So what’s wrong with setting neighbourhood standards?
Take a walk around your community. Do you love every garden, every house design, the colours painted on every building? I’ll assume not. I’ll also assume that not everyone passing by loves the choices you’ve made on your property. That’s called diversity…and it’s a good thing. Allowing people to express different ways of doing things —even publicly exposed in their front yard — helps us to be more creative, to learn, and to grow. Will we make mistakes? Quite likely. Will our projects look ‘lovely’ from day one and stay that way year round? Will we all progress at the same pace or even move in the same direction? Of course not. That’s all part of the process, but over time our successes and our failures will lead to a more vibrant city and to a more connected neighbourhood. We aren’t all the same, and neither should our gardens be. We need to feel safe to explore new concepts in our own yards.
Why should “natural” gardens be exempt from the Tall Grass and Weed bylaw?
They actually aren’t. If a “natural garden” had a lawn with grass over 8 inches (20cm) tall or allowed specific prohibited species of weeds to flower…its owner would be asked to cut them before they set seed, as should be the case in any garden.
The primary reason that “natural gardens” were explicitly mentioned in bylaw 489 is that this style of garden was not well understood when the bylaw was drafted in 1998 in response to the Courts decision to uphold Sandy Bell’s Toronto eco-garden. The idea was to provide some protection for a newer, greener way of gardening; one that was actively being promoted by Toronto as it is elsewhere around the world, and one that wasn’t always well understood by the general public. It was intended to allow your garden time to mature, to get through the gangly adolescent phase and allow your neighbours time to get used to your yards new look…simply point to the by law to prove your plantings are legitimate. Having to APPLY for an exemption wasn’t supposed to become the process.
What makes a garden “natural”?
It is an odd term isn’t it? But most gardens in Toronto haven’t been “natural” in a generation or more. Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea of exotic species from other lands being appropriate garden plants…ones that generally weren’t eaten by insects, that flowered profusely throughout the growing season, that required staking, feeding, watering and general coddling…and which give little back to the environment. Even the vaunted “butterflybush” (an invasive species) provides only a brief window of lower quality nutrition to adult butterfly than a diverse range of native plants which also play host to their caterpillar phase. Exotic plants have become more familiar to many than those that actually belong in Ontario ecosystems…and that’s not natural.
“Natural Garden” was intended to encompass yards designed to look more as plants appear in nature…distinguishing them from those of barren lawns with regimented lines of petunias. “Natural” gardens may not appear as structured as those to which many have become accustomed. Their borders may to be blurred, plants intermingled, and to those unfamiliar with the species growing in them, they may sometimes appear to be more of a jumble than a garden. They also tend not to arrive fully grown as ethically propagated native plants usually arrive as very small specimens that may take years to grow to the size of the alien, and often invasive, plants that one can pick up at the local supermarket.
“Natural Gardens” are also extremely functional. “Natural” gardens, even those that have yet to learn to include native plants, perform important ecosystem functions. They tend to have layers, building vertically from ground cover, to taller plants, to shrubs, to trees…increasing the infiltration capacity of a plot of land exponentially and providing a wide range of habitat within a relatively small footprint. That means less runoff overwhelming city storm sewers and waterways and more support for local wildlife. They breathe and absorb pollution and carbon. Front yard gardens increase neighbour to neighbour interaction and calm traffic flow. Those that are composed primarily of native species provide incalculable additional benefits including allowing children, the infirm, and the busy a chance to observe and interact with nature without leaving home.
Don’t I have the Right to Complain About other People’s Yards?
Sure, you have the right to talk to your neighbours, to offer them your perspective…but unless there is a valid health or safety concern, the City is not legally empowered to intervene.
You also have the right to move into a community that has set standards for what you may do. There are plenty of condominium complexes and ‘gated communities’ where residents have elected to adhere to group standards. There was even a book written about such places…somewhere called Stepford I think?
Your neighbour has the right to use and enjoy his property as he wishes, just as you do yours, as long as what he does doesn’t pose a hazard. Give their garden a chance, it might just grow on you!