In February 2016, Jason Ramsay-Brown spoke at Community Centre 55 about his book Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests, and our own Glen Stewart Ravine. This post draws from his talk, but is not a verbatim transcript. Many editorial liberties have been taken to adapt it into a post. Any errors and omissions are solely the responsibility of the editor. The post is timely as the City of Toronto has been seeking comments on its draft Ravine Strategy this summer and will be drafting a final document in 2017.
Edited by: Cherie Daly
Our ravines are literally being assaulted from all sides: pollution, plant disease, erosion, encroachment, urban development, climate change. The list goes on and on. But we are limited in what actions we can take. We can write letters to politicians, we can make a few personal shopping choices, but the fact is there is not that much we can do. Jason highlighted two threats that can be considered as points of action for anyone.
Be aware of invasive species
The first threat is from invasive species. There are a lot of invasive species in Toronto: garlic mustard, buckthorn, Japanese knotweed, dog-strangling vine and phragmites. What makes a species invasive? It is a plant that was not native to here but was brought here through one mechanism or another and it is a plant that is extremely aggressive. These plants ultimately wipe out biodiversity in an area replacing native plants with non-natives. From an ecological standpoint, that can have horrific effects on the ecosystems in our city. They can out-compete native species, they can steal their areas and they cannot feed the creatures that normally and traditionally feed on the native species. Basically, they can disrupt an entire food web.
Phragmites, particularly, can be pretty nasty; it is considered Canada’s worst invasive species. If you take a close look at the seed heads in particular – next time you drive down any 400-series highway, pass anywhere near a wetland or a slough on the side of Bayview Avenue where water is collecting – chances are you will find Phragmites there. Now a lot of people will look at it and say to themselves, “It’s this beautiful stand of green, that looks lovely and attractive”. It is actually attractive to look at. But, you can’t think of it as a green field. It is more accurate to think of it as a desert.
Why should it be called a desert? Absolutely nothing in Toronto will eat Phragmites, very little in Ontario or even Canada eats Phragmites. Small creatures like frogs and salamanders know they cannot eat it, so they go into the Phragmites in search of food -and of course it is just a desert to them – so they eventually wander and wander, starve to death and die. As a steward who looks after removing some of these plants, Jason said he finds dead creatures inside Phragmites stands all the time.
Second, this plant grows about two metres tall, so it casts a pretty strong shadow around it. Then it sends out rods at about two metres in a season and every couple of inches it will sprout up another Phragmite. These rods emit a toxin into the soil which kills absolutely everything else around it. As they grow, they expand and kill everything else that is there. Despite how lovely it might look, it is actively chewing up tens of thousands of hectares of Canadian wilderness each and every year. It is a very real threat.
You may be wondering, “How are regular people like us involved?” Well, first of all, our own backyards and laneways are the largest harboring spots for invasive species. People see a plant grow in their backyard and think “Oh, it got here by itself, it’s relatively attractive so I’ll just leave it”. Now that plant can spread somewhere else. So one of the things that residents can do is familiarize themselves with invasive species that are common in Toronto and remove them from their own gardens. One place to learn about invasive plants and their alternatives is through the Ontario Invasive Plants Council.
Another choice we can make is which garden centres to shop at. You would be very surprised as to how many plants are invasive in ravines right now that came out of garden centres. Homeowners thought they were buying plants for their backyard and had absolutely no idea what would happen as a consequence of that. Many plants can spread beyond the area where you intended them to grow. (You can go to this link to download Grow Me Instead!)
Change the human use of the ravines
One thing we can all do right now is change the human use of the ravines.
Ravines are sensitive ecosystems and we need to respect the woodland areas by staying on the main trails. Jason described one specific location where he has watched people take short cuts, and as a result, over time, they managed to erode an entire bank. Trees that used to stand there, have died, as their roots became too exposed to hold them up any more. Some people who wanted to protect this area have been putting up signs, like “Don’t go this way”, and “No, seriously, this is a by-law. Don’t go this way”. Eventually there was a sign put up that said, in almost these terms, “You are killing these trees, please stop!” but the short cuts continued to be used until it was too late. This is not an isolated instance, unfortunately.
Off-leash dogs are another example of human use that can be improved. In spite of bylaws and signs, owners let their dogs go off-leash in our ravines.
Then, of course, there is litter. Unfortunately, some people throw stuff on the ground instead of disposing of it in waste bins. Some people do not properly secure their own waste bins. Before you know it, the ravines are basically catcher’s mitts, waiting to snag all that trash that rolls across the city streets.
Another trend that is increasing in popularity, is urban foraging. One problem with this is that food sources are limited and there is no supermarket for squirrels or birds. Even if foragers only take out 10% of the raspberries, if every group that passes by, picks a few, all of the raspberries are gone. This has an impact on the local food web. When food is not available to smaller critters, they go elsewhere, and then bigger critters, that need to eat the little ones, follow them. Before you know it, the lack of seeds from those native plants means the invasive species can spread into those areas. The lack of predators in the area means more invasions can occur. So, just from the simple act of humans picking raspberries, the ravine is on a downward spiral, because what little food that was available for the animals there is no longer present.
If there was just one person doing this, just one person with their dog off the leash or just one person who dropped a piece of litter, it would not really matter, nature’s pretty resilient. But we are talking about these acts being performed hundreds of times a day, and in the face of these threats, without us working to ensure the preservation and protection of these natural spaces, it is doubtful that they will thrive. Perhaps it is doubtful that they will even survive. So what are specific things each of us can do?
Heed the signs
The first thing we can do should be obvious, but it is worth mentioning: the signs that are put in our ravines are not intended to spoil people’s fun. They are put there because people have spent tens of millions of dollars doing ecological assessments of these areas and they know that this spot right over there – which could be five feet over from the trail – for three weeks out of the year is where salamanders are going to breed. And if you or your dog keep walking over that spot and compact the soil, they will not breed there anymore. There are hundreds of examples like this, of rare plants where there are only seven or eight of them in a particular ravine and maybe only one of three or four hundred plants that we know the location of in Toronto. So, although you may want to go and look at things, unless you are absolutely certain that the plant that you are about to step on is not something fragile or endangered, simply accept what the sign says as good advice, and take that advice.
The signs are there to protect the areas that we have all come to appreciate. We can protect our ravines by staying out of these areas and heeding the signs.
The next is stewardship. Every spring and fall, the City of Toronto and organizations like Evergreen and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) run a series of public events: tree plantings, invasive weed pulling and garbage clean-ups. At these events, all the equipment and training is provided for you. You do not have to know anything about what is required when you volunteer. Somebody will show you exactly what to do and you spend two or three hours planting native species or weeding out invasive species or cleaning up garbage. Frequently food and drinks are provided as well! All you have to do is show up and be willing to help.
Jason and his daughter go to about 20 of these events per year. He has been inspired by this work, “What I can tell you is that an amazing connection is forged between people and the environment when you have done something to help it grow and to make it better than when you got there. It takes two hours to plant 250 trees or plants in an area. But, from that single act, if you come back five years later, you will see a small forest or small extension of a forest, that you know you had a hand in. It changes your entire perspective of that area. It becomes something deeply personal, something very intimate. I strongly recommend involvement in stewardship for anyone who is interested in getting involved. As I said, you do not need any experience. Go online and you can literally type in ‘Toronto tree planting’ and 50 events in the spring and 50 events in the fall will pop up.” For more information on opportunities you can check out these two sites: Volunteer with City of TO or Evergreen Volunteers
Another step is to manage the plants in your own gardens. Next time you need to fill a garden spot consider getting something native to plant there. It used to be much harder to find native species.
Nowadays, it is not so difficult. The North American Native Plant Society runs pop-up shops all over the city, and now Evergreen Brickworks has a consistent inventory throughout the planting season. Evergreen also has a comprehensive Database of native plants so you can be sure you are purchasing a native plant.
Local garden centres are starting to jump on the bandwagon too. By planting something native you are effectively expanding habitats, you are creating an oasis for some of the prettier creatures in our city. If you’ve got a raccoon problem in your backyard, you may not tend to think of the wildlife in your backyard as something beautiful, but you will feel very different when all of a sudden your backyard is full of hummingbirds or butterflies or migrating birds. That is all very possible when you’re using native plants. (Editor’s Note: The Beach Garden Society has an annual sale of mostly native plants and plants from members’ gardens in May. Also, at its monthly meeting on September 20, 2016, the topic will be native plants and plants will be available for sale.) BeachGardenSociety
“But, out of all the options here if you’re going to buy something that is not native, it is really vital that you understand what you are buying. If you find something that says ‘fast-spreading’, I beg of you please just put it down, that is a euphemism for, ‘I could very well become an invasive species’,” Jason cautioned. Another concern is pesticide warnings on plants. There is a lot of discussion and debate about the use of pesticides, but if the plants you buy have been treated with pesticides, when you put them in your backyard you are effectively killing insects. If you do buy something non-native, read the tag and make sure it is not something that is bound to spread crazily and it is not going to be soaked in pesticides.
Familiarize yourself with the common invasives in the city. It is easy to type into Google and find a list of invasive species in Toronto or use the link mentioned earlier to get the list of native plants to grow instead. Grow Me Instead! Avoiding introducing invasive plants will go a long way to helping our ravines stay healthy.
If you cannot donate time, give $$
The last thing I want to mention is the amazing number of charities and community groups in this city. Buying memberships, making donations, sponsoring initiatives, showing up for events that are happening, every little bit helps. Groups like Friends of Glen Stewart Ravine are a great example. This group is concerned about a specific area – but even so, this creates awareness about bigger issues across the city. And, by being involved in one group, it opens your eyes to these broader issues.
Some groups that would appreciate your help, include: The Toronto Field Naturalists, Ontario Nature, and the David Suzuki Foundation. Whatever there is that connects you with nature, whatever it is that makes you feel passionate and inspires you, there is probably an association that would be desperate for your time, your attention, your likes on Facebook, whatever you can spare. So it is a really great way to be able to help get things started.
The Glen Stewart Ravine
Although I have written a book on 32 of the ravines in the City, the ravine in this neighborhood, the Glen Stewart Ravine is really important to me. I’ve been visiting it for well over a decade. Glen Stewart Ravine is an environmentally significant area. It is worth protecting not only for the green oasis it provides in a busy city, but for its many contributions to the ecological life and history of the neighbourhood.
It is host to many regionally rare plant species: Fly Honeysuckle, Sassafras, Running Strawberry bush, Interrupted Fern. It also holds an abundance of other interesting plant species, like Canada Honeywort, Early Meadow Rue, Two-Leaved Toothwort and Large-Flowered Bellwort. Glen Stewart is also home to one of the most outstanding communities of red oaks in the entire city. In fact, it is such a valuable ecological area that acorns collected by the city’s Tree Seed Diversity Project are being used in other parts of the city to help increase the genetic diversity of red oaks.
The ravine has important ties to local history. William Stewart Darling, who once owned the ravine, and Alfred Ernest Ames, after whom the creek that flows through it is named, are both important figures in local history and worthy of mention.
The Glen Stewart Ravine is a great place for nature lovers, historians and for folks of all ages. Glen Stewart has been an amazingly popular place, not just now, but for the last 100 years. Increased awareness of native versus invasive plants, respectful human use of the trails and good stewardship practices, should ensure that many more generations are able to appreciate its tranquil benefits.