James BeattieGardening with dogs

I have been both a gardener and a dog owner for the best part of a decade and up until recently these two aspects of my life coexisted peacefully, bar the odd indiscretion by India, my eldest Rhodesian ridgeback. There were occasional holes dug here and there. Seedlings trampled inadvertently. She once even developed a short lived predilection for pulling developing flower buds off their inflorescence with her teeth – not to eat them, mind you. She would just pull them off, spit them out, sniff them, and then continue until there were no buds left. The only explanation I could come up with was that she just didn’t like Asiatic lilies. These were the kinds of cute indiscretions I was used to – the quirky and easily forgiven kind. I look upon that past as an idyllic time in the garden compared to the fate that has recently befallen us. You see, about three months ago we got another dog and gardening has turned into something of a battle of wits ever since.


We got Whisky, then a 10 month old ridgeback, from a shelter and were surprised at how well she settled in with our 13 year old ridgy, India. We imagined, somewhat foolishly in hindsight, that the old dog would introduce the new dog to the rules of the household and show her a thing or two. Like demonstrating to her that doing your business in the house was not the done thing, or digging a hole or running through the vegetable patch was a big no-no. What never occurred to us was the possibility that the influence might run the other way, resulting in our greying lady of 13 rediscovering her puppy side in the presence of the new and boisterous Whisky.

That’s pretty much where we now find ourselves, masters hanging by the very last shreds of sanity, trying to keep a lid on the canine rambunctiousness. The garden has suddenly become an area of great interest to the dogs, much to my horror. I recently spent a great deal of care preparing two vegetable beds for planting out in a couple of weeks’ time. The day was perfect for such a task, one of the first hot days of Melbourne’s warming Spring. I cleared out the last of the harvestable crops, weeded, dug in manures, composted and mulched. Needless to say by the end of it I was feeling very relaxed and satisfied, despite reeking of aged animal excrement. All such feelings of serenity were dashed the following morning.

Sneaking culprit

The first visual sign was dirt on the kitchen tiles, although the crunchy texture underfoot between the bedroom and the kitchen made me pretty sure that something untoward had gone on in the night. Suddenly realising what had happened, I dashed outside only to be confronted by the gardening equivalent of Dresden. The lovingly prepared vegetable beds had been torn apart, turned over and thoroughly mucked about in.  Mulch was everywhere. You couldn’t see the decking owing to the sheer volume of soil, manure and mulch tossed asunder. I could have cried.  There was nothing to do but calmly reassemble the beds, which owing to the mess made, felt like trying to put humpty dumpty together again. And build a dog-proof fence – something I hate doing because it always looks ugly, which is probably due to the slipshod manner in which I erect them. Vegetable gardening is all about utilitarianism, but having to build a dog fence around it is, for me, a utilitarian step taken too much at the expense of aesthetics.


So now I have a planted-out vegetable bed with an ugly fence and a whole lot of other problems to contend with. Seeing as the dogs find manure irresistible I’m left looking at ornamental beds where I know I’ve dug it in previously and thinking, “Will my echiums be next?” Not only that but seeing as the dogs are actually eating the manure, I can’t use snail bait safely (not that I use it that much any way). With plans afoot to redesign the backyard once we knock down the impossibly large shed, I’m now dreading having to establish a new garden in the presence of these monsters of which I am supposedly master.

There are ways you can tip the balance in your favour, of course. Using compost instead of manure and using liquid fertilisers is a good start. Compost doesn’t hold the same fascination for dogs as manure does, making them far less likely to dig it up. Having clearly defined boundaries with plants and landscaping is a good way to direct dogs to stick to certain areas, though plants take time to establish. Keeping a ‘run’ around the border of your backyard can also go a ways to keeping your dog (and you) sane and less likely to misbehave. The ‘run’ is just a half-meter gap that can be left around all or some of the perimeter of your garden, giving your dog access to patrol the boundaries of your yard (hopefully) without traipsing through your garden. Well thought-out garden beds to direct the dog into certain ‘run’ access points can make the world of difference, and hide the run for those with aesthetically sensitive eyes.

I can’t guarantee that any of this will stop your dog from messing about in your garden, but they all help to tip the scales in your favour. I also suspect every dog is different, requiring new and more inventive strategies to dissuade them from ruining your gardening efforts (that hopefully don’t involve my specialty, make-shift fencing). With each dog comes a unique battle of wits, and is seems mine has only just begun.  Wish me luck!

Until next time, happy gardening.

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James Beattie

About James Beattie

James is a horticulturist working in the Melbourne area. His work in the industry has included landscape planting design, hard landscaping, bushland management, garden consulting as well as extensive experience in the horticultural media. He worked for four years as one of the horticultural guns for hire behind the scenes at ABC TV's Gardening Australia program and has been a semi-regular guest on Melbourne's 3CR Gardening Show (855 AM). You can follow his whimsical garden musings at Horticologist

14 thoughts on “Gardening with dogs

  1. What a delightful post James! I laughed throughout while reading.
    We have a black Labrador who took many years to ‘mature’. But he has always responded to “get off the garden” when said to him. It takes time, but love and patience will get you there. Good luck!

  2. Patience is luckily something I have in spades, AliCat. Otherwise the new dog would be back at the shelter, or worse. It could be wishful thinking but I could swear Whisky has started to improve already!
    Catherine, I hope you get a chance to use it!

  3. I laughed out loud while reading your post, James, although a touch wryly. My dog, long since gone to the Big Kennel in The Sky, was not quite as overt as your dogs, but sneaky. Her favourite past time as she aged was to select a nice soft ground cover plant – preferably a rare, expensive or precious one – and use it as a nice cushion. Once it had become sufficiently bedraggled or dead it lost its appeal, and it was time to find another to destroy!

    I also nursed a rare, expensive and finicky trailing camellia from a tube-stock sized specimen. After several years, just as it was big enough to flower, I placed it in a sunny spot. Now my dog had never paid the slightest interest to pot plants, probably because they were common or cheap varieties. But that day day, I returned home to find the pot upturned and the plant missing. Perhaps she’d knocked it over..? But then, where was the plant? I searched for it with no luck… until I spotted a bare, gnawed “branch”…

  4. I have four shelter dogs, down from a high of five, and use a dog run to keep them out of my perennial beds. It mostly works, although I still find them in the midst of my flowers occasionally. They love to dig up freshly dug in organic fertilizers and eat the soil. I usually end up fencing off a section until the soil has mellowed a bit or they’ve lost interest. Good luck with your pups!

  5. I have found that seasol and powerfeed hold an incredible allure for dogs. Our pair of American Staffordshire Terriers adore it and will attempt to drink it from the hose that we are attempting to spray the garden with. They are not diggers (thank goodness!) BUT they love to prune. Bezial actually pruned a grape vine down to a nub and we talked to a viticulturalist friend who told us he had done exactly the right thing for the vine! Earl, on the other hand,…Earl snipped every single one of our precious grafted (horrendously expensive) potted babies off BELOW the graft. It was as if he KNEW that was the end of them. We had to erect our own ugly (enormous) fence around the house and we now have a dog compound to keep the dogs inside and the plants outside…now we just need to work out how to stop the chooks!

    • Just try Blood & Bone – your dogs will love you for it. How do I know ? Well, we fertilized our garden with that concoction, and then got a dog. Wire mesh, wire mesh, wire mesh !!!

  6. Oh dear, James. Whiskey has learnt that an old dog can learn new tricks, viz India is a keen student of garden naughtiness. I wonder if they see us getting such fun out of digging and playing about in the dirt, they think ” I’m having a bit of what they have!” Sadly we don’t have a dog any more, but I do recall some painful experiences with roses fed blood and bone. Guess we can’t tame the animal instinct to burrow and dig.

  7. Well James …. Five years ago I totally re-did my back garden, whose all-native planting had been rubbed out and demolished – except for one eucalypt and two callistemons – by my big pointer/labrador/Great Dane cross, Jessie. She came from a shelter as a 12-week-old puppy, and it only took her 18 months to get rid of almost everything that grew at ground level in a space 100m x 70m. (That was the ‘minus’. The ‘plus’ was that all the possums that had also been wrecking the garden were either killed, or vanished). I am still digging up the bones Jessie chewed, then buried, twice a week. Things did get better – but not much – when I confined her at night to a closed-off part of the garden, and then in the last few years of her life when she got arthritis. What I am trying to say is maybe there’s not a lot you can do, especially with two of them. Enjoy the dogs. Then re-make the garden!

    • Thanks, Anne. I don’t think I can wait for the dogs’ demise before I embark on the garden building extravaganza! Perhaps I’ll stumble across a sure fire method of keeping the dogs in check throughout the process, which I can then patent and make millions from (in my dreams). I fear that the only way of keeping them out of the garden is to create a ‘dog land’ for them – some kind of fenced off area that is solely theirs to destroy at their whim. Time will tell, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

  8. Enjoyed your post, wondering why you don’t build a nice fence and plant climbers around it, or use it for pumpkins and scarlet beans to grow on etc. Is your new pup going to obedience school?

  9. Great stories. I’ve got two golden retrievers who don’t do much damage by digging but are lethal to our grass and other forms of ground cover. Has anyone found a ground cover that can survive dog urine?

    • Hi Richard – I have gone to the GardenDrum Blogger Brains Trust on this one! Here are their replies (plus Tammy’s below) – I hope you will find some solutions there:

      Amanda Mackinnon: Don’t know if this helps, but I have one large black labrador (and two active young boys), so our garden has a lot of dianellas and dietes. I basically use them in place of ground covers – they work well as they stand up to very tough punishment. This doesn’t really solve the problem if you’re after a trophy lawn, but works very well for more bush-style gardens like ours. I put them in all the difficult spots.

      Matt Popplewell: We have a retriever (just in case urine is species specific).  His waste has no adverse consequences on mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus)

      Rose Vermeulen: Regarding the dogs and their urine…… Always a problem as any urine needs to be diluted by the rain or watering.  Best is to teach habits while they are still puppies but this is not always practical when we are all working. I have two huskies so we have two fairly large bladders.  After walking around the garden this evening  I found: the Ophiopogon (mondo)/Liriope grasses, tall and short species are doing fine, the Anthericum and Chlorophytum sp. is bearing up, the pennywort looks ok, the Mazus is quite strong, Dymondia also fine, the ivy is almost indestructible (not my favourite plant), the Australian viola does not look too bad BUT the evergreen lawn has yellow patches.  These are a few plants which the dogs ‘visit’.  Maybe small leafed ivy is the way to go.

      Geraldine Evers (Hound Advice): Horticulture ain’t my area of expertise but I do have 2 dogs and a garden. In my experience, it’s the 1st wee of the day that does the most damage – it’s the longest and strongest (my dogs sleep inside so have to hold on). Brown patches aren’t a problem for me (they’re there but just at the moment I don’t care). If I did want to do something about it I’d probably go out with the dogs when I let them out in the morning (5.30 am) and use a watering can to wash down the chosen area. 
      BTW – I’ve decided to leave my dogs inside this year on NYE when we go out just in case someone in the area has the bright idea of letting off fireworks. There’s always someone…..Have a great New Year everyone.

      Alison Aplin: I have never had a problem with dog urine and we have had both male and female dogs, but they have always been desexed. I think that it is the hormones that cause the scorching of the lawn; female dogs have always been blamed, but I think that it is the undesexed male dogs that are the problem from years of observation of other people’s dogs.

      Adam Woodhams: Dog urine is pretty much concentrated liquid fertiliser with some other waste stuff thrown in. You’ll often find the scorched spots are in fact very green around the edges where the concentration is reduced and is at a level that is beneficial not harmful.
      Only two ways to stop the problem and to follow the dogs around with a hose & dilute as soon as they pee or train them to go in one spot in some mulch or some-such (good luck with that…) I think the female dog issue has two causes… 1) chemistry, 2) and probably the greater cause – technique; girl dogs tend to stay exactly in one spot so the concentration is higher, boy dogs tend to tinkle all over the place as they balance. A cross-species trait it would seem 😉

      Linda Green: You can buy a Pet or Doggy Loo – there are different ones available. There was one featured on the ABC’s New Inventors a few years ago. I think they are only for the very desperate as cleaning them could be a problem and training the dog could be difficult, not to mention the high cost of buying one. I also have a small dog in a small paved courtyard and to avoid it smelling like a urinal in summer I take my dog out (to a laneway or nearby park) at least half a dozen times a day. Constantly hosing down the pavers isn’t a very water efficient solution so by taking him out I use less water. Lots of dogs use the lawn in the park and there are hardly any burnt patches, in fact the grass is quite lush. Some lawn grasses may be less susceptible than others.

      Meleah Maynard: When I wrote my book, Decoding Garden Advice, a couple of years ago, I worked with a scientist who confirmed that female dog urine is more damaging to grass because it is concentrated due to their squatting and going all in one place. That is the only reason, he and other scientists say, that their pee is more harmful. It’s just too much nitrogen in one small spot.

      Karen Hall: Apparently, there is a synthetic ‘rock’ you can put in their water to alter the urine so it doesn’t burn the grass. I don’t like the sound of that though and so am very grateful to have endless grass and paddocks for Coco to pee on. I don’t mind the odd patch here and there but I do try and encourage her to spread her wee-ing around rather than using only one spot – despite being on a raw meaty bone diet her wee still burns the grass. This is the luxury of having space – so I guess I will join the frustrated brigade once we sell and go urban.

      Marianne Cannon: I thought I‘d add my 2 cents worth, or rather my dog loving friend’s 2 cents worth.
      “It’s usually female dog urine that causes ground cover to change colour/go yellow. Must be in the hormones. I also think it’s what you feed your dog. (My friend’s dog) Rosie’s pee doesn’t seem to affect grass colour; she has a diet rich in raw meaty bones and her pee doesn’t really pong either.”

      AND…..My friend, colleague and well-known font of gardening advice, Helen Young, suggests the website http://www.doghealth.com/how-to/how-to-prevent-lawn-burn-from-dog-urine . It says that as long as you wash off/water down the urine within about 8 hours, it should green up rather than scorch the lawn.

  10. If the urine is killing the grass, then it’s too acidic. There are tablets or liquid supplements that you can either give the dog or add to their water to increase the pH of their urine so it’s not as damaging. We’ve used them before with great success. I agree with the idea to also water over the pee areas to dilute the urine.

    As for ground covers, I use grass. I have an Invisible Fence between my garden and my grass. The collar hangs loosely on my dog and she is trained to stop when she hears the first beep. If she keeps going it vibrates against her fur, which she doesn’t like, so she stops. I also built a mulched dog run that weaves through part of the garden that is used by all four dogs. They understand that it’s “their” space so it satisfies their urge to run and dig.

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