Animal magnetism: The pet-friendly landscape
I wish you could have seen that golden retriever on a leash walking down our street. As soon as that big puppy spied the freshly-cut lawn next door it turned to mush. The dog flopped on its back and rolled and squirmed and practically turned inside out in the grass. You’d think that little patch of green was a long-lost relative.
It was a joy to behold. But after about five minutes of unabashed pleasure on the part of the dog, the owner at the other end of the leash was clearly getting impatient to move on. She tugged and cajoled, but the dog was blissfully in a world of its own. It took several more minutes of dog-to-turf contact before the retriever was ready to walk.
Could it be that this grass-besotted dog did not have a lawn of its own on which to frolic? Who knew a bit of turf would mean so much to a canine? Apparently grass is serious business for dogs, yet another reason to consider your pets along with everything else when it comes to yard-scapes. Any time is a good time to start planning and preparing a pet-friendly landscape.
It isn’t rocket science to anyone with a dog that considering a canine’s needs outdoors is going to be a necessity. For cats, the accommodations are in many ways similar. My own cats are not permitted outside due to their outstanding bird and small game hunting abilities as well as for their own health and welfare. However cats as well as dogs enjoy and benefit from enclosed runs which allow them outdoor access under controlled conditions. This is one solution for cat owners concerned about the safety of both wildlife and their pets. Look for special kits to create outdoor cat enclosures.
Whether they are on the grass or on the plants, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have no place in a pet-friendly landscape. A pet-friendly landscape should not include any of those little “skull and crossbones” signs seen on some lawns warning every living thing on the face of the earth to keep off of the grass for fear of the powerful chemicals that had recently been deposited there. Even if a pet has not rolled on such a lawn, if one walks or runs across it they will often lick their paws (or other body parts) once inside. Or worse yet, they might track those chemicals indoors. The presence of pets in the yard makes it even more important to garden organically. There are great non-toxic products out there, but even organic choices can be troublesome when it comes to pets. If you must use any garden chemicals, read the labels and follow instructions to the letter. But when it comes to the topic of a pet-friendly landscape, toxic chemicals are just the beginning of the discussion.
Some plants are poisonous to dogs and cats. There are more than 700 that can cause sickness or worse. For a comprehensive list, visit the American Humane Society’s link:humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/plants_poisonous_to_pets.html. On the other hand, there are some plants — such as catnip — that your four-legged friends especially enjoy. Both cats and dogs like to eat grass for their digestive systems, so a patch or pot or two of “kitty greens” would be a healthy treat. (see Renee’s Garden Seeds for special seed selections) Be cautious when using certain gardening products in the landscape, like cocoa fiber mulch for instance, because its chocolate smell may entice dogs to eat it, but it can make them sick.
Water is important for pets and other critters in the garden. Keep dishes and birdbaths clean and filled with fresh water because pets will often visit them for drinking as well. Avoid sitting water which can attract and breed mosquitoes that can spread heartworm for example, not to mention other diseases. Pond owners know that both dogs and cats are attracted to these little water bodies. To prevent cats — that don’t like walking on wet ground — from “harvesting” pond fish or frogs, create a wetland that surrounds the pond, incorporating it into your landscape design.
Use special care when operating mowers or other outdoor power tools if pets are present.
While protecting our pet's health is a vital component of a pet-friendly landscape, happiness comes a close second. Imagine making the garden not only pet healthy but also a place they’ll enjoy. Dogs often like to run the perimeter of the yard to protect their domain. A path, rather than planted beds, along a fence makes good sense. That patch of green lawn where pets can romp and run without trampling precious perennials is important, but so too are trees. Pets need shade, especially in the summer. Often digging dogs are looking for a place to cool off. Trees and large shrubs can provide needed shade, and for outdoor kitties, an escape route from dogs!
If digging is an issue, try a layer of some chicken wire covered with gravel or rocks and then apply a layer of mulch over. Dogs and cats won’t like the feel under their paws. This could also be a solution to pesky squirrels digging in some areas.
However some breeds are born to dig, burrowing dogs like Jack Russell terriers for example. Rather than attempting the impossible, go with the flow and provide these pets with a sand pit where they can dig to their little heart’s content. A little encouragement and an incentive or two (like a toy or treat buried for them to discover) can help redirect their efforts to the designated digging pit. Cats love to use the loose, cultivated soil of flower or vegetable beds for their toilets, but a light layer of pelletized chicken manure should repel them sufficiently. A word of caution here: Dogs love the stuff and will roll in it, making it only effective to turn away felines.
Fences and hedges can be useful in a pet-friendly landscape to keep your pooch in a specific part of the yard, or to keep the neighbor’s dog from getting into the yard and terrorizing the cat. For some reason dogs and cats seem to prefer lush flower beds when it comes time to take a siesta, effectively flattening everything in range. Don't get mad, take action. Just push a few wooden dowels into the soil, sticking up four to five inches. They won’t show among the foliage, but then it’s not so comfy for your pet to plop down. Thorny plants strategically positioned and twig borders can help prevent pets from straying into flower beds.
Sometimes you simply have to think like a dog — or a cat — to understand what they like or don’t and use that “uncanny” insight to keep you a step ahead of their antics. Give them a safe place to relax and romp and everyone will be happy. All it takes is a little thought and some planning to make your landscape a place of joy and delight for both you and your pets.
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s growing in the garden day-by-day.