Editor's note: A reader suggested after we ran an article about plants that are poisonous to horses that we write one about plants that are safe around horses. Thanks for the suggestion!
Spring is in the air. It’s the perfect time to plan enhancements to your stable’s landscape. There are a wide variety of plants that can add color, texture and beauty to the exterior of your barn. Hanging baskets, sidewalk borders and planned garden areas enriches the barn atmosphere for existing clients and catches the attention of potential clients.
Upgrading the landscape is an investment. Even annuals that only last one season can be expensive. Take time to learn which plants are the best fit for your property and lifestyle. “Landscapes are much more than a decorative addition for your stable,” said Matt Johnson, Principal at Equine Facility Design in Portland, Oregon.
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While the point of landscaping is to beautify, add value and add character to your stable, a well-planned landscape design can also support water conservation, reduce the flow of pollutants into waterways and aid in fire resistance. Native plants, storm water runoff and drought-tolerant plants are buzzwords among landscape professionals today. Each of these plants, and others, might work as well on horse farms as they do residential or commercial properties.
But before placing any plants in your stable’s landscape, be aware that many popular plants are hazardous to horses. “The oleander, a southern flowering shrub which is dangerously toxic, yet used regularly in commercial and home landscaping,” Johnson explained.
Other favorites such as lilies, milkweeds, delphiniums, hyacinths, daffodils, or butterfly weed are also toxic to horses.
There might be situations where you choose to use a plant that can be poisonous to horses. “I was visiting one of the industry’s leading veterinary practices. Boxwood plants, which are highly toxic to horses, were all over the property,” he said.
When the facility manager was asked if he had any concern, his reply was, “no.” The plants were in areas the horses did not have access to.
“You have to decide for yourself the level of risk you want to take,” Johnson advised.
Choosing plants that are not toxic to horses is the safest bet. But careful planning can offer some stable owners a balance between the plants they love and keeping the horses in their care safe.
For example, keep plants a safe distance from horses.
“Add a little buffer zone between your walkway or barn entrance, and the beginning of your flower bed,” he suggested, “keep flowers planted along your barn perimeter trimmed below the reach of inquisitive noses peeking out of stall windows. A bored horse might eat just about anything, even if it’s toxic.”
The goal you have for the landscape will determine the plants you use. Annuals are a favorite choice for adding color. For the best success, pick plants that will thrive in the conditions you have. There also are edible flowers that can be added to your landscaping.
“For sunny areas, try a bright daisy-style flower, like Black-Eyed Susans,” Johnson suggested.
If you’re a fan of horse racing, you know that the winner of the Preakness Stakes is draped in a blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. These big yellow flowers love the sun and bloom all summer long. They also attract bees and butterflies, so plant them a little way away from your barn to enjoy the color and butterflies, without luring the bees inside.
In shady areas impatiens are a good choice. Hardy impatiens will grow almost anywhere. “I’ve stumbled across plots of them deep in the woods and they grow into big luxurious mounds when planted in the shade,” he said.
At stables, roof overhangs are an ideal place for these plants. Hanging baskets overflowing with impatients are popular choice for show barns. “Just ask yourself if you’ll remember to water the baskets before you take that route,” he cautioned.
Use a safe mulch in the planting beds to cut down on maintenance. Mulch prevents water from eroding the garden and helps hold moisture in the soil. “Be careful of the wood your mulch is made from; avoid black walnut or cocoa hull. For added fire safety, you can mulch around your flowers, then use gravel between the mulched areas and the barn, reducing the flammable fuel around your barn.
Annuals add color and texture to the landscape, but they require a lot of maintenance and water. Native, regionally specific, plants require less water to survive. These plants are naturally found in specific regions and/or climates. Because they are naturally adapted to survive in a specific climate, the list of specific plants to consider varies dramatically across the country.
Most native plants are perennials. Once they are established, they will thrive for many seasons. The key to success is choosing the right plant for the right place. Take time to understand the site and lighting.Plants placed outside their natural “comfort zone” will struggle and need more water to look healthy.
Checklist of Native Plants by Region
Group plants together based on the amount of water needed.“Hydrozoning” includes grouping plants with similar water needs in the same beds to more efficiently provide water based on plant needs. In areas where plants are not grouped, too much water is applied to ensure the plants needing more water get enough and vice versa.
Native plants can increase the likelihood of a landscape’s survivability during a drought while potentially reducing the overall water usage within the landscape. A drought-tolerant landscape design also helps minimize steep slopes. In situations where steep slopes are unavoidable, plants with deeper root zones, native ground covers and shrubs provide additional stabilization to avoid runoff and erosion.
“Some safe native plants include Oregon grape, Rosemary, camellia and hemlock tree,” Johnson said, “but remember native plants are specific to climate zones.”
Rain gardens and bioswales are two types of gardens that are gaining in popularity, even on horse farms. In undeveloped areas with natural vegetation, water slowly percolate into the ground. Today, much of the land, in urban and suburban areas, is covered with impervious surfaces, including streets, parking lots and large roofs.
With less surface area to absorb excess water, the extra water, along with any pollutants flows into nearby lakes, streams and rivers. Rain gardens and bioswales reduce runoff.
The first rain garden installed at an equestrian property was at Rutgers University, Ryder’s Lane BMP Farm. "Rain gardens are especially good around barns because there are a wide variety of plants that can be added to either have a low-maintenance buffer around paddocks, or a higher-maintenance rain garden to also look aesthetically pleasing while helping buffer nutrient uptake around paddocks. It all really depends on the goals of the farm and the amount of labor available,” said Dr. Carey Williams, Associate Director of Outreach at the Equine Science Center at Rutgers.
Both rain gardens and bioswales are designed to naturally direct that water back into the ground. Often native plants are used. These plants are specifically chosen for their long root systems, which are ideal for filtering excess water removing pollutants before returning water to the ground.
“There are so many possibilities for rain gardens; the one at Ryders Lane serves as an example of how to best control water runoff around paddocks for a low cost and low maintenance," said Williams.
Enjoying the Landscape
Stable managers are busy. Caring for the horses, training, teaching lessons and daily chores take priority. Because time is limited, it’s important to choose hardy plant varieties that don’t require a lot of upkeep and won’t die easily if you forget about them for a time. Ask your local garden center or nursery for suggestions on plants that will thrive in your location.
If you’re looking to plan a landscape that incorporates native and drought tolerant plants, there are multiple resources available. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers tips and suggestions for what to plant in these types of gardens. Visit https://www3.epa.gov/watersense/outdoor/what_to_plant.html and https://www3.epa.gov/watersense/outdoor/landscaping_tips.html for more information.
Once you have selected plant varieties to fit your goals, be sure they are not toxic to the horses on your property. Remember that even if plants are out of direct reach of the horses on your property, strong winds, storms and heavy rains can relocate branches and leaves from a garden where they are planted into the pasture the horses occupy.
Along with choosing plants based on appearance, climate survivability, affordability and other factors, here’s one more to consider. Johnson suggested checking with the local governing agency for any landscape guidelines they might have. “Depending on where you live, the governing agency may have some input on the type of plants you use to support water conservation, fire resistance or other efforts,” he said.
If you choose to work with a landscape architect or landscape installation company, be sure to confirm that the plants recommended for your property aren’t toxic to horses. Johnson reminded stable managers, “You may choose to have plants on your property that may be toxic to horses, but you have to decide for yourself the level of risk you want to take.”