Time To Turf The Turf Toronto or “A Garden Too Far?”

A staff report and background file (which contains the many of the more contentious aspects that are not explicated in the staff report) concerning “natural gardens” currently awaiting Council review is alarming and unconstitutional.  Your help is needed to stop this draconian proposal.  Please contact your Councillor and ask your friends and social media contacts to do the same, send additional messages of protest to clerk@toronto.ca  or register to speak before Council about this important issue.

Time To Turf The Turf Toronto

This title is not as contentious as one might initially imagine.  Pulled together, it becomes TTTTTT, and that’s what this issue can become; a bridge, a link between Councillors, residents, staff, and the wildlife that still inhabit Toronto, all of whom may  hold very differing viewpoints.

The Issues

  1. Unnecessary Long Grass & Weed Complaints
  2. The presence of actual noxious weeds and unmown grass.
  3. Harmful or invasive plants
  4. “Unkempt” yards

The Background
The Ontario Weed Act employed by the City of Toronto within bylaw 489, covers 23 species; excluding milkweed — specifically exempted in urban areas because of its essential role in the life cycle of Monarch Butterflies, a species denoted of “special concern” under Federal and Provincial Endangered Species Acts.

Most of these “noxious weed” species are of exotic origin, or short lived pioneer species of disturbed sites that will eventually give way to other species.  While not advocating for their protection in Toronto, it should be noted that most of these species are not actually harmful outside of agricultural areas.  Hogweed, a recent addition to the list, which may cause significant skin irritation in combination with exposure to sunlight,  is a notable exception.

There are a far larger number of unregulated species that are harmful to our urban/suburban environment, most notably “invasive” species that can overwhelm our remaining natural areas, spread into neighbouring properties, and that can be very difficult to control.

Many of these plants aren’t generally recognized by the public, or by staff, as harmful since they are commonly sold in the nursery trade, at supermarkets, and corner stores or are traded between gardeners because “they have loads to spare”.  In many progressive jurisdictions, however, these plants are banned from sale or trade.  Prohibition of these plants has not yet happened in Ontario although there are campaigns afoot to encourage retailers to voluntarily remove them from sale.

These invasive plants are even more commonly found in “traditional” gardens than in the “natural” sites subjected to long grass & weed (LGW) investigations.  Periwinkle, English Ivy, Goutweed, Oriental Bittersweet, and a host of other garden plants are all harmful to our environment.

Garlic mustard, is a species, which along with most found in staff reports, is NOT prohibited under Toronto’s current bylaw 489.  It is endemic in Toronto’s parks and natural areas.  It is also sometimes cultivated as a kitchen herb or left to flourish in traditional gardens because of its “pretty white flowers”.  It, and Dog Strangling Vine, another harmful alien species sometimes sold as “Black Swallowort”, should be officially designated as “local weeds”.   Currently only Purple Loosestrife has been designated as a “local weed” in Toronto.

Finally, we reach the subject of “unkempt” yards.  There are bylaws dealing with trash and litter.  There cannot legally be a bylaw dealing with garden design.  What to some is a tangled mess of plants, to others is a treasure-trove of rare or even endangered species forming an important environmental message:  someone who truly cares for Planet Earth lives here.  Toronto recognizes this.  It publicly advocates for natural gardens in private yards and public spaces — yet the MLS Department, routinely charges those residents who implement them on private property based purely and illegally on their personal aesthetic preferences.

These spaces are readily distinguished from grass left too long unmown even to untrained eyes.  Biodiversity is much greater in “natural” gardens, although left alone, biodiversity in unmown yards will eventually also increase.  Among the first to appear in those, however, will be ragweed (OWA listed), other invasive, generally alien, species, goldenrod and aster.  These last two are essential native nectar plants for fall feeding pollinators before migration or winter dormancy.  Their seed heads also provide food for overwintering birds.

The Solutions
So what is Toronto to do?

It cannot legally continue to threaten those who choose a “different” style of gardening from their neighbours.  It can only charge those who simply refuse to mow turf lawns or have been prevented from doing so by illness or other temporary circumstances…although unmown spaces are less harmful than the regular use of power lawn cutters, leaf blowers, and other noxious machinery.

It would be huge waste of resources to continue its current path of providing 1:1 educational services to the most receptive (those whose intent was to improve the environment through their personal gardens) while ignoring the bulk of more harmful yards that actually host the same or more invasive species than those charged.

It could redirect funding from “garden policing” into a mass education campaign…aimed at all gardeners across the GTA; urging them not to propagate or purchase the myriad of harmful invasive species found in local stores or traded amongst horticultural groups—replacing the list of approved  “xeriscaping” plants list of primarily invasive species included in this staff report, with one composed entirely of native species.

It could re-deploy staff into providing educational presentation to community associations, schools, horticultural groups, and others that are willing to listen to new concepts.

It could showcase and encourage gardens of native species, rather than those currently winning awards in the “environmental category” of Toronto’s garden awards, in order to introduce the concept of urban/suburban meadows, woodlands, and alvars.  It could recognize that at times, and to those new to the concept, these spaces may sometimes appear to be “unkempt” — particularly after neighbourhood children and other wildlife have romped through them.

It could work toward a more ecological world starting with the thousands of acres of wasted space that are currently devoted toward lawns in Toronto.

It could Vote for Butterflies not Turf.

Monarch butterfly, a species of special concern, in a Garden Too Far

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