Perennials are everywhere, it seems, except in the city's gardens.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published April 10, 2007
April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes, although in my neighbourhood their primary purpose is for washing away January's dog crap. Nevertheless, the rains are here, spring is around the corner, and seasonal issues that have been buried all winter are reappearing.
One of these issues is whether not Hamilton ought to restore full funding to the Traffic Island Beautification Program.
The program, which is responsible for planting flower beds in Hamilton's many traffic islands and medians, dates back to Bob Morrow's mayorship.
The gardens are meant to create a positive impression among visitors to the city, to boost the spirits of the city's residents, and to simply make Hamilton a more beautiful place (thus also - hopefully - encouraging investment and growth).
Opponents of the program feel the city has other, more pressing issues to spend money on, like assisting the many Hamiltonians who live in poverty and improving public transit.
The issue has evoked strong emotions since funding was slashed in 2003 to save money.
Both sides make a good point. But there is middle ground that could be trodden here - middle ground that is more appealing than the current situation where half of the approximately 130 medians are filled with rocks and gravel.
Hamilton could look to nature to learn how to plant medians with hardy perennials that require little maintenance. And guerilla gardeners could be enlisted to help make the medians bloom again.
Every gardener knows that if you want super-showy plants that bloom all season long, annuals are your best choice. Annuals sprout, bloom and die all in the same year. If they had a motto, it'd be "live hard, die young, and look good doing it."
Flowering perennials, on the other hand, generally don't even bloom in their first year. But they come back year after year, with some species lasting as long as 20 years or more.
Many only bloom for part of the season, but when they do, it's a sight to behold, as perennials are usually taller, bushier and denser than annuals, putting out dozens or even hundreds of flowers.
Then there are the many perennial grasses, which are increasingly popular among gardeners. Red grasses, striped grasses, mottled grasses, tall grasses and evergreen grasses can be found in gardens across the city.
As well as only requiring one planting every several years (or even decades!), perennials also have other advantages. There are many hardy varieties that require little if any watering. And Hamilton's location in the verdant Carolinian forest zone means we have a huge variety of native perennials to choose from.
Varieties of asters, sunflowers, lilies, geraniums, goldenrod (contrary to popular belief, goldenrod does not cause hay fever), blazing stars, coneflowers (Echinacea, Brown-eyed Susans), sedges, irises and many other popular garden plants are native to this area.
These plants are perfectly adapted to Hamilton's climate, and they also help create a natural ecosystem in the city. Think birds, bees and butterflies.
These perennials are everywhere, it seems, except in the city's gardens. In traffic islands and medians it seems as though annuals are the only flowers that are planted.
There's no doubt that the city's gardeners do a fantastic job - the gardens are gorgeous and beautifully maintained - but the focus on annuals costs a lot of money.
They must be sprouted and nurtured in greenhouses before planting, and they require significant ongoing maintenance. Could City Hall learn something in the meadows around Hamilton about what might grow well here without much help?
Gardening, unlike many of the other services the city provides, is emphatically in the non-essential category. When you've got public gardens on one end of the budgetary scale and public health, or the police, or public libraries on the other, gardens lose out every time.
But although gardening might be non-essential, it's also one of the few services the city provides that a lot of people already perform on their own.
Walk through any neighbourhood in Hamilton in spring time and you're sure to find many people busily spreading compost, cursing weeds, or talking to a neighbour about their latest plant purchase.
People love to garden, and people love public gardens. When public gardens are absent or in disrepair, or when there is unused space going to weeds and garbage, a select few of these gardeners take matters into their own hands.
They're called guerilla gardeners, activists who find unused plots of urban space and transform them into beautiful gardens without bothering to ask anyone's permission.
The Toronto Public Space Committee is one such group. Their call to action: "Join us as we vandalise the city with nature!"
At guerillagardening.org, you'll find tips on guerilla gardening (from making "seed bombs" to what kind of shoes to wear), as well as ongoing chronicles of gardening adventures in London, England.
Clearly, people are motivated to beautify the spaces they live in, whether they own the property or not.
City Hall wants gardens to be sponsored, but few individuals have the $2,000 to $30,000 required to sponsor a flower bed.
Why can't people adopt a bed instead, planting native species of their choosing and maintaining the bed throughout the year?
Obviously, high traffic areas would not be a good choice for safety reasons, but surely there are ways that Hamilton's many volunteer gardeners could participate besides simply giving money.
In the end, it's in the hands of city council. The Your City, Your Future survey asked respondents whether or not they supported "reinstating full funding" for planting gardens in traffic islands.
Almost 45 percent of respondents supported "full reinstatement of [the] program at an approximate cost of $285,000", while 24 percent said they were "satisfied with the current level of program funding" (14 percent wanted the program eliminated entirely, and close to 17 percent did not respond to the question).
There is clearly significant support for at least maintaining the current level of funding. In the current climate of tightening purse strings, however, where councillors are forced to make difficult decisions between social programs and public transit, it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing increased funding for non-essentials like gardening any time soon.
It's time we looked at alternatives that don't involve filling our gardens with rocks.
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