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Catmint (Nepeta plant): Drought tolerant garden perennial

Perennial:  Catmint
Perennial: Catmint
by Jeri Baker/ fourthestategal

The nepeta plant, catmint variety, is a real trooper in any garden. It is drought and heat tolerant, has few pest problems and is low maintenance. It is one of my favorite perennials.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports, "nearly 75 percent of the Lower 48 is experiencing drier than normal conditions or worse." Already many parts of the southwestern and western United States have had record-breaking heat waves, water restrictions due to drought conditions and wild fires. My catmint plants seem to be loving all this abuse.

These conditions can be particularly difficult for gardeners. So, if you are a Colorado gardener, like me, or trying to garden in any of the southwest or western United States, catmint is a must-have perennial for your garden.

Botanical basics:

Family: Lamiaceae

Genus: Nepeta

Common Name: Catmint

History and symbolism:

These plants originated in Europe and aren't indigenous to the United States. However, they grow quite easily in many regions of the country. As it isrelated to catnip (N. cataria), it is attractive to cats. It's oil and dried flowers have been used for medicinal purposes. If you like to read about herbals, I findthis site very interesting Botanical.com. However, I would recommend you never take a herbal supplement or make your own herbal remedies without first consulting a physician. Catmint flowers are often used to symbolize affection, so if someone hands your a bouquet of catmint, take it as a good sign.

Plant description:

The common varieties have a bluish-lavender flower which grows on small stalks. They have a mounded shape and, depending on the variety, grow to 12" H x 36 W," on average, but some can grow 3' - 4'. There are also some with white and pink blooms. They have squared-sided, somewhat stiff stems, and greyish, sort of olived-coloredmleaves which grow in an opposing leaf pattern. The plant itself looks very delicate, almost like a lavender plant. As it is in the mint family, the leaves are aromatic and this fragrance is famous for drawing cats, although not all species entice cats as much as catnip. My indoor cats were famous for opening the screen door and rolling in my catmint.

Growing conditions:

It prefers well-drained soils, but I have clay soil in my yard (I amended with some sand) and it has survived quite well. I am a big believer in mulch, and as it breaks down, it improves the clay soil in my yard. It loves full sun but also tolerates partial shade (see, what a trooper).

It is drought tolerant, so most varieties require little water. Also, they don't require much fertilization...in fact, you'll end up with a hardier, more lush plant if you don't over-fertilize. You'll have a beautiful plant if you show it a little neglect.

The optimum soil pH is 6.1 - 7.8

USDA Zones: 3 - 9 (be sure to check your zone before planting)

Bloom times:

May - August (mine actually continue to bloom into October during mild winters). If you cut them back when the first blooms begin to fade, it will rebloom.

Difficulty level:

Easy, my experience has been if you show them a little neglect, they will thrive. What could be easier?

Propagation:

Some varieties spread from seeds; these can be very invasive. I have catmint that spreads via seeds, and I regularly pull them from areas of the garden where they are unwanted. Don't worry, there are some varieties that are sterile and don't propagate by reseeding. These can either be divided and planted in the fall or cuttings can be taken and rooted prior to planting. They can be planted indoors during the winter so they will be ready to plant come spring.

Planting:

Be aware of the growth size of the variety you are planting. Some varieties can be several feet tall.

I usually take the anticipated width of the mature plant and add another 12 inches to determine how far apart to plant the seedlings. Be sure you are planting them in well-drained soil where they will get at least partial sun during the day. They do love their sun.

Plant care and maintenance:

When the colors of the blooms begin to fade, I cut mine back. They will also stay full and nice-looking. During the first couple of cuttings, I am downright brutal, cutting 1/2 to 2/3 of the plant away. This will encourage healthier bushier plants. Mine rebloom at least twice during the summer, and sometimes more. Towards the end of summer, I leave them alone until I deadhead them to prevent them from reseeding. I leave more of the plant for the winter and mulch them to protect the roots from our harsh winter storms.

Best uses:

Mine are fabulous along the rock wall I have in my backyard, and they work well in rock gardens. My patio door overlooks the rockwall, and I enjoy the hummingbirds, finches, butterflies, and yes, even the bees which the catmint attracts. If you have plants with 12" - 18" heights, they make lovely edging plants along walkways, patios and driveways. The mildly aromatic quality of the leaves is an added benefit along pathways. They also make attractive under plantings. Taller catmints help protect other, more shade seeking plants, from the sun.

Relatives and close cousins:

Catmint, as the name suggests, is related to mint, but they are also related to hyssop, rosemary, and thyme.

Companion plants:

My favorite companions plants are daylilies and baskets of gold, but they also look great with yellows, oranges and red hues such as poppies, roses, even some blooming sedum makes an attractive combination.

Popular catmint plants:

Faassen's catmint - such as 'Blue Wonder' and 'Walker's Low'

N. nervosa - 'Felix'

N. subsessilis - 'Sweet Dreams' (this one is pink)

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