11 Steps to a Pet-Friendly Garden
With a bit of extra backyard space, you can create a garden that is not only safe for your pets to roam, but is created with their needs in mind. Gardening expert and owner of five dogs, Madison Moulton provides 11 tips to help you start a pet-friendly garden.
For animal lovers who are also plant lovers, the two areas can often appear to clash. Many plants are unsafe for pets, and pets aren’t always safe for gardens either. Dogs, cats, and other fuzzy creatures dig up dirt and uproot plants in playful curiosity. If your furry friends are a big part of your life, you must know the basics of growing a pet-friendly garden!
But there is a solution that brings these two worlds together – pet-friendly gardens. While the term describes a space that is ‘friendly’ in the sense that it is not harmful, I like to use the term to encompass a space that is safe for your pets and designed for their play and enjoyment.
If you have a patch of backyard space you’re willing to dedicate to your pets, follow these 11 tips. They may not all apply, depending on the size of your space and what pets you have. But they will give you some things to consider in helping you craft the perfect pet-friendly space.
Choose Safe Plants
Safety is the most important aspect of a pet-friendly garden, before any other concerns. It’s imperative to pick plants that are non-toxic to your pets and won’t do any harm through any interaction, whether through touching or nibbling by curious pets.
While many plants are harmless, some can be poisonous if ingested and deadly if consumed in large amounts. Keeping these out of any space you intend to set aside for your pet is essential.
Azaleas are a common example, as are lilies for cats (even as cut flowers). But because each plant has specific impacts on specific pets, it’s essential to research before you choose what to plant.
Local veterinary resources (or chatting to your vet directly) will help you decide what plants are best for a pet-friendly space. There are also pet-friendly seed collections with a variety of options safe for animals, depending on what pets you have.
If there is a chance – even a small one – of your pets interacting with the plants in your space both indoors and out, choose ones that are completely safe to avoid any mishaps.
Pick Plants Your Pets Will Love
When picking plants, safety will be the first thing on your mind. But beyond that, you can also choose safe plants that your pets will love interacting with.
If you have cats, this tip is simple. Cats have a particular affinity to a few plants that handily have ‘cat’ in their common name, indicating their connection. Cat grass is known to be a great digestion aid and good for keeping indoors. Catnip is another popular option that is wonderfully easy to grow and will keep your cat occupied for hours.
Dogs are often far less fussy – especially those that love treats. Many greens, flowers, and vegetables like squash or corn are considered edible for dogs.
My puppies love cucumber the most and enjoy chomping on fresh chunks on hot summer days. Try out a few vegetables to see which ones your pups love before planting them in the garden.
The same applies to all other pets. Find out what they love and start planting that to involve them in your pet-friendly garden.
Keep Precious Plants Protected
There are probably some plants in your garden that you value immensely. Whether they are safe or not, keeping these precious plants in protected areas and away from playful pets is wise.
They may nibble on the leaves or flowers, dig around the roots, scratch up the plants, or even rush through them while running, potentially uprooting the entire plant. If you’ve put effort into growing and caring for your precious ornamental or edible plants, that’s the last thing you want.
Screen these plants off from the rest of your pet-friendly garden to keep them completely safe. You can use fencing or other plants like dense hedging, as long as the plant is safe and stops your four-legged friends from getting through.
Another way to protect specific plants is to keep them in tall raised beds. This may not work for nimble cats or tall dogs but can prevent smaller pets from accessing plants and the soil.
Keep Fences Maintained
Fences not only define the boundaries of our garden but also play a pivotal role in keeping our pets safe inside and potential threats out. But, like any other structure in your garden, fences are prone to wear and tear that impact their effectiveness (and overall look).
Regular weather changes, moisture, and even our pets themselves can take a toll on the structure of a fence, leading to potential weak spots. It’s essential to look out for these gaps and resolve them to prevent unexpected escapes.
As a bonus, a well-maintained fence will also elevate the overall aesthetic of your garden. A broken or worn-down fence undoubtedly looks messy, detracting from the beauty of your meticulously cared-for, pet-friendly backyard.
Walk the perimeter of your garden frequently, checking for any signs of damage or wear. Look for loose boards, rusting metal, or any areas that seem mainly worn out. Keeping an eye on your pets outdoors can also help you identify these spots – they’ll probably find them long before you do.
Make sure you address any issues as soon as you spot them. Small gaps might seem insignificant, but they can be enticing escape routes for curious pets or entryways for unwelcome wildlife. Regular maintenance and timely repairs will give you peace of mind that your backyard is safe for your pets to play.
Watch Your Pets Outdoors
Observing your pets as they explore the garden can provide valuable insights that aid in pet-friendly design.
Keep a close eye on them to discover which areas they frequent, what plants they’re drawn to, and where they love to rest. You can then use this to design a pet-friendly garden that takes their favorite spots and plants into account, avoiding spots that won’t be used or may get ruined.
To provide a somewhat embarrassing example of not considering the latter, I dug a new ornamental bed along my fence line and filled it with masses of new plants. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider that one of my dogs likes to walk (and even run when something is exciting going on) along that same fence line.
Long story short, my plants didn’t last long. The tall salvias were largely spared, but the rest of the plants were pulled out or reduced to sticks.
If your pets already have a routine in your backyard, use it to your advantage to create an exciting space they will love even more.
Create Space For Play
Many pets, particularly dogs, need ample space to run around and play. If you’re lucky, you may have enough space indoors for them to entertain themselves. Unfortunately, most homes don’t, which is where pet-friendly gardens come in.
While planning the area, make sure you dedicate some space for play. This could be an open patch of lawn to run around in, an obstacle course with a few enticing treats along the way, or a dedicated sand pit for enthusiastic digging. You know your pets best, so use your knowledge to create a designated play area they will love.
This tip also comes with an added benefit. If your pups are tired from playing in their super exciting garden space, they’re less likely to cause trouble in parts of your garden or home you don’t want them in. Targeted stimulation will keep them occupied throughout the day, also providing some much-needed exercise as they run around.
If you plan on having your pets spend most of the day outdoors in their pet-friendly space, you must consider shelter. Spending all day in the hot sun is not great for pets, just as it isn’t great for humans. You need to provide respite from the day’s weather to keep your pets safe and happy.
Any overhead cover is helpful to provide shelter from both rain and sun. Pergolas covered in pet-safe vines, awnings attached to the side of your home, or even shade sails can designate a spot for relaxing outdoors. Consider the sun’s direction throughout the day, ensuring the areas are protected during the hottest parts of the day (midday to early afternoon).
To make the space more comfortable, you can add screens to reduce the impacts of high winds or provide sheltered spots away from cold temperatures near your home. Not every backyard will need to implement these measures, but they are things to consider that will make your pet-friendly garden more enjoyable and well-used.
For pets that spend most of their day indoors and have easy access in and out, your home can serve as their shelter. But this tip is essential for those who spend most of their day outdoors.
Cover Open Dirt
Both cats and dogs love digging in the dirt. Unfortunately, this leaves some unsightly patches across your garden that make it look untidy. Even if you set space aside for your pets, you still want your backyard to look good without the occasional crater impacting your view.
Open areas of dirt are incredibly tempting for pets. To deter them from digging, it’s best to cover any open patches with pet-safe mulch or pet-friendly garden ground cover. This may not stop them completely, as many people with lawns and puppies already know. But it will remove the visual and provide a barrier that can distract from the digging process.
This also helps improve the overall look of your garden simultaneously, and not only by getting rid of unsightly holes. Covering empty dirt with greenery will make your garden appear more lush and put together, even if you’ve just thrown down a few ground cover seeds. Replacing lawns with groundcover plants can also limit your need to mow and can improve backyard biodiversity.
As long as you’re replacing dirt patches with pet-friendly plants, covering them is a great way to keep your garden tidy. If your pets are still tempted to dig – potentially digging up new plants – designate a space for a sand pit where they can be trained to dig without causing trouble in the rest of your garden.
Limit Harmful Chemicals
When we encounter a problem in the garden, we often reach out for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to nurture our plants and protect them from damaging pests and diseases. However, these quick fixes aren’t safe when growing a pet-friendly garden.
Certain chemicals in garden products can pose significant health risks to animals, especially when ingested. From skin irritations to digestive issues, there are many problems to look out for, depending on the nature of the chemicals used.
Limiting chemical usage doesn’t have to compromise care either. Using compost, natural predators, and eco-friendly alternatives to harmful products, you can maintain the garden’s health without compromising your pet’s safety. This also limits harm to other wildlife in the area, including essential pollinators and birds we want to welcome into our gardens.
Always read labels and understand the components of any product you plan to introduce to your garden. If in doubt, look for pet-safe certifications or chat with your vet to ensure it is completely safe.
Keep Tools In The Shed
A well-tended garden usually requires several tools, from spades to shears and trowels. While these tools are must-haves, they can also pose potential hazards to curious pets. Sharp edges and pointy ends can lead to severe accidents, especially if they are forgotten in an area where your pets might attempt to play with them.
A shed or storage area serves as the perfect solution, keeping the tools organized and ensuring they’re out of reach from playful pets. When growing a pet-friendly garden, make putting your tools away after using a consistent habit.
This doesn’t only protect your pets but also protects and prolongs the lifespan of your tools. Garden tools are made to last but must be cared for correctly when not in use. Keeping your tools shielded from the elements in a shed or garage will ensure they remain rust-free and ready for use.
Cover Your Pool
Pools are wonderful additions to gardens for their design and functionality. It’s hard to deny the sleek feel a well-designed pool adds while serving as a beautiful respite from the intense summer heat.
Unfortunately, pools are a hazard when growing a pet-friendly garden. A simple accident is all they need to fall in at ground level. Many pets will luckily be able to swim to safety. But if your pool is difficult to escape or your pet is not used to swimming, an unattended pool is a serious hazard.
Chlorinated pool water is also not suitable for drinking in large amounts. An uncovered pool may tempt thirsty pets, even if freshwater access is available.
The solution to both concerns is to cover your pool when not in use. This practice is helpful in any garden, not just pet-friendly gardens, as it helps keep pool temperatures consistent and prevents dirt and debris from falling in frequently.
Choose a sturdy pool cover that keeps your pets (and other wildlife that comes across your garden) safe if they happen to trip up.
If you have a green thumb and playful pets, growing a pet-friendly garden is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. With these tips, you can create an exciting space that your furry friends won’t want to leave.