Creating a garden that both you and your pets can enjoy is challenging but rewarding. From plants to pests, Aileen Scoular suggests strategies for making your outside space a safe and happy place for all.
Beds and borders
Pets are more likely to dig where they see bare soil, so plant densely, using tough shrubs such as boxleaf honeysuckle or Mexican orange blossom. Dense planting also keeps weeds at bay – but if any appear, don’t reach for a glyphosate-based weedkiller as it’s poisonous to pets; hand-pull weeds out instead. A layer of bark chips may help deter over-enthusiastic digging, but avoid using a cocoa-based mulch – like chocolate, it’s toxic to dogs. Bonemeal is best avoided as a plant feed because it can cause stomach upsets in dogs (besides making digging in borders irresistible!). And Blue Cross flags up the dangers of snacking from the compost heap, as moulds there can provoke vomiting. If you want to compost, use a covered bin.
What to plant
Planting your garden requires careful forethought. Bulbs, including the daffodil and crocus, are highly poisonous to pets, and as Ruth Johnstone pointed out on the Petplan Facebook page: ‘Don’t grow lilies in your garden if you have an outdoor cat as the stamens are toxic.’ In fact, many plants are harmful to pets. Dogs Trust has a helpful list at dogstrust.org.uk/az, under ‘p’ for poisons, while International Cat Care has a similar one at icatcare.org/advice. Plants toxic to rabbits include holly, ivy and oak leaves – there’s a useful list at happyhopper.co.uk/badfood.htm. But there are plenty of safe plants, and some may even be beneficial: chamomile, for instance, is said to reduce anxiety.
If you want to give your favourite plants a winning chance of survival, raised planters are the answer. They can be recycled from all sorts of materials, including timber and stacks of old tyres. Former BBC Gardener of the Decade Katherine Crouch suggests planting expensive shrubs, such as box topiary, in pots at least 10cm higher than where your dog can reach to wee!
Lawn or not?
When used regularly by pets, lawns can be hard to maintain. One solution is to provide only limited access, fencing off an area where your pets can play happily. You may also be able to assign a particular area for them to go to the toilet. On a practical note, Katherine Crouch suggests laying your lawn with reinforcing mesh to extend its life, or replacing it with paving and self-binding gravel. Astroturf is another solution if you want a green surface that won’t be churned up in wet weather.
Steps and surfaces
If you decide to lose your lawn, what to replace it with? Timber decking and paving stones can both become very warm underfoot in hot weather, particularly if dark-coloured. Loose gravel is more paw-friendly. Garden designer Jackie Herald recommends gravel 10mm-plus in size, laid over a solid base and a water-permeable weed membrane so that your pet won’t be tempted to dig in it or use it as a litter tray. Gravel also keeps slugs and snails at bay (see below). If your garden has multiple levels, build low steps with deep treads: old dogs with arthritic joints and small dogs with short legs find them easier to negotiate.
Dealing with pests
Slugs and snails are the bane of every gardener, but dog owners have extra cause for concern because both pests can carry lungworm – a parasite that can cause breathing issues, pneumonia and heart problems. Slug pellets can help, but only use those with the active ingredient ferrous phosphate, rather than the more traditional metaldehyde, as the latter is poisonous to animals. Home-made beer traps are also very effective, and empty plastic water bottles are ideal. Half-fill with beer and replace the lid. Cut a hole near the top of the bottle that’s just big enough for the snails to get in, and bury the trap in the soil with the neck – and snail entrance – sticking out. This way it will only be garden pests, and not curious pets, that are overcome by alcohol.
Shelter and shade
Pets get hotter faster than we do, so it’s important to provide areas of shade. A pergola planted with a leafy twiner or a vigorous climbing vine will provide plenty of shade on a hot day. Rob Frier used windmill palms in a garden he designed for the PDSA; this exotic-looking palm has large, fan-shaped leaves and grows happily in Britain. Canvas shade sails are a contemporary solution that can be used in summer and taken down in winter. And Joules Gowdy offered this simple but essential advice on the PetplanUK Facebook page: ‘Don’tforget to leave bowls of water out on hot days.’
Kennels, rabbit runs and hidey-holes can be incorporated cleverly into any garden. Chelsea Flower Show medal-winner Jo Thompson has tucked spacious dog houses beneath children’s playhouses, and created chic kennels with wildlife-friendly green roofs. And garden designer Leonie Cornelius has created a rabbit hut with windows, a grass roof and a tunnel that leads bunnies into the middle of the lawn. But even a small timber shed with a cat or dog flap and some cosy bedding provided, is perfect for your pet to take shelter.
Fencing and boundaries
Boundary fencing needs to be strong, solid and safe. A sturdy post and panel fence isn’t cheap but will withstand the pressure of persistent paws. Installing 1.83m (6ft) panels should deter leaping hounds while providing nimble-footed cats with a safe, elevated walkway. Solid panels can make a small garden feel enclosed, but stylish slatted options can also be used to add height to an existing wall that’s too easily climbed by dogs – add a splash of colour with a non-toxic, water-based paint. Discourage pets from digging up the base of the fence by using concrete posts and gravel boards. Rob Frier adds: ‘We made a fence with rough sawn timber, rather than smooth planed wood – great for cats to climb, rub against and scratch.’ It’s not just their claws that will benefit from being kept in good shape, this is likely to help save your furniture too.
Space to play
Watching your pets play in the garden will make all that effort worthwhile. Cats love stalking among swathes of ornamental grasses, while dogs adore the chance to tunnel, jump and climb. In a specially created sensory garden at Bath Dogs Home, a sand pit has proved particularly popular, as has a unique ‘dog cave’. Other doggy-friendly features include a bubble machine, ropes and rubber balls, and a pond area – many of which are easily incorporated into a domestic garden. And Mhairi Clutson of Grozone Landscape Design recently created a rabbit-friendly garden for no fewer than 10 bunnies! Her solution involved a large run linked to galvanised steel-mesh channels and underground tunnels, where rabbits can cool off, completely protected from the family dog, curious cats and foxes.