When paws meet flower bed, your precious geraniums aren’t the only things in danger. Each year, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center gets nearly 14,000 calls about garden-related pet scares, says Tina Wismer, DVM, its medical director and a master gardener. You may think your furry friend won't gnaw mulch or eat petals, but there’s a first for everything. (Wismer's pup recently ate a plant after ignoring it for years — luckily, it was harmless.) Follow these steps to create a safer green space.
1. Plan wisely
"Educate yourself on what you plant," says Michael Biehl, DVM, Ph.D., a clinical professor of toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and faculty adviser for its Poisonous Plant Garden. More than 700 flowers, shrubs, vines, and trees can be poisonous to dogs and cats. That includes common favorites like azaleas, begonias, daffodils, and tulips; sago palms, oleander, and various lilies are particularly deadly. "Plants may go by different names in different parts of the country," Biehl adds. "Keep the labels on them, and learn their genus and species names." (For a full list of frequently encountered plants with photos, visit aspca.org.) "And use common sense. Don't plant oleander hedges around the fence if your dog likes to go there."
2. Remix your mulch
"Dogs are very odor-driven. If something smells good, they may want to taste it," says Biehl. "Cats typically don't do that." Most felines turn up their nose at cocoa mulch, for example, but it can utterly seduce dogs. Like chocolate, it contains caffeine and theobromine, both poisonous to canines. Instead, use nontoxic shredded bark or leaves, pine needles, or untreated wood chips, Wismer suggests. And before you spread it, "look for any mushrooms and pick them out."
3. Compost with care
A big, stinky mess isn't the only reason to keep your pet out of this backyard heap. "During decomposition, molds often develop that can be harmful to dogs," says Wismer. Once compost is ready, it's perfectly safe and makes a nourishing fertilizer for plants. Until then, house your pile in a shed, or surround it with chicken wire to keep nosy creatures out.
4. Play keep-away
Some dogs and cats find all-natural fertilizer ingredients like bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, and poultry litter simply irresistible. Just a small helping of bone meal can cause constipation; a larger one can create a bowel obstruction that may require surgery. Make sure these products are out of reach, even when they're in use. "I set pavers on top of the soil after applying bone meal to stop my dog from digging it up," Wismer says. Or stick to risk-free fertilizers, like clippings or compost.
5. Fend off creepy-crawlies
There are plenty of natural ways to deter pests. Products made with neem oil and other plant oils are usually reliable; so is fighting bugs with more bugs. "Think about introducing beneficial insects, like ladybugs to kill aphids, or parasitic wasps to eat caterpillars," Wismer says. "Pet-safe plants like basil and fennel can help, too." That way, you and your gardening buddy can sit and stay as long as you like.
6. And now for some fun...
A surefire way to keep your pets out of your best bushes is to give them a personal patch. Sarah Hodgson, a certified dog trainer and the author of "Modern Dog Parenting" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2016), suggests carving out pet-friendly play spaces. "I plant catnip and hang bird feeders (out of reach) in areas where I want my cats to meander," she says. For dogs, Hodgson suggests anchoring toys to a tree base or branch with rope for tussling or tug-of-war games, and staking out a sandbox or digging spot that can easily be covered with shredded bark or dirt. Bury a favorite toy or treat for your dog, and dig with her to show it's okay.
Want more tips? Martha and pet expert Marc Morrone have a few tips of their own: