Pet Safe Garden

From Chapter 22 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas

Your pets can also enjoy the natural environment and produce from your garden. If you intend to grow healthy fruits and vegetables for your family, grow enough to feed your pets, too.

Design your garden with pet safety in mind. Most fruit and vegetable plants are not toxic. Common plants like squash, zucchini, cucumbers and melons are safe for animals. The majority of herbs are safe, too. All outdoor pets have access to fallen fruits (apple, plum, cherry, apricot and peach) with seeds or pits. Although seeds and pits of these fruits contain cyanide, the amount is minute. In addition, most pets do not chew the fruits thoroughly, so the seeds are not usually broken open when ingested. The seed will more likely cause a foreign object obstruction in the animal's digestive system (also needing urgent care) than cyanide poisoning.

Still, a few common plants pose health risks. Onions, chives and garlic contain compounds that in large quantities can cause sudden hemolytic anemia. The leafy part of the potato plant and the green part of the potato skin contain compounds that are toxic in large quantities. Cyanide in fruit seeds and pits can cause fatal seizures. Grapes may cause kidney failure in dogs. Moldy green walnuts are also toxic. Baby's breath can be quite toxic.

Visit a good garden nursery for a detailed list of plants that can be grown in your region as well as those not suitable for pets. Many pets accidentally consume harmful plants every year and need emergency treatment by a veterinarian. Chemicals (fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide) are a far greater and more common threat to your pets than the plants you grow. This is another reason, among many, to go organic.

Many nurseries and pet stores offer effective, safe alternatives to chemicals for controlling nasty insects and garden pests. Increasingly, consumers demand higher standards from manufacturers to provide safe, long-lasting pest control treatments that support the growth of organic crops with pet health in mind.

Why an Organic Garden is Safer for Pets
Organic gardening materials (fertilizers, composts and insecticides) pose little health risk to your pets, because they are plant-based or animal-based. Because many of us want to harvest the most produce we can, we may try to completely control all insects, especially when we see pest damage to our crops. Think about the consequences of your actions. Is it worth harvesting all of a crop if you run the risk of poisoning your pets?

I prefer to let Mother Nature take a portion of my crop to ensure the safety of my pets. Gary Poznick, a biologist friend, gave me wise advice when I was a young gardener more than 25 years ago: "Grow more than you plan on harvesting if you want to do it naturally. Remember that all living things need to eat, too. If you want 100 percent of your harvest, then grow 120 percent." This approach to planning fits with the fundamental foundations of organic gardening, which are biodiversity and balance.

I get peace of mind knowing everything I apply to my garden will not harm my pets or my family. If you must apply an insect control, choose the least toxic, environmentally friendly option. For example, diatomaceous earth or citrus sprays are excellent for controlling fleas and ticks in the garden where pets may play or run. These sprays are effective, have minimal side effects and are the least toxic pest control option for organic gardeners. (Do not confuse the diatomaceous earth used in swimming pools with the one you need to control insects in your garden.) As discussed in Chapter 21, botanical sprays are effective as biological controls. Remember: Never over apply. Even safe alternatives to chemical pesticides are broad-spectrum killers that can affect beneficial insects. Spare all the non-destructive life you can, because biodiversity is the most important principle in growing a healthy garden.

Make Sure Your Plants are Pet Safe
The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) offers a complete list that identifies both toxic plants and those they consider safe. Visit to learn more. Also, ask your local nursery about plants that potentially could harm pets.

I have grown thousands of tomatoes over the years, but my dogs and cats have never eaten any. Still, green tomatoes can cause a toxic reaction in dogs and cats. In rare situations, dogs are attracted to eating grapes, which are also not good for them. Be careful if you grow avocados, as some pets love them and have had toxic reactions. Plants such as rhubarb, garlic and onions consumed in large quantities also can cause an adverse reaction.

Your backyard is your pets’ kingdom. Outside in the fresh air during warm spring and summer days, animals love to roll in the dirt, pardon me, "the soil." (Give your cats an outdoor litter box to keep them from using your garden or kids sand pit for that purpose.) Quite often pets, or even children, will destroy plants. Many varieties of ornamental plants naturally attract pets that want to eat them or at least sample them. Their natural curiosity often leads them to taste plants that can sometimes produce irritating and even toxic effects. If you observe your pets acting strangely after being in the garden, call a veterinarian immediately.

A few plants to consider avoiding are mentioned below. Most of the time your pets will avoid these plants on their own. However, if you have a curious puppy or kitten and are not sure of their behavior patterns, you may want to rule out some of these plants for your garden.

I consider these plants potentially toxic to your pets: trumpet vine, Japanese yew, castor bean, Jerusalem cherry, lily of the valley, precatory beans, foxglove, azaleas, ferns, hydrangeas, lilies, oleander, rhubarb, sweet peas, all green fruits and the nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, sweet pepper and eggplant). My own pets have never gone after any of these plants. Still, if you plan to grow any of them, locate them in an inaccessible part of the garden. You can also install a fencing structure around the plants.

Common Sense Pet Safety
Lawn and garden chemicals pose the biggest threat to your pets, so avoid them. Reach for safe alternatives like those discussed in Chapter 21. Always store chemicals out of reach of pets and kids. A locked garage or storage shed is best for storing potentially harmful substances.

If you must kill or control insects, here are some alternatives to chemical spraying. Try to wash off the leaves and vegetables with a strong blast of water. If the problem persists, try soap and water or other organic methods. Soap and water are safe for getting rid of soft-bodied insects such as aphids. Add a teaspoon of dish soap to a gallon of water and use it in a garden sprayer. The soap is an irritant to many insects and can help break down the protective barrier of their external skeleton.

Mowing the lawn can also pose a threat to pets. Pebbles or sticks can fly in the air as the mower cuts the grass and strike a pet. This could cause your pet great pain and discomfort not to mention an expensive visit to the veterinarian.

Always read product labels for anything you use. (This practice goes beyond pet safety and garden materials. You should adopt this philosophy with everything you buy.) Keep your pets inside or at a safe distance when you apply any treatments to your lawn or garden.

Before you plan your garden, visit the "hard goods" section of your nursery for treatments that address potential hazards to pets. With a little planning, you and your pets can have a safe, beautiful and nutritious garden that will be a joy to everyone.

Milo Lou Shammas
Founder and Formulator

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