Living on the Edge – Marginal Landscaping in the Urban Environment

We may choose to live on the edge, but let’s not marginalize our wildlife. Bumblebee on Joe-Pyeweed.

“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
(Kurt Vonnegut)

Borders come in all forms and scales – national, provincial/state, municipal, individual, and even “rooms” that we may have delineated within our gardens.

In Canada, it’s no coincidence that most of the human population clings to the southern edge where we hug the border with the U.S. The majority (81%) lives in urban areas and most of our largest cities lie along the border. It is more hospitable climate-wise, provides better farmland to sustain human life, and gives close access to our largest trading partner. We share a common border and those near it generally share a common natural history.

So, we recognize borders, but our wildlife does not. Wildlife will move about within environmental limits. For plants, their limits for the most part are determined by soil type, moisture and light regime. Some plants can handle a wide range of environmental factors, while others have a narrow range of tolerance. In this regard, they are generalists or specialists. No surprise that the key to recognizing which species will work on certain sites really hinges on their tolerance level. And that tolerance level will be impacted by urban stresses.

I live in the most populous city within the most populous province, Toronto, Ontario. And when you live in a large city, you are likely to have a small yard, particularly if the housing stock consists of a large proportion of condominiums. In 2003, I bought our bungalow on a small plot of 25 x 100’ with my husband a.k.a. ScoopAssist/Photog/Webmaster. We figuratively live on the edge. There are no big beds or areas that could be considered for extensive plantings. Everything exists along the narrow confines of borders, so if we wanted a wildlife garden, we couldn’t waste space with lawn. Out of necessity, we lost a patch in the front which became a driveway widening as parking is at a premium. Other than that, it didn’t require removing a lot of turf: a strip along the front walk; a patch around a declining old Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) in the front yard; the area in the back, minus the narrow driveway and garage.

The native clematis, Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) favours a hot head and cool feet. In the front yard, afternoon sun streams through the sparse canopy but is tempered by the shading effect of meadowsweet (Spirea alba) and goldenrod (Solidago sp.).

In the backyard – hard edges meet soft. Gold pebble aggregate provides a loose patio substrate, reclaimed bricks from the demolition next door hold the stones, and Eco-lawn lines the pathway embedded with concrete, dendro-stepping stones.

Fungus on the edge – living on an apple log amongst the northern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) and northern fly-honeysuckle (Lonicera villosa); mulch courtesy of red and white oaks (Quercus rubra, Q. alba).

For the backyard, we worked with the existing structure of the property – eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) along the east and north sides. We augmented with more on the south side to create a private paradise – “Wildwood”. The lawn was replaced with Eco-lawn,  a fescue mix from Wildflower Farm marketed as a sustainable landscaping solution. Native species were planted along the edges, selected in mind with the fact that we don’t have full sun anywhere on our property. Neighbouring bungalows were being demolished and replaced with over-sized, two-storey houses resulting in diminished sun exposure. And the large oak trees on the north and south side were extending their branches and closing the gap in the canopy layer. But there is always a bright side to any situation. Every year, the leaf fall from the oaks provides a layer of mulch which I rake into the garden. It not only gives a very natural look of forest ground cover, but it provides habitat for ground crawling invertebrates and a source of food for birds.

Sedge with an edge – Bebb’s sedge (Carex bebbii) – small but spritely being confined under cedars.

Lichen the edge. Opportunistic lichens take hold of the canopy on our swing.

Besides the “edge effect”, urban living has its own set of challenges when trying to create a wildlife garden. Most talk about the need to increase the canopy cover to deal with climate change and ensuing problems within the urban environment. But many of us recognize the importance of having ground cover and various levels of understory.  We want to recreate to our best abilities, habitat that is welcoming to residents and visitors. We want to be part of the movement to create corridors for wildlife living and moving within the urban realm; the movement espoused by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home. In essence, we need to “Tallamize” our gardens.

I’ll be dealing with edges and their challenges in more detail in subsequent posts. Until then, here are some perils of living on the edge in the urban garden:

Urban Stresses – think extreme living. You’ve got to be tough to live on the edge! Even if you have tough plants, it can be a very harsh environment and not always optimal growing conditions. Toronto, like many places bordering the Great Lakes, has a continental climate which means extreme temperatures of heat and cold with high humidity. Call it the Great Lake Effect. Add some urban stressors such as soil compaction, confinement by hardscape (roads, sidewalks, utilities) and air pollution; throw in a dose of road salt in winter and your plants will be even more stressed. It can be down right hostile in the city.

Encroachment/border disputes with neighbours are territorial in nature and can be difficult to resolve. On small properties, we live cheek-to-jowl with neighbours. The close proximity brings additional stress. The appearance of a property’s understory, particularly ground cover, may attract unwanted attention from bylaw enforcers. Bullies may use bylaws to harrass neighbours (e.g., bylaws involving grass and weeds, property standards, traffic right-of-way).

“Presents” from pets, i.e., cat and dog business. Neighbours may allow their cats to run wild to harrass wildlife and use your garden as a litter box. Dog walkers know that the easement adjacent to your property is public property. They think they have the right to use it, but you, as the property owner, have the obligation to maintain it. So, if you don’t want them to do their “dirty” work, keep your plants tall. Your vegetation may get sprinkled, but that’s usually the extent of it, unless… (see next two points)

Waste tossed into yards. Why do gardens, particularly those with tall plants, attract the invasive species – the litter bug?  Simply, the edge of a garden is a more inconspicuous place to toss litter than a manicured lawn which is out in the open.

Vandalism – some people feel the need to snap off parts of plants. Tall species, such as large milkweeds are particularly susceptible with their self-supporting stalks and robust seed pods, ripe for ripping off, just for the sake of it.

Living dangerously! Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on a front corner.

© 2012, Janet Harrison. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Janet I look forward to your series as I know city dwellers who try to wildlife garden and those who say it is impossible. I grew up in urban and suburban environments. Although I live in the burbs down near Syracuse, NY (hello from just South of the border), I have similar issues with dogs and cats. If I didn’t maintain certain things like a lawn I probably would have code enforcement too…great post!!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Seasonal Celebrations-Autumn Awaits

    • says

      Thanks, Donna. You would certainly understand the Great Lake Effect, as the southern end of Lake Ontario usually gets walloped with snow while us in the north (except the very edge – Hamilton area) tend to be spared the big storm events. I envy those who have a large plot to work with and can have several types of gardens (meadow, wetland, forest) when I’m so tightly constrained both in area and plant choice. However, it might be good in a way – less maintenance and fewer distractions in the form of appropriate plants to choose. I really need to get out and find some more species that tolerate cedars and a dry rain garden. Definitely, I will be covering those issues and not only domestic animals, but the wild animal side of wildlife along with plants. Luckily, future fodder for posts are not as constrained. Cheers!

  2. says

    I look forward to this series too. I garden in Washington DC, and have to be wary of hazards such as digging up glass shards and bottle caps, both dogs and humans doing their “business” where I walk and weed, and finding stolen and emptied purses/bags tossed into my tall plants. But don’t forget the occasional unexpected benefits, like the $50 bill rolled up in a beer bottle and hidden under the garden stairs, no doubt for an urban exchange of some kind. I took it in trade for all the cleaning up I do :)
    Mary Kay Scott recently posted..Building a Garden Path

  3. says

    Love this post. I am in a small village surrounded by rural farmland. Even here I have encountered some of the problems you mention – cats and dogs roaming my gardens and leaving gifts. If it becomes habit I find a good sprinkling of cayenne pepper deters noses. Also the Milkweed I let go in my front sidewalk has been snapped off! I didn’t want to think it was purposeful. I’m going to try to move the front entrance patch to an area in the Nice Driveway next year – less tempting for passersby.
    Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern recently posted..August Observations: “Order Please”

  4. Dee says

    I have a neighbor just like all of the above! When she’s not raking the bare cement with a metal rake, she’s cutting down my host plants and smashing caterpillars! I have filed so many complaints against her to the management! She stays quiet for a period of time, then she comes over to vandalize again, and she’s in her late 70’s!
    We also have a problem with people walking their dogs and letting them pee and poop on lawns and on my flowers as well. People are so ignorant, I would rather live with wildlife and away from people. The wildlife is more civilized!


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