Rethinking Your Yard
Emile Forest and Philippe Asselin, co-founders of Nouveaux Voisins, invite us to put away the lawn mower and envision a garden dedicated to biodiversity.
Text—Marie Charles Pelletier
In partnership with
Emile Forest and Philippe Asselin’s shared love of the land brought them together and inspired them to found the non-profit Nouveaux Voisins (New Neighbours) in 2019. Their organization challenges the ubiquity of grass lawns, explores new ways to promote biodiversity, and champions sustainable development in urban planning.
Forest, a native of Rimouski, has a special place in his heart for the river, the salt air, the whelks. During his many trips through these maritime landscapes, on his way to Québec City, Montréal, or Paspébiac, he developed a desire to understand them. As a child he designed spaces and cities on pieces of plywood left behind by his father, and now he’s an urban planner. For Asselin, his previous jobs landscaping flower beds and placing turf without a thought for tomorrow eventually led him to want to find a way for land-use planning to serve biodiversity.
Together, the pair worked to engage the public to reclaim yards, revitalize abandoned land, and rethink shared spaces. But changing people’s ways of thinking doesn’t happen overnight. “If, as a professional landscaper, I have trouble knowing which plants should go where, how can we expect the average citizen to know?” says Asselin. As a way of helping to build this knowledge, Nouveaux Voisins offers test gardens, with plants adapted to an area and customized for individuals or municipalities. Imagine a catalogue of tried-and-tested garden models.
For the past three summers, Nouveaux Voisins has been designing spaces that contribute directly to the environment, unlike the impeccably green and shorn lawns they hope to replace. This year, Forest and Asselin have a showcase project on The Ecological Transition Campus at Jean-Drapeau Park, with native plants as alternatives to existing residential landscapes. When the plants struggle, they find out why. What Forest and Asselin learn through this process of trial and error will be passed on to others — and just might lead to real change.
Rethinking our yards
Our yards should be inspired by the surrounding natural environment rather than the Palace of Versailles. This, in any case, is Forest and Asselin’s humble opinion. There are so many plants that can feed insects and offer microhabitats to small mammals, while looking nice and not requiring much upkeep. Why not transform our grass into vegetable gardens, strawberry fields, or native grasses that thrive in the sun? Through their horticultural experiments, the pair hopes to inspire others in planning yards or balconies and to deepen our relationship to the nature that surrounds us.
As we walk through the various campus gardens in a heat wave, Forest shares Nouveaux Voisins’ guiding principles for each project.
1. Share with nature
Nature gives us so much — we need to be able to give back. Before you get your hands in the dirt, ask yourself, “What would serve biodiversity the best? Which spaces do I need, and where would it be best to leave the fauna and flora to themselves?”
2. Understand the value of native plants
Not all plants are the same. Lawn grass is a very simplified version of nature. Including native species in our gardens is beneficial, as they have often developed close relationships with local flora and fauna, and are best adapted to the environment.
3. Draw inspiration from the complexity of nature
Nature does things right. To draw inspiration as you create your garden, take a walk through the natural environments near you and observe how the plants live together. Notice which ones grow near each other, protect each other, and fit together.
4. Give your neighbours a heads-up
Your yard will look different than most. It will be more dense and more complex. To help facilitate the social acceptability of this horticultural philosophy, create clear borders and a clear structure to show your intentions and avoid sidelong glances from the neighbours.
5. Take care, rather than doing maintenance
Try to avoid seeing your yard as a fixed image. Imagine instead a community of plants in evolution. If you perceive yourself as a caretaker, it will be easier to imagine working alongside nature, allowing it to adapt, while gently guiding its hand. Forest suggests observing your garden and helping to maintain equilibrium. For example, if some plants tend to take a little too much space, you can simply trim the tops to make sure they leave enough sun for the shyer ones.
Nature will always be your best teacher. Plants that are beautiful and do well in the natural environments around you will flourish just as gorgeously in your yard.
Learn more about Nouveaux Voisins and their philosophy of urban planning in the series Going Sideways, featuring stories — not always smooth — of people who’ve decided to break free from the mould, or to rethink it.
Presented by BESIDE, in partnership with Desjardins.