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2007 08 28
Outlawned: City Destroys Wild Garden

Early this morning I wandered outside with Peter and the cats to perform our usual rounds of the property, passing between bright sun and cedars, bare feet cushioned by wild violets and creeping charlie, the taste of bergamot and mint in the air. We parted at the front door under a low bower of Manitoba maple, and I came inside to read the paper and write.

"We've been outlawned!", I shouted a few minutes later, running downstairs to intercept Peter before he poured the final pail of last week's rainwater over the cone flowers and columbines. And we had been, our Darwinian garden of wild plants marking us as surely as a pick-up truck on blocks. Our efforts to "pass" -- mixing primroses and peonies, sumac and lilac -- undone with a single pass of the City's scythe. We realized the end was near: when wild gardens are outlawed, only lawns will remain.

The Toronto Star reports this morning that the City of Toronto "clipped to the stem" a 200-species wild garden maintained for twelve years by Deborah Dale, described as a biologist and past president of the North American Native Plant Society. The article adds that Dale had given a city-sponsored seminar on natural gardening six days before the City destroyed hers. A further search of municipal records reveals a further irony: the City relied on submissions from Dale when crafting Toronto's Pesticide By-law in 2004. Images of Dale's property before and after the City's mowing are available here.

It seems that the Clean and Beautiful City is a city of natural but manicured lawns. The City encourages residents to plant native species, but its directives reveal a preoccupation with the more obedient varieties suitable for borders and edging only: lawns, it appears, remain the sanctioned landscape. The City's generally excellent booklet (freely available for downloading), Pesticide Free: A Guide to Natural Lawn and Garden Care, appears to be silent on the subject of converting entire lawns into gardens. The City's response to Dale's wild garden, however, is unequivocal. As The Star reports, "the disagreement certainly occurred over a misunderstanding on the concept of a garden."

What is a garden? The English refer to the entire landscape surrounding their homes as "the garden", perhaps in subconscious emulation of the lavish formal parterres of the grand estates. For much of the twentieth century North Americans distinguished gardens (showy mixtures of perennial and annual flowers and ornamental shrubs) from lawns. More recently, we've grown to appreciate vegetables and herbs grown by the front door. Groundbreaking books such as Liz Primeau's Front Yard Gardens (Firefly, 2003) now encourage property owners to dispense (almost) entirely with grass, observing that the bland monoculture of lawns deadens urban and suburban environments, requires wasteful applications of fertilizer and water, and is vulnerable to disease. Primeau's book devotes an entire chapter to natural gardens, which she defines as "environmentally friendly, common-sense gardening, using plants that thrive in your garden's conditions and planting them in a design that recreates nature as much as is practical in your neighbourhood."

Sounds a lot like Deborah Dale's garden. Or did, before the City's choppers were through with it. The City, for its part, appears mired in a false dichotomy of lawn and garden, where lawns are to be pesticide-free but well-behaved (rather like taxpayers, methinks) and gardens consist of obedient plants bobbing and nodding from the sidelines. A further dichotomy emerges in the City's view of weeds, considered by their mere presence to signal ill health in the landscape.

In The Social Creation of Nature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), philosopher Neil Evernden distinguishes between nature ("the great amorphous mass of otherness that encloaks the planet") and Nature ("the system of model of nature which arose in the West several centuries ago." Nature (capitalized) exists to serve human ends, whether commercial or aesthetic, and requires ordering. Uncapitalized nature serves its own ends, is unruly and unkempt -- and therefore dangerous. Evernden cites anthropologist Mary Douglas' explanation of of 'pollution' as anything out of place. Like wild plants, perhaps, or weeds.

By hacking down Deborah Dale's garden because it consists of plants 'out of place' the City has revealed not only its aesthetic distaste for the unkempt but a deeper distrust of anything unruly. In this sense Toronto's 'clean and beautiful city' becomes a prescription not only for appearance but behaviour as well. How far this extends -- to citizens, perhaps, who have a tendency to roil noisily in the streets -- one can only guess.

[Wild plantain image by Noaman Ali and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 08/28 at 11:32 AM

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