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Planting a dog-friendly garden that pleases the gardener, too

Fragile plants won’t stand up to the stress of large or active dogs. Thick-leaved perennials such as hostas mostly withstand a dog’s antics, says owner Jordan Petchenik.
Fragile plants won’t stand up to the stress of large or active dogs. Thick-leaved perennials such as hostas mostly withstand a dog’s antics, says owner Jordan Petchenik. TNS

Jordan Petchenik is a dog person. He has owned four of them since moving into a 1920s bungalow in Madison, Wisconsin, some 20 years ago.

But Petchenik also loves gardening. Therein lies the problem.

Challenges from dogs to a yard are numerous. Digging, trampling, chewing — not to mention using favorite plants as a potty — take an undeniable toll on a landscape.

But Petchenik was determined to create a place where he and a series of canine best friends could play and hang out together over the years. He currently owns a 2-year-old beagle-Australian shepherd mix named Finch.

With mulched pathways, a small pond filled with wriggling goldfish, carefully chosen trees and a variety of hardy plants, Petchenik has created doggy nirvana in his backyard.

Finch, who can spend an entire warm, lazy Saturday in Petchenik’s fenced-in yard, has everything he needs at his disposal — fresh water in the pond, places to soak up the sun or stay cool in the shade and a sort of obstacle course of planters, benches and other garden ornaments perfect for racing around or hiding his toys underneath.

Garden elements must deliver on two fronts: They must be dog-friendly but also please the owner.

“It was important to me to have a happy balance,” Petchenik said. “I didn’t want to turn my yard into truly a dog yard and nothing else.”

The patio, made up of antique bricks, is a good example. Petchenik wanted an outdoor area for grilling and dining. “But lo and behold in the winter, the bricks heat up and that’s where all my dogs would hang out on cold days,” he said.

Similarly, the pond and fountain provide a soundtrack Petchenik finds relaxing. It’s also a place for Finch to get a cool drink.

There are trade-offs, of course. Visitors here find few flowering perennials. Petchenik instead grows flowering plants in pots, where they will be safe from trampling by an energetic young dog. Hostas mostly withstand Finch’s antics, but Petchenik admits even they look a little dog-eared by summer’s end. He’s been fortunate, though, that none of the dogs he has owned have been serious diggers.

And he said goodbye to grass years ago, instead creating a series of mulched pathways that lead to various garden areas.

Creating an outdoor area that is welcoming for canines, Petchenik said, “means not being able to do everything you might want to with the yard. A dog is going to run and a dog is going to occasionally dig. So the plants have to be able to survive that kind of behavior.”

Professional garden designers, who also frequently must factor pets into their designs, echo that sentiment.

“The dog is the first client you meet,” said Carol Lindsay, owner and head designer of Portland, Oregon-based Landscape Design in a Day. “They are always the first to get to the door.”

Here, they share tips for creating a garden that pleases both dog and master.

Plan for potty. As unpleasant as it is, relieving himself is the most frequent activity your dog is likely to do in the yard. “If I see that there’s a dog, one of my first questions is, ‘Where does the dog go?’” said Marguerite Gluck, owner of Chicago-based Marguerite Gardens. “A lot of times, it’s the wrong answer. It’s, ‘Right where we want the garden to be.’”

Gluck notes that her business is creating beautiful gardens, not dog runs. But planning a place for Fido to relieve himself is essential to keeping plants alive, she said. “There’s no way you can have a dog peeing in the garden without killing the plants. It’s throwing money away.”

Plan where your dog will do her business, Gluck suggests, and then train her to go there and only there. Gluck typically creates a hidden area for clients’ dogs, screening with plants if necessary.

Hardy plants work best. Fragile plants won’t stand up to the stress of large or active dogs. “We don’t want plants that break off easily,” Gluck said. “They won’t work with dogs or small children, either.”

Trees and shrubs mostly do fine, as do hostas and other hardy perennials with thick leaves. Gluck recommends grasses. Precious plants can always be potted and placed away from play areas.

Be aware of toxicity. Another consideration for owners of dogs who like to chew is avoiding toxic plants. Lindsay recently went to great lengths to design a landscape free of toxic plants for a woman who trains guide dogs and welcomes new puppies frequently. The ASPCA website has a lengthy list of toxic plants that pet owners should avoid.

Go grass-free. Keeping grass alive and dealing with frequent patching is the ultimate challenge for dog owners. Some find it too much of a hassle and do away with grass altogether.

“If you want a yard designed for your dog, having grass is going to be a big challenge,” Petchenik said. “There’s no grass on my property at all.”

Solutions will vary, depending on the type of property and the breed and number of dogs. Lindsay, who works in the Pacific Northwest, where rain and mud are perpetual challenges, has a blend of cedar chips she favors for pathways. One of her clients, who favored a more traditional look for her Tudor home, installed synthetic grass.

Hardscapes matter, too. Consider canines when choosing materials for pathways or patios. Gravel can get stuck in delicate paws. Concrete can be too hard, especially for aging pets with joint issues.

Accept limitations. Dogs and gardens can exist in harmony, but modifications are likely necessary. Wide paths and raised berms clearly mark areas designed for dogs and those for plants.

Since many dogs like to patrol perimeters, avoid elaborate plantings in those areas — or leave a space for pets to squeeze through, suggested Lindsay.

When executed well, the dog-friendly garden is a haven for both pet and owner. “Ideally the garden is a place where the dog can romp around with the owners and everyone can have a great time,” Gluck said.

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