With Barb McKean, 2020 Hamilton Monarch Awards Recipient.
During spring migration a couple of years ago, an unusual bird showed up in Barb McKean’s garden. A Brown Thrasher rustled about in the remains of last year’s leaves covering the flower beds, popping up to gulp down an early bug, then getting back to work foraging through the leaves some more. It stayed for three days. Barb's friend said the very same bird had dropped by her yard for a couple of days as well. And do you know why? Their yards were the only two naturalized gardens on their street. It goes to show: if you build it, they will come.
Barb, who is Head of Education at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) has compiled an inventory list of her west mountain property that encompasses over 170 species and varieties of plants.
How long has this habitat-creating maverick been at it?
“At this house, 16 years, and the house before and the one before that….and when we’ve moved, we’ve just divided the plants so they moved too,” Barb says.
It’s the outdoors that she loves, be it hiking, camping or birding and botanizing. Habitat gardening, she says, “…is a way to bring nature into your day-to-day life. It isn’t somewhere ‘out there’ – it’s right here, at home.”
Growing up in Cambridge, Ontario, “I didn’t like watching tv when I was a kid,” she recalls. “I remember feeling very at home being outside, as young as six years old, exploring fields and forest, off the beaten track.”
Similar to her own experience, Barb says she’s noticed that people going into biodiversity work tend to have bonded with nature at an early age. “Research shows that the seeds are most often sown in childhood. It’s an optimal time to form emotional connections with the outdoors. That’s why it’s so important for parents to get their kids outside into nature when they are young.”
Like many, Barb worries that if there aren’t these happy connections with green spaces in childhood, people are less likely to seek them out later in life, or care deeply about the environment. “Jacques Cousteau said it best, that we will protect what we care about.” And while we’ve evolved as a species that grows up learning and playing outdoors, “now we’ve removed that outdoor adventure, the exploration, and free play. And there’s a huge amount of research that shows how this has been impacting children’s health and wellness over the last couple of decades. And it’s not good for the kids -or the environment.”
On a broader scale, Barb wants to see city planning initiatives include pocket parks and re-wilding public spaces: “I’m thinking about the importance of creating niche habitats and nature-packed surroundings on a smaller scale, in support of a denser network and corridors for animals to move, and birds to raise their young and people of all ages to be able to access and connect with on a daily basis. Again, there’s lots of research on the amazing impact of nearby nature on health outcomes and overall wellness of urban residents.”
Hamilton Monarch Awards
Right from its inception in 2016, in her role at RBG, Barb has been involved in the development of the Hamilton Monarch Awards program. When she took some time off work in 2020, she jumped on the opportunity to apply for the award herself. While she admires plant beauty (like her non-native Bleeding Hearts) she feels that the ecological functionality of gardens is critical nowadays, “so recognizing the people who are moving in this direction, as opposed to upholding manicured lawns and invasive plants, is important.”
“The world is in a biodiversity crisis and we can all play a role in changing that by changing how we garden. Simple choices we make at home can support insects and birds whose populations are plummeting, and help rebuild collapsing food webs. These changes can also make our community more resilient to the impacts of climate change. And it all starts in our own backyards.”
Barb and her husband John have managed their 60x100’ property without pesticides since buying the house in 2004.
A former student house, this was a site of broken glass, beer bottle caps and other such debris so that the backyard was unsafe for their two small children. They got a bobcat in, scraped the backyard clean and started from scratch.
Less than two decades later, their yard is a veritable oasis, welcoming and embracing biodiversity. The property has a young Red Oak (native oaks and Serviceberry are Barb’s top tree recommendations, though she’s been impressed with Hackberry as a fast-growing medium-sized tree based on one they have that is a few years old). A rain garden, planted with pollinator-friendly native flowers, is alive with butterflies and native bees all summer (rain gardens look like ordinary gardens but are designed to hold runoff from the property for an hour or two until it infiltrates, instead letting it run into the storm sewer). Native wildflowers such as Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly weed, Woodland Sunflower and Asters abound and attract pollinators all season long. There’s a dug-out pond with local wetland plants and raised vegetable beds. There’s a Tuliptree and a clump of River Birch, and under an old Magnolia tree, they are thinking about installing a bench.
It's a bit “funkier” than many gardens, with a bit of a “jungle vibe”, but all kinds of life animate the garden: “It’s so alive,” Barb says. “There’s so much going on, so many different birds and butterflies, flying back and forth, the movement and colour – and there’s so much happening in every season.” And, she notes, spending the pandemic at home has been just fine when, despite being in the middle of the city, nature is right at your door.
Creating Landscapes for Life
When it comes to sustainable gardening, “there’s definitely a paradigm shift happening,” Barb says. She points to more nurseries opening up that specialize in native plant species. “When we hosted the area’s first Green Gardening event at RBG back in 2001, there was a group of us from Hamilton and Burlington pushing the idea of pesticide-free gardening, and creating awareness of the benefits of native plant gardening and naturalization. We had over 700 people for a one-day event back then, which was amazing, but nowadays, it’s much more mainstream.”
There’s still a long way to go, but so many amazing resources are available online to help people get started, like the Plant Pollinator Toolkit.
Barb hopes even more people will start to garden for nature and create landscapes for life that are fitting for a 21st century context; “not for gardens that were right for the 1950s, but what’s right for now and what will help make things right for our children’s grandchildren.”