Red flowers growing in a garden.
Flowers growing in a garden. Credit: Rennett Stowe / Flickr Credit: Rennett Stowe / Flickr

Ecofeminism, coined in the 1970s by French philosopher, Francoise d’Eaubonne, brought together various currents in feminist thinking to refer to the movement necessary to overthrow anti-environmental capitalist patriarchy.

Ecofeminism acknowledges the intersectional nature of capitalism, consumerism, colonialism, racism and misogyny. It focuses on the way gendered relations play out in environmental settings and vice versa.

According to Cate Sandilands, professor of Environmental Arts and Justice in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, “ecofeminists have a lot to say about the way the distrust of nature is related to the distrust of the body and the ongoing history of hierarchical dualisms of man/woman, mind/body and culture/nature.”

“There’s an association of women with excesses of embodiment, with too much nature, emotion, femininity and messiness. These are all clustered together. That distrust of mess is part of the equation,” Sandilands told in a recent interview.

Sandilands’ argument about the distrust of messiness, and especially the intersection of these ideas with the institution of private property, seems to apply well to Burlington resident Karen Barnes and her garden which was specifically targeted by changes to the lot maintenance by-law in 2022.

Those changes prohibit the use of popular bee homes that attract native solitary bees like mason and leaf cutter bees which are amazingly hard-working pollinators. 

The by-law also mandates cleaning up fallen leaves where butterfly larvae overwinter; toads, shrews and salamanders hide and hunt; and beneficial microbes and worms thrive.

It also dictates that seeds and plants be purposefully placed and cultivated. While these terms are not clearly defined in the by-law, they apparently ban the practice of letting plants self-seed as well as that of letting seeds deposited by the wind, birds and other wildlife thrive within that space.

This obsession with neat, tidy lawns and gardens is firmly rooted in an ideal that was never sustainable and has been a major player in the creation of the current climate crisis, the loss of genetic diversity among plants, and the decline of certain insects and animals.

Not often discussed is the fact that the methods employed to create these sterile landscapes have direct ties to military technologies.

Chemical warfare in the garden

Truth is, the pesticide revolution grew out of WWI. The biocides now commonly used on unwanted plants, insects and even animals were originally designed to kill humans.

Chlorine gas and phosgene were effective killers in WWI while mustard gas was used in both WWI and again in WWII when it was predominantly used by Japan and China. Agent Orange, an important defoliant produced by Dow Chemical and Monsanto among others, was used in Vietnam to kill off both the dense jungle foliage and the people of Vietnam. The effects of Agent Orange still haunt Vietnam in the form of ongoing birth defects that can be directly linked to the herbicide.

When war ends, manufacturers of military technology need to create new markets for their weapons of mass destruction. The main ingredient of Agent oOrange is 2,4-D and that became an essential component of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

That means, those chemicals originally designed to kill everything from plants providing camouflage to people hiding in that foliage are now everyday household chemicals that are an insidious part of mainstream gardening and agricultural practices.

War on invasive species

The newest marketing campaign has the eradication of invasive plants in its crosshairs and will generate billions of dollars in profits. 

Historically, the overwhelming concern with invasiveness is more about control than it is about a real respect for the joys of biodiversity. In the past, “invasive” species have included native species like milkweed that happen to grow where people don’t want them.

Bell flower is the most recent addition to the top 10 hit list. Unfortunately, people are being encouraged to use Roundup to eradicate it rather than more environmental and human friendly methods.

Wheat is a grass that originated in Mesopotamia and is not native to North America. Canadians want wheat so it’s not considered invasive. Yet, given the chance, wheat would probably survive very nicely outside of cultivation and would then be considered an invasive species.

English plantain is an exotic that Braiding Sweetgrass author Robin Wall Kimmerer and the Anishinaabe call White Man’s Footsteps because it literally accompanied white people on their colonization trails. Turns out this exotic species has extremely useful medicinal properties and is fabulous in salads

Sandilands believes a number of different arguments can be made about invasive species and how they interfere with, and destroy, biodiversity. However, nuking them with pesticides is perhaps not the best course of action.

“The people who want Karen Barnes to have a nice, neat lawn are the people who nuke the dandelions which are extraordinarily useful, nutritious, delicious and some of the first and last plants to bloom for pollinators,” Sandilands said.

She added, “human disturbance has created landscapes that are really good for generalist plants like bell flower and not so good for plants that don’t like people as much, like many native plants.”

While a variety of traditional garden styles exist, the North American suburban version is a very tightly managed front lawn aesthetic of grass, boxwood and a couple of rows of sad looking petunias or impatiens. 

The garden is white and middle-class

This tidy, uninviting aesthetic allows for the display of the house. It’s also an extension of the idea that this neat and orderly house represents a white middle-class family with middle-class values and aesthetics. 

While the backyard may be messier, the front has to portray the dominant suburban aesthetic which goes hand-in-hand with the sale of particular kinds of extremely hybridized and genetically modified plant species.

Sandilands sees, “the lawn as a symbol of tidiness, perfection and cleanliness is a version of order that has been sold along with particular plant commodities and also with the chemicals that are needed to support those plant commodities.”

Sandilands maintains it’s in the interest of the white dominated state that people organize their publicly facing lives in a way that supports the values and desires that those in power want to see instituted, including conformity.

“I think there’s also a very strong emphasis on visibility. So, that the flat lawn and the tidy bushes, with no fence at the front, makes it very easy to see from the street. So, if you are a police officer in a car who is wanting good sight lines, then a flat lawn and low, tidy bushes means that the house is easily visible from the street,” Sandilands shared.

The lawn as a gendered construct

Cultivation activist and author, Lorraine Johnson thinks the garden is definitely very gendered. The lawn is conceived as the male domain to control and maintain while women are traditionally associated with flowers and beautification.

The gendered nature of the lawn hit Johnson while she was watching televised sporting events. In the middle of winter while watching hockey she noticed the ads focused on lawn care and maintenance. 

“It was such an ah ha moment. The lawn is for men and machinery. It’s marketed that way. All the ads relate to that,” Johnson told in a recent interview.

Lawn, fertilizer and pesticide ads traditionally target men, while women are relegated to the sphere of beautifying the space. 

She added, “the garden is subject to the same powerful interests and ‘isms’ that govern so much of our lives—for example, sexism and capitalism. I see the roots of gardening as connected with the control of nature and natural processes, which is deeply connected with colonialism. The lawn is a very colonial landscape—imported from Britain and now covering more than 40 million acres of North America! And it’s essentially the lawn, associated with the idea of controlling nature and what is perceived as ‘rampant growth,’ that is propped up by grass and weeds bylaws.”

Growing a garden is a political act

Johnson believes there are strong connections between the control of nature, colonialism and patriarchy. Lot maintenance bylaws regulate and suppress wild, abundant growth and maintain ideals rooted in colonialism.

Johnson wonders, “what is it about abundance – particularly as it relates to an ‘unmaintained’ looking garden that is so threatening that it needs to be feared and controlled?”

These connections are important to make because Canadians can’t dismantle what they are not acknowledging. At this point, growing a garden outside of these problematic suburban conventions is a political act. It is also an extremely environmentally ethical act given the current climate crisis that threatens the very existence of the next generation of humans.

South Burlington has been experiencing a new, growing phenomenon. Large bungalow lots from the 1950s with their expansive lawns are increasingly being cropped by homeowners on riding mowers.

Johnson believes this has a lot to do with the fact that someone can just sit on a rider mower and still appear to be productive. Additionally, they are outside and moving so no one can bother them in their protected bubble that includes protective headphones. This is clearly not just about keeping the lawn short.

Many lawn and garden maintenance practices that have been normalized, as well as the bylaws that are mandated with punishments for those who deviate, are unsustainable when viewed through a climate and biodiversity lens.

“We have to de-carbonize the garden in terms of energy use and maintenance,” Johnson stated.

Air pollution, emissions, smell, noise, disruption and damage to insects and animals demands reformation of gardening traditions and city bylaws. There needs to be a move towards more environmentally ethical and regenerative gardening practices if humans are going to survive. For an entertaining look at what it’s like to be a wild Irish gardener, as well as the youngest woman to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, check out the film Dare to Be Wild – and then, dare to rewild your front garden and yourself!

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...