March is a perfect time for South Louisianians to start gardening. Down here, we don’t have to wait for the snow to melt and dissipate. In fact, since a deep freeze does not kill off our winter crops, we can garden and farm year round (although certain plants do better at specific times of the year). As you start out this planting season, keep in mind that both your critters and any urban cats in your area like to stick their snouts in just about anything, including your garden. Other than destroying it, which is a mere nuisance, your garden can pose a danger to animals. What sorts of things need to be on your radar? Well, lots actually: what you plant, where you plant it and how to border it, as well as what pesticides you use.
What to Plant (and What Not to Plant)
Many plants are toxic to animals— ingesting certain plants may not bring immediate death, but a common symptom is digestive turmoil. Some popular ornamental plant favorites considered toxic to both dogs and cats are lilies (many varieties, including day lily and peace lily, toxic to cats only), azaleas, baby’s breath, begonias, caladium, daisy, elephant ears, hibiscus, kalanchoe (also known as mother-in-law plant or devil’s backbone), among hundreds of others. Generally, digestive upset seems to be the most common symptom; but sometimes, the reaction will be more allergic, such as dermatitis or irritation and inflammation of the mouth and throat. Either way, if you notice any odd reaction or behavior in your pets, call your vet immediately. For a comprehensive list of toxic and nontoxic plants, visit the ASPCA’s website (aspca.org).
What about herbs and vegetables? As far as we know, most herbs—your rosemary, thyme, basil and dill—are safe for cats and dogs, but there is one that frequently colors a person’s garden that can cause a sometimes severe—and definitely strange— illness. Spring parsley can cause photosensitization and something called ocular toxicity, which usually occurs after a long exposure to elevated oxygen levels. This can ultimately lead to seizures, if the amount of spring parsley ingested was large enough. The information out there supporting this herb’s toxicity is limited, however; the ASPCA claims its toxicity due to the chemical compound furanocoumarin (also found in grapefruit), but there are veterinarians who have published material explaining that parsley is actually good for dogs and cats. There are herbs you can specifically grow for your animals, however. Some obvious ones for cats are catnip (kitty high!), valerian root (maybe not so obvious, also fine for dogs) to lure the critters to sleep and calm nerves, and cat thyme (yes, there is such a thing and apparently, it smells pretty bad). Milk thistle is a good antioxidant for both dogs and cats, improving liver and eye health as well, but since it’s a thistle, it can be prickly to the touch. Drying the herb, due to its bitter taste, and sprinkling the veterinarian-prescribed dosage over food will probably yield the best results.
As for fruits and vegetables, tomatoes (particularly the leaves) can be toxic to dogs and cats. A chemical compound called solanine can cause depression, pupil dilation and confusion, in addition to the regular digestive upset. Like tomatoes, ornamental peppers contain solanine, leading to tummy troubles for our furry friends. Avocados are another forbidden fruit that many pooches will target and try to hoard as if they know how forbidden it is. However, growing avocados in New Orleans is unlikely. Some veggies that may not come as a surprise when it concerns digestive trouble are garlic and onion. Too much can give most of us tummy troubles, too; however, too much onion or garlic for the furries can lead to a severe breakdown in red blood cells, called hemolytic anemia. If you choose to try and give your animals garlic for immune boosting properties, talk to your veterinarian first so that you are giving your pets the correct amount.
Borders, Mulches and Height
If you have an in-ground garden as opposed to planters or raised beds and wish to use a border, sometimes using something with a little extra height will keep your animals from easily running through your garden. Try cinder blocks or stacked bricks or stones. Along these lines, you can at least keep your domesticated pets out of your garden by building it up. Making raised beds proves easier than it sounds if you have never done such a thing before. With some wood, stones or cinder blocks, you can stack as high as you desire before filling with soil. If you wish to use mulch, avoid using much of the mulch sold in familiar stores (such as Lowe’s). Sadly, many think that buying cypress mulch is supporting Southern Louisiana commerce but really, those people are just financially supporting the further destruction of our receding cypress trees and barriers against storms. A popular type of mulch is cocoa shell mulch. If your dog is drawn to trouble, keep a tight leash on your pooch when around cocoa shell mulch. If enough is ingested, dogs may develop similar symptoms to chocolate poisoning, which range from gastro-intestinal issues to muscular and neurological damage. Many other popular mulches sold in stores have a chemical in them that is poisonous to animals and humans if ingested. This also applies to most pesticides.
Keeping unwanted insects off your plants
The best option for eliminating pests is to plant things that have evolved to tolerate and even thrive in the soil and environment. But if your thumb is as anti-green as mine, and you have to use an insecticide, there are some environmentally and pet-friendly ones out there. Probably the most popular pesticide is Bt (bacillus thuringiensis). Bt is especially effective when it comes to caterpillars and worms, such as the worms that plague tomato plants, but ineffective with other pests. Another safe solution is using a mixture of dish soap and water (dilute by adding just a few drops of dish soap to a gallon of water) and rubbing it on the leaves and produce of your plants. As with all liquid treatments, make sure you only do this when there will be enough time for the leaves to dry before sitting in direct sunlight. Otherwise, you will end up with insect-free– and scorched– plants.
Lastly, something that is pretty apparent but needs mentioning is how you store your garden tools. There are some gardening tools that can do harm to both us and animals: rakes, shovels and stakes, to name a few. Make sure these tools are secured either in a shed, underneath a tarp or anywhere else that will not impale a paw.
The gardening realm is practically a perfect storm for injuries and fatalities: sharp objects, poison in the form of strychnine, poison in the form of forbidden fruits and a landscape that draws the curious noses of dogs and the meandering paws of cats (and other animals). If you start planting something and realize you are not aware if it’s poisonous, look it up or call your vet. Other animals will traipse through your garden as well, so before planting this spring, remember: we are all in a living community, caring for one another and trying not to poison our best friends of all: the furry ones.