Dogs and their Gardens


A reader asked this question of Washington Post Green Scene writer Joel Lerner:Bigdog_1

We have two large dogs that have torn up the lawn in our back yard.  It is fairly shady.  Can you suggest something that can withstand these conditions?

And here’s Lerner’s tough-love answer:

Turf won’t thrive in shade, especially with the extra impact caused by compaction from two large dogs running the yard.  This will keep grass from growing thick and healthy.  I do not consider any low-growing plants dog-proof.  Separate them with an ornamental fence pets can’t jump.  Pet areas can be covered with shredded bark mulch.

More definitive gardening advice from a newspaper that knows how to cover the subject.  The Post, don’t forget, brought us the beloved garden writer Henry Mitchell.

When I bought my house the front yard was tightly enclosed in chain link, with muddy dog runs just inside the fencing.  You know the look – more doggie toilet than garden.  So I removed the gate and got to work training ivy through the links of the fence to hide its hideousness.  The aesthetic problems were thus solved but with no gate, the occasional running-free-like-the-wind dog digs up my plants and craps in my borders, despite my regular complaints about these demolition missions.  So far, I’ve found no solution but at least I have an outlet – ranting on the subject.

What really interests me is how our dog-owning readers reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable passions.  By dividing your property into doggieland and garden, as Lerner suggests?  Maybe limiting your plant choices to large shrubs and trees only?  From observing the properties of dog-owners in my town, including a few who’ve asked me for gardening advice, I’ve gotta say the dog+gardening thing looks like a bad marriage.  But that’s coming from a cat-owner – indoor cats, at that.


  1. Mulch is key. When we had a dog, I used shredded hardwood mulch to cover bare spots under trees to keep mud to a minimum. Amid the low-growing plants where she preferred to take her naps, I stuck lengths of bamboo into the ground (tall enough for her to see them, so she couldn’t lie down there). She had a comfy bed, but her favorite spots to nap were the warm, stone patio, the dusty, granite path, and the Texas betony.

    Now that she’s gone to doggie heaven, gardening is a lot easier. But I do miss her.

  2. I have had many dogs over my past 10 gardening years, sometimes 5 at a time. The only dog that consistantly was a problem in the garden (digging, etc.) was a hound (Plott Hound). All of my other dogs (including 2 Irish Wolfhounds and a terrier)have been no problem. But I have a lot of space (6 acres) and so they had plenty of areas to run around in. Some breeds of dogs are more likely to be destructive. I also think it depends on how bored the dog is. Many dogs, if left outside for long periods, will start digging (for example)out of sheer boredom. My wolfhounds both soon learned I didn’t like them crossing my flower beds and so (mostly) stopped doing it.

    In other words, there are a lot of factors that can contribute to doggy destruction of gardens, but I would never say dogs and gardens are incompatible.

  3. You just tend to work out a compromise. I’ve left a trail through my garden for him to run through because he’s going to do it anyway, so I might as well leave a clear path rather than fighting it. I buy my plants fairly large and mature because usually, unless I haven’t left a clear path for him, he won’t stomp on something that is close to eye level. Path of least resistance kinda thing, you know?

    Also, he stays in side most of the time, so there’s not a lot of lounging going on. The worst damage he does is when some critter has taken up residence in the ground and he has to dig it up. Otherwise, he’s not much of a digger. And frankly, I’d rather he dig up critters than me accidentally find them with my shovel. Yuck. I’ve only lost one lantana to this behavior and those are tough so I suspect it will be fine. Otherwise, they’re also cheap, so I’ll just replace it.

    I do often fantasize about what it would be like to just have a cat or two in my garden rather than 100 lbs of dog. But I need to have a dog the way other women need to have children. Life just isn’t quite right without my slobbering fur child.

  4. Dogs and gardens can mix. Like anything, it is balance. But dogs are IMPORTANT and accomodations must be made. I can imagine a life without gardening. It would be bad but I’d live.

    For me, there is no meaningful life without dogs.

    Mankind has been living with dogs for at least 30,000 years… way way way before the first towns, way way way before what Will Durant described as the first culture: “the first culture was agriculture.” Dogs + humans predate culture and civilization and language and EVERYTHING.

    I happen to believe that there is nothing more human than living with dogs. That’s just me.

    If my labrador trounces my garden, I’m not happy but I put it in perspective.

    And, there is such a thing as teaching dogs (some dogs anyway… I’ve had some terriers that were completely unwilling to learn anything from me. I loved ’em anyway of course.

    The farther we get from dogs, the farther we get from the natural world.

    Dogs are fundamental.

    Allowances must be made.

  5. Very timely. I have two large black labs which were fairly well-behaved among the plants (although my major mixed-perennial/shrub border is outside of the fenced backyard). However, another dog has moved in next door and now the running along the fence where heirloom roses, lavender, and hollyhocks grow has commenced, and boy, am I irritated. I took the two of them to task last weekend for it (having discovered two roses that had been trampled). ARGGHHHH. I’m thinking of putting trellises there and then letting them run behind the trellises. Behind the trellises I will put lots of pine straw (I’m in coastal plain NC so that has to be the mulch). Not the look I was going for, but it may have to do. I wouldn’t live without a big dog or two, and I won’t live without gardening, but I also don’t want the mudddy dog ghetto behind a fence, so compromise it must be.

  6. Not a fan, especially in small city gardens. I think you need a big space for dogs. I feel sorry for these huge dogs some people in our very tightly-built neighborhood have, with their tiny yards.

    When we moved to our house, I was flatly told “nothing will grow there” about a certain space. It’s the most beautiful part of the garden now. It’s just not a dog run anymore.

    (obvious cat person)

  7. My golden retriever is never a problem in my garden. She sticks to the paths and only likes to do her doody in one spot.

  8. What an adorable poodle in that picture (of course, he is mine), and we have worked out our garden agreement. On the patio I use lots of containers, so the plants in them are perfectly safe. I have put one-foot high wire barriers in front of my little flower gardens, trained him for about 3 days not to step over them, and he doesn’t. The mulch in the center is also a good idea. He has his spaces, and I have mine. My husband cut little windows in the solid 6′ high fence around the yard so he can see out and bark at all the squirrels and burglars. All would be perfect if I could only get him to use the pooper scooper by himself.

  9. I just happened to read this letter to the editor in the FEB/MAR 2007 Mother Earth News:

    “I have a dog yard where grass doesn’t grow well because it is a shady, damp location under large trees. Last winter I raked up the area, then sowed crimson red clover seed for a ground cover. It works wonderfully! My dog just loves to go in there and eat the clover, and I get a nice green area to admire. -Kathryn Bowlin, Owings, MD”

    Maybe that’ll work! I am a cat person, too. All they have done so far is have a ball digging in my newly thinned out and replanted iris beds and bat the iris around the yard. -Betsy

  10. As with any garden challenge, a multi-pronged approach helps:

    Dilution: We have two dogs with free run inside invisible fence area of about half and acre. Most of that is lawn and brush. So by dumb luck, they mostly stay out of trouble. They’d do far more damage on a city lot similarly fenced.

    Fencing: The vegetable garden — where the majority of the fine seedbeds and vulnerable seedlings are — is fenced to keep out the deer. But it keeps out the dogs, too.

    Design: When I’m stupid enough to put in a bed that crosses a path they take, well they’re going to run through that bed. I can sometimes divert them by building wattles or other temporary fences.

    Barriers: I’ve got a nice grove of Miscanthus floridulus that provides plenty of material that I can use to put around transplants or soft sunny spots on the edge of beds that are really tempting for the poochers looking for a good place to nap on a sunny day. While the grass isn’t as strong as bamboo, it’s tough enough that you can shove it into relatively loose soil and it doesn’t look too unnatural.

    Sometime I ring the plant, or make a line that provides a visual barrier that says go around. Other times, I’ll weave a wattler if I’m feeling really ambitios.

    Hey. You’re going to loose some stuff no matter what you do. But how can you get angry at dogs being dogs.

  11. Love my dogs and my garden. Everyone thought my backyard would be ruined when I rescued a young lab/bullmastiff mix last year who turned out to be a major digger and runner. After several weeks of spending my time outdoors constantly yelling “Stop! Bad Dog! No! Don’t Run There!”, I decided to work with her personality instead of trying to change it.

    The first step was teaching the command “Dig!” By catching her in the act of digging a hole (where I didn’t want one) and calling “dig” I would lead her to one of several holes started in the yard specifically for her to use. She caught on surprisingly fast and now whenever I need a large hole for yet another rose bush, just yelling “dig” and pointing to the spot will get her over and I have a 2′ by 2′ hole ready in almost no time. Quite useful, actually.

    The she was trained to run around the plants instead of through and over them by using tomato cages strategically placed around the garden in the spring. She developed her own running track by avoiding them and I was able to remove them by midsummer. Even in the middle of winter with few plants to mark her way, she still runs the same path.

    I still lose a few plants to dogs just being dogs, but I don’t mind because it’s a small price to pay for the companionship and love my dogs provide.

  12. I have an acre garden and three dogs (the smallest of which dug all sorts of holes when she was younger). We just agree to all get along – I try to make pathways that are the natural ones that my dogs use – there’s alot of mulch and the ocassional screaming (“Stanley, would you QUIT sleeping on the asparagus?) but I couldn’t imagine spending a day in the garden without my dogs.

  13. Well, I’m in the dogs and gardening are a must group…also cats, by the way. Have two of each. Big dogs. Two regular sized cats. And, garden all over the yard, front and back. We all manage pretty well. There are some instances of animals will be animals as mentioned above…but, far and away, they are far more help (the cats are super hunters and protectors of their gardens) and companionship. One of my dogs will tire and go lie in the shade (she’s getting old now) while the other is outside with me every minute possible…”go” is his middle name.

    I do wish I had more land, both to garden and for the animals to have more space. However, we manage and we all seem happy.

    The only lawn space per se is in the front yard and the dogs do not do their business there. When we walk, my dogs NEVER do their business on it. That’s saved for my backyard and the grass there (what there is of it as I take more and more) is theirs to do as they will.

    I grow all kinds of things and cannot think of a single plant I have lost because of the animals. The cats did take to lying on the garlic last year for some reason, but the squirrel removal service was more than worth it. The nearest I came to losing a plant by non garden means was when my neighbors’ trashcan rolled down the hill and landed on a new agastache. It recovered.

    To get back to what I think you were asking, I use inexpensive temporary fencing to teach my dogs. They are very receptive.

    One thing I would do differently is to leave a track around the perimeter of the back yard fence for the dogs to run. They are quite good at putting on the brakes, but I know it must frustrate them. With some thought and planning (and more land!), there’s no doubt we could have a perfect space for dogs and gardening. As it is, we manage just fine. (As I type, I have two huge furry dogs sleeping nearby…bliss)

  14. I’ve managed thus far by sacrificing the backyard to the dogs. I do have a border along one side that I marked off with decorative black wire fencing (about 30″ tall) from Fred Meyer. The shrubs I’ve planted definitely grow differently based on whether they’re in the running path. I have lost one daphne (silly me, planted in the spot one dog likes to sunbathe in) and one mock orange (every time I removed the ugly guardian fencing, one dog would pull the poor little guy straight out of the ground).

    I’m new to my house, and to gardening, so I have some time before I’ve “used up” the front yard. For now I’m just focusing on maintaining the backyard so it doesn’t become a complete mud pit.

    Has anyone read “Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs” by Cheryl Smith? I haven’t found it at the library, and wonder whether it has enough new ideas or inspiring pictures to be worth buying?

  15. Small dogs.

    And with small dogs (10-12 pounders) I can use pavers along the fence in their ‘run’ (a 25′ x 50′ pen) to keep the mud splatter to a minimum. This would be a mulched path with larger dogs.

    The one (terrier) wanted to dig, but I caught him early and said no. He got it. (Helps to have one of those dogs that would bend over backward to do what you say. Now if I can only get him to “come” when I call, we’d be golden.)

    The plants in the bed in that yard are pretty tough customers. Echinacea, Rudbeckia Goldstrum (want some?), hostas, lady’s mantle. The dogs disappear into the undergrowth.

  16. My dog is not a digger, but she has broken branches off of my blueberry, tipped over a couple of terracotta pots that subsequently broke, and stolen many foodstuffs out of the garden. And yet when I call her name and see her raise her head out of the bean plants to look at me, still chewing, or when she came to the door at the old house with the first, second, AND third ripe tomatoes of the summer tucked between her jaws… well, I could only laugh! I have since put chicken wire fencing over the blueberry in the winter, moved any pots out of leash-range, and simply plant extra beans and tomatoes.

    My new garden has been planned around my best guesses of where she will want to roam once the fence goes up, so that I protect espaliered apple trees and other things dear to me. There are some shady areas that have nothing but low, soft sweet woodruff as bedding so she can lounge in the summer.

    Oh, and did I mention that she’s a big dog (85 lbs.) and my “new” house and yard is a tiny (.14 acres) urban lot? She actually seems much happier here than in the old larger, fenced-in backyard because she has multiple floors, more people to watch through the windows, and gets at least 2 walks each day. Now that I have one, I only feel sorry for big dogs in the city when they are kept outside, ignored, and otherwise not incorporated into a family’s daily life. And yes, there is at least one such in my neighborhood–the other two large dogs on my street are as spoiled as mine!

  17. HELP!!!!
    Situation: We just bought a house and Dad is coming up to see it and pass sometime with us.
    Garden….what garden? the beautiful grass gone just a mud hole after the long Montreal winter.

    We need a quick solution to give the 2 dogs space to play , set out patio table and “re-built garden to look decent…
    Any Ideas?

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