Dog eating the grass? 6 ways to pet proof your lawn and garden

We have all been there: You spent hours planting a flower bed or manicuring the lawn, only to have the family pet wreak havoc on the whole thing. Sharing a yard with a dog or cat does have its challenges, but with a little careful planning, you can create an outdoor space that both humans and animals can enjoy. Check out advice from gardening experts to start this summer’s outdoor experience off on the right foot—and paw.

Designate a pet-friendly section

Save yourself the headache and design a landscape around your dog or cat’s behavior, suggests gardening expert gardener Melinda Myers.

Take dogs, for instance, who tend to trample over the same patch of grass until it’s muddy and worn. Instead of planting something beautiful over their stomping grounds, work with the running path. 

“Mulch to reduce the mud if he has worn the grass down to soil level,” Myers says. “Then strategically place plantings next to the running path to create some added beauty.” 

One important thing to note: Avoid cocoa bean mulch, which can be toxic and even deadly to some dogs, and wood mulch, which contains lots of twigs that can puncture your pet’s mouth, she adds.

For durability’s sake, use materials that can take the repeated abuse. “Consider putting down stone, gravel or some type of hard surfacing in areas that see a lot of four-legged traffic,” says Susan Littlefield, horticulture editor at the National Gardening Association. 

Cats, on the other hand, are natural-born diggers. Myers suggests creating a sandbox for your feline to dig. “This may divert their attention away from the garden,” she adds.

Give pets a rest area

Where you see beautiful flowers and green grass, your pet is probably scouting out places to pee. That said, if you designate a specific space for your dogs to relieve themselves—and train them to go there—you’ll save yourself lots of stress. Choose a location that’s convenient for you and your pup, then use materials that can tolerate urine. “Pea gravel makes a great surface as it is easy to clean,” Myers suggests.

Be prepared for upkeep. “One of the biggest garden headaches for dog owners is ‘dog spot’ from dog urine,” Littlefield says. “The grass is injured by the high concentration of nitrogen in dog urine, so flooding the spot with water to wash it away as soon as possible can help help reduce damage.”

Myers suggests keeping a homemade or commercial lawn patch kit on hand to repair areas of the lawn damaged by your dog's urine. “A 2-gallon mop bucket of topsoil, handful of grass seed and 1/2 cup of a low-nitrogen, slow-release fertilizer like Milorganite work well,” she says. “Just thoroughly water the area, rake off any dead grass and loosen the soil surface. Then sprinkle the mixture over the areas. Keep moist for best results.”

Make off-limits areas unattractive to pets

Sometimes it takes a little extra work before your pet gets the message that your garden is off limits. A great way to reinforce the message? Make the environment as uncomfortable for them as possible. For example, to keep cats from turning the garden beds into their personal litter box, Littlefield says to try sprinkling cayenne pepper, a natural deterrent, on the soil.  

“Like commercially available repellents, this needs to be renewed frequently,” she adds. A longer-lasting solution is mulch. Littlefield suggets wood chips, while Myers proposes chunk bark or something prickly, like sweet gum fruit.

Have a pet who loves to lounge on your carefully planted greenery? Landscape designer Leslie Scott has found success keeping dogs and cats at bay by placing softball-sized rocks throughout the bed. 

Raise your garden

A big strategy during baby proofing is to move things up and out of baby’s reach. The same goes for pet-proofing your landscape. “Container gardening, hanging baskets, raised beds and the like can solve some of the problems of gardening in a space shared with dogs by keeping plants out of reach,” Littlefield says.

Choose plants and flowers wisely

If you know you will be sharing your backyard with a cat or dog, choose grass, plants and flowers that are safe for pets. Myers suggests turf grasses in durable or play-friendly mixes sold at local garden centers. Many of the ornamental and native grasses—maiden grass (miscanthus sinensis), muhly grass, switchgrass, and sand cordgrass—could work, she says. Meanwhile, salt-resistant landscape plants, such as lilacs and forsythia, are most likely to tolerate urine damage. (Contact your local garden center for the best grasses and plants for your zone.)

Of course, always avoid plants that are toxic to your pets, Myers says. Consult your veterinarian or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' list of toxic and nontoxic plants. 

Install effective fencing

If all else fails, you can always install fencing, says Littlefield. When choosing a fence, she recommends considering the size and habits of your dog—this will inform how tall the fence should be and how to space the pickets and slats. 

“To keep a dog from digging under a fence, you can fasten hardware cloth, which is like sturdy screening or chicken wire around the base of the fence with about a foot above ground and another foot and a half underground,” she adds. “Twelve inches of the underground portion should extend straight down, with the final 6 inches bent at a 90-degree angle towards the dog side of the fence.”

To keep cats out of a new garden, try laying chicken wire down over the bed. “It's just a temporary solution, but can help while plants fill in,” Littlefield says.