The Mountain Gardener: Building dog-friendly gardens
by Jan Nelson
Nov 08, 2012 | 1714 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Gardens are for people and the pets they love.

When we get home, our pets are always happy to see us. It doesn't matter what kind of day it has been — they are there for us. So it stands to reason that we would want to make their little corner of the world as interesting and comfortable as we can.

I'm working with several homeowners right now who have dogs in the family. Their goal is to provide a dog-friendly landscape that is beautiful and safe and has enough mental stimulation to keep them occupied during the day.

If you have a dog, here are some tips to remember.

Each dog is different. Banjo, a yellow lab owned by one of my friends, loves to play the fetching game with his favorite toy. He needs lots of exercise and objects to chew on. His yard has room to play and a box of toys he can carry around in his mouth.

I'll need to consider several breed traits and personalities in a Ben Lomond garden that I'm updating. Sunny Boy is a timid pit bull mix who has bonded with Pippy, a cocker spaniel-dachshund mix. Along with Brandy, a beagle, they all love to tunnel and chase each other. In this garden, there will be a dog tunnel made from wire winding between plants. The plants will grow over the top and can be tied to form a roof. That way, the dogs have a fun activity that comes naturally to them.

These owners also have a very old rescue Chihuahua, Rico Suave, who receives hospice care for a brain tumor. He needs a quiet, private spot with warmth. In an out-of-the-way spot, we are going to add several flagstones to soak up the heat of the sun where he can lie down.

Creating a garden to meet your dog’s needs is the best way to avoid future problems. Most dogs prowl the perimeter of the fence to investigate noises, so instead of a plant border, consider paving stones, gravel or mulched paths along the fence line.

If your dog is a digger, like Brandy the beagle, create a special area in a shady spot where it can dig to its heart's content. The spot can be a sand pit or earth. Entice the dog to this area by burying a favorite toy or bone. Then, your dog will return again and again to this one spot and not dig up your flower beds.

Picking the correct plants is important in backyard landscaping, especially if your dog naturally nibbles on greenery or berries. Some plants are lethal, while others can cause illness or vomiting. I was surprised to see so many common plants on the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website that could cause problems. From carnations to primroses to geraniums, I'll be checking the list to make sure all my dog friends are safe. Check it out here:

Plants near paths should have soft foliage without thorns and spines, which can cause eye injury.  Brittle plants, like salvias, should be in the center, where they will be protected.

Dogs usually avoid densely planted areas, but planting in raised beds or mounds helps, too. Pieces of driftwood placed at the front of a border will discourage them from climbing through. 

Also, start with gallon or larger plant containers that can stand up to a little roughhousing.

If your dogs have already created their own path through the garden, don't try to redirect them. Instead, turn their well-worn routes into pathways covered with a mulch of small woodchips that are easy on paws, yet large enough so they won't cling to fur coats.

Provide your dog with an area to relieve himself. Since you have only about eight hours to water a spot after your dog goes on the lawn, it's better to set aside a corner covered with pea gravel, cedar chips or flagstones and train your dog to go there.  It's also a good idea to install marking posts, such as a piece of wood or a log along a path.

Dogs can get bored in a space. Dog-friendly gardeners incorporate barriers, arbors, pathways and raised beds to channel dog's energies toward things they enjoy, like running, and away from delicate plants and veggies. They also need places that provide shade, such as trees, arbors and pergolas.

Also make sure to eliminate weeds, especially foxtails, which can get in your dog’s ears or be inhaled.

Keep these tips in mind and both you and your dog will be happier for it.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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