Canadians Against Pesticides
The Weed Lady's Revenge
Ont. gardener replaces lawn with a little slice of Eden
by Bernard Frazer
CAPS InfoNet, April 23, 2001
HAMILTON- Ruth Ann Stanhope is breathless as she surveys her garden in the west end of Hamilton, Ontario . She isn't overworked as are most gardeners this time of year, she is simply overwhelmed by nature's miracle.
"It's the sheer wonder of it... how, with so little effort, so much beauty comes from it. That's amazing to me."
What's more amazing is - in a neighborhood of chemically treated, 'weed-free' lawns and attitudes to match.- this wondrous "naturalized" garden has remained unscathed It is a lush, active sanctuary - the product of 10 years of trial, error, misfortune and luck.
On this particular sun-drenched spring day it is easy to see why Hamilton's "Weed Lady" as she's been unfortunately dubbed, marvels at her hard work. Walking the busy street, past a string of finely manicured lawns, Ruth Ann's garden takes you by surprise. Once a very typical suburban lawn, she has helped nature transform it back into a thick, vibrant oasis. It is like stepping into Eden from a desert of pavement and grass .
From the delicate creamy bells of Solomon's seal glistening playfully in the sun, through outcroppings of rust coloured native grasses, Purple coneflowers and Black-eyed susans to a velvety stand of Queen Anne's lace and Milkweed, where Monarch butterflies flitter and feed, this a greenscape dense, rich and teeming with life. Such an approach to planting is often termed 'naturalized' gardening, or 'habitat restoration'. Simply put, the land is being returned to a more natural state using primarily species native to Southern Ontario. Right across Canada, the trend toward "habitat restoration" has caught on quickly. It is a trend heartily endorsed by experts including Toronto gardening author, Lorraine Johnson.
"If you replace your lawn with an appropriate plant community , you're enhancing biodiversity so plants aren't vulnerable to pest invasions like a single species (lawns) would be. Biodiversity creates a plant community with checks and balances and this also means improved health... it is proven that these bio systems are ecologically healthier"
Not only is habitat restoration more ecologically sound, it can be virtually maintenance free! Back in Ruth Ann's garden, this low to no maintenance concept is well received.
"I don't water very much" she says, "after all, water is an important resource. I have a rain barrel which is mainly used for when I transplant or put in young plants."
Sure, but what about weeding?
"I probably do a major weeding, maybe once a year, it's not something I spend hours and hours doing" she offers with a slight smirk.
And as for pests:
"A little soap and water goes a long way... since I introduced native species, pests are very few."
Plants native to your area already possess genetic material that helps ward off pest infestation. When biodiversity is re-established, plants also tend to act as 'pest decoys' for other plants and good insects return to take care of the bad ones. Nature's balance is restored.
The Hamilton green thumb has allowed a few non-native species into the group, but this hasn't upset the balance.
"I have a live and let live policy, if they can survive the conditions, they stay."
This policy is one Ruth Ann adopted many years back when, as a young mother and medical professional, she began to question the use of pesticides and fertilizers in her garden. The plants would just have to survive without any assistance, especially those of the chemical variety.
"Putting poison down where little feet are playing seemed like an awfully harsh measure for a little bit of vanity".
And with that realization, she gave up the chemical habit for good. So began her quest to introduce species that could make it under their own steam. Her love of native species and habitat restoration was born.
A decade hence, her property seems to live and breathe as a fully fledged ecosystem orbited by stark plots of eerie green.
Unfortunately, some of these native species have been given a bad rap by humans. So, when Scotch thistle seed 'blew in' to her yard and took root, Ruth Ann got a wakeup call.
Following an anonymous complaint, the Hamilton Department of Public Works came to call. With a copy of the Noxious Weed Act thrust into her hand, the passionate green thumb was given 24 hours to "cut down and destroy any of the noxious weeds found growing upon the property". Remember the Milkweed - (habitat for the Monarch Butterfly), Scotch thistle - (feed for the Goldfinches) and that velvety stand of Queen Anne's Lace?. They were all on "the list". If she refused to obey the municipal directive, Public Works threatened to raze the plants themselves - at cost of $50 an hour.
Thankfully, the local newspaper and a throng of outraged Hamiltonians came to her rescue. After a stinging article by local reporter Paul Wilson, and dozens of calls and letters to the editor, the matter was soon dropped. The Monarchs, Goldfinches and a host of other fauna and passers-by are thankful that this little corner of Eden remains.
This spring, Ruth Ann Stanhope isn't worrying about bylaws, weed lists or the media. The only thing on her mind is watching her latest treasure, a lacy, yellow herb called Angelica, grow to a majestic six feet.
For more information on 'habitat restoration' check out the following books:
"100 East To Grow Native Plants For Canadian Gardens" by Lorraine Johnson Published by Random House ISBN 0-679-309-87X
"Grow Wild, Native Plant Gardening in Canada And the Northern United States" by Lorraine Johnson Published by Random House of Canada ISBN 0-679-30919-5
"The Ontario Naturalized Garden" by Lorraine Johnson, Published by Whitecap Books 1995