Pets 101

Green Thumbs, Furry Friends

Loving your pets and prizing your plants don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

By Greg Presto

Having a beautiful yard that’s perfect for your pet pals is as easy as pie: If you’ve got a dog, plant some dogwood. If you’ve got a cat, try some tiger’s eye. Simple enough, right?

Well, maybe not.

“I had landscaped several houses since I had dogs, and was amazingly unsuccessful,” says Cheryl Smith, author of Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs. “Things got destroyed a lot, and there didn’t seem to be anything in writing about it anywhere.”

Smith found her way from hydrangeas surrounded with holes and chewed-up cherry trees to pet-perfect plots of perennials—and a book’s worth of material—through trial and error. But not everyone has to learn the hard way. Here is some horticulture help so your hound-happy home will go great with your green thumb.

(Don’t) dig it

Sharing a garden with dogs in particular seems to start with a fundamental flaw: Dogs dig. It’s a challenge to cultivate beds of begonias with the roots exposed. But don’t lose hope. Instead, hit the hardware store.

“You can put chicken wire underneath the mulch,” says Jill Martini, horticulture manager at Oregon Garden, a botanical garden outside of Portland known for its specialty gardens, including one that is specifically pet-friendly. She suggests laying the wire atop the top soil, but before the mulch, and cut holes for plants to grow through, trimming it back further for expanding root systems. “Dogs and cats don’t like it because they get their claws stuck in the wire,” Martini says.

For those who don’t want to go (ahem) haywire, Martini suggests rough rocks or hazelnut-shell mulch. The terrain’s tougher to navigate, and will keep furry friends out of the selected beds. But there are caveats. “Rock is going to heat up more than regular mulch with direct sunlight,” she says. To avoid heat-damage troubles, incorporate plants that don’t mind the heat or ones that are suited to rocks. “There are a lot of plants that will grow well in the rocks, like Mediterranean varieties, and some rock-garden plants that can use more drainage.”

For those more into playtime than protecting prized petunias, Smith’s got an alternative. “I built a digging pit and hid things in it, like toys and treats,” she says. “They got the idea that it was way more fun to dig there than elsewhere.”

Smith also sets aside a spot for more serious business. “We do have a potty area where they can go,” she says, a measure that Smith suggests will keep the lawn from getting spotty. “We did it just the same way you’d do house training. Instead of going out and wandering around, we’d go to a specific spot.”

Right plot for your pup

Getting the drop on your digger with ground cover or a designed ditch is huge, especially if you have a Terrier. But other breeds require special attention, too.

“He runs in circles because he’s a herding dog,” Smith says of her high-energy Border Collie mix. “So I make sure there’s a path around the house for him to run in circles. Fighting it would be fighting his natural instincts.”

For people with traditional guarding breeds, like Dobermans or German Shepherds, it’s important to give a fenced-in dog a place to patrol. “They’re going to want to be on fence patrol,” Smith says. “Leave a narrow pathway there for them to walk, or expect things to get trampled.”

Taster’s choice

Building a garden to share doesn’t stop with the variety of your furry friend, though. The types of plants you put in should take their tummies into account. Certain plants can cause upset stomachs or worse.

“Castor beans are gorgeous plants,” says Steven Hansen, director of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center. The southern variety is covered with one- to three-inch nuts. “The little nuts are small, but they’re highly toxic to a dog. It’s extremely potent in small concentrations.”

Hansen warns of plants that are hazardous to cats as well. “Lilies and Easter lilies will only give a dog an upset stomach,” he says. “But any material from the plant, leaves or flowers, chewed on by a cat can cause kidney failure.”

It’s not just the plants you need to think about. “Rose growers will take these wonderful, natural fertilizers and mix in systemic insecticide. It stops bugs from chewing on the plant,” Hansen says. “If dogs eat that mulching [before it’s caked into the soil], they can get sick.”

Hansen also says organic fertilizers featuring cocoa bean shells can lead to upset stomachs. “It has the smell of chocolate,” he says. “They can be very attractive to dogs and they’ll eat large quantities of it. Don’t leave them unattended in the yard when that stuff is there.”

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Selecting certain plants can enhance the garden experience for your pet and can avoid damage to the garden.

“Any that weep—weeping cherries, cedars, willows—are good,” Smith says. The flexible branches of weeping trees aren’t damaged when dogs run through them. Dense shrubs, like hebes, can also avoid contact damage. “They’re pretty compact and tough. I’ve had dogs roll on them and not be damaged.”

If you’re up for encouraging a puppy picnic, Martini says, planting blueberries, apples, peaches, and kiwis can provide a meal to share. “It’s not foolproof. Dogs don’t know they’re only supposed to take the blueberries,” she says. “They go in for a bite, and they’re going to take some of the foliage, but it’s something you learn to deal with.”

Inside or out, wheat or oat grasses are a favorite for dogs and cats, especially if they’ve overindulged on the other goodies, Martini says. “Nibbling on those grasses helps with their digestive system.”

Plow these under

You don’t necessarily need to get these out of your garden, but the Animal Poison Control Center says these common plants are among the most poisonous to pets. So watch your buddies closely when they’re around:

Marijuana: You probably shouldn’t have this anyway!
Sago palm: The big nut looks like a ball, but a strong dog can break the nut and ingest some of its liver failure-inducing pulp.
Lilies: These are extremely toxic to cats.
Tulip/narcissus bulbs: The flowers are fine, but the bulbs can cause depression or convulsions if eaten.
• Azalea/rhododendron: Mostly a risk to horses, these can be bad in large quantities for dogs and cats.
Oleander: All parts are toxic, and can be fatal if ingested.
Castor bean: Put it this way: Castor oil is made out of castor beans.
Cyclamen: The roots of these primroses can cause vomiting.
Kalanchoe: Ingesting these tropical miniature flowers can affect cardiac rhythm and rate.
Yew: It’s the sacred tree of transformation and rebirth, but yew can give pets heart attacks if ingested.

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