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Gardening: dogs in the garden

19 July 2019


NOT long after I started this column, eight years ago, I wrote about burying our first dog, Oscar. I did not expect to be digging an adjacent grave for his successor, Marnie, for a long time yet. Sadly, after a scarily fast escalation of symptoms, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, and we made the heart-rending decision to have her put to sleep at the age of six and a half.

Our garden has evolved with Marnie and been shaped partly by her enthusiasms. She has taught me how to design a dog-friendly garden. I quickly learned to put more brittle plants in the middle of beds, and line her favourite routes with soft flexible subjects such as nepeta and ornamental grasses. She took patrolling very seriously. A wide perimeter path allowed her to run and exercise, and a couple of high vantage-points kept her on the lookout. She loved to sunbathe and then a paddle in a shallow pond that is also great for birds to bathe in, and newts, frogs, dragonflies, and damselflies to breed in.

Marnie was never a great digger, but if your dog does like to “help” in the garden, you can focus their attention on one area by creating a special digging pit. Encourage them to use that area by loosening the soil and burying some treats or toys, to give them the idea. Poisonous plants can be a worry, and here a dog-owner must use his or her judgement based on the dog’s behaviour.

Puppies tend to chew indiscriminately, and need to be kept in a pen or supervised constantly in a garden of plants, many of which would cause stomach upset and could even be fatal. Owners of older dogs may be less worried, although they may wish to avoid the most toxic flora such as lily of the valley, sweet pea, yew, chrysanthemum, daffodil, delphinium, foxglove, and hydrangea. The Dogs Trust has useful lists of dog-friendly plants and ones that can cause problems.

Ten days after Marnie’s death, and the lovely memories are countered by doubts. What could have triggered a cancerous mutation in such a young dog? I worry that it was one of the few chemicals I have used in our garden, her playground, over her life, transferred to those big fluffy paws, bred for the mountains of Tibet, and licked off later. It is probably just guilt in the cycle of grief, but it has triggered a decision. No more chemicals.

Looking back, it was a mixture of laziness and a kind of vanity: wanting a neater lawn or perfect nibble-free foliage had me reaching for a spray bottle.

Resisting the use of chemicals requires more thought and engagement with garden ecology. If we exercise patience, Nature will redress a balance. Ladybirds will follow a population explosion of aphids. Physical control, such as picking off and squashing scarlet lily beetles before they mate and lay eggs, or digging out bindweed roots, will never be complete, however diligent we are. But we need a change of mind-set to see that as a positive thing, and resorting to chemical control as an irresponsible form of cheating.

It has taken a bereavement for me to make the switch completely. Gardens are for family, pets, and wildlife, and chemicals are just not worth the risk.


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