Cats might make wonderful pets, but they can terrorize garden wildlife, and mess up your borders. For some, it’s a blessing, for others a curse, but in any case, it’s worth knowing how to keep cats out of the garden.
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for neighborhood cats, generally making them welcome in my garden, but when it comes to my veggie plot, that’s a different story.
Where we live, there are dozens of cats all too willing to set up home, so we use clever planting and natural deterrents to steer them away from our more precious crops.
Learn how you can manage cats around the garden, or keep them out completely with this handy guide to natural, effective, and safe ways to keep cats out of your garden.
What Attracts Cats to Your Garden?
Cats are social creatures, so the first thing that will attract a cat into your garden is another cat. If you’ve got house cats peering through the window, the inquisitiveness of outdoor cats will always bring them sniffing around.
But also, cats are wired as hunters, so if you’ve got rats, mice, or birds visiting your garden on a regular basis, they’ll be much more likely to come in. Sometimes that’s for food, and other times it’s because they see their traditional prey as toys.
They’re also more likely to return if they have open ground to use as a litter tray. Whether it is empty soil, bark mulch, or gravel pathway, cats will quickly learn what spaces are useful for doing their business.
What Damage Do Cats Do in the Garden?
We’ve found that one of the most appealing things for cats in any garden is tidy conifer stems (but any rough-barked tree has the same effect).
They love to scratch up against them and sharpen their claws on the rough bark – a particular problem for some deciduous trees like Elder, which can be damaged by the repetitive scratching.
For major damage like that, it’s easy to spot, but in other cases, the damage cats do to your garden can be more subtle.
Perhaps the most common is by using freshly planted seed beds as a litter tray. This might not seem that offensive at first, but cat urine is high in ammonia, and cat poo can toxify soil, so those annual seeds you’ve sown can be completely ruined.
But, the biggest danger of cats in your garden is their effect on wildlife. As predators, they are wired to hunt for birds, butterflies, moths, rats, mice, and any small creatures – including frogs and newts (which they will even fish out of ponds).
The effect of this isn’t just bad for the fauna, but by reducing animal life in your garden, and scaring it away, cats are also contributing to other pest problems. Frogs eat slugs, birds eat aphids. Everything has its part to play in your garden’s health.
How to Keep Cats Out of the Garden
Before embarking on any of the advice below, there is one crucial step every garden should take: politely asking your neighbors to put a bell collar on their cat.
Bell collars warn wildlife that a cat is near, and have a huge effect on protecting wildlife. If your neighbor says no, that’s OK – some cats have allergies to collars, and others are exploitative and will tear them off anyway. But it’s always worth asking.
After that, try sourcing some of the plants below, which are all effective cat deterrents. None are 100% effective, but most will significantly reduce how much time cats spend in your garden.
15 Best Plants to Keep Cats Out of Your Garden
1. Cat shoo plant (Coleus caninus)
The Cat Shoo plant, sold in most nurseries as ‘Scaredy Cat’, is a low-growing, mound-forming perennial that effectively wards off cats by smelling strongly of dog urine.
Its proper name is Coleus canina, and it has really quite attractive flowers, but it’s not for the faint-hearted as it's just as off-putting to you as it will be for cats.
Roses, particularly thorny shrub roses, are very effective at keeping cats out of your garden, or even just away from prized vegetable beds.
They are my go-to plant, and form a low hedge around several of my vegetable beds – particularly beans and courgettes, which we sow from seed, and are badly affected when cats use the bare soil as a litter tray.
By planting shrub roses around each bed, and pruning them into a neat hedge, they become a beautiful barrier against cats who hate their thorns.
Do be sure to mulch them annually with rotted manure though, as they are hungry plants and can take nutrients away from crops.
In a similar way to roses, pyracantha is a wonderful shrub to keep cats out of your garden entirely. With its beautiful red and orange winter berries, it can be easily trained up fences or walls to stop cats from entering the garden and is reasonably fast-growing.
Be sure to prune it for the first few years, by about half the new growth each year, until it reaches the desired height that way you’ll have an impenetrable shield of thorns, with tons of year-round interest.
4. Blackthorn and Hawthorn
Cats will use trees to enter your garden, particularly if your neighbor has a garage or adjoining outbuilding that they can climb over. Hawthorn and blackthorn are covered in long aggressive spines that cats won’t go near.
In late winter, blackthorn provides stunning and fragrant blossom, and bountiful sloe berries in late summer and into fall. Hawthorn is less ornamental but can be shaped into a neat hedge if you don’t like the idea of introducing tall trees around your borders.
A low-growing alternative to roses that can be used as a deciduous hedge all around your boundary is berberis. Its branches are covered in spines that break off in your skin, so wear gloves when handling young plants.
Cats are usually more careful than humans about that sort of thing, so it won’t harm them, but they’ll know to stay away.
Rosemary is a pungently fragranced herb that can be useful to keep cats out of certain parts of the garden. Its leaves can also be used to flavor cooking, which is a great bonus.
From what I can gather, rosemary deters cats in part by masking their own scent, so they tend not to hang around, scent mark or go to the toilet near them.
7. Lemon thyme
Cats don’t like citrus, so any lemon, lime, or citrus-scented plants will do a good job of making your garden less hospitable. Lemon thyme won’t harm neighborhood cats, but they won’t stick around as a result, and it’s an efficient plant to grow, so can be used around veg beds as a low-growing barrier.
Oregano, from what we’ve seen, is resistant to cats and provides some deterrent against them. While it’s not going to prevent them entirely, it works similarly to thyme and rosemary in that it masks their own scent and that of other cats, making your garden generally less inviting.
9. Curry herb
Helichrysum italicum, the curry herb, is unrelated to curry trees, but has the same pungent aroma, and can be used in cooking with a similar effect.
On warm days it can completely fill your garden with the scent of a fragrant and sweet curry, and for some reason cats just hate it.
One plant that is a pretty great catch-all for any unwanted garden visitors is citronella. Rats, mice, cats, and most insects are repellent by its powerful citrus scent, so not only will planting this gorgeous perennial deter cats, it will keep mosquitoes and other unwanted pests out of the garden too.
Geraniums, particularly hardy cranesbill geraniums, release a powerfully bitter scent when their leaves are crushed. Rather than leaving bare soil, plant a few geraniums around the base of your border.
These will suppress weeds, provide gorgeous flowers in spring and early summer, and most importantly, release strong cat-deterring odors when cats try to walk over them.
12. Scented Pelargoniums
Scented pelargoniums are related to geraniums but they do need winter protection in most parts of the country. Their fluffy leaves are indicative of a love of warmer climates, but when cats rub against them, they will get covered in their oils and smell like citrus, lime, or even cotton candy (depending on the variety) for hours afterward.
One clue as to whether a plant is going to be an effective deterrent to cats is to look at its historic herbal uses. Rue has loads – from arthritis treatments to treating toothache.
In large quantities it will upset your stomach, and any inquisitive cats, but in small quantities it is an easy-to-grow ground cover plant, packed with unique fragrances, somewhere between thyme, mint, and rosemary.
14. Peppermint and Pennyroyal
Peppermint, despite its close relation to catnip, is a very effective way to deter cats. But, like all mints, it will spread in your garden borders, so should only ever be planted in pots, unless you want to weed out mint for the rest of your life.
As an alternative, try planting pennyroyal, which has a very similar scent, and works just as effectively at putting cats off from using your borders as litter trays.
Planting peppermint around the base of trees, and in pots, can stop cats hanging around bird feeders though, so is a great way to keep cats out of certain spots.
Lavender will work on some cats, and not others, but only use it if your local cats aren’t plant chewers. Lavender is toxic to cats and can cause serious gastrointestinal upset.
It is generally safe to plant in the garden, and the smell puts most cats off, but some cats actually enjoy the smell, and like us humans, find it relaxing.
Check out our comprehensive guide on how to grow lavender for everything you'll need to know.
Note: There are a few articles around the internet that suggest planting catnip as a barrier. Unless cultivated under protection, catnip will be consumed by cats within a few days of planting it.
After that, they’ll be actively searching for more in your garden and likely do more damage. Only plant catnip if you want to attract cats, not deter them.
Humane Cat Deterrents and Cat Repellents for Your Garden
When it comes to keeping cats out of your garden, you don’t just need to focus on planting. After all, the idea here is to protect your garden, not necessarily add to it.
My grandma used to be incredibly protective of her herbaceous borders and would keep reflective cat figures that effectively warned off other cats, and they do work, but today there are more subtle ways to keep cats out of your garden without permanent figures, ornaments or planting solutions.
To keep cats out of your vegetable garden try peppermint oils and sprays. They work like peppermint plants but do need re-applying quite regularly to maintain their effectiveness.
Citrus oils, particularly orange and lemon oil are one of the most effective spray deterrents for cats. As well as being effective as a spot repellent, for particular parts of the garden, they also smell good, and add to your enjoyment of your outdoor space.
Cat repellent granules
For longer-lasting effects than sprays, try cat-repellent granules. Scram for Cats is an organic, granular treatment for soil, raised beds, or along the bottom of fences, which works slowly, but with long-lasting effects.
Treat your garden once a month for the first year, and then reapply every few months.
Solar cat repellents
Cats have incredible hearing, and hate anything in the ultrasonic range. Ultrasonic motion detectors, particularly those with lights that mimic a cat’s eyes, are surprisingly effective.
I’ve never personally used them, but my mother-in-law swears by them and has been using these clever bits of kit for many years to great effect.
Frequently Asked Questions About Deterring Cats
What smells do cats hate?
Any pungent, spicy, or citrusy fragrance will deter cats from your garden, but they particularly hate the scent of dog urine. It might seem obvious, and a little hard to replicate, but the Cat shoo plant effectively replicates the scent as an organic deterrent for cats.
What really deters cats?
Cats are very susceptible to smells. Citrus and spicy fragrances like mustard or citronella will help to reduce feline garden visitors, but the most effective cat deterrent is always thorns, spikes, and sharp planting, like holly, pyracantha, or roses.
What can I do about my neighbor’s cat pooping in my garden?
If your neighbor’s cat is constantly pooping in your garden, you can try to treat their favorite spot with citrus peels, ground pepper, chili flakes, or mustard seed, but if you have any holly bushes, laying fallen leaves as a dry, spiky mulch, will definitely stop your neighbor’s cat from returning to that spot again.
Does human urine deter cats from your garden?
OK, so let’s address this weird old wives’ tale… Does human urine deter cats from your garden? Well yes, it does, because cats don’t like to compete with larger species, like dogs (or humans) for control of space, and their first clue about who owns a space is scent marking.
Now, that’s all well and good, but if you’re peeing in your garden, you’re probably causing more of a problem than the cat ever was, because your wee is much worse for your plants than theirs.
Now You Know How to Keep Cats of Your Garden
I’m a cat lover, but I’m also a nature lover. For health reasons, my cats live indoors, but I know that there are many reasons that people let their cats out.
When it comes down to it, your gardens are your responsibility, and protecting wildlife shouldn’t be the job of cats, who are hard-wired to be hunters.
However, our native wildlife hasn’t evolved with cats in mind, so they are, in many ways, an invasive species in our gardens, upsetting soil balance, and plant health, as well as killing other garden visitors.
By following the guide above, you can tread a fine line between being kind to nature and managing cats in your neighborhood in a way that protects your garden and keeps cats out of your garden.