Lots of dogs love water. It’s just a fact of life.
And sometimes, or maybe all of the time, when I have clients with a furry friend, the dogs “opinions” are part of the equation when designing a new landscape for the whole family. There are many aspects of a landscape design to consider when creating a compatible situation for two species. Water features are one aspect. People and dogs want to enjoy the water feature but they have different ideas about what is fun. For people the sound of water can make a landscape feel like a garden and has a way of taking a space and turning it into a place. Dogs have different ideas.
I started using echo chambers to create water features for my clients some 20 years ago when the echo chamber (designed by local Lew Smith) was a new thing. They were safe for kids and easier to care for but then I saw how much the dogs loved them and that if I planned well most dogs could interact with the echo chamber water feature without harming it or themselves.
Take Jack Hofmann, a dog who knew a good thing when he saw it.
I was hired to create a new entry design for a sweet old Portland craftsman home. Technically the water feature was designed and placed to enhance the new entry and to see it from inside the dining room. Now Jack is kind of a one person dog, so he never fawned over me, much as I would have liked that. He would remember me politely when I came to check on his guardians landscape but when the water feature was installed, he claimed it immediately as his own and posed for me. He knows where his new toy came from.
I wasn’t the only one smitten by Jack’s photo. I was interviewed for an article in Houzz (check it out!) and his mug was featured in “Protecting Your Pet From Your Yard and Your Yard From Your Pet” a comprehensive article about dog friendly landscapes.
Jack’s “water bowl” is pottery plumbed into an Echo Chamber, which is a steel box under the pottery. It creates an easy to care for water feature with great sound and because it has a dry return instead of a pond, it’s safer for kids. There is no pond to worry about or a liner you need to keep safe from dog claws. Read more about Echo Chambers in this blog post.
Some dogs specifically like to drink the water and make a game of it. Does your dog love it when you get out the garden hose? Your dog would love a water feature. Zoey, a plump black lab loves water. This frog spitter fountain is an inexpensive water feature that pleases people and the pups. It’s safe for kids because no pond. The water pump recirculates the water through the frog and is under the round rock surface safe from doggy attention.
Remember to design access to the water for the dog and for kids too. If you plant all around it, expect those plants to be trampled.
My client Patrick is a retired firefighter. He plumbed an old fire hydrant to use with his echo chamber. The water feature was specifically designed for his dogs to drink out of. The dogs loved their fire hydrant water feature and their new back yard which had two fences running parallel at the back property line. This plant-less space between the fences was their daily race way.
Standard poodles and the neighbors kids loved the big rock (Montana Mud 8′ across) water feature which was a focal point for a home in Raliegh Hills. I would find tiny little plastic toys and tennis balls tucked here and there, evidence of neighbor kids and tennis ball obsessed poodles who played in this water feature. My clients thought this was adorable and loved how this unusual water feature looked with their NW Natural style front yard.
For many people, life is better with a dog and designing a happy outdoor life for two species, not just one, is what makes happiness for this designer too.
I live on a floating home and when my dog has to go pee or poop, the parking lot is a long ways away. My perfect solution to living on the river with a dog, is synthetic lawn on my small garden balcony. I have the advantage over most people with a deck or balcony because we designed the house to have a small roof garden with real soil. It was easy to add the synthetic lawn over the existing soil. Not only was it easy, when my dog pees on her synthetic lawn, the rain rinses it into the soil so it doesn’t smell. In the summer when there is no rain I rinse the grass using a garden hose. As you can see Daizzie likes to lay on her grass so it is used for more than an outdoor pee pad. I enjoy sitting out there with her or drinking coffee from my outdoor sofa.
When she poops on her synthetic lawn it is easy to pick up unless she has diarrhea and then I do need to rinse with my garden hose. The dog poop always goes in the garbage because I don’t want to add nitrogen to the river, I mean come on, just because it’s dog poop doesn’t mean it isn’t raw sewage.
Another solution is a raised bed for grass. My client Sherry has small dogs and no lawn except for this tiny patch. She just replaces the grass in her raised bed occasionally.
Portland is a city that is very dog friendly. As a Portland landscape designer I have lots of wonderful opportunities to create dog friendly landscape designs. I consider it one of my best job benefits.
Selecting Stepable Path Plants for Portland Landscapes
Maybe it’s not fair that most people don’t know the finer points of selecting stepable path plants. The truth is planting between pavers successfully without insider knowledge rarely ever results in what I would call low maintenance. It’s a little like Goldilocks and The Three Bears, the plant has to be just right. Remember? The chair and the bed had to be the right size and the porridge had to be the right temperature. If the plant you select is not right for the job, your path or patio can have problems that will take a complete do over to solve.
Most people don’t want to trial and error plants. They want to know it will work before they put in their time and effort. That is the advantage of hiring a Portland landscape designer. We know what works here and what doesn’t.
Here’s how I think about selecting stepable path plants.
I want a plant that doesn’t grow higher than 1″ or 2″ tall maximum. Many stepable plants tend to grow into a hump and must be walked on regularly to keep it from growing into a hump and being a trip hazard. Stepping on the plants frequently will cause them to grow dense and shorter. My grandson Rain helped me plant my flagstone patio. I stepped away and his friend came running in and said “I keep telling him they’re stepables not stompables.” I looked up to see my grandson stomping on the freshly planted ground covers. Surprisingly, the plants survived just fine.
I want a plant that doesn’t grow over the flagstone too quickly. If you plant a type of stepable that grows too vigorously you will be constantly cutting the plant off of the flagstone. Untended it will completely cover your flagstone. A slower plant might need a trim every year or two.
Most stepable plants require good drainage in order to grow thickly and repel weeds. If they don’t grow thickly, and have bare patches, weed seeds will be able to reach the soil, germinate and thrive.
I’ve listed plants below for part sun and full sun. I don’t have a stepable plant that thrives in strong shade, regardless of what the plant labels say. I’ve tried several that manage to stay alive in dappled shade but don’t grow thick enough to repel weeds. Another tip: Don’t plant in an area that was infested with weeds. You will need to tackle the weeds first before you plant your stepables.
Here is my favorites list:
Stepable Plants for Part Shade/Part Sun:
Leptinella squalida – New Zealand Brass Buttons. The variety I prefer is ‘Platt’s Black’. The other variety of Brass Buttons I like, ‘LePrinella P. Verdigris’ is a a little fast for pavers but I have used it for paths. I don’t grow either of these in full sun. They spread until they find an environment they don’t like. In my patio they run into too much shade and the strong roots of sword fern and they stop there. These are spreaders so think before planting.
Mentha requienii – Corsican Mint This is a crowd pleaser because it smells good when you step on the plant. This plant needs some sun, and needs good drainage, too much shade and soil that is too wet in the winter will kill this plant. Full day sun is too much for this plant.
Stepable Plants for Sun:
Thymus Serpyllum ‘Elfin’ or ‘Elfin Pink’ – I love this plant and it is truly a flat mat if you step on it regularly. It does get weeds growing into the middle so it’s not maintenance free, but only garden magazines talk about maintenance free landscapes. When it is successful you will have to cut it off of flagstones some but I find it quite manageable.
Stachys Densiflora ‘Alba’ – Alba Lambs Ear First of all this plant looks nothing like the traditional cottage garden plant (silver furry leafed) Lambs ear. The tiny leaves are fully evergreen, dark green and leathery. I love this plant because it doesn’t let weed seeds in. Plant it on the edges of your path unless you plan to step on it every day, otherwise it will mound up. It takes full sun easily and the flowering period is fantastic! The seed heads are interesting as well.
Azorella Trifurcata ‘Nana’ – Cushion Bolax I have this plant at my vacation house in full morning sun (so 4 hours) and it will take full day sun as well. It occasionally has a dandelion sprout in the middle, but other pesky weeds don’t invade. I find it to be very low maintenance and perfect for a place I only visit every month or two. It will creep over your pavers so plan to trim once every year or two. It’s my favorite filler plant for pavers, paths and as a foreground plant in a planting bed.
I love the texture. It goes through a change where the little needles feel like a plastic carpet (which sounds bad but is fun) and then it softens into a pettable surface. The yellow flowers are tiny fat buttons and cute.