Native garden on Keele campus shows benefits of eco-restoration

Environmental studies Professor Gerda Wekerle holds a wicker basket brimming with dark purple elderberries she hopes to turn into elderberry wine.

More than a potential vintage, the elderberries are also the first fruits of a tiny eco-restoration project underway at York University. Started informally by the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) some four years ago, the project – a native garden – is situated in front of the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies (HNES) Building on the Keele campus.

Right: Gerda Wekerle with her harvest of elderberries

Wekerle and avid gardener Tim Haagsma, who is also the manager of grounds, fleets & waste management at York, are working with FES graduate and undergraduate students to fill the garden with plants that are native to Canada.

The eco-restoration of the garden has meant hours of work, mosquito bites and a never-ending battle with turf grass and invasive weeds, but as a delighted Wekerle points out, the fruits of the group’s labours are worth the effort.

“I have never seen elderberry fruit and I wasn’t expecting to see it for a few years, as we planted 14 elderberry plants just over four years ago,” says Wekerle. “This is the first year the plants have bloomed and borne fruit. It is exciting.”

“Back when this building was home to Schulich [School of Business], this was a turf area with a few trees and shrubs,” says Haagsma. “There wasn’t much here. Another interesting point about this garden is that it is a green roof.” The plants are located above basement classrooms in HNES.

Left: River oats, also known as sea oats

The garden is important, says Haagsma, because there are fewer and fewer places left on campus – or in many parts of Canada – where species of plants native to the country can grow and flourish.

Eco-restoration is the process of returning an area as close to its original form as possible. In this case, that means planting wild species of lobelia, Canadian columbine, grasses and fruit-bearing plants such as elderberry. The garden was designed with the help of former campus planner Andrew Wilson and has received funding from TD Canada Trust and support from Dean Barbara Rahder and FES faculty, staff and students. It has evolved to include plants that are medicinal and native to the region, reflecting the values of the Faculty of Health, which also has offices in HNES.

What distinguishes the garden from other areas of the campus is the fact that it offers a combination of woodland and prairie plants that attract the eye through most of the year. “We have flowers that bloom in the spring while students are still on campus and those are mostly woodland species. And then it has flowers that bloom mostly towards the end of July through August and September when students are back on campus. The rest of the time we thought could be quiet and restful,” says Wekerle.

The garden has two kinds of grasses – switch grass and river oats – that are native to Canada. Dancing in the wind are river oats with their delicate leaves. Splashes of colour have been added over the years as Haagsma, Wekerle and students acquire native plants for the garden. Two years ago, a severe drought caused significant damage to the garden. Last year’s wet summer offered a bonus for the gardeners as it helped establish the new plants by developing the root base needed to survive future drought conditions.

Helping Wekerle and Haagsma with the project are MES student Judith Arney, third-year student Jonathan De Serres and a small group of FES undergraduate and graduate students.

Left: Judith Arney

“We’ve planted a lot of plants; some of the plants have been moved from a demonstration garden that was situated in front of Atkinson. We would love donations of native plants, especially if they have been grown in someone’s garden because they are more robust than plants that come from a nursery,” says Wekerle, adding that potential donations should be cleared with her first.

Working on the garden has been tremendously satisfying, says De Serres. He has planted common witch hazel, cardinal plant and a pagoda dogwood. “Everything is coming up magnificently,” he says. “Today, it has come so far. Over time, we have been adding plants and rescuing plants from other parts of the city and from the demonstration garden. It is becoming more and more colourful every week. There’s a lot of work still to be done, but the garden is flourishing and very worthwhile. Some of the flowers we’ve added have really taken to the site.”

Right: Jonathan De Serres with a cardinal plant that he donated to the garden

Arney, who is doing her master’s thesis in eco-restoration, brings to York a wealth of knowledge from her work in the same area at the University of Victoria. A student in traditional plants, she has been at the site for most of the summer. “I started a blog for the garden,” she says. “My field is ecological restoration and ethno-botany. What interests me about this garden are some of its traditional uses; there are many interesting medicinal uses as well.

“Restoration never ends. I was in a class and we had an opportunity to do any kind of presentation we wanted. I brought the students out to the garden and we planted flowers for the presentation. What surprised me was that a number of people in the class had never planted seeds before. It connected the space with the healing nature of gardening,” says Arney. “We have to build the capacity to make ecological restoration a part of people’s lives.

“Witch hazel has been used as a medicinal plant. Early settlers used the boughs as divining rods. There are many interesting links and layers to this garden that are still being explored,” says Arney. “These layers give us a deeper appreciation of our own lives and how important each plant is to our shared history. We can see how much the native plants, including a number of different species such as prairie dock, are all out competing with the turf grass and invasive weeds.”

Left: Cup plant, one of the many native plants thriving in the FES garden

Arney laughs as she allows that turf grass often creeps into her dreams. “Eventually, with stewardship, these native plants will out-compete and grow stronger than the invasive plants and this is very important,” she says. “We have our own pollinators. There is a ground nest of Agapostemon bees. That’s an important piece of the ecological puzzle.”

The garden is also a demonstration site that instructors and students can use. Arney is placing permanent markers in front of the native plants and this part of the educational component of the garden will be completed in the next few weeks.

“They will see plants that they normally would not see in downtown Toronto,” says Wekerle. “The plants in this garden are native to this area. Students also learn how to collect plants and propagate them. Students planted prairie smoke seeds last year and the plants have flourished. It is the kind of garden that is not flashy – you have to look closely to see the treasures.”

In a few years, Wekerle hopes it will be a riot of colour. She welcomes cash donations to help support the garden. Interested individuals can contribute to the garden through the Faculty of Environmental Studies Office or contact Wekerle at

To view Arney’s blog on the garden, including her recent post about the discovery of the Agapostemon bees, visit

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor