Creating a Pet-Safe Garden

By Julia Williams

It’s that time of year again, when warmer temperatures and longer days lure us out of our caves into the fresh air and sunlight. It’s also the time when a gardener’s thoughts turn to creating lush landscapes and veggie patches overflowing with fresh produce. Although the backyard can be a great place to relax and play, it can also be dangerous for our dogs and cats. Creating a pet-safe garden is not an impossible task, however. As responsible pet owners, we just need to take a few precautions to ensure that our outdoor space is safe for our four-legged family members.

Avoid Poisonous Plants

The most obvious way to create a pet-safe garden is to choose the right plants. Not all pet owners realize that a great many garden plants are toxic to dogs and cats, including popular varieties such as azalea, rhododendron, oleander, foxglove, lily of the valley, sago palm, tulip and daffodil. Pets that chew on poisonous plants can experience everything from an upset stomach and diarrhea, to seizures and liver failure.

Before you plant anything new in your garden, it’s a good idea to consult the ASPCA’s comprehensive list of toxic plants. You should also try to avoid trees, shrubs and plants that contribute to allergies. Many of the same plants that cause allergies in humans will affect your pet. Use pollen-free plant species whenever possible, and if you already have a tree or hedge with a high allergy potential, keep it heavily sheared so it will flower less, and don’t plant it directly under a window that you’ll have open in the summer.

Rethink Toxic Chemicals

As a responsible pet owner, I choose not to use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides or weed killers in my yard and garden. These pose a danger to dogs and cats because anything picked up on their paws could be licked off in a grooming session later. Moreover, some insecticide – pellet-shaped snail bait for example – is attractive to pets because it resembles kibble. It’s simply not necessary to use toxic chemicals in the garden, as there are plenty of organic, earth-friendly products available that are safe for pets and humans. 

Weeds can be controlled with a vinegar spray, salted water or neem oil. Digging them up by hand works for me, because I’m not a purist who must have a pristine lawn. I dig out what I can, and don’t let the rest bother me.

Garden pests are also easily controlled using natural products and methods. For earwigs, I put soy sauce and vegetable oil in empty yogurt cups, and bury them partway in the dirt. The earwigs crawl in, and the oil slicks them up so they can’t get back out. I kill aphids and other soft bodied insects with a spray containing water and a tablespoon of dish detergent (for sturdy plants, I just use a strong spray of water from the garden hose).

Many plants and herbs are natural pest deterrents that repel all sorts of critters, including fleas, ants, snails, moles and gophers (see Plants that Help Fight Fleas). I used to have a problem with deer, who treated my roses like their own personal buffet line. Now I use a natural product called Not Tonight Deer which consists of dehydrated eggs and pepper that you mix with water and spray on your plants. No more deer!

Choose Your Mulch Carefully

Gardeners love cocoa bean mulch for its rich color, fine texture and sweet chocolate-like aroma. However, it’s not the right choice for a garden where pets are allowed. Cocoa mulch is a byproduct of chocolate manufacturing and contains the same substances as chocolate – theobromine and caffeine – that are toxic to dogs and cats. Ingesting cocoa mulch can cause vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, elevated heart rate, hyperactivity and seizures. According to, some manufacturers of cocoa mulch now claim that their products are theobromine free and pet safe. As a responsible pet owner, I’d rather play it safe and use shredded pine, cedar or hemlock bark instead. I also don’t use any mulch that’s treated with weed inhibitor or insect repellent.

Compost Piles and Worm Bins

These eco-friendly practices can be very beneficial to your garden. Just be sure they’re not accessible to your pets, especially if you have a dog that views garbage and rotting food as a “delicacy.”

Garden Tools

To avoid accidental injury, be sure to keep all pruning shears, trimmers, tillers, rakes and other gardening tools picked up and stored safely out of reach of your pets.

Gardening is a great hobby, and with a little planning and effort, it’s not overly difficult to create a pet-safe garden. For more tips on how to protect your four-legged friend from outdoor dangers, read our related article, Is Your Yard Safe for Your Dog?

Read more articles by Julia Williams