Society for
Organic Urban
Land Care

      Nick Johnson  

          Accredited Organic Land Care Professional 

         High River, AB 

         Eat My Shrubs 

1. How did you become interested in landscape design/horticulture/gardening? 

I worked in the landscaping/contracting industry as my first introduction to the work force in the 1990’s.  In rural New Brunswick at the time, most people I knew had a vegetable garden, as did we.  I would be in the garden for weeding, harvesting, and the like.  I went back to the garden for a summer job in university, into a public garden.  Here I met people who did this as a profession, something I hadn’t thought of before.

It wasn’t until I was working on environmental clean-ups from oil and gas operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, around 2006, that I became interested professionally.  I was getting tired of going onto a site, both urban and very, very rural, tearing up a bunch of stuff and leaving a vacant, bare, property.  The property was “clean”, meaning not contaminated with hydrocarbons, or some other man-made chemical, but…..

I had received extensive training in hazardous material clean ups, and I was understanding more and more, what these chemicals were. I was seeing first hand how much damage they can do when in the wrong place, or in too heavy of a concentration. Not just hydrocarbons either, of course.

My girlfriend was fighting with ulcerative colitis at the time and trying to aid the healing processes with dietary changes and restrictions. In doing so, we were both learning about all the pesticides and preservatives in the food that we eat.  More and more of our conversations were surrounding the chemicals in the world around us.  That is when I was introduced to the concept of Permaculture.  Although, I don’t refer to myself as a “Permie”, I have been involved with landscaping and gardening professionally ever since, and trying to do things as naturally as I can.


2. What are some of the challenges, limitations or opportunities you’ve encountered practising environmentally friendly gardening and landscaping?

Sourcing some materials, and finding equipment and parts locally, has been a challenge, although I am getting pretty good at thinking outside the box as far as who may carry something.  Ordering online has become easier, but gets expensive if you want a larger quantity of something, but not necessarily a pallet-worth.  I am also getting better at letting go of the need to hold something before I purchase it. 

Getting people away from the “what can I spray on it”, and the “insta” urban landscape mentality, and think long term about what they do. Or rather, what we do, because what we do to our lawn often drifts into our neighbours.

More people are becoming open to the idea of trying things without chemicals. I still run into resistance, or more doubt than anything, but less as time goes on.  I use a lot of essential oils, natural compounds, and compost in my maintenance practices, so often knowing what I am going to use won’t harm anything, alleviates the doubt enough to “give it a try”.

3. What would you say are the basics of regenerative urban landscaping? 

I have lived and worked in the most natural of settings, deep in the forest, both in eastern Canada and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.  I would say the basics of regenerative urban landscaping, is setting it up to let Mother Nature be Mother Nature. She doesn’t need our help in the forest, and is constantly fighting us in the city.  Those cracks in the sidewalks that fill with tansies, or that tree in the middle of a paved, vacant lot.  Mother Nature is trying to take back what we have taken and discarded. 

If we take our cues from Nature, the natural things we tend will also flourish.  Trees in the forest are not pruned annually, and do just fine, bare ground is quickly covered in pioneering species of plants (and ground covered in bark is considered bare), sick plants are consumed by insects, and anything in the path of a deer is a viable food source.  But, everything is in balance with everything else.  If we set up our urban gardens, parks, and green spaces, to mimic nature, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time and effort unnecessarily battling with Mother Nature, because, she will win.  Every time. 


4. How and in what way does the horticulture industry impact green spaces in our urban areas?

The phrase “Keep off the grass until dry”, or “Herbicide application planned for the area”.

Really, the horticultural industry is only responding to the community.  The people in the community freak out about the dandelions in the park, as an example.  They want a ten-acre park in every community, with a lush green carpet of grass, without lifting a finger, or paying an extra dime in taxes to maintain it.  The city or town is stuck trying to maintain all theses green spaces as efficiently and cheaply as possible. This leads to big heavy equipment running over the parks and green spaces.  These machines compact the soil, which causes pioneering species of plants to prosper.  These “weeds” are then sprayed with some highly effective herbicide, which kills the “weed’ and most of the microbiology in the soil around it.  Chemical fertilizers are used, as a quick fix and kind of steroid to make the grass green even when it really should not be. It’s a vicious, never ending cycle that is costly and destined for failure every time.  Until people change how they look at the environment around them and realize that everything is there for a reason.  Dandelions, for example, are some of the first flowers in the spring, needed to feed early rising pollinators and beneficial insects. We need more wild flowers in the natural spaces. When people understand that, maybe the view of what makes a beautiful green space will change.

We live in an insta-world with insta-trees and insta-lawns. Trees that are root pruned and planted in cages and burlap expected to do well in small, concrete squares in the pavement. Unhealthy and damaged trees attract insects and other pests into neighbourhoods.  We would be better to plant smaller trees and shrubs that are meant for small rooting areas. Grasses conducive to most sod cutting operations require a lot of water to survive.  Sod rolls often come complete with pests and unwanted plants at no extra cost as well.


5. How can ecological or regenerative landscaping services be positioned so that more people choose to support regenerative land care over conventional landscaping approaches? 


Working at the municipal level to stop using harmful chemicals and practices on public green spaces, transforming them into regenerative landscapes, and then educating the community in some way about the methodology used.   Banning the sale or use of certain materials that are known to be harmful or often misused would also be helpful.

The industry has to be competitive with their pricing in order for people to buy in. Literally.  That goes without saying for most things, but for some reason the word organic brings the image of dollar signs to most people.  Also, the more people that are offering ecological or regenerative landscaping services professionally, the more people will know it is offered in their area.  The younger generation may be able to do more independently, and only need education.  The older generation, however, are often dependent on service providers.  If we can change the mindset of the service providers, then the general public will have an easier time selecting a ecologically regenerative service.

Photos: Left - Saskatoon Berry; right - Native Plant habitat. Photos SOUL 

Canadian Society for Organic Urban Land Care (SOUL)
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