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How To Create A Pet-Friendly Garden

Horticultural expert Michael Cheever’s best design tips for a pet-friendly garden, plus a list of plants that are hazardous to your pets’ health.
By Becky Winn |

BACKYARD HABITAT: From behind a camellia—near but not too near—the house, Teddy watches for squirrel incursions.










The Grass Menagerie
Horticultural expert Michael Cheever’s tips for making your garden pet-friendly.


Michael Cheever didn’t really set out to design an animal-friendly garden. Indeed, the former director of horticulture and executive director of Texas Discovery Gardens definitely had plants on his mind when he moved into an East Dallas cottage with his three cats and two dogs. But his rambunctious pups were serious about their roles as head of ranch security. Before long, they had beaten several familiar paths straight through the flower beds to the back and side fences in their enthusiastic defense against potential interlopers, particularly the ever-present threat of squirrels, unfamiliar cats, and neighbors walking their dogs. Looking out on muddy trails where there was once a garden, Michael realized something had to be done. This proved to be an exercise in creativity, both botanical and structural. After several failed attempts to block, barricade, or otherwise redirect the fearless, faithful guards, Michael fashioned a less overt plan. Combining elements of aesthetics, durability, and aversion therapy, Michael designed his garden to accommodate his pets and their habits rather than fight them. Now his garden is a wonderland of unusual horticultural specimens predominantly native to Texas, which lends itself to the lifestyles of all members of the family, two-legged and four-legged alike.


Poisonous Plants for Furry Friends


A single leaf can kill a pet or a child. All parts are poisonous.

It’s caused many deaths in grazing cattle as it also grows wild in fields.

Hyacinth and narcissus
These bulbs, as well as daffodils, can be fatal for dogs who like to dig.

Used in heart medication, the plant’s drug can be so potent that it can increase heart rate through the skin by rubbing the leaves.

All parts are poisonous.

Extremely dangerous if ingested, especially the foliage. Death is said to be sudden and without warning symptoms.

Mistletoe berries
Don’t leave them on the floor or the ground.

Surprise. The stalks are edible, but the leaves cause rapid death.


Tips and Tricks for an Animal-friendly Garden

Graycy emerges from a stand of Inland Sea Oats, an ornamental grass perfect for catnaps and games of hide-and-seek with the other family pets.

Dogs like to run, and in restricted quarters (most backyards), they tend to take the most direct route from point A to point B. Let your dogs establish their routes and then plan your beds around them.

Rather than struggling with grass where the dogs like to run, Michael put in decomposed granite pathways. They’re attractive, durable, and easy on the dogs paws.

Leave a foot or two of space between plantings and structures such as the house or fences. That way the dogs can run along the fences or the house monitoring squirrel activity without ruining your landscape.

Along the same lines, allow your pet to pick his favored snoozing spot, and landscape around it. These are usually easy to camouflage as dogs tend to pick cool, shaded places to dig in and nap.

Choose plants with a central crown and arching habit (think ornamental grasses and ferns). These plants are easy for the pet to run under and around without damage.

Michael’s aversion techniques include using spiky shrubs, such as Chinese holly, planted closely together. It’s best to go ahead and spring for large, established plants and plant them close together. If your pet can get around small plants, by the time they grow, access patterns will already be established.

Don’t discount the power of suggestion. Sometimes just showing a pet where you prefer them to hang out, for example, by always taking him to the corner behind the Cherry laurel and giving him a bone, can establish positive patterns.

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