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Dog and Garden Can Grow Harmoniously

March 20, 2015

Think your dog and garden can’t grow harmoniously? Think again!

It’s true that dogs can be incredibly destructive to our gardens. Some dig holes in all the wrong places. Others prefer to poop exactly where we walk. Some will tumble and roll over our tender blooms. Many will chew exactly what they shouldn’t – like irrigation heads. Marking males love to lift their legs to squirt burning pee all over our favorite shrubs, leaving them browned and dead on at least one side. Both boys and girls will dig, pee and poop lawns into patchwork quilts. And, those are just a few of the worst dog offenses we tolerate, with dismay, from our canine companions.

Flat coat retriever dog & labradoodle in garden

Given a good environment, attention & training, dogs won’t destroy every garden. Here, an antique cauldron does double-duty as garden art & as a target for a big leg-lifting retriever.

I’m not here to wave a magic wand that makes your dog’s area of the garden look as fantastic as the areas Fido can’t forage. But, I’ve lived with a lot of dogs in a lot of different garden spaces in my life, which has helped me develop quite a few tricks and tools to buy that might help your garden survive some of the worst poochy offenses.

Puppy chewing on sticks in the garden

Young pups are easy to train, but don’t believe the lie “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

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Interact with your pup. No matter how big or small your garden is it’s critical that you walk and play with your pups. This can reduce the amount of pet waste you need to clean up, and you do need to clean it up! And, getting out helps wear out Spot, so he’s less likely to be a destroyer.

Dogs on a walk

Taking your pups for even a brief leashed walk can help them spend some energy & deposit their poop outside your garden. That’s less frustration & mess for you!

And, when you’re in your garden with your pup, work with them to understand terms like “on the path”, “out-of-the-bed” and other keys that keep them out of your favorite flowers.

Our friend Karen Chapman, co-author of Fine Foliage, shares that she trains her dog to recognize “visual and tactile distinction” between materials. In her country garden, doggie traffic on grass is okay, but traversing loose soil isn’t tolerated. Smooth stone and decks are okay to walk on in her garden, but wood chips, and crunchy gravel are not. So, even in the country, boundaries can be set with proper training.

Have tolerance for doggy stuff. Dogs will be dogs, and they need room to do their doggy things. If you have a tiny garden space, don’t shut your pup up in it alone, or destruction may happen fast. For our clients with larger spaces, we always recommend designing in “the dog zone” of the garden.Β This is a space where you may tolerate a few holes, have strategically placed leg-lifting targets, allow fetch lines to develop in the grass, and so forth.

Dogs dig holes like this in garden

Even in my dog zone, dig holes like this happen & are tolerated in spots where jungle-like foliage hides them from view & provides a cool, shady summer dog-zone spot for our pup.

Dog zone in a garden

This is view we have of the dig area in the dog zone. The hole isn’t really visible. Jungle-like foliage hides the dig hole shown above from view. Tree rounds are pee targets for boy dogs.

And, of course to go along with your dog zone, you’ll want to design people zones as well. These are the places where your dog receives an invitation to join you – or not. Your call!

Golden lab and border collie in the dog zone looking into the people zone of the garden

Until they’re invited beyond the fence, dogs stay in the dog-zone behind the fence!

Ways to protect your plantings from Fido: When you install young plants in your dog zone garden, you will want to protect them from trampling so they have a head-start. In addition to giving your plants the opportunity to grow big and strong, structural protection will also begin training your dog to take other paths, around these shrubs and trees. Inexpensive hogwire bent over plantings, small fencing wrapping young shrubs, and even a peony cage can make all the difference in giving young plants a change to grow big in your doggie garden zone.

Several examples of having a beautiful dog zone in your garden.

Bent hogwire protects young lavender plantings. Temporary green wire fencing protects a nearby Gardenia. A large pot in the background grows seasonal edibles away from pups. A kale volunteer will feed the bees when it blooms, but we won’t eat from the dog potty zone!

Ways to protect yourself from dangerous doggie doodies: If you have a particularly special plant to protect or if you want to grow edibles for you in your dog-zone, consider investing in a large container or creating a living wall well above your pup’s reach. Eating out of soil contaminated with dog waste is a very bad idea, but tolerating a kale plant that manages to grow from seed without getting trampled in the dog zone – sure! But, just don’t nibble on it. Instead, let it bloom for pollinators and added garden interest.

Learn more about living walls in this episode of Growing a Greener World TV on PBS. Then grab their step-by-step instructions for building a wall of your own with a recycled pallet. And, maybe you’ll even grow snacks like peas for your pup in your wall to dangle down into Spot’s reach. Learn more about edibles for pups and how to grow them via Paul’s Custom Pet Food.

Work with your dog’s behavior when you can: Boy dogs will lift their legs, so it may be as simple as swapping a boulder in for a plant he continuously marks (and burns). Puppies like to dig, so training them to dig in a specific doggy sandbox or unused area of the garden may keep poochie from uprooting your favorite hydrangea. And, I have yet to meet a dog that doesn’t chew, so give them something to chew on.

Flat Coat Retriever puppy dog chewing on a treat in the garden

Chew toys can help keep your dog occupied while outside, reducing destructive behavior.

Most dogs inherently work to defend their property, patrolling fence lines, which make trails along property edges. For design clients frustrated by this behavior, I work up designs that work with this behavior, rather than against it. Giving your dog a narrow racetrack is easy to hide from view with the right design planning.

Shephard mutt sitting in garden

Kala sits at the junction of a main flagstone path & her wood chipped fence perimeter patrol zone. As the garden matures, her chip path will be nearly invisible viewed from the garden.

Still stumped by your dog’s unique behavior in the garden? Get in touch with your questions via the comments below, and we’ll try to help. Or, schedule an appointment for an on-site assessment dog and garden consultation!


  1. […] chips? In addition to working as a top dressing garden mulch, arborist chip material makes a great, inexpensive path material. Too, these chips are fantastic for sheet mulching projects to remove lawn passively. Chips can be […]

  2. Starlyte says:

    As we have moles and other little tunnelling animals (voles?), my dogs set up a constant dig/hunt process, however they do dig bigger holes than their (imaginary) preys. We do have a meadow quite large, but both dogs and the little creatures tend to chose the roses, and just the odd, hidden hole in the meadow. I’ll be planting veg next year, but I intend using mostly high beds for that. When we fence I’ll be using your tip of woodchip paths. Thanks for the article for dogs.

  3. Starlyte, Thanks for sharing. You might want to consider installing hardware cloth or metal mesh under your raised beds so underground tunnelers won’t get into your raised food garden. Since you’ll be keeping your dog out of your food garden (right? right!), you shouldn’t have to be concerned about them getting their nails caught in such mesh. Good luck!

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