City Razes Garden

I walked outside the other day, into the street garden with scissors in hand to clip some flowers intended for the host of a party I was attending. As I bent over to snip a few Black-eyed Susan stems I discovered that the flowers were completely gone. All that remained were the ragged ends of about a dozen torn stems. And so Operation Garden Terrorism continues. Sigh.

It turns out that despite the damage and attacks that have occurred this spring and summer, I’ve had it kind of easy. At least I have not found the entire garden gone as Scarborough homeowner Deborah Dale did when she returned home last week to discover that her entire front garden, filled with native plants, had been mowed down by City of Toronto bylaw enforcement officers! To make matters worse, Ms. Dale, a former president of the North American Native Plant Society, will have to pay for the “removal” of her 10 year old garden from out of her own pocket.

Image Source: Treehugger

Several other sites have already written about this event, and while I don’t have much to add to an already thoroughly explored discussion the thought that goes through my mind when thinking about this incident is the question of how we define a garden. The City of Toronto publicly promotes growing native plant gardens for environmental reasons but is seemingly confused about how to support the efforts of gardeners who break the mold of what a garden is supposed to look like — support that is especially needed in suburban areas where the lawn still reigns supreme. Ms. Duncan’s garden was leveled based on the complaints of her neighbors and was told that her native plant garden would have been protected had she applied to have her garden officially designated a “natural garden.” On the one hand it is good that at least The City is trying to address this idea of what a garden can be by providing a provision that has the potential to protect unorthodox gardens. Yet at the same time it seems slightly absurd and a little bit bonkers that a gardener would have to assume that their garden required protection from the biases of their neighbors in the first place and then have both the presence of mind and knowledge of the system to apply for that kind of protection in the first place.

Fundamentally how we define a garden and how we conceptualize a “carefully tended” garden comes down to our own subjective biases. And for better or for worse those biases are about as diverse as gardeners and their gardens.

To add insult to injury it The City is reportedly set to go after Ms. Dale’s backyard woodland garden next.

More Reports on This Incident:

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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30 thoughts on “City Razes Garden

  1. The first thing that came to me when reading this is how devastated she must have felt. I can’t imagine. It’s such a massive violation & that anyone would not see it as such just floors me. I also can’t imagine how someone could fail to see the beauty of what she had created with so much care and dedication. There was an episode of “Recreating Eden” featuring Douglas Counter who has created the same sort of garden in the burbs & had to go to court to defend his garden. One of the neighbours interviewed said something along the lines of “I am a person who appreciates conformity”. I couldn’t understand how someone could say that. Ok, I’m not so out there that I really don’t understand but it never fails to amaze me that people get so wrapped up in defending their own small view & not having to think critically about it, that they will do what they can to override the other’s freedom to harmlessly express their own individuality. This has far reaching implications and I fully agree with Gayla that we should be protected from such attitudes by our laws and not the other way around. This makes me very angry and frustrated & though I’m sure I’m repeating what other’s have already said elsewhere, I wanted to put my own words of support out there too.

  2. I too live in a neighbourhood obsessed with conformity. All the front gardens around mine have perfectly manicured lawns, Hellenic pots of seasonal plants, stone lions and garden gnomes, while the back gardens are put to decking with their morrocan burners and garden lights. While I don’t object to any of this, when you see the same garden repeated over and over as you walk down the street it becomes a little depressing. Needless to say, my own garden doesn’t follow these rules. I think we might be the local weirdos actually! I do know, however, that I would be devastated if my garden was ruined because it didn’t conform to everyone else’s idea of beauty. What Mrs Dale has gone through is simply terrible, and I cannot even imagine what she must felt like when she arrive home to find that sight. Simply awful!

  3. From the other side of the debate:

    1. Apparently the city contacted her twice, including sending a registered letter.

    2. What sparked the whole issue was that she left a dead raccoon rotting amongst the flowers.

    It is a complete shame that the flowers were gone, but I don’t think the city is completely at fault.

  4. Maybe you should join and start a petition. I would but I don’t have all the facts. I would certainly look into it and spread the word. Care2 has gotten many conservationist, gardeners and so on justice through the internet.

  5. This makes me feel absolutely sick to my stomach. I am so sorry to hear about this. And as for the “other side of the debate” comment that a raccoon was left dead among the flowers, couldn’t the City have removed the carcass without razing the garden? Seriously, that type of punitive, controlling attitude is a big part of what is wrong with the world today.

  6. This is so sad. My favorite aloe plant died recently so I am upset over that, but this story made me cry. I cannot believe people would hate a garden! It just boggles my mind. and to destroy it, oh my word.

  7. Here in Vancouver we have an a lot of roadside gardens. They are loved and enjoyed by all who pass by. I find it so hard to believe that her neighbours complained about the lack of uniformity to the street.I hope she tries again next year.

  8. Removal of the deceased raccoon aside, I would think the City of Toronto would have better ways to spend city crews’ time and taxpayers’ money than to raze a garden. Shame on them.

  9. Poor Mrs. Dale!
    Poor gardeners in Toronto!

    Hoepfully there is a quick and fair resolution to this mess. I didn’t click through the other articles offered so I might be stating the obvious but maybe it is time for a petition.

    My thoughts are with you.

  10. Looks like the action needs to take place amongst the neighbors, not the city. It seems like the local government is at least leaning towards protecting wild and native plants (even in a typically convoluted/bureaucratic way). I doubt they would have got involved if those hater neighbors hadn’t complained. I think if the city took time to make sure that citizens were educated about the benefits of such gardens (and the evils of manicured lawns), things like this would be less likely to happen.

  11. I feel bad for poor Mrs. Dale but I can also see why the neighbors complained. It’s interesting that you discuss the definition of what a garden is because in the top picture I see that more as a big mess. Obviously, growing local flowers/plants naturally will create the above jungle- and I can see why that would be a little disturbing to be living next to. For example, we take our dog for a walk everyday. Fleas and ticks tend to live in “unkept” areas with high grass etc and thus her yard would have to be avoided.

  12. Meagan, if growing a natural garden is the answer to keeping dogs off my property I’m all for it. Dogs and their owners tend to be the most antisocial force in our neighbourhood. Dog owners think it is all right to let their dogs urinate all over every living thing they walk by. We lost six cedar trees as a result. Why don’t we ban dogs instead of natural gardens??

  13. Oh man, I would be so angry! We keep noticing a few flower stems with ragged edges, but I can’t figure out if some teenager is wooing his girlfriend with my cut flowers or if we have deer. I hope it’s deer.

  14. it’s certainly a curious story to which there must be more than first meets the eye. in one of the linked articles above, mrs dale says that she thinks the raccoon was planted by the neighbours and that the city didn’t remove it with the rest of the garden. odd.

    also, mrs dale, as a prior president of the native plant society should’ve known to apply for a special dispensation protecting her garden, but she never did.

    when the neighbours are offended by what they consider to be a bunch of weeds and frustrated by the pests living in the garden it can be difficult to handle the situation without emotions getting over-heated and things going too far.

    shame the plants had to bear the brunt of it.

  15. Johnny Dog Bite- fleas and ticks affect humans in addition to dogs. I certainly would be upset if my child was walking down the sidewalk and got a tick from a neighbor’s yard. Additionally, just because some dogs and their owners have upset you, doesn’t mean they ALL are out to destroy when going for a walk. I make sure that I clean up after my dog and that he doesn’t urinate all over plants/trash cans etc.

  16. So anywhere ticks and fleas can live should be destroyed?
    Ok people, time to go chop down all the trees in the world! Then we can pave over all the fields and yards and make sure not to leave one blade of grass behind- fleas love that stuff, you know. Oh and while we’re at it, I think we should get rid of the flowers- they attract bees you know. Bees sting.
    (Sarcasm, I know it doesn’t travel well in cyberspace…)
    I’m guessing the neighbors who complained are the same type of people who won’t touch anything that hasn’t been “sanitized” by chemicals, and who’d rather ingest pesticides than deal with the possibility that a bug once crawled on their lettuce.
    Nature is the enemy to people like that.

  17. rockstarkate, I think you’re taking my comments to the extreme. I wouldn’t expect my children to come home with ticks if they are playing out in the front yard- I think that would be a bit surprising- and disgusting. But, honestly, would you all have the same ahh, that’s nice reaction to your next door neighbor who NEVER mowed their lawn (and thus the grass is so high you could barely see over it), has bushes that are taller than the house, have vines growing everywhere etc??? We have a neighbor who moved out of their house and hasn’t mowed THIS YEAR… needless to say it’s a huge mess and it looks terrible. And it sticks out like a sore spot in the neighborhood.
    I find it interesting that people want to take my comments to the extreme. I didn’t say that she gets what she deserves. In fact, I was sympathetic to her situation. I think the problem with society these days, though, is that they don’t care to see the other side of the coin because they are right and everyone else is wrong.

  18. Meagan,
    I wasn’t really trying to pick on you specifically, just a general attitude in some people that makes everything that isn’t neat and manicured frightening.
    Honestly, my brother and I used to come home with ticks after playing in the backyard where we climbed trees and poked around in the stream. I never thought of it as “surprising” or “disgusting” – just something that went along with being in the outdoors. I guess I grew up thinking of the outdoors as a place where many things lived- some friendly and some not.
    And I actually do love the jungle-yards I see in my neighborhood. It never crossed my mind to think they were attracting any unwanted pests. What do I care if my neighbor wants to let their yard become overrun with plants? (I have a very neat and tidy garden, by the way!) Unless it smells like trash, I’m not going to be bothered. To each her own.
    I guess this is where the disconnect is. People like you and I have such different outlooks on things like this that neither can really see through the other’s eyes.
    And that’s why we get problems like in Gayla’s original post.

  19. Like most situations no one here is in the absolute right. The dead raccoon is obviously an issue but it was never made clear how long the raccoon was there. She should have done something but at the same time we aren’t getting the whole picture there and it still doesn’t entitle the City to come and chop down the garden. Someone could have just called the city and requested removal (which is what I have done) rather than complaining about the garden itself and having that destroyed. And of course she could have called herself. It seems like an excuse. There are plenty of fallow fields and “dead areas” in the city and the suburbs that are truly left unattended so it is curious how this situation came to such a head.

    Subjective perspective is certainly a big part of the issue here. Thanks everyone for all of your thoughts and comments.

  20. With all the development going on in our cities I think we have to be very careful about over manicuring our gardens. I tend to prefer the more wild approach to gardening, I believe its a sort of controlled chaos. In my little area many beneficial insect abide, without these little critters I’m sure we would be a lot worse off. So I leave some stalks up over winter so the bugs have a home, my yard doen’t look like my neighbors I hope it never will. I think we should all save our seeds and send them to Ms. Dale.

  21. With all the development going on in our cities I think we have to be very careful about over manicuring our gardens. I tend to prefer the more wild approach to gardening, I believe its a sort of controlled chaos. In my little area many beneficial insect abide, without these little critters I’m sure we would be a lot worse off. So I leave some stalks up over winter so the bugs have a home, my yard doen’t look like my neighbors I hope it never will. I think we should all save our seeds and send them to Ms. Dale.

  22. I really do feel sorry for Ms Dale, and I hope that she gets permission to return her garden to its former glory and manages to educate her neighbours about the benefits of native plants and leaving areas wild. I work for a wildlife conservation organisation in the UK and we are always encouraging gardeners to plant native species and to try and to let it be a bit wild as it is very beneficial for wildlife. In the UK there are more and more houses being built on brown field and even green belt land, thus there are less natural habitats for wildlife. Gardens are now playing an important role in biodiversity and are providing homes and food for a variety of species which are on the biodiversity protection list. My garden is very ‘wild’ and I love it, none of my neighbours seem to mind however I do not live in a ‘surburban’ area – in fact it’s a Council Estate and most people here don’t have manicured gardens. I get lots of pleasure at watching all the wildlife busy in my garden and becuase I encourage certain insects into my garden such as hoverflies then I do not need to use pesticides in my garden – I grow organic veg and use companion planting to protect my veg. This is a great site Gayla, I will definetly become a regular reader.

  23. about all the gardening I was able to do on my own this year was to throw some wildflower seeds around and occasionally squirt the bed with a hose. The yard guy my landlady hired thought they were all weeds — and took a weed whacker to them. They are hardy things, and came back, but the bloom was delayed by about 2 or 3 weeks because of it. Then my neighbor thought she was doing me a favor and pulled about a quarter of them before I could tell her to stop. AAUGH! Save my garden from the “helpfulness” of others!

  24. So How DO you get a permit for native gardening from the city? I’m on a corner lot (mostly owned by the city) and I’d like to know….

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