by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
Standing in the backyard, holding the hose at 3 a.m., aiming for the targets, I thought back to how it had happened.
I had a lovely vegetable garden in San Diego. I hauled out rocks, built raised beds, applied lots of manure and compost, love, and time. Finally I had a fertile garden. My family ate the freshest, and pesticide-free tomatoes, lettuce, onions, peppers, chard, and asparagus. The fruit trees hung heavy every year with plums, apricots, nectarines, oranges, and lemons.
All was going well. Then, I thought I’d try some new plants. My cat loved catnip so I thought, ‘why should she not enjoy some of the fruits of my labor?’ I bought seeds and thought I’d plant just a few. After all, she was a small cat and didn’t need a lot.
The seeds sprouted, and little green shoots came up. I watered them, weeded and tended them as they grew to full bushy plants. My cat seemed to appreciate my labor and would rub herself on the little green plants. I noticed she had invited the cat from next door to enjoy the catnip. A couple of days later, I spotted two new cats that ran as soon as I came out the door.
Territorial fighting began. At the first screech, both my husband and I sat up as if we had been pulled by strings. The noise was horrific — screeching and yowling. I listened and could hear maybe six different howls.
Both of us ran to the window to see what was happening. He was less understanding than me. He started yelling out the window, which didn’t work. All the cats did was stop and look at us, and then continued on with the noise. There were at least ten strange cats sitting in my yard. By the faint moonlight I could see cats rubbing themselves on the catnip. None of them were making any move to vacate the yard.
I saw the light come on in my neighbor’s house and a loud voice coming from his yard. I ran outside, grabbed the hose, and turned the water on. Squirting the cats worked, and they all fled, mostly into my neighbor’s yard. He yelled and turned his hose on. Between the two of us, we got the cats to leave. I went back to bed and had finally gotten back to sleep when the next round started. They had returned within ten minutes.
Sleep was impossible. I watched as more and more cats came over the fence. I had never seen this many cats in one place before. Some were rubbing themselves on the catnip, others were sizing up the large males. I watched a female throw herself down, rubbing her back on the ground, and send out a blood curdling invitation to the males. The males then proceeded to fight for the right to attend the female. All during the fight, she was screeching and rubbing. Cats sat on the fence, on and in the raised vegetable beds, and some, more adventurous, had climbed into the fruit trees.
I had turned my backyard into a ‘coliseum for cats.’ There were the gladiators and the watchers. A few losers crept away, but the observers stayed.
In the morning, my neighbor came over to talk. Well, not talk, complain. A few other neighbors came by to tell me how their sleep had been disturbed.
That morning I attacked the catnip. As I was pulling, I saw the seeds fly off spreading catnip across more ground. Turns out catnip can grow in San Diego’s dry rocky soil and doesn’t need fertilizer and care. Each time I spotted a sprout, I attacked. Unfortunately, the cats didn’t understand that I’d closed the ‘cat spa.’ They continued to visit for many more nights, rubbing their bodies against the wooden sides of the vegetable bed, and fighting for room. There were a couple of big males that tried to make my yard part of their territory.
There was a bumper crop of kittens in the neighborhood that year. I think I’ll buy catnip in small bags from here on out.