You'll find it isn't hard to grow catnip, even if you don't want to grow this much of it.
PHOTO: MARLIN AND EVA HUFFMAN
Most people are well aware of the fact that cats are fascinated by catnip. It seems the little animals can't resist the lure of Nepeta cataria's essential oils, which are said to be similar in scent to the chemicals a female feline gives off during her mating period.
Lesser known, however, is the fact that the plant's dried leaves and flowers make a tasty herb tea, and—when brewed a bit stronger—the beverage becomes a potent medicinal concoction for the treatment of common colds, menstrual pains, baby colic, flatulence, flu, tension headaches, nervousness, and insomnia.
On our Florida farm, we grow catnip for all those reasons, but primarily our catnip patch is a 20-acre cash crop that adds thousands of dollars to our income!
Catnip was first brought to this country by early colonists as an essential component of their medicinal gardens. But, before long, the hardy plants escaped and soon grew wild over much of the United States.
It should be obvious from the versatile herb's ability to thrive on its own that catnip can be a sure-fire crop . . . once you understand its needs. Full sunshine is a must for the plant, and good drainage is equally important. Happily, since catnip's shallow, long, fibrous roots thrive in poor, dry, sandy soil, you'll hardly ever need to water your crop once it's established. Additionally, catnip cultivators don't have to worry about bugs or worms, because such pests—along with goats, chickens, and rats—dislike the leaves' strong oils.
As far as soil preparation goes, we've found that even a very little chemical fertilizer can destroy the herb, and raw, uncomposted manure will kill the plants, too. We use approximately one teaspoon of 50% organic 6-6-6 per plant in the early spring and, again, in July. And although the addition of a little agricultural lime to the earth is usually advantageous, a 5.8-6.5 pH range is satisfactory.
To Get Going
To start a catnip crop, purchase seed from an herb dealer or buy small plants from a mail order nursery. Here are some sources (which will supply catalogs on request)
Park Seed Company
Burpee Seed Company
In the fall or early spring, work the ground well, making sure you destroy and rake out any perennial weeds and grasses. Then sow the seeds (which germinate poorly) on top of the soil at a ratio of about 10 per square foot. When that's done, pack the tiny kernels into the earth with a roller (or tramp them with your feet) . . . and keep the area moist for about 15 days.
Once the seedlings are 4 to 5 inches high, thin them out to one plant per two square feet ... and reset your extra seedlings, as they transplant well. (You can space any purchased plants in the same manner.)
How to Harvest
By late July or early August when about 25% of the blooms have turned brown, your crop will be ready to harvest. Perform the task early in the morning, just after the dew is gone, by snipping the herbs off at a point about five inches above the ground (if you cut the stems any closer to their bases, the plants may not resprout). Then tie the foliage at the cut end into convenient, uniform bunches . . . and hang the tabby treats in a dark, very dry area.
Cash for Catnip
Though the market for catnip is somewhat limited, there are buyers eager for your crop. Check with your local herb dealer to find out if he/she stocks the feline enticer. (If there are no such outlets in your area, try Wilcox Drug Company. You'll find that dried catnip can be shipped very easily and inexpensively by United Parcel or any one of a number of truck lines.)
Most herb dealers will pay from 30¢ to 40¢ per pound for good-quality catnip (which must be fully dry and free of weeds), and a quarter-acre plot can reasonably be expected to yield 800-900 pounds of the dried material per year. (Last year, we cut about 80,000 dry pounds of the herb from our 20 acres.)
Aside from the cash benefits that can be had by "going commercial" with a catnip-raising operation, you'll find that even a small patch of the herb will be a pleasant addition to your life. To enjoy the plant in an herb tea, mix catnip at a ratio of one to three with mint. You'll appreciate the pleasing, subtle flavor Nepeta cataria adds.
Then, besides offering your cat its favorite weed "straight up," an occasional sprinkle of powdered catnip can be used to attract the animal to sleep or play in a given area.
Or, if you'd like to make a special tabby toy, you can create a catnip mouse. Just take a six-inch circle of cloth, fold it in half inside out, sew all but 1/2 inch of the unfolded side shut, and reverse it again. To give the toy stability, just insert a piece of narrow, oval-shaped cardboard (the "bottom" of the rodent) opposite the seam . . . stuff the pouch full of dried catnip . . . and sew or glue the hole closed.
When the mouse is finished, toss it to your pet and stand back . . . as the action that'll follow is likely to get thick!