Garden Clippings for October 21, 2023

Monday’s City of Sarnia Council meeting was the usual fare of what is normally covered at a City Council meeting: approval of the agenda, discussion on the Official Plan, approval in principle on a proposed apartment building, a few mundane approvals, and presentations by a few delegations.

My friend Mike Smalls, retired Landscape Designer and landscaper, and tireless advocate for restoration of natural spaces, was given ten minutes to share his passion for improved biodiversity in urban areas.  Mike carefully articulated how the City could take steps to transform many underused City owned spaces into naturalized areas that would provide better homes for birds, insects, mammals and of course, human beings.

Mike was the right person to share his vision to members of City Council.  Mike has spent most of his adult life creating landscapes for his clients.  He didn’t come off as a fanatic or know-it-all.  He didn’t advocate that we neglect all our parkland to let nature take its course.  Rather, he suggested that respecting and improving biodiversity is a process that we should all strive for.

One of the first slides Mike presented was a definition:  “Naturalization is a process of ecological restoration that involves returning an altered or degraded site to a more natural condition through the use of trees, shrubs and flowers that are native to the area.”

Perhaps the key word in the definition above is “more.”  We know that as long as we have human beings, we need airports, shopping malls, driveways, football fields and swimming pools.  Truth is that we don’t need these amenities, but our income levels and lifestyles lead us to believe that we need them.  Ditto for highways, farmland, and bungalows.

Mike also acknowledged that two of the City’s new areas of grassland, specifically the entrance of Mike Weir Park and the Berger Rd boulevard are not shining models of success.  He sympathized with those who believe those areas are unkept eyesores, and suggested that with proper attention and maintenance, naturalized areas could indeed be appreciated.

Allowing nature to take its toll has its challenges.  We tend to admire the neat and tidy over an informal hodgepodge.  And we want clean parklands where kids can throw baseballs without fear of ticks and poison ivy.

A widely held misconception is the belief that naturalized areas are the same as neglected areas, and all we need to do to encourage the return of nature is ignore a space and eventually it will be filled with a perfect blend of native trees and wildflowers.  Not so.

Establishing healthy naturalized areas takes a lot of effort and will require a paradigm shift in our normal habits of groundskeeping.  We are very good at cutting grass and we admire a freshly cut lawn adjacent to a weed free garden.  Case in point is my own landscape.  Cutting the grass in our front and backyard is most gratifying.  But the back half of our deep lot, which is allowed to live on as grassland, has become a source of frustration, with invasive weeds winning the battle.

Naturalizing altered or degraded sites to a more natural condition makes good sense.  The City has already designated some areas of underused parkland and planted a variety of trees.  But we could do more.  We all know that forests are healthier environments than cities, and transforming even tiny areas in our urban settings is a step in the right direction.  In our own backyards, school yards, church properties and subdivisions we could devote sections to naturalize and in turn, improve biodiversity.