City destroys natural front garden

The National Post reported yesterday on how City of Toronto bylaw enforcement officers destroyed a homeowner’s carefully tended but wild-looking front garden of native plants and wildflowers. Deborah Dale, a former president of the North American Native Plant Society, returned home to find her front garden destroyed in response to a neighbour’s complaint.

This incident brings up an issue that has been bothering me ever since I saw the beautiful roof garden of native grasses and wildflowers on the roof of the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina. When I commented to someone that this kind of native beauty would be an attractive, inexpensive solution to creating an easy-to-maintain and environmentally friendly front yard, especially for those little ones that aren’t worth mowing, they explained to me that the city requires all lawns to be trimmed to 20 cm from the ground. You need a rarely granted exemption to get around it.

To me, this bylaw is deeply misguided. In an era in which we are ever more aware of environmental issues, why would we insist on lawns that require intense watering and regular cutting with usually energy-sucking and carbon-dioxide-emitting mowers? This is the kind of bylaw we need to rethink if we are going to change ourselves into a truly green city.

It also speaks to a deeper issue I talked about in an article in the book The State of the Arts (the follow-up to uTOpia). Toronto often talks about wanting to be a “creative city”, and people seem excited that creative-cities guru Richard Florida is moving here. But we often forget that creative cities are going to be messy, unconventional cities, because creative people try things that are new and different. A creative city, for example, might accept that not all lawns need to be trimmed to a regulation height, and that it would be a good thing for some people to experiment with something different — in fact, it would be a contribution to the richness of the city.

Perhaps there would need to be some way of distinguishing between creativity and neglect, but I don’t think the current bylaw does so effectively – you could have a lawn of a few scraggly weeds, and as long as you kept them down to 20 cm you’d be legal. We need to re-think what constitutes civic-minded care versus neglect in a 21st century city.

Finally, I can’t help wondering, how is it that the city’s bylaw enforcement officers have time to destroy a carefully-tended garden, but don’t have time to get rid of those annoying illegal sandwich boards on sidewalks, or illegal billboards all over the city? I know there may actually be a reason — I welcome any explanations.

Addendum — there is additional information in the Toronto Star story on this item.

photo courtesy of Treehugger


  1. I have to think we’re not getting the full story here. Why didn’t you talk to the neighbours to see what they thought about this ‘garden’?

  2. I also find it disturbing that, potentially, a spiteful neighbour could ring up the city and have them tear up your property with little or no recourse available. Spooky!

  3. Well, one little problem with this story… There was a *dead* rotting festering racoon in her yard, that she was too frail to clean up. Makes me question the “carefully tended”. I agree that we need to be a environmentally friendly as possible… but a dead animal that was most likely riddled with rabies is not a nice addition to a streetscape.

  4. Finally, I can’t help wondering, how is it that the city’s bylaw enforcement officers have time to destroy a carefully-tended garden

    Well, the city says they received the first complaints in 2003, and the garden wasn’t torn up until 2007 and even then only after a new complaint from one of the neighbors. That sounds more like the city doesn’t have time to enforce this bylaw, and only does something when they’re pestered about it.

  5. I could be wrong about this, but I saw this story yesterday on CBC and it looked like the “garden” was on the section of lawn between the sidewalk and the road. I would be much more sympathetic if it were on the house side of the sidewalk.

  6. That’s right, never stop settling for less! Busybodies are there to help you.

  7. I would be totally sympathetic… except it does seem like this was just some overgrown weeds rather than a true garden.

    I get it that she doesn’t want to mow or trim her plants. Some people desperately want to keep 92 cats in their house, and I’m fine with that desire as well. The problem is that when your desire inflicts an eyesore (or a nauseating cat urine smell) on the neighborhood, there’s going to be a balancing of rights, and you won’t necessarily win.

    In this case, the really funny thing is that the city probably owns all of the land involved – not just the strip between sidewalk and street, but the right side of that photo too, between sidewalk and house. Almost all of the “front lawns” in the city of Toronto are actually part of the street; they’re city property. Your own property probably extends only to the front of your house. (If you owned more of the property in front of your house, your house would have been built larger!) So every square inch of property the city mowed here is actually their own property! And yet they’re going to charge her for it.

  8. Anon: the front yeards are people’s property in most of the urban part of the city. The inner ‘burbs have such huge front lawns that some of them are owned by the city — most of that property is where sidewalks *would* be if all streets had two sets of sidewalks (most inner burbs don’t).

    Despite your assertion that its just overgrown, she was the president of the Native Plant Society. Its kinda hard to have that position and just *claim* to have a natural front yard. It was a natural garden but the above photo doesn’t do it justice.

  9. RE: The problem with the raccoon. That seems like a different problem. Why not just remove the raccoon? Isn’t the city responsible for doing that type of removal anyway. I know I wouldn’t ask an elderly lady or anyone without the proper training to be removing dead animals from their lawn.

    What matters here isn’t the letter of the law that’s the problem. It’s the spirit of the law, which should be able to know the difference between true neglect and creative choice.

    If I want to paint my house orange, sorry neighbours, that’s my right. If I want to leave an old rotting car on the front yard, sorry me, I gotta get rid of that.

  10. Plenty of Torontonians have raccoons living (and dying) in the crawl spaces under their eaves. By the logic applied by one of the commenters, above, it is justifiable to destroy a whole house in order to take care of the raccoon problem.

    Think this is a silly analogy? Tell that to the populations of birds, insects, animals, and plants who likely found a welcoming habitat in Deborah Dale’s wild garden. Rachel Carson must be turning slightly faster than usual in her grave.

    As I wrote over at Reading Toronto yesterday, this situation underscores Torontonians’ great discomfort with wild nature, which ‘by nature’ is unkempt and unruly and exists not for human pleasure but for its own (far larger) ends. It is no surprise that Dale’s anonymous neighbours and some of the commenters above describe Dale’s garden in aesthetic terms and conjure the (alleged) dead raccoon as evidence of its ‘pollution.’

    As environmental philosopher Neil Evernden observes, after anthropologist Mary Douglas, pollution refers, ultimately, to anything out of place.

    Sure, in this instance, it’s just a bunch of plants we’re talking about. But intolerance about things (or people) out of place doesn’t usually end with plants or paint colours. It sounds to me like Toronto hasn’t yet grown out of its genteel bigotry toward all things ‘different.’

  11. Native plants are one thing. No one has said that they cared, at all, which plants she had growing in that yard.

    But a garden, by definition, is tended. Cultivated. Pruned. Trimmed. Arranged. Laid out. Did she plant any of those plants? Prune them? Water them? Tend them? Sure doesn’t look it. I’ve got some totally untended “gardens” near my home that look exactly the same. Weeds grown tall. Just letting things grow does not a garden make.

    The Star story mentions the decomposing raccoon:

    She’ll have the last laugh, though: come next year, her yard will grow up exactly the same and be indistinguishable from the “before” picture. That’s the advantage of her method of “gardening”, I guess.

  12. Well, I guess you’ve sure told all those natural gardeners.
    Sounds like when some old coot says Rock and Roll or Techno “isn’t music”.

  13. Shawn –> I hear ya! Gardens need a bit of a wild side to them…makes you remember they’re alive. Over-pruned and over-tended gardens, in my humble opinion, look fake, and can be cold and uninviting.

  14. Now, while Blakes does issue a whopping twelve exemptions a year for natural gardens (insert sarcasm here), the fact that they have to be “maintained natural gardens” directly undermines the entire endeavor. Natural growth necessarily involves a lack of controls – the least amount of human intervention and absolutely no pesticide use – and yet city officials are trying to bureaucratize biology.

    It also seems that not even Mother Nature can escape unrealistic beauty standards. Torontonians are being forced to abide by municipally-imposed aesthetic criteria that necessarily undermines their rights to free choice and expression. Trying to apply an overarching definition of what is an “acceptable” garden and what is an unmanicured mess just doesn’t cut it in a city as diverse as ours.

    These aesthetic criteria are also innately racist. The city deemed Dale’s property an eyesore simply because the plants she was growing – unique forms of native foliage – are not recognized as traditional Western flora. Therefore, while seemingly trivial, the destruction of her garden is very much so a metaphor for the social displacement of her native community, people that continuously struggle against a muting Canadian culture and political system.

  15. I disagree profoundly that “garden” must (definitively) mean “tended. Cultivated. Pruned. Trimmed. Arranged. Laid out.” Indeed, the etymological origin of “garden” refers only to an enclosure. My copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary connects gardens to “cultivation” — itself an interesting term, meaning “to foster growth”. Cultivation can imply the kind of regimented plantings you describe as a “garden”, but it refers more fundamentally to a principle of supporting and sustaining growth — something the City has, in this case, very much failed to do.

    Anon, you’re working with a very narrow understanding of the natural which has emerged in the west only during the past couple of centuries. One would hope, in this time of ecological crisis, that we’d be a little more open to a broader, more sustainable concept of nature that values more than its aesthetic utility.

    There are plenty of good sources on natural gardening, but one I recommend is Liz Primeau’s Front Yard Gardens (Firefly, 2003). She defines a natural garden as a space that “recreates nature as much as is practical in your neighbourhood.” [“practical” excepting narrow-minded neighbours and a short-sighted city.]

    At its core this issue isn’t about what constitutes a “garden”, or even about what looks “nice” (i.e., orderly, well-kept, obedient). It’s really about property values, “difference”, and neighbourhood intimidation.

    And since I can never resist a Toronto-related literary reference, here’s one from Phyllis Brett Young’s suburban satire, (1960; being reissued in 2007 by McGill-Queen’s University Press):

    “The Johnson house had become known in Rowanwood as the Blot on the Landscape, or more simply as the Blot. When you came right down to it, however, there was nothing much the matter with it …. When the Johnson house was discussed at the monthly Rowanwood community meetings, everyone was always quick to say that there was nothing personal, nothing personal at all, in their attitude toward the Blot. It was entirely, they said, a matter of protecting investments. … To be quite brutal, although they were not in the habit of being brutal, the county ought to do something about an eviction.” (19-20)

  16. A garden is an enclosed space in order to keep the native plants out! The point of the word is that whatever is happening there, it is something *different* than what happens outside the enclosure. An untended, unenclosed “garden” which is identical to the wilderness around it is an oxymoron.

    *shrug* Here’s a statement I expect most people on Spacing would agree with:

    “People should not be able to go into a residential neighborhood, buy a home, bulldoze it, and build a 40-story condo tower in the middle of a residential block.”

    Here’s a statement that at least some people on Spacing would disagree with:

    “People should not be able to grow five-foot tall weeds on their property.”

    Yet these statements are really the same thing – that the community can exercise control over certain uses of property. Both suggest that the community ought to be able to set the standards by which it lives, and to sculpt – communally – the community area. The Scarborough community has chosen to prohibit certain things. The prohibition is pretty weak and toothless, all things considered – it took the community at least 3 years to act on complaints, and the affected person could have (but did not) chosen to apply for an exemption. But the prohibition still exists and it was, in this instance, enforced.

    If you’d like to make changes in the community standards, I can point you to City Hall – run for election like anyone else. But it’s impossible to claim that community standards are somehow inherently illegitimate when pushing community standards is the whole point of Spacing.

  17. The point of my post was, precisely, that it is time for community standards to evolve.

    Also, it’s pretty obvious from the photo that the garden was not random weeds – not dandelions etc. – but rather wildflowers and other purposely-planted native plants. It was a garden, cared for and shaped, but a different style of garden that was less out of keeping with the local environment. And it was quite obviously *different* from what happened around it, which seems to have been the source of some people’s problems with it. The point is that we need to learn to accept difference in this as in many other areas of life.

    Re. the property line issue – quite a lot of people create gardens on the city property adjoining their land — it should be considered a contribution to making the city more interesting.

  18. “At its core this issue isn’t about what constitutes a “garden”, or even about what looks “nice” (i.e., orderly, well-kept, obedient). It’s really about property values, “difference”, and neighbourhood intimidation.”

    Amy, there’s also the issue of community to consider. It’s part of the soi-disant “unwritten social contract” that by being a member of a community, you agree to go along with what your community thinks. If a person has trouble with that, that person should find a community whose values more closely match their own.

    It’s wrong to impose your individual values upon your community. It’s (somewhat) less wrong for your community to impose it’s values on you, because a.) democracy rules, and b.) it’s the individual who chooses his community, not the community who chooses its members.

  19. Drastic action indeed….so when does the City tear down all of those illegal billboards?

    Do I just have to make a complaint and then the By-Law enforcement staff will get to work?

    Honestly though this type of action from the City just disgusts me. I am sure her yard was a haven to all types of birds and insects rather than this awful suspect “dead raccoon”.

    We are in an era where we are finally figuring out that a well tended, neatly trimmed lawn is a water and fertilizer sucking abnormality.
    We have had barely one decent day of rain in the past month. Lawns don’t do well in this type of climate and by cutting them to 20 cm or less we are keeping them in an un-natural state where the roots can’t grow enough to reach water and allow the plant to survive.

  20. This is an interesting debate.

    Anon> Comparing a natural garden to a condo is a silly argument — they’re completely different — so I’ll skip that part.

    Also your definition of what a garden is seems to actually support her natural garden as being legit. From the looks of it, what is inside her garden is *different* than the manicured lawns surrounding it.

    The most interesting point here is how the city contradicts itself — support for natural species at an abstract level, but at a sidewalk level, it isn’t allowed or tolerated.

    Sue> Perhaps she’s imposing values, but the tyranny of the majority is also something the constitution tries to protect minority sensibilities from (a growing minority in the case of natural gardens). And as we see, the city, in general, encourages natural species, so upset neighbours should vote for politicians who support manicured lawns, pesticides and the lot who would be willing to strike this progressive bit of policy from Toronto’s books.

    I think Tom, above, summed it up nicely. It’s a matter of taste, not anything stronger.

    It’s not a stretch to think the city might come along one day and chop down the tall grasses from the rooftop garden at 215 Spadina because neighbours think it looks like weeds.

  21. Sue, that’s a sadly impoverished version of “democracy” you’re advocating in your comment.

    Even if your version was defensible, I’m having trouble understanding how Deborah Dale “imposed” her garden on her “community.” Perhaps you could explain.

    I’m curious whether you can do so without relying on a version of “community standards” that coerces via middle class aesthetics or appeals to “property values.”

    [As an aside, it is not at all clear that Dale violated any provisions of the municipal code, including the property standards by-law. If called to defend its actions in civil court, I imagine the City will have a difficult time of it, not only because of vagueness and inconsistency in its policies, but because it may have failed to adhere to its own procedures for notice.]

  22. Sue -> while your argument seems benign for something so “frivolous” as a garden that kind of reasoning has led to some pretty despicable behaviour throughout history. It was not uncommon for communities, as a majority, to decide that the “unwritten social contract” excluded people of a different ethnicity. They too used the argument of property values thinking that “the others” were dirty, criminal and sexually promiscuous. Democracy ruled, but I’m not sure I personally want a democracy whereby the majority sanctions racism and other intolerance if they see fit.
    Moreover, I think that the conformity aspect of your idea of community is not only frightening, but it inhibits creativity and innovation. Part of the great part of living in a country like Canada and a city like Toronto is that, at least in theory, everyone’s values in the community are, if not accepted, at least tolerated peacefully thus relieving the need to strongly consider the “values” of a community.

  23. It’s really not cool to leave a dead raccoon in the garden though. Considering the size of an adult raccoon, that would leave an awful smell.

    She should have just buried it, and let it decompose naturally. I am sure that someone could help her with the burying if she is too frail.

  24. A community with mostly tended gardens and manicured lawns is bound to attract people who like that sort of thing.

    It’s reasonable that these same people will be upset if a member of their community publicly disregards that standard, with the result of making their community unattractive to the majority of its members.

    Sure, sure, the whole “community standards” bit is also frequently called upon to defend some pretty horrible, repressive and bigoted measures. But community is also the basis for society, law, civilization and yes, democracy (in its literal sense, if not its political sense), making community on the whole a pretty good thing.

    Wait… are we still talking about lawns?

  25. Two precedent-setting court decisions support Ms. Dale’s Charter-protected right (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) to tend her natural garden on both private property and on the City-owned road allowance (that portion of the garden between her property line and the roadway): one in 1997 and one in 2002/2003, both launched against the City of Toronto by Toronto gardeners.

    The first case (re private property) was tested in the Ontario courts when a Toronto gardener, Ms. Sandy Bell, took the City to court for the right to tend a natural garden on her private property. Ms. Bell won the right in 1997, protected by the Freedom of Expression clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to express her environmental beliefs through the planting of a natural garden on her private property — a precendent (the first time in Canada that environmental beliefs were recognized as a Charter-protected form of expression).

    Ms. Bell’s victory in 1997 resulted in the City being forced to provide an exemption for natural gardens in the City’s “grass and weeds bylaw”, the very “amended” bylaw cited against Ms. Dale which resulted in her garden being removed on August 21, 2007.

    The second court challenge (re city-owned boulevard) was tested in 2002/2003.

    In 2002, the Ontario Superior Court, and later the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2003, upheld the rights of gardeners, to tend a natural garden on the city-owned road-allowance in front of their homes when my father and I took the City of Toronto to court to protect the native plant garden that we had planted in memory of my mother and extended onto the city-owned road allowance in front of our house. My father and I won the right, protected by the Freedom of Expression clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to express our environmental beliefs through the planting of a natural garden on public land — again, a Canadian precedent.

    (Our garden on the city-owned road allowance was planted in the drainage ditch in front of our home as a stormwater infiltration garden: it slows the flow of runoff long enough to allow it to be cleaned of pollutants through absorption and adsorption. After doing some research, I had learned that the stormwater runoff flowing through that ditch emptied into a local stream, finally entering Lake Ontario at a beach that was often closed after major storm events due to polluted stormwater runoff. My father grew up in Parkdale in the 1930s and would tell me stories of swimming as a child every day, all summer long in Lake Ontario…. something Torontonians can’t do now after major storm events. By planting the ditch garden, I wanted to show citizens that even though they might live miles from the lake, as I do, that they could have a positive effect on the quality of the water in the lake… simply by chosing a form of landscaping that addresses stormwater issues…. native plants are perfect for this pupose. Ms. Dale’s native plant boulevard garden served a similar function.)

    Ms. Dale was completely within her legal rights to tend a natural garden on her personal private property and on the city-owned road allowance. Those rights were grossly denied when the City took aggressive action on August 21, 2007, removing her native plant garden from both her private property AND the boulevard in front of her home.

    Furthermore, the judge in Sandy Bell’s case stated in his decison: “As between a total restriction of naturalistic gardens and causing some offence to those people who consider them ugly or inconsiderate of others’ sensibilities, some offence must be tolerated.” So the City is not abiding by Justice Fairgrieve’s judgment in removing any natural gardens on purely aesthetic grounds, as was the case with Ms. Dale’s recent experience.

  26. Dear Mr. Mayor:

    Since when does a citizen have to apply for a permit to grow a native yard? This is complete news to all of us the the native plant world, including those of us who have given City sponsored seminars on the subject to citizens and municipal staff alike. (I gave 3 seminars to City of Toronto staff in 2003).

    Does this imply that the City can’t tell the difference between native plants and weeds without a permit?

    Did Deb Dale, in fact, have any weeds? Was a botanist dispatched to certify plant identification?

    And if this was truly a case of a smelly carcass, why not just remove the carcass?

    TREES were mowed down, for heavens sake!

    I understand that Ms. Dale’s neighbour is quite angry, and that a long negative history exists between these two neighbours, as it did in the case of Douglas Counter and his neighbour in Etobicoke. Does this mean that angry neighbours who complain often rule over the Charter? The decision by Ontario Superior Court in Counter vs. City of Toronto was very specific: the right to grow native plants is protected by the Charter…..

    Please explain.

    Carole Rubin
    Garden Bay, B.C.
    Author of “How to Get Your Lawn Off Grass, A North American Guide to Turning Off the Water Tap and Going Native”, Harbour Publishing, 2003

    (Sent to Toronto Mayor David Miller, August 31, 2007)

  27. If the Raccoon was such an issue why was it left behind by the City. My understanding is that the raccoon was buried and uncovered only when the media showed up.

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