By Laura Pakis ~ Master Gardener
People love their dogs. They also love their gardens. But sometimes these two passions seem to be in conflict. There’s no reason that you can’t have both dogs and attractive landscaping. But landscaping with dogs does present challenges that may require some compromises. The goal in this balancing act is to achieve an attractive, dog-friendly yard. I’m here to offer you some strategies.
Strategy #1: Lawns
Many gardeners are concerned about dogs and lawns. While it’s true that dog urine can be damaging to grass, there’s a lot of mythology on this topic.
The damage done by dog urine on lawns and other ornamental plants is caused by excess nitrogen in one spot, and that “burns” plants. If you could spray water consistently every time wherever there is dog urine on the grass, the problem would go away, and the diluted nitrogen would actually green up your lawn.
You can avoid problems by training your dog to go potty in a particular part of the yard—preferably well away from your favorite outdoor living spot. It isn’t much harder to train than it is to housetrain in the first place.
But clean up often. A dog will start avoiding the toilet area if it’s filthy. Put dog poop in the garbage, or flush it down the toilet. Don’t add to your compost pile, as it could contain worms or other hazards.
You may want to consider switching to a different type of grass. Some grasses hold up better to paw traffic than others. Among the warm-season grasses, Bermuda grass is among the toughest. For a cool-season grass, try Kentucky bluegrass. But if you’re trying to get a new area of lawn established, sod is easier to establish than seed if you’ve got pets.
An alternative type of “green carpet” is clover. Clover lawns have many advantages over grass lawns, one being the fact that clover doesn’t stain the way grass does after being subjected to dog urine.
Strategy #2: Borders and Paths
Like people, dogs make a beeline to where they want to go. If your dog wears a dirt trail into the lawn, consider switching from a grassy expanse to hardscape. The advantages of hardscape goes beyond solutions to landscaping with dogs, since hardscape offers a low-maintenance alternative to grass. Stone walkways exude charm and are a desirable addition to your landscaping regardless of dog problems. Stone and masonry are especially useful for landscaping with dogs, because they minimize the mess dogs make through urination, digging, and plain old wear and tear.
Avoid bark mulch. Dogs can easily disturb or ingest mulch, so its better to use an inorganic product. Crushed stone mulch is maintenance-free, holds up to dog traffic, and provides a clean look.
Strategy #3: Containment
If you are building a fence, think OVER, UNDER, and THROUGH. Make sure the fence is 4 to 6 feet high so your dog cannot get over it. Avoid gaps in between the fence to prevent a dog’s head being wedged and between the fence and the ground. Ensure that the fence extends well below the ground, to deter your dog from digging its way out. Don’t try to grow any plants in the area immediately adjacent to the fence. Dogs are territorial, and their favorite path in a fenced-in yard will be right along the fence. Unsightly “dog paths” are the result of this predictable behavior. Rather than fighting it, plan your yard around your dog’s predictability.
If a physical fence isn’t in the plan, another containment option would be to teach your dog boundaries. A dog trainer could help you with this.
Strategy #4: Plant Materials
If the plantings in your yard possess any significant degree of diversity, there’s a good chance that you’re growing poisonous plants—without even knowing it. You’d be surprised at how many of the most common landscape plants and native volunteers contain at least some parts (leaves, berries, etc.) that are toxic.
In a pet-friendly garden, avoid bare soil—it’s a perfect invitation to dogs to dig. Consider using ground covers like thyme, cotoneaster, sweet woodruff, or periwinkle between larger woody plants. When choosing plants, choose robust plants that can cope with being trampled and try to keep your garden densely planted all year round—densely planted areas are often good deterrents to dogs, especially if you train them that these are no-go areas. Grasses are particularly tough plants that are unlikely to be injured by the most rambunctious of dogs.
Keep delicate plants in containers or behind a barrier. Eye-level barriers, such as rope strung between wooden posts, or low-level box hedges can protect these plants. In addition, a dog is less likely to go crashing through a raised flowerbed than one at ground level.
For a vegetable or herb garden, a permanent enclosure, such as an attractive picket fence is good idea if you don’t want any dog toilet activities to occur there. Keep the seed bed moist if you’ve planted vegetable seeds into the ground, as dogs prefer to dig in dry, loose soil and use straw mulch to cover the soil in between rows of vegetables or individual plants such as tomatoes.
Strategy #5: Shrubs and Trees
Make sure that planting is especially dense in places such as corners of beds, where pets are likely to take short cuts. Massing shrubs or ornamental grasses can help keep pets on the straight and narrow. Most will go around rather than through such plantings. Initially, you may wish to include a few prickly plants such as berberis until other plants are sturdy enough to form a pet-proof barrier.
When adding new plantings, larger-sized trees, shrubs, and perennials are more likely to earn pet respect than little sticks that look like chew toys. Avoid shrubs with brittle branches that would snap if a dog barged into them—choose shrubs with pliable, springy branches instead. Place wire cages around trees and shrubs to prevent dog urine from reaching their trunks and roots and damaging them. That way, dogs can go about their business and you can relax, secure in the knowledge that Fido’s urine won’t be killing your favorite specimen. Try to avoid conifers if you have a dog—if your dog cocks his leg against one, the conifer will turn brown. Try tough-leaved evergreens instead.
Strategy #6: Water Features
Don’t forget creature comforts. Like you, your dog will appreciate shade and a place to get a drink on a hot day. If you decide to have both a dog and a pond, you will need to decide whether the dog will be allowed in it. If not, a raised water feature will be most likely to keep your pet out. And if your dog is to be allowed a dip in hot weather, make sure the pool is easy for him to climb out of and the liner is durable. You will also have to avoid keeping fish and keep pond plants to a minimum.
A Final Consideration for Dog-Friendly Yards
• When planning your garden, remember informal gardens lend themselves most easily to sharing with pets.
• Ensure that your garden is safe for pets, and then protect your garden from your pets.
• A dog can be trained to respect the garden.
• Take into account your dog’s breed and characteristics—digging will be a particular problem with terriers and many hounds, big dogs are more prone to crush plants, and agile dogs need higher barriers to keep them out of the garden.
• Dogs are social animals, and if allowed in the garden for long periods of time, make sure there is someone or something to keep it occupied.
• Following these strategies will allow you both to have the garden of your dreams.