Keeping cats out of your garden

A cat in a garden. A cat in a garden.

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DEAR JESSICA: The neighbor's cat has been using various areas on my property as his own personal litter box but has now started to go in the area I have been using for my small tomato garden. I need to know if I will be able to still use the garden, as I really am concerned about the feces already there and what the cat might deposit after I plant. Or would I be safer trying to grow the tomatoes in large containers this year? I have nowhere else I can use for my garden.

-- Peggy Stein, Floral Park

DEAR PEGGY: You're right to be concerned. Cat feces can contain pathogens and intestinal parasites like roundworm, or Toxoplasma gondii, which can cause brain damage in people with compromised immune systems and poses a threat to unborn babies, which is why pregnant women are warned against cleaning litter boxes.

Put on a pair of gloves and clean up the garden meticulously. Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, while working in the soil.

I don't know the extent of the damage, but if you've been removing his little gifts regularly, you should be fine to proceed from here. If they've accumulated to the point where you can fill a bag with droppings that have been sitting on the soil since last summer, then remove the top 2 or 3 inches of soil and discard it. Replace it with fresh compost.

To keep history from repeating itself, these tips should help discourage the cat from revisiting your vegetable bed:

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--Cats, by nature, despise water. So hide, hose in hand, and wait for him to come by. Otherwise, look out the window and be ready to pounce when you see him. Squirt him as he enters your property. He will flee. Three failed attempts to enter your garden should discourage future visits. If you happen to be gainfully employed or for some other reason are not available for the mission on a 24/7 basis, a motion-sensor sprinkler would be a good investment.

--Plant rue (Ruta graveolens). It's a pretty herb you'll enjoy, but cats can't stand its scent.

--If your garden is set up so you can surround it with prickly and thorny plants, such as roses and barberries, planting them will serve as deterrents.

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--Sink plastic forks, with handles buried and tines facing upward, into the soil around plants and throughout the bed.

--Apply mulch. Cats like to roll in bare soil, and covering it with coarse bark mulch takes a lot of the fun out of it for them.

A WARNING ABOUT IMPATIENS

The downy mildew disease that has been affecting impatiens on Long Island remains a threat this year. Replant them in the same spot as in years past, and the disease will almost certainly develop again, according to Cornell University plant pathologist Meg McGrath, who is based in Riverhead.

"The less impatiens everyone grows, the less downy mildew there will be, and the greater the chance a gardener might be able to grow impatiens without them succumbing to downy mildew" in the future, she said.

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McGrath recommends growing New Guinea impatiens, which are not susceptible to the disease, or begonias, coleus or other shade-tolerant plants.

CREATING A LIVING FENCE IN SHADE

DEAR JESSICA: I would like to create a living fence across my backyard. The problem is some of it is in partial shade, and part of it is pretty much in full shade. Ideally the shrub should grow to 4-5 feet tall. Can you recommend a shrub that would meet my conditions? Also, I am having a discussion with my wife: She thinks this plant is a flower, and I think it's a weed. I have attached a photo. It appears to be taking over my shrub bed.

-- Fred Reisfeld, Commack

DEAR FRED: Full and complete shade poses a problem, as not many plants -- even the shade tolerant -- will thrive completely in those conditions. But your best bet would likely be the broad-leaved evergreen cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). Look for the 'Otto Luyken' cultivar, a dwarf, which can handle full sun as well as a fair amount of deep shade and reaches 3 to 5 feet tall. As a bonus, deer tend to ignore it. When planting, respect the spacing recommendation on the plant tag, as the shrubs will likely grow wider than they will tall. In spring, oblong clusters of tiny white flowers cover the plant and are replaced with purple-black berries that will feed your bird visitors during the summer.

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Concerning your mystery plant: Funny thing about weeds -- their definition is "an undesired plant," so to you, these are, in fact, weeds. To your wife -- and lots of other people -- they are Muscari, or grape hyacinths. The spring bulbs were either deliberately planted by someone or relocated by squirrels, and they do multiply every year.

ASK A QUESTION

Ask Jessica Damiano your gardening questions. Please include your full name and hometown. newsday.com/gardendetective

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