Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Through the Garden Gate

We like to think we can do what we want on our own property, but truth be told, city hall often has us on a fairly tight leash.

Recently we looked into adding a small garden shed and discovered that there were a long list of rules and regulations governing even these simple structures. (In the city of Brampton a shed must be located in the backyard and cannot be placed at the front or side of your house. It must also be located at least 2' inside the property line, and unless you obtain a special permit ($$), can be no bigger than 8' x10' and no higher than 9.5'....)

Last week a sneak preview of the gardens on this year's Through the Garden Gate, the Toronto Botanical Garden's annual tour of Toronto's best private gardens, got me thinking even further about the rules, both real and unspoken, that govern our lives.

This year Through the Garden Gate features gardens located in Hogg's Hollow a small enclave in the heart of the city that has managed to retain much of its original charm and character. 

A much sought after address, the homes here are grand and ostentatious. 

Very often professionally designed and maintained, these gardens are all 
scrupulously groomed and ordered.

What a surprise then, to come across a garden like this one (also included on this year's Through the Garden Gate tour):

Now here was a garden rebel; a homeowner who dares to swim against the current. In this particular front garden, there wasn't a blade of grass in sight!

Instead the garden was free and unstructured; some might even say "wild".


There was a time when "natural" front gardens were highly controversial. 

That was years ago though! Surely we have moved away from the limitation of thinking the only thing that belongs at the front of a house is a lawn and a few tidy flowerbeds? 

Or have we?

So for fun, I looked up the regulations governing front gardens in my own city.

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis

The City of Brampton website states that homeowners must: 

"Cut grass and weeds regularly to make sure they don't grow higher than higher than 20 cm (8 inches). If you don't cut your grass and weeds, the City will cut them at your own expense. The cost for this is at least $313."

Hmm....this speaks more to traditional lawns. But what about "natural" grasses and gardens? What is one's man's weed is another man's flower!

I decided to call the City for clarification.

Siberian irses and daffodils

When I finally got another human on the other end of the line, she immediately seemed to be flustered by my questions about "natural" front gardens.

"No one has ever asked me about this before!" she said apologetically, "I am going to have to put you on hold while I ask someone."

When she finally came back on the line, she told me a little uncertainly,"There are no regulations in the City of Brampton restricting you from having a natural-style front garden. Did you want to file a complaint?"

That's funny, I thought! She thinks I am calling to turn in one of my neighbours. " No, no!" I assured her, "I was just curious about the rules and regulations."

When I hung up the phone, I couldn't help but think back to all the by-laws concerning the garden shed we want to build. 

Now, our neighbours have a huge garden shed that's practically a cottage. Hardly regulation! But the cottage is somewhat hidden at the very back of the yard, so the only ones who are likely to turn them in for by-law infractions would be us. But we have never complained, nor do I imagine we ever would. Sometimes, I think it is okay to turn a blind eye.

Is that the true hurdle to be overcome then: keeping the neighbours happy with whatever you choose to do in your own yard, so they don't make life difficult by filing a complaint against you?

Gosh! Does that mean that we really do have to worry what the neighbours think at least on some level?

More information and links:

Through the Garden Gate is one of Ontario's largest and certainly is its grandest garden tour. This year there are 19 private gardens in the secluded and quite enclave of Toronto known as "Hogg's Hollow". 

" This neighbourhood was selected for the extraordinary mature gardens that punctuate its hill-and-dale topography and for the winding roads that provide stunning views around every turn, "explains Mark Cullen, 2014 Honorary Event Chair. "This is truly 'where the river meets the ravine', just steps away from Yonge Street and the urban core of North York. Hogg's Hollow shows once more that Toronto is a city of gardens."

Date: Saturday, June 14th and Sunday, June 15th, 2014
Time: 11 sm to 4 pm

Tour headquarters: Tour headquarters are located at the north end of York Mills Park. Access is adjacent is adjacent to the south exit from York Mills subway.

Free shuttle buses depart from tour headquarters along two garden tour routes. Show your wrist band and hop on and off the buses as many times as you like.

Tickets to Through the Garden Gate:
One-Day Pass: $45/TBG members $40
Two-Day Pass: $60/TBG members $55
New student pass: One-Day Only $25 ( with I.D.)


  1. Very interesting. If the neighbors are the only possible people that could turn you in, there may be some value in making sure you stay on their good side.

    In our town the berm has always baffled me. It's the area between the sidewalk and the street and is 6-8 feet wide. The city is responsible for maintaining the trees on the berm, but the homeowner is responsible for mowing the grass. We live on a corner, so this is a very large amount of space that I have to mow once or twice per week and would love to plant something there instead of grass, but I think I need some kind of waiver from the City. This could be an ongoing research project to figure out if I can actually do what I want with this space.

    1. I have a feeling that it is one's neighbours that most often turn you in from breaking by-laws and building codes. These days most municipalities can't afford the salaries for by-law officers to troll the streets looking for infractions!

      When my brother installed a power generating windmill onto the roof of his house (my brother is a great environmentalist and is very interested in getting off the grid) he did a preemptive visit to each of his neighbours to get them on board. It wasn't that the experimental windmill was breaking any rules, but it was too new and different to break any existing by-laws, it was just that he didn't want to have to deal with a sea of complaints.

      I didn't think to ask about berms. Good question! What are the rules about berms? I'm curious and will have to find out.

  2. I can't believe those regulations governing the height of grass in the front garden... and the shed ! I know there are bylaws in our towns preventing the keeping of livestock and having bonfires, but out here we have much more freedom. There are planning regulations, but not for sheds etc.

    BTW, I loved the less structured front garden - I wonder if there was a garden designer behind that one too, or just a mildly rebellious resident !

  3. I really wish I could go on this walk! It looks fantastic! And hooray for the folks going against the grain! I love that! As their garden just rocks with all of the many fantastic plants and the overall feel of their garden! And I hope you do put in that shed. Here everyone has fire pits and we would really like one but after consulting with someone we were informed that they were against code. And that people basically put them in anyway! But like you I would never turn in my neighbor. Here is to creating our little sanctuaries! Gorgeous photos friend!!! Nicole xo

  4. The city where I live has code rules. Must move grass and keep the yard green. It will be interesting to see what they are going to do when we have water restrictions starting in August, due to the drought. You must reduce your water usage 25% and then in November another 25%. As we all know grass is the worst offender. The grass can die as far as I am concerned, but the flowers will get my water even if I have to save my dish water and throw it on the roses.
    I think as long as you get your neighbors on board that's half the battle.
    Do we really own our homes - I don't think so, we just have to pay the taxes. Hope you can get your shed. The garden tour looks great, wish I could go on it.

  5. This is a great post, Jennifer, and very timely for me. We are putting an addition on House #2, and are in the permit process right now. So many regulations/rules, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer! :-(

    Your photographs and these gardens are just beautiful!

  6. Gardens look quite lovely - there certainly is a Toronto style....reminds me of several of the other years. Do like the rebel garden - lots more to fill your soul while you stroll through the garden with a cup of coffee in your hand. Although, I doubt there's much strolling and pondering in those landscaped masterpieces. Looking forward to seeing it all. Did you get to see them all, or just a taste?

    1. Just a taste! I am looking forward to seeing the remaining gardens on the tour.

  7. I know that in my old hometown of Oshawa, garden front yards were accepted so long as they didn't block traffic views. There was a house down the street that had to keep their flowers and grasses less than three feet.
    Now if only my town would allow for chickens!!

  8. Hi Jennifer
    You must have received a media invitation! I got one too but couldn't go on that date. Isn't that funny - If I had gone, we could have finally met! My friend and I are going Sunday June15th. Thanks for the preview - we can hardly wait!!
    re: rules and regulations….typical bureaucratic government rules :(

  9. I love this front yard garden. I have thought about taking out the front lawn but my husband is pro grass. We have similar shed laws but I don't think they regulate the location on the property. The 2ft off the property line is harsh. Is your neighbor's shed an older one? Maybe it has been there long before the regulation. And yes, cities do not actively look for violations. They rely on residents to report it. My neighbor who popped his rv on top of my backyard is trying to repeal our cc&r. I am surprised he knocked on my door to sign his form because I'll never approve anything he wants to do now. Tsk, tsk.

  10. I loved the more relaxed style of planting, definitely my style of garden. The owner is obviously someone who loves plants. The other gardens were far too pristine, not a leaf out of place, the owners obviously don't enjoy gardening, just wanting everywhere to be tidy.

  11. There are too many rules in this world! What a lovely yard!

    Have a great vacation!

  12. Heavens above....what a lot of petty rules! I loved the wild garden and was pleased to hear there are no rules banning them....what an interesting post!xxx

  13. I must say I love the "wild" garden the best! Your discussion of property rules reminds me of an incident in our nearby small city. A rather eccentric individual grew lots of prairie plants, including native grasses in his front yard. After repeated complaints from neighbors about his not cutting the grass and growing "weeds", the city eventually mowed it down. I never saw his garden, but if it really was all natives, what a shame that the conformists won out.

  14. Maybe one year I will catch this tour....great views!!

  15. C'est pas croyable tous les beaux jardins dans votre coin. Ici aussi il faut toujours vérifier avant de faire quelque chose sur le terrain. Bonne soirée.


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