Sustainable gardening incorporates native wildflowers, grasses, ferns, vines, shrubs and trees that were here before settlers arrived with seeds from their countries of origin. Birds, bees and other pollinators generally prefer native plants that ‘fit’ in our local ecosystem.  Native plants and trees support a healthier, quieter cleaner environment and support Toronto’s Sustainability Strategies.


Gardening with plants native to your area has many advantages. They are adapted to the local climate and generally require less care and watering. They are also adapted to local insects and soils and don’t need fertilizers and pesticides. Native plants provide seeds and berries for birds and nectar and pollen for beneficial insects, like bees and butterflies.

The Best Native Plants for Toronto Gardens: Report from the Director, Environment and Energy on Pollinator Protection Strategy (March 21, 2018)


Compared to lawns, most native species of plants and trees are more resistant to disease and inclement weather, and thrive naturally in our environment. Compared to non-native species, native plants and trees are typically easier to maintain and contribute to local biodiversity. It is important to select native plants and trees that match the light and moisture conditions of your site.  Native plants and trees produce a variety of seeds, nectar, and fruit for creatures to use.

Lawns are a monoculture. Often highly-maintained lawns are net carbon emitters when they use chemical fertilizers, gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and leaf blowers.

How Trees Benefit Canadians

By absorbing and storing carbon, forests play a key role in the carbon cycle – the constant movement of carbon from the land and water to the atmosphere and living organisms. This cycle helps maintain the global carbon balance. In addition, forests can help moderate climate change by absorbing carbon emitted by human activities such as burning fossil fuels. Trees in cities and other urban areas also help improve air and water quality and reduce surface and air temperatures.

How do forests benefit Canadians? Government of Canada


Native plants are better for native birds than introduced flora. More specifically, because these trees and shrubs have evolved with the local wildlife, they harbor more insects or yield more berries and fruit than non-native plants, providing greater amounts of food for certain critters.

New Research Further Proves Native Plants Offer More Bugs for Birds National, Audubon Society

Local Native Plants and Pollinators


Easy-to-grow plants:

Start with easy to grow plants like bee balm, black-eyed Susan, butterfly milkweed, evening primrose, prairie smoke, wild geranium or one of the wild roses. These will grow almost anywhere except in full shade.

For shady areas, try Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, false Solomon’s seal, foamflower, mayapple and wild ginger. Native ferns and some sedges are great too.

Native trees:

Small native trees for city gardens include Canada plum, pin cherry and pagoda (or alternate-leaf) dogwood. Shrubs include red osier dogwood, nannyberry and serviceberry.

You Can Do It!:

In any garden, even among your non-natives, dig up or solarize some lawn and or shrink hard surfacing and create a new native plant bed. Look for any space where there is an opportunity to locate native plants – in containers on your balcony or patio. Take care that the plants chosen suit the selected location’s conditions: light, moisture and soil type. Leave your grass clippings and twigs in the flower bed to deter weeds, help retain soil moisture and reduce watering needs.

Local Native Plants and Pollinators


Transition your conventional landscape to native plants that attract pollinators.

Create pollinator habitat by letting twigs, grass clippings and leaves remain in flower beds to decompose into nutrient rich compost. This protects beneficial insects living on the ground or below it. There is no need to blow leaves out of flower beds. The hot exhaust and GHG emissions from leaf blowers, blasted at 200 mph, kills beneficial insects, removes valuable organic matter, and disturbs wildlife.

For information on leaf blower and mechanized garden equipment, see LPRO Newsletter July 8/20 (Leaf Blowers, Pollution, and COVID-19).

Local Native Plants and Pollinators


Most commercial garden centers sell non-native plants that attract many fewer pollinators than native ones. Although most commercial nurseries have historically carried very few native plants, this is changing. WWF-Canada has partnered with Loblaws to source native plants for their garden centres across southern Ontario.

Visit the North American Native Plant Society (NANPS)’s website for native plant growers selling plants and to participate in the Seed-Ex seed exchange. NANPS has 3 native plant sales annually at the Toronto Botanical Garden, Christie Pits and Riverwood Conservancy.


Why do lawns enjoy such widespread popularity? Although they demand constant maintenance to look their best, they attract neither butterflies, birds, nor other wildlife nor do they provide food.

Lawns originated in the Middle Ages, when French and English aristocrats began tending carefully cropped patches of grass at their castle entrances.

According to Yuval Harari in his book Homo Deus, “You could even assess a nobleman’s wealth by looking at his lawn: if a lawn was massive and well kept, it indicated a powerful family…. If …in bad shape, the nobleman was probably broke.”

Feudal barons used lawns for sports and cut down trees around their castles so intruders were easier to see. These lawns evolved into Turfgrass “greens” for tennis & croquet courts and putting greens. The elite raised livestock on vast grasslands, maintained by servants. Only a few could afford to hire people to scythe and weed their grass. By mid-17th century England, only rich landowners had lawns that were a monoculture of short, manicured grass.

Wealthy North American settlers modeled their estates’ landscapes on the manor lawns of British aristocracy, bestowing an image of wealth and power since a team of servants was necessary to maintain these extensive lawns.

North American lawn history was also heavily impacted by settlement agriculture which first required clearing vast amounts of forests for farms and, later, destroyed the perennial, diverse eco-systems of the vast grasslands. By 1890, mass-produced push mowers made lawns affordable to the general public and lawns became middle-class status symbols. Joseph Lessler of Buffalo patented the underground sprinkler in 1871, making lawn care easier. Today, intense industry marketing reinforces widespread public embrace of lawns.


Fake grass is sometimes touted as the panacea for a perfect lawn that needs no watering nor mowing. Fake grass, however, is not environmentally sound. The environmental drawbacks of fake grass are outlined in Toronto Public Health’s 2015 Report, Health Impact Assessment of the Use of Artificial Turf in Toronto.

Issues with fake grass include:
  1. most synthetic lawns are made with non-renewable petroleum
  2. insects and birds are deprived of beneficial habitat
  3. it does not absorb carbon dioxide and does not release oxygen to perform photosynthesis
  4. natural rainwater is prevented from flowing naturally to trees and plants
  5. heat emanates to the surroundings rather than having a cooling effect
  6. contaminants may be released into the ground water or air

Toronto Public Health’s April 2015 Report, Health Impact Assessment of the Use of Artificial Turf in Toronto states:

Some of the major ecosystem benefits provided by natural surfaces include: rainwater entrapment, retention and water recharge; climate regulation; soil building capacity; oxygen generation; carbon sequestration; and absorbing pollutants from the air ….. Natural surfaces also provide a habitat for insects and other organisms. Artificial turf on the other hand, does not have these ecological benefits and provides no organic biodiversity due to its compacted base structure. Artificial turf can also compromise tree development.


… a study done for Upper Canada College when it installed its artificial turf field estimated that the total GHG emissions from the manufacturing, transporting, installing, maintaining and disposing of a 9,000 square meter artificial turf field over a 10-year period would emit 55.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide while the construction and maintenance of a natural grass field of the same size was would remove 16.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide ….The study estimated that 1,861 trees would need to be planted to achieve a 10-year carbon-neutral artificial turf field at this site

According to the Audubon Society’s Four Tips for a Climate-Friendly Yard

Tidy turfgrasses might be fixtures of the American landscape, but ecologically speaking, they’re bad news. For all the water, gasoline, and chemicals we use to keep our lawns looking fancy, they provide little value for wildlife and contribute to our overall carbon output.

On new building sites, plant assemblages native to the neighborhood are often bulldozed over and replaced with large manicured lawns that are bordered by a relatively few species of popular ornamentals from other continents. The native plant diversity that historically supported our favorite birds and mammals is decimated.

Natural landscaping with plants that attract pollinators is the ideal environmental solution. The City of Toronto’s Ravine, Biodiversity and Pollinator Strategies recommends that we grow plants that attract pollinators such as birds, bees, and butterflies.

So ingrained is the status symbol of a perfect lawn, that many municipalities reinforce the acceptance of lawns with ordinances penalizing those who have replaced their lawns with native plants. Growing awareness of climate change, however, is altering the status quo.

The Washington Post: Rethinking the Nature of Nature
Meet Ecologists Who Wants to Unleash Wild Backyard:

Envision your property, biologist Doug Tallamy writes, ‘as one small piece of a giant puzzle, which, when assembled, has the potential to form a beautiful ecological picture.’

Local Native plants and pollinators photographed in a native plant garden in Lytton Park


Until recently Toronto’s Grass and Weeds Bylaw conflicted with its sustainability initiatives, including its RavineBiodiversity and Pollinator Protection Strategies. It discouraged replacing lawns with more sustainable native plants, an absurdity during accelerating climate change & species extinction. In 2020 the situation culminated when a City Inspector told Ryerson professor Nina-Marie Lister her garden required a naturalized garden exemption. Instead of applying, she retained a lawyer, invited John Tory for tea and informed the media. Prodded by negative publicity City Hall backed down and ordered a staff report.  On July 14, 2021 City Council amended the Bylaw effective January 1, 2022. Changes include removing the natural garden exemption process and requiring all properties to meet maintenance requirements focusing on health and safety, such as prohibiting specific invasive plant species, managing turf grass height and ensuring traffic sightlines are unobstructed. See Ecologist’s wild garden is a challenge to lawn order.