Everyday Gardener // A dog-friendly garden (sort of)

Those of you who have been reading my column for a while probably remember me writing about our sweet beagle, Lyle, from time to time. He wasn’t much of a helper in the garden, but he always kept me company and I was so grateful for that. We lost Lyle in April to something that appeared to be related to his liver. But we will never know. It all happened so fast; he was gone in a weekend. We grieved, swearing we would never get another dog and then, the next day, we did everything we could to keep from rushing out and bringing home three. In June, we got Lily, a nine-week-old puppy that the Humane Society described as a lab/spaniel mix but is very likely turning out to be a border collie. She, of course, is the inspiration for this column.

There are so many articles out there about creating dog-friendly gardens and, honestly, up until now I haven’t read many of them because I never needed to think about the subject. Now, though, I have a dog who has rapidly gone from 11 pounds to 20 and may well reach 60 come spring. So lately I’ve been trying to separate these articles into two categories: (1) Complete hooey that will never work (2) Things that sound reasonable enough for me and, perhaps, some of you everyday gardeners out there who have dogs, to try.  

First, I’ll start with a logical recommendation that I didn’t read about — rabbit fencing. Yes, it is hideous, which is probably why nobody talks about it. But Lily loves to run, and when she does she tramples every plant she comes in contact with (except for the ones she rips out of the ground with her tiny teeth as she speeds past). Because of this (and much to my horror) most of my gardens are now surrounded by the green rabbit fencing I usually reserve for winter to keep out actual rabbits.

OK, for those who don’t need such desperate and unsightly solutions, buying larger plants seems like a good idea. I usually recommend purchasing 2- to 4-ounce containers rather than gallon pots. The smaller plants are much less expensive and will catch up to the big guys fast. But in this case, bigger does seem better because they’re harder to pull out of the ground and chew on and they will be less easily trampled down to nothing. If you do buy a small plant, try surrounding it with a bit of fencing (or a tomato cage might just do the trick).

I also like the idea of designating a shady spot just for the dog. Depending on your dog’s temperament, this might be along the fence where they race around to look at passersby, or under a shrub in a quiet place. Sure, you’ll have to clear out plants and pretty much have an ugly dirt patch to stare at when the pooch isn’t around. But if having a place to call their own means you can have the rest of the garden, count yourself lucky.

I read in a couple of places that creating stone paths is a good idea because dogs will stick to those rather than running all over the garden. (Gravel and mulch paths don’t work because dogs will just dig in them.) Lily must not have received that memo because she has no interest in following prescribed paths no matter what they’re made of. It may work for you, though, so putting in a stone path could be worth a try. If that isn’t working, one story suggested getting down on your knees so you can get a dog’s perspective on the space, which might offer clues about why they run where they do. (Who knew there was a dog-sized path between the peonies and the hydrangea?)

While most dogs don’t chew on plants, some do — especially puppies. If this is the case at your house, you need to be aware of what plants in your yard may be poisonous. Here’s a link to the Humane Society’s list of toxic plants: http://tinyurl.com/3k635. Because Lily enjoys chewing on leaves of any kind, I moved all of the poisonous plants in my backyard to my front yard and, for now, I don’t let her go out front unless she’s on a leash.

If possible, you’ll probably want to leave at least a small patch of grass in your yard where your dog can play and (hopefully) go to the bathroom. (Lily prefers the privacy of shrubbery when doing her business.) And if you have grass, you’ll need to think about how you plan to care for it since chemical treatments can be harmful to pets and the environment. Though he took some flack from grass-lovin’ readers, University of Minnesota horticulture professor, Jeff Gillman, talked about the dark side of lawn care in a recent article he wrote for the Star Tribune (http://tinyurl.com/lfb6pj). Specifically, Gillman offered some thought-provoking information about 2,4-D. An herbicide commonly found in lawn care products (to kill things like clover, thistle and creeping Charlie) and used by most of the companies that make it their business to keep people’s lawns looking golf-course green, 2,4-D was concocted by scientists during World War II.

Popular for its low cost and ease of use, 2,4-D has been controversial since its release in 1946. While our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated that there isn’t enough data to conclude the herbicide may pose some cancer risk, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 2,4-D as being a substance that may cause cancer in humans. Studies are divided on both sides with many scientists being of the opinion that 2,4-D may be carcinogenic, particularly in the case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Even when these chemicals have dried, there is debate about when it is safe to come in contact with grass that has been treated with the herbicide. (You know how often you see those signs warning people and pets to stay off the grass until dry.) This was all news to me, and I have to admit that it does worry me a bit that Lily likes to flop down on every lush lawn she sees.

It’s clear this puppy/garden adventure is just beginning and I’ll learn as we go along. If you’ve got any pet-friendly gardening tips to share, please e-mail them to me and I’ll include them in a future column.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to [email protected]