Pets & Plants; Facts & Myths, by Jim Hole

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Keeping houseplants and pets in the same space can create its own special brand of frustration. Houseplants are magnets for curious pets. As sweet and obedient as our cats and dogs may be the majority of the time, there are some cases when no amount of scolding can deter our four-legged friends from doing what they want. In a battle of keep-the-plant or keep-the-pet, there is only one winner—and nine times out of ten, that winner has four feet.

In dealing with stubborn pets, it comes down to a balance between compromise and conceit. Are we higher on the food chain? Yes. Do our pets care? Not in the least. The good news is that all is not lost. There are things you can do to keep pets from eating, digging in and toppling houseplants.

  • Keep tempting or tasty plants up and out of the way. Cats love to nibble on or bat at long, cascading foliage. Whether your cat is seeking roughage or entertainment, it can easily be deterred from nibbling if you simply move your plants to locations that are up and out of the way. Depending on the age, agility and determination of your cat, a trek to a high shelf or countertop might prove too much of a bother. Although dogs have less of a penchant for batting around plants than cats do, they are more likely to knock them over. If your dog plays hard in the house, keep your plants away from high-traffic areas—and remember, those areas aren’t always the spots that see a lot of traffic from us. Most dogs have favourite paths that lead to windows or doors. They often navigate these paths at full speed, cutting corners a little too tightly and occasionally miscalculating when it’s time to lay on the brakes. By keeping plants out of these areas, you greatly reduce the likelihood of having a rambunctious dog topple a plant.
  • Supervise your pets. There are many commercial sprays and home-spun deterrents (like placing double-sided tape on planters) designed to keep pets away from plants, but the best prevention is supervision. Puppies in particular need lots of watching. Besides being incredibly curious, they are also teething, which makes them more likely to search for a plant to chew. Of course, supervision is not always possible, but knowing where your pet is at is often the best way to know where it shouldn’t be.
  • As a last resort, grow cat grass. A pot of cat grass might be all that’s needed to keep your favourite feline away from your houseplants. It is available at most garden centres and pet stores, and it is easy to grow. All you need is seed, a shallow container and a sunny window. Your cat will take care of keeping it trimmed. While it doesn’t discourage your plant from eating indoor plants, cat grass does focus your pet’s attention on a single plant.

Poisonous Plants

Safety is always an issue when it comes to houseplants. Whenever people ask me about toxic plants, I always end up saying, “It’s the dose that makes the poison.” What this means is anything taken in sufficient quantity will eventually poison you. Even the consumption of too much pure water (a condition known as hyponatremia) has resulted in deaths. That said, I would by no means suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned about accidental poisoning. In fact, I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to know what kind of plants he or she has and whether or not those plants are toxic. After all, we wouldn’t let our families and pets venture about in an unsafe outdoor environment, so why wouldn’t we make them as safe as possible in their own homes?

Toxic is not an absolute term. We tend to think of it in an ingest-and-die way, but it can also refer to less dire symptoms, such as skin irritations, photosensitivity, soreness of the mouth and cramps. If you have concerns regarding plant toxicity, consult your local poison control centre.

Going on Vacation

Whenever my family and I go away on vacation, there’s always that initial dread of “Who will water the plants?” Let’s face it, sometimes having to ask someone to water your plants is as bad as being the person who is asked. To make the experience a little less traumatic for all involved, plan ahead, put the right person in charge and leave detailed watering instructions. After that, the rest is up to chance.

What to Write

Regrettably, the watering instructions we should leave are rarely the ones we do leave. The problem is that most people are afraid to sound obsessive or bossy. And as tempted as you might be to draft a note that begins with, “Please water the plants once a week—not when you feel like it, or when you remember to,” and that ends with, “When you ‘check’ my bathroom for a plant I may have neglected to tell you about, please keep your nose out of my medicine cabinet,” fight the urge! There are better ways to increase your likelihood of coming home to happy, healthy plants.

Plan Ahead

  • Make time to give your plants a proper once-over before you leave. Cleaning even a few of the leaves will allow you to check for pests or diseases that could cause problems in your absence. While you’re cleaning, don’t forget to deadhead any spent flowers and to remove any unsightly foliage. Follow that up with a proper watering and you’re halfway there.
  • Move small plants to a temporary holding area in one room. This is a great option if you’re not keen on having someone walk through your entire house. If you’re lucky enough to have a bright bathroom, you can gather your small low-light plants and give them a temporary home in the bathtub. It’s an option that removes any worries about water spills and messy cleanups.
  • Plan for disaster. It never hurts to leave a few bath towels out and ready for accidents that might require cleaning up. Leaving out a broom and a dustpan is also a good idea.
  • Pre-measure fertilizer. If you’re going to be gone for an extended period, pre-measure your fertilizer and leave it in disposable baggies, marked with clear application instructions and then put them back in the fertilizer container to prevent mishaps.

Leave Detailed Instructions

  • Be clear about how much water each plant needs and how often each needs it. Writing the schedule on a calendar is a great way to deal with this, but I think anyone asking someone else to water their houseplants must specify both the quantity and the frequency of water each plant needs. If nothing else, it takes the pressure off friends and family who worry about wiping out your plants and goes a long way toward sustaining good relationships.
  • Make note of any plants or issues that require special attention. If you have a saucer that tends to overflow, for example, mention it.
  • Note whether any window coverings need to be opened or closed.

Home Again, Home Again

So you gave it your best. You planned ahead. You wrote the perfect note. You still came home to sickly-looking plants. Now what? Unfortunately, not all plants can be resuscitated, but you can increase your plants’ survival rate by following the emergency revival techniques in the following section