Keeping your garden safe for pets

Keeping your garden safe for pets

By Tosha Kelly

You love your dog. He brings as much joy as the first blooms of spring, but how can you be sure he's safe in your garden? By avoiding certain plants and pest-control products, you can be sure that your garden will be friendlier for Fido, and less dangerous for Kitty too.

Everything from toxic plants to lawn chemicals and pesticides can be potentially harmful and even deadly to our furry friends. Fortunately, there are natural ways to take care of lawns and gardens while safeguarding pets.

Know your pests and your pest controls

Pesticides are poisons by definition, and they can harm beneficial insects that are a part of your lawn's natural defenses. Running through the yard is fun for your pets, but since they are closer to the ground, they are breathing in fumes as well as coating their paws and fur in toxic residue. Did you know that your pet could also be tracking these harmful chemicals into your home?

Studies by the Safer Pest Control Project found that commonly used pesticides are linked to serious health problems in laboratory animals. The National Cancer Institute says that dogs with cancer were 30 percent more likely to have lived in a home where the owners had applied the commonly used lawn chemical 2,4-D, or employed a commercial lawn company to treat their yard.

The most effective strategy for controlling pests without harming your loved ones? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, you should combine methods in an approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

"The foundation of IPM is identifying the cause of a specific problem in your yard and using the least toxic method to bring the problem to an acceptable level," says Anchorage Parks Superintendent Monique Anderson.

The first and most critical step is to first identify the pests. "If you don't know what you have, it's pretty tough to control," says Thomas Jahns, faculty IPM program coordinator for the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Get tough, without the chemicals Luckily, you have a number of approaches from which to choose when ridding your yard from unwanted visitors. The key is to solve the problem before the pest population is at an epidemic level.

Biological warfare. Let the good guys beat up the bad guys. Using living organisms to control other living organisms is one of the least toxic approaches to pest control and the safest for your pets. Lady bugs, praying mantises and wasps are all natural predators. "They are not a cure," says Jahns, "but they do help."

Get tidy. Keeping your garden clean is key. Cleaning up in the fall and removing leaf litter are some non-toxic procedures that help, says Statewide IPM Program Manager Corlene Rose. "Provide appropriate growing conditions, avoid over- and/or under-watering and purchase disease-free plants in resistant varieties. Quarantine any new plants to ensure their safety," Rose advises.

Get physical. Jahns says that mechanical controls like removing slugs and other pests by hand, weeding, burning or just putting down a tarp will go a long way in controlling weeds. Floating row covers are a great choice if you are looking for physical barriers. The covers are lightweight, opaque blankets that drape over the garden bed. Sunlight and water can still reach the plants, but insects and birds cannot get underneath. The plants pop through the light material as they grow. "Any of these non-chemical approaches to lawn and garden care certainly benefit both humans and pets," Jahns says.

If you find yourself in over your head and are ready to reach for the chemicals, Todd Fahrenbrook of Alaska Mill & Feed can help identify which products are safe to use around pets. For weed control, he recommends Burn Out, which is a high dose of vinegar and clove oil. "It's a non-selective killer," says Fahrenbrook — meaning it will kill the weeds and whatever else it lands on — so be careful!

Corn gluten is another product commonly used for weed control. "The corn sterilizes the soil," says Fahrenbrook. "Put it down in early spring because it won't control any existing weeds."

When it comes to insects, cutworms are always an issue. One popular item is a live bacterium called Bt. The worms consume the product and it affects their digestion, which forces them to stop eating. Also try Nemoil, an insecticidal soap, and deterrents like hot pepper wax.

We Alaskans know that moose can inflict some major damage to trees, shrubs and even our pets. Wolf urine, oddly enough, is a good option because moose will sense that a predator is near. You can buy it in convenient spray bottles, squeeze bottles and hanging dispensers.

Plantskydd is another option to keep moose from chomping on your trees and shrubs. The best way to use this product is to spray it on in early spring, and it will repel pests for up to six months.

Once you've learned the basics of organic lawn care, you will save time, money and your pets. "What began 30 years ago as a lofty notion to partner with nature when controlling pest problems has blossomed into a nationally accepted practice that saves the environment and money, and reduces pesticide use," says Rose. "The old adage applies here: 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'"

Pets: Don't eat here

Many plants can be harmful to pets if ingested, so it's a good idea to research the flowers, trees and weeds that grow in your yard, notes Julianne McGuinness, executive director of the Alaska Botanical Garden. Some of these plants include "delphiniums, lobelia, foxglove and a host of treasured ornamentals," she adds. Foxglove, for example, is one of several cardiotoxic plants — those that can affect the heart. Also, rhubarb leaves and certain species of lily can cause kidney failure, and some species of mushrooms can result in liver failure.

"Monkshood is highly poisonous and has alkaloids that paralyze the nerves and lower body (temperature) and blood pressure," says Jahns. "It is found from Kodiak, across Southcentral and clear up to Barrow."

For a complete list and illustrations of the dangerous plants in your area, check out "Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska" by Christine Heller. For a list of plants that have been reported to have systemic and gastrointestinal effects on animals, visit

For more information: Integrated Pest Management: • UAF Cooperative Extension Service: • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: • Alaska Mill and Feed: 907-276-6016,