TORONTO HAS DESTROYED A PRIVATE GARDEN. Blogger Jodi DeLong alerted me this morning to a story on the Treehugger website about a woman whose 10-year-old native plant garden was destroyed by the city of Toronto. Gardener Deborah Dale is a biologist and past president of the North American Native Plant Society. She is also a public speaker who has been employed by the city of Toronto itself to give seminars on natural landscaping! Before-and-after photos show a perfectly lovely native garden in the "before" photo and, after the city crew was done, a scene of devastation. Knowing how distressed I can get if someone so much as steps on one of my plants (unless, of course, it's me), thinking about how Dale must have felt makes me want to weep.
The silver lining to this cloud is that many gardeners, even ones who aren't particularly keen on the natural style, are outraged by what the city did. Dale is a good representative for the native plant movement--a good "poster girl," as they say. And it appears that Canadian courts have sided with homeowners in cases such as these in the past. (Among the comments on the Treehugger story is a very interesting post by a Douglas Counter, discussing these court cases in detail. It was posted on August 31, and if you live in Canada and are at all concerned about these issues, I recommend that you look for it.) If Dale decides to take this to court (and it appears that she will), her chances of winning seem good. In the meantime, controversy over this incident may help to educate people about the value of natural landscapes.
If this incident distresses you as much as it did me, you may want to pay a visit to the Wild Ones organization. They have been leaders in the movement to get "weed control" laws changed so that natural landscapers do not have to endure what Dale has had to put up with. Their website includes model ordinances that allow for natural landscapes and tips on how to get your municipality to update its thinking on this subject.
In the long run, however, sad events such as this are a reflection of a much larger problem, which is the fear and hostility with which too many people still approach the natural world. This allows not just the trashing of someone's private garden but, ultimately, the destruction of the ecosystems on which we and other animals depend for life.
Reading the comments on the Treehugger article (most of which were highly supportive but a few of which were sadly ignorant) reminded me of an article I wrote about a year ago for the online magazine Terrain, in which I talked about the extent to which many people are dominated by their fear of nature. Believe it or not, the article is pretty funny (and it's not just my friends--hi Jodi--who tell me so). Here's a pertinent quote:
"A surprisingly large number of homeowners seem to think that nature wants them dead. This is reflected in a large number of questions that a natural landscaper must learn to answer cheerfully and with a show of sympathy for the anxiety that lurks beneath.
"Will a natural landscape cause allergic reactions, make the home vulnerable to forest fires, or attract criminals who will lurk in the shrubbery and mug/rape/murder anybody who walks by? Will children or pets be scratched by thorns or poisoned by delicious-looking (but deadly) berries? How about venomous yellow-and-black insects (referred to almost universally as ‘bees,’ although only some of them are)? Won’t they sting and, as day follows night, bring on respiratory failure followed by cardiac arrest? How about snakes? Bats? (Snakes and bats don’t have to do anything; their mere existence causes fright.) How about rodents? What’s the name of that disease you can get from mice? Avian influenza hadn’t hit the headlines when I was doing this kind of work but I’m sure that birds have now joined the list of potential assassins.
"Now, the hazards these homeowners fear are mostly real, and a well-behaved natural landscaper is quick to say so. But they are unlikely. Except in rare circumstances, you are about as likely to be killed by a natural landscape as by any other environment in which you find yourself (except possibly your bathroom—which, according to reports, is a lot more dangerous). There is no more reason to worry about being killed by your naturalized front yard than to worry about being run down by a car when you step into the street. Yet even the most devil-may-care pedestrian may blanche at the thought that planting a flower might, in turn, attract a ‘bee.’
"Eventually, the majority of homeowners find reason to not practice natural landscaping, no matter how many inducements they’re offered. They retreat behind closely clipped lawns with perimeters of shrubs that have been pruned into geometric shapes. Do I need to explain just how unnatural this is, how few animals can live here, how much environmental pollution the maintenance of these spaces can cause? Let me make just one point before moving on: A manicured landscape can be as hazardous as any other. Many of these hazards involve the very pesticides, herbicides, and power tools used to keep these spaces looking—and I use this word in its most ironic, air-quotes sense—safe."