Plants and dogs can have peaceful, healthy coexistence |

Plants and dogs can have peaceful, healthy coexistence

Joel M. Lerner, APLD
Special to The Washington Post
In the backyard of her Rockville, Md., home, Valeria Roman walks her St. Bernard, Teddy, who greets 2 1/2-year-old Anthony Davenport. The stiff wire fence helps keep Teddy off the plants (though it doesn't seem to work as well for Anthony). Illustrates GREENSCENE (category l), by Joel M. Lerner, special to The Washington Post. Moved Monday, March 24, 2008. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for the Washington Post by Sandra Leavitt Lerner.)

WASHINGTON – Those who love both their dogs and their gardens often seek ways to protect their plants from the stress of daily dog traffic.

There are no dog-proof plants. If flora is frequently trampled, you can expect torn leaves, broken branches and mud, especially in smaller yards. But there are techniques to help dogs and beautiful gardens happily coexist.

My preferred solution is to separate the dog from the garden. Other options include taking pets to obedience school and creating a naturalistic design using tough ground covers, perennials, shrubs and trees and simply adopting a “survival of the fittest” mentality regarding plants.

Sometimes a sturdy fence is the only answer, but even an 18-inch-high wire fence can ruin the look of a garden and can discourage only small dogs. Instead, for small dogs, consider installing an 18- to 24-inch-tall picket fence to enclose a perennial and shrub garden. Plants along the pet side of the fence still need to withstand paw traffic. Remember that dogs can dig under fences, so install the fence into the soil or add a rock barrier at the base.

Other dog-loving gardeners look for more attractive options. Alain and Valeria Roman, of Rockville, Md., rely on an “ugly” stiff wire fence to hold back their Labrador retriever and St. Bernard from their plants, but they plan to build a retaining wall to limit where the dogs go. Flowers will be above and behind the wall, on the opposite and sunny side of the yard, out of the dogs’ direct path.

Pets like to explore, and it’s in a dog’s nature to patrol borders, including fences. Plant flowers and vegetables in raised planters with mulched or grassy paths between them. Leave buffer zones between plants, walls and fences. Mulched paths can be used to guide pets to locations away from beds to play or to take care of other business. If a path network is not extensive, use pavers, which will be smooth on dogs’ paws.

If your pet loves the garden, plant sturdy flora where it likes to tread. Black-eyed Susan has a stout character and will retain flowering value while your pet romps. Others include verbena, shasta daisy, liatris, peony, butterfly weed, Russian sage, raspberry and viburnum, as well as small flowering trees like styrax, halesia, fringe tree and eastern redbud. For information about other plants that can better tolerate foot traffic, check out, the Web site of a company that specializes in such plants.

Most pet owners know lawn chemicals can be harmful to their dogs and cats, but many forget that some plant material can be toxic to animals.

Sometimes animals know which leaves and berries to avoid, but don’t count on it. We had a client whose dog ate the foliage and berries of a Carol Mackie Daphne. The plant’s sap is caustic and can burn the mouth and irritate an animal’s stomach.

Other plants to avoid include yew, wild black cherry, azalea, rhododendron, hydrangea, nandina, oleander, English ivy, daffodil, tulip, lily of the valley, foxglove, hyacinth, rhubarb and castor bean. A longer list of toxic plants can be found at

If you already have some of these plants, minimize exposure by fencing them off, if possible.

Avoid tying dogs to trees. It can kill the tree and create an aggressive animal. And don’t leave dogs out for too long. When a dog begins to dig to find a comfortable spot, it’s been in the yard too long. Make sure your pet has an area of soft lawn or shaded soil for lying outside.

Pull weeds by hand, and use caution with any chemicals. Look for products promoted as pet-safe. Organic isn’t necessarily the best approach. For example, one organic method of adding phosphorus to the soil uses pulverized bone meal. Dogs love bones, but the bone meal could make them sick depending on the origin of the bones and any ingredients that have been added to the fertilizer.

Dog owners should also avoid cocoa bean mulch. It is a byproduct of chocolate manufacturing and contains both caffeine and theobromine, both of which are harmful to dogs. Coffee grounds may be good for your soil, but they’re not good for your dog, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

If a potentially more harmful substance is required for the health of your garden, keep pets away from areas being treated. “The First Aid Companion for Dogs and Cats,” by Amy D. Shojai (Rodale, 2001, $20), suggests keeping pets off sprayed surfaces for a week.

If you use a pest-control company, make sure the worker knows you have pets and uses the safest pesticide or containment system. Watch pets while they’re outside, and keep them away from containers.

If you think your pet has ingested or contacted something dangerous, isolate it and try to find the substance. If a plant, determine what part – seeds, berries or foliage. If a pesticide or herbicide, locate the container. Call a veterinarian or pet emergency center immediately. One resource is the National Animal Poison Control Center, which is staffed 24 hours a day. To reach it, call 800-548-2423. There is a consultation fee that may require a credit card.

• Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of “Anyone Can Landscape” (Ball 2001). Contact him through his Web site,