Indoor Winter Gardens That Do No Harm
Every winter, my windowsills are increasingly crowded with potted plants, from amaryllis and azaleas to miniature roses, primroses and daffodils. I love the vivid splashes of color and the fresh scent of green, growing things. However, I’m also learning that many common houseplants, including most of the above, can be sickening. Not for me and you necessarily, but for our pets.
Indoor plants are especially important to me because although I live in a semi-rural area, my cat Sophie is an indoor cat. The main reason is that I like to feed the birds, both with feeders and by planting food for them, as well as creating habitat with native shrubs and vines. I refuse to allow my cats to kill birds, which they can’t help but do, so the obvious answer is to keep Sophie inside. Beyond that, coyotes are very common predators here, sometimes even snatching small dogs from under their owner’s noses, and local cats often go missing when allowed to roam.
However, Sophie has the run of an enclosed outdoor porch which opens off a small sun room at the southern end of my bedroom. Framed in with sturdy goat pen wire, the 14 x 12 foot space (roofed in with wire as well) offers access to sunlight and fresh air as well as wind and rain (which Sophie rather likes in moderation). I added a large rustic bench made with bark still attached to the wood, which has become her play structure. There are also several chairs and a low table, giving her things to leap to and hide under.
What there wasn’t much of is living things. It was designed as a safe garden space for my mom as well as Sophie when Mom got wandery. When her health was failing so rapidly that walking became very difficult, indoor plants proved more soothing for her. Sophie has had to make do with pots of oat grass or wheat grass, but as the Solstice tide has turned, I find myself happily planting a cat garden. Quite a few plants are toxic for pets, so it’s important to know what’s safe and what’s not. For instance, bamboo (which Sophie adores playing with and chewing on) is safe for cats, but the ‘lucky bamboo’ grown indoors is toxic.
Growing A Cat Garden
Finding a range of safe, wholesome plants is important, since cats need vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and antioxidants just as we do, and access to natural sunlight is as important to them as to us. Pets can develop cravings if their diet is lacking in important nutrients, and my first clue that Sophie needed more than what she was getting came when she leapt onto the countertop and stole some lightly steamed broccoli. She ate it eagerly, then jumped up and took some more. My old cat, Pippa (heartbreakingly lost to coyotes), stole sheets of nori, sushi seaweed wrappers the size of a half-sheet of paper, and ate them avidly. Other cats have dug into all sorts of things, from cantaloupe to carrot tops.
The critical thing to remember when growing food for cats or sharing with them is that pesticide exposure must be avoided. Small animals especially susceptible to harm from toxic chemicals. In the garden, snail bait is a common source of pet damage or death, so be sure your cat garden does not present hidden dangers for the pets you are trying to please. Indoors, offer only organically grown broccoli or carrot tops, and grow your own herbs and flowers from seed if you can’t get pesticide-free plants locally.
What’s A Gardener To Grow?
Once I started researching, I was horrified to find that most of my favorite houseplants were at least mildly toxic to both cats and dogs. Good grief! Lilies? yup. Gardenias? Yup. Amaryllis, azaleas? Yup. Yup. Philodendron? Yup. Aloe vera? Yup. Daffodils, primroses, cyclamen, corn plant, babydoll ti plant, yup yup yup yup yup. Ack!!! The good news was that Sophie, at least, showed no interest at all in tasting any of these dangerous plants. Instead, she focused her attention on her two favorite noshes; spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and cat grass.
Spider plants are no longer as easy to find as they once were. After looking in several local nurseries and grocery stores, I finally put out a plea on the local subset of a FaceBook group called Buy Nothing. Happily for me, several people cheerfully offered me bundles of baby spider plants, which indeed do produce their offspring very freely. Now, there are pots of spider plants all over the house, and Sophie tastes them all daily, often pausing for a refreshing game of Bat The Baby, finding the dangling little plants as irresistible as toys as the mother plants are as snacks.
Sourcing Cat Grass
It’s quite a bit easier to find local sources for cat grass. Both island grocery stores sell fresh wheat grass grown in little mini flats, and several online sources sell seed blends of cat friendly plants, including barley, flax, oats, and rye as well as wheat. Again, look for organic plants and/or seeds whenever possible. All of these are very easy to grow indoors by filling plastic lettuce boxes with an inch or two of potting soil. Keep the plastic tops to loosely cover the boxes (they help keep moisture in) and poke a few holes in the boxes’ sides to let air in as well. You can also plant the cut tops of carrots that still have their leafy greens attached and they’ll go on growing for quite a while, providing more tasty greens for cats or dogs.
Worst Houseplants For Pets
Common name Latin name Bad For:
Aloe vera Aloe vera cats and dogs
Amaryllis (most) cats
Asparagus fern Asparagus sprengeri cats and dogs
Babydoll Ti plant Cordyline terminalis cats
Begonia (most) cats
Calla lilies (all) cats
Corn plant Dracaena fragrans cats and dogs
Dumb cane Dieffenbachia cats and dogs
Elephant ear Caladium (most) cats and dogs
Ivy Hedera helix cats and dogs
Jade plant Crassula ovata cats and dogs
Lilies Lilium (all) cats
Philodendron Monstera deliciosa cats and dogs
Pothos Epipremnum aureum cats and dogs
Sago palm Cycas revoluta cats and dogs
ZZ plant Zamioculcas zamiifolia dogs