Like many Richmonders, my husband and I do as many activities as we can with our dog, Timber. We take her to festivals, local microbreweries with outside patios, and for jogs around the city. Being avid gardeners, our dog is also our default gardening companion. Although considerations need to be made when gardening with pets, it is possible to have a pet-friendly yard that also is a beautiful garden display.
The author's dog, Timber. (Photo by Grace Chapman Elton)
Pro Tip: Always remember that although it is easy to get frustrated when a favorite plant gets trampled or dug up, the love and companionship that a pet provides is worth far more than the price of a plant. By making simple accommodations, it is fairly easy to create a backyard that both you and your furry friends can enjoy together.
Leave room to roam: Begin by balancing the gardener’s needs with the dog’s needs. Being a 2-year-old boxer mix, Timber likes to run. Unfortunately, she tends to plow down any plant in her path when she is chasing a Frisbee. Space is a valuable commodity in our small yard because we continuously find the latest and greatest plant specimens that we “can’t live without.” However, Timber needs turf grass to run. We achieve a balance by having long, but narrow stretches of grass, bordered by flower beds. We also need to accommodate Timber’s curiosity. Our yard is surrounded by a wooden privacy fence, and we installed a pet window so she can peer out into the alley and keep an eye on the neighborhood. These windows are inexpensive and easy to install. Our pet window is hidden behind a flowering shrub, ensuring that we still have privacy in our backyard.
Timber checks out the neighborhood through a pet window in the privacy fence. (Photo by Grace Chapman Elton)
Patience and vigilance: When gardening with pets it is also essential to learn patience. Since Timber was a puppy, she has had a strong urge to dig. We have sacrificed many plants to our puppy’s digging when she wasn’t being closely monitored. Favorite specimen plants, such as our peonies, benefit from sturdy supports and trellises to protect them from a dog digging or running at full speed. They also support the structure of the plant and can be an attractive garden feature. An easy DIY plant support: use small tree branches that were pruned from plants in the winter, held together with twine or clear zip ties. Decorative metal supports and trellises are also a great dog-proof garden feature. However, despite all efforts, sometimes transplanting to a different part of the yard, even beyond the garden gates, is the only answer.
Check labels carefully: Most importantly, ensure the yard is safe for pets. The plants you choose and the products you use need to be nontoxic to cats and dogs. Check the labels on fertilizers, herbicides and snow melts before you apply them. Mulch is an essential part of a garden because it keeps the soil cool, keeps weeds down, and adds organic material to the soil as it decomposes. However, not all mulches are appropriate for pets. Cocoa mulch, made from the hulls of cocoa beans, is a mulch that smells sweet, has a fine texture and a dark color, but like chocolate, it contains caffeine and theobromine which are toxic to dogs if ingested. Safer alternatives are pine bark, shredded hardwood mulch, partially decomposed shredded leaves or pine needles. I have the special case of having a backyard apiary and when my dog was a puppy, she was very interested in the bee activity. To protect her from accidental stings, we built a fence around the apiary to keep her curious nose away from the beehives.
Grace Chapman Elton (pictured here with her husband and their dog, Timber) is directorof horticulture at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. She also serves on the board of directors for the Central Virginia Nursery Landscape Association and for the American Public Gardens Association. (Photo by Eva Monheim)