Grieving the Loss of the Local Volunteer Gardens in Roncesvalles Village

The Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Association (BIA) in Toronto Canada has re-planted the 21 garden beds along Roncesvalles Avenue. They say the new gardens are 70% native plants and pollinators. They will be maintained by a commercial organization, rather than the RoncyWorks volunteer gardeners who had taken care of these beds for the past 10 years.

The Roncesvalles Village BIA seems to have taken a bee-friendly approach, yet for me, every time I walk past these new garden beds I feel a deep sense of loss. When I expressed this sense of loss, a community member told me I should just enjoy the new garden beds and the fact that they are pollinator friendly. But I am not one to run from the process of grief as I believe doing grief well is part of living well. And so I take time today to state what is lost for me. Grieving is a personal process and we all do it and feel it in our own way and I will not be dissuaded from it.

For the past 10 years, Roncesvalles Village has been leading the way in providing a city habitat for pollinators through the use of native plant garden beds incorporated into the streetscape, which were created and maintained by RoncyWorks, a group of local volunteers. Each garden was like small piece of a High Park meadow and knowing that this was a community-building initiative made it all the better. The garden beds gave the neighbourhood a unique look that stood out as different from traditional city street gardens. I felt proud that Roncesvalles Village was a visionary leader showing the world how public city gardening could be eco-friendly, and build community connection and wellbeing. It was a initiative that for me defined the neighborhood. It was something that I felt should be supported and celebrated. And it was!



Photo: Volunteer created garden plots I had enjoyed for the past ten years that have now been torn out and replaced.



Something to be proud of

In 2018 the Roncesvalles Village BIA seemed to be as proud of the volunteer gardening initiative as I was. They created two posts featuring two of the volunteer gardeners.

From a public Facebook post in 2018: “Hey Roncy! In celebration of Garden Days 2018, we are showcasing the awesome gardeners that keep Roncy’s gardens colourful and lush. Meet Mary. Mary was involved with the residents’ committee that advocated for new garden beds along Roncy in 2009. Once the beds were installed in 2011, she began volunteering with RoncyWorks, the group of community members who maintain our street’s gardens. Mary currently takes care of the garden at 305 Roncy, in front of The Dizzy Gastro Sports Pub. Mary enjoys volunteering because the gardens, as public spaces, bring people together. She also appreciates how her fellow RoncyWorks members add their own personal touches to their gardens, giving each of the beds a made in Roncy feel. On behalf of Roncy, thank you Mary for your dedication and passion!”

http://158.106.73.91/page/4/ (UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, the Roncesvalles Village BIA has removed this page from their website, which was an appreciation of one of the volunteer gardeners. Sorry, I should have saved a screen shot).

Roncesvalles BIA had a shift in its vision.
Recently, something changed within the Roncesvalles Village BIA, and they made a decision to bring in a more “organized” traditional approach with repeating patterns of colour as part of a rebranding of the garden beds. 

This shift in the vision for the 21 gardens along the Roncesvalles strip as well as the BIA’s decision to hire a commercial landscaping company caused a rift between the local volunteer gardeners who maintained the gardens and the BIA. The volunteer gardeners quit en masse in protest. See the open letter they wrote.

Petition
I started a petition asking the Roncesvalles Village BIA to repair its relationship with the RoncyWorks volunteer gardeners so they could get back to the great work they had been doing for the past ten years. This petition was signed by over 425 people and shared by over 100 people.

Despite the petition, the Roncesvalles Village BIA went ahead and clear-cut all 21 garden beds and replanted with new plants. The new plantings are said to be 70% native and pollinators, and they will be maintained by a commercial gardening company.


Photo: Volunteer created garden plots I had enjoyed for the past ten years that have now been torn out and replaced.

There are the things that I am grieving:

  • The gardens looked like beautiful wild meadows, and I will miss them.

  • Clear cutting the established native plant ecosystem hurt the insects and bees, damaged tree roots and has made repairing the relationship with the RoncyWorks volunteer gardening group unlikely.
    The volunteer-created garden beds were native-plant based and were well established.  The new garden beds said to be 70% native/pollinators will take a few years to establish themselves. They have been planted off planting season and may some plants may fail to grow as a result. Plants typically do best when planted in the spring or the fall. In a time when the bees are struggling so much, I do not think that was a sound environmental choice.

    A bulldozer was used to clear cut the garden beds and 12 inches of soil was removed. This damaged tree roots and some of the trees in the garden beds might not survive this damage. Many of the trees along the Roncesvalle strip had already died previous to this. So keeping the ones we still have alive I think should be a priority. There is much research that shows that tree lined street helps keep our cities cool.

    Also, the Roncesvalles Village BIA in an open letter had said:
    “The RVBIA and its members sincerely appreciate all the volunteer gardeners who have donated their time and efforts for many years on Roncesvalles. It is our goal to repair that relationship by reorganizing this project and co-creating a strategy which they will endorse, thereby re-engaging their participation”

    In their open letter they are saying one thing but their actions say the opposite. By going ahead with clear-cutting the volunteer gardeners ten years of work they have likely made it impossible to repair the relationship.

  • Whether the new gardens will support bees as well as the gardens that were ripped out is in question. I believe the new gardens are not as ecologically friendly as the RoncyWorks volunteer gardens were.
    What makes a garden insect and bee friendly is complex question as it involves many considerations. Some pollinators are generalists and match up with many plants but some are specialist who need one particular plant to survive. Monarchs butterflies are an example of an insect that can feed off of only one plant. Some type of bees can collect pollen from deep with in a flower and other are more surface collectors. My point here is that a garden needs to have a variety of types of flower in order to services as many bees and insects as possible.

    Timing of the blooms is also key so insect and bees have a food supply from early spring to first frost. An insect and bee friendly garden has timed blooms. So when you look at it not all plants will be flowering and that is a good thing because the plants that look like greenery in the spring will be blossoming in the fall and vice versa. For insects and bees struggling against colony collapse a steady supply of food is key.

    The native plant/pollinator question is not simple. Many plants called native plants are actually native plants bred to have characteristics attractive to humans. In the process, they often lose the characteristics that benefit the insects they coevolved with. When a flower with a differently sized, colored, or shaped flower is bred from a native plant, the insects that evolved specialized mouthparts and visual cues, may no longer be able to recognize the plant or be able to reach its nectar and/or pollen. These bred plants often have less pollen and nectar and are often sterile, offering nothing in the way of seeds to sustain insects. These type of “native” plants are called “native plant cultivars”. They are patented for profit and then mass produced and can possibly have pesticide used on them.

    Native plant cultivars are cheaper and easer to precure then true native plants. Many landscaping company use them to tick off the box for using natives plants for the show of being ecologically minded.

    If you want to read more about the true native plant versus cultivars read this article from Red Stem a landscaping company committed to using true native plants.
    Why We Plant “True Species” Native Plant, Not Cultivars

    True native plants are hard to come by and more expensive then cultivars. There are small nurseries around doing the work of educating and providing true native plants, as well as organizations like Project Swallowtail and North American Native Plant Society who also sell, give away and trade native plants. You will not find true native plants in most commercial nurseries. Gardening with true native plants is not easy and is a noble task.

    The RoncyWorks volunteer gardeners were a group of gardeners committed to learning about ecologically friendly gardening. Over time they were precuring true native plants and working on the variety and timing of their garden beds. It was a work-in-progress with with a noble vision. They were also individualized their approach to suit the shade levels, water run off and dog and person traffic that each plot had.

    The landscape company that Roncesvalles Village BIA hired replant the 21 garden plots with predominantly native plant cultivars. The exact % and how bee friendly the cultivars are is hard to ascertain at the moment. You would really need to let the gardens grow some and then have a true native plant/Bee expert expert come in the asses the gardens to get a clear picture of how ecologically minded the new gardens are.

    The landscape company used a more of a traditional colour matching, approach that has less variety then the gardens that were ripped out. They also have planted Japanese barberry an invasive plant that should no longer be used. They have also used a uniform approach to all garden beds that does not allow each garden plot to be tailored to its shade levels, water run off and dog and person traffic.

    The Roncesvalles Village BIA dismantled and ripped out ecologically minded gardens and replaced them with garden beds that even though they may tick the right boxes for being 70% pollinators and native plants are inferior on many levels and I believe are less ecologically mined.

  • Loss of a community eco friendly gardening initiative that was for me at the heart of Roncesvalles Village. I was planning on joining the volunteer gardening group as my kids got a bit older because of the community enriching connections it would have given me. In these times of isolation, these types of outdoor community enriching projects are especially key to a community’s wellbeing.

    Let looks at types of wellbeing and knowledge the initiate brought for the Roncesvalles Village community for the past ten years.
  1. Taught by example how to be a community minded and to give back. My kids’ walking by and seeing the RoncyWorks gardens were learning by example how to be community helpers. The way the Roncesvalles Village BIA had promoted their example through social media extended this learning.
  2. A sense of community belonging prevents illness and promotes health on many levels both psychologically and physically
    Statistics Canada web site in an article Community Belonging says:
    “Research has established links between social networks and health outcomes. Social isolation tends to be detrimental to health, while social engagement and attachment are associated with positive health outcomes. Sense of community belonging embodies the social attachment of individuals and reflects social engagement and participation within communities.” The volunteer gardening intitiavie brought like minded people together for a common goal that benefited the community. The gardening group could proudly see the fruits of their efforts each time they walked along Roncesvalles Avenue which further strengthened the heath giving potential inherent in the intitiavie.
  3. A sense of pride and identity in our community
    The initiative was a rare and special thing, run by gardeners passionate about ecological gardening. This gave Roncesvalles Village characteristics that set it part from the standard city street. The look was different, having more of wild meadow look. It was more ecologically friendly. With 21 Garden beds along the strip it was a repeated “branding” that marked the neighborhood as one that values community and the environment.
  4. Roncesvalles Village lost the knowledge and participation of great individuals several or whom were deeply knowledgeable about eco friendly gardening and who were avid true natives plant enthusiast. This was a great group of people who could have guided and supported the Roncesvalles Village BIA in being ecologically and community minded.


Photo: The new garden beds planted off planting season are struggling to establish themselves.



Is this a trend in city gardening?
This story is not an isolated event. Stories like this can be found in other cities. Rob Thibert received an order from the City of Windsor to remove his low maintenance bee friendly native pant garden beds that do not requiring watering and replace them with either artificial turf or regular lawn grass that needs to be watered, cut, fertilized and weeded. All this done for similar reasons to the Roncesvalles Village BIA, to create an organized traditional look. See Story: City orders boulevard gardeners to replace native plants with Astroturf

Loss of trust in the Roncesvalles Village BIA
The new gardens are a rebranding for me. I now see the Roncesvalles Village BIA in a new way, and it is not positive. I am sad that I live in an area that would treat the skilled, knowledgeable ecologically-minded volunteer gardeners in such a way that they felt pushed out. I am sad that the BIA would not heed the petition signatures of 425 local residents asking them to repair their relationship with the volunteer gardeners. I am disappointed that the Roncesvalles Village BIA did not consult with the community and instead pushed their new plan through for more “organized” garden beds. I am sad that the Roncesvalles Village BIA did not see value in the community identity and well-being that the volunteer gardening intitiavie brought to the neighborhood. I am sad they have chosen a less ecologically sound approach. They are also now paying for commercial gardening services that used to be provided by volunteers. In this time of reopening and recovering from the pandemic I would rather see funds put towards supporting local businesses. I would also rather they had put there energy and money towards replacing the many trees that have died along Roncesvalle Avenue over the past few years. Replacing the numerous dead trees would have been a beatification project that would have made much more sense as it would have also helped keep the street cool during hot summer months by providing shade. I no longer trust the Roncesvalles Village BIA’s ability to make sound decisions that are of benefit to the neighborhood.

These are the losses I feel as I ponder upon the rebranding on the Roncesvalles Village Gardens.

———-

References:
1. Berkman LF, Glass T, Brissette I, Seeman TE. From social integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium. Social Science and Medicine 51(2000):843-857.


Contact the Roncesvalles Village BIA and send them your thoughts
Email:  info@roncesvallesvillage.ca

8 Comments

  1. I am sorry for the loss and your grief. This is however a great site specific example of how the world works. It is not likely our globalized, western economic paradigm will ever be reconciled with a localized human and more-than-human world until there is no choice. The ravines in Toronto are facing ecosystem collapse.

    People take dried phragmites home based on appearance and form and the world of codified dance is not much different. As much as I have tried, I have not met anyone interested in dancing with consent and in reciprocity with natural process in a local ravine. It would appear our only hope for reconciliation with nature is encouraging indigenous communities to take a leadership role. It’s much like Contact Improv dance. If we think we are always leading, it is likely wise and even more delightful to allow our partners to take the lead. I am deeply grateful for all that CI has taught me about nature and our creatureliness.

    We have 8.5 years until 2030, the first big milestone the IPCC gave us. By that time anthropogenic climate change anxiety will evolve into panic and trauma…if not before as current events now indicate. I guess the science was a bit too optimistic? It is ironic and a gift that my lived experience of oppression, marginalization and cultural genocide has at least given me some level of resilience to embrace the change.

    I think we were all hoping the pandemic would encourage us to dance into deeper connection. Sadly all it has proven is how truly selfish the privileged will become (and I am a privileged Canadian)…. and how divisive the world shall be.

    What is the likelihood that we will not want life returning to normal? How might we let go of our need to gather in our favourite local community districts? Even the acronym BIA speaks to our commercially structured lives.

    Despite climate change founded global social injustices and unrest, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornados and much more, it seems too difficult for us to willingly change our behaviour. The lack of willingness to embrace necessary change will surely lead to increased grief and suffering.

    We need to be mindful of our selective empathy in the context of our lack of systemic integrity. Again, CI teaches us how to reintegrate mind and body, to adapt, embrace and experience the joy in uncertainty and change. Perhaps we can apply this wisdom to the reintegration of our mortal bodies and nature….because through CI we learn that we are nature.

    The Olympics might hopefully reveal the consequences of an international, celebrity, status, politically and economically driven inability to garner the consent of local communities….from humans who are different from us….. as well as from other species. Perhaps the Japanese people, who are not themselves indigenous, will gain deeper insight into their own racist, patriarchal, oppressive culture and their treatment of the Ainu and other indigenous communities.

    BTW, the reason for my lengthy response is that I have had decades of experience specifying Japanese Yews, Boxwood, Emerald Cedars and Hosta. The art of the landscape is generally driven by the same forces as other art forms…..ballet for example. To my understanding, the health of the body/ nature, is not a particular priority. Once again, the focus seems to be on culturally codified notions of beauty. Here’s hoping that indigenous forms of dance, even our culturally appropriated ecstatic dances, will inform us about how we might be in deeper connection with Mother Nature.

    Let’s also keep in mind species migration due to climate change, so it may not be prudent to cling to plant species indigenous to our local landscape. The fauna that migrates quicker needs plants as food sources so maybe we also need to be planting species from a warmer zone? And keep in mind the provenance of the so-called native plants we are planting. I suspect most of them are from warmer climates where they grown faster so that more money can be made growing and selling them.

    Gotta love the intersectionality of all that we do and don’t do!

  2. I am really upset that this happened. I don’t understand why this business group did what they did, and I don’t understand why this story was not picked up by the media. I am becoming increasingly worried about this anxiety crisis. I live in the Toronto area and want to, and will help anyway that I can.

    1. Hello Stephanie
      Yes, it upset me as well. One thing you can do is contact the Roncesvalles Village BIA and send them your thoughts
      Email:  info@roncesvallesvillage.ca
      Take care
      Kathleen

  3. You never owned the gardens – you did a horrible job maintaining them ! Which is why all the photos u post of them are from 5-8 years ago . They were over run with weeds . Businesses who own the gardens were fed up as you could t even see their store fronts . The plants are native , are pollinators , are bee friendly and don’t look like a ditch on the side of the 401 . You weren’t free volunteers . The bias budget is posted public ally and you billed them for supplies each years in the tthousand sod dollars .

    U want to garden ? go grow weeds on your own properties

    1. hello. Thank you for your comment I think there is some confusion I am not part of the volunteer gardening team that took care of the gardens. Just a Roncesvalles resident who loved their work.

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