Network of Nature: The new program working to restore Canada’s biodiversity, one plant at a time

Network of Nature aims to inspire Canadians to improve the long-term health of our ecosystems through the planting of native species

  • Oct 14, 2022
  • 1,009 words
  • 5 minutes
Approximately 50 volunteers gathered at the Toronto Zoo to help plant hundreds of trees as part of the launch of Network of Nature. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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From the Rocky Mountains of B.C. and Alberta to the dramatic coastlines of Newfoundland, Canada is characterized by a wide array of landscapes that are home to approximately 80,000 species of plants and animals. But this incredible biodiversity is increasingly threatened by climate change, pollution, invasive species and habitat loss. 

Enter Network of Nature, a unique program created to engage Canadians in a movement to restore native biodiversity and employ nature-based climate solutions. By encouraging Canadians to plant native species, the Network of Nature aims to establish a cross-country network of healthy habitats. 

Launched by Canadian Geographic and Dougan & Associates with support from TD Ready Commitment, the Network of Nature will provide Canadians with the tools and information required to support the restoration and enhancement of green spaces to restore native biodiversity.

The area of land prior to being filled with trees during the day of planting at the Toronto Zoo. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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“Canadian wildlife populations have declined almost 70 per cent over the last 50 years,” says John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “Development has stressed and eliminated enormous tracts of native habitat, and we know habitat loss and degradation are the primary causes of decline for 82 per cent of species at risk in Canada. With the help of individual Canadians, governments, and corporate landowners, we can reverse this trend.” 

The Network of Nature was launched on Oct. 14 with a tree-planting event at the Toronto Zoo – the first in a series of plantings that will take place across the country. With around 50 volunteers, approximately 900 trees were planted in under six hours, creating essential new habitat for local species as well as migratory animals and pollinators. All the trees planted are native species found within the forested areas of the zoo grounds, including sugar maple, red oak, ironwood, black cherry, hemlock and serviceberry, among others.

Planted as a Miyawaki forest (a densely planted forest smaller than a tennis court), these trees will assist in absorbing carbon, mitigating stormwater runoff and improving air quality. Named after the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who invented the planting method about 40 years ago, Miyawaki forests are made up of diverse, locally native species in a multilayered design created to replicate the intricacy of a native forest. 

“What I love as an ecologist about this method is that it’s recognizing that trees, like humans, are social creatures,” says Heather Schibli, a landscape architect, ecologist and arborist with Dougan & Associates. “They’ve evolved with other species; they are not happy being isolated in a patch of grass.”

Schibli adds that many people are unaware of the complex fungal systems that develop underground and are essential to the success of a healthy forest. “There’s a lot happening below ground too.”

The new forest will create essential habitat for native species like squirrels, rabbits, pollinators and migratory birds. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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Volunteers were shown how to properly tease out roots to ensure that each tree is able to grow to its full potential. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill)
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The day of tree planting began with a smudging ceremony and a prayer led by Elder Dorothy Peters, who spoke about the importance of smudging just as the sun broke through the clouds, shining a beam of light on the trees to be planted. 

In two shifts, volunteers spent the morning and afternoon filling a small area just outside of the zoo’s main entrance with hundreds of trees all native to the Rouge Valley and representing the different levels of the forest: canopy, sub-canopy, arborescent (smaller trees) and shrubs and ground covers. Volunteers were also instructed by ecologists on how to properly tease out roots to allow plants to breathe and were given three different plants at a time to get a diversity of structure throughout the forest. 

During the forest’s establishment period (from the planting date up until the ground freezes), Toronto Zoo staff will water the plants as needed. Zoo guests will have the opportunity to walk through the space, which staff will manage for potential damage or stress that plants may experience. Staff will also be regularly monitoring the site for undesirable and invasive species. The forest will ideally be self-sufficient by September 2023.

Steve Hill from Dougan & Associates makes opening remarks prior to tree planting. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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Shawn Murdy, horticulture supervisor at the Toronto Zoo, says some plant species may be challenged to find the requirements for survival but will lend themselves to the creation of organic material in their decline. He adds that once the forest is established, this competitive environment will help keep non-native and invasive species out of the space. 

“This is really important as we look to reconnect habitats and provide those amazing wild spaces,” says Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo. “Canadian Geographic does a lot of great work connecting Canadians to our natural world, and our mission at the zoo is fighting extinction, so [the fact that] we’re working together to share this with 1.2 million zoo guests is a really important opportunity, and we hope people will do this at their homes as well.”

Why plant native species?

Planting local is imperative to preserving biodiversity as landscaping decisions significantly affect local wildlife, such as birds and insects. Exotic plants, or plants that are not native to an area, can sever food webs or outcompete native plants for resources. Native plants require less fertilization, watering and pesticides as they are already adapted to the local climate and fauna.

In consultation with Indigenous and western science experts, the Network of Nature will complete the first comprehensive Canadian collection of knowledge on native plants and trees in Canada. With more than 8,000 native plant species already in the database, individual Canadians, developers, corporate property managers and landscape architects can select and source appropriate native plants, seeds and trees. Users can also learn about each plant’s unique characteristics, exciting facts and habitat considerations, from the colour of the seeds to whether or not flowering plants are fragrant.

Heather Schibli shows volunteers how to properly plant each tree. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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Approximately 900 trees were planted at the launch of Network of Nature. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
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“This is about community and relationship, and it’s about reciprocity and responsibility for our landscape,” says Schibli. “This is about getting to know not just each other but knowing the other species and starting to respect the fact that this is not just for us; this land is for many other species too.”


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