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Planting a Pet-Friendly Garden

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It’s hard to believe, but nearly 400 plants can be poisonous to cats and dogs. Learn from the landscape experts how to protect your animals and your gardens from nosy critters.

Aly and Teddy Lowe hold cats Pepper and Tigger. The childrens’ mother, Kim Hartmann, is a landscape designer at Countryside in Crystal Lake.

Aly and Teddy Lowe hold cats Pepper and Tigger. The childrens’ mother, Kim Hartmann, is a landscape designer at Countryside in Crystal Lake.

Our backyards are places to relax and enjoy time with family, and may also be favorite places for our furry family members to play. But believe it or not, nearly 400 different plants can be poisonous to cats or dogs. How do we know what’s safe? Here are some ideas for planting a garden that both humans and pets can enjoy.

Planning Your Plot

The first step in planting a pet-friendly landscape is to identify what plants might be toxic to your pet.

Tropical plants in a container may look beautiful, but can cause serious harm, says Matt Zerby, president of Wasco Nursery and Garden Center, 41W781 IL Route 64, in St. Charles.

“Things like mandevilla vine can cause a lot of problems,” says Zerby. “A lot of the berry plants, like yew bushes, can be poisonous. The castor plant, a common tropical annual, is one you want to stay away from, as is oleander.”

While some plants are outright toxic, others must be consumed in a large quantity to be toxic. If the animal consistently consumes one plant, it could become a source of trouble.

“You might have to eat a pound of berries before one kind of plant becomes toxic,” says Zerby. “But on other plants, a very small amount ingested can cause problems. The other factor is the size of the pet. A smaller animal is going to be more affected by toxins than a larger animal.”

Kim Hartmann, landscape designer at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center, 5301 E. Terra Cotta Ave. in Crystal Lake, sees the same question arise.

“In most cases, you hear about some of the indoor plants, like poinsettias, potentially being toxic,” she says. “That’s actually a myth. You’d have to consume the equivalent of 50 plants to cause a toxic reaction.”

Larger animals can be poisoned by various plants and chemicals, too.

“We’re a little west of St. Charles and a lot of people in the immediate area have horse properties,” says Zerby. “There are a lot of plants that are specifically toxic to horses that might not be toxic to a cat or a dog. Even some of our native trees could be toxic to a horse.”

In particular, plants like azaleas, crocuses, black walnuts, garlic and certain types of hostas can cause adverse effects in horses, when ingested, according to the ASPCA. Find the organization’s comprehensive list of poisonous plants at aspca.org.

So what is safe? Plenty. Favorites such as daylilies, petunias and zinnias are OK. So, too, are flowers like daisies and alyssum, trees such as linden and hickory, and vegetables such as zucchini and acorn squash.

Along with knowing about toxic plants, it’s important to be aware of chemicals used in the yard. Hartmann suggests using organic fertilizers, which are less harmful. Many inorganic fertilizers contain phosphates, and while they do help plants to grow, they may run off into water that animals drink and cause them health problems.

Organic fertilizers are made with decomposing ingredients and byproducts from plants and animals, such as seaweed, manure, blood meal or bone meal. Other natural fertilizers may include mined products, such as limestone or gypsum.

Even mulch, while useful, presents challenges.

“Hardwood mulch is more likely to host either insects or fungal issues as it decomposes,” Hartmann says. “The good thing about mulch is it decomposes and feeds the soil. The bad news is that it can harbor some little critters, fungus or insects that might not be beneficial to the pets.”

When it comes to weeding the garden, put aside the pesticides and roll up your sleeves, says Mike Davison, greenhouse manager at Platt Hill Nursery, with locations in Bloomingdale and Carpentersville. Organic products are all-natural, but tend to kill indiscriminately, whereas synthetic products target specific plants.

“There are no selective herbicides available in organic or natural products,” says Davison. “It’s going to kill everything. The solution is to get out and weed. That’s the organic control, if you’re not trying to kill everything.”

Davison believes in taking a proactive approach to weeds. He’s not a fan of burrs or stickers, which often get caught in a pet’s fur.

“Those burrs are strictly a weed plant, and that’s not something you’d want to grow for ornamental reasons whatsoever,” says Davison. “There shouldn’t be anything you’re going to plant ornamentally that would get into a dog’s fur.”

Restricting Access

Controlling what you plant is the first way to make a pet-friendly landscape. It’s also important to consider how to keep pets away from certain plants. Thicker plants, with spiky bark and rough textures, are a practical deterrent.

“Get things like barberry, juniper, roses, spruce – anything that’s got a coarser texture to it,” Hartmann suggests. “They keep pets from going through. If pets think there’s a rabbit on the other side, or a chipmunk or something, they’ll plow right through. But if it has a coarser texture that actually has a thorn to it, that’s less likely.”

Another idea is to use bitter or repellent sprays as a deterrent. Many are eco-friendly and work just as well on wild pests, such as deer or rabbits. These products rely on the fact that animals are much more sensitive to smells than humans are.

Zerby says there are two principles in deterring animals.

“One of them is odor, so some of the sprays have a lot of plant oils and things that just smell bad or aren’t as enticing to the animals,” he says. “Then there are bitter products. The animal takes a bite out of the plant and it tastes bitter, so they stop eating it, hopefully.”

Other sprays use a predator’s scent, such as small amounts of urine, like that of the coyote. Animals are less likely to go somewhere that smells like a predator.

“The challenge with using barriers like that is that when we have a heavy rain, you need to reapply that type of barrier,” Hartmann says. “There’s the general need to reapply every 10 days to two weeks.”

Some gardeners fence off part of their yards for their pets, or install small fences around the garden itself. However, even fences aren’t foolproof, says veterinarian Dr. Mike Hochman, director of medicine at Animal Emergency of McHenry County, 1095 Pingree Road, Crystal Lake.

“I have a fenced-in area that I vegetable garden in, and I work hard to teach my dogs not to go into that area,” Hochman says. “But I still catch them jumping over the fence every now and then, pulling an eggplant off the vine and chewing it up.”

Effective animal training is the best deterrent.

“There’s nothing that really will keep them away that easily, other than just taking the time to train them,” Hochman says. “Some people have used invisible fences within their backyards, where they’ll put the wiring for the invisible fence around certain garden areas, even in the middle of the backyard. That will train dogs to stay away from planting areas.”

Davison, too, has used invisible fences successfully, but also trains his pets to stay away from certain flower beds.

“My dogs go in the flower beds and do some business or sniff around for some critters, but don’t really do any damage,” he says. “I think I’ve taught them to respect it and they trot around the plants.”

Plants for Pets

Some homeowners choose to make a special garden just for their pets. That’s what Hartmann has done for her three cats.

“Their favorite plant is cat mint, or catnip,” she says. “They like the smell – they will literally roll in it. The key is to do a mass planting of it, almost make it a playground for them. I have some outside my back door, and they go out and roll around in it, and then they go roll in the lawn, and they’re incredibly happy.”

She’s found that other soft, sweet-smelling plants, such as lamb’s ear, sage and mint are also popular choices. It’s also important to cover the soil.

“The biggest issue with having pets in your yard or your garden is that they like to dig,” says Hartmann.

If you don’t want them digging in a flowerbed, consider using a weed mat, covered by mulch mixed with stone.

“I would use more mature shrubs,” Hartmann says. “Ornamental grasses are a good alternative, too, because they’re very resilient. They don’t require fertilizer, they don’t require a lot of water. They’re low-maintenance and they can bounce back from animals either laying on them or playing around them.”

Emergency Care

Picture this: Your pet has just come in from the backyard, smacking its mouth open and closed. You know it ate something, but everything seems fine, so you go back to making dinner. A little bit later, you hear a whine. Your pet is lying on the floor, trembling and drooling, clearly in distress. What do you do?

The first step is figuring out what they ate. Is there a plant that your pet is particularly attracted to? Those are the first things you’ll be asked by your veterinarian, says Hochman.

“It helps us tremendously, when people call us, to be able to look things up in references, so we can say, ‘No, don’t worry about coming in – they may vomit a couple of times and then they should get over it OK,’” says Hochman. “If you know what the exposure was, that’s going to be very helpful for them to give you advice over the phone.”

Also, be aware of the symptoms. Plant toxicity can manifest in a number of forms, from simple sluggishness to tremors and a loss of consciousness.

“One of the first, most common signs would be stomach upset, so look for loss of appetite,” Hochman says. “Mostly you’re going to see drooling, and then true nausea and vomiting. Eating a plant that disagrees with you may cause nausea. Those are not always that serious. Sometimes people overreact to this, but then [the pets] can recover pretty quickly and easily. Other things [to look for] can be significant weakness, tremors and full-body tremors.”

It’s always important to call your local vet as soon as you notice a problem. Plant toxins can act very quickly in an animal’s system, and some persistent symptoms may lead to hospitalization. It’s best to plan in advance.

“Preventing problems from arising is always going to be a better answer than waiting for the signs of a toxin to show up and then trying to treat it,” Hochman says. “Going to good references, planning for the pets rather than waiting for the problem to occur, and having references like the poison control phone number or the local veterinary ER is a great way to start, just in case a problem does arise.”

Go Garden!

Planting a garden that pleases you and is friendly to your pets doesn’t have to be difficult. It just takes a little bit of foresight and research. Luckily, our garden professionals are ready to help.

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