Our shared garden: The importance of native plants

As cities and towns continue to expand into our wild landscapes, conservation gardens can provide refuge for Canada’s plummeting biodiversity 

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Gardens awaken the soul. There’s something beyond measurement that happens when hands plunge into cold, damp earth, ready to conjure whatever’s in the mind’s eye. I sink blue vervain seedlings into my little plot for their showy spikes of violet-blue blooms, a few swamp milkweed seedlings to feed the butterflies and provide shelter for their eggs, iris along the border because their smell reminds me of grape bubblegum, and at my front door, I hang a basket of red cultivated geraniums — my Nonno’s favourite. Gardens can read like a roadmap of our experiences; a poetry of plants. And each time we interact with a garden, it’s an acknowledgement of our duality with nature: we have the power to shape her, and we are her. In the end, I’m just another creature digging in the dirt.

Tending a garden can be a radical act, too. It can be a source of nourishment in a food desert, a medicine cabinet, a connection to cultures and ways of life that were nearly extinguished in some places, a way of building community in an individualistic society. And for a growing number of us, gardening is a grassroots effort to restore damaged ecosystems and reconcile our relationship with the land.

The planet is experiencing unprecedented biodiversity loss. Some 200 vertebrate species have gone extinct in the last century, a loss of two species per year on average, and insect populations have been cut in half in some parts of the world. Many scientists say we are in the Anthropocene, an epoch characterized by human impacts on the planet’s climate and ecosystems, that started around the time we detonated the first atomic bomb, or perhaps with widespread spraying of DDT following the Vietnam War. Whenever it started, the Anthropocene has so far been marked by “biological annihilation,” as one study put it — in other words, an ongoing mass extinction.

Across Canada, too, many at-risk species continue to decline despite federal and provincial laws mandating their protection. A 2022 report from WWF Canada cites dwindling access to healthy, intact habitats as a major factor limiting species recovery. For example, some of the historically largest herds of barren-ground caribou (tuktu in Inuktitut) in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have been decimated by the one-two punch of climate change and habitat lost to mining and infrastructure, losing between 80 and 98 per cent of their populations since the 1980s. More than 40 years ago, the burrowing owl was identified as a threatened Canadian species and its Prairie population — where grassland is now cropland — has been in freefall ever since. Researchers can barely spot the rusty-patched bumblebee in southern Ontario’s heavily urbanized and fragmented Carolinian forest anymore, estimating its population has dropped by 99 per cent in 30 years — 99 per cent. Cities are now the fastest growing ecosystem in the world, projected to cover some 1.9 million square kilometres by 2030 and 3.6 million square kilometres by 2050. Put simply, wildlife is running out of places to live.

Plants form the foundations of ecosystems. They take in sunlight and carbon dioxide, and in return provide oxygen, food and habitat for everything else. But these foundations are crumbling under human-caused pressures — industrial activity, invasive species, urbanization, agriculture, a warming climate. Of the more than 500 species at risk in Canada, 250 are wild plants, and most of them are found along the Canada-U.S. border in Ontario and British Columbia, two of the most urbanized and industrialized regions in the country. When these plants are gone, everything that relies on them eventually goes too. You can’t build a solid house without a solid foundation.

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In the small town of Smiths Falls, Ont., 70 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, a wild garden on an expansive corner lot has become a battleground. To some, Craig and Beth Sinclair’s garden is an uncultivated mess of weeds, a dangerous place, a symbol of their shameful inadequacy as homeowners. To the Sinclairs and others, it’s a purposeful attempt at creating habitat to support biodiversity — a haven for pollinators and other animals in an otherwise homogenous suburban landscape of Kentucky bluegrass lawns.

Craig Sinclair is a soft-spoken man who’s spent 15 years as a stay-at-home dad following an accident that left him with chronic migraines. Pouring himself into his garden has helped him better manage his pain. He started planting his naturalized garden during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to relieve stress and inspire his community to become better stewards of the environment.

In its peak late summer glory, tall stems of frothy yellow goldenrod and sprays of tangerine butterfly milkweed grow out of ash tree mulch; a pileated woodpecker forages on a decomposing log; frogs croak around a small pond bordered by native aquatic plants; hazelnuts and cherries ripen on branches for the squirrels and birds. Sinclair carefully selected roughly 150 species of mostly native plants, trees and shrubs, and laid locally-sourced logs and wood chips to mimic a natural environment, build soil health and offer refuge for insects, birds and other animals.

Two signs offer an explanation: a blue placard from the North American Butterfly Association announces the space as a Certified Monarch Garden that “provides resources that increase the world’s population of monarchs,” while a white one from the Canadian Wildlife Federation certifies it as a “wildlife-friendly habitat.” But soon after Sinclair sunk the last seedling into the ground, the visits from bylaw enforcement began — amounting to at least 10 in two years.

“I was confident in the science of this, and that native plants were right and that they were better for the environment and they lasted longer. And all these benefits were just so good for the world. But yet our town didn’t understand,” says Craig.

The Sinclairs received notices of infractions of Smiths Falls’ property standards bylaw for everything from their habitat logs, which were classified as “timber and lumber debris,” to their “grass and weeds being in excess of 20 centimetres,” to their compost heap — purposely built to provide airflow — not being properly covered. The last time bylaw visited, early in 2022, they stuck an order to the Sinclairs’ front door giving them a deadline to clean it up — which meant removing most of the garden — or else it would be done for them.

“We knew that when [the garden] thawed, they would have the legal right to destroy what I’ve done,” says Craig. “We had thousands of dollars invested, thousands of hours and hundreds of plants established.”

While turf grass lawns may be the norm on properties in North America, “it’s not based on any sound ecological principle,” says Marc Johnson, the Canada Research Chair for Urban Environmental Science, professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and director of the university’s Centre for Urban Environments. “By increasing [species] diversity in the spaces that we have control of, whether that be a detached home, in your yard or in flowerpots in front of a townhome or even in a small little planting in an apartment, it can have positive effects on native biodiversity of pollinators.”

So why did we surround our houses and parks with turf grass native to Europe and parts of Asia? Lawns are a uniquely western status symbol, a vestige of the 1940s postwar period that equated wealth with these resource-intensive green carpets. When pesticides and herbicides became more widespread, they were easier to maintain and keep weed-free. And so, turf grass stuck and became just something we do in Canada and the United States. Today, in the U.S., turf grass is the largest irrigated crop — and we can’t even eat it.

“It is that dominion idea, having dominion over [the land] versus interacting with it,” says Craig Sinclair. “It has to be a change. It’s unsustainable and it’s unhealthy. And the science is a door that can’t be shut. You can’t close the door on doing the right thing.”

“The lawn [is] a colonial landscape form and a version of control over nature, an attempt to ‘tame’ the ‘wilderness,’ to imprint monoculture on the landscape. All of this is connected,” says Lorraine Johnson, no relation to Marc. “And these bylaws are the enforcement of that.”

Lorraine Johnson is an author, editor and “cultivation activist” who has written a number of books about native gardening, making her exactly the type of person the Sinclairs needed on their side. So, when the couple decided to appeal the bylaw order at a hearing with town council and the property standards committee in July 2022, they enlisted Johnson’s help, alongside Joyce Hostyn, master gardener and adjunct professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Nina-Marie Lister, professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University and director of the Ecological Design Lab, and lawyer David Donnelly.

The Sinclairs’ case was not without precedent; across the country, residents who have decided to ditch their traditional grass lawns for native plants have clashed with municipalities and found themselves slapped with fines or orders to remove their gardens. In 1996, east Toronto resident Sandy Bell challenged the City of Toronto in court over a fine she received for having a naturalized garden. She won, and a legal precedent was set. The following year, Etobicoke resident Douglas Counter took his bylaw appeal case all the way to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. In Counter’s case, the garden in question extended onto public lands. The justice ruled in favour of Counter, marking the first time that Canadian case law recognized the right to expression of environmental beliefs and values on public land. Bell and Counter’s cases are now used as legal defence for others fighting similar battles in court.

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When the spring sun starts to warm the soil on southeastern Vancouver Island, native camas lilies (kwetlal in lək̓ wəŋən) sprout from their plump, starchy bulbs and open their star-shaped blooms, carpeting the clearings and meadows of the endangered Garry Oak ecosystem in blue and purple. For thousands of years, the lək̓ wəŋən people, specifically women of certain family lines, cared for plots of camas, cultivating and harvesting them in harmony with nature as an important source of food and trade (the small bulb-like roots are dug and roasted, eaten fresh or boiled, and can be dried for use as a winter food). Ten square kilometres surrounding what is now Victoria was kept shrub-free through careful, controlled burns to allow for camas and other native wildflowers, such as chocolate lilies, lupins and violets, to grow unimpeded. Millions of butterflies fluttered over this nectar buffet.

The most productive area for camas on the island was a gentle seaward slope called míqən (meaning “warmed by the sun”), now Beacon Hill on downtown Victoria’s waterfront. When James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, set eyes on these same rolling blue meadows in 1842, he saw a perfect spot for a new trading post, Fort Victoria. Douglas never ended up building on that land, and settlers began bringing their livestock there to graze. The lək̓ wəŋən were pushed to the other side of the harbour, now called Songhees Point, and the camas they had nurtured for generations thinned.

Today in Beacon Hill in the spring, you can still spot some camas amongst the invasive Scotch broom and foraging peacocks, the multi-use path̓ways and cricket courts. And it’s thanks to the work of ləkwəŋən Knowledge Keeper Cheryl Bryce. She harvests and cultivates the remaining small patches of camas at míqən, a continuation of her family’s legacy born from early morning walks with her grandmother at the park.

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“I remember going out and having lots of people telling us, ‘Get out of here. You have no right to be doing what you’re doing. You’re harming the land.’ And ‘This isn’t your land,’ and all kinds of things,” says Bryce. “It was not until the late nineties when I started to speak out a bit more about [the fact that] we’re still here. This is still important.”

Bryce, a warm person with a wide smile, now leads walking tours of Beacon Hill Park showcasing the many wild plants that form the lək̓ wəŋən food system and manages the land there and on other parts of the lək̓ wəŋən ancestral homelands by culling invasive species and propagating native plants.

The Garry Oak ecosystem and its associated ecosystems are some of the most biologically diverse and endangered in Canada. In British Columbia, they’re found only on southern Vancouver Island and its neighbouring Gulf Islands, where less than five per cent remains from the time before Europeans came to the island.

What’s left of the ecosystem are isolated communities. Oases of gnarled and mossy Garry oaks, stands of towering Douglas fir, wildflower and grass meadows, wetlands, deep rich soil and rocky outcrops. Because of the landscape’s intense fragmentation, more than 100 species of plants and animals are now at risk. The fact that any Garry Oak ecosystems remain is a testament to the careful management of the lək̓ wəŋən, says Bryce.

Over Google Meet, Bryce grabs a container from her fridge to show me a prepared camas bulb, enthusiastically explaining how it should be cooked and why she leaves the grandmother and mother-daughter bulbs (those that have offsets or smaller bulbs attached) in the soil — part of the wisdom of land stewardship that has kept camas an̓d Garry Oak ecosystems alive to thrive and sustain the ləkwəŋən people since time immemorial.

For Bryce, the disappearance of the Garry Oak ecosystem is a metaphor for colonialism writ large.

“Plants are an excellent way of engaging people on colonization because it’s a whole different kind of visual- in-action that people see in a different way than when you talk about residential schools,” she says. “I’m going, ‘Look at how this native plant is being surrounded by the Himalayan blackberry, and this tree is wrapped in ivy. It’s killing the plants because it’s colonized that landscape. That’s colonization. And people walk away going, ‘I get it.’”


In July, as the Sinclairs brought their appeal in front of a group of town councillors, the international conservation status of the monarch butterfly was upgraded from at-risk to endangered. 

Populations of the migratory butterfly, the poster species for conservation in the Americas, have plummeted by 85 per cent in a little over two decades. In 2016, a federal management plan was created for the species in Canada, encouraging the creation of public and private gardens and green spaces planted with more milkweed and other monarch-supporting plants. Other environmental organizations have been pushing for pollinator gardens since the 1990s — but the benefits of these programs aren’t always easy to quantify. Scientists and Knowledge Keepers know native plants are foundational for ecosystems, but exactly how the puzzle pieces fit is exceptionally complex.

“We’re changing the environment, creating this built environment. It is unlike any environment or ecosystem these organisms have ever seen in four billion years of the evolution of life on this planet,” says the University of Toronto’s Marc Johnson.

The Centre for Urban Environments, led by Marc Johnson, is one institution taking up the charge to determine how species interact with urban environments and what can be done to make cities healthier and more sustainable for all life. Since 2018, more than 120 faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students across the University of Toronto have contributed to the centre’s work.

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Over the summers of 2018 and 2019, graduate student Sophie Breitbart led a team of researchers at the centre to conduct one of the first studies in the world comparing plant and pollinator interactions in green corridors within the urban environment.

“We have an understanding of how urbanization changes the landscape. We’re getting an idea of how different species respond to city life, but there’s still very little known about how those changes impact the ways that these species interact with other species, like plants and pollinators, predators and prey,” says Breitbart.

Breitbart and her team sampled wild populations of common milkweed at 80 sites in a 67-kilometre swath that included urban, rural and suburban settings between downtown Toronto and Hamilton, Ont. What they found was surprising, and more than a little confusing.

“We found that the green corridor didn’t seem to have this resounding positive effect that I think has been seen in other studies,” says Breitbart. “I might have thought that we would see lots and lots of pollinators in the green corridor, we’d see really high species diversity, high species richness, but that’s not what we found.”

Breitbart says there are likely many reasons for this. One in particular, she says, is the dilution effect: the greater amount of milkweed in the corridor compared to urban environments could have led to there being fewer pollinators on individual plants. In other words, the results don’t necessarily mean there are fewer pollinators in total in the corridor compared to the city; there could have just been more plants to choose from.

“Ecology is messy, so in that way, I wasn’t surprised with all these potentially conflicting results,” says Breitbart. Either way, the study underscores the need for city planners and urban ecologists to consider all the conservation tools in the toolkit when designing our cities.

As similar studies happen in Canada and around the world, they form a growing body of work that will help lead ecologists, city planners and others in their efforts to make our urban environments more biodiverse. Conservation gardening, in particular, is one avenue to which ecologists are paying more attention.

A study published in May 2022 in the journal Nature Sustainability made a case for conservation gardening as a way to complement traditional species conservation in urban environments. Using Germany as a case study, researchers found that cultivation, or gardening, had a positive impact on native plant populations over time and could create considerable additional area for conservation measures alongside protected areas. They also found that these gardens would complement off-site conservation areas, such as green corridors and botanical gardens, which often fall short in providing sufficient space for threatened species.

“The way I explain it to people is, imagine if everyone views their property as a national park,” says Marc Johnson. “Your national park may look different than my national park, but I guarantee it’s going to increase diversity in your yard and it’s going to increase biodiversity and ecological resilience in your environment.”

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Back in Smith Falls, the Sinclairs are in limbo. After the hearing, the town relented, opting not to pursue the matter in court and, encouragingly, began the process of reviewing their property standards bylaws. The Sinclairs

won this battle — but not the war. A court case, while stressful and expensive, would have added more legal precedent to the cause. And it remains to be seen how Smiths Falls, and other municipalities, will change their property standards moving forward. In the meantime, the collective awakening continues as more people look to foster biodiversity in their neighbourhoods through planting native species in place of lawns.

“I think the pandemic kind of pushed people forward in this way of really valuing nature. Not just nature as ‘out there,’ but our relationship with nature. What it means to be in some kind of relationship with the natural world and see ourselves as a part of it, rather than separate, or dominating or controlling,” says Lorraine Johnson. “And where that can happen at a community level that creates a lot of change is these small local projects.”

In my backyard, the trunk of a butternut tree towers into the sky, way above our modest townhome — she’s been here a lot longer. Her limbs stretch in all directions. She rules the little forest behind her that’s been divided in two by a highway, and soon will be rattled by a light rail system. She’s endangered in her native range, which extends from southeastern Canada to the eastern United States, because of a disease; black cankers mar her statuesque trunk and twisting branches. I wonder if there are trees like her on the other side of the highway.

Under the shade of her canopy, I take stock of a garden I planted this spring. It’s near freezing now and the bee balm has dropped its leaves and gone dormant; an anemone is still pushing delicate white blooms. Maybe it will provide a bit of late-season nectar for a sluggish bumblebee before that bee burrows its fuzzy body into the dirt. I take a butternut and plant it, sinking my hands back into that cold, damp soil.


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This story is from the May/June 2023 Issue

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