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So long, Bailey, a trusty garden companion

“For me a garden without my dogs would be as empty as a garden without plants.”

— Monty Don, “Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs,” 2017

On Monday, just before 4:30 in the afternoon, I lost my constant companion, Bailey, a border collie mix that our family adopted from the animal shelter 12 years ago. Bailey was already a year and a half old when I first laid eyes on her through the bars of her pen at the shelter. It was summertime, and she lay on the cool, concrete floor panting, one blue eye and one brown eye watching us intently as we approached. I knew instantly she was very smart.

But they told us Bailey had been placed in homes twice before and was brought back to the shelter each time for “barking and anxiety.” My daughter fell in love with an adorable dapple-coated puppy who would be old enough to take home in another week, and this happy, wiggly guy didn’t have the baggage the other dog did. We decided to adopt the puppy, and went home to get ready for a new addition to the family, who we named Luke.

But I couldn’t get Bailey out of my head — her beautiful strawberry and white coat, her freckled snout and those intelligent eyes, one blue, one brown. Long story short, when we went back to the shelter to pick up Luke, we ended up bringing Bailey home, too. For the next 12 years, I was at the center of “Bailey’s World,” the daily routines she insisted on that included following me throughout the house and settling herself so she could keep an eye on me whenever I sat down.

One of Bailey’s favorite pastimes was accompanying me in the garden. I never could talk her into weeding, but she loved to stretch out on the cool, green grass and cheer me on. She would lift her nose high in the air and inhale all of the scents around her with such enthusiasm that it prompted me to do the same. Bailey reminded me to lift my head up from gardening tasks once in a while to appreciate my surroundings (and to make sure she wasn’t lying in the middle of a vegetable bed).

I think many gardeners are also dog lovers, perhaps because gardening is often a lonesome activity with just the plants and earthworms to talk to. In his book, “Nigel,” British gardener, TV host and author Monty Don describes the difference he felt between showing his golden retriever puppy the garden at Longmeadow for the first time and introducing his garden to visiting people.

Don writes, “I always find showing people round tricky, because this garden — any garden — is loaded with so much more than the surface floral display that might be there at any one time or in any season. The whole point of gardens is that they accrue, with all the weight of love and time and care that you might spend on making a long-lasting and deep human relationship. There are good days and bad days, but the strength of the relationship endures.”

People are apt to be judgmental, but dogs don’t have a critical bone in them. “You do not demand any approval or acclaim from your dogs,” Don says. “The whole point was to show Nigel our garden — not what I had done. This was his new kingdom.”

Nigel went on to become the unofficial star of the BBC program “Gardeners’ World,” hosted by Don and filmed at Longmeadow. Nigel died this past May at the age of 12, and was buried in the garden with several fuzzy tennis balls.

For Bailey, I have chosen to cremate her body and spread the ashes around new plantings on our property in Bandon. I learned that cremains are very alkaline, containing high levels of calcium phosphate and sodium. Although plants need these nutrients in small quantities, the high concentrations found in cremains are detrimental to the growth of plants above and around where the ashes are buried. This is the case whether the ashes are placed directly in the ground or in a biodegradable container.

There are products that can be purchased to lower the pH of cremains. One example is The Living Urn, a biodegradable container that comes with a specially formulated soil amendment. The urn can be purchased with or without a young tree of the buyer’s choice, and the company provides a menu of tree options based on your ZIP code that indicates your USDA plant hardiness zone.

I prefer to make my own soil amendment, mixing compost and elemental sulfur with Bailey’s ashes to lower the pH. Rather than adding fresh mixture to the soil at the time of planting, I’ll either sprinkle it around the garden area ahead of time where the new plants will go, or I’ll add garden soil to the mixture and allow the phosphates and sodium to break down over time before planting.

I think Bailey would be happy with this plan. She always enjoyed rolling around in the compost pile, right after I added fresh horse manure and she had just had a bath.

Monty Don has much to say about the happiness shared between people and their dogs. In his book about Nigel he writes, “Happiness is contagious, and happy dogs make for happier owners and vice versa. When our dogs wriggle with evident pleasure at seeing us, we instantly feel better about ourselves and the world. We are made happier by their happiness.”

Bailey certainly made me a happier person, and I believe I helped her become a happier dog. I will especially miss her company in the garden. It will be hard not to see her nearby, one blue eye, one brown watching intently to make sure I get every weed.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.

Photo by Rhonda Nowak Bailey in the author's pollinator garden.