Milkweed going to sleep in early fall. Image: Doreen Nicoll/Provided

My front garden is under attack — again!

I had neighbours taking photographs of my milkweed the other day. Milkweed is not at its best as it goes to sleep. So, I am anticipating a visit from the local bylaw officer.

I was also sitting on my porch this week when someone walking by stopped and commented to their friend, “This garden always looks messy.” To which I replied, “No, it does not.” The walker touched my milkweed and asked, “Then, what is this?” I said it was milkweed which launched the discussion into a short back and forth over whether it’s a weed or not. It is not.

I’ve had a gentleman tell me that he hasn’t seen many monarchs on my milkweed, the inference being I should just take it all out. The fact is, every plant in my garden has a purpose.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve also had very positive reactions from younger homeowners with kids who have moved into the neighbourhood replacing the old guard. If I happen to be harvesting my prolific garlic that acts as a companion plant, they’ll be offered some bulbs and seeds.

In 2003 I took up all of the grass in my front garden. It was a political statement opposing the overuse of cosmetic pesticides in my community. It was also a statement about supporting genetic diversity and encouraging wildlife and pollinators to find a safe haven in urban settings.

I had a low wall installed to keep the garden contained. Then, I started filling the space with native species many of which were edible. My garden survives on rainwater because we cannot keep relegating this precious resource to ensuring lush green grass that actually contributes to the climate crisis.

A City of Burlington bylaw officer came to check out my new garden after a neighbour complained. The officer found nothing amiss.

Over the years I’ve often been asked when I’m going to replace my garden with grass. I’m not. Instead, I replaced my boulevard grass with several varieties of thyme along with camomile, yarrow and periwinkle — which I now know is not native but filled in the gaps so my neighbours didn’t have to look at ‘dirt.’

This year the grass that invaded my boulevard was so entrenched I couldn’t remove it. The space was also awash with cigarette butts.  With the help of my daughter, we pulled up the ground cover and replaced it with nine lavender plants and wood chips. The bees have been having a field day!

Over the years, plants have come and gone, often being replaced by varieties that are not necessarily native, but add variety throughout the growing season. Each year a different species does really well and takes over more than its share of space. Years ago, it was calendula, then heritage poppies, columbine, delphinium and tiger lilies.

Several years ago, swamp milkweed began popping up. Where I live used to be a corn farm and I just figured it was a throwback to that time. I love the delicate pink flowers as well as the pollinators and monarchs it attracts.

In June 2018 I returned home from work to find a notice on my door. It was from the city and it gave me seven days to remove my milkweed or the city would cut it down and invoice me.

With the help of accomplices from across the country I was able to have the archaic bylaw changed in time to save my milkweed. Yet again this fall, my milkweed in particular, and garden in general is under attack.

When my kids were young, we talked about the perennials “going to sleep” in the fall and waking up again in the spring. Plants don’t look pretty when they are going to sleep. The beautiful flowers are replaced by seeds and seed pods while the leaves and stalks yellow and dry out. I leave the leaves that fall as well as the dry stalks in place and I don’t mulch my front garden to ensure a winter habitat for pollinators. I also leave most of the seeds and pods in place for the birds that regularly visit our garden to eat throughout the seasons.

Each year I include some crops for my family to enjoy. This year we harvested chives, garlic scapes, garlic bulbs, thyme, rosemary, dill, acorn squash, butternut squash and lavender. We saved seeds from the squash to replant next year.

I’ve been known to plant tomatoes, kale, pumpkins and other vegetables throughout the flowers and share the bounty with friends and local food banks.

I plant scarlet runner beans and lots of flax for their beautiful, delicate flowers that add a pop of colour just when it’s needed.

Annuals like dill, poppies, corn flowers, cosmos and morning glories are left to self-seed.

I like to tell people my intentional garden is not unkempt or messy. It’s a garden with a purpose filled with diversity and life. It’s low maintenance because it doesn’t require a gas lawn mower, leaf blower, pesticides, petrochemical based fertilizers, grass seed, irrigation systems or additional watering.

We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis so the way we choose to landscape really matters.

Burlington, Ontario may have declared a climate crisis in 2018 but the actions of individual homeowners show they are still in denial. It would be wise to look to our neighbours in Toronto and Guelph who are miles ahead of us with their grassless yards and edible landscaping.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence. 

Image: Doreen Nicoll