Murdock in the Catnip    –    artwork (c)2008 Val Webb

You don’t have to be a cat owner to justify growing catnip in your garden. It’s a beautiful herb with downy, heart-shaped leaves and the square stem that signifies mint … and it’s very useful stuff. Years ago, when I lived in the mountains, I met older folks who insisted that planting catnip close to their cabins would repel termites — a bit of folk wisdom that would eventually be rediscovered by research scientists. After my youngest daughter was born, the midwife told me that warm catnip tea would relieve a colicky baby. An herbalist friend in Florida recommends catnip for menstrual cramps. Maud Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal, reports that the herb is helpful for headache and nervousness. The list goes on and on.

My catnip, like its tenacious mint cousins, seems determined to crowd its neighbors right out of the planting bed. What began nine months ago as a modest little sprout has rapidly grown to a large, sprawling bush with aspirations both tall and wide.

Catnip is easy to grow from seed, from dividing a larger plant at its base, or even from cuttings rooted in water. It has been my experience that big, robust catnip plants grow where there’s plenty of sunlight and not too much moisture. They like less water than the rest of the thirsty mint clan. My bed is on the sandy side, but is enriched with good compost — and these conditions result in a high concentration of volatile oils (capable of sending approximately 75% of the cat population into spasms of ecstasy with a single sniff). I’m starting seeds now for the young plants that will go off to our downtown growers’ market in late summer.

The leaves and stems, either fresh or dried, have a powerful effect on most kitties. If there are any four-legged catnip junkies in your household, you may want to protect your young plants with rabbit wire to prevent tender leaves from being rolled upon, or plant your catnip off by itself. I once had a cat who would use his paws to uproot entire catnip plants and devour roots, stems and all. His fondness for recreational catnip usage resulted in a lot of damage to neighboring herb plants.

The plant is at the height of its medicinal powers when the white-and-purple tops are in full flower, and herbalists recommend harvesting catnip by cutting the entire plant back to about six inches in height. Do your cutting at mid-morning, and then remove any dead or discolored leaves. Here in the land of 100% humidity, we dry herbs in a dehydrator or inside a closed-up vehicle on a hot day. When I lived in a slightly drier climate, I tied catnip in loose bundles and dried them inside brown paper bags. Either way, your catnip will retain more potency if the leaves are dried whole.