How to nurture a nontoxic yard that's safe for Fido
As a novice but enthusiastic gardener, I've learned to make the most of the Midwest's short growing season. I look for plants that do well when they're planted early, and I choose only the heartiest perennials and the least finicky annuals. The majority of my time, however, is spent keeping vigil over my dog, who eats dirt, grass, plants, vegetables, and rocks (yes, rocks). If I want my fleeting garden -- or even just my grass -- to make it to the fall, Fido's head needs to stay out of the dirt.
And if I want my beloved pooch to stay healthy, I also need to consider how I help my garden grow. Even for dogs that show no interest in eating the landscaping, venturing outside in a chemically drenched yard can be a dangerous prospect. Cancer risk is significantly greater for domestic pets in homes where pesticides are regularly applied to the lawn. And studies show that about 3 percent of chemical herbicides applied to lawns get tracked inside on paws and feet and become household dust -- breathed by humans and pets alike.
So how do you keep the garden thriving and the dog healthy? Go organic. Trading in chemicals for natural alternatives is easy and inexpensive.
UNTREATED LUMBER, LOCAL STONE
Chemically treated wood can leech toxins into your soil if it's used in fencing or garden borders or lattice. Try cedar, which benefits soil, smells great, and won't harm pets. Or use locally found stone in your garden, saving the fossil fuels used to ship rock from elsewhere.
Densely planted areas naturally inhibit weeds, which means you do less weeding and use fewer herbicides. An added bonus: Thick plants are easier for Fido to see and avoid. Fran Kiesling, owner of Minneapolis-based Dirty Dog Landscaping, notes that dogs have bad depth perception and can't always see single plantings, so they're more likely to tear through them.
But be careful about the plants you choose. Tulips, daffodils, and lilies, for example, can be toxic to pets. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Web site (www.aspca.org) has an animal poison control page that lists toxic plants. Check this list or consult with a vet before you put in any new plants. (If Fido beats you to a toxic plant, the ASPCA also has a 24-hour hotline you can call for advice.)
NATURAL WEED CONTROL
As a general rule, mow high. Longer grass grows deeper roots and naturally inhibits weeds. Corn-gluten meal tends to inhibit seed germination and has some value as a pre-emergent weed killer. Mulch also slows weed growth, but it must be chosen carefully. Instead of chemically treated wood chips, go organic. Cocoa bean shells can be lethal to dogs that eat them. Likewise, small rocks can be (bizarrely) a doggie snack favorite. Eating too many can cause intestinal upset, blockage, and even death.
If your lawn and garden soil is deficient in specific minerals, try applying greensand for iron and potassium, molasses for sulfur and potassium, and gypsum for sulfur and calcium. Gypsum also helps keep the lawn from yellowing from a summer's worth of dog urine. One note of caution: Rover may want to snack on natural lawn-care additives that smell like food. Apply natural products before a big rain to diffuse the smell, or put a sprinkler on the treated area. Many dogs avoid the spray.
HERBAL PEST CONTROL
A peppermint castile soap (a soap made with olive oil instead of animal fats) can deter many garden pests, notes Deborah Straw, author of Why Is Cancer Killing Our Pets? (Healing Art Press, 2000). Make a solution that is 40 parts water to one part soap, and spray it on plants. Another all-purpose organic pesticide is a mixture of soap, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Dogs that chomp on soapy plants won't be ingesting carcinogens, but watch out for allergic reactions and intestinal upset.
If aesthetics permit and neighbors don't complain, the easiest solution is to let your yard return to its natural state. Fido inherits a doggie Elysian field of vegetal variety, and you can delight in the beauty of the unkempt.
Tell Me More:
Pesticide Action Network of North America www.panna.org
Basics of Organic Fertilizers www.basic-info-4-organic-fertilizers.com
Organic Gardening magazine www.organicgardening.com
Laine Bergeson is the editorial assistant at Utne.