Healing Gaia

No Easy Resolution to Burlington's Naturalized Garden Controversy

Burlington's by-laws and enforcement culture have not yet caught up with the supportive rhetoric coming from the city's political leadership.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published September 10, 2019

I have been contacted by naturalized gardeners from Burlington and experts from across the province of Ontario regarding the disgraceful, anti-environmental behaviour of the City of Burlington and its by-law enforcement officers when it comes to naturalized front yards like Antheia's and Paul Raun's.

Dave Bour, a member of Burlington Green, copied me on his letter to the Mayor and councillors. Dave's letter is indicative of many that I was copied on and is re-printed here:

I have to say as a long-term resident of Burlington, I'm disappointed to read of the city's approach to people trying to improve the environment by eliminating their grass and instead planting native plants drawing a collection of beneficial creatures including monarchs, various pollinators, birds and other small animals.

I applaud those taking the initiative to create sustainable yards that don't require a ton of chemicals nor water to survive, never mind eliminating the need for gas fuelled trimmers and mowers which are worse than most vehicles on the road.

Collectively, as a city and individuals, it is time to walk the talk. Some people are going to be upset. The sooner we educate the population on the real impact of climate change, the better the chance we have of mitigating its impact.

I realize it's all vogue to make the declarations right now because a lot of cities are doing it but let's, as a community, really do something about it. Let's make us the number one place in Canada to live as MacLean's declared us recently, not just for their ratings, but a truly environmental conscious place to live.

We need to change our practices at our city parks regarding maintenance and plant choices, make personal decisions to live greener life styles, and challenge those who would complain of the natural preserves people are starting to grow.

Let's stop harassing those trying to do something positive. Every trend has to start somewhere.

Author and naturalized garden expert, Lorraine Johnson also contacted Mayor Meed Ward. Full disclosure, Johnson wrote an article in the 2019 winter edition of Ground Magazine about my fight to save the milkweed in my garden in July 2018.

Lorraine Johnson and Pam Ward's naturalized front garden
Lorraine Johnson and Pam Ward's naturalized front garden

Johnson actually met Mayor Meed Ward this past winter at the World Wildlife Fund/Carolinian Canada symposium on native plants and landscape restoration, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Johnson recalls the mayor spoke passionately about the importance of restoring landscapes and species.

Johnson realizes, "A lot of people see naturalized gardens as landscapes that are neglected and 'let go,' and that neighbours are often concerned about a perceived impact on their own property values. I realize that the issues are complex and will require huge shifts in attitudes and practices.

But we are at a crossroads, facing multiple environmental crises - climate change, loss of habitats and species - and what we need now more than ever are landscapes of biodiversity and resilience. Yet cities such as Burlington are using vague and contradictory bylaws to enforce dominant but outdated and environmentally harmful aesthetic 'standards'. In at least two Ontario court cases over naturalized gardens, the courts have affirmed gardeners' constitutional right to naturalized gardens, subject only to safety and health considerations. Just because someone doesn't like the 'look' of these landscapes is not a good enough - or even legal - reason for cities to mandate conformity to a standard that contributes to the environmental mess we're in."

Johnson has been involved in these issues for three decades and has been helping to draft policies related to natural gardens, including pollinator gardens, in Toronto. She very kindly offered in her letter to speak further with representatives from the City to, "...find a way to enact positive and enabling policies promoting naturalized gardens and to help educate the public about their crucial value and importance."

Once you read the response issued by the Office of the Mayor, you'll understand the bewilderment and frustration experienced by Bour, Johnson, myself and the many others who received the same emailed answer:

Thank you for your email regarding naturalized lawns in the City. In order for the City to do our part in efforts to protect species and help our environment, the City made changes in 2018 to our Lot Maintenance By-Law to allow for naturalized lawns. Our Lot Maintenance By-Law can be found here. The By-Law spells out the types of grass, weeds and plants that are permitted as per the Provinces Weed Control Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. W.5, as amended, on properties.

The By-Law defines a naturalized area as: 'a yard or a portion of a yard containing vegetative growth that does not form part of a natural garden that has been deliberately implemented to produce ground cover, including one or more species of wildflowers, shrubs, perennials, grasses or combinations of them, whether native or non-native, consistent with a managed and natural landscape other than regularly mown grass.' In addition, the By-Law requires that all property owners remove and destroy all noxious weeds from their property, including within naturalized areas, between May 1 and October 15 each calendar year.

There are numerous examples across the City of naturalized lawns where no enforcement action is taken due to the manner in which the lawns are carefully grown, maintained and cared for and where a buffer strip is maintained. The City's By-Law defines a "buffer strip" as cutting all grass and ground cover within three (3) feet of any adjoining property line. Similar By-Laws exist across municipalities within Ontario.

The City receives hundreds of complaints every year regarding the issue of tall grass and weeds as well as naturalization of properties. All complaints are investigated and treated the same under the provisions of our Lot Maintenance By-Law which allows the naturalization of properties. We give all property owners the right to clear and maintain their property to the provisions set out in the Lot Maintenance By-Law.

Enforcement only takes place after all avenues are exhausted by our Municipal By-Law Officers with the property owner whose property has not been brought into compliance with our By-Law. When it comes to enforcing By-laws in the City of Burlington, City staff always try to work collaboratively with residents including educating them about our By-Law requirements.

We encourage residents to continue to do their part to help the climate anyway they can including growing and maintaining naturalized lawns that fall within our Lot Maintenance By-law.

Via email, both Bour and Johnson expressed disappointment that the response was woefully inadequate and failed to address their concerns. Johnson has not received a reply to her offer of help.

Vince Fiorito, Founder of Friends of Sheldon Creek, was copied on the response from the Mayor's Office and has since sent this reply to the Mayor and council:

Dear Mayor Marianne Meed Ward and city council;

I appreciate and share your concerns regarding the city of Burlington's property standards.

City policy in this area is dated, contributes to climate change, environmental toxification and the biodiversity crisis.

My understanding is that Lorraine Johnson has offered to help the city of Burlington modernize city policies in this area.

Ms. Johnson is a successful author and recognized subject matter expert in naturalized gardens with significant experience helping cities modernize their property standards bylaw. I strongly recommend you accept her generous offer to help modernize city policies in this area.

I am also willing to help the city modernize its property standards bylaws and would consider it an honor to assist Ms. Johnson. I own many of her books, including one of her first, The Ontario Naturalized Gardener, which inspired me to cultivate endangered native species and host plants for endangered butterflies over 25 years ago.

I also recommend this working group to modernize city property standards bylaw include a representative of the Burlington horticultural society, which is why I cc'd their general inquiry email account.

I also recommend including city staff who enforce the property standards bylaw in the working group.

I recommend setting a date before Earth Day, April 22, 2020, as deadline to pass a new modernized property standards bylaw, so that the mayor can make a timely announcement.

A very talented wise person has made the city a very generous offer. I strongly recommend that you reply to her respectfully and in a way that unites everyone concerned about city property standards. We want the city of Burlington to be a leader in the effort to fight climate change, the biodiversity crisis and environmental toxification.

It's clear this issue of naturalized landscaping is far from being settled.

Fiorito passed along one last suggestion for the Mayor and council, "We should demand all paintings that the city of Burlington acquires in the future that features landscapes also meet the same standards as Burlington's property standards. No artists in Burlington should be allowed to paint landscapes that aren't dominated by neatly mowed lawns."

Well, that opens up another whole new can of worms and one that would need to include dialogue from the new Senior Curator of the Art Gallery of Burlington, Suzanne Carte.

Gardeners who want to expand or otherwise enhance their wildflower, butterfly and pollinator gardens should remember wildflowers drop their seeds at the end of their blossoming cycle in the late fall, before the first frost. Get yours now from the David Suzuki Foundation in time for planting.

Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

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