For many clients, pets are family. So just like you’d design and install a landscape meant for a growing family a certain way, there are best practices when it comes to creating pet-friendly landscapes for these furry family members.
According to the 2019-2020 APPA National Pet Owner Survey, 67 percent of U.S households own a pet, which equates to 84.9 million homes.
With pet ownership growing, don’t be afraid to offer customers your services in order to create an outdoor space that both they and their animals can enjoy.
“Creating harmonious spaces that are beautiful, safe and utilitarian can certainly be challenging,” says Tim Sweeney, a sales manager with Sweeney’s Custom Landscaping, Inc. based in Villa Park, Illinois. “I think the biggest challenge is the same as any other landscape and that is finding out what the space will be used for – play, dogs, cats, lounging, escape – and keeping that in mind throughout the process.”
While creating a beautiful, yet safe landscape for your customer’s pet may be a challenge, it is certainly not impossible.
One of the most obvious safe practices to implement is the planting of non-toxic plant material. A number of common and popular plants such as lilies, daisies, tulips, English ivy, foxgloves, daffodils, hydrangeas are all toxic to pets.
If customers really want to grow certain plants that are toxic to their pet, Jack Fetig, owner and president of Alpine Gardens based in Fort Collins, Colorado, says there are many chili-powder based plant products that can be applied to discourage pets for going in for a nibble, but he says to use extreme caution with these and to read the label.
Kim Sweeney, the blogger for Sweeney’s, says it’s better to play it safe and not use them at all.
“There is no 100 percent effective way to stop pets from eating toxic plants, so don’t use them,” she says. “Plain and simple.”
Other safety elements to consider are not installing plants with thorns, not using cocoa mulch, which is toxic to dogs, and reducing chemical applications when dealing with weeds.
“There is no such thing as a weed-free yard, despite everyone’s best efforts and most effective chemicals,” says Kim Sweeney. “It’s important to remember that nature reigns supreme. There are chemicals that are safe for pets, but there will always be weeds. Learning to live with a few is the real balance.”
Fetig adds that there are new products coming out all the time and to experiment with them in your own yard.
“As you work in the field, you will gather a personal arsenal of landscape tricks to help your customer to reach their goal,” Fetig says.
Fencing is another element to consider that will keep your customers’ pets from getting out and keep them safe from unwelcome visitors, like skunks or coyotes.
“Around natural areas, you may want to consider natural predators that may be the area and how to keep pets safe from them,” Fetig says.
Design elements for a pet paradise
Once you have the safety aspect taken care of, then you can start focusing on adding elements that will make the space enjoyable.
The first question is if you are dealing with dogs or cats in your pet-friendly equation.
“This can change the design quite a bit, as cats do not need as much open space for playing fetch or chasing in the landscape,” says Tim Sweeney. “Our cats do like to hide and lounge in the landscape; ornamental grasses make great hidings places. For the larger dogs, keep in mind that they can cause damage to smaller or brittle plants. Larger open spaces for the larger more active dogs make sense.”
If landscaping for dogs, Kim Sweeney advises asking your clients questions about their pet’s behaviors such as if they are diggers, if they use a certain area of the yard for the bathroom or if they like to eat everything.
“We have had some customers letting us know that their dogs love to eat smaller rocks and larger wood chips, so we made sure to keep these elements out,” she says.
In the case of digger dogs, this is often a case of the dog trying to keep cool or boredom. Tim Sweeney suggests providing shaded areas or open play areas to keep the dog entertained.
“Most of the dogs we had heard were diggers either grew out of it or after they were given more toys and attention, the digging stopped,” Tim Sweeney says.
Fetig suggests using larger cobble as mulch or chicken wire under areas of mulch as other ways to deter pets from digging.
Dog runs are also a good addition for pups that have a penchant for patrolling the property.
“Younger or more energetic pets tend to want to race along property lines and so plantings along those edges might not be appropriate,” Fetig says.
Both cats and dogs appreciate shady spots protected from the sun, as it’s much easier for dogs to overheat and for cats to become sunburned. If you opt to include a water feature to help pets stay cool and hydrated, make sure it is constructed so they can safely exit it.
“Drainage is another important area that is overlooked,” Tim Sweeney says. “No one likes dealing with muddy paws weeks after a rain event. Extra points are if you can include an area to help rinse off muddy paws; it can be as simple as using some pond pebbles near a hose.”
When it comes to what landscape material to work with, it’s a good call to think of how certain products will feel under sensitive paws.
“It can help to know the size or weight of the pet to know how much traffic and abuse the path may take,” says Tim Sweeney. “What we have found over the years that paths are more of a suggestion for our furry friends, so make sure the path works best for you first.”
As for what to do when it comes to dogs needing to use the bathroom and the inevitable urine burns that come with it, Kim Sweeney suggests using Kentucky bluegrass, turf-type tall fescues and a variety of drought and salt-tolerant plants that are more tolerant of dog urine.
Fetig says in his area, they have been trying out a grass called Dog Tuff Turf and he says they’ve been having good success with it, but as a warm-season grass, it is only green for half the year, so it may not please everyone.
He says he also uses artificial turf in smaller areas with a lot of success.
“Our area uses irrigation systems, so I usually add a zone or the turf and tell the owner to run it once per week to wash down the turf for obvious reasons,” Fetig says. “If the area is in a warm area and there is no other area for the pet to get out of the heat, you could have some problems with artificial turf. In general, our yards are getting smaller and this is a good way to give the customer a landscape that will hold up for an extended time.”