Create a landscape that you can happily—and safely—share with your four-legged friends.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
Although I gladly share my yard with two canines and a pair of cats, I've learned that gardening and raising pets aren't always compatible endeavors. My yellow Lab—while in hot squirrel pursuit—has toppled saplings and squashed hostas. His terrier-mutt buddy has chomped tomatoes right off the vine. And my felines have scratched up just-sown seedbeds and pawed nesting spots in my mulch.
Luckily for us animal lovers, there are plenty of savvy, pet-friendly gardening strategies out there that can help us build beautiful gardens where plants, pets and people can coexist.
Observe and Plan
Before you put in plants or paths, spend a few days watching your pets roam the yard. Record their routes, and see if they have a tendency toward digging, gnawing plants or doing their duty in unsuitable spots. With this information, you can design a landscape that works in concert with both your requirements and your animals' needs.
Watch where they rest—if the only shady spot in the yard is filled with hosta, you may want to replant the area with shade-tolerant grass to create a cushy spot. Cats may be drawn to foundation beds—they offer dry and warm spots for nestling in. Make foundation plantings less alluring by covering the beds with prickly mulches and occasionally spraying them with water—cats and wet don’t mix. (Another word of warning: Never use cocoa-hull mulch—it's toxic to pets!)
Always include sweeps of lawn where dogs can wander aimlessly, roll about or frolic freely. Secondly, leave no patch of earth undressed—bare soil encourages dogs to dig and invites cats to relieve themselves. Bare-earth areas turn soggy after rain, which results in paw-rutted gardens and lawns, as well as mud-caked paws that may track dirt indoors.
Point pets in the right direction. Guide their travels around and through gardens by laying clearly defined pathways that are easy on their feet. Flagstone and paved paths will keep them on track, but paths created with cedar chips will do just as well and offer an added benefit—cedar chips boast anti-flea properties. I found that laying three homemade concrete stepping-stones across my dogs' favorite yard-to-garden-to-patio shortcut keeps them out of the plants and also fills in the bare-earth path they wear while walking to and fro.
For dogs that love to dig, create a site in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard. Excavate a hole, fill it with loose soil or sand and place the dog's favorite toys nearby—continue to coach the canine until it understands that this is the only designated digging spot.
Tired of waste-burned lawns and foliage? Vigilance and a water hose can keep lawns free of yellow patches. Simply hose down the grassy area after your dog urinates—this dilutes the urine. If you’ve got extra space and a desire for a more permanent solution, allocate a section of the yard as a toilet area, and cover it with mulch or gravel. Place the doggie bathroom out of sight behind a garage, or screen the area with tall plantings or a hedge. Use tasty treats and attentive management to train your canines to use the spot to relieve themselves. Or leave a pile of sticks or raked-up leaves near a front walkway where dogs walking by will "water" the pile. Move the sprayed pile back to your waste area. Just like a fire hydrant or a tree trunk near a public walkway, the stranger-scented stack will trigger territorial leg lifting.
Keep your dogs safely contained, and unwelcome canine visitors out, by fencing in your yard. Opt for high fencing that can't be leaped by dogs looking to stray. Walk the perimeter and check fence lines for gaps between slats or posts that pets could slip through; look down to make sure there aren't any holes between fence and earth that could be potential escape routes. If your neighbors own dogs, choose privacy fencing instead of chain-link or picket fencing. This deters playful dogs from friendly races, which may result in unsightly paths and damage to shrubs or flower borders on both sides of the fence. Install gate latches that are secure and placed high enough so that they won't be accidentally unlatched by pawing dogs.
Run lattice around the bases of porches and decks to prevent dogs and cats from burrowing into the spaces and getting stuck beneath the floorboards. Use chicken-wire enclosures to protect tender plants, and set pieces of chicken wire over seedbeds to keep cats from digging. Install shorter, decorative willow, metal or resin garden edging along planting beds to discourage cats and canines from stepping on border plants.
Plant Pet-Tolerant Borders
For glorious, animal-safe gardens that stand up to pets' missteps and occasional chewing, choose plants wisely. The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers a list of plants that are toxic to pets and a list of nontoxic plants. Click here for the lists. Review these lists when choosing plants, shrubs and trees for your landscape—even though some plants are toxic, they can still be used as long as they're placed where pets aren't likely to go.
Also remember to clean up pruned branches or long-stemmed stalks that might attract a stick-loving dog. Ideally, dogs and cats should be trained not to chew anything but their toys—put anti-chew policies into place, and your animals will be less likely to munch their way through your valuable plantings.
Line closely packed roses or shrubs, underplanted with perennials, along perimeter fences to discourage dogs from pacing out unattractive paths as they patrol the outer limits of their home territory. (Another option is to concede to your dog's territorial instincts and replace fence-side borders with stone or mulched pathways.)
To deter unwanted varmints—such as skunks, voles and rabbits—from stirring up your pets' hunting impulses, trim shrubs to eliminate hiding spots where unwanted animals might lurk or nest.
Whether you’re planting a flower bed or mixed-shrub border, remember there's safety in numbers. Perennials and shrubs planted in clusters are less likely to be damaged by wayward pups, since the clumps' sheer mass is likely to halt dogs in their tracks. Choose plants with wide, high and mounding forms that act as both visual and physical barriers within your gardens.
Perennials, such as woodland ferns, hostas, ornamental grasses and roses take up a fair share of space and aren't harmful to pets. Annuals and other perennials with no recorded toxic effects include hollyhock, marigolds, purple coneflower, snapdragons, zinnias, bachelor’s button, begonia, camellia, cannas, Canterbury bells, celosia, cornflower, Jacob’s ladder and jasmine.
Consider lining paths and edging flower borders with plants that are both safe and stalwart. Ground covers like creeping thyme, periwinkle, sweet woodruff and Irish moss are robust plants that won't be damaged by an errant paw. If your dog has a favorite urinating spot along a path near a flower bed, protect nearby garden plants from the spray by setting a tall container filled with annuals between the blooms and pathway.
When buying products to treat lawns or gardens, read the labels to ensure the products are pet-safe. Always follow manufacturers' instructions when applying chemicals to lawns and plants. Ideally, pet-owning gardeners should avoid using chemical-based insecticides and herbicides, which animals can pick up on their paws and ingest by either cleaning themselves or by chewing treated foliage.
Slug and snail baits and mothballs can be perilous to pets and should never be used in areas where pets roam. If you do treat lawns with fertilizers, keep pets off fertilized areas for at least 24 hours. Rake and water in time-release plant-fertilizer pellets—make sure the pellets disappear so curious pets won't take a taste.
Whenever possible, opt for organic or Earth-friendly measures that won't harm people, pets or the environment. Visit the Pharm Solutions, Inc. and PetFriendly.com Web sites for organic herbicides and pesticides. Control plant pests naturally by introducing good predatory critters, such as nematodes, ladybugs and praying mantises, into your landscape; picking off hungry Japanese beetles with your fingers; and spraying pesky aphids off of plants with a jetted stream of water.
Remember this: If you're not comfortable coming in close contact with a pesticide, herbicide, lawn chemical or fertilizer—either through touch or by breathing it in—the product is probably a poor choice for the pet-friendly garden.