The age-old question has one again arisen in our household: Do we have a dog or do we have a nice yard? In the past, it always seemed to be a one or the other choice for us. I love dogs and miss not having one (or often two — sometimes even three or four when the kids visited) around, but this new yard is just beginning to reach its potential and I hate the idea of massive dog destruction.
I know that I am not alone in my conundrum. Recent statistics show that 74% of United States households participate in some type of gardening activity and that over 36% of U.S, households have dogs as pets. That seems to guarantee that many others are dealing with the dog/yard dilemma and want a viable solution.
Before making a dog/yard decision, I decided to turn to some of the experts in the fields of both landscaping and dogs. Thankfully, I found reassuring and realistic advice for those of us who wish to have both animal companionship and a beautiful yard.
Both sides agree that the key to a successful combination of dog and garden is to understand the innate characteristics of the breed in general and the specific personality of your own dog. Is your dog a digger by nature? Many breeds were bred to find and destroy vermin; they are unstoppable at digging critters, both real and imagined, out of the ground. Others exhibit guarding behavior by running fence lines in an effort to protect people and property. Some are naturally chewers and think of sticks and stems of plants as chew toys, while others are content to simply lie in the sun and watch the world go by.
Along with the instinctive behaviors, experts concur that dogs have other, basic needs that must be accommodated in an outdoor environment. Dogs need an area to relieve themselves, a place to safely exercise, access to water and for those animals that are outdoors for long periods of time, shelter from the harsh sun.
Addressing the needs of the dog and the desires of the human is challenging, but with some aesthetic compromises and creative landscaping, it can be accomplished. These are just a few of the suggestions that were shared with me.
ELIMINATE THE SPOTTED LAWN SYNDROME
Dog urine contains a large amount of nitrogen and is high in salts. Over time, large amounts of nitrogen, whether from a nitrogen-rich applied fertilizer or dog urine, will kill turf grass by burning it. Flushing the area with water soon after the dog urinates can help dilute the nitrogen and spread the nutrients to a larger area, essentially giving the extended area an extra boost of food.
Since being ready with a hose every time your dog urinates may not work well with your schedule, there are other options available. One solution is to set aside a specific spot in the yard (keep it away from more public areas to avoid potential unpleasant odors) and train your dog to use it for relief. If your dog will accept it, converting the space to a hardscape material such as flagstone, brick, pea gravel or permeable pavers makes it easy to clean.
If you prefer green over hardscape, then try planting a patch of clover in the area. It is virtually immune to burn from dog urine. Tougher grasses like Bermuda grass, tall fescue and zoysia will often hold up better to dog abuse than Kentucky bluegrass, but will still eventually succumb to urine burn.
CREATE PUPPY PATHWAYS
Although exercise is an important aspect of your dog’s health and happiness, constant paw traffic will compact the soil and kill the grass, leaving a muddy mess after every shower. A few well-designed mulch, bark or flagstone pathways can help meet a dog’s need for exercise while avoiding the problems repeated running can cause to your lawn. If your dog has guard tendencies, then a mulched or stone path following the fence line gives your pup the perfect running track. An extra benefit of a fence path is that it adds definition to the landscape and eliminates the need to trim grass next to the fence.
Gently curved paths strategically placed throughout the yard, especially those that follow your dog’s natural running patterns, can help save the rest of the lawn from traffic damage. In most cases, a three-foot path is ample space for both canines and humans to travel. Including elements such as driftwood or planting trees along the sides of the path can act as barriers and help designate boundaries for Fido. Winding paths around solid, existing elements like boulders, thick stands of ornamental grasses or trees adds an extra sense of adventure to your dog’s daily exercise routine.
Experts do advise however, that most finely shredded mulches be avoided since they can, with a single roll on the ground, easily attach themselves to your dog’s fur and be tracked into the house. Other mulches to bypass are those with might have sharp edges, such as ground coconut hulls, or any that could make your dog sick if consumed. Cacao (or cocoa) hulls are among the most dangerous for your dog.
INCLUDE A PLAYGROUND FOR YOUR POOCH
Breaking a dog of its inborn digging habit is almost impossible. Leaving a patch of loose, bare ground can give your dog an acceptable place to follow his instincts while saving your planting beds. To make it a less unsightly view, surround it with a fence or a small shrub border. To keep your dog interested in the spot, experts suggest occasionally burying a chew toy for your dog to unearth.
PROTECT EXISTING PLANTINGS
An easy way to protect existing planting beds from rambunctious dogs is to install decorative fencing in front of each of them. Widely spaced pickets, for example, signal a stopping point for the dog, but create a sense of a romantic cottage garden while wrought iron barriers convey a more formal atmosphere.
Physical barriers are not the only way to discourage dogs from pillaging your garden beds. Massed plantings of sturdy, spiney or highly fragrant varieties can act as obstacles, stopping dogs from venturing forward. Boxwood hedges can serve as an attractive living fence that is sturdy and easy to grow. Varieties of spruce have dense needles that can discourage dogs from passing through. Rosemary and lemon balm are both examples of attractive garden plants that usually foul-smelling to dogs.
When adding plants to a dog-friendly garden, whether as barriers or in beds, experts offer a few suggestions. At the top of the list is to be sure to avoid those that are highly toxic to dogs. (Many are also toxic to children.) The ASPCA has an extremely thorough list of toxic and non-toxic plants online.
A second piece of advice is, whenever feasible, to choose varieties that resprout from the roots since broken limbs and branches from doggie roughhousing aren’t likely to kill the plant.
Finally, choose larger, more mature plants with well-developed root systems for transplanting into a dog-friendly yard since they are more likely to survive the dog experience.
PROVIDE CREATURE COMFORTS
Dogs dehydrate quickly in warm weather or while playing in the direct sun. Having an easily accessible source of shade and water is critical for their well-being. Designing a few patches of unplanted ground under low hanging bushes creates safe spots for dogs to rest. If they are close to human gathering spaces, then they become a true dog paradise.
A consistent supply of clean, outdoor water is an important element of a dog-friendly yard. Not only important for drinking, lounging in cool water can help regulate a dog’s body temperature during extremely hot weather. If however, you aren’t a fan of your pooch swimming in your pond (too dangerous or too destructive), then installing a bubbler can be an easy and acceptable solution.
A bubbler is easy to install and maintain, adds a calming sound to the garden and provides a constant shallow stream of water. A container or a liner-covered depression in the ground is filled with rounded rocks and a pump is situated under the rocks. The pump recycles the water, constantly pushing it over the rocks, keeping them wet and creating a perfect place for a dog to rest during the heat of the day.
We’re still thinking about it. Dog or no dog is a difficult decision to make, but knowing that there are options to protect my landscaping moves me a bit closer to getting a new companion. This weekend there is an adoption fair at a local pet store; maybe this weekend, I’ll go look….