The Doug Counter Controlled Natural Garden:
The model for our Allbirch Oak Butterfly Pollinator Meadow in Constance Bay Village, Ottawa

Constance Bay Village, an exurban forested habitat sited on a sandhills peninsula jutting into the Ottawa River, is peripheral to the Torbolton Forest, an Ontario ANSI that dominates the habitat. (Google map Constance Bay, Ottawa: choose 'satellite' display.) The village has about 1500 dwellings and 3000 residents, living under a red oak forest canopy. The homesteads are required to 'mow grass' if neighbours do. The logic of this means everyone mows grass.

Here's one better idea: Douglas Counter's tall grass prairie garden and boulevard infiltration garden, Toronto.

"Here are four photos of my garden so you can visualize what I was fighting to protect. The native-plant memorial garden was started on Mother's Day 1997 on my front lawn and was expanded onto the city-owned boulevard in 1999. So the two sections are now 12 and 10 years old, respectively. Keep in mind when viewing the photos that my 80+ native-species wild garden is in a neighbourhood of mown lawns and the Courts have affirmed my Charter right to express my environmental beliefs through the planting of this kind of garden on the publicly-owned city boulevard (subject to still-yet-to-be-articulated height restrictions on the boulevard for safety reasons, so I use my own reasoned judgment in keeping the boulevard garden in check). The boulevard storm water infiltration garden was the portion of the garden in dispute because it's on city-owned land. The portion of my garden on private property was never in dispute thanks to Sandy Bell's court victory, which resulted in an amendment to the tall grass and weeds bylaw which provides an exemption for naturalized gardens on private land (unfortunately, the city's bylaw officers can't always recognize a natural garden when they see one, so unwarranted violation notices are still handed out from time to time and homeowners still have to assert their right to keep such a garden).

NB. Below the pix is the full story...
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Boulevard infiltration garden, early summer... Douglas's boulevard infiltration and tall grass prairie gardens, thrive in a suburban neighbourhood of mown lawns and tightly-controlled flower beds. The roadside ditch garden was planted with shorter species of native plants and sedges, including wetland species, to address potential sight-line issues for motorists and pedestrians. The ditch garden slows the flow of storm water runoff, allowing it to soak into the ground and be filtered of pollutants such as motor oil, pet waste, and chemical fertilizers, before it enters a local stream. In this early-summer view of his boulevard garden, native species such as eastern wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) add colour to a carpet of common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), native grasses such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and side-oats gramma (Bouteloua curtipendula), and sedges such as foxtail (Carex vulpinoides), Pennsylvania (Carex pennsylvanica) and mace sedge (Carex grayi). In mid-summer, brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia trilobum) and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum) come into bloom, adding a different colour palette to the ditch garden.
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Prairie garden, mid-summer... Douglas's tall grass prairie garden is at the height of colour in mid-summer (mid-July to early August). Taller species such as grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), ironweed (Vernonia altissima), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), bee balm (Monarda didyma), Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) add a slash of colour on the lawn portion of the garden, while shorter species such as butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia trilobum), and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), punctuate the ditch garden. Douglas has had countless species of songbirds, butterflies, moths, insects -- and even hawks -- visit his city garden. One two occasions, he has spotted fireflies in his garden, something that even his elderly father had never seen before in Toronto in his entire life. The first insects to make Douglas's garden home were grasshoppers, and several species of butterflies have laid their eggs on host species specifically planted for that purpose: field pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) are the larval host plant of the Painted Lady butterfly, and various milkweed species -- swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) -- are the host plant of the Monarch butterfly.
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Prairie garden, late summer... Native plant gardens are low maintenance. Douglas waters his garden about once or twice a year, but only if it's an extremely dry summer. The most work he does each year is to cut the garden down to the ground in early April -- a process that takes about two days because he uses manually-operated hedge clippers to cut the dead plant material into 4-inch pieces (he doesn't use any electric or gas-powered equipment in his garden... there's no leaf blower in this garden!). The dead plant material from the previous growing season becomes mulch for the new growing season. Thus, all nutrients remain on site and the mulch retains moisture and virtually eliminates weeding. Interestingly, the only weeds he does see on occasion are dandelions in the narrow turf pathways which weave their way through the native plantings. Otherwise, the garden is too abundant to allow common weeds to germinate and grow. This late-summer view shows cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) forming a tall privacy hedge along the edge of the lawn garden (gold finches love to eat cup plant seeds in late summer/early autumn), tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) to the right of the cup plants, and the intense red, moisture-loving cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in the ditch garden.
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Prairie garden, early autumn... The colours in a native plant garden change throughout the year, lending variety and visual interest to the landscape. Autumn brings a palette of yellows, golds and bronzes to the garden. This image shows the low-growing grey goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) in the ditch garden. Native grasses add autumn interest as well: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) turns a lovely reddish-bronze. Douglas leaves the plants standing over the winter because over-wintering birds use the fluffy seed heads as nesting material and eat the abundance of seeds the plants produce. He especially likes how lovely the garden looks covered in a light dusting of snow. You can appreciate from these photos how a native plant garden changes throughout the growing season, providing visual interest year round.
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Douglas Counter's tall grass prairie garden and boulevard infiltration garden, Toronto

Started by Douglas Counter and his nephews in 1997 in memory of Douglas's mother, Georgina, Douglas's garden contains more than 80 species of native plants and wildflowers. Douglas extended the naturalized garden onto the city-owned boulevard in 1999 as a demonstration to his community that citizens can address storm water runoff issues right in front of their own home. The garden was rededicated to both his parents upon the death of his father, Victor, in 2005.

Healing our environment, one yard at a time
by Douglas Counter.
When considering the daunting task of healing our environment, we often feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. We ask ourselves, "what can I, as an individual, do?" In addition to identifying the problem, we need simple solutions which, collectively, will create meaningful change.

Everything is connected
I grew up hearing my father's stories of growing up in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, spending every summer day swimming in Lake Ontario at his "neighbourhood" beach, Sunnyside. But for children living in Toronto today, that isn't always possible: many beaches are closed after major storms due to the toxic mix of pollution carried into the lake through storm water runoff.
Concerned about public and environmental health, many municipalities have enacted by-laws that ban the cosmetic use of lawn pesticides. But what about all the other toxins that end up in our rivers, streams, and lakes, the source of our drinking water? Chemical fertilizers, motor oil, pet waste, and other pollutants are routinely carried through storm water runoff into overburdened sewer systems, from which they enter our watercourses untreated.
In addition to reducing these pollutants at their source, there is a simple solution we can take that not only improves local water quality, but beautifies our communities and provides vital habitat for birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects. That solution is natural gardening using native plants and wildflowers. Even though we may live miles from the nearest stream, river or lake, how we tend our yards and gardens affects the quality of the water entering our local watercourses.

Cleaner water starts in our own yards
By each of us converting all or a portion of our yard from high-maintenance, chemical-dependent turf grass into natural gardens containing native species of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees, we can dramatically improve the health of our waterways. Not only do natural gardens increase biodiversity, they also eliminate the use of lawn mowers and other gas-powered lawn equipment that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
Native plants have evolved over thousands of years to take advantage of local growing conditions. Indigenous wildlife, including birds, butterflies and insects, have evolved with this vegetation and depend upon it for their survival. Native plants do not require fertilizers, gas-guzzling lawn mowers or supplemental watering. They are low in maintenance and are sustainable, both environmentally and financially.
Rather than spending time and money trying to amend our soil to grow exotic plants from the big-box garden centre, we can choose native plants suitable for existing soil, light and moisture conditions, which in turn supports local native plant growers (further reducing our environmental footprint). If a site is shady, plant a native woodland garden; if sunny and dry, plant a wildflower meadow for butterflies. Even micro-climates like the damp area at the base of a downspout can be planted with moisture-loving native plants.

Think outside the box
Boulevard and drainage ditch gardens are especially effective in redirecting storm water runoff before it has a chance to enter the sewer system. Boulevard gardens slow storm water runoff, and being more permeable than turf grass, allow it to soak into the ground where it is naturally cleaned and filtered before replenishing ground water supplies. This reduced storm water flow lessens the strain on overburdened storm sewer systems and reduces the erosion of local stream banks. Some cities, like Vancouver, have programs that actively encourage residents to adopt and plant neighbourhood boulevards. Others are in the process of developing such programs. When planting on a city boulevard public safety is important, so choose plant species which, when mature, will not interfere with pedestrian and motorist sight lines.
Until 1999, the city-owned drainage ditch in front of my suburban home was just like all the others in the neighbourhood. Carpeted with turf grass and parched to a pale shade of brown much of the summer, it was a hazard to anyone attempting to mow its steep sides with a lawn mower.
That once boring strip of cropped turf is now a verdant oasis of native plants serving a host of equally important and meaningful purposes. The wildflowers, grasses and sedges provide beauty throughout the year and provide vital habitat for countless insects, butterflies, and birds. The plants slow the flow of storm water runoff long enough that it can seep into the ground and be cleaned and filtered by that process, thus recharging the water table. This reduced peak flow reduces the erosion of local stream banks, and it lessens the strain on the city's overburdened storm sewer system. The native groundcover eliminates the use of pesticides and lawn mower - not to mention water, as virtually no supplemental watering is necessary.
When planning the ditch garden, I chose short species of plants because I was planting next to a roadway. There are now more than 40 species of native plants in the ditch garden, specifically adapted to such a site and carefully chosen to provide colour and interest throughout the growing season. Spring bloomers include field pussytoes Antennaria neglecta (larval host plant of the Painted Lady butterfly), prairie smoke Geum triflorum, wild strawberry Fragaria virginiana, golden alexanders Zizia aureais and common cinquefoil Potentilla simplex. Early summer brings the cool hues of blue flag iris Iris versicolor, hairy beardtongue Penstemon hirsutus, and nodding wild onion Allium cernuum. This exquisite blue palette is complemented by the intense orange of butterfly milkweed Asclepias tuberosa, one of the host milkweeds of the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. Later in the summer, the intense red of cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis punctuates the ditch garden, and fall brings the yellow glow of the low-growing grey goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis).
A number of sedges provide a continuous carpet of green: Pennsylvania sedge Carex pennsylvanica, foxtail sedge Carex vulpinoides, and the fascinating mace sedge Carex grayi, whose seed head resembles a mace, the medieval war club. On the drier slope near the sidewalk, I chose two of the shorter native grasses, side-oats grama Bouteloua curtipendula and little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium. Nothing can outdo the roots of native grasses for both holding the soil against erosion and for creating a spongy top-soil that encourages the effective infiltration of rain water. I planted some taller species at the base of the ditch - swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata, great blue lobelia Lobelia siphilitica, and ironweed Vernonia altissima. As autumn approaches, the colours of the grasses and wildflowers turn to warm bronzes and golds - a spectacular season finale.
Before my property was planted with native wildflowers, it was a barren, unnoticed patch of turf. Just like the thousands of other patches of lawn in a monotonous urban landscape. But since the creation of my tall grass prairie garden, it has become an oasis visited both by butterflies on their annual migrations and neighbours on their evening strolls. It has linked the natural world to my community of neighbours. I've had countless species of insects, butterflies, moths, bees, and songbirds -- even birds of prey -- visit my garden. The first insects to make my city garden home were grasshoppers, and I've even had fireflies on a couple of occasions. At the time of the first firefly sighting, my father, 75-years-old at the time, had never seen fireflies in Toronto before in his entire life. It's true: if you build it, they will come.

Tending the earth
Naturalized gardening is a relaxing and environmentally responsible pursuit. I don't use any electric or gas-powered equipment in my garden, so I'm not contributing to harmful carbon emissions. Native plant gardens are low maintenance, requiring no fertilizers, chemicals or pesticides, and minimal, if any, watering. I water my garden about once or twice a year, but only if it's an extremely dry summer. Apart from that, my maintenance routine consists of staking plants so they don't lean into the public sidewalk, and mulching the entire garden down to the ground in early April (a process that takes about two days because I use manually-operated hedge clippers to cut the dead plant material into 4-inch pieces). The dead plant material from the previous growing season becomes mulch for the new growing season. Thus, all nutrients remain on site and the mulch retains moisture and virtually eliminates weeding. Interestingly, the only weeds I do get are a few dandelions in the narrow turf pathways which weave their way through the native plantings. Otherwise, the garden is too dense to allow common weeds to germinate and grow. I leave the plants standing over the winter because over-wintering birds use the fluffy seed heads as nesting material and eat any remaining seeds. The garden looks lovely covered in a light dusting of snow. Native gardens are ever changing, with different plants coming into bloom and going to seed at different times of the growing season.

The courts weigh in
A three-year battle against the City of Toronto, initiated by one neighbour's complaints to the City about my boulevard garden, ended up in court, where my father and I were successful in affirming the right of citizens to express their pro-environmental beliefs on the public boulevard in front of their homes, with the only limit on that right being legitimate safety issues. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that my native plant boulevard garden was protected by the freedom of expression clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld that decision. It's the first time a court in Canada has recognized that citizens have a protected right to express pro-environmental values on public land. This is an important step forward in allowing responsible citizens to take stewardship of the land. Noteworthy is the Court's recognition of the "enormous environmental significance" of natural gardens, and the "tremendous spiritual significance" the memorial garden holds for me and my family.