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Little Rascals: Pets and Pests in Your Garden

Jun 01, 2018 12:00AM

By Janice F. Booth

There are 115,000 dogs and cats in Anne Arundel County, and more than a million in Maryland, according to the American Veterinary Association estimates. And, you know, I think two-thirds of those little rascals have occasionally scampered through my garden. Maybe you feel that way, too? Or, perhaps you only need to be concerned about that cute, little rascal that resides in your house and makes his way into your garden when he needs a bit of fresh air.  

Whatever your relationship to the pets that visit your garden, let me offer some suggestions for planning you’re planting with that silky feline and bouncing lab in mind. Let’s start with the pets—we’ll get to the pests in due time.

There are two major issues when planning your garden with pets in mind—first, your pet’s safety; second, the safety of your plants. 

Keeping those common concerns in mind, you can adapt your garden to lessen conflicts between master-gardener and pet. Susan Cohoon, in “How to Landscape a Dog-Friendly Garden,” suggests five useful guidelines. 

Family pets—dogs and cats, have a few things in common when we think about them in the garden. First, they both see the garden as a natural waste receptacle, so managing their poo is a big part of planning. Second, both dogs and cats tend to ignore traditional boundaries. Unless carefully trained, they won’t stick to paths and avoid trampling your favorite anemones and lilies. Third, animals are curious, and they’re likely to taste-test anything and everything in your flowerbeds. Finally, they will need some shady spot to rest and a source of water to drink. 

For your male dog, find a sturdy piece of handsome driftwood or a short fence-post to install at some discrete place in the garden. Your dog will enjoy marking his garden, and he’ll stick to that area for his personal relief, which simplifies your clean-up duties. Female dogs are a bit trickier. You may have to simply choose a discrete doggie-relief area and train her to use that area. It may take a few weeks, but once she understands what you want her to do, she’ll probably comply. 

You’ve probably found you’re pet to be a sweet companion as you wander through the garden, deadheading the marigolds or pulling the renegade weed. I’ve found that year by year the squirrels and jays and cardinals come to see my cat as an amusing diversion. They wait for her to wander into the garden, where they tease her mercilessly—chattering from limbs just out of reach, dive-bombing her from behind. I end up rescuing her from beneath the deck or behind the compost pile, poor dear.

There are a few ways you can make your garden as delightful for your pet as it is for you. At least when first introduced to the relative freedom of the garden, don’t leave your pet alone. Walk with him; play with her. If your companion gets bored, she may find ways to amuse herself—sometimes at the expense of your flowerbeds. Rely on the obedience training you’ve established to keep your pet close at hand, at least until her curiosity is sated, and she can quietly hang-out with you in the garden.

If you have a deck, you may want to train your pet to go to the deck if visitors arrive—the neighbor and her cat, the delivery person wearing a uniform. If you train your dog or cat to go to the deck on command, you can avoid the worry about the escape through the opened gate or the run-in with the neighbor’s cat, or the growling at the uniform—all embarrassing and perhaps dangerous encounters for some pets. A few toys on the deck, your pets water dish, a comfy cat basket; these will help your pet see the deck or porch as a safe zone. 

If you have a water feature in your garden, think about how you want your pet to relate to that fountain or pond. If you don’t want them drinking from the fountain or splashing in the pond, you may want to be sure there is an adequate, convenient water supply available to your dog or cat. Training them to expect water to be in a dish or bucket set in a shady spot will make it easier for you to keep them away from the more decorative water sources in your garden. Warning: It won’t be easy keeping your curious cat from trying to catch a goldfish in your pond, or training puppy not to playfully lap the water as the fountain droplets temptingly rain down. 

“Rely on the obedience training you’ve established to keep your pet close at hand,
at least until her curiosity is sated, and she can quietly hang-out with you in the garden.”


Most important, plan to enjoy your pet’s company in your garden. Both the garden and your pet live to please you. With some planning and patience, always necessary for gardeners and pet owners alike, your pet will become a delightful addition to your garden rambles and as you work on the little projects among the flowers and shrubs.

Now, a topic more fraught with angst: What are we to do about the garden pests that you won’t be able to train or coerce into staying out of your garden and away from your flowerbeds?  
Foremost, on the list of pests concerning your pet must be the fleas and ticks so dangerous to animals and people. Your veterinarian is your best resource. Find out whether regular applications of repellants is the best solution for your little rascal. Just as you check yourself for ticks after spending time in the garden or wooded areas, do the same for your cat or dog. I’m sure you are well aware of the dangers we face from flea and tick borne diseases.

Because you have a pet that shares your garden, keeping out pests—other dogs and cats primarily, will depend on a sturdy fence. There is little else that will suffice. You won’t be able to rely on the devices I’m about to review because they would disturb your pet as well as the unwanted visitors.

That said, here are some suggestions for those of us whose struggle with unwanted animal visitors: 

-Prickly material, such as pinecones, twigs, sharp stones, will deter wandering cats and dogs. Spread the pinecones along the fence, arrange piles of twigs around the trees—in both cases, the deterrents won’t detract from the general beauty of your garden. 

-Plants with pungent odors—such as rue, lavender, and lemon thyme, are disliked by cats particularly. These plants are pleasant for the gardener, but not for uninvited visitors. Another off-putting scent for dogs, cats, and even deer is the smell of human hair. For small pests, just collect some from your family’s hairbrushes and distribute the hair-balls around the garden, beneath the plants. If you have a more serious invasion, such as deer or raccoons, ask your hairdresser or barber for scraps. Larger amounts of hair may serve as deterrents.

-As for that neighborhood cat that likes to use your garden as his favorite outdoor litterbox, you have two choices. First, as with your own cat, you can create an outdoor litterbox for him. At least you will know where he’s depositing his poo. If you can’t beat him, join him on his terms. However, if you aren’t interested in a compromise, find the areas he’s chosen to relieve himself and deposit your own prickly cones and plant some pungent peppermint. You can even use pipe tobacco, if you can find some, to ward off those cats.

Play Space:
Plan for your dog’s desire to run and romp. Notice where your dog bounds as she leaves the back porch; she probably heads in a straight line to a fence or tree. Use that as your guide for the garden’s path(s.) If your garden’s paths match your cat’s patrol of the perimeter, there’s no conflict. If your pet is medium to large or particularly energetic, try to design three-foot wide paths.

Paw Prints:
Choose a substance for that path that will be comfortable for your pet’s paws. Mulch is fine, but it must be large chunks that do not lodge in the animal’s pads, to be later dragged and deposited throughout the garden and tracked into the house. If you prefer stone paths, choose smooth flagstones, pea rock or river rocks that are smooth and oval. Avoid the sharp-edged pebbles; stepping on them hurts both barefoot humans and soft-pawed pets. 

Between the lines:
To encourage your pet to remain on the path rather than barreling across the flowerbed, create a border. Borders will hold in the pet and the mulch or stones. You can buy the readymade sections, or use driftwood or short, tightly-placed flat sticks. Another approach is to plant prickly or smelly plants near the edge of the path. That will also discourage your furry friend from going off-road. 

Noxious Nibbles:
If you find your little rascal is a muncher, likes to experiment by tasting whatever comes her way, find a list of plants that are safe and those that are dangerous to pets. The American SPCA is a reliable and thorough source. Aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control. Canadian TV News has a handy summary with a list of dangerous plants and healthy alternatives. Phoenixperennials.com/KeepingPetsSafeintheGarden-April5_2017.pdf 

Keep It Clean:
Finally, address the poo and pee problem realistically. No one wants to step in doggie or kitty doo. If you have a cat, choose a small area of the garden, away from family space. Create a tiny sandbox, camouflaged by a few small bushes or flowering plants. You may have to encourage your cat to give it a try, but once she has, she’ll return to the familiar spot, sparing your flowers and your sensibilities.

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