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Pat, I’m Gonna Take a P (Coping with Dog Urine)

I’m a fan of Wheel of Fortune. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, back when it first started as a morning program, and the contestants had to “buy” prizes with their winnings instead of getting cash. Love that show. I would even fantasize that I was “Zanna,” turning letters on my own game show. Not long ago, there was an episode where a contestant had spun and was trying to decide what letter to call. He was quickly running out of time to call a letter, and suddenly a light went off in his head. He exclaimed, with exceptional enthusiasm, “Pat, I’m gonna take a P!”

There was a moment of pause, almost uncomfortably long. Pat just stood there looking at him, weighing what he’d just said. Nobody laughed, but you could feel by the silent tension that if even one person had started, the entire audience would have lost it. But statements like that aren’t generally made on Wholesome Family Programming, so there was just the uneasy silence. The contestant’s expression betrayed his cluelessness about what he’d just said, and Pat ultimately decided the guy hadn’t been announcing his bladder problems on primetime television. Several squares on the board began lighting up, Vanna rather haltingly started towards turning them, and the game chugged back into motion without further ado. The statement was basically ignored, but I’ll never forget it. It was classic.

This is a roundabout way to get to my point: pee. San Francisco is a city with many many dogs. I have two myself. (Yes, that’s a link to their own blog. They’re cute. You should click that link right now so you don’t forget to go there next.) When I’m walking them in the morning before work, it’s not uncommon to cross paths with upwards of a dozen others, just going around the block! There are eight living on my side of our block, and at least five across the street that I know of, and that’s not atypical of a residential neighborhood in our city. They’re all out there with one evil intent: must pee on stuff. With so many dogs in such concentration, some of the “favorite” spots get quite pungent, and you can smell them from fifty feet away if the breeze is right. A homeowner whose street tree is favored by dogs must just hate it. I mean, right? The rains come and freshen things up eventually, but with it being dry for more than two-thirds of the year, it’s a long wait. Thank goodness we have nearly 250 parks – an average of 5 per square mile – to help take on some of the burden! Those fare no better, though.

So, what do you do about it? Working in a fabulous nursery as I do, I get asked that question all the time. The most common approach seems to be the “whatever” method: ignore it and move on with life. Smell the pee and hope for rain, that’s just life in the City. Most of the street trees have nothing planted around the bases of them, especially on streets with lots of renters, where the tenants don’t have a personal interest. Others, though, really want to garden in those precious square feet. That’s sometimes one of the only places where people have to do a little gardening. It freshens up the street and adds some lively color. It also improves property values, because a street full of houses where you can tell the residents care about their surroundings is going to be a more valuable one. It’s devastating to have your plants trampled and peed and pooped on. Heck, we don’t even turn our own dogs loose in our back yard for that very reason!

What's in a name...

What’s in a name…

I see all different approaches to dealing with it. Basically, besides ignoring it, you really only have three options – exclusion, deterrence, or tolerance. As a dog owner, lemme tell you, though: dog gonna pee where dog gonna pee. Dogs aren’t running about loose, for the most part, so it’s really about training the dog owners. I mean, Animal Guardians, as we’re officially called in San Francisco. “Ownership” insinuates property. Our animals are much more than that to us, so it’s actually in the City charters that we are guardians, not owners.

I’m getting sidetracked.

Exclusion…

Keeping dogs out, in other words. You can build something around the spot, like a box or a fence or a rail or even a raised bed. It’s actually a nice look. You have a nice, clean-looking bit of architecture or furniture. Perhaps you have a lovely wrought-iron fence that matches the metalwork on your gingerbread Victorian. Some people even just cluster a herd of pottery around the tree, so that the plants are elevated above pee height.

That’s not as effective as people seem to want to believe, though. You often just end up with a pee-soaked raised bed instead. Or a pee-stained bench. Taller fencing works well enough, for the most part. As a dog owner an Animal Guardian, I try to be aware of where I let the dogs go. The prettier and more well-kept a street tree is, the more likely I am to drag the dogs to a “whatever” patch. To be honest, though, it doesn’t always work. With two, I’m sometimes picking up after one and not noticing the other is watering the plants. But, I try. And I think most conscientious folk do, too.

Deterrence…

The other exclusion option is discomfort. One way is pokey plants. Sharp plants. Agaves, aloes, that sort of thing. To be frank, that’s not a wise idea. It’s officially unlawful to plant “dangerous” plants on the sidewalk. What if a blind person comes along and gets impaled? You can easily have a lawsuit on your hands if something goes wrong for someone. Nobody’s policing the issue, but if there’s an injury, you’ll certainly face stiff fines at the very least. If my dog loses an eye on your Agave americana, you can be damn sure you’re paying the vet bills, and will be paying out the wazoo for anything and everything I can squeeze out of you. Better have a big wazoo. Just sayin’.

A “legit” discomfort option is choice of ground cover. I’ve seen some clever-seeming attempts out there. I’ve seen terra cotta pots broken up and used as mulch. I’ve seen sea shells as mulch. I even saw one tree surrounded by a pile of decorated pine cones. An uncomfortable surface is really only going to be somewhat effective on females, though, since the males can point-and-shoot from a distance. But lemme tell ya, Spoon is never deterred when she sees where she’s going to drop it. Once she’s zeroed in on her target, no surface will stop her, no matter how uncomfortable or cumbersome. It really comes back down to the person steering the dog.

Deterrence: Yeah, that works. Such a beautiful garden. I can see why you don't want dogs pooping in it.

Deterrence: Yeah, THAT works. Such a beautiful garden. I can see why you don’t want dog poop in it.

Another deterrent that’s super effective (italics intended to alert you to incoming sarcasm) is signage. The more the better, too. Nothing works better than having a sign with a red-circled-and-slashed dog in squatting position. Best to make sure your sign has the image, since dogs can’t read English. The places I usually see the no-squatting-dogs signage usually make ME wanna download a brown load there myself. Besides, it’s not like the laws regarding picking up after your dog only apply if you have tons of signage. If you plant a pretty garden there, you’ll have much better success with people keeping their dogs out of it.

Tolerance…

Like I mentioned so eloquently already, dog gonna pee where dog gonna pee. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration, and keep your blood pressure down, if you just accept that it’s going to happen on your street tree, and work with it. You can, as mentioned, ignore it, and let your tree look like “whatever.” Or, if you care about the space enough to want to do something with it, plant accordingly.

Tolerance: Half for plants, half for latrine!

Tolerance: Half for plants, half for latrine!

I’ve seen a couple of trees down the block from me that I thought were truly clever. Really. The homeowners planted half the space with some good, durable, pee-tolerant plants. Then, they left the other half open, specifically to take the abuse the dogs are guaranteed to dish out. How clever is that, right? Some fine pea gravel spread over the dog half makes it much easier to clean up – thus more likely the dog own Animal Guardians will actually scoop the poop. (On that note, things like pea gravel, sand, and “decomposed granite” are fabulous. They make it so easy to pick up the kids after the dogs have dropped them off at the pool. The easier it is to do so, the more likely it’s gonna get picked up. Speaking from experience here.)

Tolerance: Some for plants, some for potty!

Tolerance: Some for plants, some for potty!

Speaking of, I have a funny story on that front. Really gross, but I find it funny. If dog poo stories gross you out, stop here and skip to the next paragraph right now. Fair warning. One time I was walking through Hayes Valley, behind the Opera, and this dog up ahead of me was getting into position. The woman walking with him was dutifully pulling a plastic bag out of her purse, and pulling it over her hand, ever the responsible person. Suddenly, and rather instantaneously, the dog blasted a two-foot radius of hot liquid, just as I was nearing them. She blushed, removing the bag from her hand and folding it back up and into her purse. As I passed, she cleared her throat and stage-whispered, “I think I’m just gonna leave this one.” I snickered sympathetically, because I could totally relate. :)

Okay, gross story over. Had to share.

When planting accordingly is the approach you want to take, you can either plant “disposable” plants, such as annuals, that you don’t mind swapping out as they get fried, or you can choose plants that’ll tolerate the abuse. Personally, I don’t wanna be digging around in dog-pee-soaked soil any more than necessary, so I’d rather go for the hardier plant options myself.

Tolerance: Planting "disposable" plants. This was pretty and flowery last week.

Tolerance: Planting “disposable” plants. This was pretty and flowery last week.

Generally speaking, most shrubs and trees are up to the task. The challenge for them really comes in getting them established. A mature tree or shrub gets most of its water intake from outside the “drip-line” anyway, so the area immediately around the tree can take just about anything. The drip-line is the area beyond a tree’s canopy. Think of the tree’s leaves and branches as an umbrella when it rains. I mean, we get under trees for shelter from the rain, so this should make sense. The tree grows a wide network of roots, and the “thirstiest” ones will reach out beyond the shelter of the canopy. The thicker roots closer to the trunk tend to be more about anchoring the tree than feeding it. Once you get that tree established, it can take the dog pee, even if a dozen dogs douse it daily.

Part of the problem is that we want beauty, but don’t want to have to work at it. With adding irrigation, we take out the hands-on factor. We rely on mechanisms to do the work for us, and try to reduce the amount of work we have to do ourselves. That’s great and all. It’s a busy world. Thing is, many of the plants that suffer most do so because we’re expecting them to not need us to do anything to them. Ever. You’ll have better looking plants if you actually interact with them on occasion. Wash them down if there hasn’t been rain in awhile. Irrigation is great for the roots, but the leaves like water, too!

Establishing a Tree…

The trick to establishing the tree is to make sure it gets enough water. It doesn’t hurt to fence it off from trampling for that first year, but it’s not really necessary if you’re watering it well enough to help it grow roots, and to dilute any pee it’s likely to be getting. You want to water a new tree deeply. What is “deeply?” It’s way more than you think. Certainly more than you’ve been doing it, if you’re not aware of the need. I usually tell people the general rule is that you want to give a tree three to five times the volume of the container it came in, every week. You can get one of those Treegator contraptions for a clean and easy method. They’re great because they allow the water to get to the tree slowly. (If you dump all that water on there all at once, it going to flow away from where you need it, so it’s best to water slowly and frequently.) I’m not one to spend money on a single-use product, though, especially when there are cheaper methods that are just as easy. My preferred method is to just use the damn container the tree came in. I mean, it couldn’t be easier to measure three times the volume of the container than to just use the container, three times. Here’s whatcha do: Fit the container with a plastic trash bag, as if it were a garbage can. Pull a little of the bag through one of the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Pinch a little off to make a hole in the bag. Set it next to the tree. Fill it with water and let it drain. Repeat. Repeat. And perhaps repeat again, if your soil is sandy and drains extra-quickly. Ideally, you’d do a containerful every two or three days, rather than three containers once a week. But in the real world of working people, you may not have the time to do it that frequently. You’re forgiven. Just make sure the tree’s getting enough water.

Water like this every week for the first year. You can back off accordingly during the rainy season, if you actually get rain. We’ve only had one rain since summer. Ugh. The rain has to be a “real” rain, though. If it just sprinkles, you’re still gonna need to water on schedule. If it’s been dry, then rains for a day or two, then goes dry again, you’re still gonna need to water on schedule. It needs to rain enough to actually saturate the ground deeply, if it’s going to be sufficient enough that you can skip out on watering. After that first year, you should still keep at it every other week that second year. Yeah, it’s an effort, but it’s worth it! You invested in the tree, so take the time to make sure it survives! In particular microclimates and settings, this might be overkill, but it’s a good rule of thumb. On my street, for example, we have a couple of springs in the ground behind my row of houses. The street trees get by fine on the groundwater. But that’s not a typical setting.

That’ll cover the tree’s needs for sake of water. If you know it’s getting peed on, you’ll also want to wash it down with a hose every week, just to dilute the pee concentration. Oh, and don’t forget to check in your bag-lined bucket for trash. People see a can with a trash bag in it, and think you must be courteously providing the neighborhood with a trash receptacle. Most likely gonna be bags of dog poop tossed in there. Just be glad people are picking up the poop and other trash, and change the bag as needed.

Urine-Tolerant Plants…

Besides shrubs and trees, there’s a remarkably large variety of plants that can take it. You’d be surprised! One that I did not expect is good ol’ spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) in a shady setting. A garden client of mine was having some extensive remodeling done at their home earlier this year, and the back yard was the staging ground for the contractors. That meant that their dog couldn’t run loose outside to take care of business. The client had the contractors fence off a garden bed by the front door to make a doggy bathroom, and we had to dig out the plants and transplant them elsewhere for the interim. This is a 6-foot by 8-foot bed, and I tell you, it was saturated by the dog over the course of the several months the work went on. Absolutely saturated. We had dug out spider plants, and damn if new ones didn’t keep popping up all the time! Crazy, I tell ya.

Here’s an extremely incomplete list of plants I know can take frequent dog pee. By no means is this a definitive list. It’s just plants I’ve seen out and about that I know are getting hit on the daily.

  • Almost all shrubs and trees, once established.
  • Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
  • Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) – Also kept sprouting up in the client’s dog toilet.
  • Fortnight lily (Dietes iridioides, D. bicolor…) – Some people find it unexciting, but it’s got pretty iris-like flowers and is a real workhorse.
  • Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) – Also “overused” around these parts, but hey, if it works… Actually, all the salvias I’ve seen do well. ‘Hot Lips’ is a good one, too.
  • Succulents. Like, all of them pretty much. Can’t think of any I’ve seen failing, except from the fragile aspect of being trampled. Echeverias are especially good.
  • Ornamental grasses – Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), etc. They seem to hold up great. Stipa has other issues to consider, though.
  • Orange libertia (Libertia peregrinans) – A nice orange grass-like member of the iris family.
  • Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) survives anything.
  • Bacopa/water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri)
  • Boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens, B. japonica) – Although I find this to be the single most boring and mundane plant in existence, completely unacceptable to use from a design perspective. Snark, snark.
  • Foxtail fern/Myers asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’)
  • Cala lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)

Boy, I’m actually starting to draw a blank besides these. I feel a little silly even trying to make such a list. I mean, so many plants can handle it! Especially if you keep them well watered. And, there are many plants (nasturtium, for example) that grow quickly enough to overcome damage. Like I said, it’s a partial list, at best.

Do you have any favorites that you know can hold up? I’d love to hear! Especially shorter flowering plants, since that’s my area of least knowledge…

2 responses to “Pat, I’m Gonna Take a P (Coping with Dog Urine)

  1. Great article, PLUS Spoon and Toast are adorable!

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