Where’s Your Sit Spot?

They say sitting is the new smoking – which is to say, too much sitting is really bad for your health. Indeed recent research suggests it contributes to any number of illnesses. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of these, but I can still attest to the perils of sitting too long. During gardening season, the long hours I spend sitting at my computer are offset by as many hours spent on my feet (or my knees) – digging and planting, pruning, deadheading, weeding and mulching. During the off season however, in addition to my design work I often write and/or lecture, so the many hours spent sitting at my computer become many more hours, especially when I have several deadlines to meet at once. It is then that my body rebels. I get sore and stiff – not from lifting and bending, squatting and kneeling – but from sitting.

As I write this I am nursing a back injury so painful I can hardly move. Did I hurt myself skiing or snowshoeing you ask? No I did not. Did I slip on the ice while out for a brisk walk? No I did not. Did it happen while vacuuming or moving furniture? No it did not. It happened while leaning over to put coffee grinds in the compost. In fact I suspect the very reason it happened is because I haven’t been lifting and bending, and squatting and kneeling. I have been sitting.

Ironic then, that the subject of this post is where, and on what, to sit in the garden! If you are reading this you are probably a gardener – during the growing season you do plenty of lifting and bending, squatting and kneeling. It’s okay to sit then – indeed you deserve to sit after long hours working in the hot sun.

So where’s the sweet spot for your sit spot? That depends on what you’ll be doing while you sit. Will you be eating dinner? Enjoying wine and canapés with a few friends? Or are you still working – sharpening your shears, mixing fertilizer or shelling peas? Or maybe you just want a place from which to admire your handiwork.

A few years ago I was conducting a pre-design interview with a new client. This fellow had been gardening for many years and wanted a couple of his own ideas incorporated into the design. I didn’t have a problem with this, but I did question one of his ideas. “I want to put a bench right there. Wouldn’t that look great?” he enthused, pointing to a spot a few meters away. “Hmmmm,” I answered noncommittally. All I could see was what he would be looking at from said bench – the large barren wall of his large home. I brought this to his attention. “I never thought of that,” he replied. We scrapped the bench idea and chose instead to put a small water feature in its place. Remember fellow gardeners, a sitting area isn’t just a pretty picture; it’s a destination – a place you want to go to and actually sit. So where it is situated is important; unless it’s only a place of work, it should offer a pleasing view. Even then, you might as well enjoy yourself while you shell the peas and shake the dirt off the potatoes.

Most important though, is functionality. To quote the late Steve Jobs, “It’s not just what it looks like….design is how it works.” In other words, wherever you’re going to situate that sit spot in your garden, and whatever it looks like, make sure it works for you. Some things to consider….

  • Is there a smelly compost or dog run nearby? If so, maybe don’t sit there.
  • Is there noise from a road or playground that would intrude on your quiet space?
  • If your sit spot is a work space, do you need a water faucet close by?
  • A dining area for enjoying full meals requires a site large enough for a patio table and chairs (trying to cut steak and eat corn-on-the-cob while sitting on an Adirondack chair isn’t very practical).
  • Do you want a place to have a siesta in the sun, or some shut-eye in the shade?
  • How much privacy will you want?
  • Think about the comfort of what you are sitting on – do you need cushions or some kind of back support?

Of course there are still aesthetic considerations. The style of your seating should fit with the design as a whole – both proportionately and thematically. Colours and materials should be chosen accordingly. And don’t feel you have to stop at one seating area – even smallish properties can often accommodate more than one sit spot. Perhaps an area to sit and dine, and another quiet spot to sit and read.

Need some inspiration? Have a look….

A weathered wooden patio set fits perfectly with the rough-hewn posts and beams of the pergola – and what a view! Kraze Legz Winery, Kaleden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This client’s yard backs onto a natural area – the patio was thus situated to view both the garden and the aspen grove beyond the fence. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The warm brown colour of the furniture works well with the warm tan shades of the flagstone patio. Two dwarf reblooming Syringa ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ flank the seating area providing heavenly aroma – twice a year! Photo Sue Gaviller

The shape and colour of this modern patio furniture is a good choice for the contemporary rectilinear design lines of the landscape. Photo: Pexels

For small spaces, bistro sets are a good alternative to full size patio furniture; appropriate for meals (for 2 people) or for coffee and cookies. This homeowner has created privacy and an attractive view in a front yard setting by enclosing it with plantings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

When I designed this small seating area for a client, I didn’t know I’d end up sitting there frequently with her – sipping mojitos, Moscow mules, or our favourite; vodka tonics. It’s a cool, shady spot to relax on a hot summer day, with a spectacular view of the now-mature gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

These clients wanted a large conversation set to entertain friends around a gas fire table – the space had to be designed to accommodate large chunky furniture while still allowing access to the hot tub (behind the screen). Photo: Sue Gaviller

A bench under a vine-covered pergola offers respite from the hot California sun. Chateau St. Jean winery, Sonoma County. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A cozy spot to sit, sheltered by 3 mature Cologreen junipers and surrounded by flowering shrubs and perennials. CNIB Gardens, Calgary. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A faded wooden bench surrounded by ferns and fuchsias, fits the rustic exterior of the building.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

A bench outside the tasting room at La Frenz winery in Penticton is a feast for the eyes – a view of the pretty scented gardens up close and a view of the hills beyond. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree – crabapple blossoms carpet the ground around two stone benches at Reader Rock Garden, Calgary. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A gravel pathway leads to a stone bench beneath a fruit tree. Bylands Nursery, West Kelowna.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

A sunny spot from which to view the beautiful gardens at Kendall Jackson winery. Photo: Sue Gaviller

An old wooden chair, probably an original fixture, provides a moment of rest in the deep shade at Reader Rock Gardens, Calgary. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Covered verandas are a great place to sit and watch the world go by. This homeowner has beautified the sight-line with effective positioning of the gardens, including the use of the boulevard.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Keep in mind there are dimensional recommendations for specific spaces. For example, allow about 2½ linear feet per person for sitting space – this provides ample elbow room. Provide at least 3 feet of clearance around a patio table so guests can comfortably push their chairs out when dinner is over. Leave 1 – 1½ feet between chairs or couches and the coffee table. This makes for much easier navigation when you have a tray of drinks and appies – spilled drinks, bruised shins, or stubbed toes just ruin the party. And allow for a little room around the outside of a conversation set too – at least a foot, more if access around the furniture is needed.

Regardless of shape, 3 feet or more of clearance around the patio table means comfortable movement when sitting down to dinner, or getting up afterwards. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Left: A large conversation set requires ample room to move in and around comfortably.
Right: A bistro set, though small, still needs enough room to be functional – 2½ feet for the table, 2½ feet for each chair space and at least a foot all the way around.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller

My sister’s dog Java, as a puppy, and still now as an old dog, thinks chairs are exclusively for his benefit. Of course he doesn’t care a whit about function or aesthetics. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Well folks hope y’all enjoyed today’s post it is the first in more than a year, and what I hope is the first in a series on garden elements; fences and gates, pathways, and other elements that help to personalize our gardens.

Till then,


Yikes! Yellow Spots on my Lawn!

Well not yellow I guess – more like dead brown (is that a colour?) Those of you with dogs know of what I speak – we eloquently refer to these as ‘pee spots’. Since we garden in a dry climate in heavy clay soil, most of us have accepted that a lawn of putting greens quality is unrealistic, but the unsightly patches of dead lawn can undermine the beauty of an entire yard. So what can we do?

The Design Solution

Designing an area for Fido to ‘go’, whether a dog run, or a small space with a pea gravel surface (pardon the pun), may help keep the offending substance off your lawn. This space should be situated where it can be screened from view by either a fence or plantings. And for the sake of the neighbours make sure it is screened from their view too – and please clean up solid waste regularly (daily is best).

The amount of space you allot for lawn in your design can impact both the degree of urine burn as well as how you manage it. For example, having a large lawn space can potentially lessen the severity of damage because it is less concentrated in one spot. However, you will then have brown spots spread over a large area, thus the visual effect will be fairly broad. A small lawn area on the other hand, will sustain more concentrated damage but a smaller area of your design will be visually affected.

This circular lawn space is small and well delineated so resodding monthly is relatively easy.
Photo credit: Prairie Outpost Design

As well, a small lawn area lends itself easily to reseeding or resodding – a colleague of mine with a very large dog has a small circular lawn space which she resods once a month, when her lawn is more brown than green. Because the sod never puts down very deep roots it’s easy for her to roll up when it’s time to resod. In addition her lawn is bordered on one side by a low wall and the rest by an edging of pavers, so there’s no guess-work as to where the design lines are. She tells me it was designed this way purposefully – a small and well delineated lawn that’s easily replaceable so, in her words, “the whole yard doesn’t always look like sh**!”

The Horticultural Solution

Dog urine kills lawn because it is rich in urea, a nitrogenous waste product of protein metabolism. The effect is therefore akin to pouring full strength or insufficiently diluted fertilizer on your lawn, causing nitrogen burn. This is why there is a dead spot encircled with lush green – at the edges the urine is more dilute so the lawn responds as it would to properly mixed fertilizer.

If Fido does happen to relieve himself on your lawn you can prevent the ensuing dead patch by simply watering it down, thus diluting the nitrogen. You don’t have to water your whole lawn, just take note of where doggie pee’d and dump a watering can full of water on the area within 24 hours. Of course the bigger the dog the larger it’s liquid waste capacity. This will in part determine how much water you’ll need to effectively mitigate the damage, as will the overall water content of the soil at the time – you’ll notice that during rainy periods the incidence of ‘pee spots’ is somewhat reduced.

The Culprit – hard to believe this sweet brown beauty is responsible for so much damage to my back lawn.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Since we can’t always be on guard to witness all dog spots in the making, we will invariably still find ourselves gazing upon dead patches on our lawns. There are a number of remedies for this:

  • Zeolites – have the ability to absorb nitrogen, hence can bind the excess. This can work preventatively as well.
  • Sugar – sugar is a source of carbon for denitrifying bacteria in the soil, hence sprinkling a bit on the dead spot may aid these bacteria in removing the excess nitrogen.

Depending on the type of grass and the severity of the damage the above two suggestions may be enough for the grass to rejuvenate or fill in fairly quickly. Otherwise you can do one of the following:

  • Reseed the area – I mix loam and grass seed 2 to 1 and apply the mixture to each spot. Seed germinates within 7 to 10 days. I repeat this process whenever there are a number of spots.
  • Resod – this doesn’t have to be the wholesale resodding I mentioned earlier in the post. Just cut out the dead patches and replace with a piece of sod cut in the same shape.

A mixture of grass seed and loam is applied to dead patches, gently tamped, and watered daily – seed should germinate within 2 weeks. Photo: Pat Gaviller

2 weeks later – grass seed has germinated and is filling in nicely.

The Other Solution

In addition to the above-mentioned preventative and remedial actions, Fido himself can be part of the solution. This of course requires an expert’s take, in a field other than my own. Enter Pat Gaviller, veterinarian and self-proclaimed ‘dog advocate’. Please read on for more ideas on facilitating a peaceful coexistence between our lawns and our four-legged friends.



by Pat Gaviller

How does Fido become part of the solution? With your help of course – for Fido to be a good boy (or Fifi to be a good girl), you have to step up and do some training. Luckily this is quite easy, especially if you start young. However even an old dog can learn new tricks.

The Training Solution

First it helps to know that puppies develop substrate preference – the surface on which they prefer to pee – at the age of 8 ½ weeks. So, think ahead and right from the start have your puppy peeing on the same surface you’ll want him (or her) peeing on in the long run – it will make training easier. It can be a bit of a challenge if during this narrow time window the ground is covered with snow (there’s not much snow around in the middle of July). But necessity trumps preference, and dogs can be retrained – have you ever seen a dog frantically looking for that last patch of melting snow to pee on? Now you know why!

Step 1: you’ve chosen what you want your dog to pee on. Step 2: decide where – dogs also become habituated to a general bathroom location. Step 3: take your puppy to the chosen bathroom area – frequently – practice makes perfect. To quote Jean Donaldson from the book The Culture Clash, (a highly recommended read for anyone wanting a well-trained, well-socialized dog): one requires a “solid history of rewarded trials in the desired location, the yard”, or the run, or wherever you’ve sited his bathroom. This brings us to Step 4 – the reward. Of course for reward one can use the obvious – food; but don’t forget that simply relieving the full bladder is also a reward in itself, and going for a walk afterwards is yet another. Vary your rewards for the best chance of success. For those who are highly motivated you can now move to step 5 – elimination on command. Although for perfect execution the command should be given the moment before the dog starts to pee, for most of us this is can be a somewhat daunting challenge with a new puppy. Not to worry – from personal experience it works pretty well if you just say the command the moment you notice your puppy (or grown dog for that matter) start to pee, i.e. “Go Pee”; wait til he/she’s done; “Good Dog”. Repeat every time puppy pees – of course preferably in the desired location…. This is classical conditioning. After a couple of weeks of saying “Go Pee” when puppy is peeing, you can try saying it before puppy pees, but when you know he/she has a full bladder. Voila – puppy will likely perform. This comes in quite handy in a variety of other situations too – and you’ll be sure to impress your friends!

A word of caution here: once Fido & Fifi are dutifully eliminating on command, do be careful on how you phrase a question to them. In other words, if the command is “Go Pee” and you ask them “Do you have to Go Pee?” they will only understand the words they know. And they may simply ‘Go Pee’ instead of waiting ‘til they get to the chosen bathroom area. To avoid confusion use phrases like “Do you need to go outside?”, or don’t ask, just take them. Truth be told we natter away at our pets far too much as it is and like our kids, they learn to tune us out after awhile.

And I feel compelled to add a few comments on dog run etiquette for those who choose to use this option.

  • Please don’t abandon Fido & Fifi in the run for long periods of time while the rest of the family enjoys the comforts of the house. They need and want your companionship.
  • Don’t leave Fido & Fifi out in the run all day while you’re at work – this is asking for trouble with barking problems. Respect your neighbours and avoid noise-bylaw fines.
  • Clean up after your pet daily. Feces left in the run create more than just odour issues for you & your neighbours. As the feces dry up, small bits of fecal material and the bacteria & parasites they may contain, can blow around in the wind resulting in health hazards for both humans and dog. Gives a new perspective on ‘dust devils’ now doesn’t it?

Mars vs. Venus

It’s time to put to rest once and for all the myth that female dog urine burns the grass and male dog urine doesn’t. The only difference between male and female dog urine is the presence of a few hormones and pheromones, which have absolutely no effect on our grass. Fido & Fifi are very interested in these minute differences because they can smell them. And I’m sure they can also figure out what each other had for dinner via the same method…..but I digress. The reason Fifi’s urine is typically more damaging to our lawns is purely a volume and directional issue. Fifi usually goes all in one spot, directly on the ground. Meanwhile, Fido is on a mission marking his territory. He’s lifting one hind leg & spraying his urine, a little here, a little there – some of it hitting the ground, but much of it on more vertical surfaces like trees, shrubs, gates, fences, or the proverbial fire hydrant. This makes it easy for any other dog passing by to catch a whiff close to nose height. And Fido only does a little in each spot to make sure he has enough to go around. It’s Fido’s behaviour that spares your lawn, (and kills your junipers…) not some magical difference in his urine.

Given that Venus is at various times either the morning star or the evening star, I might as well also address here the ‘difference’ between morning and night urine. Yes, there can be a difference, though it will vary from dog to dog depending on diet, time of feeding, and kidney function. Typically the first urination of the morning has the potential to be more damaging for 2 reasons: 1) It’s usually a large volume – the dog hasn’t been out all night and hence has a full bladder; and 2) most dogs sleep through the night, without drinking any water and therefore the kidneys concentrate the urine to prevent dehydration. A high volume of concentrated urine is a recipe for lawn damage. When Fido & Fifi eat, they also drink more. And if they’re lucky the day’s activities have also allowed both an increased water intake plus more access to outdoor elimination areas. Increased water intake lowers urine concentration, and increased frequency of elimination may lower urine volumes, both of which give our lawns a bit of a break.

There’s an App for That

Yes, for those with neither the time nor the inclination to deal with this issue in any of the aforementioned ways, or even as an adjunct to the above methods – there’s always Greenum. Greenum is a commercially available, natural supplement available at your local vet clinic as well as many pet stores. Made by “Mark & Chappell” the tablets contain Brewers Yeast, Flaxseed Oil, DL-Methionine (an amino acid), and Yucca schidigera extract. It is the last 2 ingredients that help reduce the ‘lawn-burn’ effect of dog urine. DL Methionine acidifies the urine (don’t think vinegar, just less alkalinity), and the Yucca extract binds the ammonia in the urine. Less alkalinity + less ammonia (less nitrogen source) = less lawn burn.

Greenum is available in a beef-flavoured tablet form as well as tasty treats. There is a spray too – but the spray is applied to the lawn, whereas the tablets and treats are given to Fido & Fifi. Greenum is safe for pets and the environment. In fact if you overdose by 2x you simply nullify the effect. The tablets are available in different sizes for different size dogs; treats come in 1 size only. As with any supplement – natural or otherwise – you should still consult your vet before starting your pet on Greenum, especially if the pet is already on other medication.

So there you go – greener lawns and a peaceful coexistence with Fido & Fifi.

Have fun,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Principled Gardener

No, I don’t mean the gardener who has principles (though I’m sure you do); I’m referring to the gardener who uses principles – design principles that is. Last month (Good Lines Mean Good Designs Part 1 and Part 2) I discussed the first two stages of the design process – functional drawings and concept drawings. The final stage is a Planting Plan, but before we can complete this design process, a look at the principles that guide it is in order.

So what are design principles anyways?

Design principles are guidelines that help create pleasing relationships between the various elements of a composition. If you’ve ever picked up a garden design magazine or attended a garden design lecture, you will no doubt have been introduced to the concepts – they may not always be presented in exactly the same framework or use exactly the same terminology, but the constructs are nevertheless the same. I like to think of Design Principles not so much as rules that must be followed, but rather as a way of understanding how the human eye perceives its surroundings and using that to its best advantage.

Gardeners don’t always recognize when they’ve utilized a design principle. Though it may happen by accident, a well designed garden will most certainly have some or all of these principles incorporated in it. It would be so much easier though, if we knew what they were and how to use them, instead of the trial and error approach that most of us employ.

So let’s get started. As I mentioned, Design principles can be organized or categorized in numerous ways, but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to call these principles Unity, Balance, Movement, Scale and Proportion.


According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Unity is defined as:  Oneness, being one, interconnection of parts, coherence of parts. So how do we bring that ‘oneness’, that ‘coherence of parts’ into our gardens? There are several ways we can achieve this – repetition, dominance, unity of three and interconnection. Unity then, is an umbrella principle for all of these concepts. Today I look at Repetition.


Repetition refers to the repeated use of the same or similar elements throughout a composition.

Plant Material

One of the easiest things to repeat in your landscape is plant material – gardeners often do this unknowingly in their early gardening years, and then abandon it. For many of us our first gardening ventures are somewhat tentative and often constrained by budget limitations. We gladly accept our next door neighbour’s offer of perennials that she’s dividing or discarding. We take a few clumps of each, and spread them around the garden; hence many plants are repeated several times. As we get more adventuresome, we want to try all manner of new things and before we know it we’ve arrived at the ‘one of this and one of that’ scenario, which is anything but coherent.  It’s an expensive mistake and wasteful at that – in order to repeat you now have to reduce. Restraint people, restraint – you don’t need one of every plant in order to attain beauty and diversity in your garden. So, the next time you have some perennials that need dividing, don’t discard the extras, or give them away –  repeat them!

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Numerous plants, including creeping thyme, Goldmound spirea, blue oat grass and bugleweed, are repeated throughout my front garden beds. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Marg Gaviller

Hosta and red Astilbe are the recurring plant theme in this mature garden.
Photo: Marg Gaviller

Building Material

The repeated element can also be a building or hardscape material, for example; brick, wood or stone. Repeating this in the landscape allows house and landscape to appear as one entity. Conversely, using a material in the landscape that doesn’t also occur on the house, can result in a visual disconnect between house and landscape.

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Incorporating a building material from the house, into the surrounding landscape, unites house and landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone pillars echo the stone facing on the house. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Architectural Features

You can also repeat an architectural line or feature. For example, the shape of an arched window could be repeated in the shape of a garden bed or in the arching branches of a weeping tree. A unique detail on the house could be the inspiration for a fence or arbour design.

repetition - line

The arches on the house are repeated in the arching form of this Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The diamond shape detail on the windows was the inspiration for the fence I designed for a client’s home. The fence is being installed as I write this, hence the computer generated image.


A colour can be repeated as well – bringing a colour from the house into the landscape or using a recurring colour within a garden composition, can unify your whole outdoor space. A purposeful colour scheme will allow you to do this with some real finesse (more on colour schemes in another post). Keep in mind that choosing a plant for its flower colour will provide colour repetition, but only when it’s in bloom – to achieve this throughout the season, choose plants with colourful foliage too.

The colour of the front door is seen again in the Chrysanthemums. Black is also repeated, as is the architectural detail of the columns, which is repeated in the planter pedestal. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Repeating a colour within a planting composition is very unifying – here the dark wine colour of emerging Acer palmatum leaves picks up on the same hue in the tulips.
Photo: Jane Reksten

By repeating elements that are the same, or have similar characteristics, the eye posits each recurrence into visual memory and ties them all together in one coherent theme – voila Unity!


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I doubt that when Cecil Francis Alexander penned the chorus to this popular children’s hymn, she was staring down at a rabbit-chewed stump that was once a rose – or a tree trunk stripped almost bare of bark, or ornamental grasses mown down in the first flush of spring growth.

It can be immensely disappointing when our favourite trees, shrubs and perennials are razed by the likes of Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin. Unfortunately, solutions to this nuisance are less than perfect but there are a few.

The Design Solution

Designing a garden that is rabbit resistant entails housing vulnerable selections i.e. ‘rabbit candy’, in raised beds, containers or enclosures of some kind. Obviously rabbits do jump, but a 2 foot raised bed can act as a deterrent, and while a rabbit can squeeze through small openings, a fenced yard or courtyard does offer some protection.  In my own experience, my front yard is fair game for the rabbits but I’ve never seen them, or any evidence of their presence in my fenced back yard.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the squirrels – they are ubiquitous.

The smooth shiny bark of Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ is a rabbit favourite. In this client’s raised planter it is somewhat protected. The underplanting of Berberis thunbergii ‘Cherry Bomb’ offers further protection since its thorny branches serve as a barrier. Photo: Sue Gaviller

And what about deer? Fences and raised beds aren’t going to keep Bambi out – unless they are 8 feet tall. A Shishi-odoshi (Japanese Deer Scarer) is one design solution that comes to mind. This can work for most nuisance wildlife but there are a couple of drawbacks. For one, the aesthetic is expressly Japanese so may not work thematically with all gardens. Second, it may discourage desirable wildlife from visiting. And third, the more brazen intruders like squirrels, could soon habituate to the sound.

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし

Shishi odoshi 日本語: ししおどし (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those living in the country, deer present a much bigger problem, due largely to habitat proximity – this may require a design approach calledDeeroscaping(awesome resource when deer pressure is extreme).

Underplanting susceptible trees with Lavandula or other aromatic, as I have with this client’s top-graft Syringa meyeri, may help deter pests. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Including some aromatic plants in your planting design can also be helpful. Salvia, Lavandula and Nepeta are all objectionable to deer and rabbits – they don’t like the smell. Happily these are pleasant smelling to us and very attractive additions to a garden. Keep in mind though that Nepeta will attract cats – in my neighbourhood we already have a cat problem (a topic for another post), so no Nepeta for me.


Salvia nemerosa ‘Maynight’ is a strongly aromatic ornamental sage which may discourage rabbits and deer. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some gardeners will use wire baskets or chicken wire contraptions to cover anything that’s showing signs of pest activity. From a design perspective this is a poor solution – while it may indeed protect your plants, it is unsightly. I don’t think sacrificing the beauty of a garden for 6 months of the year is an acceptable price to pay, so unless these devices can be obscured from view, I personally don’t use them. The exception would be trees. Rabbits and deer love to nibble on the bark of certain trees; Malus, Populus, Salix and other trees with thin bark (also young trees). If the bark is damaged more than halfway around the trunk, the tree may not survive. Therefore I do recommend protecting trunks of susceptible trees, particularly in the winter – if you can do so inconspicuously, all the better. The trunk of my Malus ‘Pink Spires’ sustained extensive rabbit damage this past winter, until we wrapped it (loosely)with chicken wire. Because the tree is fronted by a bird bath and obscured from other vantage points by shrubbery, the chicken wire isn’t visible.

Most shrubs and perennials that have been chewed by rabbits will recover. Trees on the other hand may not – if more than half of the trunk circumference is damaged, the tree’s chances of survival are slim. The trunk of this Malus ‘Pink Spires’ is almost completely girdled in one spot, so it may well succumb to its injuries within the next year. I am keeping my fingers crossed though.

The Horticultural Solution

For most of us, by the time we discover we have a ‘critter’ problem, design solutions like raised beds or courtyards are no longer options, at least not without a costly and/or time-consuming redesign. So what can we do? Well we could remove altogether, anything that’s being eaten. However, what a particular animal finds tasty may not be consistent – in my own garden, the squirrels consistently bite the flower buds off one of my Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’, but leave the other two alone. Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ was sheared to the ground by rabbits every spring (and again as soon as it recovered from the first assault), until I moved it to the back yard. Spiraea bumalda ‘Goldmound’ is also ‘pruned’ to the ground every winter. It grows back though and stays quite compact thanks to the rabbits, so it’s not a problem. For many years these were the only plants bothered by nuisance wildlife.

Then last year I noticed elevated rabbit activity; all of my Heucheras were bitten off (silly rabbit didn’t eat the foliage, he just ate the tender juicy stems and left the beautifully coloured leaves scattered on the ground). Helictotrichon sempervirens – big bites out of it (weird because it has a very unpleasant tactile surface). Roses – gnawed to the ground (ouch, don’t they know roses have thorns). It seems a bunny is living somewhere very near my garden, though I’m not sure exactly where. I see him basking in the sun on my lawn or my neighbour’s lawn. And I do mean basking– splayed right out as if he was dead. And brash he is too. When I shoo him away he moves off slowly and nonchalantly – if he could speak I’m sure he’d be saying, ‘Yo, lady. What’s your problem?’

But I digress.

There are commercial rabbit, deer and squirrel repellents on the market, some of which are safe and environmentally friendly, others not. In addition, there are home remedies you can try – some target a specific pest, but since all are herbivores with similar fear responses, what works on one will often work on all.

  • In a comic strip a few years ago, one of the characters placed dog hair around plants to deter rabbits and squirrels. I tried this and it was actually working until the birds discovered the dog hair and decided it was excellent nesting material. My dog couldn’t shed fast enough to keep up with the demand for her hair so I gave up.
  • Blood meal is a strong disincentive for deer, rabbits and squirrels. A teaspoon or so sprinkled around the plant works very well, but it needs reapplication after it rains. Unfortunately blood meal can attract cats, though in my experience it doesn’t seem to draw them with any more frequency than usual. If you live in an area where bears and/or cougars are common, blood meal is not recommended as it may attract them. As well, because blood meal is a source of nitrogen, if frequent reapplication is required you run the risk of encouraging too much leafy growth. This can then create other issues; slugs and aphids to name a couple.
  • Crushed garlic in some water, steeped for a few days, then strained and sprayed on plants can be an effective repellent.
  • The presence of human urine, particularly male urine, is also purported to deter nuisance wildlife. Several years ago I advised an acreage client to, ahem, ‘mark his territory’, which he did and I believe it in fact reduced pest activity. Hard to say how it would have worked in the long-term though as I don’t think he was willing to continue this practice indefinitely. For city dwellers, you’ll have to be a little more creative in the method you ‘apply’ this if you don’t want to be noticed. And be sure to drink lots of water.
  • Other homemade concoctions may be also effective, but I urge you not to use any that have cayenne or Tabasco sauce as ingredients – I don’t think our aim should be to cause pain.

The Culprit – this fluffy fella camped out in my front yard all winter. I suspect it is the same rabbit who made my garden his favourite lunch spot last summer, as he has the same brazen attitude.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

So now that you have a few weapons in your arsenal let me offer…

Another Perspective

When we first embark on the journey that is gardening, it’s very much about ourselves – what we like, what we want. It’s not intentionally selfish, but we’re a bit like the youngster who is determined to ‘do it by myself ’. We’re content to putter and play in the dirt and we’re not much interested in what the experts, or the neighbors, have to say.

Once we’ve gardened for a few years, and after countless mistakes (sometimes expensive ones) we recognize that some advice from a garden designer or coach might be helpful. And we become all too interested in what the neighbors and passers-by have to say.

Eventually enlightenment comes, with the realization that our gardens are much more than just playgrounds for our green thumbs, or a source of affirmation for our needy egos. Our gardens are enormous ecosystems, home to millions of life forms, some we can’t see, some we can’t pronounce and some we’ve never even heard of. While not all of them can be deemed ‘beneficial’, they all have a role to play. Aphids for example are pests to be sure, but they are also a food source for an army of beneficial visitors – ladybugs, green lacewings, hoverflies, midges (and the larva of all), and many birds (especially the young). If there are no aphids these predator bugs lose a significant component of their diet. An enlightened gardener therefore, learns to leave well enough alone.

There is wisdom to be gained from Ms. Alexander’s refrain. When I find myself lamenting the loss or damage to a prized plant by some hungry critter, those words ‘all creatures great and small’ start playing in my head. Yes, all have a role to play.

I haven’t figured out yet what role that ‘Wascally Wabbit’ has to play (they do love to eat dandelions), nor the pesky squirrels (I guess they too are a food source, most notably for the magnificent birds of prey), but I can’t help feeling some compassion, even kinship, with these animals that make my yard and garden their home – in a way we’re all in this together. I have a particular soft spot for the young ones. A touching experience with a very young squirrel the other day underscored my feelings. I don’t know where he came from or where he disappeared to, but to me he appeared too young to be without his mama. He was quite enamoured of both me and my husband and stayed to ‘visit’ with us for a bit, then scampered off. He sure was a cute.

Some years ago my father and his wife sent me this lovely birthday card – don’t know if they chose it just for its garden theme or if they recognized the gem of wisdom it contained:

The garden is home to so many – kinda puts it all in perspective doesn’t it?

So fellow gardeners, take heart  –  ‘Lucky is the World……to have you in it.’

Happy Mother’s Day,


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

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