What do a couple of empty nesters do with a baseball diamond in their backyard? Turn it into a private retreat for training therapy dogs, of course.

By Heather Blackmore

Susan Johansen’s suburban Chicago garden has been a reflection of a helping spirit for almost 30 years. As life has ebbed and flowed, so has the Zone 5b garden, which has received several facelifts since the former school teacher and her husband, Dave, bought the run-down bungalow. Drawn to the lot more than the home, Susan saw a diamond in the rough. Literally. Sickle in hand, she and Dave hacked their way from front to back, leveling everything in their path to reveal a space with potential. The once-overgrown 60×225-foot space overflowing with buckthorn has become a lively garden and proving ground for Susan’s therapy dogs, Clara and Sophia. But first it would have to withstand three rambunctious boys with a passion for playing Wiffle ball. For that, Susan had another plan—a miniature baseball diamond.

She squeezed in gardens around the field, careful not to encroach upon her boys’ territory. She added a tiny vegetable plot just off first base, a snippet of milkweed for her beloved Monarchs in the outfield, and a narrow run of purple phlox behind third base. Susan slowly honed her gardening skills so when opportunity knocked and the crack of the bat went silent, she was ready.

“The boys would begrudgingly give me a base at a time,” Susan says. “And each time they’d give me a little grief.”

She began by carving curvilinear beds around the perimeter of the backyard, where she filled the new borders with purple flowers, Dave’s favorite, and plenty of plants to entice the butterflies. Phlox, Verbena, bee balm, butterfly bush, liatris, monkshood, and butterfly weed were prominently featured. It wasn’t until autumn waned into winter that she discovered the importance of good bones, an attribute her garden lacked. Tricolor beechhemlock, pine, viburnum, hydrangea, and a much-loved sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’) provided the structure her garden desperately craved.

As the garden grew, likewise Susan’s tool collection outgrew the garage, and Dave suggested a shed. At first Susan was unwilling to relinquish valuable garden real estate for a 12×12-foot structure, but she conceded, and the shed went in after many discussions about its placement. “It wasn’t like furniture; we couldn’t just rearrange it,” she says.

With the front yard virtually untouched by Susan’s green thumb, she decided it was time to take down the diseased sycamore and transform the space. “We really wanted to give people something pretty to look at,” Susan says. With permission from the village to erect an arbor at the sidewalk, she planted ‘Princess Diana’ clematis, hosta, astilbe, and cimicifuga in the surrounding beds.

The arrival of two new four-legged family members, Clara and Sophia, however, forced Susan to reconsider some plant choices. Before allowing her Lab-mix companions free range of the backyard, she walked them on leash repeatedly around the perimeter to reinforce the off-limits areas. “The dogs were never allowed in the garden from the moment they arrived,” Susan says. “It’s like not allowing your dog on the couch.”

Inspired by books she’d read about therapy dogs, Susan considered her dogs’ mild temperaments and gentle natures, key qualities for therapy work. She was most intrigued by a dog’s innate ability to tap into human emotion. The grassy area of the garden soon became host to doggy play dates and agility exercises to prepare for the evaluations the dogs would undergo to become therapy dogs for HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, a national organization. Today the dogs frequent area nursing homes and offer emotional support to people in crisis.

“Dogs allow people to breathe, to escape the crisis even if only just for a little while,” Susan says. “Whether it’s disaster-related or health-related, it’s amazing to watch someone physically relax the moment they connect with one of my dogs.”

Susan Johansen spends countless hours working and playing with her dogs in her suburban Chicago backyard. Clara and Sophia have learned not to venture into the garden beds filled with dog-friendly plants, including Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, Leucanthemum × superbum ‘Becky’, Japanese maple, Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’, Buddleia ‘Funky Fuchsia’, and Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’.

Susan inherited a variety of phlox from the previous homeowner, who, by the time Susan and her husband, Dave, purchased the home, had allowed the phlox to take over the property wherever it could squeeze in among the weeds. Susan has since edited much of the original phlox, keeping a few that are happy to multiply every year. Therapy dogs Sophia and Clara travel with Susan and are trained to offer emotional support to people in crisis.

Deep, curving beds allow for plenty of layering throughout the backyard garden. A shady island bed just off the patio is home to hostas, Ligularia dentata ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’, and Alchemilla mollis. Pollinator-friendly plants create a tapestry around the shed and include Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, Calamintha nepeta, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’, and Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’.

A river birch (Betula nigra) near the entrance to the backyard garden provides the requisite shade for Astilbe chinensis ‘Visions’, variegated Solomon’s seal, and a variety of Susan’s beloved hostas—all of which frame the view of the shed. Succulents and allium fill a metal chair container off the front porch. A flagstone patio provides a perfect entertaining space for summertime gatherings.

Clematis ‘Princess Diana’ climbs an arbor over the shady front walk. The white arbor plays off of the white trim on the house. The surrounding garden beds are full of Astilbe chinensis ‘Visions’, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, and an assortment of hostas.

Dog-Friendly Garden at a Glance

  1. Arbor with clematis
  2. Ninebark
  3. Coneflower, rudbeckia
  4. Yews
  5. Daylily
  6. Hosta, cimicifuga
  7. River birch
  8. Tri-color beech
  9. Japanese maple
  10. Blue spruce
  11. Annabelle hydrangea
  12. Butterfly garden
  13. Fountain grass
  14. Mixed conifers
  15. Sun butterfly garden
  16. Driveway
  17. Bee balm
  18. Garden shed
  19. Bench
  20. Lawn
  21. Boxwood
  22. Front walk bench
  23. Hosta, astilbe
  24. Mixed shrubs

Your Dog & Poisonous Plants

So much thought goes into planning a beautiful garden. Throw in a four-legged friend or two and you have a potential recipe for disaster. Not only can dogs destroy your hard work, but your hard work could destroy them, too. An awareness of plant toxicity will go a long way in preventing disaster. There’s no predicting what your dog will find appetizing, so it’s better to plant with caution than risk an emergency vet visit. Even better, teach your dog not to eat ANY plants. While there are thousands of species of plants, only a small percentage of them are truly dangerous and poisonous to your dog. For a comprehensive list, visit the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at aspca.org. Here are some common garden plants that are toxic to canines:

  1. Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale)
  2. Azalea (Rhododendron sp.)
  3. Cyclamen (Cyclamen sp.)
  4. Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)
  5. Asiatic lilies (Lilium sp.)
  6. Oleander (Nerium oleander)
  7. Dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia seguine)
  8. Daffodils (Narcissus sp.)
  9. Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
  10. Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)
  11. Tulips (Tulipa sp.)
  12. Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis)
  13. Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)
  14. Castor bean (Ricinus communis)
  15. Elephant’s ears (Colocasia esculenta)
  16. English ivy (Hedera helix)
  17. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
  18. Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)
  19. Philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum)
  20. Rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.)
  21. Rhubarb (Rheum sp.)
  22. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
  23. Common privet (Ligustrum vulgare)
  24. Larkspur (Delphinium consolida)
  25. Delphinium (Delphinium sp.)
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