“Bark” Yard Landscaping


Digging In for Dogs

By Konnie LeMay


Put it under the category of “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Some landscape altering appeared to be the perfect solution to a dog-training problem. From our fenced-in backyard, our energetic German Shepherd-mix, “Turbo” Rachel, felt compelled to loudly alert the neighborhood whenever she saw a dog stroll by with its owner. The obvious solution—shrubbery. 

A trip to the garden center and a few azaleas later, I was ready to solve the problem, along with some help from Rachel, who will happily dig holes on command. Then a little brainworm kicked in. Rachel not only barks and digs, she also samples—consumes—just about anything that seems mildly edible (likely part Labrador, suggests our vet). She is, by the way, a true charmer most times, even when she ate part of the bag of grass seed.

A quick trip to a Google search and there it was: “azalea” on the ASPCA’s pet toxic plant list with ingestion potentially resulting in everything from drooling to blindness, seizures and coma.

Who knew, besides the ASPCA and many landscapers?

Plants for Potty and Paws

Pets and plants can be a toxic mix, but surprisingly it’s often the plants on the losing end of co-mingling with dogs.

Rochester, Minn., landscaper Kerin Marek, owner of Shades of Green Landscaping, has one major issue when making a yard dog compatible. Landscapers may view it as the “acid-delivery system,” if you know what I mean.

That issue came to the forefront for her when working on a home with a small 10×12-foot backyard in the Pill Hill area of the city. The busy owners needed the space to be a dog-relief zone but wanted it to remain presentable.

“I looked for things that will take the ammonia from the dogs,” she explained. She favors boxwoods for shrubs or hardy groundcover like hostas or pumila.

“Some of these thicker leaf hostas will tolerate that,” she said of dog traffic.

With her two Havanese dogs, she likes tough turf grass as much as they like rolling in it. Which leads to Marek’s additional tip: Keep grass mowed so ticks don’t hide in it as readily.

For areas of high dog traffic, Marek suggests avoiding evergreens, which seem particularly susceptible as she found with a client whose Labrador Retriever killed the outside of a newly planted evergreen before the dog could be retrained to a different potty spot.

Once damage like that happens, you need to give special TLC to the tree. “When a plant is under stress, you never want to fertilize. Give it extra water, and the following season fertilize it.”

Making a Planting Plan

Marek said she refers to a book by Thomas Barthel called “Dogscaping: Creating the Perfect Backyard and Garden for You and Your Dog.”

Barthel advises observing your dog’s outdoor habits before forming a plan for your yard. He suggests a diagram that shows your dog’s favorite bathroom and sunning spots and its “patrol” pathways. Various breeds might use outdoor space differently, from hole-digging Terriers to rollicking, grass-ripping Greyhounds.

Once you’ve mapped how the dog uses the yard and observed habits like loudly tracking the neighbors (are you reading this Rachel?), you can choose the appropriate landscaping. Perhaps a full privacy fence might work best or dense woody shrubbery, which can also be used to protect delicate perennial plants.

Certain plants, such as an appropriately placed honeysuckle vine or Kentucky wisteria, can mask digging habits. Or you may decide to make a sandy “digging pit” disguised by low walls.

While many count “acid” caused by dogs as a concern, Barthel has found that overabundance of nitrogen from that same process can cause dry, brittle and yellowed foliage. However, most flowering, woody shrubs actually require high nitrogen, putting rose of Sharon, weigela, viburnum, spirea and shrub rose at the top of Barthel’s “Potty-Spot Plants” list.

Dog Commons at the U of M

The University of Minnesota may one day take on the task of finding the best potty-resistant turf by testing within the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Under direction of Dr. Jean Larson, an assistant professor at the Center for Spirituality & Healing in charge of the arboretum’s nature-based therapeutics, about 2 miles of on-leash trails have been opened in what’s called the Dog Commons.

“We have a background serving people with our dogs. It seemed natural to incorporate that at the arboretum. It makes both the animal and human feel better.”

The dog-friendly trails are phase one of a multi-million-dollar, three-part plan that will include planting and monitoring various turf grasses for resilience to high-dog usage. Future exhibits will feature dog-friendly landscaping and a demonstration methane digester to show a poo-disposal alternative.

Asked whether the new Dog Commons trails have gotten support, Larson pointed to the 250 dog memberships added to the arboretum.

Keep Tabs on Toxins

Dr. Tina Wismer, the veterinarian in charge of the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center, urges care in choosing and using lawn care products.

“Insecticides can be quite dangerous,” she warned. “Some can cause tremors and seizures. Always make sure to follow label directions for dilution and how long to keep your pets (and children) off the treated areas. Never leave the containers where your pets can access them.

“Dogs love organic fertilizers (bone meal, blood meal, poultry feathers, chicken litter),” she added, “and fortunately these products are only expected to cause stomach upset. Compost piles (or fallen fruit or nuts) in the yard can grow molds that can produce toxins that cause tremors and seizures. Keep access to the compost pile restricted and pick up any fruit or nuts.”

Last year, the Poison Control Center logged about 9,400 cases involving indoor or outdoor plants, or about 5 percent of all calls.

If you suspect your dog or cat has ingested a toxic plant, she advises first to call your vet. While inducing vomiting is often recommended, for some poisons it can actually increase damage.

When Turbo Rachel ate part of that grass seed bag (on a weekend, of course), we contacted the ASPCA Poison Control Center, which has a $65 consulting fee. The center was able to contact the manufacturer to check the ingredients, which in our case were not toxic but also not listed on the bag or online.

We now make sure the grass seed and other lawn products are out of reach so Rachel can do her own landscaping safely inside her dog-friendly backyard.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Dog Commons www.arboretum.umn.edu/DogCommons.aspx

Kerin Marek is available through shadesofgreenrochester.com.

ASPCA Animal Poison Center 888-426-4435 or

Konnie LeMay divides her time between freelance writing, editing Lake Superior Magazine, filling in holes that mysteriously appear in her yard and wiping mud from the dog’s feet.