Stand your constitutional ground

A new customer came by last summer, having recently purchased a cottage property. Her neighbour had complained to the municipality about weeds that had sprung up on the previous owner’s vegetable patch. She told me some young people employed by the township arrived, armed with rulers, measured her weeds, found they were above the permitted height and told her she had to get rid of them.

She was upset, but complied, duly banishing the weeds and came to me, to purchase what I sell, native plants, that some might consider to be weeds, beautiful though they are. (Scroll to end for definitions).* 

I was glad that she was committed to a garden that would support biodiversity. I regretted not having been able to inventory her weeds before they were cleared out. Could there have been a rare grass there, or habitat for an endangered butterfly? Probably not, but it’s always good to check what nature has on offer before obliteration.

I was also annoyed by the imposition of an antiquated aesthetic standard on my customer. Because that’s what this was about - aesthetics. The township enforcers weren’t compiling a species list to determine if the weeds were harmful or invasive, they were measuring.

It’s not as if this wasn’t settled 25 years ago when Toronto resident Sandy Bell appealed her conviction for having violated Toronto’s weeds and grass bylaw.

“I think it is apparent that one of the purposes of the by-law, indeed its primary purpose, is to impose on all property owners the conventional landscaping practices considered by most people to be desirable, and that one of its effects is to prevent naturalized gardens which reflect other, less conventional values,” wrote Justice David Fairgrieve in 1996, finding that Bell’s constitutional right to freedom of expression had been violated.

Bell had won the right to express her environmental beliefs through gardening. It was a landmark ruling.

That didn’t stop harassment of environmentally motivated gardeners, which continues to this day, through complaint-driven property standard bylaws. Even though Toronto offers an exemption for “natural” gardens, gardeners can be called upon to prove year after year that their plantings are in fact beneficial and qualify for the exemption.

Last year a Toronto bylaw official responding to neighbours’ complaints issued a notice of violation under the city’s grass and weeds bylaw. Problem: the property owner is Nina-Marie Lister, a well-known landscape ecologist and University of Toronto professor. Lister has worked with the city on its biodiversity strategy, its pollinator strategy and its ravine strategy and was applying the principles enshrined in these strategies to her own yard.

Headlines ensued. TV cameras arrived. The city quickly backed down, offering her a natural garden exemption that’s provided for under the bylaw (if the plantings pass examination by a city official). Lister refused. She was joined by an impressive cohort of eminent horticulturalists who called for an end to this nonsense and a new bylaw. Natural gardens should not be exceptional, they said, and gardeners should not be obliged to get a bureaucratic seal of approval for their outdoor space. 

In December, Lister, along with author and activist Lorraine Johnson, gardening expert Mark Cullen, Toronto’s natural environment enforcement officer Patricia Landry and environmental lawyer David Donnelly spoke in an illuminating webinar.

“Prisoners of their past,” is how Cullen described those who think “that a picture perfect lawn is the only acceptable way to enjoy a house and yard and be part of a community, to be a responsible citizen. That’s gone, that’s post-World-War-II-speak.”

Donnellly decried “selective use of bylaw enforcement to intimidate and harass beautiful people who are trying to make the world a bit better - I think its disgraceful …It should stop.”

And Johnson noted that the current bylaw is “a huge disincentive against biodiversity,” because of its vague and arbitrary nature. A reformed bylaw should address health and safety issues, full stop, she said. There’s no room for aesthetics.

Toronto is presently seeking feedback on its natural garden exemption. My money is on a new and better bylaw and hopefully a knock-on effect throughout the province.

In the meantime, follow David Donnelly’s advice. Resist.

Lawns a symbol of male control 

Similar issues are hot topics across the pond. English gardening television personality Monty Don recently came out swinging at “the obsession, which tends to be male, which is controlling rather than embracing, with making a lawn that is pure grass without any filthy and foreign invading plants in there, making sure it’s stripy and neat and - phew! - just one aspect of life that’s under control.”

Cutting grass burns fossil fuel, is noisy and about the most injurious thing you can do to wildlife, Don pointed out. “Whereas letting grass grow - which is, after all, a pretty passive thing to do - is probably the single most effective thing you can do in any garden of any size to encourage, particularly, insect life, but also small mammals, invertebrates, reptiles.”

Wildflower meadows are the way to go, he urged.

Lawn defenders struck back. "Grass, whether cut or not, still does incredible things for the environment,” said lawn expert David Hedges-Gower. “The amount of carbon dioxide it takes out of the air, the soot and dust and pollution, lawns are worth having."

I think lawns, in moderation, have a purpose - for those with kids, and dogs, and men who find tending the lawn to be relaxing. But they’re no longer the preferred horticultural choice, as this article from the Guardian makes clear.

Tidiness

While we’re on the subject of obsessive behaviour, hold that rake! It really isn’t a good idea to “clean up” all the leafy and vegetative detritus as soon as we have a sunny day. Or to clip the stalks back to a neat three inches (control impulse at work again). There are hibernating butterflies and other insects in the organic matter that winter leaves behind.

Let them emerge to have a glorious summer, or instead, to be a tasty treat for a bird to find as he sifts through the undergrowth. The perennial stems are where the bee laid her eggs last year. This year’s pollinators are waiting. Leave the cleanup till May. Or leave it, period. The urge to meddle and tidy is a deeply seated human instinct but often, the best thing is to do nothing.

Seedy Saturday

The Barrie Public Library is celebrating Seedy Saturday with a whole month of events and resources, including video-taped interviews with a host of speakers with knowledge or expertise in everything gardeners enjoy.  Here’s the link Yours truly is featured on March 16, but you can listen to the interview any time, here’s the link.

Thanks to the team at the library that made this happen. A year ago, on the day the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, I backed out of a physical Seedy Saturday at the Barrie library. Then it was cancelled. We’ve come a long way since then - and we’re not out of the weeds yet. Don’t let your guard down.

Natural pest control

Simcoe County Master Gardener Gail Cocker is doing a free Zoom presentation on natural pest control on Friday March 26 at 3 pm. This is the first in a series on gardening sponsored by the BayShore Seniors Club in Woodland Beach. To register, click here or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and put Pest Control in the subject line.

*Some definitions:

What is a weed? Any plant you don’t like the look of, that seeds or spreads readily. (Or your neighbour doesn’t.) It could be something you planted yourself that turned out to be more enthusiastic than you bargained for. It could have arrived on the wind. It could be native, non-native, rare or “noxious” as listed in the Weed Control Act, which does not apply if the gardener is “far enough away” not to interfere with agriculture or horticulture.

What is a native? A plant that belongs here on the landscape, having evolved with the butterflies, bees and other life forms that also belong here, all of which support each other if allowed to grow together into sustaining communities. Some natives arrive on the wind. Some emerge from a seed left in the ground like a memory of a forgotten time. Some have survived in intact ecosystems. Some we plant.

What is a wildflower? A plant with a flower you like, that appears uninvited but still appeals. Some wildflowers are native, but 70 per cent of the species we see flowering in “wild” spaces here in Ontario are not from here. They are exotics.

What is an exotic? Plants that are not native, also called aliens. Plants from Europe, Asia or wherever, that make up most of the ornamentals in our gardens. The ones in gardens tend to have large showy flowers that appeal to people, not so much to pollinators.

What is an invasive? An alien that doesn’t play nicely with others, elbows them out of the way, often exuding chemicals from its roots to attack competitors, so where native trilliums once grew you now have invasive periwinkle (vinca).
Nancy Moysiuk
- 13 March 2021 at 01:00pm


Comments regarding the Toronto Natural Garden Exemption may be submitted as follows:

"The City is seeking feedback on the natural garden exemption process and wants your input. Have your say on whether the City should remove the natural garden permit requirement. Email MLSFeedback@toronto.ca by 11.59 p.m. March 31, 2021."
Ken Thompson
- 13 March 2021 at 01:38pm

Thank you for this illuminating newsletter and links to resources. Happy Gardening!
Maggie
- 13 March 2021 at 01:51pm

Interesting, informative and up to date! Everything a good blog should be,
Well done, Kate.
Maureen
- 14 March 2021 at 11:15am

A good memory stimulant - thanks. Looking for the hibernators to emerge.
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