From: Julie Gordon, Reuters
Published November 1, 2007 08:58 PM

Organic gardens take root in Canada

TORONTO (Reuters) - As climate change makes longer, drier summers a reality in many parts of the world, a new trend in landscaping is taking root in Canada.

In Toronto, where precipitation levels were 52 percent below the seasonal average over the past six months, according to government data, residents are trading in their manicured lawns for environmentally friendly organic landscapes.

"Irrigation is a huge issue as water is such a valuable resource," said Claire Suo-Cockerton of landscaping company Aesthetic Earthworks. "We are trying to plant material that is more appropriate today in our climate."

Organic landscapers use drought resistant plants and shrubs native to the region, which encourage the development micro-organisms in the soil. This attracts birds and insects to act as natural pest and disease control.

A well-managed organic landscape is self-sustaining, whereas a traditional yard needs to be watered at least once per week, Suo-Cockerton said.

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"It's a drastic lifestyle change for those who incorporate it in their homes," she added.

But the change may be a bit too drastic for average homeowner.

Kevin MacDonald, operations manager of Humber Nurseries near Toronto, said he hasn't seen an increase in the sale of native plants and shrubs. He said the downside to native plants is they are more susceptible to native insects.

"By planting a cultivated variety, that is non-native, you may not end up with diseases and insect problems, simply because the diseases and insects that would traditionally attack that plant are not found in the new location," he said.

Still, the main reason why traditional gardens remain popular may be purely aesthetic.

"In most cases homeowners will have a preference for what looks best," MacDonald said.

While the bare shrubs and woodchips of an organic landscape don't quite have the curb appeal of an ornamental garden, commercial and residential buildings looking to go green are picking up on the trend.

"From a developer's standpoint it's a great marketing tool because people are becoming very conscious of the environment," said Melissa Ferrato of the Canada Green Building Council (CGBG).

The CGBG uses the leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED) standard developed in the United States to measure the "green factor" of a building. Avoiding pesticides, lawnmowers and leafblowers all reduce a building's carbon footprint, contributing to a higher LEED score.

"Native, organic plants is what we're all about," said Ferrato. "We really discourage the use of manicured lawns and pesticides."

While organic landscaping is only now gaining popularity in the private sector, it has long been used by city parks departments.

"We've been moving away from traditional lawns for many years now," said Patricia Landry a liaison officer at the Toronto parks department. "We are using plants able to withstand drought, pollution and the changing climate."

Organic landscaping makes economic sense for urban municipalities, Landry said. Less money is spent on labor and irrigation. And reintroducing native plants provides habitat for birds and small animals.

While efforts to convert Toronto's ornamental flowerbeds to organic gardens were met with public opposition, some of the cultivated annuals were swapped with native plants.

"It's about trying to keep a balance," said Landry. "Finding different ways to keep those areas a little more environmentally friendly."

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