Everyone enjoys a dinner made from freshly harvested backyard-garden ingredients—even your four-legged family members. Why should they be relegated to a diet that comes entirely from a bag or a can? Catnip, fresh vegetables, and even grass make great additions to your pets' diets and are extremely easy to grow. Because Buttons and Mr. Wiggles aren't known for taking care around fragile plants, we dug up a few container gardening ideas that will keep your garden protected and still allow your dogs and cats to enjoy the true pleasure of freshly grown pet treats. (No room? No problem! See how you can grow tomatoes in the driveway, dill on the deck, and peppers on the porch with Rodale's Edible Spots & Pots—get your copy now!)
If you've ever been outside with a pet, chances are you've seen the animal doing a little ad hoc grazing. Grass is loaded with vitamins, aids in digestion, and, in cats, can help prevent hairballs. And when you grow it yourself, you can let them eat it without worrying that it's been sprayed with toxic pesticides or fertilizers. (Here's how to grow a gorgeous lawn without pesticides.)
Wheat, oat, spelt, and barley grass are quick and super-easy to grow, and you can pick up the seeds in any health food or grocery store. Keep an eye out for whole, raw grain berries sold in the flour or bulk foods aisles. Fill a four-inch pot with drainage holes to within about ½ inch of the top with organic potting mix. Spread a generous single layer of your grain berries over the surface of the soil. They should be almost touching but not piled up on top of one another. Carefully cover them with ¼ inch of potting mix. Set the planted container on a tray to catch drips and put it on a sunny windowsill. Water as needed to keep the soil damp to the touch. In just a couple of days, your grass will be poking up. You'll need to plant a fresh pot every couple of weeks or so—more frequently if you give them the whole pot to shred—for a continuous supply.
Another grass alternative is cat grass—orchard grass—a tall perennial pasture grass that stands up to a lot of abuse once established and is equally appealing to cats and dogs. Seed is available online and at large farm-supply stores. Start a few seedlings and then transfer them into an eight-inch-diameter pot. Keep the pot out of pets' reach until the grass is well established and then let them have at it. Because it's a perennial it should last through years of casual nibbling without the need for planting new seeds.
Clip some of the grass with a sharp pair of scissors every day and sprinkle the clippings over your pet's food, or just put the pot next to your pet's food dish so she knows it's OK to snack on it. Some pets are content to nibble daintily, while others will enthusiastically rip the grass out of the pot and strew potting mix around. So try this in a place that is easy to sweep until you know what you can expect.
Catnip, an herb in the mint family, contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that causes a harmless high often followed by a nap in about 85 percent of adult cats. Some seem to prefer fresh, bruised leaves while others only get a kick out of dried catnip. Interestingly, catnip only causes the excitement effect in cats; humans have used catnip tea for millennia to ease stress, anxiety, insomnia, migraines, cramps, digestive upsets, and many other conditions (check out these 8 herbs that relieve anxiety). You can start catnip from seed in containers, but it's fastest to buy a small plant at a nursery and replant it at home in a large, heavy pot. Plants will grow three to four feet tall, so one or two will be plenty.
Catnip is a hardy perennial and will grow happily for years in a 10-inch-diameter pot provided your cat doesn't love it to death. If the plant is getting too much attention, keep the pot in a location the cat can't get to and harvest sprigs periodically to entertain him, or keep the potted plant in a wire mesh cage with one- to two-inch openings so the cat can harvest the sprigs that grow out through the mesh only.
Extra catnip is easy to dry. Just cut entire stems a few inches above the soil line—new shoots will regrow from below the cut—tie the bases together with a rubber band and hang the bunch upside down in an airy place out of the full sun. When the leaves are dry and crispy, slip a paper shopping bag over the bunch and store it in the bag, pulling out a sprig as needed, or crush the leaves and pour them out into an airtight jar for safekeeping.
Some pet nutritionists suggest veggies and fruits should constitute as much as 30 percent of a dog's diet—working up to that amount slowly. My pitbull adores raw green beans and a friend's mutt loved apples. If you can eat it, your dog probably can, too, and may even like it. There are a few notable exceptions, however—never feed them raw onions which can cause anemia, grapes or raisins which can cause kidney failure, avocados which contains persin, a compound that is toxic to dogs when consumed in large amounts, or the seeds or pits from apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and avocados. Also be careful about giving large chunks of high-fiber items such as corncobs to dogs. Trust me, corncob chunks don't digest and are not fun at the far end. (Steer clear of these 9 houseplants that can kill your pet.)
Once you know which veggies your pup likes, add a few seedlings or plants to your vegetable garden. Not into vegetable gardening? Buy a bunch of fresh carrots and sprout those in your kitchen. Cut ½ to one inch off the top end of your carrots and set the vegetable aside. Place the tops, cutside down, in a shallow waterproof tray lined with a folded paper towel. Put the tray in a place that will get some sun each day. Add water as needed to keep the towel wet, but not so much that the bottom of the carrot ends are sitting in more than ¼ inch of water. Quite soon, ferny leaves will appear. They are nutritious, with a somewhat bitter carrot flavor. Cut off a few and snip them over Fido's kibble.