Safe gardens for pets

In South Africa many of us are fortunate to have large yards, which gives us the freedom to have pets. It also enables us to adapt our yards to the needs and desires of all members of the family, be they furred, feathered, scaled or fleshed. Here are some ideas for your non-feline and non-canine friends.

Getting started

The two main considerations when planning a garden for your pets are money and space. The space you have available in your yard, as well as the size and number of pets, will determine how large an area you should set aside for your pet garden. Always check with your local authority to determine the type and number of pets that you are allowed to keep in your yard, in terms of municipal bylaws. Your available budget will determine the extent to which you can adapt your garden and the creature comforts you can include. As to what the pet garden will ultimately look like, that is up to your imagination and creativity.

Safety first

Irrespective of how and where you position your pet garden, you have to ensure that your pets will have access to both shade and sun at all times during the day. Equally important is the need for your pets to have easy access to both water and food.

One other vital factor that should always be borne in mind, especially for smaller pets, is predators. It would serve no purpose to custom-build a garden for your smaller pets, without first ensuring that they would be safe from predators. A good deterrent for predators would be to place plastic mesh or something similar above the pet garden.

Animals are very curious and there are very few who will let slip a chance to go out and explore. You will therefore have to ensure that your pets cannot escape from your garden. If you have palisade fencing and worry that your pets might be able to get through between the poles, there are two very easy and inexpensive options available: either you could attach a fine plastic mesh (available in different colours) to the bottom of your fence with cable ties, or you could weld metal rods in between the existing poles, thus closing the space where your pet would have been able to escape. If you have pets who can dig to China, like rabbits, you might want to consider laying a foundation before erecting your fence, or if you have an existing fence, you could dig a trench on the outside of your fence and place some bricks and cement in the trench, at a lower level than the base of your fence, before covering it up again. The best solution for peace of mind though is ensuring that all of your pets are microchipped. This will ensure that veterinarians and shelters will be able to retrieve your contact information and return your pet to you should he become lost.

Once you have decided on the space to be allocated for the pet garden, the next step is to take a look at the plants already within the pet garden’s space. You will have to remove any plants that are toxic to your pet. Be sure to check the sensitivity of all your pets to different plants, as what is poisonous for one species might be fine for another, which is also why you cannot have rabbits and guinea pigs sharing the same garden space. Once you have removed all toxic plants, you could plant neutral (non-toxic) and beneficial plants and herbs in the pet garden.

Current trends

Current landscaping trends fit in very well with our desire to adapt our gardens in order that our pets might also get the maximum enjoyment from them. One of the strongest current trends is portioning your garden off into various ‘rooms’. This can be done in any way you please, such as grouping plants according to their water or sun needs; planting a herb, fruit and/or vegetable garden; planting a rose garden; or having a pet garden. The different rooms can either have artificial borders, such as flower beds with different plants, or you could make a physical border with hedges or fencing.

Making use of indigenous plants will ensure that the water needs of your plants are lower and that you will have to make use of fewer herbicides, thus turning your garden into an organic and safe haven for all your pets and visiting wildlife, as well as for your family. Making use of companion planting will almost completely eliminate the need for herbicides.

Making your garden nature-friendly by using plants that attract moths, butterflies, bees and birds will provide your pets, and you, with some additional visual stimulation. You can also provide your pets with added entertainment by placing a bird bath and feeder in the garden. Ensure that the bird bath and feeder are located in a position where predators (including pet cats) will not be able to get to the birds, while still ensuring that it is visible from the pet garden. Or, space allowing, you could place it inside the pet garden.

Regularly hide some food, treats or toys in the pet garden. Your pets will love discovering these treasures and it will provide them with much-needed mental stimulation.

Depending on which pets you’re preparing the garden for, you might need to make additional adaptations, according to their needs.

TIP: Always supervise your rabbit or guinea pig while he is playing outside.


Rabbits are very active and inquisitive, and need enough space to run, jump, dig and stretch out. You will therefore have to ensure that their space is large enough and covered in grass, as rabbits love to graze on it. Rabbits also love tunnels and, unless you want them to dig their own, you could pre-install some tunnels for them. Plumbing pipes, slightly larger than your rabbits, would be ideal as tunnels. Drill a few holes into the bottom of the pipes before you place them in the ground, so that rainwater and moisture can drain away, leaving the tunnels dry, just the way your rabbits like them.

Because rabbits love to run and jump so much, you can get really creative with their garden space. Think in terms of miniature gardening. You can make valleys and slight inclines for them. A bridge and some hiding places would provide hours of fun, as rabbits love to play hide and seek. Cardboard boxes or cat igloos make great hiding places, as do shrubs. So be sure to include an area with shrubbery where your rabbits can hide and explore.

Your garden will love having some rabbits in it, as rabbit pellets make excellent manure, which will improve the soil structure!

TIP: Make sure that your guinea pig’s space in the garden is not in direct sunlight.

Guinea pigs

In the wild, guinea pigs are prey and consequently they are instinctively afraid of big, open spaces. A smaller pet garden would be ideal for them. Provide them with sufficient places to hide, such as cardboard boxes, shrubbery, cat igloos and such. This will ensure that they feel safe and provide them with enough space and hiding places to exercise and play.

If you really want to make your guinea pigs happy, provide them with things to climb and tunnels to run through. You could even design and build them their very own jungle gym!


Chickens are the ideal garden pets: the garden benefits enormously from their presence.

You will need to build a coop for them to rest at night, lay eggs, roost, and to ensure that they are safe from predators, especially at dusk when they return to the coop for the night. Your chickens would appreciate some trees in which to perch.

Not only will your chickens provide you with eggs, but they are also an organic pest control. They love to eat insects and you will notice a definite decline in the numbers of spiders, earwigs, ants, flies, mosquitoes, termites, grasshoppers, larvae, worms, grubs and other insects. Chickens have also been known to eat small lizards, baby snakes and mice. Chickens continually dig and scratch for food, thereby introducing oxygen into the soil and helping your plants to grow healthy.

Select a breed of chicken that is not too noisy, as they could be an irritation to your neighbours. Not everyone appreciates being awoken at two in the morning by the call of a rooster!


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