Another Backyard Is Possible!

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


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
( 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.)


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.


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

Basics of Organic Fertilizers

Organic Gardening magazine

Laine Bergeson is the editorial assistant at Utne.

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