In my last house, I did my utmost to green a tiny space.

Like many northern terraces, the outside area was minimal. When they were built, these 19th century workers’ houses were functional at best, mostly two-up, two-downs with a backyard housing a coal bunker, an outside toilet and little else.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. Indoor plumbing (luxury!), open-plan living and loft conversions abound. But the space outside the back door has largely remained the same. And so I embraced bedding plants, climbing roses and honeysuckle. If it could thrive in a well-watered pot while sheltered in a compact sunspot, I bought it, fed it, and (I’m not ashamed to admit) talked to it.

But I yearned for a proper garden with grass, borders, shrubs and trees. As this wasn’t remotely possible, I set my sights somewhat lower. I created a miniature wild meadow. Just two metres by one metre, it wasn’t an overly ambitious endeavour, and all was going swimmingly until my cats noticed a exposed area of prepared soil. I can’t say for certain but I’m fairly sure that their feline brains sparked into action along the lines of ‘Hurrah! An outdoor litter tray! This is awesome!’

My burgeoning wildflower seeds, those nascent green shoots, were buried in a sea of frantically digging paws and unwanted manure.

I still think about that miniscule plot of land and what might have been. While my new garden is much more expansive, the issue of pets hasn’t gone away. What did I learn in that ill-fated attempt to create a mini-meadow in a northern backyard? I learned this: creating a pet-friendly garden is as much about keeping pets out as keeping them safe.

Even now, when my borders are essentially come-hither potty spots for cats, I still think about how to detour my feline friends. There’s an enormous online industry devoted to protecting gardens from pets but much of it is fairly useless and stupidly expensive. In some cases, it’s decidedly deadly when it comes to flora and fauna.

When I want to deter cats from using flower beds as a toilet, I plant species with spikes and jagged edges. It works – no animal wants a prickly bum. I also invest in voluminous shrubs. If you crowd out your pets from your precious beds, they will find somewhere else to do their business. You can only hope that this is a long, long way away otherwise you may come to blows with your neighbours.

Of course, it’s not just about safeguarding the garden from your four-legged friends. There’s wildlife that you want to encourage into your green space, particularly when climate change is messing with our traditional seasonal calendars.

Although I have cats (natural predators when they’re not balking at vaguely inclement weather), it’s important to feed the birds. Pop some fat balls, sunflower seeds and suet blocks on your shopping list and it’s hard to go wrong. However, when laying out the avian buffet, keep an eye on the larger species. There’s a plethora of hedge sparrows and blue tits near me but the big beasts, among them jackdaws and wood pigeons, bully themselves onto the feeders, often knocking them to the ground and spiriting off with the good stuff.

Back at ground level, it’s worth bearing in mind that many plants are poisonous to cats and dogs. As it’s difficult to accurately track where your pet has been, looking for symptoms can be useful. If your pet is behaving in an unusual way, err on the side of caution and call the vet. Well, unless your cat has been chewing grass. Then you’re on your own. 

Words and images by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul  


This article first appeared in Catena