Growing Green in Toronto

In 1962, Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” about environmental damage caused by DDT and chemical pesticides, and predicted a desolate future caused by the poorly-tested chemicals used to grow our food and keep the golf greens putt-perfect. Her book shot to the top of the best-seller list, she was on the cover of Time magazine, and people listened. This was the effective start of the environmental protection movement.

The City of Toronto will become more envlronmentally sensitive by implementing the first stage of a new pesticide bylaw. Starting on April 1st, many insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides may no longer be used on your lawn or in your garden as a matter of course.

Why is the city doing this?

In part, because we don’t know what the long-term effect is of the chemicals used in combination — their use is pretty recent, dating only as far back as the 20th century, with most having been developed after World War II. Toronto’s pesticides frequently travel from lawns and gardens when heavy rains wash them into the storm sewer system. These chemicals end up in Lake Ontario, the source of Toronto’s drinking water. The city filtration systems simply aren’t capable of removing all chemicals from our drinking water.

How does this new bylaw affect you?

For starters, it’s time to take any leftover Round-Up to your closest hazardous materials drop site. Weed & Feed is also prohibited, as are chemical weedkillers that rely on surface-coating broad-leafed weeds. Most spraying to kill insects is also forbidden, unless it’s city-directed to kill West Nile infected mosquitoes.

How will you adjust to this new way of gardening?

Consider your expectations: is it reasonable to expect an unvarying green lawn, even in the height of a drought, when the plants are stressed and less resistant to insects and disease? If you’re willing to be a bit less of a perfectionist, you’ll have an easier time. There are a few areas to look at: soil, weeds, and bugs.Good lawns and gardens all start with the same basic ingredient: soil.If you have healthy, well-structured soil, you’ll have an easier time growing healthy plants.

What can you do to promote this type of soil?

If you don’t already have one going, now is the time to start a compost pile. Composting is easy, benefits your soil, and reduces the garbage destined for landfill sites. You can buy a composter from almost any hardware store or the City of Toronto.There are a few general principals for a healthy, sweet-smelling heap:

  • layer green (recently alive, like kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, or freshly-killed weeds) and brown (shredded newsprint, dead leaves fromlast year)
  • keep it moist, but not wet. The bacteria need moisture to do their work, but if the pile starts smelling foul, that’s a sign that you’ve got an anaerobic bacteria take-over in progress: if it’s smelling bad, turn the pile daily for a week to help it dry a little, and to bring some oxygen into it to help the good bacteria win the battle. A fistful of nitrogen fertilizer might help, too.
  • no meat products or byproducts. No dairy products. Although these will compost, you’re likely to attract city-based vermin to your pile: rats, raccoons, even coyotes if you’re near one of the city’s ravines. They will make a mess, and your neighbours will hate you. You don’t want that, now, do you?

After a couple of months, you should have rich, sweet, well-rotted compost. Dig it into your gardens, or top dress your lawn and around plants. You’ll be rewarded with healthy plants that are more disease-resistant and better able to cope with bugs and slugs.

How to deal with weeds?

A healthy thick lawn can keep many weeds at bay by crowding them out. The best way to get rid of them once you have them is to dig them up. Some can be easily pulled. Others require assistance. A whole assortment of aids is available these days, from tools like the garden claw and loop hoes, to water pressure-based tools that liquify the soil around the weed so it can be pulled, and butane torches for immediate destruction of weeds between paving stones. Check out your local hardware store or Lee Valley Tools.If you’re looking for an inexpensive, safe, and effective technique to spot-kill weeds, pour boiling water over them. In about 3-4 days they’ll wither and be very easy to remove, even from between interlocking brick.

But what about bugs?

Dealing with bugs can be very trying. There’s nothing quite like checking up on some rose buds that are about to open, only to discover that a cane borer has turned the stem into a flute and all the buds are dying. Most bugs have natural predators, and if you make your garden safe for them, they’ll help keep the population of the bad bugs down somewhat.If you’ve got to get rid of bugs, the first and best way to kill them is to squash them (or kill them manually some other way). It leaves no environmental residue, but it does mean that you need to be eternally vigilant. The second route, for insects like aphids, is to spray them off with water. The third path of attack is insecticidal soap, which kills bugs on contact. Read the instructions first: it can’t be used on all plants.Some pesticides are still available if you need something stronger. These are more natural solutions than the outlawed chemicals, but can still be quite toxic. Natural methods for dealing with insects include nematodes to eat grubs, rotenone to control chewing insects, or pyrethrum to kill many sorts of bugs. Check with the experts at your local gardening centre: they should be able to point you in the right direction. One word of caution: you may still find some of the banned substances for sale in local hardware stores, where the owners may not be aware of the new bylaw. Compliance is your responsibility.A good rule of thumb to use when taking care of a lawn or garden is to start with the least harmful solution, and gradually work up through more toxic solutions only if the environmentally friendly solution didn’t work. Strong insecticides kill the beneficial insects as well as the pests, so they should be avoided whenever possible.For more information about growing green and the City of Toronto’s new bylaw, see the following files on the city website:

If you have any gardening questions, don’t hesitate to ask the Master Gardeners organization (throughout North America) — the Toronto group may be contacted at their gardening Q&A board or by phone at 416-397-1345.There’s also some good information on growing organic lawns  and on biological control out there.Have fun, and grow green!

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