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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 ...

A major new park, Corktown Common, which opened in Toronto in June, includes a recreated marsh and plantings to emulate forest, marsh and meadow conditions. A huge bank of earth, flood-protection infrastructure in itself, is covered with wild rye, black-eyed Susans and goldenrod. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the park makes for a rich and complex experience for children to wander through, as commuter trains pass by and an elevated highway thrums nearby.

As Canadians increasingly live in urban regions, the transformation of such public and private spaces to green space becomes more important to us all. The blank slates that produced the great parks of the 19th century do not exist any more. And in a context where we encounter nature on the train tracks, Romantic ideas about an unspoiled landscape no longer make as much sense.

The plan for the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, completed in 2009, converted a former industrial facility into a place for community gatherings, food markets and ecological education. It’s somewhat like Vancouver’s Granville Island redevelopment of the 1970s, except for its powerful environmental agenda.

The buildings, formerly brick kilns, warehouses and related structures, were preserved, reused and only partly cleaned up; and the entire site is wrapped in bold expressions of nature, from its preserved wetlands to rain-fed gardens and the array of native ground covers, reclaimed-wood planters, wall-gardening accessories and heirloom raspberries that you can buy at its garden centre.

The crowds of people who visit every Saturday return home with ideals of combining food with nature and community, and of keeping it a little bit rough.

As Mr. Torrance, the landscape architect, explains, there is a quality-of-life argument that underlies the shifts that are happening.

“In garden design, a central idea is control,” he says. “In the classic French garden, everything is controlled and it has to be maintained. There’s a tremendous amount of energy and effort that goes into it. When you’re looking at that, if everything is perfect, you might be relaxed – but more likely there’s something that needs to be trimmed. In a garden, it’s almost impossible to maintain that kind of expression.”

Mr. Torrance’s own “postage-stamp” front garden is now a mixture of native plants in three different zones: fertilizer-free, pesticide-free and largely sustained by the rain. Even to his professional eye, it’s remarkable. “I popped those plants in and they’re going like crazy,” he says, “because you plant them in the conditions that they like.” This is a pleasure that he can appreciate from the front porch as it fills in, changes with the seasons and grows richer by the year.

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