In my travels for my horticultural consulting and design business, I pass through a lot of different towns and cities. It’s remarkable to me how beautiful some municipalities are. Burlington, Oakville, Brampton—these are all beautiful places with landscaped streets and flowers everywhere. They have parks and gardens that are popular for family activities and nature watching alike.
The psychological effect that nature has on us is interesting and perhaps underestimated. Whether it’s trees and flowers, or birds and butterflies, nature makes us feel better. It promotes healing. It has been proven that when people can see trees from a hospital window, healing occurs faster. Nature makes us work harder. Team members are more productive when office windows look out onto green spaces. Nature also makes relaxing times MORE relaxing. Studies have been done on the effects of taking a walk on a street with just buildings—not trees—versus a walk on a tree-lined street. The walk down the tree-lined street left people substantially more relaxed and better emotionally prepared to handle life’s challenges.
Green does a lot for us in terms of what we call “ecosystem services.” Trees cool our cities. A mature maple tree can soak and evaporate up to 80 gallons of water per hour—far more efficient than any machine we can build. It’s the equivalent of a 40,000 BTU air conditioner. To put that in perspective, your house needs roughly a 2000 BTU air conditioner. While they’re busy cooling our world, they’re also capturing and sequestering carbon from the air, mitigating climate change.
Wetlands, even tiny shallow temporary ones in the spring (called vernal pools) help protect us from flooding, help clean the water before it reaches our creeks and helps recharge our groundwater. They have value and deserve to be protected. It’s not about tree hugging. It’s about protecting our property and possessions. Flooding has become the number one insurance claim in Canada, in terms of property loss, overtaking fire.
Native plants support biodiversity. I’m not claiming ONLY natives are good, but rather that natives are more broadly effective. I have some lovely non-natives in my garden that are biodiversity engines. One of my current favourites is a small tree—a seven-sons-tree—which is covered in bees and monarchs in mid-September. It’s not from here but it serves a purpose. Think about the eco-niche a plant fills. Oh, and we must be doing something right. A colony of honeybees has taken up residence in a birdhouse we put up for screech owls. Not the intended guest, but pretty cool.
At long last, many people are aware of pollinator protection and supporting monarch butterflies. Social media hashtags such as #SaveTheBees are bringing attention to important issues, including improved food security through pollinator support. Encouraging a variety of life in our urban world helps ensure that pest populations are less inclined get out of control. If some creature (think ‘gypsy moth’ not ‘Frankenstein’) is causing problems, the odds are much better, with strong biodiversity, that there will be some predator nearby to bring it back under control.
We need beauty in our lives. It makes the difference between a house and a home. It makes the difference between a town we WANT to live in and the town we simply sleep in. Beauty isn’t just about shallow either. Beauty means an improved tax base. Nature has real value to us. Look at the Great Oak on Regional Road 25 near the QEW. Citizens raised $350,000 to save the tree. I recently had three black walnuts on a customer’s front lawn assessed for value, by Maple Hill Tree Care. How much could the property lose if those trees are cut down? More than $100,000—$110,000 to be exact. Even an unremarkable tree will add $10-$20,000 to the value of a home. People pay more to live in beautiful towns. Milton is very proud of its low tax rate, while councillors and residents bemoan how ugly the gardens are and how poorly maintained they are. This is NOT the fault of town horticultural staff. They are hard-working folks doing their best. There just aren’t enough of them and they don’t have enough of a budget. Beauty doesn’t come cheap. And what happens if one approaches top bureaucrats to voice concerns about gardens? Supplicants get sent, manager by manager, all the way back down to the poor horticulturists who have neither the time nor the tools…unfortunately.
So, what do we have to do? Honestly? Spend! We need to support the garden crews. Granted, this will cost money. But it will come back to us as an increased tax base (people will want to live in our town and be willing to pay for the privilege if the town is more beautiful) and a more resilient ecosystem, which is better able to protect us. It also means more local employment, and, as people want to spend more time in our town, more income for local businesses.
There’s also the bigger picture. How we take care of nature helps dictate how nature will take care of us. What happened in Houston is a direct result of paving over too much land and over wetlands. Wetlands act as sponges and reservoirs during major storms. It’s not like it was a surprise either. They were warned by scientists and planners, but the developer’s dollar was too alluring. It’s also not only a far away problem. Municipalities near Milton are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lawsuits and infrastructure upgrades because they ignored warnings and acted too late. Stratford. Peterborough. Burlington. We need to be proactive.
Wetlands and farmland aren’t just something to sell and build on. They are worth protecting. Boulevards, parks and gardens aren’t just areas to mow and have fill up with weeds. They’re canvasses we can paint with biodiversity, colour and texture. They’re spaces that can improve our world. If you’re tired of our formerly pretty little town looking so scruffy, reach out to your councillors. Make it known that you want the situation to improve, and, yes, that you recognize that it might cost a little more. Those of us who notice and care have to become more vocal. It’s worth it!
Sean James is Milton’s Gardener: a horticultural expert, a designer, a gardener, an ecologist and teacher. One garden at a time, Sean designs and plants eco-compatible, efficient, aesthetic, symbiotic gardens using philosophies and practices that are rooted in promoting native botanicals, edibles and responsible species.