Living with pets doesn't mean sacrificing a garden -- it means planning wisely to meet everyone's needs. A primary concern shared by all responsible pet parents has been made easier to address, thanks to smartphones making it easy to shop for plants and look up your selection's toxicity potential. Occasionally a perfect plant is new enough on the market that toxicity information isn't readily available, and the kangaroo paw fern (Microsorum diversifolium), an Australian ground cover, fits into that category.
Kangaroo Paw Fern
This popular, leathery evergreen fern from Australia and New Zealand grows in shade and filtered shade throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 to 11. It's a creeping fern that spreads by rhizomes, providing a terrific ground cover. One plant can spread 4 feet, with a height of 1 foot. Mulch this plant outdoors with a dog-safe product -- consider shredded pine or cedar.
Indoor Foliage Plant
Kangaroo paw fern makes a delightful container plant for hanging baskets. The dark, glossy, stiff leaves are ideal for interior plantings, especially in low humidity and low light locations. The plant will grow if you keep it 10 feet from natural light, and shouldn't be placed in strong light. It grows quite well in artificial soil mixes. As an indoor plant, the fern will get the attention of cats and is best grown in out-of-reach hanging containers.
Mulching will keep the soil around the plants moist. Finely shredded mulch won't encourage dogs to chew on bark chunks. During hot, dry spells this cool, moist area will be attractive to pets that might enjoy rolling around in the ground cover. Accommodate your dog in the garden by placing a rectangular mulch pad in the middle of the ground cover area, with a path to the pad to prevent the dog from tromping over the ferns.
Kangaroo paw fern has no known toxicity for cats or dogs. If either cats or dogs chew on the fronds, they will probably throw up the plant parts, just as they would after eating grass. Overeating any plant can cause digestive problems, and pets could have allergic reactions. It's best to discourage them from eating any plants -- but they're sneaky creatures, and they will investigate when you're not looking.
Train your dogs to stay out of the fern ground cover. Reinforce the desired behavior with a small, temporary fence. Some homeowners place a natural edging such as dwarf Japanese juniper (Juniperus procumbens "Nana"), hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9, around garden areas. Neither dogs nor cats enjoy stepping on this plant, and it could train them to avoid the ground cover. Dusting with cayenne pepper also discourages eating or rolling in the new fern bed. Place a vertical post or concrete fire hydrant in a remote part of the yard to prevent dogs from urinating in the fern bed.