Catnip is an easy-to-grow perennial that belongs to the mint family. It has beneficial properties for cats and for humans but can also be used simply as an ornamental plant.
It’s a great plant for pollinators as well. The lavender or white flowers of catnip often attract bees and butterflies. And if all that wasn’t good enough, the greenish-gray leaves are also fragrant and can be used to make an herbal tea.
If you have cats and want to give them their own space in the garden, or if you just want to enjoy all the benefits of this plant for yourself, here’s a complete guide of how to grow catnip from seed.
What Is Catnip?
Before getting into how to grow catnip, here’s a little background on the plant itself.
As stated before, catnip belongs to the mint family. It’s originally native to parts of Europe and Asia but has now been widely naturalized in North America. You can grow it as a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.
Catnip is sometimes referred to as catmint, but it’s important to differentiate the two. Catmint technically refers to a larger group of plants of which catnip is one variety.
There are many other varieties of catmint but none have the same properties as catnip. To be sure you buy the right seeds or plants, look for the botanical name Nepeta cataria.
Catnip is a member of the mint family and a specific variety of catmint. To make sure you are getting the right plant, look for the botanical name Nepeta cataria when you buy.
One of the most interesting properties of catnip (and where it got its name from) is the effect it can have on cats.
The scent of the plant can cause euphoric behavior in cats and other felines, causing them to purr and rub themselves in the plant. Not all cats will react this way. Around ⅓ will have no reaction whatsoever, so don’t worry if yours doesn’t.
Interestingly, when cats consume or chew on catnip, it has the opposite effect and acts like a sedative.
Catnip also has a calming and sedative-like effect on humans. The leaves have been used for centuries to make a tea that has a relaxing effect and can help with headaches and sleep.
Once established, catnip plants should grow 2-3’ tall and will likely start spreading themselves out like other members of the mint family.
In fact, it’s considered invasive in certain areas, so check guidelines for your region before planting. If you’re worried about the plants getting out of control, grow them in containers on your porch.
Wherever you grow it, catnip will produce lovely gray-green foliage that is very fragrant when crushed. It also develops small white or purple flowers in clusters that bloom from late spring to fall.
Catnip blooms with small white or purple flowers that attract bees and other pollinators. It also attracts beneficial insects that will eat aphids and help control pests.
Plants are typically resistant to deer and rabbits, which is a huge bonus. They also attract beneficial predator insects like lacewings that will eat aphids and other common garden pests.
For this reason, catnip makes an excellent companion plant.
How to Grow Catnip from Seed
While some perennials can be difficult to grow from seed, catnip is not. The seeds typically have a good germination rate and are very inexpensive to buy.
You’ll need to start your seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before you plant them outside, which will be after the danger of frost has passed.
In order to grow from seed, you’ll need seed-starting flats, a good seed starter mix, and lighting (fluorescent lights and sunny windows both work fine).
Start by soaking your seeds overnight or up to 24 hours. You can do this by getting a paper towel wet, squeezing out excess water, and laying out your seeds on one half of the towel.
Fold the paper towel over so that the seeds are sandwiched, and store them in a plastic bag until you’re ready to sow.
Get your planting flats ready by moistening your seed starter mix with water. Mix in water until the soil just holds together in a clump when you squeeze it with your hand. You don’t want the soil to be either dry or soaking wet.
Growing catnip from seed is easy and will give you lots of plants for you and your cats to enjoy. Soak the seeds before planting them, and you’ll see germination in 7-10 days.
Fill up your trays with your starter mix and drop them lightly on a hard surface to get rid of any air pockets. Add more mix if needed and level out the top of the soil so that it’s flat.
Starting Your Seeds
Once your trays are ready, you can get your pre-soaked seeds out. Put one seed into each cell or sow in rows if you have open flats. Lightly press the seeds into the soil and cover with a sprinkle of extra soil but no more than that.
Once you’ve finished sowing, water the trays and put them somewhere warm to germinate. If you have them, you can put plastic covers over the trays to keep the soil moist.
Your seeds should start germinating in 7-10 days, so be on the lookout. Once they sprout, remove the plastic covers if you have them on and move the trays under lighting or into a sunny spot.
Keep the soil moist but not overly wet and let them continue to grow. If you sowed in rows, you’ll need to start thinning your seedlings so that there’s a few inches between each one.
Transplant to Pots
Once your seedlings have been growing for a few weeks, you’ll need to transplant them to larger pots. You can use 8-12” round, plastic pots and a good potting soil for this step.
Moisten the potting soil like you did for the seed starting mix. Fill up your pots almost to the top.
Make a hole in the center of one pot that will just fit a seedling. Then, take a seedling out of your trays, put it in the hole, and pack around it with soil. Repeat this process until all your seedlings are transplanted.
Transplant your seedlings from the trays to plastic pots like these ones. Let them continue to grow in the pots until you’re ready to plant outside.
Water your new transplants and keep the pots under lighting or on a sunny ledge inside your house.
About a week before you’re ready to plant, you can take the pots outside during the daytime so that they can gradually get accustomed to the elements. This is called hardening off and needs to be done to reduce transplant shock when you actually plant them.
Planting and Growing Catnip
Once the danger of frost has passed in your region, you’re free to plant your new catnip into the garden. You can also choose to plant them in a container garden, perhaps in low pots where your cats can get to them.
Selecting the Right Location
Like other mints, catnip likes to grow in full sun, but it can tolerate partial shade. The plants are drought resistant, which makes them low maintenance, and do best in well-drained soil.
Planting catnip in clumps makes a nice effect in the landscape. You’ll need to space your plants 18-20” apart to give them enough room to grow to full size.
You can mix catnip in with other perennials like echinacea, make it part of an herb garden, or add it to a pollinator-friendly garden space. If you know your cat loves it, plan a little area of catnip somewhere accessible for your feline to enjoy.
Once you have your planting location(s) selected, go ahead and plant your seedlings with the proper spacing in between each one.
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Most often, catnip will grow well in native soil with no amendments, but if you know your soil is nutrient deficient, mix in some homemade compost before planting.
After you’ve finished planting, water in your seedlings and keep an eye on them for a week or so. Once established, they won’t need watering unless there’s a long drought, but seedlings have shallow roots and need to be watered when the soil gets dry.
As mentioned before, catnip attracts beneficial insects to your garden that eat pests like aphids. This makes them a great choice to use for companion planting.
If you have a vegetable garden, consider planting some catnip in or around it. Not only will it help to attract good insects, it might also encourage your cat (if you have one) to come to the garden and keep away mice and voles.
You can also mix it in with ornamental plants that are prone to aphid attacks.
Caring for Your Plants
Catnip is a low maintenance plant, but giving it a little bit of care will help your plants to thrive. Here are the most important tips for taking care of your plants.
Pests that attack catnip include whitefly and spider mites, but it’s typically a pest- and disease-free plant. Catnip usually suffers the most damage from cats. Seriously.
If you have cats that absolutely love the plant, they will roll in it, lay on it, and even chew it. Mature plants might be able to take this affection, but your new seedlings won’t.
Cats pose the most danger to your newly planted catnip since many love to roll in it, eat it, and lay on top of it. You can protect your transplants with bamboo stacks or small wire cages.
You can prevent your cats from laying on the plants by protecting them with small wire cages or by sticking thin bamboo stakes around and among your catnip.
Catnip really needs a good prune to keep it from becoming scraggly.
Plan to prune your plants after the first bloom is over. Use a pair of garden clippers to cut it back hard. You can prune it as far back as 3-4” above the ground, however, you’ll want to go a little easier on your seedlings the first year.
This pruning will encourage new, bushy growth and a second period of blooming. You can dry and store the clippings you cut off for use later.
What to Do with Catnip
You can harvest catnip at any point as long as the plants are big enough. Just cut off as much as you need and let the rest of it keep growing.
Here are some uses for it:
- Use a few fresh leaves to have play-time with your cat and let him/her rub or chew on the leaves.
Catnip leaves can be used to make a relaxing herbal tea that can help with sleep, headaches, and stress.
- Use catnip as a training tool (but only if your cat is attracted to it). For example, if your cat is scratching up things it’s not supposed to, try rubbing fresh catnip on an acceptable location, like a scratching post.
- Dry out several stems of leaves, and put the leaves in some kind of sachet or an old sock to make a toy for your cat.
- Use the leaves fresh or dried to make a cup of calming and soothing catnip tea. Drink the tea before bedtime or whenever you feel stressed and tense.
As you can tell, catnip is a wonderful plant to add to your garden. It’s beneficial for both humans and cats, makes a good ornamental plant, and can be grown as a companion plant in your vegetable garden.
It’s easy to grow and mostly pest free. And now that you know how to grow catnip, you can enjoy it for yourself!