The End of the Lawn

    by Sally Cole


    The lawn is an invention of the English landed gentry living in the foggy, moist climate of the British Isles. Lawns proliferated across Canada with the mass development of suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. [1] However, lawns are unsuited for most North American ecozones.  Fertilizers, pesticides and frequent watering are necessary to keep grass green.  And maintaining lawns brings the noise and pollution of lawnmowers.  It is an illusion to think, that because lawns are green, they are somehow natural and do not adversely affect the spaces they occupy.


    Scientists have found that lawns actually produce heat.  Lawns produce more greenhouse gases than they absorb.  Urban planners actually refer to lawns as “heat islands.” Green spaces comprised of lawn are 20% hotter than green spaces with a diversity of vegetation, trees, creeks and wetlands.  Urban green space planners have determined that Montreal’s “nature infrastructure” (infrastructures naturelles) is primarily lawn. Planners are urging the city to re-naturalize its green spaces in order to help the city adapt to climate change and global warming. [2]


    A typical North American lawn is comprised of one grass type.  It is a monoculture: it does not provide a biodiverse ecosystem for a web of species of flora and fauna to support each other and create healthy soil.  Re-naturalizing replaces lawns by planting a diversity of plants, grasses, shrubs and trees.  Increasing the biodiversity of the nature infrastructure will not only reduce heat production in the Greater Montreal area but it will also improve air quality, control flooding and offer recreational spaces for the physical and mental health of citizens.


    Words from Gardeners Who have Re-naturalized their Lawns   

    This re-naturalized lawn in western NDG features a lot of milkweed.


    Seeking to increase biodiversity in the city’s green spaces, Toronto is planting pollinator gardens in municipal parks and has established a program offering $5000 grants to create pollinator gardens.  Dr. Nina-Marie Lister, director of the Ecological Design Lab at Ryerson University, has re-naturalized her Toronto front lawn with over 100 species of indigenous trees, shrubs and plants (including milkweed, bone set, black-eyed Susans, buttercups, forget-me-nots, and lambsquarter).  Professor Lister describes the plants in her garden as “hard at work” creating:  “Birdsong, cricket song, pollination and habitat for a wide range of species – our garden provides a lot of services for the neighbourhood,” she says.  The garden holds storm water, controls run-off, provides a habitat for a variety of birds and at-risk insects like monarch butterflies, homes for frogs, rabbits and chipmunks, education for school groups, and respite for passers-by who like to sit and relax on the logs and breath the fragrant air. [3]


    UQAM professor of forest ecology, Dr. Christian Messier has re-naturalized his garden and lawn in Lachine and offers some tips for Montrealers. [4] He reminds us that we live in a temperate deciduous forest ecozone.  Before European settlement, the land was a diverse hickory, oak and maple forest.  He advises us to choose perennials, leafy ferns and native shrubs that would originally have grown in this temperate forest ecozone and that will offer colourful blooms throughout the changing seasons:


    In spring:  trilliums, elderberry, violets, dwarf dogwood, early meadow rue, chokecherry, jack-in-the-pulpit.

    In summer: foam flower, red baneberry, raspberries, false Solomon’s seal and several species of ferns including maidenhair and Clayton’s fern.

    In late summer and early fall: fireweed and asters.

    In fall: “Just let the leaves fall!” Professor Messier advises. Rather than raking leaves, “I prefer to read a book,” he jokes.  The fall leaf cover provides nutrients to the soil. As the leaves decompose, they store carbon in the plants and replenish the soil and reduce the amount of carbon in the air. “In grass, carbon exists only in the first 5 centimetres; in the forest floor, there’s more than a metre of carbon,” he says. “And in the spring, the plants will go through the leaves.”


    Gardener extraordinaire, David Somers, has helped many NDG-ers to re-naturalize their lawns.  “My joy is to destroy grassy lawns and replant with indigenous (and other) plants,” he says. [5]

    Here are his five favourite indigenous plants for Montreal gardens:


    In shade:  Northern Maidenhair fern, Canadian anemone and Canadian wild grape (for ground cover)

    In sun:  Phlox and thickly-planted New England aster


    David Somers adds a ‘like’ for the great mullein or common mullein:  “not native but introduced with colonization centuries ago and still usually considered a weed,” he says, “but striking when well-placed in a garden. It is a hairy biennial plant that can grow to 2m. tall or more.”

    A small and sunny corner of the Elizabeth Ballantyne school yard in
    Montreal West has been transformed into a wildlife-friendly habitat.



    see also The American Lawn (1999) edited by Georges Teyssot.  Published in conjunction with the 1998 Canadian Centre for Architecture exhibition of the same title “The American Lawn.”  Co-published with Princeton Architectural Press.

    [2] La Fin du gazon:  Où et comment complexifier les espaces verts du Grand Montreál pour s’adapter aux changements globaux Fondation David Suzuki. 2018



    [5] author email correspondence with David Somers, Feb.4, 2021 and March 5, 2021

    St. Pierre River tragedy- last open portion of the historic Montreal river is buried on the Meadowbrook golf course

    Les amis du parc Meadowbrook, released a press release on Feb. 24, 2022 with photos to document this tragic event. The photos were taken Feb. 19-20, 2022.

    Construction crews hired by the City of Montreal are currently burying the last open portion of the St. Pierre River on the Lachine side of Meadowbrook. See the press release for details.

    The storm sewer newly connected to the Toe Blake Park collector which was the source of the St. Pierre River. The riverbed, which can be seen in the bottom right of the picture, no longer has any flow as all the river water is now being bypassed through the storm sewer which will soon be completely buried.

    This is one of the few segments of the St. Pierre River storm sewer pipe that had not been buried yet on Feb. 13, 2022. It is right in the middle of the golf course as can be seen by the beautiful winter scene in the background. All that will remain of the river water will be manhole covers at intervals across this greenspace.

    This picture shows the small amount of frozen water remaining in the St. Pierre riverbed. A large pile of rocks and soil from the digging of the trench for the storm sewer looms over the river. Thankfully City workers assured us that the riverbed would not be filled in and that all soil not used to bury the sewer would be removed.

    Farewell to the St. Pierre River

    On October 23, 2021, Les amis and the members of 200 mètres–Gardiens de la rivière Saint-Pierre et de ses droits met at Toe Blake Park to pay homage to the St. Pierre River. Work will start in November to deviate the river into a new underground conduit, causing the river to be dry for a good part of the year.

    This watercourse is one of the last visible sections of the St. Pierre River, which once flowed from Mount Royal to the St. Lawrence River opposite Nuns’ Island.  Andrew Emond, an urban photographer, mapped the river’s approximate path in the 1800s, overlapping it with the current street map. This was after the river had been diverted from its original path which emptied into the St. Lawrence River, across from Nuns’ Island.

    (To view, click on the photo; to exit, click on top right box.)



    Participants celebrated the watercourse with poetry and music. Professor Kregg Hetherington began with a poem composed in 2010 by resident Mary Ellen (Molly) Baker, PhD, who was also at the event. She talks about her childhood memories in the 1940s living in Montreal West and the rich history of the river.







    The Little St-Pierre River

    Mary Ellen Baker


    One last stretch of the little river
    spills out from a culvert between the houses,
    flows along the floor of a gentle valley
    formed through eons of Spring flood.

    The brook still burbles across the golf course in April,
    attracts a hopeful pair of mallard ducks,
    before disappearing into darkness under the railroad.

    I remember when we were children
    we picnicked by the living stream
    when it still ran through green woods
    and trilliums reflected bright sunlight.

    Once, the seigneurs of Montreal, the Sulpicians,
    diverted the little river eastward,
    so it ran all the way to Old Montreal,
    flowing into the St Lawrence
    near where Governor Callière built his home.

    Once, Samuel de Champlain walked
    through the meadow at Pointe à Callière,
    looking to build an outpost for fur trade.
    “No place finer,” he said,
    “here one might sow grain and do gardening;
    level the ground and make it ready for building.”

    Once, First Peoples paddled their canoes
    into the little river’s quiet waters, camped in its meadows,
    on the trading route between the Lakes and the Sea.

    But now the little river runs underground in sewers,
    one small stretch still singing the song of the city’s birth.

    First written by Mary Ellen Baker in 2010, after a visit to Meadowbrook, inspired by “memories of picnicking by the brook over 60 years ago, when much of Cote St Luc was wooded. Then, I had to write a poem about the brook which is so beautiful but endangered.”



    Next, a long-time member of Les amis, Al Hayek, read a poem by the American poet Robert Frost, A Brook in the City (1921). This poem lamenting the disappearance of a stream from the urban landscape is still relevant. It seems we have not heeded Frost’s warning.


    A Brook in the City

    Robert Frost – 1874-1963


    (To view, click on the photo; to exit, click on top right box.)

    The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square
    With the new city street it has to wear
    A number in. But what about the brook
    That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
    I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
    And impulse, having dipped a finger length
    And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
    A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
    The meadow grass could be cemented down
    From growing under pavements of a town;
    The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.


    (To view, click on the photo; to exit, click on top right box.)

    Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
    How else dispose of an immortal force
    No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
    With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
    Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
    In fetid darkness still to live and run—
    And all for nothing it had ever done
    Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
    No one would know except for ancient maps
    That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
    If from its being kept forever under
    The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
    This new-built city from both work and sleep.



    Guests were invited to share their thoughts on the river and the fight to save it. Louise Legault of the 200 mètres group read the Declaration of Legal Personhood for the St. Pierre River. You may read it here.

    Louise also unveiled a mock-up of a plaque (below) which will remind Montrealers of the existence of the St. Pierre River and encourage them to restore it when possible.






    In a land acknowledgement, Isabelle Sawyer of the Sierra Club indicated that Montreal is unceded land and it had been frequented by several Aboriginal groups.



    The organizers planned a special surprise to close the ceremony: a bagpipe rendition of Meeting of the Waters by piper Jérémy Tétrault-Farber.



    Plaque proposal, designed by Laura Cousineau (2021)

    (To view, click on the photo; to exit, click on top right box.)


    Requiem for a River: Burying the St. Pierre River

    View the video summary of the ceremonyPatrick Barnard’s Pimento Report


    Photo credits : Andy Dodge, Denise Avard, Nigel Dove