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It’s harder than it seems to be a responsible steward of the land, when high-minded theory turns to spades in the ground. So what’s a simple gardener to do? Liz Primeau explores the question

Jenny Liz Rome

Liz Primeau’s books include Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass, My Natural History and In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb. She is also the founding editor of Canadian Gardening magazine and the former host of Canadian Gardening Television.

Now that spring has finally crept over the windowsill, my garden is lifting my spirits again. The daffodils in the front garden, which I started 27 years ago, when all my neighbours complied with an unwritten rule that every house have a perfect lawn, are starting to fade, but hundreds of tulips are showing pink, red, yellow, orange, purple – almost a rainbow. The pink and mauve rhododendrons are pregnant with buds. Large patches of moss phlox and aubretia are breaking open in blue and purple beside the gravel path that curves through the plantings. The air smells fresh, green and sweet, and slightly heavy with the perfume of dying hyacinth blooms. Beside the house, the wisteria on the arbour is sprouting green leaves, and the spring ephemerals – mayapple, Solomon’s seal and trilliums – are maturing.

In the backyard, cooler and a little shadier, there’s nary a blade of grass. It’s older than the front and in spring is many shades of luscious green because it’s mainly a summertime garden and its bloom comes later – sweet white phlox, native plants such as echinacea, bee balm and snakeroot, plus stately yucca, hydrangea bushes, volunteer plants such as orange poppies and blue forget-me-nots and … well, my husband says it’s a jungle, and the cats agree. So do the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies that visit, plus squirrels, raccoons, a few skunks and a lot of birds. I think they like it in the back because it’s safer – no cars going by. The little fish in the pond at the end of the path aren’t aware of the traffic and add to the promise of spring by excitedly darting about, ready to fulfill their biological destiny; in summer they’re fatter and lazier, and lurk in the underwater plants, waiting for my husband to come down and toss in a treat.

The veggie peelings and eggshells, leaves and weeds in the two big wooden composters under an arbour near the pond have decayed nicely and the contents have thawed enough to be spread over the garden. It doesn’t smell quite as deeply earthy as the manure pile on my uncle’s farm, whose sweet yet raunchy odour I loved as a teenager. My uncle, who I helped in his garden and who became my garden mentor, teased me about it and called it my Eau de Merde. But once I was married and had my own garden, he happily loaded bushels of Eau de Merde into the trunk of the car so I could take it back to the city. The neighbours thought I was nuts, but it was the best compost in the world.

I’m acutely aware of how weather and insects and animals affect my little plot, and how important a good balance of nature is to any garden’s success. Long ago, I learned that I need the ladybugs that eat the aphids that dine on the roses, and that worms keep the earth aerated even though they make unsightly bumps in the lawn.

As a gardener, I know that every organism lives on this planet with us, not for us, and I respect that, but it doesn’t mean I always practise what I preach. I’ll wager that most gardeners are the same – they think we make the right ethical choices because we’re stewards of the land, working with nature to make the world more beautiful. But maybe we could do more. Because, when the spade hits the earth, what is an ethical gardener, anyway?

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As someone whose life and livelihood have intersected with the natural world, I am, perhaps more than others, worried about the state of our planet – the one my grandchildren, and their children, will inherit. It seems like every day I read another story about forest fires and floods, hurricanes and typhoons. My son lives in California, and he’s described to me how the fires burn out the vegetation, and then rains wash rocks down the mountainside, threatening everything in their path and leaving a barren landscape. Last week, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) reported that three-quarters of the land on Earth (not to mention two-thirds of our water) has been altered by humans, and a million plant and animal species face extinction in the coming decades. Is it any wonder I’m in a state of despair?

Humans are not dinosaurs. A meteor hasn’t struck the planet and changed our climate. We’re sentient beings who have been warned, for decades, that we have to do something or we’ll die. Maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

So what can a simple gardener do?

Years ago, I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and learned how monocultures such as big potato or canola farms, or even large expanses of lawn, create dysfunctional environments. They attract only the insects who like to eat that crop, and the others stay away in droves. Later I observed this in my own front yard, which was one big lawn. It was nice enough, but there were no crickets to greet me when I walked around from my floriferous back garden, which I’d been cultivating for years; no bees buzzing; no butterflies flitting. Even the cats ignored it, preferring to doze in the warm earth under the shrubs in the back.

I really wanted to get rid of this no-man's land, but my husband claimed he did his best thinking when mowing it on Sunday mornings. Then, to my good fortune, thousands of white grubs invaded and ate most of it. The "organic" lawn company we called said the only solution was a liberal dose of malathion, which would also kill every nematode and arthropod in the soil, and maybe us.

And so the front lawn became a garden, too – and we got rid of the power mower, an advantage for many reasons, not just because my Sunday mornings became a little quieter. In a couple of years, we took out the asphalt driveway and put in cobblestone. We did this mainly because I liked its cottagey look, but then I realized we’d put in an ecologically friendly, permeable surface.

My new front garden was a traffic-stopper as well as a conversation piece where I got to expound on my conversion to biodiversity to any passerby who would listen.

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Illustration by Jenny Liz Rome

Ethical gardening means looking beyond your own backyard. It involves not our private property, but our shared spaces – and those spaces we seldom think about. Here’s an example: In the eighties, when I took the GO train home from a job in downtown Toronto, the sloping embankment on the railway line leading west was a jumbled but pretty space filled with goldenrod and asters and other wildlings, plus garden escapees and garbage such as food wrappers, whose contents, I imagined, broke down into usable compost. I used to feast my eyes on that embankment and never let myself fall asleep until we were past it. But I’d overhear comments from my fellow passengers, such as: “Look at that mess. When is somebody going to clean it up and plant some grass?”

I wanted to challenge them: Yes, it could stand some garbage removal, but it could be a truly natural garden that brought bees and butterflies and birds. But they got their wish. It wasn’t long before that plot became a sterile parade of company logos planted in boxwood and surrounded by grass.

Or how about this: Every time I fly into Pearson International Airport, I look with dismay at the acres of flat roofs below. These could all be green roofs, growing veggies or simply making green getaway spots for the workers at the same time as they cool the interiors in summer and insulate them in winter. Some eco-friendly businesses have green roofs that do this and more: They recycle rainwater for non-potable use in the building. The Royal York Hotel in Toronto has a green roof where the chef grows vegetables and raises bees. It’s not surprising to learn many European countries are away ahead of us: In some parts of Germany, green roofs are the law, and subsidies are available for people who want to make a green roof. This is true in Chicago, as well. Why don’t we do that here?

We need more citizens with dedication to follow through on ideas such as these, and that includes me. For a long time, I’ve looked with longing at the huge expanses of grass on a highway cloverleaf near me. How about putting in allotment gardens? I’d rent one, because my garden is filled with other plants. I suggested this to my local councillor once, and he allowed that it might be a good idea, but who would organize it? Another time, I persuaded someone at Mississauga City Hall to put in some native plants on a narrow strip of land near where I live between the highway sound barrier and the service road. For one summer, we had a small bed of wild roses and three native sugar maple trees on that strip, until an overly zealous groundskeeper whipper-snippered them down.

Unfortunately, I let it go. Nor did I do anything about the failure of a hydro right-of-way native planting that was petitioned for by a committee of neighbours, including me, but was scuppered by a vociferous group of NIMBYs. They said the “weeds” that would be planted – in other words, the shrubs and native plants – would irritate residents’ allergies or even hide lurking thieves. They didn’t care to hear that using native shrubs and trees or sun-loving wildflowers would not only make this mowed-clean corridor more attractive, it would take a giant leap toward biodiversity, attracting more birds and bees and a variety of insects. The project had the co-operation of the landscape department of the hydro company, but the complainers wore them down.

Weeds are an interesting subject. Gardeners, after all, know there is no plant category officially named weeds. Lawn lovers hate clover for reasons that escape me. Just because it’s not grass? Frankly, I think clover is underrated: It grows low and flat, like turf, but you can mow it if you must, and unlike grass, it stays green all summer without gallons of water. Its insignificant white flowers sweetly scent the summer evening air. Clover is also environmentally friendly: Because it’s a legume and has a symbiotic relationship with micro-organisms in the soil, it can utilize the nitrogen in the atmosphere and doesn’t need fertilizer. That’s why farmers sometimes use it a cover crop to be plowed into the soil.

We don’t appreciate a lot of plants we consider weeds: Every spring, freshly harvested dandelion greens show up on my greengrocer’s shelf. A whole hillside of dandelion flowers can look spectacular, although they’d take over the world if they could. A friend of mine is of the opinion that some biologist is missing a big opportunity with dandelions: Hybridize and promote them properly, she says, and they could become the next big border perennial. Purslane, or portulaca, is listed by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs as a weed, but it’s long been considered a food by other cultures. I know a couple of gardeners who sauté it in butter for supper, or toss it in a salad.

We also must reconsider the wholesale spraying of what we think of as invasive weeds. For example, eradicating milkweed along highways has had a nasty effect on the monarch butterfly population, which lays its eggs on that plant.

And here’s where my superior attitude about being an ethical gardener raises a dilemma. I’ve been known to go to great lengths to eradicate the pretty but invasive blue campanula that’s taking over my garden, painstakingly painting the leaves with glyphosate to kill it. It takes hours and results in more hours of back pain, and usually the campanula gets back at me by regrowing. Glyphosate may seem like a less troublesome weed killer than most, but the World Health Organization has strongly suggested it may be a carcinogen, and since 2018 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been studying it for potential health risks. I think peaceful co-existence might be the route to take with this little devil, digging it out where it becomes too troublesome. Either way, it’s going to result in a backache.

I’ve used worse pest killers than glyphosate. The day I discovered a huge and frighteningly ugly tomato hornworm decimating my tomato plants, I got out the Raid. The beast started to writhe in distress, shaking the plant back and forth. I was horrified, but the Raid didn’t kill it. I screamed for my husband to bring the shovel. He did, and smashed that beast dead and bleeding green goo all over the pathway. I felt terrible: What right did I have to kill this poor thing, even though it scared the daylights out of me? He was just trying to survive so he could evolve into the large and beautiful sphinx moth he would have become, pollinating all kinds of plants for miles around.

A more serious ethical issue might be this: In my quest for special plants for my garden, I have been buying from a nursery in Beamsville, Ont. I drive down there, pick out the plants I want and then have the nursery deliver them. That’s two return trips to Niagara. What kind of carbon footprint is that? Am I willing to give up unusual plants for more common ones available closer to home?

Considering what our species is facing, the answer to this has to be yes. Yes, also, to learning to live with insects and the plants we consider weeds. It’s time that gardeners realize deep in their guts that humans are occupants of the world, not the rulers of it. It’s time that all gardening choices must be ethical.

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In recent years, I’ve developed a weird feeling about my garden that goes beyond thinking of it as a canvas for my creative instincts, where I can try to grow a meadow or design a Sissinghurst-style white garden (neither worked, for what it’s worth). It’s become more than a haven where I can have a wee cry or a serious weep when something awful happens. It’s not just a place to smell nature and calm my anxieties, or enjoy happy hour with friends. It’s been all those things to me, as well as a workout room where I’ve raised a lot of sweat. But it’s become a friend, or, more to the point, a community of friends I respect for what they do for my landscape. Maybe not so much the Japanese beetle, who I encourage to drown by offering a pail of water, or the red lily beetle, which suffers a fate I won’t describe if I see them. I don’t see much of them any more because they’ve killed the lilies. I do love the earthworms and feel terrible if I mistakenly slice one in two with my trowel. But not everyone can be your friend.

People look askance when I talk like this, and especially when I describe as beautiful the resident skunk, who lives under our neighbour’s deck. But he is beautiful, with a huge plume of a fluffy tail that he hasn’t so far raised. All of us give him plenty of space, but he’s a shy guy and avoids us, too.

I‘m often angry with the squirrels, who consider a certain tiny bit of tender green stem just behind the tulip flower to be the tastiest part and aren’t against biting off the flower to get it. I yell and throw stones at them for this, but they just stare at me insolently. Then I chase them, but they’re faster than me and, I suspect, smarter. Certainly the raccoons are – if they had an opposable thumb, I suspect they could rule the world.

The point is, I like these creatures. Nature is in my blood, and no matter how weird my feelings may seem about the wildlife kingdom in my backyard they may be perfectly normal. There’s a name for it, if you can believe it: biophilia, coined by Erich Fromm to describe the connections humans subconsciously seek with other life forms. I thought my connection to gardening came from being descended from generations of farmers.

Yes, of course, I had to be an ethical gardener, someone who respects insects and animals for what they do to maintain nature’s natural cycles, and practises diversity in her own garden. Someone who conserves and recycles in ways her grandfather and uncles, all farmers, did.

But deep down, I know that we need more than a loose connection of gardeners to save the world. We need to be united in our awareness and our quest.

My son just spent a week here at home and told me that those barren mountainsides near him in California are growing back. They look absolutely beautiful covered with bright new green growth, he said. It made me think of how nature survives somehow, some way, just maybe in a different guise. It may have taken eons, but the climate change that killed off the dinosaurs eventually introduced other species, including us. We may now be heading down a similar path, but we’ve been well warned. We’ve been given a map. Do we have the sense to use it?

As I write this, it’s afternoon, one of the first beautiful days of the spring. Outside I can hear the birds chirping as they vie for places at our feeder, and the scent of the trees and the early blooms is wafting through the window, luring me. I think I’m going to turn off my computer and go outside.

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