Welcoming your four-legged friends into the garden
“You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself …”
— Emily Dickinson, April 1862
One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, was better known as a gardener during her lifetime. She was often seen puttering among her flowers, dressed all in white and accompanied by a black Newfoundland named Carlo. I envision Emily gardening peacefully with her “shaggy ally” sitting patiently and faithfully by her side.
Not so with my four-legged companions. My two dogs, Bailey and Luke, would rather run amok through the garden, barking ferociously at the neighbors’ dog and relieving themselves wherever they fancy. When they finally settle down, they’re likely to do so right in the middle of my flower bed, using the tulips as cushions.
In order to create a more Dickinson-like gardening experience, I needed to create boundaries, and to do this I needed to think like my dogs. By observing their outdoor routines and seeing the garden area from their perspective, I’m creating a pet- and person-friendly garden.
I noticed the dogs like to travel the pavered path that winds down to my raised vegetable beds, and they avoid gravel areas that feel sharp against their paws, so I extended the pavers to lead into their designated potty area, and I surrounded “no-go zones" with pea gravel as a deterrent.
To make their potty area enticing, I added soft sand in a sunny area that dries out quickly, because dogs (and cats) prefer not to do their business in wet places. I’ve also added a few pieces of driftwood and a juniper bush for Luke. The potty area is sectioned off from the garden by a gated fence, and I don’t allow the dogs into the garden area until I know they’ve completed their morning constitutional. Once done, I make a big deal of their success and welcome them into the garden, much like swinging open the gates of heaven.
I can’t tell if Bailey loves or despises the dog next door, but she has torn through all obstacles I’ve placed in her way to get to our adjoining fence to bark at him. After much angst, I realized the frenzy is a ritual between them that lasts only a minute, and so I pavered a place safely away from the garden where they can get to know each other better through the fence. Creating havoc is not nearly as much fun for Bailey when she has permission.
Both dogs enjoy basking in the sun nearby while I’m gardening, so rather than have them plop down in the raised beds, I created a private beach for them with a kiddie pool and a load of sand. An umbrella offers shade, and they appreciate a bowl of water close by. This area keeps my companions happy and occupied while I garden.
Keeping the dogs safe is even more important than keeping them content. I use organic fertilizers and pesticides and store them on a shelf. I don’t allow the dogs into the garden when I’m mowing, edging or using the weed eater, and I store all sharp tools out of reach. In addition, I avoid using poisonous plants in the beds, such as autumn crocus, azalea, lilies and rhubarb. The ASPCA maintains an extensive list of plants poisonous to dogs, cats and horses on its website, www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants.
Some plants can be grown specifically for pets. Many dogs love to chew grass, and recent studies indicate this is a safe, natural tendency as long as the grass hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. Dogs especially enjoy wheatgrass, which can be grown for their benefit and as a cover crop. Cats love catnip, lemon grass and mint.
Another of my favorite authors, George Eliot, wrote, “Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” Even so, I want my canine pals to enjoy the garden and allow me to do the same. With a little bit of planning, the garden can be a welcoming place for two- and four-legged friends alike.
Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.