Sharing Our Gardens with Our Pets

Lola enjoys time in Rindy’s garden, that dedicates part of the garden to rolling around in liriope a genus of low, grass-like, flowering plants.

Summertime is here and we all want to be outside.  And so do our pets! For many of us, it may mean leashing up Fido and heading out to a destination garden or park. If so, that’s where living on Capitol Hill really pays off. Many of the federal parks allow for dogs to visit. There are even beer gardens that invite pups to come in.  And, of course, we have our own gardens where we love to relax with the whole family, including our dogs and cats.

As responsible pet owners, it is important to keep our gardens safe for our pets. Some flowers and berries can be toxic when ingested by dogs.  And, as some pet owners discovered this year, too many cicada shells can cause digestive issues for your dog.  Knowing your dog is key.  Pups and some breeds are more likely to nibble than others, or maybe your pet is a digger.

Planning a pet friendly garden

Heather Wheatly is the education coordinator for Homestead Gardens and a certified horticulturist.  Homestead Gardens has locations in Davidsonville, MD; Severna Park, MD; and Smyrna, DE. She suggests that ten percent of your garden space be designated for your dog.  “Dogs are going to be dogs no matter what you do,” says Heather.  “If you don’t give them space to roll around in and take care of their personal needs, then they will make their own space, and probably where you least want them to,” she says.  Having water handy for dogs or cats to refresh themselves is important too.  It might just be a dog bowl that you keep fresh water in, or it could be a cool water feature built into your garden design.

Selecting plants for a pet safe garden

 Heather is also the proud “mother” of Finn, an English Bulldog, who weighs in at 80 pounds and was gifted to Heather by the great plantsman Kurt Bluemel, father of ornamental grasses in America.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that one of Heather’s tips is to concentrate on ornamental grasses for your dog to play in.  The grasses can take the rough and tumble of dogs rolling around in them and bounce back as if nothing has happened.  Many ornamental grasses are native to our area and can add color and depth to your garden.

Using groundcover rather than grass is another great step to garden proof your garden for a pet.  Dog urine is rich in nitrogen and salt.  That can burn plants and grass, leaving an ugly patchwork of spots.   Recommended shrubs and herbs that are dog urine resistant include basil, oregano, parsley, peppermint, and rosemary.  Heather recommends one of the Carex species for groundcover. Carex is a huge genus of more than 1,500 species of perennials with triangular, grass-like stems and panicles of flowerheads in short spikes. There is a Carex species to suit almost any garden situation.

Founded in 1973 by Don Riddle, Jr., Homestead Gardens boasts the East Coast’s largest selection of high-quality annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. It is a super dog friendly nursery.

Clover is another groundcover that grows quickly in our area and can withstand all kinds of traffic.  Clover is considered an herbaceous perennial. It was actually considered very trendy in the 1950s and is making a comeback in our current search for more sustainable cover. Clover has lots of advantages. It stays green all summer with little watering required and requires little or no mowing as it grows about two inches tall. Clover grows well in poor soil; dog urine does not discolor it; and it is very inexpensive to plant.  While it prefers full sun, clover will grow in almost any setting.

One thing to avoid, even though many garden websites promote it, is using pea gravel for part of your garden space. The idea is that dog pee will filter through the gravel thus eliminating bald spots in your garden.  From personal experience, one of my dogs had a little anxiety issue and began snacking on the pea gravel as a puppy.  By the time she reached one year old, she had to be rushed to an emergency animal hospital for stomach surgery after she gorged herself on gravel.  Besides nearly losing our precious family member, it was a very expensive veterinary bill.

Also, you should avoid using cocoa mulch which is poisonous to dogs.  Do your homework before putting down filler in your garden.

There are hundreds of plants that are toxic to our pets such as yew (think about it – it is used in chemotherapy for cancer patients), holly, tulips, oleander, and sometimes English Ivy.

Every pet is different and observing your dog while in the garden will help you determine what plants or spaces you need to worry about.  “Sometimes just putting the suspect plant into a pot or raised bed,” says Heather, “will let you have the best of both worlds.”  Asking your local garden expert, when in doubt, is probably more valuable then spending hours doing computer searches, as there is a wide variety of opinions in garden and pet internet sites.

Heather’s dog Finn likes to hide in the ornamental grasses in her home garden. Photo: Heather Wheatly

Usually dogs will have a rapid reaction to eating the wrong plant. Should your dog get sick, call your vet immediately or contact the 24/7 Animal Poison Control Center at 800-213-6680.  It’s available for both pet owners and veterinarians.

Visiting Local Gardens

If you don’t have your own garden space, there are many wonderful places in the DC area that welcome you and your dog.

If you are looking to get off the tourist pathways, twelve miles from the Hill, Greenbelt Park has nine miles of trails, and 174 camp sites if you want to overnight with your dog.  A little closer is Rock Creek Park with 1,754 acres of trails, creeks, picnic spaces, and on the weekend many roads are closed for even greater space to spread out.

The 446 acres at the US National Arboretum just off Bladensburg Road are also a popular place for dog owners to explore.  Almost all the federal parks require your dog to be on leash.

When it comes to eating out, many local restaurants welcome pets in their patio areas although DC health requirements have strict rules requiring adequate space for pets.  Always remember to bring water for your pet because, in DC humidity, dogs can get overheated in a hurry.

The Chinese Yew tree is one to avoid in your pet friendly garden, as it is very poisonous to dogs. Reading the labels and asking friendly horticulturists before buying is wise.

Sharing time in the great outdoors with your pet is important and fosters a healthy existence for you and your pet.  Just like we child-proof our homes for our children, taking a little time to dog-proof your garden will ensure the time is purr-fect for all.

Rindy O’Brien enjoys sharing her garden and garden outings with Lola, always steering clear of gravel these days. To contact Rindy: