Gardens - Specialty Gardens

The politics of gardening: Bygone bylaws

Katharine Fletcher

More and more gardeners are challenging dusty bylaws to renaturalize their front yards. Here’s what you could encounter despite your good intentions.

Who knew gardening represents a controversial political statement? In the summer of 2008, Hank and Vera Jones moved into their suburban Ottawa ’hood, Constance Bay Village. They had no idea creating a naturalized landscape from their lawn would immerse them in political hot water. “We wanted a chemical-free natural garden,” Vera recalls. “We envisioned an urban native meadow, buzzing with native pollinators, with pathways winding through the informal garden,” adds Hank. Neither imagined their pollinator garden featuring native wildflowers, fruit, and nut trees designed to lure butterflies, bees, and birds would escalate into an international news story.

What happened?
“We began re-wilding by allowing existing plants to grow so we could easily identify who was who in the yard,” explains Hank. “Then, specialists from Ottawa’s Fletcher Wildlife Garden supplied 140 identified native plants, and our garden was certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.”

Both organizations provide advice on creating wildlife-friendly spaces, whether you’ve got a balcony, patio, or yard. Their websites show garden plans and list native plants, and both have fascinating demonstration gardens—and plant sales. Thus-armed, the Joneses started planting natives. As their lawn shrunk in size, their plantings grew—as did the fuss. “All our neighbours but one were curious but tolerant,” Vera remembers. “One, however, thought our garden unkempt. Ottawa’s bylaw enforcement arrived and we were cited for property neglect.”

Suddenly the couple discovered they were in violation of an Ottawa bylaw which states, “Lawns shall be kept trimmed and not be overgrown or in an unsightly condition out of character with the surrounding environment.” Moreover, if they didn’t tidy up by a specific date, the city would do it—and bill them.

Did the Joneses cave in?
No. They contacted media who discovered a hot story with a sympathetic public tuned into irony. On one hand, governmental campaigns encourage Canadians to be eco-minded and avoid chemicals. On the other hand, we may be penalized for going green. The Joneses’ story ran in national as well as international networks and publications.

The outcome
After weeks of calmly delivered, persuasive statements where the couple stood firm, citing their Charter rights and explaining their environmental goals, the City of Ottawa ultimately withdrew the bylaw violation. Their case attracted Will Amos, director of the University of Ottawa’s Ecojustice Environmental Law Clinic, who offered his legal services pro bono. Former councillor Clive Doucet lent support—as did roughly a hundred organizations and individuals.

Fast-forward to 2011. Hank and Vera have grown their project. They are creating the Pollinator Gardeners of Canada association. Their garden has become the Allbirch Pollinator Garden education centre, where kids and adults come to learn about “naturescaping.”


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