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  • Fields of Dreams
  • Catriona Sandilands (bio)

A Backyard in Toronto, Ontario, 2016

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to buy a house in a lovely neighborhood near High Park, in the west end of Toronto. A friend joked that I bought a yard with a house on it, and there was truth to her teasing. The house, built in the 1920s and badly renovated at least twice, is a bit of a mess (which I discover, bit by bit). But it’s a detached house, which means that it sits on a full-sized lot, which means that it has, for Toronto, a comparatively large area in the back for a garden. When I first moved in, the backyard consisted of a sloping expanse of apologetic grass with an ugly aluminum shed at the rear fence and a path of square concrete paving stones leading up to it. Even then, however, it was a field of utopian dreams; all through the first, long winter in the house, I looked out at the nasty shed in the snow and envisioned a garden [End Page 111] full of organic herbs and vegetables, lush native ferns and delicate wildflowers, abundant fruit trees, bright perennials, and hardy boreal shrubs happily coexisting in an oasis of urban fecundity.

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When it came time to actually planning and planting the garden, I had to make some difficult choices. Even a full lot is not an acreage, and shade-loving native ferns do not have the same requirements as, say, tomatoes. I made many compromises, but the one thing I was not willing to forego was my desire for a so called “pollinator-friendly” garden. I wanted my little backyard to be a welcoming habitat for different kinds of birds and insects in order to be able to share my oasis with these other species (in addition to the resident legions of squirrels and raccoons, which are the subject of a very different essay). I did my homework. I had brilliant help from experts on native plants and other gardening in the region. I went to different garden centers and sourced organic plants that had not been finished with (insect-toxic) neonicotinoid pesticides. And I chose some great favorites: echinacea, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, aster, elderberry, sumac, lilac, blueberry, and even some of my staple cooking herbs such as mint, thyme, and chives.

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Attracting monarch butterflies to the garden, however, presented a more precise problem. Of course, some of these pollinator-friendly plant species are also monarch friendly—the adult butterflies rely on the Southern Ontario nectar of late-flowering asters, for example, to fuel up for their epic journey south to Mexico. But the real key to attracting monarchs is one genus—milkweed (Asclepias)—because the adult butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed; these plants, in turn, are [End Page 112] the only source of food for the young caterpillars. And that’s where it gets complicated, as not all milkweeds are created equal. Although there are many different milkweed plants available in Toronto garden centers, many of which are bright, very attractive hybrids and cultivars, only three kinds—Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)—are appropriate for monarch butterfly caterpillars in my region. (Other species can attract monarchs, but only these three can sustain the caterpillars: they are toxic, and in passing their toxicity on to the caterpillars, they protect them from predators.) In addition, it is not enough to plant just one milk-weed plant in the middle of a mixed native plant garden and hope for the best. Not only do the caterpillars eat voraciously, requiring the presence of multiple plants to sustain a whole brace of them (one estimate is that a single monarch will eat twenty large leaves over the course of its larval stage), but also the adults are primarily attracted to large patches of orange, red, yellow, and purple flowers (the garden should also, I discovered, be sunny, sheltered, and include things like flat rocks for the butterflies to bask). In other words, gardening...


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pp. 111-126
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