DOGS!

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Rocky, on Day 1, in a lush meadow of Diego bent grass and June grass. Poor plants had no idea what was coming.

There are many things that can throw a garden into disarray. Hungry insects, burrowing gophers, unseasonable heatwaves, toddlers. But for fast and efficient destruction of a garden nothing beats a dog. Well, maybe the toddler.

I was between dogs when I started to convert my backyard from a typical suburban lawn to a California meadow. After killing the lawn and building planters for vegetables, I seeded the lawn with three different types of California grasses – creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), Diego bent grass (Agrostis pallens), and June grass (Koeleria macrantha) and planted several other native plants for accents.

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How it all began.  A meadow of creeping red fescue, Diego bent grass and June grass. The large bunch grass is Canyon Prince wild rye. Frosty Blue ceanothus in the back.

It took a couple of years to get the grass established by seed and then I decided to get a dog. A Labrador/shepherd mix, Rocky quickly added his own personal touch to the meadow. First off, California native grass is no match for dog urine. His main peeing area was on the Diego bent grass. I’ve seen suggestions for using bent grass in yards with dogs, but the grass quickly died from the dog urine. The June grass and the creeping red fescue fared better but only because my dog didn’t do his business on them.

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Although the winter rains brought back some of the grass, most of it are ‘weeds’ and not the original grasses. Still large patches of dirt and dead grass remain.

And the grass wasn’t the only plants to get beaten.

So, if you want to have a native yard and have a dog, here’s a few things I learned:

Traditional turf grass is still best for dogs. All three grasses I was using showed themselves to be easily damaged and killed by dog urine. I heard some native sedges are more resistant, but I haven’t had a chance to test that out. So part of the meadow is going to be replaced with turf grass, probably tall fescue with native grasses used as accents. Where I planted the creeping red fescue I’m planning to add sand dune sedge (Carex pansa) from plugs, so I’ll find out how resistant sedge is.

In my yard are also three Canyon Prince wild rye grass (Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’) as accents. While Rocky has been marking this grass, it seems to be able to handle dog urine. Plus he likes to munch on it, hopefully not where he is marking.

Many native plants have brittle wood and easily break. While most brittle plants can easily handle branches breaking off, there is a limit to how much they can take. I had two plants like this in the yard — two California fuchsias (Epilobium canum ssp. canum), and a ground cover cultivar of California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum ‘Theodore Payne’). All were damaged by Rocky with one fuchsia dying and the other one, along with the buckwheat, coming close. To protect the two remaining plants, I used small garden fencing to protect the base of the plants. While branches that extend beyond the fence may still be broken off, with the main truck and branches protected, new growth will soon replace it.

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Using small garden fencing, the main trunk and branches of this California fuchsia is protected from dog damage.

Rocks. A well placed rock can help protect new plantings or discourage digging. When the new plant gets established, the rock can be moved to another area needing its help (obviously, don’t get a rock that is too heavy to lift but heavy enough for digging paws not to be able to move). But don’t take away all the digging spots for the dog. If they’re a digger, have a spot or two in the yard for them to express their inner selves. However, if they start digging in another area, placing a rock there can often stop them.

 

Besides rocks, yard decoration can also help mark off areas for the dog to stay out of. For a patch of California goldenrod (Solidago californica), trimmed down to the ground early each winter, some garden fencing and decoration discourages Rocky from jumping in and trampling the new growth.

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A rock protects a planting of blue-eyed grass and June Grass from getting trampled.

Paths are helpful too. If you already have a dog before converting your yard, make a note of any paths they already walk. Incorporate those paths into the yard design. I originally designed my meadow with a path and when I first got my dog, he quickly took to using the path.

Most importantly, que sera, sera. Your dog will mess up your garden. Hopefully with good planning, it will be minor but chances are at some point a plant will be lost, new flowers crushed and bulbs dug up. It is just part of the equation, a trade off for their companionship. Of course, you can just keep the mutt out of the yard. But should gardens be cordened off, or should they be lived in? Watching Rocky explore the yard, sniffing the bushes, finding his favorite spots are part of the joy of having a native garden.

As in any type of gardening, be aware of any plants that can possibly be toxic to dogs. A common native wildflower that is very toxic to dogs is lupine. Go to the ASPCA site Poisonous Plants/ASPCA  for more information on plants that can be poisonous to dogs and cats.

As I learn more do’s and don’t’s of dogs and gardening, I’ll be sure to share them. If you have any tips or suggestions, please post in the comment section.

Here’s a couple of links I used researching this post:
Dogs in the Garden of Good and Evil
Gardening with Dogs (note that their suggest of using Diego bent grass I don’t agree with. The other grass recommendation I haven’t tried.)

Oh, and very important. If you do let your grass grow meadow-like, be sure to pick up the dog poop regularly. Left for a day or two, it has an amazing ability to weave itself underneath the blades of grass.

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An old log provides protection for Silver Carpet California aster while adding an natural element to the garden

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