Colleen Cirillo – Urban Forest Champion

Colleen Cirillo has recently joined the LEAF Board of Directors. In this blog, our Executive Director, Janet McKay interviews Colleen about her experience and her interest in LEAF.


What is your interest and motivation for serving as a LEAF board member?

Well, to begin with, I place tremendous value on the urban forest and nature in general, and have focused much of my work and volunteer efforts on nature protection, restoration and appreciation in the GTA.

I’ve always been a big LEAF fan and am a past employee and board member, so rejoining the board is like coming home. I like the philosophy behind LEAF and am impressed by the tangible gains that this small organization makes, year after year. But it’s also about the people. Janet and her team are a pleasure to work with.


What experience do you bring?

I have 25 years’ experience working in the field of nature protection, restoration and education. Communicating, sharing and revving-up enthusiasm for the natural world is my passion. I studied various environmental issues, local ecology, and sustainable behavior change methodologies while pursuing my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, and continue to explore these subjects.

I have worked and volunteered for many environmental NGOs, including five years on the LEAF board many years ago, 3.5 years on the North American Native Plant Society (NANPS) board more recently, more than a decade as committee chair for the Ontario Invasive Plant Council (OIPC), and 12 years employed at Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). In October 2015, I took over as director of education at Toronto Botanical Garden. Plants, plants plants!!!

I love to share my passion for native plants and ecology through writing and presentations as well as in casual conversations. Some friends and family members find this a tad too much so are thrilled that I have a new audience at LEAF for my frequent nature news and musings.


What do you see as some of the most pressing issues facing the urban forest?

Invasive insects, fungal diseases and invasive plants present massive threats. My focus is, and has been for many years, invasive plants. As co-chair of OIPC’s Horticulture Outreach Committee, I am committed to spreading the word about invasive plants in the horticultural trade and working with the industry and related trades (landscape designers and architects and gardeners) to address this issue. Helping to create the Grow Me Instead guide in 2009 and continuing to work on this issue with passionate ecologists and horticulturalists is one of the most rewarding experiences in my career so far.


One of my greatest frustrations though is the lack of a coordinated, effective response to invasive plants despite the long-standing knowledge of their ecological (and economic) impacts and their insidious creep across our province.  

Other threats to the urban forest and life, in general, include the rapid decline (one or two generations) in ecological knowledge and appreciation due to digital distractions, the fast pace of life, our separation from food harvesting and growing and society’s preoccupation with short-term economic gain. And, of course, there are many short-sighted, ecologically-ignorant and socially-irresponsible leaders of governments and corporations that are moving society in the wrong direction. I do take some comfort in the urban forest and nature-friendly policies and programs put in place by the City of Toronto over the last two decades.



How do you see LEAF currently, or potentially, addressing some of these issues?

LEAF has created a dependable market for native plants that local growers appreciate. It’s not huge, but it's business they can rely upon year after year.

LEAF is committed to the delivery of high-quality education and engagement regarding native and invasive plants, tree care and other important issues. It may be small, but its impact is huge. 



Are you involved in any other community work?

I’ve contributed to various boards, committees and projects in a volunteer capacity. These experiences consistently enrich my life and regularly result in cause-advancing partnerships. Most are environmental in focus. Here is a list of the more formal roles:
  • North American Native Plant Society board member
  • Dining with Dignity server and kitchen help
  • Horticulture Outreach Collaborative committee member
  • Fern Avenue Public School gardener
  • LEAF board member
  • City of Toronto environmental program volunteer

In my neighbourhood, I am the resident nature nut and that suits me just fine. I regularly force neighbours out of their homes to spy on a pupating caterpillar, watch a pigeon-eating owl or breathe in the fragrance of a native tree bloom. In return for my unsolicited services, they give me space in their yards to grow more native plants. This is an ideal exchange because I’m a big-dreaming gardener with a tiny patch of land.


Janet McKay is the Executive Director at LEAF.


LEAF offers a subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program for private property.  The program is supported by The City of Toronto, The Regional Municipality of York,  The City of Markham, The Town of Newmarket, The Town of Ajax, Ontario Power Generation and Toronto Hydro. For details on how you can participate, visit