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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Cat lover-gardener is a tough love mix; but (for now) Henry Clay can’t do zippers

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

I have always been a cat lover. From the first time that someone dumped off a load of sore-eyed kittens in front of our house when I was about three years old, I have been smitten. The minute I laid eyes on one of those little critters I knew that they were for me.

The cute little stinker! Who could resist? (Photos provided)

Naturally, I picked them up—all of them. Unfortunately for the kittens, I didn’t quite know how to do that. I just grabbed them all up by the necks and brought them to the house. Fortunately for the kittens, my mother saw this and intervened before this introduction became a tragedy. Not being a cat person, she has been sorry ever since.

Over the years, I have always had cats. I have had a lot of cats. This is how it is as life goes on and you keep living, and your little charges age and ultimately go on to that great litter box in the sky, which is perpetually clean, as in heaven it should be. I’ll bet that there is even an angel, certainly a fallen one, assigned to the position of holy poop scooper. Would that be a better choice than purgatory?  I’m hard pressed.

Over the years I’ve lived with Ingrid, Stella, Dorothy, Bridget, Frankie, Rickie, Eddie, Petunia, Marcus, Felicity, Rachel, Minnie and George Washington. There were also a few random kittens that showed up and had to be placed in homes.

Usually, these cats (some full of the random kittens) just showed up and we hit it off. As least that’s what they WANTED me to think. After awhile, I did start to question the divining accuracy of their aim. I have concluded that there is a telepathic network among cats and they are all communicating. They all have each other’s backs. I imagine this:  “Just show up behind the house when she’s out there and act cute — you know, circle her legs, talk a little….She’ll cave.”

I am a sucker, and it’s probably all over town.

Then, one day I found out that my friend Christopher had a kitten that he had to get rid of. No one wanted this kitten, even though this was just about the cutest little stinker I had ever laid eyes on. No one wanted him? Unbelievable! I AM a sucker.

No trash can left unexplored.

The next day, Henry Clay moved in. Right away, I discovered that there was something very special about this cat.  He has an amazing amount of curiosity.  He likes heights, pulls open drawers, opens cabinets and shutters, and rearranges pictures.  He likes the tops of open doors and curtain rods, and furnaces and ductwork.  This cat knows every square inch of my house. I mean EVERY SQUARE INCH. If he had thumbs he would probably swing from the chandeliers.

Needless to say, the possibility of having a Christmas tree is over.

Now, I am familiar with that aphorism, “Curiosity killed the cat”. It hasn’t happened yet, but we have had a few moments. His initial foray to the upper rafters of my garage (16 feet!) was a bit of a hand wringer. I couldn’t watch. I had to leave. Only until I heard the “thunk” of his landing (hopefully on his feet) on the roof of my Jeep could I have relief. I am now used to this.

Why and how do I tolerate this? (I imagine you ask.)  Here it is — Henry is a lover and he has a singular way of showing it. He actually JUMPS from the floor (or ironing board, or table, or wherever he is) into my arms and I catch him. We then cuddle. I truly am a sucker and that cat plays me like fiddle.

I bet you’re wondering what this all has to do with gardening.

Success! At least until he figures out how to operate zippers. Note the puny lettuce – sigh!

It being winter, I thought it might be fun to resurrect last years attempt to raise leaf lettuce in my office.  As usual, my experiments start with the best intentions and some of the most confounding decisions. I mean, I should know better about certain things by this point. I have accepted the fact (I guess) that I am a little slow on the uptake sometimes. There is a long history of evidence here, and I don’t have enough dignity to hide it, apparently. 

I got everything set-up and the seed planted. Grow lights on a timer were in place, and knowing about cats and plants, I had wrapped nylon window screen around the setup, in order to prohibit grazing, or, God forbid, a potty break.

For some reason, the seed I planted wasn’t germinating as well as I would have liked; it was just limping along. It might have been too old (check the date!) or had been stored improperly before I got it (note to self—do not buy seed in cutesy little gift shops). In addition to this lackluster performance, I don’t think my planter box was really deep enough for more mature roots. The thing is, I know better than all of this! Dumb, dumb, dumb.

At least no cat had bothered it.  

Time went on and it slowly matured. One evening, on my way to bed, I decided that tomorrow I would harvest my first little batch. It looked like it was ready. Henry Clay apparently shared this insight.  

The next morning when I checked on my crop, I found that every single plant had been nipped off down to the dirt. There had been a security breech! I was ready to scream. HENRY! HENRY CLAY!!

He’s still a cutie.

I was so disgusted (after all, this hadn’t exactly been a success to begin with), that I just took the whole thing out to the garage and abandoned it.

Naturally, Henry circled around my legs and purred in his most ingratiating manner. Anyone who has ever had a cat realizes that any complaining on your behalf is a waste of energy at best, and a permanent stink-eye from the cat, at its worst.

I had learned my lessons, and this year would be different. This year I would use a deeper container for the plants, use better seed and I would wrap the nylon screen more securely. I used a score of clothes pins to fasten the screen to keep out Henry.  As far as I could tell, he still didn’t have thumbs.

A few days into this project—the seeds had been planted, the grow lights were set up with a timer and the screen was secured. One morning, I woke up to find Henry Clay standing right in the middle of the planter pawing at, and standing on, the tiny seedlings that had started to germinate.

After extricating Henry and checking his paws for thumbs, I knew what I had to do.  

Drawing on my old pattern-making skills from a former life, I constructed a zippered cover for my entire light set-up. The whole thing is completely enclosed.  

So far, so good. He has not figured out how to operate zippers….YET.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it. See her new website at intrepidurbanfarmer.com

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