Sustainable perspectives

Sustainable perspectives

Strengthening relationship with place, ecosystem and community

By: Brenlee Brothers

Common milkweed seedlings from Sundaura's nursery. Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo
Common milkweed seedlings from Sundaura's nursery.
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

Sundaura Alford-Purvis has been hooked on gardening since she was around four or five, when she remembers planting squash seeds and watching them grow into humongous vines. It was the coolest thing in the universe, she recalls. “It was magic the first time and it has never stopped being magic.” 

After working in garden centres, studying architecture and trying that for a year, Alford-Purvis spent 24 years working in the horticulture industry as a professional garden and landscape designer. Overtime, she became more aware of the sheer environmental impact of hard materials used by the conventional horticulture industry. From the manufacturing and transportation of materials, to the use of gravel base that is mined somewhere else entirely. “It was bothering me more and more,” she said.

Eventually it became too hard to ignore the common practice of forcing ecosystems out of their natural state for the purpose of human aesthetic desires. She went from working with people and plants to change landscapes, to working with the land and plants to change people. “How do we actually adapt to an ecosystem and become a functioning part of it?” she asks. More people are starting to think about what plants they can use to support the ecosystem as opposed to what plants to use to create the garden look they want, she said. “There’s a lot of people starting from a different question now.” With ecosystem care at the forefront of people’s minds. 

Alford-Purvis is a strong believer that we should practice being in relationship with complex living systems instead of simplifying them. Currently, she is focused on ecosystem enhancement through the use of native plants in Ontario. Last year she started her own micro-nursery, growing over 100 native species from seed this spring to sell to people in the surrounding Ottawa area. “Selling lots of different species so people can actually get the diversity growing in the landscape that you really do need for healthy ecosystems,” she said.

Native plant nursery in the spring.Native plant nursery in the spring. Around 650 plants were sold in the first week.
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

“All you can do is work on healthy relationships with place, ecosystems and community,” she said. In an effort to create spaces and activities for others to work on these skill sets, Alford-Purvis created the Landcare Collective, an in person, hands on course, where participants work on garden projects outside and learn how to build up soil health instead of replacing it. The course asks questions like, what materials do we have to work with? What if we can figure out how to actually incorporate what’s here into what we’re trying to create? This looks like weaving together cuttings from invasive shrubs to make compost bins or protection from critters.

Most students are new to this and wondering how to do things differently, she said. “Everyone seems to be having a great deal of fun, which is always the best way to do things.” The course runs one evening, every two weeks from May to October. 

Last Winter, Alford-Purvis did a really neat project where she posted one Ontario native plant a day on facebook, in the order of bloom season, for the entire winter. She included a bio that described each plants’ personality and role in the ecosystem. “It builds up interest just by putting pictures of pretty plants in front of people who otherwise have not seen them,” she said.

Gathering Field Pussytoes seedheads in 2021. Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo
Gathering Field Pussytoes seedheads in 2021. 
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

At her house in urban Ottawa, over the past four to five years, Alford-Purvis has been converting her garden beds into native species spaces. “The pollinator population in the yard has just gone through the roof,” she said. “There’s at least three different species of bumblebee that basically complete their life cycle in my little urban yard… literally the yard just hums from spring to fall.”

“I’m trying to really look at what native species can extend the bloom season in a hot year, because last year it was so hot here from early on in the season, all the plants bloomed two weeks early.” By mid-september there were very few blooms left, she said. She plans to collect seeds from the last plants to bloom each season - even for something like common goldenrod - to try to extend the blooming season, she said. “What are the things we can do within an ecosystem that actually might increase our capacity to support life, including our own?” she asks. 

“I would love to see a transition from trying to force the spaces in our communities to be low maintenance and start shifting towards them being spaces that are high engagement, so that we can have lots of relationships with them.”

Sundaura Alford-Purvis
Sundaura Alford-Purvis photo

Sundaura has been working in the horticultural industry since 1998, and was an avid gardener for over a decade before that. In addition to her role as the executive director for the Society for Organic Urban Land Care, she worked for 18 years as a landscape designer and has recently turned her attention to growing native plants and leading hands-on courses to help restore care-based land and plant relationships, with a particular focus on native species, local ecosystems and sustainable food relationships in urban environments.