Story and photos by Heather Raithby Doyle
This is a story of a suburban garden transformed, and how native plants helped a life change course.
In 2008, Mohan Iyer moved with his wife Aditi and daughter Aranya to a suburban house in Mississauga, Ontario. New to Canada from India, he watched and learned as his neighbours worked on their lawns: “It was all about fertilizing, mowing and trimming. I worked very hard to keep the grass green.” It didn’t take long before Mohan, who until recently worked in manufacturing but has a master’s degree in ecology, began to learn more about plants native to this area. He removed a strip of lawn along the fence and planted Joe-Pye weed. “You could see the transformation: the moment you started growing native flowers there were more bees….It was beautiful. I kept adding more natives,” he says. Along the way, mostly to save money, he learned to grow plants from seed.
Mohan collecting echinacea seeds from his backyard native plant garden.
Now the garden is a showcase for a re-imagined suburban space, one that is both functional, and supports diverse plants and animals. Imagine what a difference a network of gardens like this would make for the native birds, bees and insects who face a perilous loss of habitat. The garden transformation is an incredible story (and more about that later).
“It was all about fertilizing, mowing and trimming. I worked very hard to keep the grass green.”
Mohan is clearly a man of action. Now, his interest in native plants is leading him to do this: buy a property to fill with native trees. To this end he and Aditi have purchased two acres of land in Middlesex County in the heart of the Carolinian zone. Inspired by botanist Doug Tallamy, who advocates for trees as habitat for native species, Mohan plans to learn everything he can about propagating native trees: “I want to do my part.”
He would eventually like to have a small greenhouse where “maybe someone like Jeannie [McRight from Blooming Boulevards] can propagate native flowering plants, and help not-for-profits, plus grow trees for myself and others who might not have access due to cost. But this is the long-term plan.” In the short term he and his family travel to the property on the weekends to remove invasive species. They have planted 20 Carolinian trees so far including service berries, tulip trees, maples, staghorn sumacs and oaks.
Stratifying native seeds for Blooming Boulevards.
Photo ©2022 Jeanne McRight
“You could see the transformation: the moment you started growing native flowers there were more bees….It was beautiful."
The dream lurked but losing his job was a catalyst for this new direction. Mohan is already a Mississauga Master Gardener (where he first saw McRight from Blooming Boulevards giving a talk), and takes courses at the University of Guelph towards a Horticulture diploma. He volunteers with Blooming Boulevards and hopes to gain more experience by working for a nursery or greenhouse. This venture brings him full circle, to the field of ecology where he once studied migrating birds. He is humble about his accomplishments. “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything,” he says, “What I CAN do is learn and share.”
So we go back to Mississauga now and see the astonishing feat of what Mohan has fit into his modest 1,000 square foot backyard; a possible blueprint for city gardens. First, are the native plants and shrubs, in neat beds bordered by wood reclaimed from a deck project. The same wood is used for a bee hotel. The tall seed heads of Joe-Pye weed, black-eyed Susan and others give the garden a rich, interesting look, even in winter. A successful vegetable planter was installed last year. Two composters tuck in the back. There is a small pond for the birds, plus a spray pad for sparrows and warblers.
“Start right away, people don’t know what they are missing.”
“You see first hand how the beneficial insects help with pollination, and with pathogens. It’s so much fun!”, says Mohan. An Eastern white cedar hedge in particular brings joy. Situated at the back of the garden, the cedars host insects and hungry migratory birds. Mohan says that he, Aditi, and Aranya, a master’s student studying bird migration at Western University, often sit with binoculars or camera to watch birds they used to travel to Point Pelee or Riverwood Conservancy to see. “When I had grass and the trees in the back…I had a blue jay and one or two American robins nesting or pulling out earthworms. That's the only wildlife I would see. Since I added more native plants like the serviceberry, for example, I have Baltimore orioles coming in early spring, drinking nectar.”
Somehow the backyard still offers ample room for a table, a firepit, and yes, even a patch of grass for a summer hammock. Gravel pathways with stepping stones give access to all parts of the yard. While it might sound expensive and potentially a lot of work to create a garden like this, Mohan says he has been taking it slowly, digging out a new patch of grass every year. He does the work himself, using recycled materials.
Below: Slide to view more/click to enlarge:
Mohan's welcoming backyard wildlife habitat garden supports an ecological community that includes birds, insects - and people - year-round. Photos by Mohan Iyer.
When asked what advice he would give a gardener who wants native plants, here is what Mohan has to say:
“Start right away, people don’t know what they are missing.” The native plants, he says, are much less work than non-natives. “They are low maintenance - you don’t need to fertilize, water or use pesticides.”
Grow your own plants from seeds, buy them small, or divide plants to keep the costs down. He says he always plants in clusters: “pollinators like to go aster to aster to aster, not Joe-Pye to black-eyed Susan to aster”
Find nurseries that have locally sourced seeds: “You want the seeds to come from plants grown locally, not native plants that come from the US for example. Local plants are more resilient with genes that are more adapted to this area.”
Make beds wide enough to plant in layers with taller plants in the back and shorter plants in the front.
Don’t feel bad if you keep some of the non-natives as long as they are not invasive. “Most experts say that if you have 70 percent native and 30 percent non-native it is enough to maintain the pollinators.”
Compost vegetable scraps and grass clippings and mulch leaves for the garden: “All my beds have leaves. It acts as mulch, it acts as food for the earthworms as they take it down into the soil and that improves the soil.”
When asked if any neighbours have been inspired by his garden, Mohan shakes his head and says sadly, no. One neighbour sprays his yard with herbicide to control the dandelions, while the other neighbour is overrun with creeping Charlie. “It’s a lot of perspiration, but no inspiration,” he jokes.
But for readers of this piece, the birds and bees that visit his garden and his new plot of land, Mohan is already having an impact.