual animal. Catnip and catmint can appeal equally to some felines, while others seem to prefer catnip and will pass by catmint without a second glance. From a landscape standpoint, catmint is considered the more ornamental choice of the two plants. Catmint’s purple flowers and tidy shape make it a more showy garden plant. Catnip’s weedy appearance doesn’t work with all garden styles, so this plant is best kept in an out-of-the-way area if you’d still like to grow it for your cat.
Where to Plant Catnip and Catmint
Both catnip and catnip grow well in full sun. They will tolerate a few hours of shade but need about eight hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Catnip and catmint grow in average, well-drained soil. Catnip will tolerate poor soil and will reseed and spread readily, becoming a nuisance in warmer climates. Plant it where you can keep it in bounds, or grow it in a container. Catmint, on the other hand, grows in a single clump as it does not spread or reseed as easily. Lower-growing varieties, such as ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ shown above, work well as an edging plant along a walkway.
How to Grow Catnip and Catmint
You can find catnip and catmint plants at local garden centers. Catmint is usually stocked alongside popular perennial plants such as purple coneflower and yarrow. Catnip is often in the herb section of a garden center. Or you can find both plants through online retailers, either as potted plants or seeds. After planting your catnip or catmint, keep plants watered especially during hot, dry weather. Catnip and catmint do not require fertilizer, especially if you add compost to the soil before planting.
Cut back catmint flowers after they fade to encourage another round of blossoms a few weeks later. Cut rangy catnip stems back by half their length in midsummer to encourage a neater habit. Cats will love the clippings. Expect catnip and catmint to return year-after-year in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9.
Keep Cats Away from Young Plants
Newly-planted catnip and catmint might need extra protection from curious cats. The young plants can be easily destroyed by the chewing and rolling of a vigorous feline. Cover young plants with a wire cage until they are well established. Another trick is to add several short stakes between the stems to discourage cats from laying on and crushing the plant.