P is for Gardening with Pets

Many of us have a four-legged friend or two with whom we share our life.  They are our companions and friends and often become part of the family.  They greet us when we get home.  They love us unconditionally.  They snuggle.  They protect us.  They have a sixth sense to know when we’re sick or down and come to just be by our side.  They’re the best!

Until they’re not.  There is nothing more frustrating to a gardener than working so hard to grow flowers, plants, veggies, to watch them mature and just begin to peak only to have them trampled, dug up or otherwise destroyed.  Now it’s one thing when it’s a “wild” animal that does it: a raccoon, a squirrel, a rabbit or a deer, somehow it feels okay to get angry, to want them out, gone.  It becomes a battle.  Us against them. We put up fences and spray our plants with pepper spray and put fox urine powder around and whatever it takes to keep it from happening again.

But what about when it’s that four-legged friend who did the damage, that companion who greets you at the door?  What then?  The anger feels different.  The anger gets channeled as frustration.  Instead of referring to them as “those dirty rats” thoughts of anger show up as feelings of betrayal.  After all, they’re with us everyday.  Chances are they are hanging out when we were planting.  How could they not know that we loved that plant, that we wanted to keep the flowers on top of the stem, high in the air, not lying in tattered bits on the ground, or that we really did want to eat that lettuce they just went running through and smashed?

Is it possible to have pets and a garden?  Yes!  However, it’s takes observation and flexibility.  When most of us start planning a garden, we usually have a fairy tale vision of what it will look like at its peak.  When you have pets, particularly dogs, sometimes those visions need adjusting.  And they might need to be adjusted more than once.

So where do you start?  Watch your pet.  Watch what the do from the moment they leave the house until the second they come back.  You’ll need to observe them for a while, in other words, more than once.  Watch where they go and what they do.  After a while you’ll start to notice patterns.  Then, once you know what their habits are, you get to adjust either yourself or their habits.

I’ll give you an example, my dog Jake.  Jake was a rescue dog from the Leech Lake Reservation.  Prior to being rescued Jake was essentially a feral dog.  He spent his days running with a pack, chasing chickens and dodging bee-bees (he has a few souvenirs in his legs as proof).  So what happens to a garden when a dog like Jake becomes a domestic pet?  Well, I’ll give you a glimpse, here are Jake’s habits:

1. We open the door, he slinks out onto the back step in stealth mode, scanning the yard for prey.

2. A squirrel!  He bolts from the back steps, runs across the patio, leaps off of the step, over the stepping stone pathway, lands in the grass, makes an arc in the yard as he races under the spruce tree, rounds the curve to the huge old elm and attempts to climb the base of the tree to catch the squirrel.

3. Defeated, he’ll sit at the base of the tree and stare, daring the squirrel to come down.  This stare-down can go on from a minute to an hour.

4. Once his watch is over he heads to the shed in hopes of catching the rabbits or the woodchuck that seem to take turns residing underneath.

5. Finally, he’ll cruise the perimeter of the yard and relieve himself before returning to the column by the back steps, assuming gargoyle position, to guard the yard for an undetermined amount of time.

Again, what does this mean for the yard/garden and what can be done?

1. Slinking and scanning, no harm done.

2. Bolting across the patio, no problem, he races through the designed-in traffic area.

3. Leaping off the step over the stepping stone path and landing in the grass has destroyed the lawn in that area and worn a dirt path.  Chances are I’m not going to be able to break him of this habit, so my choices are to deal with the daily mud (not fun) or create a path for him (with something other than mud).  It will need to be something smooth or soft: pavers, stepping-stones, pea gravel (no angular stones) or mulch.  Nothing that will hurt those tender pads on his feet.

4. Racing under the spruce tree.  Prior to Jake I had a little shade garden under the this tree.  I need to move it.  Actually, I only need to move what’s in his path and the plants near the base of the tree where he tries to jump at the squirrels.   The rest can stay.  I may add a little path through here as well because he occasionally comes in with spruce needles in his paws (ouch!).

5. Climbing the elm tree.  No harm done here.  There are no plants at the base (aside from lawn) and the tree is mature enough that he can’t hurt it.

6. Over to the shed.  This is a problem.  There are holes, three or four of them, created as a joint effort between the dogs, the rabbits and the woodchuck.  I need to determine whether we let the critters continue to live under there or try to get them out once and for all then block the holes with chicken wire (dug into the ground) and repair the holes or if I just deal with it and let the dogs enjoy the chase.  The other option is to train the dogs to stay away, but realistically this will only work if their source of entertainment is gone.

7.  Perimeter relief?  Kind of nice, actually.  They have to “go” and it’s nice to know where to look for it.  However, it has taken some training to teach him not to relieve himself on the perimeter where there are flowers and raspberries growing!

Okay, did you catch it?  Do you know how to deal with pets in the garden?

1. Observe their habits.

2. Go with the flow.  If you have a dog that loves to pace at the perimeter of your yard, let them!  Give them a path.  Move your flower beds out, away from the perimeter and give them access to get through.  The same goes for any other regular paths.  If you don’t like their path, you’ll need to provide and obstacle, a reason for them to take a different path.  And if you’re going to remove one, make sure you give them an alternative first.

3. Dog Digging?  Give them a spot to dig.  Their own sandbox perhaps.  Train them that it’s okay to dig here, but not “over there”.

4.  Keeping them out of gardens?  Fences, raised beds or container gardens and training!  Training your dog what’s okay and what’s not okay will be the best time you’ve ever spent.  It will make you both a lot happier!

5. Give them space.  Make sure your pets have a place to play that really is okay.

6. Supervise.  I know some people like to simply “let the dogs out” and forget about it.  If you’ve already done all of the above and you know your dog really well, and think they know the rules,  then go ahead, but please don’t think you can simply let the dogs out without training and taking precautions first and expect them to know where to go.  Dogs will be dogs.   They can’t read and they can’t read our minds.

7. Cats.  If you love them, keep them indoors, leash them, walk them (yes, it’s possible) or create a safe play area for them.

8. Cats can be destructive when left unattended outside and can become a gardeners nightmare.  They will mark territory, which smells offensive and usually isn’t the best way to be a good neighbor. If you’re dealing with your neighbors cats, this is tougher.  Cats typically don’t like the smell of citrus or lavender.  You can leave orange, lemon and lime peels in the garden (give them a little squeeze first to release the oils in the skin) or plant lavender.  There are also cleansers on the market to clean up outdoors post-cat spray and some others to deter them from coming again.  Both are supposed to be okay for plants and the environment.

9. Cats tend to use gardens and children’s sandboxes as a litter box.  Yuck!.  But beyond yuck, cat feces contain toxoplasmosis.  Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds, but it only reproduces in cats, so cats are the parasite’s ultimate host. When a person becomes infected with toxoplasmosis, the parasite forms cysts that can affect almost any part of the body — often your brain and muscles, including the heart.  It dangerous for adults, particularly pregnant women, and especially young children.  To prevent cats from invading sandboxes, keep them covered.  Gardens?  There are little mats you can buy that have plastic spikes on them not sharp enough to hurt people, but just annoying enough to keep cats out of the soil.  Again, citrus or lavender may help as well.

10.  Cats also hunt birds, the same birds that you or your neighbors are feeding.  Feeders shouldn’t be bait for cats, and my guess is that most people feeding the birds aren’t intending it to be a buffet for cats.  It’s cruel to attract birds to a feeder, let cats loose and allow them to kill the birds.  Mice, moles and voles on the other hand…

11.  If you have a cat who likes to be outside, keep them with you, watch them, leash them or give them a play space… it can be outdoors, but covered, contained, somewhere they can sunbathe, watch the birds and squirrels, but not do damage to others.  I’ve seen some pretty cool outdoor cat play areas.  There are definitely options.

12. As a reminder, be careful what you grow.  Some plants are toxic to people and even more toxic to pets.  If your pets are in the back yard and you really want that Datura, grow it in the front.  It’s not worth taking chances.

13.  And finally, grow stuff for your pets too! Grow catnip or mint! (My cat isn’t fussy, any mint will do.)  Grow wheat grass, both dogs and cats like wheat grass.

So keep your companions and keep gardening.  Work together and you’ll have a yard and garden everyone will enjoy!

Kate

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