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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.

And when the suburbs were born in the late 19th century, the tension between what is mine and what belongs to the community remained strong.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, also designed suburban developments – from the 1860s on – that democratized the great green lawns of European manors into small slices that were private but also collective in character. The front lawn was collective ground. As author Leonidas Ramsey wrote in 1930, “A man’s home may be his castle, but his front lawn belongs to the public.”

We care what our neighbours think of us, of course, and for most of the 20th century, that meant cutting the lawn. But those manicured expanses come at a price. Lawns, which in North America are most commonly made up of the thirsty species Kentucky bluegrass, suck up tremendous amounts of water. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that landscape irrigation consumes nearly 34 billion litres a day, much of it wasted in over-watering or runoff.

The first strong cries of dissent came in the environmentally conscious 1970s, with a movement in favour of the “freedom lawn,” as activists began to resist the golf-course-like landscape.

A little later, Michael Pollan, now famous for his writings on how to eat, published an essay in 1989 called, “Why mow?” As he charted his own journey to planting vegetables and fruit trees, ripping up the carpet of turf, he reported a feeling of freedom. “For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarian,” he wrote. “Under the mower’s brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly.”

Where was the nature in this, he asked. Where was the sense? Today, these questions are everywhere.

Not that everyone agrees on the answers. In 2010, Vancouverite Ken Dyck complained to the city about the neighbours’ practice of farming their yard on an East Side street. He argued that the metre-high plants grown by housemates Sara St. Vincent and Ander Gates, including herbs, vegetables and berries, were spilling onto his yard and reducing his property value. (Local officials weighed in with orders to clean the place up a bit and play nice: “The city fully supports the vegetation and garden,” an inspector said. “Neighbours just need to respect one another … and work together.”)

Most of the behaviour changes that people are making are more subtle, however. Almost everyone who plants a garden these days includes a kitchen garden; the idea of growing your own food, which once had disappeared from the mainstream of North American culture, is not just acceptable but fashionable, a logical extension of the local-food movement. And many garden designers favour “xeriscapes,” or low-water gardens, with native species once mislabelled as weeds.

These developments feed off a larger theme: the reclaiming of the post-industrial city. For example, green roofs first became popular on public and commercial buildings, but now are suddenly fashionable for residences. Planted roofs are valuable for insulation and heat reflection, but aesthetically they also bring a wild presence to domesticated spheres.

In a similar spirit, perhaps the most well-loved bit of landscaping of our time is the High Line in New York, which opened just in 2009. The park is located on an elevated rail line in a formerly industrial neighbourhood, and it imitates (at great effort and expense) the overgrown state of the place when it was abandoned, with furniture, steps and bleachers that make a spectacle of the dense surrounding buildings.

“Whether you’re thinking of formal gardens in the French style or making things look natural – those are the two expectations,” said its lead designer, landscape architect James Corner. “But I think we’ve created a different genre. We’ve created something that is obviously living and dynamic but feels shaped and made.”

The High Line’s landscape reflects a bundle of ideas, aesthetic and ideological, and they are appearing in Canada as well, in public parks and gardens that use native plants for both environmental and design reasons.

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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