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Romper room for dogs

Pets and plants can coexist, but it helps to have a human directing traffic when there are squirrels to chase and corners to clear. Crafty obstacles are a gardener's best friend.

May 29, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, if you heard someone singing the Burlington Coat Factory jingle from behind a garden fence, it was probably me. I began subjecting my dogs to it after hearing reports that the chain had been discovered trading in garments trimmed with dog fur. When I sang the jingle, it meant my dogs had destroyed a plant. It was a curiously effective way to relieve apoplexy. One of the few things that I love as much as my dogs is my garden.

But after a Marmaduke-size stray appeared on my porch, I needed more than an obnoxious slogan and bad singing voice. The dog was so gregarious and so clumsy that I named him Clunk and so destructive that friends implored me to take him to a shelter.

I already had a Labrador retriever, Parker, and another former stray, a shaggy terrier called Glancey. Often as not, these two were joined on weekends by my brother's family dog, a raucous Labrador retriever called Tess.

I soon learned that a garden can take only so much dog traffic, particularly a garden edged with a flat-top wooden fence more aptly described as Squirrel Run. I had reached that limit. As the dogs chased the squirrels blindly around the perimeter, they looked up, not forward.

The first plant in their path to go was a Meyer lemon sapling, then half a dozen 6-foot-tall Carolina cherries, part of an increasingly gap-toothed hedge. I began to wonder if the squirrels were not deliberately leading the dogs into wipeouts.

Destruction escalated when Clunk discovered that the most direct route from an alley lookout at the rear of the garden to the front gate was through a lavender bed and then through the salvia. Following this route, he could easily make it from the alley to the front in under a minute. When my two favorite corridors in the garden were reduced to dust, Clunk came very close to becoming cuffs and collar.

I responded by installing dinky little picket fences, the kind sold in rolls at Home Depot. Clunk took them for fun new hurdles. I upgraded by jamming expensive redwood trellising in strange places in the middle of beds. Looking back, it seems silly to have imagined that stapled strips of redwood would stop a charging 100-pound hound. The lavender and salvia beds were still, effectively, the 101.

That did it. I moved a cactus into the middle of the lavender. Next thing I knew, Clunk was going around the lavender bed rather than through it.

But he was still going through the salvia. My next-door neighbors helped by cutting a chunky 3-foot-tall garden fence into segments and setting these pieces as dog-breaks in the salvia bed. Spiny aloe plants taken from a building site were potted and strategically positioned to augment the fencing. More salvia was planted. This time it survived.

The success of the dog-proofing was almost too good to believe. Now, when the postman had the temerity to ring the bell and Clunk charged reflexively to front of the house, instead of careering through the lavender and plowing down the salvia, he went around both and stayed on the path. Moreover, he seemed to prefer the new route. It was as if the longer curving path made a more entertaining obstacle course.

The change in behavior made me wonder if it wouldn't be possible to dig up large swathes of the central lawn and create a dog course there too. It would give me the beds that I wanted to grow salads, herbs, corn, squash and roses. I would have fun tending the beds and the dogs would have fun running around them.

But would they run around them rather than through them? I suspected yes. Many years ago, in another home in another city, I noticed that two of my former dogs, Harry and Spike, would venture into a grass-covered yard only to dig under the fence and escape to the park. Once I lined their getaway trench with chicken wire, they refused to go into the garden altogether. It was a case of park or nothing. Smart dogs.

But here in L.A., there is no park to hold out for. There are simply no safe parks, never mind dog parks, in my part of the city. My choices were to make the yard interesting or bust. It was suddenly obvious that a good start would be to create more courses for the dogs to run.

Deciding on the shape took months. I dragged the hose around, using it to outline imaginary borders of imaginary beds. I'd seen loopy-shaped beds in Kensington Gardens in London that were strangely magical. Small versions of these island-like beds could be curved, almost like kidney-shaped salad plates, around my central olive tree.

More recently, I'd seen plans by L.A. garden designer Melinda Taylor to use curving beds in the strolling garden around the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. That did it. If it was good enough for the Royal Parks of London and for Frank Gehry, it was good enough for Clunk and me.

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