I recently found a small container of catmint that I had forgotten Max the Cat had added to his cat garden last year (a cat garden being the comforting green space filled with all the plants cats love, steering them clear of the rest of a flower garden).
The catmint was tucked into a previously snowy corner of the deck and had five tiny green leaves in the middle of the otherwise dormant plant. Parts of garden boxes in the yard were starting to become visible beneath the melting snow as well. The sun and the warmth and the five tiny leaves reminded me that in Omaha, spring always comes.
It was a sure sign I would soon be out in the garden again, one of my favorite places in the world. My three dogs, Ebony, Joy, and Noodle, would soon be racing around the boxes and the teepee, and Max the Cat and Piggy the Guinea Pig would be back where they love to be most, in the middle of the growing cat grass, munching away, side by side, as if cats and guinea pigs always went on lunch dates together.
Then it snowed a wet, heavy snow that completely covered the entire garden (and all of Omaha) in a huge, depressing, catmint killing blanket. I am wondering if you are as discouraged by winter as I am, and if you could use a few really cute pet pictures, and encouraging garden pictures, as a reminder that in Omaha, spring always comes.
When it does (and it will), I also wonder if you would like to garden with me. I know a garden article is a stretch for a veterinary column, but I really need some sunshine right about now, and I would bet that you do, too. As a fellow pet lover, I can tell you what we have done to make our garden fun for our pets and for us. As a veterinarian, I can help guide you in making your garden as pet safe and nutritious as possible.
A List of Poisonous Plants for Pets *
Lilies – The entire plant is extremely toxic to cats. Even chewing on the leaves can cause kidney failure.
Grapes – Yes, we CAN grow them in Nebraska! In fact, it is one of the best places in the world for a vineyard! How cool is that? But remember, the tannins in the skin of grapes (and raisins) are toxic to the kidneys of dogs and cats. I suspect the toxicity may cross over to other pets as well. I would suggest erring on the side of caution and not feeding grapes to any pets.
Onions and garlic – Yes, I do realize that these flavor many homemade treats, and even a few commercial dog foods. Still, they are toxic. If you have them in your garden, keep your pets away from them. The sulfuric compounds in them destroy the cell membranes of red blood cells. Pets need red blood cells for oxygenation even more than they need garlic-flavored treats.
Spinach and rhubarb – Their leaves have oxalates in them, which can be dangerous to the urinary systems of herbivorous lizards. Rhubarb can also be harmful to the gastrointestinal systems of dogs and cats.
* This list is incomplete, but these are some of the most common plants to be careful about that are found in Nebraska gardens (Zones 4 and 5). For more plants that are problematic, check out this list of toxic plants for pets.
Pet Friendly Gardening Products
Use fertilizers and pesticides as sparingly as possible, if at all. Even “pet friendly” or “non-toxic” products can cause problems, most notably gastrointestinal upset. The more natural and organic your garden, the safer it will be for your pet.
Fun Tip! - Drying Catnip
Pick catnip before it flowers. Take the leaves off the stems and place them on a ceramic plate. Microwave them for fifteen seconds at a time until they are brittle (about a minute total). Be very careful not to let your catnip catch on fire.* Store in a sealed container for your kitty.
*I have never caught catnip on fire. I have, however, caught basil on fire. Be careful! Watch your herbs as they “speed-dry” and dry them in short intervals.
Do not use any metal lawn edging anywhere in your yard. The protective plastic covering will come off, and your pet will run across the exposed edging. You will come to me to have the laceration sutured, and many dollars later, you will be mourning the amount of seed packets you could have bought for that amount, and your dog will be mourning the two weeks of playing in the muddy garden he will miss because he has a big stupid bandage on his foot that he has to keep clean and dry.
I will tell you a story to keep in mind while you are deciding on landscaping options. A few years ago, I was performing gastrointestinal surgery on one of my favorite canine patients. He had again eaten several rocks out of his garden, and this was his second surgery in as many months. While we were in the surgery suite, his owners were at home supervising the replacement of their rock garden with a cement patio.
Be careful when choosing landscaping material. Some dogs will ingest small rocks, wooden mulch, or rubber mulch, any of which can become stuck in their digestive tract. Cocoa mulch also has small amounts of theobromine, the toxic element of chocolate, so I recommend avoiding that one all together, as great as it smells.
Make sure rain barrels have a tight-fitting lid, for the safety of pets who may explore them, and also to prevent the creation of a mosquito breeding ground. Mosquitoes will proliferate in any standing water, so also rid the garden of tires, still ponds—even half full watering cans. Every dog should be on a monthly heartworm preventative medicine anyway (heartworms are those horrid little blood borne parasites transmitted by mosquitoes), but if the yard is not mosquito-friendly, your pet (and you!) will get bitten much less often.
Composting is also a fun earth-friendly gardening activity. Any plant-based or paper material can generally be composted. Rodent and rabbit bedding can even be composted, poop and all. However, be careful not to add any cat, dog, or ferret waste to the compost pile. Since you get your pet routinely tested and prophylactically treated for intestinal parasites (right?), there is a minimal risk, but still a concern, as many parasites are transmissible to people. Also, herbivore waste is much more compost-friendly than (that is, not as gross as) that of omnivores and carnivores. Most, if not all, pet reptiles are carriers of salmonella, so no reptile waste either. Keep it clean, people.
Square Foot Gardening
Whatever you want left alone in your garden, whether it is beautiful flowers you do not want dug up, or dangerous garlic you do not want eaten, make inaccessible. There I go again, saying ridiculously simple things that are not very easy to do in Real Life! We have several fences in our garden. We also have many of our plants in containers at least a foot off the ground. That seems to be high enough that the dogs understand to leave them alone. Boxes can always be built higher if need be (most of our garden design is based on the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew).
The dogs have their own digging playhouse with a dirt floor which has seemed to keep them from digging in the actual garden. Before we add a garden box, we add just the frame and have Ebony Dog run around the yard. If she can still run full-speed and seems to be having fun, we add the box. If she seems confused or at all crowded, we move the box to a different area and consult her again.
Max the Cat and Piggy the Guinea Pig are only allowed supervised outdoor time on the deck, so we plant all of the things that they love best in low containers on the deck.
Pet Friendly Plants
Here are some of my favorites, broken down by pet:
Guinea pigs – parsley, cat grass (oats), timothy hay
Rabbits – parsley, cat grass, timothy hay, alfalfa (in moderation), carrots (of course!)
Dogs – All I know is that Joy the Puppy loves sugar snap peas. Between her and my kids, we have not ever had one pea make it into the house to be stored!
Cats – cat grass, cat nip, cat mint, cat thyme
Use these and use your imagination to tailor your garden to your own pet’s species and individual preferences. Leave me a comment if you have any concerns that a plant you want to grow may be toxic or non-nutritious, and I will help you make your garden completely pet friendly!
Plant your spring veggies in March and April and your summer veggies mid-May, and remember, in Omaha, spring always comes. Happy pet-friendly gardening!