Tag Archives: Weed laws

Merry Christmas from Toronto–We’re Cutting your Garden and Sending you the Bill.

To those members of Council who celebrated the recent Street bylaw as a means of promoting more productive use of Toronto’s 11,200 km of boulevards, I have bad news.  This bylaw is being used to cut any plantings exceeding 8 inches in height…a restriction already deemed ludicrous by Ontario courts.  <Links to relevant staff members and Council are listed at the bottom of this post.>

My Miscreant Boulevard June 22, 2012

My Miscreant Boulevard June 22, 2012

My boulevard was planted with a variety of native species in 1996, at a time when the City was actively promoting such efforts.  It included several rare and endangered species, many of which did not recover following the City’s illegal cutting of my gardens in 2007.  City staff are now threatening to once again cut this recovering stretch of garden, “sometime over the next two weeks“…despite it successfully undergoing inspection by Toronto’s horticulturalist under the City’s natural garden exemption process on December 11, 2012.  Unable to immediately proceed under the original bylaw 489 (long grass & weeds) charge, the Executive Director of MLS passed the issue on to the

High Park Boulevard Bed -- impeding pedestrians?

High Park Boulevard Bed — impeding pedestrians?  Photo:  Sharon Lovett

Transportation Department’s newly enacted Streets bylaw….which purports to encourage the planting of “soft landscaping (vegetation such as sod, hedges, flower/fruit/vegetable gardens)”,  in order to harm at least the boulevard portion of native species.

Toronto's 2007 "remedial action"

Toronto’s 2007 “remedial action”

Toronto is already engaged in a lawsuit concerning their actions against this property yet despite warnings that such actions will increase any claims, staff continue to harass me based solely on their perceptions of garden aesthetics and in an effort to curtail my suggestions to Council that the budget of Toronto’s “garden police” be re-allocated to more crucial areas.

Tall Grass Traffic Island

Tall Grass Traffic Island

Safety is obviously not their concern as no efforts have been made to charge more substantial plantings on neighbouring properties that lack a demarcating sidewalk.  Moreover, my plantings in no way impede sight lines, unlike similar plantings created by Toronto on centre medians.

True, the plants are currently dormant, but their stalks and seed heads offer crucial food and shelter to overwintering wildlife.  Garden design is protected as a form of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and this, as well as the RIGHT to garden on boulevards, has been confirmed by the Courts in previous actions against Toronto.  Referring to a Justice Fairgrieve’s comments in his judgement against the City of Toronto in Bell vs Toronto:
“I think we have all become accustomed to accepting that not everyone shares the same tastes, and that differing practices are no less valid or tolerable simply because they deviate from the norm.”
“Having found that the by-law unjustifiably infringes the appellant’s freedom of expression guaranteed by s. 2(b) of the Charter, pursuant to s. 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, it is of no force or effect. In those circumstances, I do not think it is necessary to consider whether it also has the effect of breaching the appellant’s freedom of conscience guaranteed by s. 2(a).”  J. Fairgrieve, Bell v Toronto.  1996

Staff purported that recent amendments to bylaw 489 were intended to “preempt the unnecessary and unwarranted issuance of notices”, this is clearly not the case.

Sometime over the next two weeks, City staff will attempt to once again damage my small ecosystem.  I am asking your help to stop this injustice.

Staff have shrewdly timed this move during the holiday hiatus, and few Councillors are available, but I would still appreciate your sending letters and emails to them on my behalf and on behalf of all other miscreant Toronto gardeners who will continue to be threatened if we don’t draw a line in the soil now.

You may also wish to cc

  • Tracey Cook, Executive Director of Municipal Licensing and Services (controlling “natural garden exemptions”),
  • Bob Taylor Manager, Right-of-Way Management, Transportation Services, who is apparently amenable to cutting any boulevard garden exceeding 8 inches in height regardless of it posing a hazard.
  • John Livey, Deputy City Manager

With thanks,

Deborah Dale,
biologist; past-President North American Native Plant Society; former Recycling Coordinator/Solid Waste Specialist City of Scarborough; President Verdigrow Ltd.

Free Gardens, Leash Lawns

Dear Members of Toronto Council,

The proposal to waste more tax dollars to communicate to the public the rationale for charging a fee to individuals forced into defending private gardens, simply exemplifies the need for Council to insist on the re-examination of the original Council request – which was to find a way to preempt the unnecessary and unwarranted issuance of violation notices.

The $200 fee, while an outrageous violation of process, was never the primary issue.  The initial intrusion into personal choices was and remains the crux.   Unless there is clear evidence of health and safety concerns, there is no need for municipal staff to intrude onto private property.  Instead of staying within their mandated role of investigating safety concerns, the Licensing & Standards (MLS) Department have become self appointed garden aesthetics police – despite their admitted lack of qualifications for that role – wasting an enormous amount of staff time and City resources, unduly inflating the MLS  budget, and forcing residents of Toronto to take the City to court in order to defend their Charter-protected rights to work toward restoring the earth starting in their own yards.

Receiving a notice of violation is a tremendous cause of distress in and of itself.  In some cases, subject gardens remain under threat for over a year or are never notified that the case against them has been dismissed at the staff level.    In one notable case, an elderly woman having volunteered in City-sponsored restoration activities for decades and having purchased her garden plants from the City itself through the High Park native plant sales; received a Long Grass and Weeds complaint in February while the garden was dormant.  Please note, that as a dedicated native plant enthusiast, she had no lawn and therefore no turf grass tall or otherwise.  There was never any suggestion that she had any prohibited or hazardous plants, yet she was still put through months of anxiety as her tiny yards were inspected multiple times by staff of both the MLS and Parks Departments, before the issue was finally placed before Community Council for appeal — only after she had been forced to cut foliage which had dared to dangle over the edge of the sidewalk.   In most areas such vegetative dalliances would be considered charming, but in Toronto the possibility of pedestrians brushing against a flower is apparently a public hazard.

A “natural” garden of 200+ species of native plants cut to the ground without notice at the direction of Toronto’s MLS Department. Despite an ongoing lawsuit relating to that action, and the MLS department’s knowledge that it lacks turf and prohibited species, this garden is facing charges for a third time.

There are hundreds of additional instances where residents have been illegally forced by staff into making alterations to their private gardens based simply on staff preferences rather than any regulated defects or safety concerns. There are many others where staff has recommended against approval of a garden – despite it not having violated the bylaw – forcing the resident to proceed to Community Council rather than give up their right to choose how to manage their private property.  These champions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and of Toronto’s ecological health, will now be hit with a $200 fine upfront…which is in no way mitigated by the chance that an untrained Community Council will recognize, in the face of staff rebuttal, the violation of the resident’s rights and refund that fine.

In July 2012, Council quite rightly requested a method to preempt the issuance of such violation notices.  Staff responded with a supercilious proposal that entirely ignored that request and simply removed the issue from the view of the public and Council while increasing their control over private yards – again without any violations being proven.  The unnecessary and unwarranted stress on individual residents receiving these threatening notices remains.   The damage to the conservation garden movement remains.   The damage to City coffers increases.

Please re-open this issue.  Regardless of your personal preferences in gardening styles, recognize that the City’s rights over private property is limited to health and safety concerns and request that staff actions be limited to that area.  This will save Toronto multiple thousands of dollars in direct staff re-deployment and many thousands more indirectly as additional gardens are no longer discouraged from  absorbing storm water in situ, eliminating the use of municipally-treated water, reducing pollution, improving the environment, public health, and joining in all the other myriad benefits that radiate from creating more vibrant, sustainable, communities.

Wasted Chances

Neighbours do not have a right to impose their preferences on how others design their yards…especially when the choices made by those others are far more beneficial to the environment than lawn.  Nor should City forces be used as hired bullies to enforce conformity to out-dated standards.  Allow yards to become different, more creative, and yes, sometimes perhaps a little messy…it is far preferable than adhering to the status quo of miles upon kilometres of useless, wasteful, environmentally and socially harmful lawn.

Edible Arrangements – http://www.facebook.com/occupygardenstoronto

There are thousands of acres of private yards in Toronto that could, with a little encouragement, be put to productive use.  This was recognized in the Urban Agriculture Report recently received by Council.  This was recognized by Ontario Courts which examined cases against Toronto gardens under the light of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  This is recognized in Toronto’s Green Plan, in its Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, in the TRCA Healthy Yards program and countless other City initiatives.  When will the MLS department and Council recognize it?

A garden neglected by its owner and by MLS staff who failed to investigate it.

If staff cannot be trained to recognize the difference between neglected and “natural” and cannot be made to understand basic civil rights, their powers over private yards should be removed not increased.

 

 

Sincerely,

All those dedicated to restoring the health of planet earth

Natural Garden Exemption Revision heading to Toronto Council November 29, 2012

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.

There remain only a few items on the agenda, so LS17.2 should be early in the day.  Session begins 9:30 am in Toronto Council Chambers.

The details are below, a more basic outline of why this report is so wrong and suggested phrases to use in contacting Council and an alternative proposal are in separate posts

In recent years, a number of residents, faced with Long Grass & Weed (bylaw 489–click on the title “Chapter 489” on the linked page to download the pdf file) have chosen to file claims for exemption from the bylaw as “natural gardens”.  Very few, if indeed any, of these gardens actually contained the tall grass or noxious weeds prohibited by the bylaw — they simply did not fit within the aesthetic preferences of the City’s inspectors.  More recently, this department has added its own online re-interpretation of the actual bylaw to support specious charges…changing “maintained” to “manicured”, allowing the inclusion of unspecified and non-prohibited plants as “weeds” in staff reports,  and asking that those applying for exemption obtain the support of their neighbours in order to grow a “natural garden” on their own property.  No other style of garden is expected to hold to the same standards.

In response to the upsurge in exemption requests, several Councillors requested additional information on dealing with them from staff.
City Council on July 11, 12 and 13, 2012, adopted the following:
Request the Executive Director, Municipal Licensing and Standards, to review Chapter 489, Grass and Weeds, Section 489 E and submit a report to the Licensing and Standards Committee on any recommended changes to the By-law and exemption process to pre-empt the issuance of unnecessary and unwarranted Notices of Violation related to Natural Gardens.

In response to this request, the MLS Department submitted a report to the November 16, 2012 meeting of the Licensing & Standards Committee.  This report did not address decreasing the issuance of notices, but rather proposed methods to:
– remove the process from Council and the public eye,
– effectively impose a $200 fine,
– increase power over the private yards of those residents that continue to insist that their gardens are not in violation of the bylaw
– impose other penalties on those not surrendering to the unlawful demands of the inspector.
The Committee did remove one contentious proposal, that of applying costs of ongoing inspections to gardens that been granted exemptions —unnecessary and unwarranted inspections — to the homeowner.

This proposal in no way seeks to “to pre-empt the issuance of unnecessary and unwarranted Notices of Violation related to Natural Gardens.” but rather reduces the visibility of their continued issuance from the view of Council and the general public and places increased power in the hands of the Department that has repeatedly proven that it cannot be trusted with this responsibility.
The enormous distress caused to the residents receiving these intrusive notices is exacerbated not relieved.

This Department admitted at Committee that its staff do not possess the knowledge to adequately assess what constitutes a natural garden…not even to the extent of recognizing unmown turf grasses and the short list of noxious weeds prohibited under the official bylaw, so notices are sent by registered mail without any indication that the property is in violation.

 Concerning the Staff Report , Background File,  Appendices and Attachments:

  1. “Natural Gardens” are grouped with those violating “health, safety, and nuisance” standards…indicating that the Department is predisposed against “natural gardens”.
  2. On receiving a complaint, the address of the property and the alleged infractions are publicly listed on the City’s website…contravening privacy legislation and without any proof that an infraction has occurred.
  3. Homeowners who do not capitulate to the the initial letter (which threatens to cut the garden in its entirety and add costs for inspection services, without explicating what faults have been alleged), are eligible to meet with the City’s sole horticulturist that is assigned to visit gardens.  The horticulturalist will then issue a report with her assessment of the property.  The proposal places interpretation of the horticulturalists report in the hands of the very department that has admitted it is not qualified to interpret such assessments, by delegating authority to grant exemptions to the Executive Director of Licensing and Standards…avoiding any public hearing.
  4. Residents still insisting that theirs is a legal garden must now pay a $200 fee to lodge an appeal to their Community Council.  (It is worth noting that most such appeals thus far in 2012 have been granted by Community Council…and that no staff reports, including those for which staff have recommended against approval,  have alleged any serious infraction of bylaw 489.   The success of the appeal process, in 2012 and in prior years, has depended more upon the aesthetic preferences of individual Councillors and staff than on the presence of actual health or safety infractions).
    1. Section (5) of Appendix A places further restrictions on “natural gardens” that are not included in the by law and which are not applied to any other style of garden; including authorizing staff to specify:
    • the location of the garden within the property,
    • the maintenance standards to be adhered to by the resident,and
    • “any other conditions respecting health, safety and nuisance as the Executive Director considers advisable”.
  5. Should the resident elect to appeal Staff’s decision, notice to all properties within 100 metres of the home and “any other concerned area residents” will be issued…further invading the privacy of the resident and adding unnecessary costs to the process, which the City intends to pass on to the resident.
  6. “failure to comply or appeal the decision will result in escalated enforcement including City remedial action and all related costs will be applied to the tax roll for subject premises”…all without any proof that any regulated infractions have occurred.
  7. Appendix A curtails the actual wording of the bylaw to read “defines “grass and weeds” as all noxious weeds and local weeds designated under the Weed Control Act, and other vegetation growth”.  City lawyers have concurred that they interpret the bylaw as applying ANY plants, including trees and shrubs, exceeding an 8 inch height solely at the discretion of the inspector.  This is clearly not the intent of the bylaw.
  8. The report continues to require the resident to prove that absolutely no weeds are present (as little as a single stalk of a non-regulated “weed” can appear on a staff list of “weeds on the property”), rather than placing the onus on the complainant or staff to prove that the bylaw has been violated.  Most reports contain lists of plants that are not regulated, simply those that the horticulturist deems ‘undesirable’.
  9. The background file contends that the role of the City horticulturist is not to identify prohibited weeds and tall turf grass but to “assist the public in beautifying their yards based on a set of criteria”.  It is not the role of municipal staff to determine what is beautiful.
  10. Report attachments offer links to City sponsored publications that promote the use of many harmful invasive plants and few native species.
  11. Appendix A of the Background files further states “Council has authorized regulations that will facilitate natural gardens contributing positively to the quality of Toronto’s appearance and its visual character to enhance the image and attractiveness of Toronto…”, re-iterating the department’s illegal focus on aesthetic interpretations being used to regulate gardens.

Information NOT included in the Staff Report:

  1. The City only has the power to regulate health and safety aspects of private property.  eg. It may impose preset height restrictions where vegetation may impede traffic sight lines.
  2. Ontario Courts have already ruled twice that aesthetic considerations are vague, subjective, and that garden design is a protected form of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 2B).  It is also protected under Freedom of Conscious, although that claim has not yet been ruled on.  The Charter takes precedence over Municipal by laws.
  3. “natural” gardens are specifically exempted under the bylaw and should not need to go through an appeals process, which becomes a circular argument stating that all that is required to be exempt from prohibitions against tall grass and weeds is that they not harbour tall grass or noxious weeds.
  4. Many more residents than the “10” listed in the staff report (there are 14 on record as of October 10, 2012) receive violation notices, some waiting for months after receiving the notice which threatens to cut their garden, to learn whether or not their gardens remain in jeopardy.  The horticulturist reviewing these gardens, mentioned having 26 on her current list.
  5. The Ontario Weed Act, on which the by law relies, only allows actual noxious weeds, not surrounding vegetation, to be cut…and only where these weeds may impact agricultural or horticultural concerns.

The Department of Licensing and Standards has a long history of bullying behaviour, of mismanaging complaints concerning private gardens, and of wasting funds including repeated intrusions onto private property that are not health or safety hazards and the unnecessary issuance of notices sent by registered mail.  It has admitted it does not possess the necessary expertise to assess private gardens.  Still it persists in attempts to increase its hold on this inspection process…possibly in fear of losing a large portion of its budget should these unconstitutional intrusions onto private property be curtailed as Council requested.

This Department has clearly demonstrated that its motivation is to not to protect the health, safety and well being of the residents of Toronto, but its departmental budget and authority.

Let’s save Toronto money, improve the environment, the health of Toronto communities, and obey the Canadian Constitution by removing the opportunity to harass ecological gardeners from the auspices of the Licensing and Standards Department.

A “Natural Garden” of “Long Grass and Weeds”?  This native plant garden has been charged three times under by law 489…despite it hosting endangered species and having no turf grass and no noxious weeds.   The MLS Department is well aware of the owners restoration activities yet persists in upholding complaints against it as they consider it “unkempt”.

 

 

 

That’s Not Natural — Is It? The FAQ’s of Natural Gardens

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.

by Janet Harrison (thelocalscoop.org)

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.

No Nature Deficit Disorder Here

“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?

A Different Decor — this Toronto yard is widely known  — and the neighbours don’t seem to mind.

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!

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

These yards aren’t illegal…but don’t you wish they were?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can be a little obessive about rules and regulations.  I firmly believe that everyone; regardless of their perceived influence, charm, or power, should play by the same set of rules as everyone else.

That’s one reason why this Toronto Staff report concerning Bylaw 489 (tall grass and weeds) is so upsetting to me.  It places “natural” gardens in a category separate from all the other styles of gardens and forces those choosing to garden with the planet in mind to adhere to standards higher than those applied to any other gardening style.  It also lumps neglected yards in with the yards of those who carefully choose and place their plants into functional, ecologically sound, communities.

We’ve all taken walks around the neighbourhood and clucked our tongues at other people’s gardens.  Why can’t they have the good sense and common decency to be exactly like us?   My sister absolutely hates a very ornate “big fat Greek wedding” style garden that popped up in front of an otherwise modest bungalow near her.  It comes replete with loads of statuary, an enormous ostentatious concrete fountain that overwhelms the dimension of the house behind it, an ornate wrought iron fence edging the property, and a colour cacophony of annual bedding plants and perennials surrounding the tiny green patch of lawn that manages to find space amid all the decor.  Much as she hates it, no bylaw inspector will invade this property on her behalf or rummage through it searching for plants not specifically prohibited (and there are many invasive and poisonous plants in this particular garden).  They recognize this owners right to be “ugly”.

Big Fat Greek Wedding Garden

My personal pet peeve is the ardently green lawn of a home near mine…the owner running a huge gas-powered riding mower over a relatively small lawn, watering it assiduously, even more so during droughts, fertilizing and surreptitiously spraying it with prohibited chemicals with absolutely no fear of repercussion from City bylaw enforcement officers.  Astro turf would be less harmful to the earth.

No Complaints about this Garden?

 

Another garden, that no one but bylaw officers seemed to mind, was a front yard vegetable garden…now absolutely and unequivocally allowed under a newly implemented bylaw.  Congratulations Toronto on one good decision, fingers crossed that the Parks Department’s Urban Agriculture initiative is also implemented!
(ed. it was approved at the Nov 27, 2012 Council meeting)

Toronto Approved Garden

 

 

The owners of these spaces all seem to love their gardens.  To their minds, they are doing their part to showcase the diversity that is Toronto.  I also love my wild looking meadow, a bio-diverse habitat and feeding ground for a wide range of insects, birds, and other wildlife…and a continuing source of nutrition for the pollinators that visit vegetable gardens during their short bloom periods.  We all have the right to express ourselves through our gardens (so long as they are not a health or safety hazard)…unless of course, we garden “naturally” in Toronto, Ontario.

My Miscreant Garden

My garden has been cited under bylaw 489 three times; twice in November (including 2012) as it was preparing for winter dormancy and once during the longest drought to hit Toronto in over 50 years (again, much of the garden was dormant, as were any unwatered neighbouring lawns).  Given this exhibit of sound judgement and astute understanding of the tenets of ecological gardening, it is little wonder that Toronto Council is considering awarding the Licensing & Standards Department increased powers over the management of such privately owned gardens.

My property was also cited under bylaw 629, for dead branches (staff photos showed the interior of a healthy pine tree), heavy undergrowth (a small garden of more native plants, a boxwood, and an alternate leaf dogwood in my backyard), and trash (debris on my neighbour’s property, some flagstone stepping stones that the officer claimed was gypsum, and a small hidden layering of wet newspapers in my backyard being used to kill the last vestiges of lawn).  The City’s evidence also included an extensive array of photos of a small yard waste pile, photographed so as to increase its apparent size.

Successfully fighting those charges cost me a lot of sleep, enjoyment of my home, a $200 fee to appear before a Property Standards committee composed of citizen volunteers and, along with my supporters and lawyer, two days at City hall (the Committee opted to allow staff a second chance to prove their case since they weren’t able to at our first appearance).  Despite there being no substance to the City’s charges, the order was officially listed as “confirmed”…apparently as an indication that all was now (as it always had been) well.  The Bylaw Officer, seemingly upset at watching his spurious charges being dismissed one by one, finally claimed that the needles under the pine tree were a fire hazard and demanded that the City’s Fire Department investigate them…and so it continues.

A lawsuit instigated over Toronto’s destruction of my front yard meadow is still ongoing.  Additional legal assistance and stories of run ins with bylaw bullies gratefully received!

 

 

Draft letter to Council

Please select from the following passages, or create your own letter…but register your protest with Toronto Council to protect our civil rights, our environment, and the future health and well being of Toronto.  If you plan to make a submission to Council on this item, please let us know so that we can coordinate our allotted 5 minute presentations and ensure that Council is presented with a complete picture.  Persons wishing to speak must register with the City Clerk before 4:30 November 26, 2012

Dear Council:

Please re-iterate Council’s original request for a process to “pre-empt unnecessary and unwarranted charges” rather than simply removing the bulk of them from public view.

We ask that you restrict the role of the Licensing and Services Department to its mandated role of health and safety — removing all clauses related to garden design, size, location, plant selection, maintenance or aesthetics.  It is not the role of staff or Council to over-rule the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom by restricting our freedom to express our beliefs through our gardens unless  our choices pose a public hazard.  Please stop wasting tax dollars by deploying garden police.

“Natural Gardens” should not be singled out for special investigation.  There are generally far more invasive alien species and far more hazardous conditions in traditional gardens than in “natural” ones. A far more appropriate use of City resources would be to launch an educational campaign aimed at all residents concerning the problems posed by invasive species, including those commonly sold in Toronto, than the MLS Departments current approach of investigating individual yards one by one.

We can understand Council wishing to place judgement of private gardens in the hands of staff.  It must be very difficult to look residents in the eye and tell them that the gardens that they have nurtured and love, don’t meet with your approval.  It must be even more difficult to justify patrolling gardens at a time when Toronto’s legitimate police forces are facing curtailment.  Perhaps the goal of hiding this activity within internal departments is designed to protect the broader public from the knowledge that their tax dollars are being diverted to such inane pursuits?

A problem with the proposed approach is that virtually none of the gardens that have had to appeal charges under bylaw 489 actually violate it.  They seldom contain grass, let alone tall grass; and noxious weeds, should any at all be discovered would almost certainly be yanked out in horror by dedicated conservation gardeners.  Usually, MLS Officers simply deem that the gardens in question do not meet their personal aesthetic standards.  There is nothing in the staff proposal that indicates that future MLS rulings would in any way improve to “pre-empt the issuance of unwarranted and unnecessary bylaw violation notices”, as was requested by Council.

Few, if any, of the approximately 70 staff reports going before Toronto Community Councils over the past several years allege any health or safety violations; yet each of these has been forced to apply for an exemption to a bylaw they have not violated.  Under the proposed system the taxpayers that own these gardens would effectively be required to pay a fine of $200 despite not being guilty…again with no assurance that the law would prevail and their private property would be saved.

It’s unclear too how these properties have become lumped into a single “natural garden” category, yet, MLS staff assert  that they are somehow different to their eyes and they seem to feel the need to placate an un-named complainant.  If this report passes, staff could limit the extent and location of private gardens, and continue to monitor them even if no further complaints are lodged.  Different is not illegal.  Diversity stimulates community.

The opinions of these anonymous agitators, and the personal opinions of staff, should not take precedence over those of property owners.  As long as the garden does not pose a health or safety risk, it is not unlawful.  Garden design, even those that the current majority of residents may not appreciate, is a protected and crucial form of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  This protection has been upheld by Ontario courts and in other jurisdictions.  More often than not, the miscreant gardens actually are far more beneficial, or at least less harmful, than their more conventional neighbours.  .

Imagine the embarrassment of having the landscape that you enjoy and are working hard to develop, being charged with a municipal infraction; that infraction being posted on a public website; the added humiliation of having that unwarranted charge broadcast to all your neighbours; and then having to pay a hefty fee and take the time to defend charges that have no merit.  At committee, staff cited the single instance of repeated requests for exemption as cause for applying this fee against all innocent gardeners.

If residents do not feel safe to explore new directions, it is unlikely that the necessary mass needed to achieve significant environmental improvements in the city will ever be reached.  There are over 4000 acres wasted on grass boulevards alone within the City of Toronto.  Imagine the good that could be achieved, and the cost savings to be realized, if a mere fraction of privately held land was encouraged, or merely allowed, to convert to more useful pursuits than staff’s stated preference of lawn with maybe “a few flowers” [In answer to the question: “What’s natural?”: “Grass,” said Smithies. “And a few flowers, too, if they want. We don’t object to flowers.” Allan Smithies, Manager of Traffic Planning.  Toronto Star October 22, 2010.]

Which causes the greater harm:

  • the sight of stalks left to shelter overwintering pollinators or the polluting and disruptive leaf blower employed by those too lazy to use a rake and too obsessed to allow leaves to feed the earth?
  • a yard filled with layers of plants, native or not, that increase the infiltration of precipitation on site, reducing the strain on aging sewer infrastructure and on waterways; or a patch of flat useless green that gobbles up excessive volumes of municipally-treated water (the transport of which accounts for one of the city’s highest electrical usage), volumes of fertilizers, gallons of fuel and mandates the release of noxious fumes in the name of maintenance?
  •  a landscape that is devoid of life; or one that supports a myriad of wildlife from the smallest pollinators to the songbirds that feed their young on them?
  • a garden that causes people to pause and consider new concepts, to examine new (ancient) lifeforms, and opens discussions among neighbours; or a boring green mat that either requires the surreptitious application of pesticides or that hosts a wider range of “weeds” than that of the derided garden?

What City should Toronto be in the 21st century?  One in which its residents are encouraged to join the battle against climate change and species loss; or one in which the voices of the past overshadow the needs of the present?

Sincerely,

People concerned with the health and safety of planet earth.

by Janet Harrison (thelocalscoop.org)