A greener garden
Eco-friendly tips to put a natural bloom on a backyard
Last Updated March 8, 2007
By Tara Kimura, CBC News
Imagine a garden that does most of the hard work for you, saves you money — and is environmentally friendly, to boot.
Imagine tropical plants embedded in your fence that scrub pollutants from the air while creating a sound barrier to block noise. Porous patio tiles that pull water deep into the ground, to replenish the garden or drain directly into city sewers. Think of mosquitoes and earwigs disappearing, thanks to birds and bats lured by backyard nesting houses.
Eco-minded gardening experts and landscape architects say converting your garden into a truly green space is not only kinder to the planet — but offers a whole host of practical benefits.
These experts — many of whom were in Toronto from March 7-11 for the 2007 Canada Blooms garden show — say a few thoughtful and strategic choices can really bring your green garden into full bloom.
Grow your garden vertically
Living walls require minimal care, but can cut down on city sounds, remove pollutants from the air and look beautiful, experts say. (CBC)
For condo dwellers with no exterior spaces, people with small backyards or ambitious gardeners, seeking room to grow can be a challenge. Landscape designers say living walls — embedded hydroponic tropical plants or herbs grown in the side of a concrete wall — offer an easy fix.
Plants in the cascading walls, which are rooted in water, can span several stories.
"Anytime you bring plant material to life, you're going to get a slight amount of air quality improvement," said landscape architect Paul Brydges. "Plants act as a natural scrubber so by virtue of that, you're going to have somewhat cleaner air."
Such walls also create a good sound barrier for downtown areas, he said.
The vertical walls are also being promoted by the City of Toronto as a means of enhancing air quality and beautifying public and private spaces. Jim Gardhouse, the manager of horticulture and greenhouses for the city, said the plant walls require minimal care, although they need to be dusted, wetted and trimmed.
"Everything is not easy: it's not maintenance-free," he said. "But the hardest part is getting it up and running and then you would have to do some pruning. If some plants die, you'd have to pull them out and replace them, but it's fairly low maintenance."
Lisa Remmel of Uxbridge, Ont., a visitor to the Canada Blooms show, said she thought the plant walls might require more time than she can spare. But she said she loved their aesthetic qualities.
"I think they're great if you have the space for them because it can clear the air and it's just a nice visual feature. It's a nice way to bring the outdoors inside."
Trim energy bills with trees
Properly placed trees that provide shade from summer sun and block winter wind can trim a surprisingly large amount from energy bills, landscape architects suggest.
Peter Secord, a spokesman for the waste management company Miller Compost, said as much as 30 per cent can be cut from utility bills if trees and shrubs are planted strategically.
"The south side of the building always gets the most sunlight through the day so you should put some shade trees in the front to help shield the house from excessive heat gain," he said.
"As well if you place them around pavement and what not, it keeps the pavement cooler so it keeps the ambient temperature cooler around the house as well."
Rainy day savings
The City of Toronto has developed the Electric Sunflower, a hybrid solar panel and wind turbine system.
More and more municipalities have introduced off-water days, fining people who refuse to abide by prescribed watering schedules and insist on turning on their sprinklers.
These water conservation programs are forcing consumers to think creatively and tap other resources — such as rain barrels — to stop their lawns from scorching.
Susan Antler, a spokeswoman for the Composting Council of Canada, estimated that most houses get more than 100,000 litres of rainwater a year, most of which washes away into the storm sewers.
Rain barrels allow people to capture rainwater and extend their ability to water when they want, she pointed out.
Charlie Dobbin, Canada Blooms' horticultural director, said there are a number of reasons to use rain water on gardens.
"Now people are saying, it seems kind of silly to send the water off my property and then turn on the hose to water everything — maybe I should hold that water on my property for a couple of reasons," Dobbin said.
"One is it's free. The other one is it's the right temperature. And another thing is, it's not treated: it has no chlorine, no fluoride. It's the best water for the plants."
People with small children or animals need to be aware of the risk of drowning in the barrels, the experts said. They suggest covering the barrels with a screen or a top and securing them with child-proof locks.
To prevent tipping, the barrels should also be secured on stable ground. They should also be drained regularly because mosquitoes tend to breed in standing water.
Sop up rain through porous patio stones
Traditionally-sealed patio stones repel rainwater, sending it running through the streets and picking up pollutants before being funnelled into storm sewers. Meanwhile, again, people end up paying to use treated tap water on their plants.
A greener choice? Porous pavement stones, which closely resemble traditional patio blocks.
The porous stones can be used to build patios that will pull water directly into the ground, where it is absorbed or evaporated through layers of rocks, sand and soil. "This [pavement] will actually allow it to be seeped into the ground and the ground then can act as a sponge," said Antler of the Composting Council of Canada.
"The water can be allowed to recirculate."
She warns, though, that people must first check their soil permeability before installing the stones. Porous pavement blocks are also not ideal if there is a drinking water well on the property.
The Electric Sunflower power trip
Gardeners can also harness solar and wind energy to power low-voltage items.
The City of Toronto has developed the Electric Sunflower, which resembles a giant flower with solar panel "petals" and a wind turbine "flower."
Solar panels offer people a low-maintenance and easy way of powering special features in the garden, according to Secord of Miller Compost.
"They can be put on the roof so it's out of sight, out of mind," he said.
"The solar panel can actually help run things like low-voltage lighting, pumps for the pond, something that doesn't require energy constantly but can be utilized throughout the winter like outdoor Christmas lights."
A more extensive solar power system can be used to provide energy and heating for your house.
Cut your lawn — down in size
Landscape designer Paul Brydges said he dislikes lawns, in part because they place huge demands on the environment and the watering and mowing demands are high.
"The worst thing you can do is have grass — and I have contractors who do that for a living and they don't like me saying that but it's true," Brydges said.
People who like a little green grass may want to consider downsizing their lawns to a smaller area, Secord suggested.
"[If the space is smaller] you can use push mowers, you don't need to use gas mowers. You don't have to create noise pollution or air pollution," he said.
"There's different ways of energy reduction that can be accomplished in the garden as well as improving air quality."
To the bat house, gardener!
Adventurous wildlife watchers might want to consider adding bat houses to their gardens.
Mark Heaton, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, said bat houses and bird nesting boxes offer unique benefits to gardeners.
"Different varieties of birds … consume mosquitoes like the fly catchers and the swallows, and the bats," Heaton said. "They're your natural predation."
He noted that other species target moths and earwigs.
Bat and bird nesting houses can be purchased at wildlife stores. Bat boxes should be placed in wide-open spaces that will allow them to fly in and out their roosts easily. The boxes should also be placed in sunny places, as the bats prefer to stay in warm temperatures during the day.
If you plan to install bat and bird nesting houses, it's best to also tell young children to observe them from a safe distance, the experts suggest.
Landscape architect Paul Brydges designed this pond using limestone rock recycled from a farmer's field, which was near Hanover Ont. (CBC)
The 2007 Canada Blooms went down a more natural garden path, emphasizing natural and recycled materials and conservation.
And judging by the more than 30 gardens based on the theme, Elements, the days of the white plastic lawn chair are gone.
Instead designers were promoting table tops made of rock slab, wind turbines that looked like flowers and natural fountains filled with stones.
Landscape designer Tony Lombardi said his team created a demonstration backyard that aimed to challenge traditional standards. Instead of surrounding a pool with slabs of white concrete, which can become very hot in the summer, his team lined the edges with cedar planks and limestone.
Meanwhile, Brydges crafted a self-contained pond using limestone rocks that were pulled from a farm near Hanover, Ont.
"It came out of the farmer's field so it's a byproduct really of agriculture," Brydges said, noting it was a unique means of recycling.
"[These rocks] were in a stone fence line so why not, why not use them?" he asked. "It's a much more naturalistic look."
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