Monthly Archives: September 2008

Dogs and the Gardener

This blog entry is dedicated to the many habitat gardeners who also share their lives with dogs. Due to their curious nature and digging tendencies, dogs and gardeners are not always natural allies, but dogs can play a useful role in the garden, and I’ve learned a few tricks along the way to minimize the damage they can do.

Speck is well trained to not go into certain garden beds.

Speck is well trained to not go into garden beds.

Dogs can be trained to do, or not to do, almost anything! Teach your dog where the flower beds are. In my case, I use stone edging to define the edges of my beds. Correct them whenever they cross the edge into the bed. Dogs want to do the right thing and they will soon learn where they’re not allowed. At least when you’re in sight…

You can also train your dog not to dig in certain areas, or only in areas that are OK with you. Channel their digging instincts. I have a gardener friend who trained her Shetland Sheepdog to dig planting holes for her! Now that’s useful!

Observe your dogs’ activities, and monitor where they run, play, where they like to lie down, and design your garden around these areas. Try to work with what you’ve got. Does your dog like to sprint along a fenceline? Use that area to create a path that everybody can use, using pavers or stepping stones. Does he like to lie in a certain spot and watch the dog next door? Give him his own shady area where he can sightsee without damaging your plants.

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I’m not a fan of Japanese Pachysandra, but this bed was growing next to the house when we moved here, and is contained from spreading into nearby woodlands. Speck LOVES the cool foliage of this shady spot in the summer heat, so it is now his dog bed! Some non-native plants have their uses!

Plant in clusters. Single trees or plants are vulnerable to being flattened by playing dogs. Planting in groupings allows you to train your dog to stay out of the entire bed, and dogs are more likely to avoid running through densely planted areas.  Bare soils are very
tempting to diggers, so plant in profusion and really cram the plants in.

These beds are crammed with a dense variety of perennials and shrubs, including Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), with sharp thorns that keeps dogs and cats out!

These beds are crammed with a dense variety of perennials and shrubs, including Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), with sharp thorns that keeps dogs and cats out!

Edge with Juniper. Dog paws don’t like the scratchy evergreen foliage of Juniper (Juniperus spp.). And for the same reason my dogs avoid it, Juniper helps birds hide from cat predators throughout the year. Some form of Juniper belongs in every New England habitat garden, not only as cover but for its small waxy fruits that feed many birds.

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My chief weapon in the war against plant-trampling puppird is short wire fencing, which is nearly invisible from a distance. I buy the cheap green wire fencing that is sold everywhere (even my local CVS, once) and use it on the edges of all new beds or areas with young seedlings. It is only about 1-2′ high, but my dogs will very rarely make the effort to jump over it. Unless, of course, they are in the full tilt of chasing a small wild mammal, in which case very little will stop them. But in those cases, their paws barely touch the ground anyway…

If you really struggle with your dogs destroying your plantings, consider container gardening. Hanging baskets, window boxes, large pots and planters allow you to satisfy your urge to grow plants without the risk of dogs digging up your hard work. The photo below shows deck plantings of single Marigold (Tagetes) and Calendula, both excellent pollinator-attracting annuals, near Tower Hill Botanic Garden’s vegetable garden.

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In an increasingly residential New England landscape where traditional higher members of the food chain such as wolves no longer exist, dogs can help control population explosions where natural predators have disappeared.

My 3 dogs are the self-appointed rodent patrol in our yard. Roughly, that means that when they are on-duty (*), they lay on the porch or a comfy lounge chair and scan our stone wall for chipmunks. Thankfully, chipmunks don’t do any real damage to gardens. They are often blamed for the tunnels that appear in gardens, but voles are usually the tunnel borers and destructive plant eaters.hoops

* On-duty means whenever they are awake, which seems to be only a small portion of every day.

But to be fair to our dogs, they have apparently succeeded in preventing deer from ever venturing into our gardens.  Deer are probably the #1 most problematic form of wildlife in New England gardens. Despite the claims of many plantsmen about certain “deer-proof” plants, in some winters, there is next to nothing that deer won’t eat. I do know that deer live all over this area. We see their scat (manure) in the winter snow in the woods next to us, and the dogs occasionally bring a shed antler out of the woods :

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Calli is very happy with her find of a deer antler!

My friends up the road put nets over their blueberry bushes in summer to keep the deer from eating the entire crop. But after 4 years here, I have never once seen a deer on this property, nor have I noticed any damage to my plants from browsing deer. I can only conclude that deer are too intimidated by the presence of three large dogs to risk visiting my gardens. There are enough natural areas nearby that they probably have enough to eat without risking their lives in our clearing.

My dogs also consider it their life missions to chase squirrels. After being run out of town several hundred times, the local squirrel population have finally abandoned any attempt to settle on our property. I don’t really mind the squirrels, although at our last property (where our dog was not able to run loose) we had a problem with them eating all the suet and birdseed from the feeders.

Dogs and habitat gardens can peacefully co-exist with a little effort and training on your part. The good news is that a habitat garden is by definition informal, which means that the occasional landscape damage that your dogs may cause may not be as noticeable as in a carefully arranged and meticulously pruned formal garden.

Garden Blues

If you have boggy or moist areas in your garden, Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is the plant for you. With its bright blue flowers (rare in the horticultural world),  this striking plant is a native New England perennial plant that grows naturally along streams and in wooded areas. Rich in nectar, hummingbirds and other pollinators are attracted to its flowers, and birds hang onto its tall stems snacking on the tiny seeds later in the year.

rudbeckia blue lobelia tomatoes IMG_0752 - Version 2A relative of our other native lobelia, Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), I have found Great Blue Lobelia to be the hardier of the two in my central MA garden. The photo above shows it growing on the edge of our farm pond.

Lobelia siphilitica, as its Latin name indicates, was used medicinally by Native Americans, who used it to treat Syphilis. In fact, Native Americans sold this secret to early European colonists who were desperate for a cure for the disease.  However, it has never been proven as an effective treatment for Syphilis, perhaps because Native Americans used it in conjunction with other native plants in their treatment.

According to the Plants for a Future database, some Native American tribes also used the finely ground roots of Great Blue Lobelia to calm the fury of arguing couples and prevent divorce. Whether it was successful in resolving marital difficulties is not clear, but as the roots can induce vomiting, therapy is probably a better bet.

Tomatoes and potatoes and cucumbers..oh my!

As you can see from the tattered remains of my vegetable garden, summer is coming to an end. However, we’re still harvesting baskets of produce, and the flowering plants in and around our 100_2309veggie gardens provide a valuable food source for migrating hummingbirds, pollinating insects and seed-eating songbirds. The presence of insect-gobbling birds near the veggie patch helps to control pests on the plants that continue to yield their bounty.

My vegetable garden might look a little wild and uncultivated, but in fact the effect is entirely deliberate. The Nasturtium attracts aphids away from other plants. Allowing the Cilantro to flower and go to seed provides nectar for tiny pollinators, who in turn become a protein source for birds who eat crop pests. Flowering nectar plants such as Black-eyed Susan, Agastache (Lavender Giant-Hyssop) and Goldenrod attract pollinators who help improve crop yields, and later produce lots of free birdseed for songsters such as American Goldfinches, Chickadees and Sparrows.

Because (or in spite) of all the rain we had this summer, we also had our best tomato harvest ever. The cherry tomatoes above have next to no foliage left but they are still groaning under the weight of the fruits. Our secret to organic tomato growing is to grow plants in soil enriched with our very best compost, and apply a 2-3″ mulch after the soil has warmed (usually July here) to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. We also trim all browning leaves from the plant as they develop through the summer.

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Marigolds (Tagetes) planted with cherry tomatoes. The strong scent of the Marigold foliage helps plants helps repel pests from the veggie patch in an example of  companion planting, in which certain plants help each other to control pest damage and enhance growing conditions. Companion planting helps your garden become a balanced ecosystem, in which nature keeps itself in balance.

The Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the background grows like crazy in late summer, but we leave it standing until later in September because its flowers are a magnet for migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who appreciate a meal and rest stop on their way to the tropics. The annual Jewelweed is easy to pull out later, and makes a good addition to our compost pile.100_2255

We’re harvesting our Yukon Gold potatoes fast and furious now (right). I think it’s fun. Rooting around in the soil for ‘taters is like an Easter Egg hunt…keep hunting around and you keep finding more!

Last year I lost most of my potato crop to a tunneling mammal who dined on my potatoes from underground without my noticing. This year I kept a closer eye on the plants and occasionally poked around for tunnels in the raised beds. I also planted a lot more potatoes this year so that a few nibbles wouldn’t affect my yields too much.

This was also the first year that I saw next to no Colorado Potato Beetles on my potatoes. Thank you to all our bats, birds and beneficial insects for providing free pest control!