The Art of Gardening with your Dog

I know! I know! I’ve heard of people who do, and Candace Morgenstern, ex-president of the RI Federation of Garden Clubs, is just such a person but judging by the ongoing general lamenting I have to say she is in the minority. Her two dogs have the run of the garden with a few precious areas off limits. That said I recall one email from her: “I’ve made a great floral display by the front door with ornamental cabbage, gourds and mums – it lasted two hours – Begley just ate it!!” 

 We dog-owning gardeners are gluttons for punishment – that’s not news. So, to counteract the effects of the punishment I’ve honed my “zen” approach to gardening – I try to enjoy both being outside and being with my pup, Toby. I get done what I get done – and it’s usually less than I planned. 

 Since training your garden isn’t really an option the tough truth is that you have to train your dog. And yourself!  

 To create the garden of your dreams, with your adoring pooch at your side, is a challenge. But, if you’re up for the challenge here are a few small strategies to help you balance the love of your four-legged soul-mate with the love of your garden.

 When I use the word “training” I’m not talking advanced training where Molly brings your tools to you, or carries them for you as she follows you from bed to bed. I am referring to the lower realms of training – sit, stay, down, off. Taking the time to teach these simple commands will help enormously. If you notice her about to flatten the young beans “off” should work. Or “stay” if he’s heading towards the freshly-strewn organic fertilizer with that “love to roll in the stinky stuff” look in his eyes. “Mmm! Mmm! All over me – then the house!” 

 Dogs are pack animals by nature and you are his pack-of-one. Duke wants to be close. And any freshly weeded space is assumed to have been cleared just for him. It’s cool and soft and was obviously created to fit that 80lb frame – perfect for that much-needed extra snooze, always with half an eye on you. 

 I had an electric fence installed when Toby was a puppy. It’s been a fabulous success and has given him tremendous freedom. But I debated long and hard about having the fence put around the flower beds so that he couldn’t get into them. I’m glad I didn’t because I can’t stand to see him pine. He just wants to be with me, close by – that’s how dogs are. Even when I step outside the electric fence field he looks miserable because he cannot get to me – that limpid, sad, unwavering gaze! I would rather have him beside me as I weed, flattening the daylilies, than pining for me beyond reach. The daylilies will recover – plus I love getting nuzzled or reaching over and running my hands across that soft warm fur.  

 Keep in mind as you work that Maggie will mimic whatever you do. If you dig, she’ll dig. If you toss a handful onto the compost, she’ll toss a handful onto the compost. It just may be your best gloves and not garden debris. Train her to use a specific area in which to dig that is hers and hers alone. Once you’ve given it to her don’t take it back for your peonies. Just as she knows her bed inside the house is her own private space, so her garden area must be her own.  

 You can use the same technique for her “toilette” – something I read about and never got around to doing. Now I have to patrol the lawn at very regular intervals to clean up after Toby. My fault not his! You see, there’s a famous, and somewhat debatable quote, that goes something like: “There’s no such thing as a bad dog, just bad owners.” This admonition will ring in your ears as you careen across the lawn in hot pursuit of Rosie who has your best pruners clenched in her teeth. 

You don’t have to limit yourself to planting only mint! Believe it or not some plants can stand to be chewed or trampled – really! Replace brittle plants like bearded iris with flexible plants that bend rather than break – like Siberian iris. Ornamental grasses, or ground covers like lamium, or the indestructible lamb’s ears and pet friendly nepeta. Just bear in mind that Spencer cannot distinguish between a Siberian iris (somehwat bendy) and a bearded iris (not so bendy). There may well be areas in your garden that you’re just going to have to fence off – but why not put up attractive fencing that looks as if you really did intend for it to be part of your landscaping rather than the Berlin Wall.

Now, a most important suggestion – this is the time to go organic although just because a product is organic does not necessarily mean it is okay for your pet to ingest it. But using non-toxic substances and plants in the garden is a must if you have animals! There are plenty of plants that are poisonous for your pets such as morning glory. Visit the site of the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) for a list of toxic plants (

My ultimate strategy is to make Toby a higher priority than my garden. I try and balance my need for perfection with my need for my loving and adorable companion.

I may never have a perfect lawn but I’ll always have a perfect friend.