Gardening

As Spring Arrives, Perennial Issues and Guerilla Gardeners Resurface

Perennials are everywhere, it seems, except in the city's gardens.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published April 10, 2007

April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes, although in my neighbourhood their primary purpose is for washing away January's dog crap. Nevertheless, the rains are here, spring is around the corner, and seasonal issues that have been buried all winter are reappearing.

One of these issues is whether not Hamilton ought to restore full funding to the Traffic Island Beautification Program.

The program, which is responsible for planting flower beds in Hamilton's many traffic islands and medians, dates back to Bob Morrow's mayorship.

The gardens are meant to create a positive impression among visitors to the city, to boost the spirits of the city's residents, and to simply make Hamilton a more beautiful place (thus also - hopefully - encouraging investment and growth).

Opponents of the program feel the city has other, more pressing issues to spend money on, like assisting the many Hamiltonians who live in poverty and improving public transit.

The issue has evoked strong emotions since funding was slashed in 2003 to save money.

Both sides make a good point. But there is middle ground that could be trodden here - middle ground that is more appealing than the current situation where half of the approximately 130 medians are filled with rocks and gravel.

Hamilton could look to nature to learn how to plant medians with hardy perennials that require little maintenance. And guerilla gardeners could be enlisted to help make the medians bloom again.

Annuals: Live Hard, Die Young

Every gardener knows that if you want super-showy plants that bloom all season long, annuals are your best choice. Annuals sprout, bloom and die all in the same year. If they had a motto, it'd be "live hard, die young, and look good doing it."

Flowering perennials, on the other hand, generally don't even bloom in their first year. But they come back year after year, with some species lasting as long as 20 years or more.

Many only bloom for part of the season, but when they do, it's a sight to behold, as perennials are usually taller, bushier and denser than annuals, putting out dozens or even hundreds of flowers.

Then there are the many perennial grasses, which are increasingly popular among gardeners. Red grasses, striped grasses, mottled grasses, tall grasses and evergreen grasses can be found in gardens across the city.

As well as only requiring one planting every several years (or even decades!), perennials also have other advantages. There are many hardy varieties that require little if any watering. And Hamilton's location in the verdant Carolinian forest zone means we have a huge variety of native perennials to choose from.

Varieties of asters, sunflowers, lilies, geraniums, goldenrod (contrary to popular belief, goldenrod does not cause hay fever), blazing stars, coneflowers (Echinacea, Brown-eyed Susans), sedges, irises and many other popular garden plants are native to this area.

These plants are perfectly adapted to Hamilton's climate, and they also help create a natural ecosystem in the city. Think birds, bees and butterflies.

These perennials are everywhere, it seems, except in the city's gardens. In traffic islands and medians it seems as though annuals are the only flowers that are planted.

There's no doubt that the city's gardeners do a fantastic job - the gardens are gorgeous and beautifully maintained - but the focus on annuals costs a lot of money.

They must be sprouted and nurtured in greenhouses before planting, and they require significant ongoing maintenance. Could City Hall learn something in the meadows around Hamilton about what might grow well here without much help?

Guerilla Gardening

Gardening, unlike many of the other services the city provides, is emphatically in the non-essential category. When you've got public gardens on one end of the budgetary scale and public health, or the police, or public libraries on the other, gardens lose out every time.

But although gardening might be non-essential, it's also one of the few services the city provides that a lot of people already perform on their own.

Walk through any neighbourhood in Hamilton in spring time and you're sure to find many people busily spreading compost, cursing weeds, or talking to a neighbour about their latest plant purchase.

People love to garden, and people love public gardens. When public gardens are absent or in disrepair, or when there is unused space going to weeds and garbage, a select few of these gardeners take matters into their own hands.

They're called guerilla gardeners, activists who find unused plots of urban space and transform them into beautiful gardens without bothering to ask anyone's permission.

The Toronto Public Space Committee is one such group. Their call to action: "Join us as we vandalise the city with nature!"

At guerillagardening.org, you'll find tips on guerilla gardening (from making "seed bombs" to what kind of shoes to wear), as well as ongoing chronicles of gardening adventures in London, England.

Clearly, people are motivated to beautify the spaces they live in, whether they own the property or not.

City Hall wants gardens to be sponsored, but few individuals have the $2,000 to $30,000 required to sponsor a flower bed.

Why can't people adopt a bed instead, planting native species of their choosing and maintaining the bed throughout the year?

Obviously, high traffic areas would not be a good choice for safety reasons, but surely there are ways that Hamilton's many volunteer gardeners could participate besides simply giving money.

Popular Support for Gardens

In the end, it's in the hands of city council. The Your City, Your Future survey asked respondents whether or not they supported "reinstating full funding" for planting gardens in traffic islands.

Almost 45 percent of respondents supported "full reinstatement of [the] program at an approximate cost of $285,000", while 24 percent said they were "satisfied with the current level of program funding" (14 percent wanted the program eliminated entirely, and close to 17 percent did not respond to the question).

There is clearly significant support for at least maintaining the current level of funding. In the current climate of tightening purse strings, however, where councillors are forced to make difficult decisions between social programs and public transit, it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing increased funding for non-essentials like gardening any time soon.

It's time we looked at alternatives that don't involve filling our gardens with rocks.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

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By earlestanleygardiner (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 12:38:51

There are perennials that bloom for most of the season & all that's required is somebody to clip off the seed heads. (roses, & true daisys, =coreopsis to name a few.)

There are annuals that grow quickly from seed (for pennys a plot) like cosmos, & California poppys = Escholtzia to name a few. These flowers also tend to re-seed themselves for free & they flower from late June/early July until hard frost. They are also deep rooted & drought resistant once established & save watering costs.)

Perennials with long flowering seasons, like the cone flowers,& hydrangea shrubs can look great long after they have flowered because the flower heads dry on the stems. They are also deep rooted & drought resistant.

Borders of the beds & dividers could have some annuals for season long colour, but these could be supplimented by perennials. Buying only 1/4 or less annual plants would lower costs.)
Perennials plants with interesting leaves & like sedums, variegated iris,day lilys, flowering grasses & many other provide interest all season & into the winter.

The only downside i can see to perennial plants in city gardens & street dividers is theft.
We could save much money by planting only once in the spring, & save more money by using deep rooted perenniels, drought resistant annuals, interesting shrubs, & flowering shrubs that do not need the constant watering & attention/fertilizers that tender annuals do. If watering is necessary, someone could also clip off the flower heads at that time to produce more blooms.

I have never understood Why we have opted to only go with annuals, & then cry poor, & fill places with rocks. The cost of a few perennials would likely be cheaper than the rocks. The rocks sprout weeds if there is even a trace of soil under them, so unless we are prepared to pave deeply under these 'rock gardens' to a depth of a metre or more, they will always be a weedy mess. (which is more $ maintenance $)

(Some garden groups used to provide volunteer services to their town. Either these folks are unavailable to do this anymore, or this portion of civic pride disappeared with amalgamation-? Heavier traffic has certainly made that a much more dangerous activity to undertake as a volunteer.)

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 17:36:36

I like your suggestions for more perennial plantings and 'guerilla gardening'.

When I was in Grenoble, I noticed that that they've done a lot of perennial planting (mostly dense plantings of small rose bushes, lavender and other shrubby perennials). The City has recently planted some lavender along Bay between King and Main. I hope this is a sign of more to come.

One problem has been poor quality plants and poor maintenance. A few months ago I saw a city worker cutting down a young street tree on York Blvd outside the old Eaton Centre. When I asked him why he was removing it and when it would be replaced he said:

"these street trees are always getting broken so we're just removing them; they won't be replaced"

In fact, it wasn't surprising that the street trees didn't survive long: they were very small (about 5cm diameter trunk) and unprotected (in other cities the trunks of young trees are protected by a sort of metal grill). A little initial investment in larger trees and some protection would have saved money in the long run!

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 17:37:22

I like your suggestions for more perennial plantings and 'guerilla gardening'.

When I was in Grenoble, I noticed that that they've done a lot of perennial planting (mostly dense plantings of small rose bushes, lavender and other shrubby perennials). The City has recently planted some lavender along Bay between King and Main. I hope this is a sign of more to come.

One problem has been poor quality plants and poor maintenance. A few months ago I saw a city worker cutting down a young street tree on York Blvd outside the old Eaton Centre. When I asked him why he was removing it and when it would be replaced he said:

"these street trees are always getting broken so we're just removing them; they won't be replaced"

In fact, it wasn't surprising that the street trees didn't survive long: they were very small (about 5cm diameter trunk) and unprotected (in other cities the trunks of young trees are protected by a sort of metal grill). A little initial investment in larger trees and some protection would have saved money in the long run!

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By farmer6re9 (registered) - website | Posted April 12, 2007 at 07:58:55

I like your suggestions for more perennial plantings and 'guerilla gardening' too! Back where I'm from there was the legend of "Johnny Appleseed" who traversed the "As American as Apple Pie" countryside wrecklessly dispersing seed like there was no tomorrow.

Johnny had a huge sack of seed and I have no idea how he managed to lug it from coast to coast nor do I know from where he acquired the culture. But I do know that within RTH, therein lies a permaculture for positive propagation and some wholesome root stock.

Johnny come lately's must choose the seed carefully and with the utmost discretion.

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By earlestanleygardiner (anonymous) | Posted April 14, 2007 at 01:09:26

How lately is lately?
If we use an excess of discretion, winter will be at hand.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted April 14, 2007 at 01:46:21

Whatever survives the summer out there would just get killed by the salt over the winter.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 14, 2007 at 18:33:53

I was blathering on about this over at the spec blog so I don't want to bore everyone again, but there are native shrubs, grasses, and flowers that will tolerate harsh conditions. Many varieties actually do better in less fertile soil, and once established need next to no water. Native plants are much better for the environment and aesthetically much more cutting edge than tiresome annuals and therefore much better for the city's image. And isn't this all supposed to be about improving the city's image? Don't know why they can't make the switch, unless it's because there are too many union jobs involved in the growing, planting, and high maintenance of all those bloody annuals.

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