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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The best lawn in Canada is no more

Once the London Life lawn would never have had even one weed, yet alone dozens.

It was once known as the best lawn in Canada. It was incredible. It was unbelievable. It was a golf green unmarred by a hole and cup. It was the London Life lawn in downtown London, Ontario.

The London Life lawn is patchy not perfect.
The insurance company's grass was a brighter green. It was finer, denser, shorter. It was so short that a special drum lawn mower — the kind usually reserved for trimming golf greens — was used to cut the grass to a height of 1/8 inch. London Life must have had a full-time greenskeeper. Amazing.

But all that came to an end a few years ago. According to The Londoner the look could only be achieved through the use of chemical pesticides. When the province banned lawn pesticides, the death knell sounded for the famous London lawn.

Greg Sandle, London’s pesticide education coordinator, told the Londoner that folks have to change their perception of what constitutes a perfect lawn.

“There will be dandelions, there will be weeds. But we want people to just relax, they’re only weeds."

If you look carefully at the London Life lawn, you can still see remnants of the former lawn, fine and dense.

The new grass is hardier. It doesn't demand all the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and water of the golf green variety. You might say, despite appearances to the contrary, the new lawn is actually "greener" than the old one.

Old and new: patches of the old, perfect lawn can still be seen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

London lawns more than grass

A pesticide-treated lawn in London, Ontario.
Recently I watched a very enjoyable video on lawns in London. It was well written, nicely shot and well edited. Unfortunately, it missed the story.

According to this reporter/videographer team, Londoners have started letting their lawns be. Why? They have no choice, London banned pesticides for lawn care and soon after the province followed suite. Lawns in London "have become … less perfect, more wild."

There are more weeds than before.
It's true that lawns in London and throughout Ontario have suffered in recent years. With 2, 4-D banned, weeds grew quickly and soon invaded lawns right across the province. The once popular herbicide was feared by many Ontario residents despite being declared safe at the time by Health Canada. Still, the stuff had a checkered reputation and banning it wasn't unreasonable. Read the Toxipedia entry on 2, 4-D.

Personally, I wasn't sad to see 2, 4-D go. Treated lawns stunk and the odour ruined an otherwise pleasant walk.

But, the chemists fought back. They fought back against the provincial ban and against weeds. Now, there is a new chemical on the block and on London lawns and on lawns across the province: iron.

According to Nutri-Lawn, a company that boasts they provide ecology friendly lawn care:

An excessive uptake of chelated iron (FeHEDTA) is toxic to broadleaf weeds. They absorb the iron differently than turf. Turfgrass is not affected by the application of  FeHEDTA but weeds die. So Killex (2, 4D) is out and Fiesta (FeHEDTA) is in.

Scotts Weed B Gon contains FeHEDTA.
I've noticed a number of lawns in my neighbourhood sporting signs advising folk walking by that the grass has been treated professionally. But this iron stuff is readily available at garden centres and many more lawns are being treated than posted.

Many lawns in London and other communities throughout the province are weedy now but this may be a short term thing. Fiesta, and weed killers like it, are gaining in popularity and the reviews of these chemicals are very positive at this moment. Read this release from the University of Maryland on iron-based herbicides.

What I love about lawns in my area of London is that many are not lawns at all. More and more home owners are choosing to plant trees and flowers and shrubs in place of grass. One neighbour has removed the lawn completely and replaced it with a rock garden.

A grassless "lawn" in London, Ontario.
Many others have simply reduced their use of grass. In extreme cases the grass is less lawn and more accent colour. Grass is just part of an overall look. Whatever approach has been taken, it looks great and gives my London neighbourhood the appearance of a well kept park.

Is any of this unique? I doubt it. A lot of home owners love gardening — young and old. You don't have to be a so-called baby boomer to love getting your hands dirty.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The only constant in life is change

Large, opulent and deserted.
Back in the '60s a friend told me: "The only constant in life is change." This, I believe, is a quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus. It's nice to seem some things last.

I think change helped hollow out our cities and ruin our downtowns. Change doomed many a grand movie house and change destroyed many an opulent downtown hotel.

Saturday I saw how change can affect a small, forgotten bit of elegance lost deep in a small town backyard: A solid concrete swimming pool built with hard work and love.

The entrance to the pool is amazingly intact.
Ernie built concrete, in-ground pools for a living. When Ernie built an in-ground for himself and his wife, he built a well crafted beauty.

Ernie died more than a decade ago and his pool was forgotten. His wife, in her eighties, didn't use the pool and living alone she was unable to maintain it or even close it down properly.

Sadly, no neighbour, no relative, no one spent much time thinking about the forgotten, concrete pool. It sat neglected.

It is mainly frogs that enjoy the pool today.
The water grew green with algae and the laughing of young nephew and nieces was replaced by the croaking of bull frogs. The concrete deck gently heaved and weeds grew between the concrete slabs.

But Ernie made a good pool. Rainwater and snowfall replenished the pool water that evaporated and the old, solid pool held; It didn't leak.

Ernie's wife died recently and the pool has been rediscovered. Despite its green-thick water, despite the frogs, despite the weeds and forlorn flower gardens, the pool was a real estate plus. The home sold quickly and the new owners, a young couple, are going to restore the old, concrete pool.

I wish them luck.

The pool has new owners and the change may bring it some permanence.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Morgan Featured Marque

My Morgan, I've had it for almost 43 years, is the green one in the foreground.

At the British Sports Car of London sponsored show at Bellamere Winery in the northwest end of the city Saturday, Morgan was the honoured marque.

The quintessential British sports car may be a very small car producer but it is a successful one. That's more than one can say for General Motors. After more than a century, Morgan is still in business and, unlike GM, it does not have a bankruptcy skeleton in its closet.

That's right, Morgans are still being made! And some models, yes models, the Morgan Motor Company makes a line of cars, harken back to the early years of the last century.

I bought mine in Windsor, Ontario in December of 1968. It's been a fine car. My wife and I have driven it across the continent to California twice in the past six years. I've kept it for almost 43 years and if I want to keep driving a Moggie, I've got to keep my old girl on the road. Treat her with love.

You see, Morgans are still being made but they are no longer sold in Canada. It has been decades since one could buy a new Morgan in Canada. The Morgan company has been unable to meet all the demands of the Canadian government when it comes to meeting the multitude of rules regulating the importation of new cars.

It was hoped that the Morgan 3 Wheeler, brought back into production just recently, would be available Canada, entering the country under regulations governing motorcycles. Think Can-Am. They are legal and considered roadworthy. Morgan trikes, with a solid heritage going back to 1910 are not being cleared for sale.

Click on the links. Check out the Morgan line. Check out the new-old 3 Wheeler. And remember, what some claim is the greenest car in production today, the Morgan is not sold in Canada. A pity.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not Made in London, Ontario

There is a big move to make London Ontario a more successful community, a better place to live. The folks behind the push think of themselves as forward thinking but, in a certain sense, they are talking about bringing back the past. (Not that that is always a bad thing.)

I have written about some of the large and small companies that flourished in London in the past and which have either been bought and closed or bought and folded into a larger company. Over the years many businesses and many jobs have left the city, many have left Canada. (For more info, see: The Forest City: A rich past of fading memories)

One of the companies I mentioned was McClary appliances. Born in London around the 1850s, it grew into a major Canadian supplier of home appliances. Today it has departed the town of its birth. Its memory has faded. Its London plant has been demolished.

Last night I was in an appliance store and checked where the appliances, Inglis and Amanda, were made. It was a short but interesting read. Inglis is a bit like McClary.

According to Wikipedia, the Inglis name originated with John Inglis of Dundas, Ontario. The machine shop he opened with Thomas Mair in Guelph, Ontario, in 1859 grew into the company that made the engines for the Canada Steamship Lines. By the mid 1960s, Inglis was the leading producer of Canadian-built laundry machines. Inglis, like McClary, was a long running Canadian success story.

Today the Inglis name is still on the marquee but the show is over, closed by the Whirlpool Corporation of Benton Harbour, Michigan. The large Inglis complex in Toronto has been demolished and the land is being redeveloped as housing and commercial space. The appliances I examined may have carried the Inglis and Amana names but both brands are controlled by Whirlpool and made in Mexico, Shunde PRC or assembled in the United States. There's no mention of Canada.

If alarm bells are not ringing in your head, let me clue you in and then please watch the following video. Benton Harbour, the Michigan town Whirlpool Corporation calls home, the town mentioned on the manufacturer i.d. plates on the appliances I examined, is a town famous for being an ongoing economic disaster. Benton Harbour suffered an urban collapse possibly worse than that suffered by Detroit. Years ago The London Free Press sent a reporter and a photographer to Benton Harbour to document the town's economic collapse and to determine if London could learn from the small Michigan town's experience.

If you have the time, please watch the following video.

In London, the conversation has turned to making London a creative city. What is being ignored is that London was once, and not that long ago, a creative city.

McClary, Labatt, Blackburn, Carling, Jarmain . . .  all are part of a long list of creative, successful Londoners. These creative types brought wealth not only to themselves but to their city.

The McCormick cookie and candy plant sits closed, empty.
There are a couple of names that are not on the list despite being two very creative guys who have made a big impact on London. These men are Marc Leder and Rodger Krouse, the founders of Sun Capital Partners, a private equity firm that has bought and closed three London plants in just four years. Following from The London Free Press and The Tribune:

  • In 2007, Sun Capital Partners closed McCormicks the cookie and candy factory on Dundas St. E. in London, cutting 275 jobs, denying workers severance, vacation pay and pensions.
  • McCormicks workers fight two years in court to win vacation pay and have to pay their legal bills from the winnings.
  • One 48-year employee now earns a pension of $300 a month.
  • In 2008, Sun Capital Partners closed closed H.J. Jones in London while denying severance. Employees had to fight to get a deal paying them half of what they were owed.
  • In 2008, Sun Capital Partners was involved in the closing of the CanGro Foods in St. Davids, an Ontario canning plant and the last remaining fruit canning plant in all of North America east of the Rockies. The plant had been in operation for more than 100 years.
  • In 2008, Sun Capital Partners was involved in the closing of the CanGro Foods canning plant in Exeter, Ontario. The closing of the two canning opertions resulted in the loss of 268 hourly and 27 salaried positions as well as all seasonal positions.
  • In 2011, Sun Capital Partners closed closed Specialized Packaging Group in London. Talks are to begin on determining severance packages.
Attracting the attention of these two creative fellows may not have benefited London or London workers but somewhere there must be a creative city, a dominant spike of prosperity, benefiting from Sun Capital Partners. Who knows, maybe it's Boca Raton, Florida.

Sun Capital Partners founder Marc Leder's 15,000 sq. ft. home in Boca Raton, Florida.
When Lisa Leder filed for divorce she claimed her husband, Marc, was worth more than $400 million. He denied the figure, offering his wife a settlement of more than $100 million.

The couple agreed they enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle with a 15,000-square-foot home near Boca Raton, a vacation retreat in Stowe, Vt. and six vehicles including an Aston Martin DB9 convertible, a Bentley Continental convertible, a Cadillac Escalade and a Lexus LS. They traveled by private jet.

Well, Lisa enjoyed it. Marc worked. In court papers she claimed she had been essentially a single parent as her husband devoted long hours to his business.

For more about Sun Capital Partners and the two gentlemen behind it, read the New York Times story: In a Romney Believer, Private Equity's Risks and Rewards

And for an update to the McCormick factory story, please read: Imported candies marketed as Canadian.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The wasteful development of our farmland, our birthright, continues.

Upper Cornell is a New Urbanist medium-density plan in Markham, Ontario.
In the mid 1970s I worked for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources out of the Richmond Hill office. At lunch many of us would sit at picnic tables and "chew the fat" along with our sandwiches. A popular topic, and one often discussed in some depth, was the rapid and massive loss of rich farmland that we all saw being bulldozed as we drove to work.

According to Ontario Farmland Trust:

"In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) alone, more than 2,000 farms and 150,000 acres of farmland were lost to production in the two decades between 1976 and 1996. This represented approximately 18% of Ontario's Class 1 farmland."

I now understand why the loss of GTA farmland was such big topic of conversation. The dramatic loss of Canada's birthright, Canada's farmland, was a shocking story unfolding right before our eyes.

Which brings me to a story in my local paper, The London Free Press, by Debora Van Brenk. The Strathroy-Caradoc Township council appears ready to approve the loss of 80 acres of good Southwestern Ontario farmland for the construction of 214 suburban homes.

From the description in the newspaper, this is not Class 1 farmland but it does have its own set of advantages. It is light, well drained soil that has come into its own with this spring's heavy, day-after-day rainfall. The paper quotes renter Larry Cowan who farms this land: "In a year like this, we'd like to have 500 to 600 acres" of this light soil.

Cowan is not just an area farmer but he's a former director of the Ontario Corn Producers' Association and a Strathroy-Caradoc Township councillor. He defends the development, telling the newspaper: "You can't stand still."

It may surprise Mr. Cowan but the construction of 214 suburban homes on 80 acres is standing still when it comes to the world of urban growth in 2011.

These numbers reflect yesterday's low-density approach to housing. Housing from a time more than hundred years past often had a higher density and realized their high density goal with greater style and aplomb.
  • Mount Brydges:  2.675 homes per acre
  • Oak Park (New Urbanist development near Oakville): 22.5 homes per acre. (Oak Park encompasses 204 acres supporting a dense urban neighborhood with 4,600 homes on a radial grid planned for 10,000 residents.)
  • Traditional town house blocks have as many as 36 homes per acre.
  • New Urbanist suburbs weigh in at an average of 15-30 units per acre.

2.675 homes per acre; All too sad. Talk about standing still. These numbers are not even back to the future.