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THE GOODS | CYBURBIA

A Simple Piece of E-Mail Put an End to All the Cattiness

May 28, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gardening seemed the perfect antidote to too many hours spent in front of computers. I would commune with nature, reap the benefits of home-grown tomatoes, create a garden so perfect that jealous friends would whisper, "He thinks he's Martha Stewart" when they thought I couldn't hear.

I attended a tomato workshop at my neighborhood nursery and then amended, fertilized and finally mulched to create the optimum soil. Unfortunately, it seems I had also unwittingly created--and I say this as delicately as possible--a giant cat box. Somehow, I don't think things like this ever happen to Martha.

At least a couple times a week, neighborhood felines would visit my garden to dig in the soft mulch. Even though I am allergic to cats, I rather like them--but not in my garden. I headed back to the computer, this time to seek advice.

I first turned to two gardening CD-ROMs, but they were of little help. The "Sunset Garden Problem Solver" had a short entry under the topic "Cats and Dogs" that advised the use of commercial odor repellents, but all the ones I found in gardening stores warned they were too toxic to be used in food gardens. The CD-ROM also suggested covering newly planted beds with wire mesh, which might be good if I was going for a "Stalag 17" look.

"Complete Gardening" from Microsoft was not complete enough to offer any cat advice.

Then I turned to the Internet newsgroup rec.gardens, where home gardeners from around the world leave hundreds of messages daily. There were questions asked and advice given about sources for New Zealand flax, problems with sumac, the best fertilizer for palms, ground covers for wet shade, the sweetest cantaloupes, and the cross pollination of peppers to control their hotness.

There were also numerous messages about cats--it seemed I was not the only one having this particular problem. Most of the solutions offered were ones I already knew about from browsing in the library and bookstores. Orange peels had seemed ineffective, and although a sprinkling of cayenne pepper did seem to help, it constantly had to be renewed to be effective.

One woman on the newsgroup said she keeps cats away by spraying them with a hose. "It doesn't harm the cats, but they act like they've been shot with a machine gun!" she wrote. Sounds effective, but of course I would have to give up my job and sleeping to keep an around-the-clock vigil.

One man rents cat cages and traps them. "We got three cats in three days," he proudly proclaimed. He takes them to a local humane center to be put up for adoption, but of course if it's your neighbor's cat, this would probably not be appreciated.

Then, in answer to my request for help, I got a note from a woman sent directly to me via e-mail, thus allowing her to avoid any association with the newsgroup debate. She wrote, "Cats stay out of the area of my garden that is mulched with large bark chips."

Just one sentence, but it changed my gardening life. I put a layer of the largest bark chips I could get directly on the finer mulch, and the cats have not bothered my garden since. It was a simple, elegant solution. And just in case you're wondering, the woman who sent the note was named Karen, not Martha. She's my latest digital hero.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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