“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” (Kurt Vonnegut)
Borders come in all forms and scales – national, provincial/state, municipal, individual, and even “rooms” that we may have delineated within our gardens.
In Canada, it’s no coincidence that most of the human population clings to the southern edge where we hug the border with the U.S. The majority (81%) lives in urban areas and most of our largest cities lie along the border. It is more hospitable climate-wise, provides better farmland to sustain human life, and gives close access to our largest trading partner. We share a common border and those near it generally share a common natural history.
So, we recognize borders, but our wildlife does not. Wildlife will move about within environmental limits. For plants, their limits for the most part are determined by soil type, moisture and light regime. Some plants can handle a wide range of environmental factors, while others have a narrow range of tolerance. In this regard, they are generalists or specialists. No surprise that the key to recognizing which species will work on certain sites really hinges on their tolerance level. And that tolerance level will be impacted by urban stresses.
I live in the most populous city within the most populous province, Toronto, Ontario. And when you live in a large city, you are likely to have a small yard, particularly if the housing stock consists of a large proportion of condominiums. In 2003, I bought our bungalow on a small plot of 25 x 100’ with my husband a.k.a. ScoopAssist/Photog/Webmaster. We figuratively live on the edge. There are no big beds or areas that could be considered for extensive plantings. Everything exists along the narrow confines of borders, so if we wanted a wildlife garden, we couldn’t waste space with lawn. Out of necessity, we lost a patch in the front which became a driveway widening as parking is at a premium. Other than that, it didn’t require removing a lot of turf: a strip along the front walk; a patch around a declining old Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) in the front yard; the area in the back, minus the narrow driveway and garage.
For the backyard, we worked with the existing structure of the property – eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) along the east and north sides. We augmented with more on the south side to create a private paradise – “Wildwood”. The lawn was replaced with Eco-lawn, a fescue mix from Wildflower Farm marketed as a sustainable landscaping solution. Native species were planted along the edges, selected in mind with the fact that we don’t have full sun anywhere on our property. Neighbouring bungalows were being demolished and replaced with over-sized, two-storey houses resulting in diminished sun exposure. And the large oak trees on the north and south side were extending their branches and closing the gap in the canopy layer. But there is always a bright side to any situation. Every year, the leaf fall from the oaks provides a layer of mulch which I rake into the garden. It not only gives a very natural look of forest ground cover, but it provides habitat for ground crawling invertebrates and a source of food for birds.
Besides the “edge effect”, urban living has its own set of challenges when trying to create a wildlife garden. Most talk about the need to increase the canopy cover to deal with climate change and ensuing problems within the urban environment. But many of us recognize the importance of having ground cover and various levels of understory. We want to recreate to our best abilities, habitat that is welcoming to residents and visitors. We want to be part of the movement to create corridors for wildlife living and moving within the urban realm; the movement espoused by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. In essence, we need to “Tallamize” our gardens.
I’ll be dealing with edges and their challenges in more detail in subsequent posts. Until then, here are some perils of living on the edge in the urban garden: Urban Stresses – think extreme living. You’ve got to be tough to live on the edge! Even if you have tough plants, it can be a very harsh environment and not always optimal growing conditions. Toronto, like many places bordering the Great Lakes, has a continental climate which means extreme temperatures of heat and cold with high humidity. Call it the Great Lake Effect. Add some urban stressors such as soil compaction, confinement by hardscape (roads, sidewalks, utilities) and air pollution; throw in a dose of road salt in winter and your plants will be even more stressed. It can be down right hostile in the city.
Encroachment/border disputes with neighbours are territorial in nature and can be difficult to resolve. On small properties, we live cheek-to-jowl with neighbours. The close proximity brings additional stress. The appearance of a property’s understory, particularly ground cover, may attract unwanted attention from bylaw enforcers. Bullies may use bylaws to harrass neighbours (e.g., bylaws involving grass and weeds, property standards, traffic right-of-way).
“Presents” from pets, i.e., cat and dog business. Neighbours may allow their cats to run wild to harrass wildlife and use your garden as a litter box. Dog walkers know that the easement adjacent to your property is public property. They think they have the right to use it, but you, as the property owner, have the obligation to maintain it. So, if you don’t want them to do their “dirty” work, keep your plants tall. Your vegetation may get sprinkled, but that’s usually the extent of it, unless… (see next two points)
Waste tossed into yards. Why do gardens, particularly those with tall plants, attract the invasive species – the litter bug? Simply, the edge of a garden is a more inconspicuous place to toss litter than a manicured lawn which is out in the open.
Vandalism – some people feel the need to snap off parts of plants. Tall species, such as large milkweeds are particularly susceptible with their self-supporting stalks and robust seed pods, ripe for ripping off, just for the sake of it.
Originally published August 31, 2012 on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens