Got a lush natural garden growing wild in your front yard? Well, you might want to get on clipper patrol. If you don't have a permit for that lovely milkweed patch, the city might just come along and raze it.
That's what happened to Deborah Dale. The past president of the North American Native Plant Society says she arrived home from work on August 21 to find her decade-old, 150-species natural garden completely levelled by city staff.
Natural gardens that draw hummingbirds and monarchs are sprouting up around eco-conscious homes citywide, but what green thumbs might not know is that the municipal licensing and standards (MLS) office wants residents to register those plots. You know, so they don't get confused with weeds.
In fact, the homeowner has to send a letter to the head of MLS requesting an exemption from the grass and weeds bylaw.
Turns out the parks, forestry and recreation department has a rather vague definition of what qualifies as a natural garden: namely vegetation that's "consistent with a managed and natural landscape other than regularly mown grass."
The garden must also be shorter than 1.2 metres (the same height as a fence) within 2.4 metres of the front property line.
Who knew gardening could be weighed down with so much red tape?
And it doesn't end there. After MLS receives the application, it sends out a horticulturalist to make sure everything is up to standard and gives advice on managing and maintaining the natural garden.
The matter then goes before community council, which makes the final decision on whether the exemption is granted.
It's enough to make homeowners pinch themselves.
"We've got species at risk all over, and they come in and do this. It's outrageous," says Dale, who coincidentally gives city-sponsored seminars on growing native gardens. "If more people plant native gardens, at least it gives little linkages for species to connect from one wild area to another."
Councillor Paula Fletcher's has been naturalizing her Riverdale front yard for six years and had no clue residents had to go through a registration process. "A few years ago there was a lot of pressure from neighbours saying that this is an overgrown nest, but it's extremely common now. The protocol should be updated a bit, based on the incredible number of natural front lawns that I see."
Explains MLS area manager Bill Blakes, "The city does promote the naturalization of gardens, which is quite different from neglected properties. A natural garden is something that's cultivated and maintained. It's different from [gardens] with garbage and debris that we get complaints about from neighbours."
About 3,000 complaints a year come from folks grumbling about grass or weeds over 20 centimetres tall. Blake adds that the registry process weeds out developers who try to pass off unkempt vacant lands as natural gardens.
MLS claims it sent violation notices for overgrown tree branches, waste on yard areas and long grass and weeds to Dale by registered mail and dispatched inspectors to check out the site but never heard back. Two weeks later, officers mowed the area.
Dale claims she hasn't received any notices since an earlier complaint in the spring, when she says she informed a bylaw officer that this was a natural garden, invited the city to check it out and never heard back. She doesn't understand how her fragrant sumacs and giant purple hyssops would be mistaken for weeds and wants $10,000 in compensation for all her lost greenery.
"To my mind, it's people watering their lawns who should be required to register," says Dale.
Janet McKay, executive director of Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests (LEAF), agrees that the city should be using its resources to protect these natural gardens instead of going through the tedious process of registering or trashing them.
"It stuns me that the city acted so quickly on it without her knowing," she says. "These natural gardens are so crucial, providing habitat for pollinators and all kinds of wildlife that we don't even consider. It doesn't look the same as regular grass, and we have to catch up and accept that a different look is okay."