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Choosing native plants for your garden has big benefits | CBC News



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This week:

  • Why you should choose native plants for your garden (and how to do it)
  • Turning off the plastic tap
  • 6 tips for wearing more sustainable clothing

Toronto Native Plant Market helps gardeners boost local biodiversity

Landscaper and horticulturalist Jonas Spring can name every one of the more than 100 species that live in his greenhouse in Etobicoke. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

When Grant Minkhorst finally bought a home in Toronto with a little land to call his own, he checked what the previous tenants had left behind in the gardens.

“It wasn’t much,” Minkhorst said. “There were three forsythia bushes, four or five rhubarb plants, a weigela and a bridalwreath spirea.”

He didn’t even know the names of those plants at the time. But he later learned they have at least one thing in common: none are native to Canada. 

Three growing seasons later, Minkhorst has transformed his garden with native plants and shares it with 50,000 followers on TikTok. 

Native plants are critical to the proper functioning of Canada’s ecosystems, but they can also be hard for gardeners to find. The Toronto Plant Market and Native Plant Supply is one business providing what gardeners — and their local ecosystems — need this spring.

Native plants have evolved over centuries alongside all the other flora and fauna in one region, said Marc Johnson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto. The plants and animals form a community and work together to thrive and protect themselves from threats.

Johnson cited tulips and daffodils, staples of the springtime, as examples of non-native plants with “zero positive impacts on our ecosystem.” 

A sign that reads "I [heart] native plants" is in window covered in raindrops
Spring said that his business grows a lot by word of mouth, since dedicated gardeners who love to use native plants often know each other well, but aren’t very active on social media. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

Non-native plants aren’t a part of the local ecosystem, so they don’t work together with the rest of it. Some are Invasive, killing off other plants by hogging resources. Others may not provide suitable food for native animals and insects, contributing to declining insect populations.

Johnson urged gardeners to use native plants to “create a small little national park” in their yard. “Try to increase the diversity of species in a little patch you have control over … and you will have a positive impact even on that small scale.”

But Minkhorst said native plants aren’t easy to come by at many garden centres. In the U.S., native plants represented just 9.1 per cent of total plant sales in 2018, according to the 2019 National Green Industry Survey.

“It’s a popularity contest,” said Minkhorst. “People only want what they’re familiar with. … It’s a profit game in these stores. They’re not there to promote ecological diversity. They’re there to make money.” 

Jonas Spring first turned to native plants as a practicality. Spring is a landscaper based in Toronto, where urbanization makes soils drier. There are fewer trees, and it’s warmer. Toronto and Tokyo have more similar environments than Toronto and rural Ontario, according to Johnson. 

Native North American plants that grow on cliff sides — like pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) — can be incorporated into the urban world more easily than those that need nutrient-rich soil. 

Spring had been happily growing his own plants and working with “mom-and-pop nurseries” for 20 years when he came across what he called a landscaper’s “unicorn.”

It was a refurbished greenhouse from the 1980s, complete with a yard and attached office space — right in the heart of industrial Etobicoke, northwest of downtown Toronto.

A Canada yew in a pot
Spring said he doesn’t know many other greenhouses which sell Canada yew (taxus canadensis), a low-growing and wide-spreading native conifer. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

Spring established the Toronto Plant Market and Native Plant Supply in 2022. He’s grown the business every year and now offers more than 100 species of native plants. Some gardeners come from as far away as Niagara for hard-to-find species like the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis).

“It’s been a really wonderful response from the community,” he said.

Spring organizes all those plants by the environment you’ll grow them in. 

“Woodland understory” plants like running strawberry (Euonymus obovatus) grow best in the shade and dry soil, so they will thrive under the tree outside the average suburban house. “Hardscape plants” can grow on balconies, roofs, driveways and parking lots, “anywhere where there’s people and stone and concrete.”

Minkhorst appreciates all the work Spring and his team do. When he visited the Toronto Plant Market this year, Minkhorst posted about it on TikTok. 

A man with a watering can an a rake smiles while looking off to the side with a fence in the background
Grant Minkhorst has been developing his home garden in Toronto for three seasons and said his background as a teacher led him to share the helpful tips he picked up on TikTok for others. (Submitted by Grant Minkhorst)

“[Spring] is trying to build more knowledge around native plants and making sure they’re on offer and making sure what he’s offering are suitable for the conditions in Toronto,” he said.

His goal this season is to use 70 per cent of his garden for native plants.

“[Through gardening], you realize that there’s a greater purpose,” Minkhorst said. “Obviously I’m having fun, I’m growing things, I’m bringing in insects that my child loves, and that’s exciting. But it’s also about trying to do good in the world, in your little life, and trying to have fun at the same time.”

— Gabrielle Huston

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our podcast and radio show. This week, we take on another burning listener question: is hand-washing dishes or using a dishwasher better for the planet? What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Is this year’s spring strange where you are? Check how it compares to past years with CBC’s Climate Dashboard.

Reader feedback

Last week, author Candice Batista shared some tips for saving money by adopting more eco-friendly habits at home, including $3,751.78 in annual savings by buying fresh food instead of convenience food.

Chris Krishnamurthy wrote: “My wife and myself also live in Toronto and, as vegetarians, our total food cost is around $5K/year. We buy fresh produce and cook almost every meal. I am wondering what type of grocery purchase makes her come up with such huge savings?”

Thanks Chris. We have put the question to Candice Batista. But in the meantime, according to Canada’s Food Price Report 2024, the average family of four spent $15,594.40 on food last year, suggesting that a family of two would spend around $8,000. So it sounds like you’re already saving around $3,000 per year compared to the average Canadian family.

D. Schmidt of Invermere, B.C., wrote: “I liked your article, and I have found similar savings. But the author did not mention cutting down on the expense of fossil fuels. By biking more (including studded tires in winter) I was able to sell my gas-guzzling SUV and reduce to one electric car. The cash from the vehicle sale and fuel savings dwarfed any recommendations from her book. Plus I am fitter and healthier. Also, electric cars are actually cheaper than gas equivalents. I calculated my Kona EV becomes cheaper than the equivalent gas powered Kona after 100,000 km and they just keep saving you money after that. Savings from extra insulation, an electric heat pump, an EV, a bicycle, and better food choices have proven to me that you can do well by doing good!”

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The Big Picture: Turning off the plastic tap

A pile of plastic bottles appears to float out of a tap floating in the air, with buildings in the background.
(Jill English/CBC)

Giant Plastic Tap is a three-storey-tall sculpture by Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong. It’s on display in Ottawa this week, designed to tower above delegates from 176 countries who pass by en route to UN plastic pollution treaty negotiations as a reminder of what they’re tackling. This is the fourth of five rounds of talks that aim to produce a binding international treaty on plastic pollution by the end of this year. Ahead of the negotiations, the federal government also announced new action on plastic in our own country — a plastics registry that will require plastic producers to declare the quantity and types of plastic they supply, how these plastics move through the economy, and how they’re managed at the end of their life.

As for the sculpture, you can read more about how it was built and see some of its previous installations (some of which are pretty stunning) here.

.— Emily Chung

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

6 tips to make your wardrobe more sustainable

Pants on a store rack.
When you purchase clothes, try thrifting before purchasing new, advises sewist Meghan Fowler. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Spring is here, and with its arrival comes an urge for many of us to refresh our wardrobes. 

The drive may be fuelled by our own anticipation of better weather, ennui with our winter outfits, or a consumer market equally eager for our patronage.

Many people, though, are becoming increasingly aware that the rate we are collectively acquiring and disposing of clothing is an issue of global concern, both socially and environmentally.

Meghan Fowler, a self-taught “sewist” in Winnipeg who aims to live sustainably, says you don’t need to worry about becoming a paragon of sustainability in a day — think of it as a journey instead of a destination, she says.

To become a more sustainable fashion consumer, start by thinking little steps, not leaps, says Fowler.

In that spirit on this Earth Day, here are her six easy tips for making your wardrobe more sustainable right now.

Use what you already have

The most sustainable piece of clothing is the one you already own. Mix and match with the pieces that already occupy space in your wardrobe. Bring staple items into as many seasons as you can.

Repair, mend, repeat

Throw a branded gear patch onto a hole in your jacket, try your hand at sashiko-style mending (visible and decorative stitching) on your torn jeans, or hand or machine sew the frayed edges of a torn sleeve together. Seems too hard? It’s really not. For every fix, there’s a video on the internet to teach you.

A closeup shows a woman's hands sewing decorative stitching on blue fabric.
Internet videos can help teach you how to repair and mend clothing. (Ben Photo/Shutterstock )

Want it? Make it 

Trying something new can be intimidating, but engaging in creative pursuits can be deeply meaningful and enriching, regardless of the outcome. The bonus here is that if you learn to sew or knit, the outcome also happens to be functional and beautiful. Groups or shops like Winnipeg Sews offer beginner classes on sewing and mending.

Share and share alike

Hand-me-downs may have acquired a bad reputation among the latter-born children of larger families, but let’s not disparage the hand-me-down. The thing you are just not reaching for anymore may be another person’s new favourite item. Try having a clothing swap with friends. Pass pre-loved items back and forth among friends. 

Buy second-hand first

Part of changing your relationship with clothing is learning to see it as a matter of pride to be part of the slow-fashion economy, where keeping clothes in circulation and out of the landfill is a good thing. When you purchase clothes, try thrifting before purchasing new. 

Buy new, buy smart

When purchasing new clothes, buy with sustainability in mind.

Step 1: Buy from companies you want to support. Are they locally owned? Do they pay fair wages? Are they genuinely making steps to be environmentally sensitive? Fashion Revolution publishes an annual report that rates fashion brands for their supply chain, treatment of workers and manufacturing practices, among other criteria.

Step 2: Buy good-quality and versatile items, ideally made from biodegradable materials and/or from a single fibre. Single-fibre clothes are more recycle-friendly than mixed fibre clothes.

Step 3: Buy what you like, not what’s trendy. Avoid fast-fashion trends and go for quality and styles that will last more than a season. Make your clothes last. 

Meghan Fowler

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Editors: Emily Chung and Hannah Hoag | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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