Organic and native gardening

“Whoever loves and understands a garden will find contentment within.” ~ Chinese Proverb

Thirteen per cent of Toronto’s land area is public parkland. We East Enders have our fair share, plus we can enjoy the sights of many beautiful front yards and retreat into our private back garden oases.

Whether you are an avid or budding gardener, there are some things to keep in mind for an environmentally sound garden – one that is organic, native, draught-resistant, and toxin-free.


The ground beneath our feet is not simply ‘dirt’ – it grows our foods and plants and is home to billions of living organisms. From worms and arachnids to fungi and bacteria, the soil is teeming with life that keeps it aerated and nutrient-rich. Threats to soil are contamination, salinization (high salt content from calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfate), erosion, and compaction, all of which can compromise or destroy the tiny organisms’ habitat. When soil biodiversity declines, both in quantity and variety, so does its health. And when the soil suffers, the plants suffer.

To keep your plants happy, add organic nutrients to the soil. Turn in some compost (decomposed organic matter like your kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, full of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), compost tea (the ‘juice’ from the bottom of your compost bin or a brew you can make with fully decomposed compost) or manure (high in nitrogen, sold under my favourite moniker “moo poo” or sheep poo).

Any kind of compost works well for flowers and shrubs, whereas for a food garden or vegetable container growing you may want to go organic, as anything made from animal waste can contain contaminants, like hormones, antibiotics, or E. coli (note compost from Toronto’s non-organic green bins is allowed to contain meat scraps, dog poop, diapers, and more).

To protect your soil, apply a layer of mulch on top, made from straw, shredded leaves or wood chips. It helps suppress weeds, retain moisture, insulate the soil, and reduce soil erosion.


If you’re tired of watering and mowing your lawn all the time, there is a solution other than replacing it with a wooden deck or a hard landscape. Eco Lawn is a hybrid of seven types of grass seeds. It produces a deeper root system, making it more drought-tolerant, requiring less watering and fertilizing, and it can be left to grow longer (less mowing!) to produce a carpet of fine grass. It’s sold at Home Hardware, Evergreen Garden Market, Bill’s Garden Centre and some nurseries.

You can also just keep the grass longer – that gives it a better chance to fight ‘sunburn’ – and give it only weekly deep soaks to encourage deeper root growth for better drought resistance.


Better than lawn, a garden that includes flower beds provides a habitat and food sources for more creatures. You can choose from a plethora of flowering plants, shrubs, and blossoming trees.

Native plants are best. They have adapted to local climate and temperatures, light and soil conditions, and our short growing seasons, making them more resilient to drought, poor soil, and native pests. Many flowers and blooms are even edible, like pansies, passion flower, rose petals, lavender, and lamb’s ears, and look and taste good in salads or as decoration.

Consult a garden centre, the Beach Garden and Horticultural Society, or websites like the North American Native Plant Society for details on what to plant and how to care for it.

Anything with blooms, fruits, or seeds will support our vibrant bird and butterfly population and offer important pollinators landing and feeding spots. Many native plants provide rare habitat for shrinking or even endangered species, the way milkweed is essential to help Monarch butterflies survive. The David Suzuki Foundation is currently pushing its “Got Milkweed?” campaign to encourage more planting and protection of these vital plants.

Fruits and vegetables

For those who like home-grown bounties, there is nothing more exciting than herbs and vegetables sprouting, unfurling leaf after tiny leaf, and growing into something edible. Organic and heirloom seeds are affordable and easy to find in garden centres and some health food or eco stores, like the Big Carrot and Grassroots.

These can help avoid genetically modified organisms and offer vegetables with the genetic, hardy makeup they started out with. They are old-time varieties, open-pollinated (instead of hybrids like the Eco Lawn seeds mentioned earlier), saved from each year’s harvest, and can be passed down through generations. Some say heirloom fruits and vegetables are far more flavourful, and I would have to agree.

A word on fertilizers and pesticides

Nobody likes spider mites, nematodes or slugs ruining the fruits of their garden labour. These pesky creatures can stunt or destroy backyard harvests and blooms, and are hard to get rid of. Equally pesky (but edible!) are dandelions, and other weeds that spoil your immaculate lawn.

Cosmetic pesticides were banned by the Government of Ontario in 2009 because of their high toxicity not only to the pests but also to yourself, your pets, birds, and butterflies. Organic alternatives, such as insecticidal soap, garlic or vinegar spray are not always effective, as evidenced by the carpets of dandelions now over-running city parks, and yet they are the right way to go.

For plants and vegetables, companion planting helps manage many insect pests. Certain plants and flowers emit scents that little critters just hate. Just like squirrels don’t touch daffodils, insects cannot stand marigolds, so plant those beside tomatoes. Tomatoes and celery repel cabbage worms, chives deter aphids, and Japanese beetles, garlic or garlic oil spray deters onion flies, aphids, and some moths.

If after all these do’s and dont’s your head is about to explode, go and enjoy one of Toronto’s annual garden tours. These self-guided tours allow a glimpse into gorgeous small and large private gardens. Look up for details on the annual Hidden Gardens and Private Spaces in Cabbagetown (unfortunately just passed on June 7), The Magical Gardens of Leaside (June 20), and others in the GTA.

Now I know what I’m doing the June 20 weekend!


Martina Rowley is an environmental communicator  ~  ~  647-208-1810

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Thank you to Virginia for her phone call and inquiry on how to get rid of “cutworms” or cutting worms she had in her soil, and which were chomping at her plants!

I didn’t have an answer initially, so I researched it for her. Firstly, cutworms are in fact the larvae of a number of species of moths. Eggs that hatch in the fall can produce larvae capable of overwintering in the soil. They do most damage early in the gardening season, tend to feed at night, and eat plants at the stems. Some pesticide free solutions:
– Make plant collars from cardboard or plastic yoghurt cups, place them around the plant stem
– Hand pick them at night
– Sprinkle used coffee grounds or egg shells around your plants
– Sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the plant stems. Buy it at home hardware store or maybe garden centre

Good luck!

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