Gardening

Sharing a garden with an animal companion can bring additional joy to the life outdoors. But thought must go into pet-friendly plantings. By Helen Razer.

Pets in the garden

A feline enjoying the olfactory charms of catmint.
Credit: Luped Archives / Alamy

In early spring, says neighbour Iris, we can see the greatest glory. I never challenge the master gardener. Still. To the great spring show of No. 10 – white, off-white, celestial blue and butter – I do prefer our current colours. Poinciana, or flame trees, in Brisbane; the crude cochineal of our annuals in the south. Black sunflower florets with paprika pollen; delphinium spikes that flash purple as a Passiona can. Summer. It’s magnificently vulgar.

Permit me to endorse summer’s low-care, high-viz lady, the zinnia. Choose dwarf types for your pots and sunny pathways, or make your borders bold with the giants of this genus. Try your luck now and sow her seeds directly into soil or medium, or propagate a cutting. The more we deadhead this drought-tolerant daisy, the more she… No.

No. I cannot sustain this entirely sunlit account. You and I must use these slow summer weeks to think, and to act, more seriously as gardeners. We now discuss the garden as tailored to our cats, our dogs and/or our significant otters. I do endorse the zinnia, and gardening rather broadly. Your animal companions, of course, are part of that garden. Or, at least, those parts of that garden to which they can be safely admitted.

Your garden may grow on a windowsill, on a balcony or in the good earth. Whatever its scale or style, we will agree that this place is your garden. We will also agree that a garden without creatures is much like a bank with scruples: empty and unproductive.

This is by no means to suggest that your doggo deserves an all-access pass to dig-town. You should permit this no more than I permit George, an uncompromised tom of a local address, to use my tomato bed as a luxury shaded cat box. We shall briefly return to George, and all animal acts of, ahem, fertilisation, in a spell.

First, let’s commit to a contract between species. Your animal will agree to curb their natural love of devastation if you agree to bend nature to their liking. So, let me quickly reaffirm your pet-friendly zinnia. (Before I scare the compost from you with a list of plants that poison your companions.)

Zinnia blooms well into autumn. It will survive all of the abuse my poor memory and dexterity extend. Zinnia loves a haircut, so fill your home with posies. Several varieties, particularly Lilliput, attract butterfly pollinators, and perhaps those one or two bees still serious about their careers.

Zinnia is claimed by some garden crackpots as a culinary plant. I’ve no idea why. Carrot, bean, okra, corn, lettuce, even late-fruiting tomatoes can all be started from seed now in most Australian regions. Even our worst veg crop will still taste better than a bite of perfumey bristles.

I am making a pet-friendly point with this zinnia endorsement. It is a very serviceable garden beauty whose ingestion is unlikely to hurt you, or your happy pets. There are plants, and planting methods, agreeable to all family members.

I learnt that zinnia was non-toxic to horses, dogs and cats on an animal poison control app. The best of the type, in my view, is produced by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). If you are both cultivator and companion to something furry, you have need of such dreadful data.

When Eleven, a dear and departed cat, had his 12th birthday, a chum, as unfamiliar with plants as she was loving to cats, sent some lilies. “Lilies!” I said. “Lilies!” No cat companion allows this poison, which can cause renal failure in felines, near the home. I popped them in some water to keep them for a neighbour, and hoisted them high. Soon after, a crash could be heard. I saw first that Eleven’s dark snout was blond from pollen, then that his pink tongue was drinking from the dripping vase.

There are, I am told, those of Liliaceae – a family that includes lilies, tulips, garlic, onion, decorative alliums and about 700 species before we get to California’s mariposa, or Calochortus, whose catalogue portrait once promised me such compact loveliness I almost broke the No Lily rule – that are not toxic to cats, and in some cases, dogs. You can always check the app.

If you must grow lilies – and I do understand that to desist is quite frustrating – do so in elevated pots. Very elevated – you know cats. Nearby, grow lavender or pennyroyal, which offend the feline nose. Eleven survived that trauma, but not without a full day of decontamination and fluid.

Oh. If a landscape designer ever sold you on the “sculptural” properties of a sago palm, not actually a palm but the cycad Cycas revoluta, build a cage around the stout guy. I can see no reason at all that you would ever want the “architectural” yucca, but, if you do, know that it can prompt serious abdominal reactions in cats and dogs. And people with fine taste.

There are plenty of cultivars that pose little or no threat. There are even plants for which certain cats would sell their sisal scratching posts. I know a smoke tuxedo who spends hours twisting himself into giant catmint, Nepeta x faassenii. How this cat drug is yet to be outlawed is a mystery. The mint is a creditably attractive flowering ground cover that can foreground taller plants, unlike the famous but weedy catnip, Nepeta cataria. I am yet to personally interview a cat that enjoys its heady effects, but we can see plenty of baked moggies on YouTube. My vet believes there are those cats that are predisposed to go wild for the ’nip, and those that are not.

There is, sadly, no dognip. There are grasses, however, that are considered very safe, even beneficial, to dogs, and these may often be found marked as “dog grass” in both larger plant stores and specialty inner-city-type boutiques. Few dogs regularly crave grass, however, and if doggo does start seeking it suddenly, this may be a sign of ill health.

Back on the warning app, we find that oleander, cyclamen, poinsettia and saffron crocus are out for the unsupervised quadruped. See also foxglove, delphinium, hydrangea and, basically, any plant an Agatha Christie villain ever grew. And then, there are daffodils. Daffodils. That fragile narcissus whose bobbing head appears to take interest in nothing but its own gracious stem. These guys, along with jonquils, are no damn good for doggo.

At the beginning of last spring, just as 50 shades of white had begun to unfold for Iris, I learnt this lesson. I had agreed to host an American bulldog cross boxer named Winnie. As her humans reclined in Port Douglas – perhaps in the shade of a green Gondwanan – the great bulloxer ate all my September refinement. Some of October’s as well. I was back on the ASPCA app.

Animals can find the things we cultivate irresistible. If Winnie, who has a face like the stubbed toe of a plush toy, was not herself irresistible, I might have taken her excavation very personally. I might have mourned the daffodils I saw in her 10-gallon snout. Know this, oh servants to glorious spring: hoisting 45 kilograms of dog into an Uber is more gruelling than growing rare species tulips. And “canine gastric lavage”, as described on the colossal vet bill, is pricier than my priciest wild plants.

The emergency vet did say that dogs rarely perish from dining on daffodil flowers, which contain an alkaloid called lycorine. In any case, Winnie was a dog-toddler so enormous she’d likely survive a whole poison salad. But a vet trip was crucial, as nobody but Winnie knew just how many daffodil bulbs, the plant part with the highest lycorine concentration, were scarfed. Further, Winnie’s family would have no moral choice but to kill me had I failed to act.

With the vanishing scent last September of the only hyacinth (yes, also toxic) that Winnie hadn’t eaten, I was reminded that gardens must be carefully balanced for the comfort of all living things.

Zinnia brings the butterfly, which may deter the aphid. The need for chemical control is diminished, and the butterfly survives to attract – hopefully, elude – the cat. The dog is momentarily free from the advances of the cat, and is safe from potentially harmful pesticides.

To save the roots of young plants from the potentially harmful herbicide of animal urine, we grow a range of scented plants our fussy friends don’t care for. Cat and dog deterrents include rue (Ruta graveolens) or plain marigolds – the latter persuaded George not to wee on my black krims. He’s taken to the compost pile, which, as I’ve tried to explain to him, is actually a service to all cats. If I use this benign fertiliser in my garden, George and other four-legged visitors are far less likely to spend time at the vet. And if I use mulch as weed control, not Roundup or other glyphosate products, this tomcat should know I mean well. That George. If he wasn’t such a decent addition to the garden, I might tell him off and compost his catmint.

It is not only entirely possible, but entirely pleasurable to share your garden with an animal friend, or visitor. There will be precautions and frustrations, and occasional moments of panic. But this is how our gardens grow in any week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Doing it all fur love". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.