Last Updated on: October 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Whether it’s stuffed into pouches, sprinkled on beds, or served fresh, catnip is a mystical herb to our feline friends. Catnip mimics natural pheromones and makes some cats feel “high” in a way that’s believed to be similar to how humans experience marijuana. There aren’t any known health risks with catnip, however, so it’s become a pretty popular substance for cats. Catnip from the pet store can be quite expensive though. Growing your own cuts down on the long-term costs and provides your cat with a safer experience. You know it’s sourced in your own backyard or indoor garden, not potentially laced with pesticides or other toxic contaminants. Catnip is a fairly hardy plant that’s easy to grow—so much so that it’s actually considered to be an invasive plant in a couple of states. Here’s what you need to know about growing catnip at home and how to get started.
The Buzz About Catnip
|Scientific Name:||Nepeta cataria|
|Height:||2 to 3 feet|
|Width:||2 to 3 feet|
|Soil:||Sandy, loamy, alkaline, acidic, neutral|
Catnip (Nepeta cataria), also known as catmint, is an herbaceous perennial plant that’s native to Eurasia. As a member of the mint family, catnip grows on a long woody stem. It has a strong scent that’s similar to citronella and cannabis. Although it’s most popularly known as a favorite cat treat, humans also use catnip leaves in herbal tea. The essential oil is a common ingredient in homemade bug repellents but should be kept away from your cat. While catnip leaves are safe, the essential oil is actually toxic to your cat since it’s super concentrated.
The Nepeta cataria plant shoots green leaves about 2–3 inches long with rough edges and blossoms with tiny white flowers during the summer and early fall. These flowers bear the seeds for the next planting season.
Catnip suits most climates, being adapted for zones 3–9. It prefers full sun and moist, well-draining soil, but tolerates shade and dry conditions. Catnip grows best in sandy, loamy soil. Soil amendments usually aren’t required, as the plant thrives in slightly alkaline, acidic, or neutral soil. As long as there are no hard freezes or too many days above 85ºF, catnip will persevere through most any circumstances.
How to Grow Catnip at Home
Since catnip is a fairly hardy plant, it’s usually easy to grow. Honestly, your cat poses the biggest danger to the plant itself. Cats love to roll in catnip, so you may have to put up a buffer between the plant and your cat unless you’re okay with it being squashed. Bamboo stakes and chicken wire are common barriers. However, some people don’t mind if their cats get into the catnip. Some pet parents even strategically plant catnip near their vegetable garden or other areas where they need a feline’s prowess to address the local rodent population.
Depending on your gardening and pet parenting goals, you can plant catnip in one of three ways: an indoor transplant, an outdoor transplant, or from seed in the spring.
1. Before You Begin
If you’re growing catnip from seed, it’s important to cold-stratify the seeds first, regardless of if you’re growing indoors or outdoors. To stratify seeds, simply freeze the seeds overnight and then place them in a bowl of water for 24 hours. All plants need water and sunlight to germinate, so it sounds counterintuitive to stick the seeds into the freezer before planting. However, this process is required for quick germination in order to break the seed’s tough outer coating. Catnip seeds that undergo this process typically sprout within 5 to 20 days.
If you forgot to cold-stratify your seeds, they may still sprout, but it’ll take much longer. Give the seeds a couple of months. If they haven’t sprouted in 50 days, they probably won’t, and you’ll need to start over. Alternatively, if you’re growing catnip from a transplant, try to buy organic. You don’t want to feed your kitty leaves that have been chemically sprayed at a nursery or on a farm.
2. Choose Your Catnip Growing Method
As an Indoor Transplant
This isn’t the ideal method in most situations, but it may be your best option if you live in a climate that regularly experiences freezing temperatures or if you’re limited on outdoor space. We recommend growing catnip indoors from a transplant instead of a seed. Why? Indoor seed starts are frequently viewed as brand new litter boxes by our feline friends. Yuck. If you must start catnip seeds indoors, plant them in a room away from your kitty’s curious reach. Make sure the room receives at least 6 hours of sunlight each day for your plant to thrive.
As an Outdoor Transplant
Before you head to the plant nursery, scout out a place in your yard that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight every day. Catnip grows well in the ground or in containers as long as each individual plant is spaced at least 18 to 24 inches apart. Just be sure to buy an organic plant to avoid potential pesticides that can make your kitty sick.
Catnip from Seed
If you want to start catnip indoors, plant the seeds about 6 weeks before the last expected frost in spring. You can plant catnip outdoors anytime, but it’s best to plant in the spring after the danger of frost. If you plant during early spring, you’ll see flowers the first year. Otherwise, you may not see flowers until the next growing season. When planting, scatter the seeds loosely across the soil and barely cover with dirt. The seeds should sprout within 5 to 40 days depending on whether they were cold stratified. Once the plants are established, thin them to 18 to 24 inches apart.
3. Harvest Your Catnip
Wait until the catnip stems are at least 5 inches tall before harvesting. When you harvest, snip the stalks at the base of the plant. Leave some stalks throughout the plant so that the catnip continues to receive nutrients from the leaves.
4. Dry Your Catnip
There are three methods of drying catnip. Cutting and drying by hanging upside down in a cool place is the simplest, but often takes weeks to accomplish. Dehydrating the leaves in the oven or drying the cut leaves and stems in the sun is faster but requires more monitoring to make sure they don’t overly crisp or burn. Here’s how to preserve the catnip in any of the three methods:
Cut several stems together and tie them at the base with a rubber band or string. Hang the stems upside down in a cool, dark place until they’re dry. Depending on your climate, this process may take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months. If you live in a humid area, you’ll need to take care that the leaves don’t develop mold.
If you have a dehydrator, you can set it on 100ºF and put the leaves in for 1–4 hours until crispy. A gas oven with a pilot light also works, or an electric oven set between 100ºF and 200ºF. There’s even a microwave method that works for catnip and other culinary herbs. Lay the leaves and stems on a plate, cover with a paper towel, and microwave for 30 seconds. Continue in 15 second intervals until dry and crispy.
Drying in the Sun
If the weather is sunny and hot, you can lay the cut catnip stems and leaves on a piece of foil. Set it in direct sunlight until dry.
5. Store Your Dried Catnip
It certainly won’t hurt your cat to slip them a couple fresh leaves. In fact, some cats enjoy chewing on fresh catnip. However, dried catnip lasts longer and is easier to store, as fresh catnip only lasts a couple weeks in the refrigerator.
As long as it isn’t molded or mildewed, dried catnip technically doesn’t go bad. You still want to use it sooner than later though, since it loses its maximum potency after about 6 months. Simply store the dried leaves in an airtight mason jar or similar container until your cat is ready to play.
Why Does Catnip Make Cats Go Crazy?
Have you ever wondered why some cats go into a psychotic spiral over catnip while others tend to mellow out or act indifferent? As it turns out, catnip receptivity is a genetic trait that’s only passed down to an estimated 50% of the cat population. Basically, some cats act oblivious to catnip because they don’t get the buzz.
How a cat processes catnip is also determined by how it’s consumed. Nepetalactone is the chemical found in the leaves that’s responsible for the plant’s psychological effects on felines. If a receptive cat ingests nepetalactone, they tend to mellow out. This is because the chemical has a sedative effect when eaten. However, if your cat merely gives it a couple deep huffs, they’re more likely to become intensely excited.
The nepetalactone “high” usually lasts between 15–30 minutes. In some cats, its effects may last for a couple of hours depending on their receptivity. Once the cat comes off their high, they usually chill out like they would’ve if they had ingested the catnip instead.
Growing catnip at home nips unnecessary pet store expenses in the bud. Since it’s a fairly forgiving plant, catnip is easy to grow and doesn’t require much care (unlike your cat). If you’ve decided to give it a go, just be sure to contemplate your growing conditions to make the best decisions based on whether you want to plant indoors or outdoors, from starter or seed. Your cat will thank you later.
Featured Image Credit: Georgia Evans, Shutterstock
About the author
Cat mom to Ivy – a feisty little rescue kitten that is her one and only child. For now! Throughout her life, she has been introduced to the special love that can be found in the bond with a cat. Having owned multiple felines, she is more than certain that their love is unmatched, unconditional and unlike any other. With a passion to educate the public about everything, there is to know about felines, their behavior, and their unique personalities, Crystal is devoted to making sure that all cats and their owners know the importance of conscious living – and loving!