by Alan Li
Colleen Cirillo is the Director of Education at Toronto Botanical Garden. She was kind enough to sit down and chat with LUNA about the Wilket Creek Ravine.
We’ve collaborated together for several years now and I know you have an extensive background working in Conservation and Education. What led you down this path?
I would say in my teens I began to get interested in environmental issues. At the time, I was taking a Geography class which focused on world issues, and as so often happens, the world opens up and you start to see all these complex interconnected issues.
At my school I started a recycling club and the big joke was that I was the founder, president and sole member! The custodians thought I was crazy and a pain in the neck; keep in mind, this was pre-blue box so I would fill up my father’s garage with recyclables which we would later bring to the depot.
My interest in ecology started after my first year at University when I got a job planting trees and rehabilitating streams with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. I was working closely with a Field Botanist named Gavin Miller, and I always mention him because that summer with Gavin opened my mind to native plants. I was inspired by the idea that a species could have its source where it has evolved with other native species, in a specific soil and in a particular type of climate.
What’s a normal day for you?
I love connecting with people and building partnerships, but there are the less glamorous tasks like writing reports which need my attention.
Living here in Toronto, I’m sure you’ve had plenty of encounters with wildlife. Could you share a memorable experience?
Owls in the winter time are a huge treat for me. I’m not making this up, but every year at least one owl seems to visit me on my birthday in mid-January! I’m also fascinated by all the little insects here in our parks that most people don’t take the time to look at.
How would you describe the present state of the Wilket Creek Ravine? I know that a casual visitor will see all the green leaves and assume all is well. Is that really the case?
I struggle with this, because when I go out into the ravine, I feel heart ache over the neglect that the ravine has suffered. For years, people have been screaming about how the ravines need our attention, because of flooding, the spread of invasive species, erosion along the slopes and misuse by hikers and cyclists going where they’re not supposed to go.
When I bring people out into the ravine, I try not to overwhelm them with all the problems especially if they’re experiencing it for the first time. There are still good stories to tell, so I’ll point out the wonderful things like the Hemlocks, which I’ve always loved because they grow in groves. I also love the old American Beech trees that are down there.
How do you engage with people to raise awareness?
Nobody likes to be told what to care about. Finding out what’s interesting to people is one way to do it. For example, most people can relate to food, so that’s someplace where I might start the conversation. What I’m trying to do is meet people where they are.
I know there are major expansions plans in the works at Toronto Botanical Garden. How will this impact the ravine?
We intend to become stewards of Wilket Creek and it’s slowly coming true. This will be a long process and we need to do it right and have it based it on science. Right now, we’re working with the city on a management plan in tandem with their ravine strategy, but TBG will never be the sole stewards of Wilket Creek; the City of Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority will always play a huge role.
TBG can help with education, partnerships and stewardship. Stewardship activities will include invasive species removal, native plantings and ecological monitoring. We are but one of many important players.
It’s important to remember that this small ravine is part of the larger Don watershed, that extends north to the Oak Ridges Moraine and south to Lake Ontario. What happens north of Wilket Creek affects us down here, and what we do impacts the land and water to the south, so we need to take a holistic approach.
What can people do to help the ravines?
If someone’s fortunate enough to be living next to a ravine, they need to be careful of which species they plant in their yard. Periwinkle, Norway Maple, or Gout Weed can all spread into the ravines and displace native plants. Consider planting native species. I had the privilege of helping create an online resource for gardeners called Grow Me Instead, which can be downloaded.
Please visit: Grow Me Instead
People can also help by getting educated. You can do it in a fun way; take your time to close your eyes and listen to the birds while asking yourself who that is doing the singing. Or pick up a leaf and turn it over to see if there are butterfly larvae underneath. There are many free guided tours - come out to ravine walk at TBG! Evergreen Brick Works has amazing tours too.
What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?
Right now, I’m developing a series of classes that will lead to a certification in Native Plant Gardening. Many botanical gardens in the States are so far ahead of us when it comes to native plant gardening and conservation; thankfully, they’ve been very generous with telling me all about their programs. The classes will run for a full year, with in class lessons paired with outdoor learning and field trips. It’s all very exciting!