May 17th, 2022

Q1. Why does the Beaches neighbourhood have sandy soil?

Eco Bound To The Earth Beneath Our Feet


When you walk about Toronto's urban neighbourhoods in the spring and summer, it often feels like you've stepped back in time. In areas like the Beaches, flowers from Victorian style gardens overfill front yards; large, arching oak trees shade the parks; and casual garden paths of misshapen flagstones wind about the backyards. A Pagoda Dogwood stretches its tiered branches under the cover of larger trees, catching sunlight that filters through shade, its shape resembling the "pagoda" temples of Asia. And if you look carefully, you spot homegrown tomatoes on sprawling vines along the south wall of a garden, or planted in buckets on a balcony, along with savoury herbs in a sunny window box.

Pagoda Dogwood

What an urban paradise we live in! Think about it. The glorious trees, plants and wildflowers that surround us, as well as the animals, insects and wildlife (yes, even the ones we sometimes avoid!) are directly related to the earth under our feet. All of nature - human beings included - eat, drink and breathe according to the land and its specific conditions. Even though we live in modern homes and buildings, we still thrive in a beautiful, natural, healthy and balanced environment. It helps to know a little about our land, what occurs naturally in our soil, and what was happening 100 years or more ago in our neighbourhoods.

Mrs. Alice Keynes describes some of the Beaches area flora in her personal recollections:

Vine Ripe Tomatoes

"....there were woods of pine oak maple, hazel, birch, and a tree that seems to have vanished - sassafras, with odd mitt shaped leaves that had a soapy taste. In the spring, trilliums, hepaticas, jacks, violets, trailing arbutus, Solomon's Seal, marsh marigolds in soggy places - in the summer, tiger lilies, fragrant wild roses, and a field near Victoria park and the Kingston Road, solid blue with wild lupins..."

Mrs Alice Keynes, Beaches Library Local History Collection

Knowing our neighbourhood by its soil


When you stroll through a neighbourhood park or walk out your backdoor, look at the plants growing at your feet. When no one is watching (if you're in a park!) grab a handful of soil and crumble it through your fingers. You can tell a lot about the nature of the land we stand on, its ancient history, by the soil. Our neighbourhoods are unique not just because of who has lived there and what we might see around us, but also for what lies beneath our feet.


There isn't sand everywhere in Toronto, but because our city is situated on the shore of ancient Lake Iroquois, areas south of the old shoreline have sandy or sandy-gravel soil. This shoreline runs eastwest across Toronto, starting from the Scarborough Bluffs. Prominent sections above the "lower city" include the area near St. Clair Avenue West between the Don River and Bathurst as well as just south of Davenport Road from Spadina to Caledonia.

Toronto's "upper city" has heavy clay soils, but the Beaches and "lower city" neighbourhoods enjoy fine, sandy soil. Such sandy soil results in dry, prairie-like conditions unless you live near a ravine, at the bottom of a hill, or by the lakeshore. There you find moist, woodland conditions.

It is in the dry, sandy areas where the ancient oak savannah ecosystem would have flourished, with its widely spaced oaks with large open areas filled with prairie grasses and wildflowers. (Identified in High Park and some areas in the east end, see page 17, Oak Savannah).

Carefree urban paradise with Native Plants

Map of Toronto

Native Plants are those plants that naturally grow in your area. Native varieties of plants have been tried and true favourites for generations simply because Native Plants work.

Such plants thrive because they are completely adapted to the climate, soil, pests and diseases that occur there. Whether they are flowers, vegetables, shrubs or trees, they need less coddling, making for an easiercare, lower maintenance landscape. If you are a gardener, this means less work, less cost, and more time to enjoy!

Local wildlife habitat

Native Plants that have grown in your area for centuries also are better able to meet the needs of local wildlife. Many wildlife species, birds and insects, are dependant on the presence of native vegetation for their survival. In Ontario, for example, the fruit of most shrubs and vines including dogwoods, viburnums, elderberry, sumac, service-berry, choke-cherry and raspberries attract a wide range of birds and small mammals. The milkweed is the only species that the Monarch chooses for for laying its eggs (see article, page 20). Tree species such as eastern white pine, hemlock and hawthorns provide cover for many of our favourite birds, such as Cardinals and Chickadees.

Drier, sandy soil - soil most likely to support a prairie/savannah habitat - is perfect for growing what are often referred to as "prairie favourites". Such plants are able to withstand long, dry, sunny summers. They also make great cut flowers and most bloom for long stretches, i.e. at least a month or more. And such plants will attract some of our most welcomed insects, like the beautiful Monarch and Karner butterflies.

For moist, sandy soil, there is a host of Native Plants that are unique, beautiful and will actually multiply in such conditions, especially in the shade. Here you will find the many varieties of ferns, Solomon's Seal, or the delicate (and edible!) Waterleaf.

A story of the deliciously lovely multi-talented waterleaf


Many Native Plants are not only attractive but can add zest to our meals and provide medicinal benefits. Awardwinning Native Plant gardener, Dagmar Baur, writes:

Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum Virginianum) is a native ground-cover for a densely shaded area. It spreads easily and looks attractive under larger plants. The pretty mauve and white flowers are clustered in loose cymes and the stamens and stigmas protrude delicately out of each bell.

Hydrophyllum Virginianum

In Toronto they poke their heads out late May to June from large fountains of deeply divided leaves with 5 to 7 lobes. The plant spreads by seed and rhizomes. They also have soft and mysterious little burr-like pods that open into flowers for their summer journey. Best of all they require little care besides watering and judicious removals that allow breathing room for other plants.

The green leaves are edible, tasty, and even medicinal. The Peterson Field Guide says of its use: "Cooked greens using the young leaves before the flowers appear are excellent boiled." 5-10 minutes in one or two changes of water and serve with vinegar. The leaves are succulent and delicious when very young. Another way to serve Waterleaf as a delectable dish is to steam them briefly or stir-fry gently adding soya sauce, toasted sesame seeds and a dash of Balsamic vinegar to finish off. YUM!

The mature plant exhibits a bitter flavour indicating its medicinal qualities: For example, First Nations used Waterleaf (above) to make a root tea which they used as an astringent for dysentery or chewed the roots for cracked lips and mouth sores.

This is a fragment from a longer article which will be available in the "Blazing Star" 2008 summer issueof the North American Native Plant Society,

Dagmar Baur, Community Gardener and writer grows heritage vegetables and native

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