All the sniffs: building a sensory garden for dogs

Last year I stumbled across the concept of sensory garden for dogs and I instantly knew I wanted to create one. It’s now been a year and I thought I’d share my experience since it’s now the peak season for gardening! 

What is a sensory garden?

A sensory garden is quite simply a garden that is designed to engage all of the senses – and for dogs in particular, it means looking at garden design from their perspective instead of our human one. There are lots of really good articles on how to design one, so I will share some links below and then focus on our experiences.

First, some inspiration for building your own garden:

What should you include in a sensory garden for your dogs?

Our reason for building a sensory garden was to give Nell and Grace a place to hang out – since they don’t have books, TV or the internet, we wanted them to have calm entertainment on their own terms. This is their home too, and especially for Nell as she gets older we want her to have calmer yet still stimulating activities.

Our sensory garden included lots of dog friendly plants and especially herbs. I often dropped treats into herbs and into the garden to encourage exploration – and it seems to have worked well!

Sensory garden in full use

My favourites for a dog friendly garden

Catnip – all the variants are called “nepeta” so if you see this in the garden centre, grab some. It is an incredibly resilient perennial – first thing to bloom in your garden and continues for many months. A couple of small plants goes a long way because it will spread… It tolerates a lot of abuse from dogs and it’s cheap, which makes it a win-win on all fronts.

Herbs like chamomile, thyme, rosemary, mint, lavender, yarrow etc. are all great because they smell interesting and some of them are claimed to have calming properties (scientific studies pending as to how much impact they’ll have in your garden 😉

Maidenhair vine (Muehlenbeckia complexa) – if you want to cover up soil (and stop digging) in one summer this ground cover will do the job. Completely resistant to dogs trampling it and doing their toilet business on top of it… nothing gets to this sturdy little plant.

Ornamental grasses – difficult for the dogs to destroy, and they’ll nicely sway in the wind

Salvia – good value because it’s robust and grows pretty big, and they are also cheap so if your dog happens to trample it… no big deal. Comes in blue, white and pink

Astilbes – these are very common and plentiful in garden centres, and work well in shady areas

Bushes and shrubs are also good – these are more difficult for a dog to destroy…

We also made sure there are shady corners where the soil is moist and included a tree bark with moss to attract bugs.

Making a garden safe for dogs

When creating your garden make sure that it is also safe for your dogs – lots of plants are potentially toxic to dogs so whenever you are considering a plant, google to check it’s safe. This is especially important with puppies who tend to explore the world with their mouths – if your dog is older, you might know if they are likely to eat plants.

Here are some links to make your own list of toxic plants:

Fences: not appreciated.

Also, avoid using cocoa shell on your paths or in the borders – the shells still include cocoa which is toxic for dogs. I made the mistake of buying it and only realising once I had put it on the ground… but thankfully neither dog was interested so after a while I could relax.

Lessons learned?

This is why we can’t have nice things.
  1. After observing my dogs during the first year, I have a much better idea of how likely they are to chew or eat the plants and now I do have plants that are considered to be toxic because I’m confident enough that neither one will touch them.
  2. I have given up on buying expensive plants because there is a good chance someone will walk over them, sit on them or pee on them. Borders mean nothing to Nell and Grace – I have seen Nell climb into borders just to have a pee… Damn that dog! This year, I have stopped caring about colour schemes – if it’s cheap and looks relatively robust, it ticks the box. The more “common” the plant the better – I have plants that are considered meadow plants elsewhere (like yarrow), because they are more likely to survive.
  3. Put all nice, delicate stuff in pots and boxes. The higher the better.
  4. Ground cover plants is the way to go – we have steps in our garden which have a space for plants on each side of the tile, and last summer I carefully selected plants… this year, it’s a shrub and ground cover, because everything was trampled to death.
  5. Not sure lawn is the way to go… we are still struggling to create a uniform lawn in the small corridors of our garden. Despite using lawn roll, it has died in patches and the rest grows very unevenly – probably a side effect of being predominantly a dog toilet! Discussions continue whether we continue or turn it into wood chip/gravel.

This summer will be experiment no 2 – I’ll report back next year!

Our garden at its peak last year
The steps before they got trampled!
When it was all ready… and before it got trampled on.
Rock garden survived half a summer, before Nell decided it was the perfect toilet.