This is the first in a series of blog posts by Lynn Felici-Gallant, co-owner of Paul's Custom Pet Food LLC, about growing food for your pet.

Photo of a hungry Tucker by Kate Donald of Stout Oak Farm.

Planting For Pets

When people think of pets and gardens they typically think of ways to either keep pets out of garden spaces or to design pet-friendly gardens in which a dog or cat can roam freely by incorporating raised beds, decorative fencing, and the like.

With gardening season upon us, we’d like to encourage home gardeners to think a bit differently about pets and gardens and to plant pet-healthful fruits and vegetables for their four-legged friends.

Pea pods by Gaetan Lee at flickr.com

Pea pods by Gaetan Lee at flickr.com

 

Gardening + Cooking for your Pet: A return to A Bygone Era

The number of pet food recalls in recent years has left many a pet owner searching for alternatives to large-scale commercial pet food with questionable ingredients. The good news is that the market has responded with human-grade mixes, organic blends, and raw food diets for both dogs and cats. Still, these products – with few exceptions -- continue to be manufactured in relatively large batches and shipped throughout the country.

While the direction in pet food manufacturing is promising, recent emphasis on knowing the origins of our own food has led many responsible pet owners to abandon commercial foods altogether for home-cooked meals. As with the slow foods movement for humans, this is not a new phenomenon, but rather a return to an era when pets ate meat from the farm, vegetables from the garden, and scraps from the plates of their caretakers.

So, if you are inclined to cook for your pet, why not grow as much of your pet’s food as possible? Aside from limitations on certain plant species that are unhealthy for pets (see the list below), pets love and benefit from many fruits and vegetables. And for those who are concerned about expense, growing your own food costs little more than a packet or two of seeds.

We'll start with peas. Tell us in the comments what you plan to grow this year for your four-legged friend.

Peas, please

Botanical name: Pisum sativum

USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 -11

Sun exposure: Full sun, part sun

Soil: Rich but not overly fertilized, well-drained soil

According to Dr. Judy Morgan, holistic veterinarian, practitioner of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), and author of From Needles to Natural, "Peas are a good source of fiber and antioxidants like glutathione and lutein. Lutein is important for eye health. Peas are fairly high in iron, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous, which helps build blood. They are a good source of vitamins A and K, which are important for eye health and blood clotting."

However, Dr. Morgan notes, "Peas are also high in phytoestrogens, which can be a problem for breeding dogs and dogs with Cushing's disease, so should be avoided for those dogs in most instances. Peas can also be hard to digest, so they should be crushed or cooked for best absorption of nutrients. Peas are a Yin tonic, which means they are cooling and moisturizing. Raw peas would make a great snack, but may not be completely broken down by the digestive tract in all dogs."

How to plant peas

adapted in part from The Old Farmers' Almanac

Photo by JS via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by JS via Wikimedia Commons

Peas are cool-season crops that in many parts of the country are planted on or by St. Patrick's Day. With snow still blanketing much of Northeast, it was impossible to do so there this week. But peas can be started indoors if you get them in the ground soon after germination and you are careful not to damage their sensitive roots. Or, in most cases, it is perfectly acceptable to wait until early or mid-April so long as the soil is still cool.

  • To get the best head start, turn over your pea planting beds in the fall, add compost to the soil, and mulch well.
  • Sow seeds outdoors 4 to 6 weeks before last spring frost, when soil temperatures reach 45 degrees F.  Plant them while the soil is still cool but not overly wet. For soil that stays wet longer, invest in raised beds.
  • Plant 1 inch deep (deeper if soil is dry) and 2 inches apart.
  • A blanket of snow won't hurt emerging pea plants, but several days with temperatures in the teens could. Be prepared to plant again if that is the case.
  • For tall and vine varieties, establish poles or a trellis at the time of planting.

Caring for peas once planted

  • Be sure you have well-drained, humus-rich soil. Don't over fertilize the soil, as peas are especially sensitive to too much nitrogen. They might like a little bone meal for the phosphorus content.
  • Poke in any seeds that wash out. (A chopstick is an ideal tool for this.)
  • Water sparsely unless the plants are wilting. Do not let plants dry out, or no pods will be produced.
  • Do not hoe around plants to avoid disturbing fragile roots.
  • It's best to rotate pea crops every year or two to avoid a buildup of soil-borne diseases.
  • Cultivate peas throughout the cool season and for as long as they continue to produce fruit. Plant again in fall for a second, though typically not as prolific, crop.

While gardening for your pet is rewarding on many levels, pets cannot and should not simply eat the same foods we grow or prepare for ourselves. This blog series will present fruits and vegetables that are good for your pets and that you can grow at home. However, keep in mind . . .

Not all "people food" is good for pets

According to The Humane Society of the United States, the following foods might be poisonous to pets:

  • Alcoholic beverages 
  • Apple seeds 
  • Apricot pits 
  • Avocados
  • Cherry pits
  • Candy (particularly chocolate—which is toxic to dogs, cats, and ferrets—and any candy containing the toxic sweetener Xylitol) 
  • Coffee (grounds, beans, and chocolate-covered espresso beans)
  • Garlic
  • Grapes 
  • Gum (can cause blockages and sugar free gums may contain the toxic sweetener Xylitol)
  • Hops (used in home beer brewing) 
  • Macadamia nuts 
  • Moldy foods 
  • Mushroom plants (note by author: this prohibition is controversial, as it is prescribed by vets who practice TCVM)
  • Mustard seeds 
  • Onions and onion powder 
  • Peach pits 
  • Potato leaves and stems
  • Raisins 
  • Rhubarb leaves 
  • Salt 
  • Tea (because it contains caffeine) 
  • Tomato leaves and stems
  • Walnuts 
  • Xylitol (artificial sweetener that is toxic to pets)
  • Yeast dough

Note: Beware of pea fiber in pet food

Pea fiber is not the same as whole peas. Pea fiber is a controversial ingredient in commercial pet foods. For more information about pea fiber in pet food, please read raw food activist Dr. Karen Becker's article, Another Pet Food Filler: How some pet food companies are responding to consumer demands.

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