Skip to Main Content

Garden Transformations

Contribute to a healthy community with your beautiful garden and be the envy of all your neighbours.  Toronto and Region Conservation is committed to assist gardeners with the creation of beautiful landscapes that respect your community's natural heritage.  Read the Garden Transformation stories below and get inspired to learn more about nature, gardening and landscape design.

Nature Takes Hold in a Bolton suburb
Nature Takes Hold
in a Bolton Suburb

A Family Affair
A Family Affair

City Garden Offers
City Garden offers
Sights & Sounds of Nature

For more inspiration, take a look through the Photo Gallery »


Nature Takes Hold in a Bolton Suburb

turkeyAs a Scarborough resident in a previous life, Ruth regularly walked her dog through the ravines and woodlots near her home. Always a curious person and a plant enthusiast, she noticed the great diversity of plants all around her and wondered about their names and origins. The chance discovery of a native plant gardening book in a local Winners store, paired with the viewing of related features on the Home and Garden Network, solidified Ruth's resolve to learn more about southern Ontario's native plants.

The more Ruth learned about these plants, the more she was convinced that a dramatic shift in her gardening ethic was required. Another lucky break was the discovery that one of southern Ontario's few native plant nurseries was located just a stone's throw from her place of employment. Ruth visited Ontario Native Plants, now called Native Plants of Claremont, for an assortment of locally-sourced and grown native plants. The nursery's owner Charles Kinsley provided more than just plants. He readily shared his ecological knowledge and passion, and guided Ruth in the design of her native plant garden.

Ruth quickly ran out of space in her urban lot and began looking for a new home north of the city that would provide more room for her beloved native plants. In 2001 she moved to a 2.2 acre property north of Bolton.  Like most of the homes in this subdivision, Ruth's house was surrounded by a large expanse of turf. Feeling both excited and overwhelmed, Ruth decided to focus on one small area at a time. She began with a meadow garden on her septic bed.

Ruth chose shallow-rooted herbaceous plants instead of trees and shrubs to prevent damage to her septic bed. She also chose species that would tolerate or even thrive on her heavy clay soil. She planted a diverse mix of wildflowers and grasses including bergamot, columbine, balsam ragwort, prairie smoke, golden Alexander, Robin's plantain, big bluestem and little bluestem.

Once the prairie garden was complete, Ruth turned her attention to the creation of a wet meadow. She began by installing an L-shaped pergola to provide some shade in her otherwise sunny yard. A depression was dug in her heavy clay soil and planted with swamp milkweed, queen of the prairie, ironweed and stiff goldenrod. 
Ruth then planted a woodland garden on the north side of her house that is almost always in shade. Many of the plants in this garden bloom early, a welcome sign that spring has arrived. Species include large flowered bellwort, hepatica, bloodroot, mayapple and maidenhair fern. A dogwood and a mountain maple feel right at home here and delight all sorts of pollinators in the spring.

What Ruth loves most about her native plant garden is the continual succession of blooms, and the constant hum of life. Butterflies, birds and bees flit from one bloom to another, transferring pollen as they go. Her garden stands in stark contrast to the unchanging and quiet lawns that surround it. Although neighbours have accepted Ruth's garden - she has received no complaints - they have not embraced it. Perhaps this will change as new provincial pesticide legislation comes into effect. As of April 22, 2009, Ruth's neighbours and all Ontario residents will have another good reason to adopt more sustainable lawn and garden care practices. Chemical lawn care will not only be unhealthy; it will be illegal!

spring meadow summer meadow

Back to Top »

A Family Affair

Soon after moving into their home in 2003, Kate and David converted much of their lawn to a more natural landscape. With the help of local environmental organizations and native plant gardening books, they created a unique garden that welcomes both wildlife and people.

Kate, David and their two young sons enjoy watching the many interactions taking place in this garden on a daily basis. A variety of birds frequent the garden, while snakes, rabbits and toads stop by for the occasional visit. Kate is most interested however in the great diversity of insects that call this place home. She and her boys quietly approach bees, wasps and butterflies, stopping just centimeters away, to watch them feed on flowers.


A number of factors motivated Kate and David to create a more natural landscape in their yard. To begin with, their yard's compacted clay soil and heavy shade did not support a lush lawn. Instead of investing a lot of time and money on soil amendment and tree-trimming, they replaced a large proportion of their lawn with garden plots.
Kate and David also wanted to share their love of nature with their sons. The boys plant and tend to wildflowers and shrubs as well as vegetables and herbs in a small raised bed. This past summer they were thrilled to discover monarch caterpillars in the garden.


Kate and David are inspired by Toronto's remnant natural areas as well as the Haliburton area where their family vacations. They carefully observe ecological interactions in these areas and attempt to replicate some of them in their garden. Books and the Internet are helpful but nature and experimentation are the best teachers.


Kate and David have learned much about nature, gardening and landscape design and provide the following advice to gardeners wanting to follow in their path.

  • Start small or risk feeling overwhelmed. Kate and David began with a few small plots and expanded slowly over two years. This may also be preferable to neighbours that adjust slowly to a new landscape in their midst.
  • Avoid the back-breaking work of removing sod. Instead, cover it with layers of soaked cardboard/newspaper, soil and mulch. Push the mulch and soil aside and cut through the paper to plant plugs, shrubs and trees. Then return the layers, ensuring the mulch is in a doughnut shape around stems instead of a mound, which can lead to rot.
  • Take advantage of all the free or inexpensive programs offered by local organizations and municipal governments.
  • Visit your library for native plant gardening books, including 100 Easy-to-grow Native Plants by Lorraine Johnson. (TRCA's Healthy Yards program also has a handy native plant card set available for $5. Call 416-661-6600, ext. 5786, to order a copy.)
  • Water new gardens regularly for the first year to encourage root development. Maintain a heavy mulch layer to decrease irrigation requirements - as well as weed growth - in subsequent years.
  • Leave the leaves! Kate and David mow them late in the fall and then rake them into garden plots, where they serve as fertilizer and mulch.
  • Establishing native plants in a garden dominated by hardy non-native groundcovers can be difficult. Kate and David are slowly replacing Lily-of-the-valley, garlic mustard and European violet species with wild strawberry, Solomon's seal and native ferns. These native plants are holding their own - with a little help. Kate and David closely monitor the garden and remove the non-native plants whenever they appear.

Favorite Plants

Although Kate finds something to celebrate in every garden plant, a few species have especially endeared themselves to her. Here are some of her favorites:

  • Dogwood and nannyberry shrubs attract birds during the summer and provide colour during fall and winter.
  • Butterfly weed, beebalm and common milkweed attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Woodland sunflowers bloom profusely from early-August till October.
  • Trillium, hepatica, Jack-in-the-pulpit and bloodroot bloom early for a short period of time in the woodland garden.
  • Ferns are reliable and long-lasting, and contrast nicely with wildflowers.
  • Red oaks provide food and shelter for birds and squirrels, shade for the family, and lovely fall colour.

Gardening together in an organic manner with native plants keeps this family connected to one another and to nature. If your family is interested in taking on a similar project, contact the Healthy Yards program coordinator for assistance.

butterfly in a famliy garden

Back to Top »

City Garden offers Sights & Sounds of Nature 

Nancy in her gardenWhen Nancy moved into her new home on an exposed corner lot in Etobicoke, she felt overwhelmed by the large expanse of lawn. Cutting this lawn with her push mower was both labour-intensive and time-consuming. Mowing, weeding and watering the lawn took up precious time that Nancy would have preferred to spend gardening.

Nancy wanted a change but was intimidated by the perceived expense and physical labour associated with converting her lawn to garden. And then, on perfect cue, a flyer arrived promoting a tour of water-efficient gardens in her neighbourhood. Nancy attended this event and embraced the ideas presented. With the help of her husband, she has since created a water-efficient garden of her own.


Nancy felt like a slave to her lawn. It was a lot of work to maintain, yet provided her with little joy. Refusing to purchase a gas or electric mower for environmental reasons, Nancy was forced to cut her lawn with a push mower. Ideal for small lots, push mowers require a lot of time and physical effort when used on large properties.


Nancy's inspiration came from a local garden tour delivered jointly by Toronto and Region Conservation and Toronto Water. Additional inspiration and guidance came from a Toronto Water DVD on water efficient gardens. This resource provided step-by-step directions for converting a lawn to a water-efficient garden with minimal effort and expense. 


Nancy wants more than anything to impress on people that they too can convert their lawns to water-efficient gardens. Here are some tips from this inspirational gardener:

  • Contact your municipality, conservation authority and local environmental groups for a list of free programs and products. GTA residents can easily find this information using the on-line Healthy Yards Connection tool:
  • Follow the steps outlined in the Toronto Water DVD on water-efficient gardens. This involves placing eight layers of overlapping newspaper and heavy mulch over your lawn.
  • Inform and involve neighbours. Nancy found that neighbours were very curious about her changing garden and also eager to assist. Many dropped off old newspapers for the layering process.
  • Don't be afraid to ask. When Nancy ran out of soil, she only needed to look across the street for more. Contractors working on the house there agreed to dump half a load of excavated soil on to her driveway for free.
  • Save money by purchasing plants at the end of the season. Although there is less choice at this time of year, Nancy is usually able to find a few appropriate plants.
  • Keep plant tags, photos and notes altogether in a binder for quick reference and to share your story with interested parties.

garden transformationNancys garden transformationsmall arrowgarden transformation

Transforming her lawn into a water-efficient garden has become a bit of a community project. People regularly come by to donate necessary items, monitor progress and hear the inspirational story of this little patch of land. And Nancy is only too happy to oblige.

Flighty Visitors

The garden's first spring was a magical time. Nancy kept daily watch to see how the new plants would bud and leaf out, many mere twigs when planted the previous fall. She also delighted in the sights and sounds of birds flitting from branch to branch and rooting through mulch. Occasionally, migrating birds would stop by for a day or two of rest before continuing on their way. As spring and then summer progressed, the garden attracted the usual bees and butterflies, but in greater numbers than ever before. And the new layout provided the opportunity to observe these winged creatures in action, sometimes just inches away.

after the transformation