When creating pet-friendly gardens, homeowners turn to artificial turf, nontoxic plants

For The Baltimore Sun
From artificial turf to nontoxic plants, pet owners get a new leash on landscaping.

When Emily and Phillip Ward moved into their Fells Point rowhouse five years ago, the backyard was beautifully landscaped with flowers, trees and grass.

But the yard was no match for the Wards' two dogs, a German shepherd mix named Nikko and an Australian shepherd named George.

"Within two years, our dogs had destroyed everything … and made it a giant mud pit," says Emily Ward, an office manager at Patrick Sutton Interior Design.*

The Wards solved their landscaping problem last summer by covering most of their backyard with artificial turf and planting hardy flowers like hostas in the surrounding beds. The turf cost about $3,500, and now there's no mowing and almost no maintenance, Ward says.

"We just hose it off," she says. "We no longer have any mud tracked in the house. It really solved that issue for us."

As the Wards learned, creating a beautiful landscape can mean making some adjustments if pets are in the home. Besides coping with damage from the pounding of four feet, pet owners need to be careful about the plants, fertilizers, pesticides and fences they choose.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lists more than 400 plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and horses, including many garden staples such as lilies, azaleas, ivy, holly and daffodils.

"It can wreak havoc on their systems depending on what they've gotten into and how much they've ingested," says Alisa Wardrup, wellness clinic manager at the Maryland SPCA.

As a member of the garden staff at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, Marian Andelman makes it her business to plant a variety of perennials in her yard. But with four cats and four dogs, including a new puppy that eats everything, she has had to reconsider the flowers and shrubs in her garden to make sure they are safe for her pets.

"I've had to make selections to avoid toxic plants," says Andelman, who has opted for varieties of hostas, heuchera, grasses and sedum.

Pet owners also need to be wary of some types of mulch, notes Dr. David Tayman with VCA Columbia Animal Hospital. In particular, he warns against using cocoa bean mulch, which can be lethal for dogs if they eat it.

Other hazards in the garden include pesticides and herbicides, which can get on pets' fur and feet. Even if products are advertised as safe for pets, their owners need to be careful, Wardrup cautions.

"Wait several hours after [applying] any pesticide" before letting pets back out in the yard, she says. "Give it plenty of time, even for the pet-safe ones."

Besides being on the lookout for dangers lurking in their yards, homeowners with pets may need some landscaping tricks to create a space that can withstand digging, pacing and urine.

"You have to be sensible with the plants you choose," says Joel Hafner of Fine Earth Landscape in Poolesville. "You want something that can take the abuse."

Doug Del Gandio, an owner of Four Seasons Landscaping and Nursery in Damascus, says he takes into account a number of factors when designing a project for a family with a dog. Besides avoiding toxic plants, he also looks for plants that don't require much maintenance.

"You want to be able to select plants that will survive with water alone or not as much fertilizer," Del Gandio says.

Del Gandio says he sees more homeowners liked the Wards turning to artificial turf in areas heavily used by pets. Some turf is treated to mask pet odors and is easily washable, he notes.

Synthetic lawns also take away the potential problem of repeated exposure to dog urine, which can discolor grass and shrubs. But there are solutions for those who opt for regular grass, as well.

Some landscapers recommend training dogs to urinate in a designated area that is covered with smooth gravel or river rock or a grassy area that can be screened by shrubs. Hafner suggests placing an artificial log in the yard that the dog can use to mark its territory. "They use that as their marking post just as they would a fire hydrant," he says.

Pet owners can use a similar method to discourage digging, one of the hardest dog habits to break, Wardrup says. Sometimes dogs are drawn to the soft soil of a flower bed, so providing them with a similar soft area where they can dig and training them to use it can help keep them from damaging your flowers.

"It's always a good idea to use behavioral training to keep them from digging in the yard," Wardrup says.

Pets can also wear down grass in certain areas, particularly near fences, which dogs often like to run along. To combat this, landscapers suggest creating paths with mulch or woodchips that will be safe for the canines and still aesthetically pleasing. Another option is to place shrubs several feet away from the fences so the dogs can run between them, said Josh Kane, owner of Kane Landscapes in Northern Virginia.

And when it comes to the fence itself, deciding on what type to use is one of the biggest challenges of landscaping with a pet. If the goal is simply to keep a dog out of the flowers, raising the bed or placing stones or driftwood around an area may suffice, Hafner says.

But if the object is to contain the dog in the yard, more secure measures are needed.

Kane notes that some dogs can jump a 6-foot-high barrier and others will try to dig beneath it. He says burying stone along a fence will discourage dogs from digging under it.

Some dog owners prefer electric fences, but they do not work for all dogs and they cannot keep out other animals, Wardrup notes. And cats, which can climb or slip through almost any barrier, should be kept indoors or microchipped if they go outside, she says.

In addition to making sure fences are secure, homeowners should consider barriers that let dogs see out of the yard, says Julie Patronik, a landscaper with McHale Landscape Design Inc. in Upper Marlboro.

She says she recently designed a project for a homeowner who wanted her dog to socialize with fellow canines that walk by, so she put in a wrought-iron fence that allowed the dogs to see each other. "They always want to look out and see what is going on," she says.

So with a bit of planning, it's possible to create a yard that both the homeowner and pet will enjoy, landscapers say.

Emily Ward has certainly had such success — her pets would stay in their backyard playground all day if they could.

"It's their space and they know it," she says.

*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Emily Ward's profession. The Sun regrets the error. 

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Which plants pose a hazard to pets

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center handled almost 30,000 calls last year from pet owners concerned that their animals had ingested insecticides, herbicides or toxic plants.

Dr. Charlotte Means, director of toxicology for the center, says the actual risk from plants varies greatly and can depend on the age and activity of the pet, as well as the genus of the plant.

“Some animals are going to eat a leaf and some are going to destroy it,” she says. “All of that is going to make a difference. In toxicology we say ‘It’s a dose that makes a poison.’”

While homeowners probably don’t need to rip up their azaleas, she says some plants, such as daylilies and Asian lilies, do pose a significant risk if the homeowner has cats, and should be removed.

Some of the most common hazardous outdoor plants, according to the ASPCA website are:

Azalea begonia, black walnut, English ivy, caladium, calla lily, chrysanthemum, clematis, coleus, daffodil, dahlia, daisy, English holly, foxglove, geranium, gladiola, hellebore, hydrangea, iris, lantana, lavender, laurel, lily of the valley, milkweed, mint, nandina, rhododendron, vinca, wisteria, yew. 

The center’s website also lists safe plants, including: alyssum, bachelor’s buttons, celosia, snapdragon, coral bells, coreopsis, cornflower, crape myrtle, gerber daisy, hollyhocks, impatiens, jasmine, pampas grass, petunia, pincushion, marigold, rose, rosemary, sage, tickseed, zinnia

The Animal Poison Control Center is available 24 hours a day, and can be reached at 888-426-4435 or aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control.