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Natural Awakenings

Everybody Outside!: Create a Yard that Welcomes Kids, Pets and Wildlife

Jul 29, 2011 11:54AM ● By Sandra Murphy

From barbecues, lawn games and cooling dashes through the garden sprinkler to wondrous encounters with nature, a backyard is a place to grow summer memories enriched by active children, wildlife and family pets. But how can everyone safely play and coexist in the same place?



START WITH NON-TOXIC PLANTS.  Avoid planting species that are poisonous to pets, including amaryllis, azalea, chrysanthemum, English ivy, oleander, sago palm, tulip bulbs and yew. Several species of lilies, including those commonly sold at Easter, are especially toxic to cats if they ingest the pollen, stem or flowers.

DESIGNATE A DOG POTTY SPOT.  “A designated potty area is key to a healthy backyard,” says Lisa Peterson, an American Kennel Club spokesperson. Choose a spot away from the main play area, vegetables and flowers. Lead a dog there until it becomes his habit; effusive praise helps.

Matt Boswell, founder of the nationwide Pet Butler pet waste cleanup service, suggests installing a designated piddle post for easier training of male dogs. Use cedar chips to reduce odor—never cocoa mulch, which is toxic to dogs. “Daily scooping is a must,” Boswell counsels. “Fecal chloroform kills grass.”

Courtesy of Cheryl Smith
Courtesy of Cheryl Smith

PROTECT PETS FROM PREDATORS. Dangers range from poisonous frogs and snakes to birds of prey and coyotes. Six-inch-high wire mesh, dug into the ground at the bottom of a fence, will help keep out problematic reptiles and amphibians. Install a coyote roller bar at the top of the fence to foil potential animal attempts to climb up and over. Consider using canvas “sails” to prevent overhead predators from spotting small, vulnerable pets. Sails also add shade and help protect the whole family against harmful ultraviolet rays.

“Evenly space lights to avoid dark spots,” suggests designer Mitch Kalamian, owner of Solena Landscape, in Huntington Beach, California. “It lets you see where your dog is during the before-bedtime outing, as well as making sure no other animals are in the yard.”

If “Let’s eat out!” at your house translates into “Fire up the grill,” be sure it is stabilized on a firm surface, so that speeding kids and curious canines can’t upend the grill and spill the hot coals along with the turkey dogs.


Courtesy of Susan Gottlieb
Courtesy of Susan Gottlieb
GUARD AGAINST BOREDOM. Left alone in the yard for hours, a dog becomes as bored as a single kid on a teeter-totter. Barking, jumping fences and digging can lead to problems with neighbors, yard damage or pet injury, so offer him some options and ways to spend time with people.

Dogs understand “mine” and “yours,” so give him an area where digging is okay. Use decking wood to create a small, but deep, animal sandbox. Hide treasures like tennis balls (nothing smaller) or eco-friendly squeaky toys for him to find. Set up a tunnel that is fun to run through or hide in; it can also be a cool shady spot to rest. A large pipe made of recycled material works well; cover it with soil and plant groundcover. Kids likewise will love sharing the pit and tunnel with Fido.

Felines, too, enjoy the outdoors, but keeping them from becoming predators or prey requires a bit of planning. Susan Gottlieb, owner of G2 Gallery, who donates all gallery proceeds to environmental causes, replaced the exotic plants in her yard with native species. So her cats can enjoy the garden safely, she built an open-air cat run, composed of rubber-matted wood planks enclosed in a wire mesh tunnel.

Ground-level playpens invite games and snoozes. Viewing platforms wind up to the roof for safe sunbathing on cool days and birdwatching with- out harm to songbirds. The National Wildlife Federation has designated her Beverly Hills garden as a Backyard

Courtesy of Audubon California
Courtesy of Audubon California
Wildlife Habitat.

“A backyard is not a babysitter,” remarks Cheryl Smith, author of Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs. “Find a livable solution. It’s easier than getting rid of the problem.”

INVITE WILDLIFE. Butterflies look for specific species of flowers and require a protected place to rest. A birdbath and fresh seed will attract birds and squirrels. Hummingbirds like hanging sugar-water feeders, which should be filled daily during the local hummingbird season. Children can help to attract these fun visitors by keeping the bath and feeders full.

“Creating a bird-friendly yard is a great way to bring the family together outdoors. Birds can add a tremendous amount of life and beauty to our surroundings, whether it’s a group of hummingbirds hovering around a feeder, a robin splashing in a bird bath or a black phoebe perched on the fence.”
~ Graham Chisholm, executive director, Audubon California


FISH CAN COEXIST. Surround a pond with greenery to shade the fish. Strategic plantings also may help camouflage a koi pond from raccoons, opossums and birds of prey.

“Opossums won’t dive in, but can grab a fish that gets too close to the surface or the pond’s edge,” notes

Aaron Burchett, of the Pond Market, in St. Louis, Missouri. “A depth of three feet is enough to keep fish safe from raccoons. Make a cave in the side or bottom and build a rock overhang, so the fish can hide.”

When outside temperatures dip below freezing, use a pond heater to maintain an opening should ice form. This both lets oxygen in and lets gases from decomposing plants and animal waste escape while the fish hibernate. Setting up a well-cleaned, bi- or tri-level water fountain for kids and dogs to drink from makes a nice water feature, as well.

Keep in mind that a people- and animal-friendly yard is a work in progress, so this summer’s plans can continue to build.


Sandra Murphy is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO. Connect at [email protected].

Helpful Websites

Butterfly attractors:
TheGardenHelper.com/butterflyflowers.html

Hummingbird attractors:
Hummingbirds.net/attract.html

Pond and fish facts:
PondMarket.com

Plants hazardous to dogs: ansci.cornell.edu/plants/dogs/index.html
Poison control center: aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control; emergency helpline 888-426-4435

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