5 Tips for a Dog-Friendly Garden

Wingnut is always helpful when testing plants in the garden

Wingnut is always helpful when testing plants in the garden

The first thing I say when a client asks me to design a dog-friendly garden is: “Tell me about your dog.” And “How will Sparky use the garden.” Basically I want to know the same things about the dog as I do about the people I design for. A spastic dog that is prone to jumping and escape is going to require a much different garden design than a more mature dog with hip problems. Some people are interested in creating dogruns, or designated areas for their pups, while others want their furry family members to be part of the entire garden. If the latter is true, my next question is, “Can you live with imperfection?” Even the mellowest canine will invariably cause damage to a garden either with urine, a fondness for laying on your favorite bedding plants, or some other undiscovered behavior. The main goal in designing a dog-friendly garden or dogrun, or a dog kennel is to ensure the happiness and safety of your furry best friend.

If you can’t live with imperfection, and you have the space, designing a comfortable dog run for Fido might be your best bet. I’m currently designing a dogrun, or home dog kennel, for a family with dogs that enjoy the entire dog-friendly garden while their humans are outside, but have a little too much space when left to their own devices. The fenced dogrun will be under a perimeter of oaks, so they’ll be able to enjoy dappled shade and sunny areas for lounging on pet-friendly an artificial turf like as well as two gravel areas for doing their business. They’ll also have a “dogport” covering their dog house area for full weather protection against the extremes.

SynLawn play area for dogs in a rooftop garden in San Francisco

SynLawn play area for dogs in a rooftop garden in San Francisco

Dog-friendly gardens are near and dear to my heart. I have two dogs (big dog, little dog) who enjoy my little postage stamp of a garden with me. For the most part, they’re perfect gentlemen; they have a few sturdy agaves on which they like to leave their marks, but the agaves don’t seem to mind; and they’d much rather do their other business on a walk than in their garden so any mess is technically due to my laziness. Neither of the beasts are chewers of things, except their squeaky dog toys, so I don’t worry about toxic plants, but it should be taken into consideration. My big dog has an occasional and unpredictable digging problem, but it’s always in the same place. After years trying to fight his compulsion with physical barriers I finally put a bench in front of his dig site with room for him and his dirty obsession. An abutilon fills out the fence above the digging spot so there are no obvious holes in the planting area. And now I can revel in his cute dirty nose rather than wonder which of my favorite plants he destroyed. I’m also conducting an experiment with real sod lawn and SynLawn, a fancy artificial turf (it’s not your grandma’s astroturf), to see which my dogs prefer. So far it’s about 50/50, with the added bonus with SynLawn that there is no maintenance, and the doggone raccoons aren’t digging it up every night. One challenge to consider with artificial turf is that it can get quite hot if you live in a hot summer climate. So far, my San Francisco dogs aren’t having any trouble.

My other major problem is raccoons! I won’t even get into the trouble (or vet bills) we’ve seen from these critters, but my biggest dog-related challenge is that the raccoons clearly have a regular route through my garden, and it’s right through my little tropical oasis – and where those little bandits go, so go my dogs. On a rampage. A herd of raccoons and dogs stampede through my elephant ears on a regular basis. This is living with imperfection. Let the fencing commence!!!

If you’re designing your own dog-friendly garden, here are five things to consider:
dogs will stay on a path - berms can be a deterrent

Paths – dogs will oftentimes stay on designated paths. I designed one dog-friendly garden with a series of paths based on the dogs’ existing paths. Once installed, they were literally able to run circles around the garden – and the people had two seating connected by the patios to enjoy the show. Keep in mind that many dogs like to patrol the perimeter of the garden, so if space allows, consider leaving an open space between your planting borders and the fence.

sokolow-branca 020

Shelter and water – whether your dog is strictly outdoors, or frequently unattended, make sure you provide adequate covered space (even beyond a dog house) to protect Rover from the elements. If your dog is alone for longer periods of time, consider a faucet waterer so Buffy never goes thirsty. If you can teach Chester to drink from these handy faucet waterers, and you have an extra hose bibb (consider a splitter attachment) it’s a low-cost solution to ensure constant hydration. The if you can get Max to drink out of the self-waterer, it might be safer than filling bowls with a hose. Research suggests that there may be toxins in your garden hose.

Golden Retrievers are an energetic breed that need lots of walks and/or room to run

Golden Retrievers are an energetic breed that need lots of walks and/or room to run

Know your dog’s habits – Many traits are breed-specific. If you have an energetic dog, obviously the more space the better. If you have a Houdini escape artist, you may need to fortify the bottom of the fence to prevent him from digging under, and may need a taller fence, or even a covered dogrun for a jumper. If Milo likes to chew on things, make sure he has plenty of weather-resistant dog toys and avoid toxic plants. For all dogs, never use cocoa mulch as it has proven fatally toxic to some dogs.

ornamental grasses

Plant Wisely – When planting, try to plant larger- sized container plants in masses. Use sturdy plants like ornamental grasses and phormiums especially along borders. Large agaves and aeoniums work as convenient barriers in my garden, but spines at the tips of even the smoothest agaves may pose potential danger. Stay away from toxic plants, particularly if you have chewer. This is why it’s important to know your dog. Borders, either temporary or permanent, can be very helpful in keeping Spot out of your beds. Depending on your garden style, this can include low fencing, boulders or other garden ornament – make it work with the paths. If you have specimen plants, or enjoy vegetable gardening, consider raised beds.

Fire hydrant marking posts in a San Mateo dog park combine function, upcycling and whimsy

Fire hydrant marking posts in a San Mateo dog park combine function, upcycling and whimsy

Designate areas for your dog – most dogs and puppies can be trained to use specific areas for their potty needs. I’ve designed several dog-friendly gardens with gravel and and artificial grass like SynLawn spaces for dogs to do their duty. SynLawn is a great lawn alternative if you like the idea of perfection – the artificial turf won’t get yellow and patchy, and you can easily wash it down if it gets soiled. You can install extra drainage – and add an odor-reducer. If you have a male dog fond of marking, consider a marking post. There is a dog park in San Mateo that a large expanse of dirt dotted with fire hydrants. Let your whimsy run wild. If you go for a marking post, it’s helpful to have a water source close by to keep smells from building up. It also helps if you have good drainage underneath If you have a digger – find Lola a space to have at it. In one garden I designed, we inadvertently created a lookout for the pup to maintain his neighborhood vigilance. It’s his favorite spot in the garden.

Zeke in mist

Zeke in mist

Use these tips whether you’re planning a specific dogrun or thinking about incorporating these main ideas into your dog-friendly garden. They will ensure many happy days in the garden with your pooch. If you need help designing or installing your dog-friendly garden, or want to share your dog-friendly garden, feel free to drop me a line. And don’t even get me started about my custom dog house and dog washing and dog splash ideas!