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.
Dogs can be trained to do, or not to do, almost anything! With many pet owners, the idea of looking into pet insurance cost is one that has already been sorted, in case anything was to happen to their pet. This just takes some pressure of you as the owner and let’s you focus on other aspects such as training them. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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 :
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.