Back to School (Gardens)

Well, it’s September again, somehow. I had a great summer (which I will write about later, but to keep you intrigued, it included a month of vacation in northern Europe, and a month at High Park EcoCamp). I’m having a mild case of my usual start-of-September nervousness (which I also get as the garden season is about to start in April), but now that I’ve realized over the years that I always feel like this twice a year, it’s easier to get through.

I haven’t started teaching yet at the schools – I think it’s best to let teachers and students settle into the new school year before I jump into the mix. I’ll be starting at Blake next week, and hopefully at the other schools shortly after that. It was great to be back at Blake today, and see a lot of familiar teachers, as well as introduce myself to a couple of new teachers. I love the community feeling of this school and am so thankful to be back again for my 4th fall here.

I did spend a few hours at Blake today, doing some garden and compost maintenance. Pretty sure I used muscles I haven’t used in a while, and I can already tell I’ll be pretty sore tomorrow. But that good I-accomplished-something kind of sore. I headed over, thinking the garden would look like it did the last time I checked it out a bit over a month ago. To my (very happy) surprise, some serious weeding/weed-whacking had been done over the past few days on all of the paths in and around the garden. Don’t worry, there was still plenty to do to keep me entertained for a few hours, though. First, I turned this:

DSC_0169  … into this: DSC_0201







I realize that doesn’t really look so impressive, so here’s a close-up:

Weeding before after Sept 3 2014


Weeding was lovely and meditative, as usual. It was especially great, because it rained quite a lot in the past couple of days, making weeding way easier!

The highlight in the garden today, though, was checking out the compost. It’s been hard to stay on top of maintaining it through the school year, with lots of stuff being added daily with not a whole lot of maintenance (turning, aerating, etc.) going on. Well I was thrilled when I looked into the compost bin today and dug around a bit, to realize that nearly everything from the past school year had decomposed! It looks like soil! I’m so excited that in a few months, we’ll be able to add our first batch of school compost to the Blake school garden! Since it was pretty decomposed and only a bit of new stuff had been added so far, it was an ideal time to turn it into the next bin. That was a serious amount of shoveling!

Turning compost before after Sept 3 2014

The garden looks pretty good now, though definitely needs some fall crops to be planted (very soon). We’ll put in a bit more lettuce and other greens, some radishes, and probably transplant some of the kale that’s growing way too close. Also wondering whether we can plant perennial herbs at this time of year. Thinking that might help the herb bed from getting too weedy next year, if the herbs get a head-start… It was a rough year for hot-weather plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants…) but some things are growing nicely – some carrots are peeking out, the kale looks decent, and there are some nice little leeks (my first time growing leeks in a school garden). Also hoping to dig some potatoes with kiddos next week – fingers crossed!

Happy growing!

Two new schools, one new garden

Not surprisingly, the time of year when I have the most to write about is when I have the least time to write. Even less surprising for a gardener is that this time of year is spring. My springs have been getting increasingly busy over the past few years, but that’s overall a good thing – it means I have more work, which is great.

This spring, I’ve started teaching at two new schools, Dundas Street Public School and First Nations School of Toronto. These two schools share a building and will therefore also share a food garden. The garden, however, is still very much in the planning stages and does not yet exist. My job, then, is to get the students and teachers excited about the coming garden. I’ve pretty much been doing similar programming to what I do at my other schools, just modified so that it doesn’t require a garden. I’ve done lots of my activities about plant parts we eat, where our food comes from, plant life cycles, some seasonal scavenger hunts, as well as some different activities to get to know the site where the garden will be. With some classes, we’ve planted some different veggie (and some flower) seeds, which they’ve now got growing in their classrooms.

The progression of my school garden jobs has worked out really well over the years. My first school, Withrow, already had a well established food garden when I started, so my job was (and still is) to run the programming with classes and to plan and maintain the garden. With Blake, my second school, the garden planning was done and they were ready to dig when I came in. During my first year, I worked to dig and establish the garden, while also running programming. Now, I continue to run programming and take care of the garden. With Dundas and First Nations, I’ve gotten involved in the project about a year earlier in the process than at Blake. I’m working with a Community Health Centre, and of course both schools and parents, to establish the garden. So far we’ve gone through the site selection process. The next big step is garden design, for which we’re running an event/workshop next week, and inviting parents, students, teachers, and community members. It’s been a really great learning progression over the past five years; after having gotten comfortable with school garden programming and planning over the past few years at Withrow and Blake, it’s good to have a new challenge and new things to learn about how to get a school garden going from scratch.

At First Nations School, I’ve also helped them get started on an indoor garden project, which they’re starting with a partnership at FoodShare. We started a vermicompost tower with the grade 7/8s a few weeks ago, and on the same day, planted a whole bunch of seeds which are now growing on their growlight stand in their classroom. The grade 7/8s are also setting up some indoor growing tents on each floor, where the students from all grades will be helping to grow some different greens and herbs that they’ll be using to make some healthy snacks. With some First Nations School students, I’ll also be visiting the FoodShare School Grown rooftop garden at Eastdale Collegiate, a high school which is just down the street. Excited!

Besides my work at these two new schools, I’ll also be back at Essex and Hawthorne II schools, where I did some programming in the fall. I’ll be doing four days of garden programming there as well, meaning that this week (and a few others this spring), I’ll be working at 5 different schools! I’m super excited that I’ve stuck with this and that being a School Garden Educator has pretty much become a full time job (at least during gardening season). Another change in my life in the past few months – besides this job becoming nearly full time – is that I moved to within walking distance of most of my schools! All of the schools (except for Essex-Hawthorne) are within less than a half hour walk. So so lovely to start and end my days with a walk to and from work!

Organized seeds! I was very proud of this accomplishment a couple of weeks ago! My seed mess was stressing me out, and organizing the seeds made my brain also feel more organized.

Organized seeds! I was very proud of this accomplishment a couple of weeks ago! My seed mess was stressing me out, and organizing the seeds made my brain also feel more organized.

It’s going to be a crazy next few weeks, but I’ve managed to get myself pretty organized over the past few weeks (my seeds are organized, and I have different coloured folders for each school, which seems silly but is actually proving very helpful). Despite the craziness, the job is so rewarding that it more than makes up for it. Like when a Kindergarten boy exclaims “I love raw kale!” during a five senses scavenger hunt, or a grade 2 boy asks “When the mint is bigger, can I take some home and make lemonade and sell it?” They’re so fun and creative and honest, I love it!

More on the Blake and Withrow gardens, and the effects of this past winter, coming soon…

Happy growing!

Crawly portraits

Last week during Garden Club at Blake Street school, I was at one of the garden mixing compost with a couple of the kids, while a few others were weeding a few feet away. Suddenly, the weeding crew started SCREAMING! My current garden club crew is, well, quite an excitable bunch. (Tons of enthusiasm and curiosity, but also lots of noise! :-) ) I walked over, and they showed me the bee they’d come across. It was hanging out in the soil, looking quite drowsy (maybe overwhelmed by the screaming it had suddenly encountered?). I calmly checked out the bee, told the kids I wasn’t sure what kind it was but was pretty sure it wasn’t a honey bee, and then went and got my camera to take a picture so I could try to identify it. I think my calmness calmed them down somewhat, and they were now more fascinated to look at the bee than to scream about it. DSCN4593 - cropped beeA friend e-mailed this pic to a friend of hers, a bee expert, who said it’s a male Andrena bee. As far as I know, they’re solitary, ground-dwelling and don’t sting (even the females, I think).

Since then, every time these kids see any sort of critter in the garden, they insist I take a picture. Today’s first contribution to the Crawly Portraits Gallery was a spider, which the kids were convinced was a tarantula, or if not that, at least a black widow. Well, it was about the size of my fingernail, and we live in Toronto, so probably neither of those. Cool looking furry critter, though.

DSCN4615And the last critter I had to take a picture of today was a grub. Due to the extreme excitement surrounding this critter, the picture’s a bit fuzzy, but I like how it looks like the grub is looking up at me quizzically. DSCN4621

Bugs are definitely something I’ve learned a lot about over the past few years of gardening and nature programming, but there’s so so much more I want to learn! The enthusiasm of these kids is pushing me towards that, and it’s fun learning with them and/or identifying the critters from my photos and then sharing that information with them the following week.



And just to finish off on a non-critter note, these same kiddos found not just one, but I think 3 four-leafed clovers in the garden today! Their teacher said she always sensed they were a lucky class. I’m hoping it’s a good sign for the gardening season to come…


Happy growing!

The many seasons of March Break

Ok, so I realize March Break was nearly a month ago… It’s been a busy one and I’m going to try to do a quick catch-up…

Looks like spring is starting to come to High Park.

Looks like spring is starting to come to High Park.

It’s not unusual for March Break to start off as winter and end as spring (or even summer), or be some sort of mix of seasons. Well, this year’s March Break was pretty extreme even for March in Toronto. We started off with a couple of very spring-like days – warm and sunny, with lots of melting snow and puddles all over. On Wednesday, we went right back into winter weather and got a serious dumping of snow – High Park probably got about 15 centimetres or so; when I got home, I had about 30 centimetres to shovel. (But hey, I was already dressed in snowpants, and it was lovely light fluffy snow, so shovelling was actually quite lovely. Also gave me a chance to chat with my new neighbour.) Thursday was frigid – around minus 17 Celcius or so in the morning, though lovely and sunny. And then on Friday we were back to spring weather, with sun and temperatures a few degrees above zero. So this all meant that we needed to adjust our schedule somewhat throughout the week, but it was also fun to get to do a variety of different outdoor activities.

Who wants to take their dog for a swim?

Who wants to take their dog for a swim?


Not only was the weather varying throughout the week, so was the cast of characters. Though most of the 14-16 kids were there all week, there were a few who came and went through the week. And I had three co-counselors throughout the week too, as nobody else was able to work the whole week due to other commitments. This had some advantages (new energy, different ideas) as well as some disadvantages (decreased consistency for the kids). But the week went really well overall.

Aaaaand, winter is back in High Park...

Aaaaand, winter is back in High Park…

We did some fun outdoor activities, like building with snow, making ice decorations for the garden, hiking in the snowstorm, checking out lots of animal tracks, going on scavenger hunts, creating mini nature walks for each other, walking to Colborne Lodge and talking a bit about High Park’s history, visiting the Adventure Playground, seeing lots of birds… On our (short) walk to Colborne Lodge, we talked a bit about how people lived in Toronto 100+ years ago and how they would have adapted to the winter. The campers then built what they imagined as a mini-Toronto from the time of Colborne Lodge (out of snow, of course). Near Hawk Hill, the campers got into partners and looked for some interesting sights and made up a little guided nature tour, which they then shared with another pair of campers. The kids finished many of the days having some free play time in the garden. They loved creating rivers through the snow and ice on the spring-like days. It was great to see them negotiating, working in teams, and learning a ton about how water, snow and ice behave through playing with it and in it. (We had some pretty wet kids at the end of some of the days…)

That's definitely more than the 10 centimetres they predicted...

That’s definitely more than the 10 centimetres they predicted…

We used the kitchen for some delicious baking activities too. On Tuesday, we made some delicious pizza from scratch, starting the dough in the morning, and finally eating our wonderful veggie pizzas at the end of the day. Lots of praise was heard about the pizzas, with kids exclaiming that this was the BEST pizza they’d ever eaten, and everyone asking repeatedly for the recipe! We switched Friday’s baking to Thursday, since Thursday was frigid outside. We baked beet and chocolate muffins, as well as white bean chocolate chip cookies. (I’ve written about these earlier too, so won’t go into details here.) Yum! And on Wednesday, we made some popcorn that the kids got to flavour with their own blend of spices. Mmmm! (Ok, this was so popular that we made popcorn again on Friday too…)

Enjoying the snowfall and shovelling.

Enjoying the snowfall and shovelling.

Our big craft for the week was making papier-mache creatures, which we worked on all week. We also used some veggie scraps from our baking adventures to make water-colour paints. Unsurprisingly, the beets worked the best, but carrots, broccoli and peppers also gave a bit of colour. We froze the veggie scraps the night before, and then in the morning we thawed them out, the kids smooshed and chopped them, and then we added a bit of water.

All in all a fun week!

I’ve been busy in the past few weeks, starting up a new school garden programme at a couple of schools. I’m up to teaching 3.5 days a week, and have about a day or so worth of prep time per week! Super excited to be working nearly full-time as a garden educator! I’m a bit overwhelmed right now, but it’s really exciting. More on that soon.

Happy growing!

I’m not sick of winter yet…

Raising the Estonian flag at City Hall.

Raising the Estonian flag at City Hall.

To start off on a totally non-garden related note, happy 96th Estonian Independence day! We Estonians celebrate two independence days – on February 24th, 1918, Estonia declared its independence; on August 20th 1990, Estonia declared its re-independence. This morning, we raised the Estonian flag in front of Toronto’s City Hall. A beautiful bright sunny morning, with an expected February chill and some good winter winds. In Estonia today, the weather has been very springlike, and I’ve heard lots of reports of some early flowers already blooming.

I’ve been loving this winter! Tons of snow, lots of cold weather- very glad I bought snowpants last winter. While I look out the window right now at the City Hall public library, it’s snowing a bit here in downtown Toronto. I know lots of people are seriously longing for spring already, but I’m still very happy to enjoy winter for a few more weeks. Lots of gardener and farmer friends have been posting about seed orders already for weeks. I know that farmers already have trays and trays of seedlings growing in barns, greenhouses, etc. I, on the other hand, haven’t yet started to delve into spring dreaming and planning. Should probably get on that soon… I did get a few packages of seeds donated for the school gardens from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds in Michigan  – some fun tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, etc. Getting a package of surprise seeds in the mail is pretty exciting! (I knew I was getting the seeds, just didn’t know what they’d be…) Seedy Saturdays and Sundays are coming up, so that’ll surely start getting me inspired, and there are always lots of chances to get seeds at markets too. So I’m not too worried yet. Planning what to grow at the school gardens is a bit of a process too (in a good way), as we get input from parents and community members on what they’d like to have growing in the garden, so I’ll have to wait until those discussions have happened before I can get shopping. But we’ll want to start seedlings soon after March Break. So yeah, I should get on that…

I’ve been keeping busy in the classrooms at Blake all winter. We’ve done many of our standard winter activities – meeting worms, Kindergarten seed-to-plant match, germination experiments, winter scavenger hunts… We had a super snowfall on one of the days we did a grade 1/2 winter garden scavenger hunt, which was really fun!

Perfect day for a winter garden scavenger hunt!

Perfect day for a winter garden scavenger hunt!

I’ve also developed a bunch of new activities this winter. We’ve delved a little deeper into looking at where our food comes from and how it gets to us, than we’ve done before. With the grade 1/2 classes, I did an activity inspired by this one here, mostly using the story called “The Story of Miguel’s Tomatoes” (which I edited somewhat – it was a bit long for the grade 1/2s). We started by looking at a simple garden-to-plate food system. I then read them the tomato story, and we came up with a list of the main points from the story (which I wrote on the board). The story has minimal illustrations, so they had to imagine the pictures in their heads. With the list of main points, the students then created a comic strip with text from the list and with their own drawings. Though it was sometimes hard to keep their focus with a non-illustrated story, the activity overall went really well. I’ll definitely be doing this one again!

With the grade 2/3s, we delved even deeper into the question of where our food comes from, doing various activities over a number of classes. We started with a couple of matching games that I’ve done before, where they match foods with the plants and animals they come from (e.g. ketchup from tomatoes, nacho chips from corn, cheese from milk from cows or other animals, etc.). The students then worked in pairs to brainstorm some of the steps that the food had to go through to get from tomato to ketchup, or from apple to apple juice. During the next class, we took that up and sketched a sample food system, taking us through various steps, from planting seeds, to harvesting, shipping, processing/factories, storage, stores, customers (and a few other steps in between too).  The kids were pretty into this and had lots of good input. Working on it in pairs before doing it as a whole class was key – gave everyone a chance to be engaged, even if they didn’t wanna share with the whole class, and it let them think through their ideas before sharing too. We also spent time looking at the people/jobs involved along the food system, and how money is divided among them. We started with a look at a farmer-t0-customer farmers’ market system. The second chain we looked at was farmer-grocery store-customer. Our longest chain was farmer-transportation-warehouse-transportation-warehouse-transportation-grocery story-customer (or something along those lines…). (There was a story involved too, and kids acting out the parts.) The students then worked in pairs on a worksheet, where they had to divide $100 dollars between the different steps in the system we’d looked at (with the premise that the customer had paid $100 – an easy number to divide – for their groceries), and justify their answers. Definitely interesting! I found that even taking a simplified look made the kids start to understand how complex the food system is. And we didn’t even delve into jobs like brokers, marketing/advertising, processing, packaging…. (We had looked a bit at processing earlier, but for the purposes of this activity, we were just imagining whole fruits and veggies taking the journey). Trying to simplify the food system for grade 2/3 lessons reminded me again how incredibly (ridiculously!) complex the system is!

Another new activity we recently started doing was having the students think of their favourite meals – not necessarily their favourite foods, but favourite meals…. I’ll expand on this one in an upcoming post… Also in upcoming posts – more about the new school garden I’m helping start with two schools that are on the same site. Exciting! I’m getting closer and closer to this school garden educator gig being a full time job!

How are your spring garden plans going? Have you started anything inside yet?

Happy growing!

Happy (chilly!) new year!

Brrrr! Frozen hair!

Brrrr! Frozen hair!

Somehow 2014 has snuck up on us! (And yes, I realize by the time I write this, it’s already nearing the end of January… Still getting used to writing 2014…)  It’s off to a chilly start in this part of the world. While we had a couple of days of thaw, overall January has been a nippy one, with Arctic Vortexes and wind-chills, lots of ice and a bit of snow. I’m enjoying having a real winter (though, as always, I’m wishing for more snow… I haven’t been out on my cross-country skis yet this year!). Getting lots of use from the snowpants I bought last year!

I spent the week surrounding New Year’s Eve working at the High Park EcoPrograms (where I work at EcoCamp in the summer), doing some winter holiday programming. We had 1/2 day programs – mornings were 3-5 year olds with parents/caregivers, and afternoons we had 6-10 year olds. It was one CHILLY week, so we adjusted our programming a bit, but still had some great adventures. The park was also super icy after the ice storm we had before Christmas. (If you want to see what the High Park Children’s Garden looked like post-storm, check out our EcoProgram’s website.)

White bean chocolate chip and barley gingerbread cookies.

White bean chocolate chip and barley gingerbread cookies.

A couple of the days were mostly indoor programs – we started the week with a day of Baking Adventures, and on Thursday we had our Nature Arts day. In the morning of our baking day, we made some white bean chocolate chip cookies with the 3-5 year olds. The kiddos made the dough, and then had a chance to shape the cookies with cookie cutters or just free-hand. We had some fun hearts, stars, owls and dinosaurs, among other delicious shapes! In the afternoon, we made gingerbread with barley flour, which we decorated with date chocolate icing (find the super simple recipe here – scroll down the page to Fudgy Chocolate Frosting). With both groups, we made some delicious tea with a variety of dried herbs from the garden. With the afternoon group, we also made some popcorn, which they had a chance to flavour with whatever spices they wanted. We divided the 16 kids into 4 groups, gave them about 8-10 spices to choose from, and let them get as creative as they wanted. They loved it! One of them ended up being super spicy (loads of cayenne and paprika), while another was a bit of a cinnamon explosion. At one point, I looked from the stove to the kiddos, to see a huge cloud of cinnamon surrounding the group. They were all pretty tasty, though, and the kids gobbled it up. (Ok, there was a bit left over that we munched on all week too…)

On Nature Arts day, we had a tree theme in the morning (like last year), where we read “Picture a Tree” by Barbara Reid, and made two different tree-themed crafts. In the afternoon, we went on a little hike and fed the birds (ok, and probably squirrels too), and then made some bird-themed clay creatures.

High Park Teaching Kitchen at sunset.

High Park Teaching Kitchen at sunset.

On New Year’s Eve, Winter Eco Adventures day, we only had a morning program (3-5 year olds). We had a good number of little kiddos who trekked into the icy park with their parents. There was a thin layer of snow, covering a completely ice-covered High Park! We went on a little hike (which ended up taking somewhat longer than we’d predicted, because of the ice). We made a sloooow trek down to the trail beside Grenadier Pond (though the kids just sat or lay down and slid down the hill – really it was us adults who were slow going down the hill), and then hike along that path a bit, and checked out the frozen pond (from the safety of the fishing dock). It was a blustery and cloudy day, but we still had a nice little adventure. The kids LOVED finding animal tracks. We had one 3-year-old boy who was upset that we started the program inside – he wanted to go look for tracks NOW! We showed him some of our animal track books, though, which kept him entertained until it was hiking time. On our hike, we say lots and lots of squirrel tracks, some bird tracks, and lots of tracks from 2-legged creatures taking their 4-legged friends for a walk. Though squirrel tracks may not seem so exciting to us, it’s really fun seeing them through the eyes of a 3-year-old! It was also fun seeing squirrels run right past us, and help us confirm that the tracks we’d been seeing were in fact their tracks. The squirrels in the part of High Park may have gotten a wee bit too comfortable with people – not only did one slowly run by right in front of us, but at one point a bunch of the kids were playing on some fallen logs, and 4 squirrels started approaching them like a little squirrel gang.

Friday was super cold, but sunny, so somehow didn’t feel as cold as Tuesday. Despite that, though, only 3 kids (and parents) came in the morning for Animal Explorations. We spent lots of quality time looking for tracks again. Tons of squirrel tracks again. And then tiny little mouse tracks between our compost bins, and….. the shed…. Hmmmm…. Gotta check that all the seeds are in sealed bins… We had tons of fun with the three girls, who were excited to explore, follow animal tracks, make their own tracks with branches…  The afternoon kids were also ready for adventure! When we went across the street from the kitchen, we were checking out some robins and cardinals, when suddenly we heard some strange bird sounds. My first thought was that they were gulls – but that sounded foreign in that part of the park and at this time of year… Miranda looked up and saw a couple of huge birds in the trees, and first thought was turkey vultures. The birds were lit from the back, so it was hard to see details. Some of the kids started saying they were bald eagles, but I was very skeptical – I figured they were super rare to see, and didn’t think they live in Ontario at all. (The kids also thought they were peregrine falcons, which seems to be the go-to large bird IDing for kids as of late – is there a TV show or movie involving peregrine falcons?). Well, the birds sure looked like bald eagles (which I’d never seen before in the wild). One of them was just sitting on the branch, while the other was devouring some sort meat that it was ripping off a bone (which you can sort of see in the picture). We tried to get closer, but of course eventually they flew away (strange how they don’t like being approached by a herd of small children)… Well, when we got back to the kitchen after our hike, we checked out our bird books – there’s no doubt that what we saw were in fact two bald eagles! They are relatively rare in Ontario but more common in the winter, and their shape and colouring are pretty hard to confuse with any other birds (at least in this part of the world). We also listened to their sounds – they sound way wimpier than they look! (Listen here) Super amazing experience to see these huge, majestic birds, and to get to share that with a group of eager kids.

I’m sure enjoying this very wintery winter, and hope to get in a some more good adventures! I’ve got some exciting news on the school garden front, as well as some more winter fun to share, so stay tuned…

Happy growing (and winter adventuring)!

Compost resources

On Friday, I did a presentation about composting in the classroom for some teachers’ college students at OISE. There was a small group of Masters’ students that I presented to, about starting compost programmes at schools, about getting students and staff excited about composting, and how to link composting to the curriculum. It was fun and a good experience to present to folks older than the elementary school kids I usually work with.

Anyway, I promised them I’d share some resources, so here they are. It’s likely I’ll add to this list in the future – there’s tons of information out there! Please share any other resources in the comments.

School Composting information

Composting information

Composting Guide

Worm bin/Vermicomposting resources

How to make a worm bin – Green Thumbs Growing Kids

Worm information

Lesson plans and curriculum links  (includes a list of curriculum links that can be made with composting) (all sorts of food literacy lesson plans, including several about composting and soil)

Compost Creatures and Friends

Earth as an Apple…/Unit3/Lesson5.pdf

Nature’s Recyclers – Activity Guide

My Composting Book

Compost Science Investigation

Composting – the Quest for Less

Little Rotters Composting Handbook

Composting in a jar

Composting goes to school

Compost biodiversity/compost critters


Yucky Worms by Vivian French

Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin

Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment by Mary Applehof, Mary Frances Fenton and Barbara Loss Harris

The Worm Cafe: Mid-Scale Vermicomposting of Lunchroom Wastes by Binet Payne

Happy growing (and composting)!


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