Gazette Gardener: Readers seek trees and plants that won’t hurt horses or cats
I recently was asked for help choosing trees for a horse pasture. Not being a horse person, I had no idea what a complex subject this is. Not only do you need to consider the usual questions about soil type and drainage, but you need to be aware that many trees and shrubs used in our garden landscaping contain compounds that are toxic to horses.
For example, the yew, a common foundation plant, is highly poisonous and should not be planted anywhere near the paddock, and native red maples (Acer rubrum) can cause hemolytic anemia, which can be fatal to horses and ponies.
In order to answer the reader asking for help selecting evergreen trees to plant in the horse pasture, I had to do some research and consult an expert.
The reader was looking to create a windbreak on sandy soils with good drainage and was only interested in evergreen trees. I talked to Dave Leggett, a Saratoga County Cornell Cooperative Extension Animal Science resource educator, and he suggested the Douglas Fir and Colorado Blue Spruce.
The Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) has silvery-blue needles and a pyramidal shape.
Once established, this spruce can grow a foot a year and at maturity will be 80 feet or taller.
The Latin name pungens means prickly, and if you have touched the needles you know they are stiff and sharp. Although it might seem this would be enough to discourage foragers, Leggett recommends protecting a young tree from potential nibbling of horses or deer by fencing it off while the tree is small.
The Colorado blue spruce grows well in our zone 4 and 5 and prefers full sun and moderate water, but will grow in a drier locations. To help establish young trees, water once a week, limit weed competition and, next spring and thereafter, fertilize annually in late May.
The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has a pyramidal shape with needles that are bluish green to green. It does best in full or part-shade and in acid to neutral soils with good drainage. This tree grows about a foot a year and will reach a height of 80 feet or more, once mature.
The seed of Douglas fir provide food for chickadees, finches, deer, mice, shrews and many other birds and mammals. Therefore, young trees should be protected.
These are two of the trees that can be planted. For more information on plants that are poisonous to horses and other livestock, Leggett recommended Cornell University’s website: www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/. If you need more suggestions on suitable plants, the ASPCA has a website that lists toxic plants and below that list is another list of plants that are non-toxic to horses.
The next reader’s question concerned another four-legged creature, a cat. The reader asked for a list of houseplants that are safe to grow in an apartment with his two pets. I consulted another ASPCA website and scanned their list for those houseplants that are easiest to grow in indirect light. You can see the entire list at: www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants/?plant_toxicity=non-toxic-to-cats.
Among the possibilities are African violets, which are a low-growing plants with hairy, oval, dark green leaves. Blooms range in color and include whites, pinks, blues and purples. African violets prefer temperatures around 70 degrees during the day and not below 60 degrees at night. They enjoy humidity and in our homes the easiest way to provide this is to set plants on a waterproof tray containing a layer of pebbles filled with water.
Other non-toxic flowering house plants include Rex begonias and Christmas cactus.
If you are new to house plants, the next two are great first plants as they can take some neglect.
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) has long narrow leaves and, in time, produces branches with baby plants. You have probably seen the cultivar “Variegatum” with its long green and white leaves.
Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). Aptly named, this plant can grow in conditions that would cause other plants to shrivel up and die. It has green, lance-shaped leaves and will grow in low-light making it great for apartment dwellers.
Many new gardeners struggle with watering. Either they water too much or too little. As a general rule of thumb, water once a week until the water flow from the drainage holes.
On websites covering cats and plants, home owners expressed concern over cats using potted plants as litter boxes or as places to dig. To discourage this behavior, place stones or gravel on the soil.
If your cat chews the new plants, you may be able to redirect this behavior by growing grass in a container.
Natalie Walsh is a horticulturist, speaker and garden consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.