Yeah, I know. Off-topic for this blog. But I've been having fun with it so feel free to skip on to the next thing if you like.
Want to do something really cool for your cat and have fun growing something on your own? Grow catnip. I've done a lot of this for my cats over the years and have come up with a variety of options for growing it, some better than others. I'm illustrating a couple of variations here.
Fresh catnip is a lot more fun and usually a lot more potent than the dried stuff you buy at the pet store. For the appropriately sensitive feline, there's nothing quite like it. Even big cats like tigers and mountain lions seem to have an interest.
First, you need catnip seed. I get mine from The Catnip Farm, who sell their own strain of Mr. Nipster brand fully organic and very hardy catnip seed. I have seen and purchased catnip seed in the past from other sources, but the Mr. Nipster seed is the best. It's also by far the most economical solution, as most "grow your own" catnip is sold in pet stores as part of a kit that includes small overpriced quantities of soil or peat discs, a pot and some other things that you may already have and certainly won't need to buy every time if you grow the stuff regularly.
Some pet stores also sell small pots with catnip seedlings in them that you can transplant. Personally I find that much less satisfying. Growing seeds from scratch -- whether it's catnip or something I'm going to eat -- is incredibly fun, in a very zen way. I have to work for it and wait for it, which makes me feel so much more attached to the rhythm of natural life that the cats are still so much closer to than I am.
Growing things brings me closer to nature. As Doug Peacock said recently about something slightly different: "All of a sudden you're part of an ancient system again: You stop, listen more often, scent the wind... You're part of the original landscape, a far older more faded world."
Yes, even if you're just growing catnip and herbs on a patio in Venice Beach.
It's an old, necessary art form that everybody should experience.
Method 1: Small planter pots
One way of growing catnip is in plain old little planter pots. These two are left over from other plants that I purchased and transplanted. They work just fine. I filled them with a mix of potting soil and organic peat moss that I had lying around from a previous project, keeping a fine layer of the peat on top where the seeds get planted. It's important (especially with peat moss) that everything be soaked through fully before you try to plant the seeds.
[Click on all photos for larger]
I keep the pots in some kind of a shallow dish or tray. I find that it's easiest to water them without disturbing the seeds by filling the dishes with water and moistening the soil from below rather than by pouring water over the seeds which might be washed to the sides of the pot or into other locations where they bunch up and make for much less even growth.
I take a small number of seeds and place them in a folded piece of cardboard, in this case it's just the folded label from the top of a bag of Mr. Nipster seeds. It works well for holding the tiny seeds.
There's really not much more to do. Ericka at the Catnip Farm recommends pressing the seeds lightly into the surface of the soil, but the way I water them, it doesn't seem to be particularly necessary because there's no danger of them washing away. When I'm done, I place the seeded pots under a fluorescent grow-bulb in a simple bulb holder and leave it there. I make sure to add some water to the dish they are in every day in order to keep the soil moist.
Grow bulbs and other equipment:
A couple of notes about grow bulbs and other devices you may use: I live in a very temperate climate, so don't have to do much. In sunnier months, I really don't even need the grow-bulbs as I can use the sun quite effectively, though it does require a lot more care in keeping the seeds from drying out. In colder areas you may want to use hot bulbs as opposed to the cold fluorescents and may also find that you want to use a heat mat or even a heated enclosure for germinating the seeds. Any good garden supply store in your area is likely to have a large variety of devices that are appropriate to the local climate. Consult with somebody who knows what he or she is doing in your area. Sadly, many of the large chain-store employees do not!
Much of the equipment that can be used for growing catnip is also used by some individuals to grow other types of seeds, whose leaves and buds are consumed in one form or another by people rather than felines. Many of the online sources for information and equipment associated with indoor seed germination are also associated with such practices. In my little patch of Venice Beach, nobody minds such things and in fact they are legally considered to be medicinal. However, many other locales tend to get a bit suspicious about large numbers of grow bulbs, especially the heat-generating variety.
I've heard that in some areas just buying a sufficient quantity of indoor growing equipment can arouse suspicion. This is unlikely to be a problem for the casual grower of a few pots of catnip who buys a grow-bulb or two. However, if you're considering any kind of larger greenhouse, whether for catnip or anything else, you might want to have a friendly conversation with your local law-enforcement representative to ensure that everybody knows what's going on. Sadly these days, even home gardening is subject to police scrutiny.
Method 2: Peat discs and "mini greenhouses"
My most successful catnip growing has involved the use of peat discs, which can be purchased from most gardening stores. They are little discs of compressed peat that expand out significantly when placed in water.
The peat is held in place by a light netting that will biodegrade over time, but holds the discs (that actually expand out to cylinders about 1.5" tall) together for long enough to germinate seeds. I find that they're the best possible and most cost effective way of growing catnip.
In the most simple form of use, you can just buy the discs, place them in a dish with some water in the bottom to keep them moist and place the seeds on the surface. It's usually helpful to peel back a bit of the netting that tends to remain in place over the top of the disc even when it expands out. Some instructions recommend placing a glass or jar over the top initially to prevent them from drying out in the sun. As with Method 1, I tend to use these under a fluorescent grow-bulb which doesn't heat things up too much and limits the problem of soil drying up, so I find this unnecessary. I just place a few of them in a shallow dish full of water, expand them out, open up the netting and tap in some seeds.
There are also a variety of "planters" and "mini greenhouses" designed for these discs, holding anywhere from 10 to 50 of them simultaneously. This one by Jiffy (also the biggest manufacturer of the discs) is an example of what you can get. Usually they include space for the discs and also a clear plastic cover that can be used during early germination to keep things warm and moist. The nice thing is that you can buy the planter/greenhouse box once, then just buy more peat discs if and when you need them. In my situation/climate I rarely use the cover, but in different climates and certainly if used in sunlight rather than with controlled lighting, the cover would help keep things moist.
Here are a dozen of the discs, fully expanded out to cylinders and with their netting peeled back off the top. They stay nice and moist when you put a bit of water into the bottom of the "greenhouse" container every day. Seeding these is pretty similar to seeding a pot full of soil, but I do try to be a bit more precise, both in terms of the number of seeds going into each of the discs, and in making sure they are spread out a bit on the surface. One thing to keep in mind is that not all the seeds will germinate. Also, you really don't want too many sprouts in a small area. If you overseed, you'll be forced to remove some of the tiny seedlings before you can transplant.
Tap some seeds carefully into place from a folded piece of cardboard, spreading them around over the surface of the peat disc. I usually then press them in slightly, so they are really surrounded by the moist peat but not so that they are buried. Catnip seeds do require some sun to germinate well. If you bury them, you'll likely lose them.
I follow up by putting the whole batch of them under a grow bulb or two, which I keep on all the time until some nice strong seedlings appear.
Here I have both types of planting going on at once. A bit of a "challenge" to see which one works better. They remained like this for a while. It can take 10-14 days for catnip seeds to begin to germinate. I have noticed that some take a lot longer. The first sprouts may appear quickly but some of the last ones may take a month!
The first sprouts are very small, but take root quickly. They do sprout more quickly in the peat discs than in potting soil.
After a week or more of constant moisture and regular light from the grow bulb, the catnip seeds swell and turn reddish-brown from their original black. The first little sprout can be seen in the picture above. Within a few days, all the discs usually show a sprout or two.
I missed the opportunity to capture pictures right before transplantation, but all the discs developed nicely over the course of a few weeks. Once I had 5-6 sprouts at least an inch tall in each of the discs, I moved the "greenhouse" outside, where real sun helps them grow a lot more quickly. I find that if I move them much sooner than that the harsh sun and heat around here can kill them off rather quickly if they don't get enough water. If I wait much longer to get them in the sun, they just don't develop well. A better grow bulb or three might help with that, but in this climate I just don't need to bother.
Once you have some strong growth, it's time to start weeding out any extra seedlings. You really don't want more than 5-6 good ones in any one little disc. They need space to grow well. Pulling out smaller and weaker ones with a tweezer and letting the strongest ones grow tends to really help things along.
Transplanting is easy. Just place the expanded discs (OK, they're really cylindrical "plugs" at this point) with the seedlings in them into a pot with good organic potting soil in it and keep moist. I prefer to peel off what remains of the netting that has held the discs together, though the roots do grow right through and the stuff does supposedly biodegrade over time. Just seems neater that way. The roots meet the surrounding soil directly, with nothing to prevent rapid growth and development. I space out the little plugs with seedlings in them in a 6-8" pot. You could also plant them in a garden. They are a hardy plant that will survive harsh winters and return in the spring.
As the catnip plants grow out, they will fill the pot. They will naturally re-seed themselves over time and you'll find that it's necessary to cut them back a bit and perhaps thin things out from time to time to prevent the plants from becoming too dense. Some basic organic fertilizer is really all they need to keep going for years.
A few more observations
The seeds planted in peat discs did a lot better than the ones started straight in soil in this experiment. I've done it both ways in the past and the long-term results are the same. The ones below and above were started within a day or two of each other, but the ones seeded directly in soil stayed relatively small and struggled to grow initially. Experience suggests that they'll do fine but they will take longer to get there. Eventually they'll be thinned out as well and transplanted into larger pots.
Truth be told, so long as you take some care to prevent the seeds from being washed away or buried, keep them moist through the germination period and have a decent growing climate, it's probably hard to screw things up completely. Do keep in mind that the most critical period for the seeds is during germination. If they are allowed to dry up after the initial seeding they will not recover. Keeping them moist for the initial few weeks is important.
Using your catnip
No matter how you choose to grow it, catnip is great fun for a large majority of cats (some, sadly, don't have the right genetic makeup to appreciate this particular variety of mint). You can cut off a bit and give it to them to play with, or you can just give them access to the plants and let them dive in. I just let them dive in. Catnip is very hardy and almost impossible to kill. My cats have repeatedly crushed potted catnip plants and it keeps coming back.
Photographed here is my girl Clio. This picture was taken the day after she came home from the hospital where she had been diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer. She was tired and pale, but seemed excited to go outside on the patio. I initially thought she was just missing the sun after several days indoors. I was wrong. As soon as I decided it was warm and sunny enough for her and opened the door, she rushed straight to one of my younger catnip plants and made it her own.
[Sadly, Clio left us on Nov. 27th, 2010, only two weeks after this picture was taken. As the cancer progressed and her condition became weaker, she was less and less able to dive in quite so aggressively. Her last foray outside was to sniff at the catnip for a few minutes then nap in the sun next to her favorite plant.]