Garden Views: Celebrating the gardens of the Beach for more than 20 years

Mary Fran McQuade’s first Garden Views column in Beach Metro News from September of 1999. Inset photo: : Native plants like this wild aster have replaced the usual annual and perennial flowers over the years.

By MARY FRAN McQUADE

Other people here have told you about the past 50 years of this unique, community-based paper. I’ve been writing about gardening here for 20 years or so. (I started when I was just 10 years old, you know.)

The basics of gardening seem pretty ageless: buy seeds and plants, put them in the ground, water them, then stand back and admire the results.

But, like fashion, gardening styles change over time. We don’t go in for extreme trends like huge, stiff pleated skirts, but we do discover new interests in the wide world of gardening.

Green lawns and pink petunias

When I first started roaming the streets looking at gardens, most of them were pretty much the same. Nearly everyone had a lawn, and we woke up on weekends to the lovely scent of new-mown grass.

Every Victoria Day weekend, garden centres were jammed with people towing carts full of bright annuals like impatiens, marigolds, snapdragons and fluffy pink petunias. It was a fun, exciting ritual, but it was also a whole lot of work getting all those plants in the ground year after year.

Gradually, though, Beachers figured out that our shady, sandy neighbourhood is a terrible place to try to grow lawn grass. Toronto’s hot, sticky summers didn’t help, either.

As one gardener told me back then, you could add truckloads of peat moss and gallons of water, but it didn’t make anything better. So lawns slowly disappeared from the landscape.

And right around the same time, perennials appeared on the scene.

What a revelation – flowers that you don’t have to plant every year!

Peonies, hydrangeas, Shasta daisies and dazzling clematis started showing up in front yards. Foliage plants like cotoneasters, periwinkle and interesting evergreens joined the scene. Big, splashy hybrid tea roses gave way to looser, less structured species like shrub roses that covered themselves with multi-petalled blooms.

Back to nature

One wonderful change that went along with these garden trends was that many gardeners decided that they didn’t want to spread poisons outdoors anymore.

Stinky sprays, choking dusts and scary signs warning people to stay out of the yard for x-number of days were tossed out. The province even made it illegal to use these concoctions except under special conditions. Good riddance to chemical warfare in our garden.

And now, people are going beyond the usual garden flowers and foliage plants. Many gardeners are rooting them out and replacing them with mini-meadows of native plants like milkweed, Aquilegia/columbine, monarda and my favourite, black-eyed susans.

It makes sense, they say, to grow the plants that evolved to cope with conditions here. Even more important, these are plants designed by nature to support our native bees, insects and birds.

Heated arguments can pop up between those who can’t do without delphiniums and others who see them as a threat to the planet. I’m hopeful that a middle ground can be found.

Ever since COVID-19 reared its ugly head, veggie gardens have taken off like food-fuelled rockets.

In the past, many people were devoted to their tomato, squash and bean patches. But today, sunny backyards and even front yards are filling up with kale, lettuce, beets, spinach, garlic and all kinds of herbs.

See how many you can spot in your walks around our side streets. Look, but don’t touch, please. Every veggie represents someone’s long, hard hours of work.

Some clouds on the horizon

In general, it has been a great time to be a gardening writer. New horizons are opening up all the time. But I have noticed some disturbing changes taking place, too.

Modest two-storey houses are disappearing, replaced by two giant new houses into the same space. Parking pads are covering previously open ground. I wonder if this “progress” won’t end up creating problems. Will all that run-off rain water flood our storm sewers and our lake?

With nowhere else to go, will the increased run-off stress our water purification facilities, instead of returning to the ground and continuing its slow and natural cycle of reuse?

Our formerly sleepy small-town neighbourhood has become a hot property, which still feels a little odd, though also exciting, to me.

I do wish I didn’t hear the snarl of chainsaws as often as I do. Toronto has a tree protection bylaw, but it’s not much help after a lovely large tree is cut down without a permit.

But overall, we’ve all made amazing progress since I began writing this column.

Even kids are learning to enjoy veggies fresh from their home gardens now. It’s not bugs stripping basil leaves and nibbling the tomatoes – it’s small humans doing that.

It’s a good time to be a gardener.


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