Category Archives: Climate Change

Is it time to rethink our lawns?

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Full disclosure – I have never been a fan of lawns. I’ve had a 20 year plan to convert my large property to perennial gardens and paths, and I’m getting there, slowly but surely. 

However, I am fascinated with how (and why) people are so attached to their square green spaces of grass. 

A little history first..

Lawns became popular with the aristocracy in northern Europe from the Middle Ages onward, evolving as a sign of wealth.  Originally they were mostly used as pasture – lawns like we have today first appeared in France and England in the 1700s when André Le Nôtre designed the gardens of Versailles that included a small area of grass called the tapis vert, or “green carpet”.

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Immigrants to North America brought these traditions with them as they settled the land. Particularly after the Second World War, the creation of the middle class and suburbia and the advent of chemical fertilizers led to a North American culture of ‘the lawn is king’, with the requirement that it was every homeowner’s responsibility to keep it watered, mowed, repaired, and cultivated, just like their neighbours. One article I read even went so far as to blame the rise of lawns on the Scots, who brought their love of lawn bowling and golf to this continent (and therefore the need for flat green areas).

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Lawn is a cognate of llan which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: launde) that originally means heath, barren land, or clearing.

Lawns are expensive to create and maintain, so why do we still have them? Simply put, the belief is that lawns are indicative of success – if you have a well maintained lawn you have the time and money to create and maintain it, and you care about belonging to your neighbourhood.

Fast forward to current times, where we now see articles in the Globe and Mail asking whether “it’s time to decolonize your lawn” and efforts are underway in many areas to convert lawn areas into more ecologically responsible landscapes to support our pollinators, birds, and wildlife. Whether you simply overseed with some white clover, and reduce or eliminate fertilizers, or convert your entire lawn into a wildflower meadow, there is a full range of options to consider.

Such changes have not been without their challenges. A recent newspaper article shows the conflict between those who want a new attitude towards our properties. Nina-Marie Lister, a Ryerson University urban planner and ecologist removed all her lawn, replacing it with “a lush and layered landscape” filled with “milkweed, boneset and black-eyed Susans, among other plants largely native to the region.” Her neighbours complained and she was visited by a Toronto city bylaw officer – under Toronto’s municipal code, residents need to “cut the grass and weeds on their land” whenever they grow past 20 centimetres.

The comments community lit up, and well known gardener Lorraine Johnson even penned an editorial in the Toronto Star about it.

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Naturalized gardens are becoming a widespread phenomenon, and municipal bylaws will continue to be challenged by those that advocate for increasing biodiversity by creating landscapes that support an abundance of species of flora and fauna. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone complain to bylaw about a green lawn destroying biodiversity, filling the landscape with chemicals, wasting water by watering, and creating air and noise pollution through mowing? You see, it’s all a matter of perspective.

The debate is far from over, but gardeners should enter the discussion and think about whether there is a way for their green spaces to be just a bit more ecologically friendly.

Whatever your opinion, I encourage you to read these articles and think about the issues surrounding our garden spaces. I know I will never convert the staunch, lawnmower riding king to create a wildflower meadow, but if I just get a few people to think about how they can make a small difference in their own backyards I will be happy. I don’t have all the answers – I just want to stimulate the discussion.

FUN FACT – clover was an accepted part of lawns until the early 1950s, only becoming a ‘weed’ because the earliest 2,4-D herbicides killed it off along with the dandelions.

For those interested the Canadian Society for Organic Urban Land Care is hosting an online discussion and learning series on the role of land care, horticulture and landscaping in cultivating social and land equity. One of the topics is “Cultural values and how they frame horticultural norms” where the colonization and control of our natural landscapes will be the topic.

For more information:

The American Obsession with Lawns

The History of Lawns

Decolonizing Horticulture by Sundaura Alford-Purvis

Facing Climate Change: What Gardeners Need to Know

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

I recently attended a Master Gardener’s Technical Update at the Toronto Botanical Gardens. The subject was Facing Climate Change: What Gardeners Need to Know. The speakers were Dr. Jon Warland, Dr. Steven Hill and Lorraine Johnson. As we sat listening to how our climate is changing and the impacts that this has on current gardening practices, it was not lost to us that we were about to experience an upcoming ice storm at the same time that Australia was dealing with horrific fires. And then on January 17th, Newfoundland is hit with one of the worst winter storms they have ever had!

Some interesting facts I took away with me that day were:

  • Plants that were once borderline hardy are now easily surviving our winters.
  • Severe storm conditions are damaging many of our trees.
  • The Sugar Maple could disappear in this century from the Greenbelt area.
  • Invasive plants are taking hold and pushing out some of our woodland native plants.
  • The average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 250 parts per million (ppm) in pre-industrial times. Now it exceeds 400 parts per million (ppm).
  • The peak bloom date for cherry trees in Washington, D.C. has shifted earlier by approximately five days since 1921.
  • The current climate in the Golden Horseshoe area will be in Algonquin Park by the end of the century.

Lorraine Johnson spoke at great length about our perception of what was a ‘nice’ garden. She believes that we need to understand the benefits of growing native plants that will be hardy enough to withstand the unpredictable extremes in climate. She presented several examples of people who had replaced their front lawns with native plants or vegetables and had been instructed by the cities to remove the plants or had received bills when the city moved in and cut it all down only because it was considered ‘messy’ and ‘unappealing’!

What we can do as gardeners:

  • Consider using native plants. You will be rewarded with lots of birds, butterflies and insects to help cultivate a natural ecosystem.
  • Grow as many plants as possible (I won’t have a problem with this one). Gardening is a journey and learning what plants work best in your conditions takes time and patience.
  • Learn to live with some weeds, nibbles in leaves, as well as leaf spots. Focus on cultivating plant health.
  • Stop watering your lawns as it is estimated that nearly one-third of all residential water is lost in the watering of lawns. Your lawns will go dormant in dry periods but will return with the fall rains.
  • Consider a rain garden to minimize surface runoff.
  • Include a diverse mix of plants, shrubs and trees to prepare for the possibility of losing certain plants due to climate change.
  • Leave grass clippings on your lawn to add nutrients
  • Mulch fall leaves and add to your lawn or flower beds to avoid having leaves sent to the landfill where the organic material undergoes anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition that produces the greenhouse gas methane with is worse than CO2.
  • Grow your own vegetables or buy locally from farmers markets to help reduce greenhouse gases when food travels thousands of kilometres from farm to grocery store.
  • MOST IMPORTANT … Get out in your gardens and be thankful for the beauty that surrounds you!

Resources:

The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation have put out a good report on Gardening in a Changing Climate.

In 2018, Cornell University produced Gardening in a Warmer World.