Yankee Classic: Gardening with Cats
Yankee Classic from August 1982
For me, gardening with cats began 18 years ago. At that time I had a heavy investment in Dutch bulbs, mainly tulips but also crocuses, daffodils, and scillas. Each autumn I purchased and planted a good number of tulips, and each spring a good number never came up. I thought of them as annuals; "monthers" would have been a better term, for they disappeared in the soil before the following spring. Mice grew fatter, and every September they peeked from holes near and far to see where their winter crop was being planted. Obviously they had tulipomania. The only place I saw tulips in flower was in catalogs — and in my friend Throckmorton’s garden. Throckmorton, a bachelor, is our village green thumb. He even grows his own garbanzos.
One day I asked Throckmorton the reason for his success with tulips. He pointed proudly to his seven cats, who were then eating dinner with him at the table, and asked if I would like to rent one. His rates were based on the day or hour. A day rate was out of the question for I had no intention of feeding one of Throckmorton’s felines in the manner to which she was accustomed; and no cat could rid our garden of mice in an hour. So I temporized.
Then, on a crisp star-filled evening in late fall, I stepped out onto the back porch for a breath of fresh air. Something furry rubbed against my leg. I looked down upon a most beseeching half-grown calico. "You’re new in the neighborhood, aren’t you?" I asked. She didn’t answer but motioned toward the door, no doubt aware that the refrigerator was full of milk and salmon, and that behind it there might be a mouse or two.
That was Captain Kidd, so named because of a black patch over her left eye. She performed her tasks nobly and swiftly, winter weather permitting, and the following spring there were tulips in bloom in numbers for the first time, and the crocuses prospered, too. Captain Kidd paid little attention to the areas in which daffodils and scillas were planted, for mice usually avoid eating these bulbs, which are bitter to their taste.
Captain Kidd was on duty for several years, but we still had to plant a few new tulips each autumn because they suffer from the accelerated ten-little Indian syndrome — plant ten one year, have eight the next, six the following, and so on. Mice apart, there is a natural attrition with most kinds, although one little species of tulip from Turkestan, Tulipa tarda, doubles its numbers in our garden every few years and seems adapted to New England life, provided the bulbs are planted in a sunny, well-drained spot — away from mice.
Eventually Captain Kidd went the way of all good cats, the tulips declined, and I took a wife. Mary Ann wanted a Labrador retriever, but we compromised on three cats. First on the scene was Minette, a tortoiseshell whose summer residence is an old stone sink atop a defunct well with a hand pump in back. On either side of the stone sink are containers with mixed plantings of marigolds, sweet alyssum, lobelia, or whatever other annuals strike our fancy in a particular year. At one end of the sink is a little stone bowl that holds water — and Minette’s fascination. She sits next to it for hours, apparently dreaming of goldfish gone by, famous mice of the past, and voles and shrews to come.
Actually, she is thinking of birds, too. Not hawks or crows or anything very large, but rather chickadees and sparrows. It must be said that in the course of a year she catches several, despite the warning bell attached to the collar around her neck. We like to think the birds are old and infirm. For each bird that she gets, 15 times as many rodents are done in. That is a modest number for an old farm such as ours with plenty of good hiding and nesting places for field mice. We are sure that the supply of rodents will never be quite exhausted, if only because new ones move in from the borderlands as soon as the old are consumed.
Rabbits used to cause us a certain exasperation. They have an uncanny way of severing a stem just as flowers are coming into bloom, and their sharp teeth, which give a clean, angled cut, also quickly cause the demise of smooth-barked sapling trees such as cherry, plum, and apple, especially in winter. Minette is a good hunter and has helped keep down this damage by catching young rabbits. Unfortunately, they sound disconcertingly like human babies, and Mary Ann and I would prefer that she not bring us the remains while we are lunching on the terrace.