In my last post, Living on the Edge – Boulevard of Broken Dreams?, I mentioned some pitfalls with assuming that the front yard was fair game for you to garden at will, knowing that all eyes are on this more publicly accessible area. I urged caution and suggested that you should be at least aware of or familiar with your local bylaws pertaining to vegetation. This post will give you a taste of the scrutiny that residents face when living in the urban realm. What is aesthetically acceptable? What is legally acceptable? In many cases they are synonymous, particularly when residents and bylaw enforcement officers often cannot discern the difference.
The basic problem can start with naïve gardeners thinking that “going natural” means letting it all go or by presuming that once it is planted, the garden will take care of itself. This approach does not work in the urban environment rife with exotic or even worse, invasive species ready to move in given the slightest chance. And they don’t need a formal invitation, just indifference. Even turf is no match for some invasive plants bent on colonizing as they are programmed to do. Native plants, except maybe the aggressive common goldenrods, do not appear out of nowhere when they’ve been almost extirpated from the urban environment. For the most part, native plants have to be re-introduced. And that’s where the informed and busy gardeners, like you and I, can make a difference.
Gardens that fall into disrepair or appear aesthetically “wild” may draw the attention of neighbours and based on one complaint, involve bylaw enforcement officers. In Toronto, the complaint generates a violation notice under the grass and weed bylaw (City of Toronto Municipal Code, Chapter 489)
When a violation notice is given, the property owner has the option to comply with the order to cut and remove or to apply for a “Natural Garden Exemption” (NGE) in hopes of keeping the garden intact. Over 3000 LGW violations are reported every year in Toronto. Almost all of those deemed legitimate and worth pursuing comply with the order to cut, except perhaps 10 – 20. The number applying for exemptions would probably be greater, but applying, defending your garden at Community Council and the threat of another complaint driving the system again is too much hassle for the average homeowner. There is no mechanism to inform the ignorant or to shut down bullies. The process effectively stymies the growth of vegetation outside the norm of manicured lawn and clipped shrubs.
Even invoking our federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms (under Freedom of Expression) has had little effect. It was upheld in provincial court in a decision based on a challenge in 1996. The outcome resulted in a tweaking of the bylaw to allow for an exemption process. It may sound cynical, but the City can afford to lose at court when residents are paying the costs. It ensures the status quo is kept.
Is it any wonder that native plant gardeners as a group feel targeted when citizens and city officials only recognize the typical garden store varieties and presume anything “alien” looking to them must be a weed to be exterminated? Try telling them that all the dense, green prairie stuff growing tall under their noses will only bloom at the end of August, when it reaches 2-4 ft. or more.
Let’s look at two examples of gardens that were cited for LGW bylaw violations. I chose these two cases because they are clear cut examples:
The bungalow houses a small office and was cited both in 2011 and 2012 for LGW violations as well as harbouring rats. It really should be treated as a property standards violation (PRS), particularly as health and safety issues may need to be addressed.
A non-standard garden generated a LGW violation notice with enforcement bent on following the letter of the bylaw. Yes – the garden in question is that long, concrete container on the right side.
I call this “The Salem Witch Trial”. The crime: “The subject property has plant growth in excess of 20 centimetres (8″) in the front yard area for which the owner has applied for relief to be exempted as a natural garden.” Fortunately, the remedy didn’t involve burning the garden at the stake.
This is the most flagrant abuse of the bylaw that I could find in over 50…60…75 NGE cases (I’ve lost count). After inspection, when nothing was amiss except disregard for the maximum height rule, it was rubber-stamped. But it still had to go through community council to be approved.
Note: The garden did look a little different in 2008 with lots of Equisetum sp. (horsetail), possibly the native Equisetum hyemale (scouringrush horsetail), some native asters, perhaps Erigeron annuus (eastern daisy fleabane), but with some invasive creeping bellflower (Campanula ranunculoides) which is not a restricted plant. Horsetail is an odd choice for a dry garden, and most certainly not something an enforcement officer would normally encounter.
Basically, the definition of a natural garden from the bylaw (omitting noxious or designated weeds under the provincial Weed Control Act):
Vegetation growth 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.
It’s not as clear cut as in the two case studies. It doesn’t help that the definition in the bylaw is vague. Definitely, there is a continuum and the question is – how far can you go? Well, it depends very much on the context: the mix of neighbours and area and the tolerance level of residents and enforcement officials. Do they expect different standards in the public and private realms?
The LGW bylaw is only applicable to private property, so the City has the choice of maintaining or neglecting its own properties, and the option of turning a blind eye to properties held by other levels of government. We call this a double standard. And leading by example could work either way.
What is interesting is that there is also a clear dichotomy between private and public with regards to what is acceptable. An example to illustrate this is The Yorkville Park on Cumberland St., an award-winning park nestled in an upscale shopping district.
In October 2012 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) bestowed its Landmark Award on The Village of Yorkville Park with its 11 sections, including the wildflower garden.[/caption]
Victorian row houses once stood on the site but were torn down to accommodate a subway. Subsequently, it became a parking lot and then landscaped entirely with a series of gardens. Although not quite a paradise, it does a complete 180 on Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi.
The public wildflower garden is similar to private gardens that have been in violation. Yet, here it is acceptable in the context of a public setting, but not in your front yard? And depending on city easements, your private front yard could mesh with public space. Clearly, if public officials authorize the plan, it is fine. And perhaps the public, including those making complaints to the City, find it acceptable gardening practice only on public property with government approval. It makes it that much more difficult for us to provide wildlife habitat on our own properties when we are forced to justify our gardening choices which can be native plants that will not tolerate the 20 cm height rule in order to flower.
Education and Legislation. We will cover solutions in another post.
Yes – the garden depicted at the top was cited for a violation in September 2012…and the owners complied with the order to cut.
Originally published February 26, 2013 on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens