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This wild garden in a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood is a gathering place for generations of family. (Ben Rahn/A-Frame/Levitt Goodman Architects)
This wild garden in a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood is a gathering place for generations of family. (Ben Rahn/A-Frame/Levitt Goodman Architects)

When it comes to lawns, the natural way is here to stay Add to ...

In an affluent Toronto area, home after home boasts great carpets of lawn, trimmed and watered daily. But one yard stands out – with a sandbox, a butterfly garden, wild clusters of native plants and rusting steel fences. Some might call it weedy, unkempt and counter to neighbourhood standards. But for the owners, it’s a passion project.

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“We thought it would be great to have a homestead,” one of them explains – a place for their four kids and eight grandchildren to gather. “Here you’re looking at nature, with wildflowers growing on a riverbank, so it seemed in keeping with the environment all around us, as well as just better, to have native species that can live and live well – as we do.”

Landscape architect Scott Torrance, who designed the garden with Levitt Goodman Architects, says the design makes a point: “Nature is luxury. … We took out a lawn and replaced it with a garden; it’s filled with wildflowers and it’s now a really rich place for nature. I’m amazed at how much life is going on.”

The presence of two design firms indicates the serious means involved here – the owners bought and tore down the house next door so they could expand, and also built “green” roofs on both the garage and pool house. (They requested anonymity to preserve their privacy.) But similar elements are showing up in yards across North America.

Head to the nearest big-box hardware store and you’ll find for sale native plants that used to be thought of as weeds, many lettuces for your kitchen garden, and rain barrels to help water them all with minimal waste.

It all reflects new ideals about not just how to landscape but how to live: outdoors as much as possible, with family, attentive to the natural surroundings and people’s impact on them, even in the city. As Mr. Torrance says, “Being in nature doesn’t have to be about going away to a faraway mountain or to a national park.”

Wild lawns and gardens still draw the ire of some neighbours who prefer their domestic landscapes more domesticated. After a century in which a closely mowed lawn was both a product and a sign of a tight social order, such a visible change in values and style is by nature contentious. But lawns and gardens always reflect what is happening in the world outside the fence. They are fertile ground for debates about nature, God, beauty, food, class and leisure. And, as every gardener knows, a garden is never finished.

In the West, gardens and designed landscapes have grown in two genres for the past 300 years. The first is the formal garden, highly wrought and geometric, descended from those of the French aristocracy; the other is the English garden, designed to create a picturesque environment with compositions of hills, banks of trees and waterways. But the language of wildness, used to evoke the Romantic idea of the sublime in nature, is still a language. Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the 18th-century English garden designer, defined his work explicitly in terms of grammar.

As writer Hannah More reported: “ ‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there,’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.’ ”

This rhetoric entailed moving huge quantities of earth and plants to achieve a simulacrum of nature.

For most people, though, such aesthetic concerns were secondary. Those who had land were mostly working it, and beauty was an appendix: The ornamental garden came last, after the food-producing kitchen garden and the cultivated fields or pastures that provided a living.

As geographer J.B. Jackson has written, the small ornamental garden in North America’s colonies became a sort of quiet self-expression; it was private, but also viewable and therefore, in a sense public. It was a space in between. “This ambiguity of the lawn, of the threshold between the public spaces of the street and the private, familial domestic spaces, has remained a constant,” he wrote.

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