This ecologist was told she could keep her natural garden. Here’s why she’s fighting city hall anyway


An ecologist is challenging Toronto’s long grass and weed bylaw, even though the city exempted her from having to cut down her natural garden — which is home to tall shrubs and trees, as well as butterflies and chipmunks.

Nina-Marie Lister, an ecology and urban planning professor at Ryerson University, says she never asked for an exemption and she rejects it. Instead, she and her lawyer are arguing that the bylaw itself is unconstitutional and outdated, saying it goes against the city’s own pollinator protection and biodiversity strategies.

“[The current bylaw] really stands in the way of individual citizens on a small patch of yard trying to do the right thing at a time of biodiversity collapse and climate crisis,” said Lister, who was also a consultant on the city’s own biodiversity strategy.

The two are now drafting a replacement bylaw to present to the city this fall.

Lister and her family have been tending the garden at her home near Davenport Road and Christie Street for the past five years. It includes a front-yard meadow, a green roof and around 100 different species of plants, shrubs and trees, most of which are native to Ontario.

Nina-Marie Lister’s natural garden is home to about 100 different species of trees, plants and shrubs. (Lorraine Johnson)

“In the work that I do, it would be very odd for me not to have a garden that was full of life, rich in biodiversity and frankly, one that gives us enormous benefit as a community,” Lister said.

Lister, who is also the director of Ryerson’s Ecological Design Lab, says the garden holds storm water, controls runoff and provides habitat for various birds and at-risk insects like monarch butterflies. It’s also been home to other creatures, including frogs, rabbits and chipmunks.

Plus, she says, it provides education and respite; passersby often stop and sit on logs that have been turned into makeshift seats, kids play in the flowers, and before the pandemic, school groups would come by.

‘The whole thing is ridiculous,’ lawyer says

Lister says she hopes people get a sense of joy when they walk past the garden, but instead some have complained to the city.  A bylaw officer visited her home in August and said the garden violated the bylaw, which resulted in an order to mow it down.

The long grass and weed bylaw states grass, weeds and vegetation cannot be taller than 20 centimetres. A conviction can include forced mowing, at the landowner’s cost, and a fine of up to $5,000. That doesn’t include growth that’s part of a natural garden or planted to produce ground cover. Exemptions can be granted for natural gardens.

Some of Lister’s plants are between 90 and 120 centimetres. 

About 600 square metres of Nina-Marie Lister’s natural garden can be seen from the street. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Eventually, Lister was granted an exemption, but she says she didn’t apply for one and an inspection was never done to grant it.

Lister told the city she rejects the exemption because she feels the bylaw puts a reverse onus on homeowners to seek exemptions and argue in favour of their gardens — something she says she’s well-equipped to do but other homeowners may not be.

She hired environmental lawyer David Donnelly, who says “the whole thing is ridiculous.”

“What kind of barbarian would mow buttercups, forget-me-nots and Lambsquarters?” he wrote in a nine-page letter to Mayor John Tory this week.

In the letter, Donnelly outlined his argument for why the bylaw is unconstitutional. He points out it’s been previously challenged in court, successfully, in 1996.

“[The judge] found that the law is actually void, it’s too vague and, in fact, it’s unenforceable,” he said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

Lister and Donnelly also argue the bylaw is hypocritical, given that the city’s pollinator protection strategy says it’s the city’s obligation to “inspire residents to create pollinator habitat.” 

“The city has really been progressive about this on the one hand, but on the other hand where Municipal Licensing and Standards is concerned, there’s a bylaw that actually stands in the way of those objectives,” Lister said.

Nina-Marie Lister and her family have been tending their natural garden for five years. (Lorraine Johnson)

She and Donnelly say their model bylaw includes a way for the city to deal with noxious weeds and derelict properties but suggests solutions for the city and landowners to work together.

“Part of what this exercise is all about is to impose some common sense,” Donnelly said.

The city did not have anyone from Municipal Licensing and Standards available for an interview on Tuesday. A spokesperson said the city is reviewing and will respond to a public letter urging reform of the bylaw, as well as the letter penned by Donnelly.

Nina-Marie Lister rejected an exemption from the city, saying the bylaw is unconstitutional and outdated. (John Lesavage/CBC)

“While we understand the objections raised in the letter, we also know many residents and councillors rely on the grass and weeds bylaw to make sure properties are properly maintained,” Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat wrote in an email.

Lister invited Tory for a tea in her garden to discuss the issue further. Peat says the mayor appreciates the offer and will be following up on the invitation.