Pets in the Garden

Keep your furry friends and plants healthy and safe.

Border collie in the garden

iStockphoto.com/Annette Wiechmann

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17 Plants to Beware 

I’ve been questioned many times over the years about preventing pet damage in the garden. My answers have often been of a secondhand nature since I have been fortunate to adopt older, low-energy dogs. For example, Gracie, my 12-year-old setter, will make trips to every corner of the garden in a graceful fashion, making sure she never steps on even the smallest plants. But that all changed recently when Darby, an 8-week-old Border collie, was added to the equation.

Anything but careful in her traipsing, Darby on a garden stroll evokes images of an animated Tasmanian devil complete with swirling dust, wind and debris. In our household, it’s time to pull out the bag of tricks to keep the pet damage under control and allow Darby to remain man’s best friend. I know he’ll get the hang of it one day and with any luck at all, the dog and the garden will thrive well into the future.

Fatal attraction

The first thing to consider when introducing your pet to the garden is whether the plantings include any poisonous vegetation. This is especially true for young animals that are likely to chew just about anything. Destroying a hand trowel, hose, sprinkler or shoe is trivial compared to the cost of a veterinarian visit because of ingested English ivy or azalea foliage. Not all toxic plants need to be removed, but if you know which plants are potential problems for pets, you can correct the animal if it shows an unhealthy interest early on.

I have yet to find an all-inclusive list of poisonous garden plants, or the danger each poses to various animal species, but many common garden plants make the cut. For example, English ivy, boxwood, bleeding heart, yews, and even the foliage of horseradish are a few garden plants described as toxic (by ingestion) to pets. A search for poisonous plants on the Web, or from an extension office, is an eye-opening experience for any pet owner. Luckily, most dogs, cats and other pets likely to roam the garden aren’t interested in eating large enough quantities of vegetation to poison themselves fatally.

Check with the ASPCA, your local extension office or a trusted pet-related Web site for lists of plants that pose above average threat to your animal companions.

Can you dig it?

Doggy digging is a problem encountered by many pet owners. The once pristine turf in my back garden took on a remarkable resemblance to the moon with all of its craters after a few months of Darby. Part of that issue was my fault – it happened when I couldn’t spend sufficient time working with the energetic boy. Darby’s an ornery animal at times, though, so part of the issue is all his. For example, when I first filled the holes, he eagerly followed to re-excavate. Many dog owners facing pet-digging issues provide a place for the animal to dig and training to make it clear that excavating elsewhere is not allowed. I have found covering favored digging spots with pieces of hail screen until the grass recovers to be a workable short-term cure.

Using a barrier such as hail screen or chicken wire is also an effective means to discourage neighborhood cats from using certain areas of the garden as their litter box. Cats love to scratch before and after taking rest breaks, and wire barriers or coarse mulch encourage them to leave their calling cards elsewhere.

Fence or scent

Barriers such as temporary fencing or row covers may provide protection to the vegetable garden or other small landscape plants until the plants mature enough to endure some roughhousing.

Some gardeners use scent repellents to keep pets out of particular areas of the garden. Finding a repellent that works with your pet can be a hit-and-miss proposition, however. I have had some luck with a commercial repellant called Ropel, but it doesn’t work for all animals and it, like all scent repellents, needs to be reapplied regularly and after a rain.

Some folks report that items such as essential oils, mothballs or blood meal are effective. In my experience, blood meal does a decent job at keeping cats away, but may attract canines. Essential oils applied to cotton balls also reportedly work, but you’ll need to do some experimenting to find the scent(s) that your pet likes the least.

Spray them away

My current favorite pet deterrent is a motion-activated sprinkler. When the sprinkler’s sensor detects motion, it turns on for a brief period. What better way than a spray of water to chase a pet out of an off-limits area? Of course, when I forget about the sprinkler some chilly morning and head out to work in the garden, it will no longer be my favorite. Motion-sensing sprinklers cost around $75 plus batteries, so they may not be the first option for many gardeners.

Don’t sweat the little stuff

It may take some time to find the right combination of tricks that will prevent your pet from causing problems in the garden. But the result is well worth the effort when you can enjoy the landscape with your favorite animal. Just remember that the most recently destroyed clematis or hosta will most likely be back to bloom another day.

A lifelong Kansan, Mike Lang is landscape manager for a 1,000-acre university campus by day and caretaker of his own quarter-acre piece of the world the rest of the time.