Monday, February 18, 2008


It was 65 degrees today here in Trenton, and also, a holiday, so I figured it would be a good time to tidy up the garden beds. Also, we bought a bunch of daffodils bulbs this past fall, but it was so warm for so long, and a warm fall can trigger newly planted bulbs to emerge too soon. But then it got too cold, and we got too busy, but today was just right, temperature- and busy-wise, other than that the bulbs won't have a lot of time outside in the soil before they're due to bloom, but as I've mentioned here before, we've got some great soil here in the hood (some of the best in the county), so my hopes are up.

While I was digging around, I couldn't help but notice the strong smell of cat piss. My neighborhood has a stray cat problem as I've mentioned; we do our best to get the kitties rounded up and sterilized, but it is, in many ways, a losing battle: there are just too many cats, and too many irresponsible people who don't want to alter their pets' "junk," so I try to think about each individual animal we get fixed up, and how this helps to improve his/her life, and that makes it all worthwhile. What we, as a species, have allowed to happen to cats (and dogs) which we domesticated, far outweighs the annoyance of smelling cat pee while working in the yard, though I do want to state, for the record, there is nothing good about the smell of cat pee.

I don't want to sound all self-righteous or pompous, so I apologize if I came off that way in the above paragraph. After all, I started this post with pee in mind, and pee is, if nothing else, not so pompous.

You may not have a stray cat problem where you are, but certainly, you may encounter an outdoor cat who likes to use your yard as a toilet. Or maybe you have a dog who is peeing all over the place; or worse, you have a neighbor with a dog who likes to use your yard, or worse yet, maybe you live on a busy street near a bar, with patrons who pee on your lawn as they pass by...we have all of the above here in my neighborhood, and my bet is you do too. If you think I'm joking about the pissing passers-by, I'm not: denizens of our fine city urinate all over the place — you and I may not do it, but it's happening, even against our public buildings in broad daylight.

I'm not sure what to do about the people who pee outside, except it is fun to scare them, if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. I know I'll probably get a lecture about the safety and sanity in this, but hear me out: when you catch someone with his pants down (and it is nearly almost always a "he," no?) he is often not thinking about killing you. He is thinking about one thing: getting his penis put away without pissing all over himself. I don't have a ton of experience in scaring off the pissers, because of the whole wrong place/wrong time business. If I could change that about my life, I would. I'd scare the bejesus out of every guy pissing against every fence, public building and/or garage in this city, if I could. But that one time I was in the right place at the right time, it was great! There was the guy pissing against my fence, and there was my dog Lacey, safely on the other side of the fence. She charged him. He screamed (oh, it was beautiful!), even though dog and man were on opposite sides of the fence. His piss stream left a squiggly trail all over the fence — and his leg — as he ran for his car. He actually pulled over to use my fence, and for that, I hope he was still peeing when he got inside of his car, too. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction for weeks afterward. Humans who pee against your garage, or on your lawn, or on city hall are a real concern because civilized people have shame; civilized people relieve themselves in private. There are just too many quality of life issues in Trenton that seem to be no longer important, but maybe that will improve. Someday. While I never mind straying from my topic du jour, I wanted to discuss, specifically, whether or not urine — human, canine, feline — can damage your plants/lawn, because there are misconceptions about this topic.

When I first got Lacey, my female dog, my Nana told me that a male dog's or cat's urine will not damage vegetation, but a female's will, "so, good luck with that girl puppy," Nana chuckled. Maybe you heard something similar from your own grandmother? I found this odd, since pee is waste, and the composition of which shouldn't be that different between the male and the female, as long as the kidneys are working well, and the diets are similar. And in our 15 years of walking and/or going out back to pee (Lacey, not me), my dog's urine has never ruined any plants. And now, with all of these ragged cats running around my block, I can sure as hell smell their piss, but I'm not seeing THAT much plant damage, though I do try to discourage the cats from using my gardens as a litter box by mulching (which doesn't always work so well), and embedding plastic forks, tine-side up, in the garden, and occasionally turning the hose on them (weather permitting) if they look at my garden with that "I gotta piss" look.

Today, I overheard one of my neighbors talking about someone else's female dog ruining her lawn, and so I wondered why it didn't happen to me, with Lacey. Part of it, I'm sure, is that I've never taken scientific notes on this topic, and I've never been much of a lawn person; less so in my neighborhood, with all of the "entrepreneurs" offering to mow my lawn every 15 minutes; we worked diligently in the last few years to remove the lawn, and replace it with ground covering plants and flowers and moss and rocks...I hope this year, our fourth summer here, things will — finally — start to fill in and look the way we hoped they'd look. We'll see. Anyway, other than the rock, all of the plants we put in are just as wreckable by pet pee, and, ultimately, 15 years' worth of pee is a lot of pee. A LOT of pee. I can say, Lacey, in her many years, never killed a plant with pee; though she did, on occasion dig at them, or roll on them, if there was a dead rodent in or near the plant; never underestimate how enchanting a dead rodent is to a dog. So I dug around some of my books, and even lucked into a 10-minute gardening podcast today on the topic of pet pee, and learned a lot, which I want to share, because I think it can help clarify some things about male versus female urine, and urine in general.

First off, most commercial fertilizer we put on our plants contains a lot of nitrogen; a lot of that nitrogen comes from urea, which is the chief end-product of mammalian (male or female) protein metabolism; in other words, urea is the stuff in urine, and urea is the stuff in plant fertilizer. Ah, the circle of life. Interesting, huh? So, if we spread our fertilizer nicely around our vegetation, it helps our plants to grow. If we dump it on, it burns the plants.

So, back to the male/female companion animal urine issue: pee is fertilizer, and it's not bad for your plants. The problem arises because of its method of distribution. In general, male dogs and cats have a better ability to evenly spread their pee/fertilizer because of their anatomy. Female dogs and cats generally squat in one spot — an uneven distribution of their pee/fertilizer — because of their anatomy, and can result in a burned up lawn. I want to note here that Lacey, may she rest in peace, the sweet girl, had some interesting dominance issues, and always walked while she peed, thus spreading things out nicely for me. She was such a good dog!

But what do you do if you have a male dog who never learns to lift his leg? Or a female dog who just squats in one spot and lets 'er rip? Or a cat of either gender who feels entitled to whiz against the same shrub, all the damn time? The best bet is to try to encourage the animal to go in a different spot of the yard all together, maybe off the main area of the lawn. In the case of cats, a sandy corner of the property (preferably far away from your doors and windows) may be more enticing than your garden and shrubs. The guy in the podcast said you can try to add more water to your pet's diet to help keep the urine from burning your plants, but I think that's a bunch of malarky for a couple of reasons: you can lead an animal to water, but you can't make 'em drink. Plus, I'd wager that canned-fed (more moisture in canned food) animals are burning up lawns at the same rate as the dry-food eaters, though I could be wrong; either way, I'd love to hear about a study on that topic. A more reliable bet would be to provide some extra water to the area of lawn where the animal peed. Flush it, so to speak.

About those humans who prefer to relieve themselves in the out-of-doors, I don't mean to be sexist, but you will almost never see a woman peeing on your lawn, or against your fence, though I imagine it does happen here in Trenton. In that case, her pee may burn your vegetation. In the case of a man who does the same thing, his pee may not burn your plants, unless he keeps coming back to the same exact spot. Either way, these people, just like the dogs and cats in our lives, need to be retrained. Take pictures. Report them at your CPAC meetings. Or turn the hose on 'em.

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