Spectacular seeds

Seeds fascinate me.

Within a matter of months, this tiny little speck can become a big and complex plant. This truly fascinates and bewilders kids; they often ask me how many seeds you need to grow one plant (and inevitably plant a bunch of seeds in one spot just in case I’m not really telling the truth about one seed becoming one plant). It’s sort of a LEGO-block mentality; they assume that putting a bunch of small things together makes one big thing. I won’t deny it, the process of a seed growing into a plant fascinates and bewilders me as well. Though I’ve learned the science behind it, it’s still a pretty magical process. Of course, I also love that seeds turn into food. Whether we’re eating the seeds themselves, or the fruits, leaves, stems or roots they’ve produced, they sure are important to us on a daily basis.

Seed dispersal, the way that seeds travel, is super intriguing. A friend and former co-worker from my High Park summers has gotten me hooked on this topic over the years. There are the many different structures which allow seeds to travel by the wind, like maple keys and milkweed’s fluffy seeds. Some seeds stick to our clothes and animals’ fur, like burdock burrs. (A seemingly fun fall toy, until someone with long curly hair is involved…) Some, like touch-me-not/impatiens seeds pop from their pods (something I loved to play with in my parents’ garden as a kid). Acorns and other nuts get buried by squirrels and other critters. (A brief aside: Have you ever observed a squirrel burying an acorn and then covering the spot where he’d just buried it? Next time you see that, I challenge you to go find that spot where the acorn is buried.) Berry and fruit seeds take an exciting trip through an animal’s gut and get planted right in their own little pile of fertile compost. (The kids love learning about these ones, of course.) Some seeds just drop and roll, like cilantro and mustard seeds (these plants are pretty happy to grow close to their neighbours, so traveling isn’t as essential). And some, like coconuts, float on the water to find another place to grow. All of these seeds are searching for a place to put down roots on their own; they need space to grow, and don’t want to compete with their siblings for water, soil, sun and air.

Seeds are also beautiful. Have you ever taken the time to look at them closely? The patterns, the colours, the textures, the shapes… I’ve been taking tons of pictures of them this fall. Wow. If you’re not convinced, see below.

I’ve done a few seed collecting and saving lessons over the years, as well as some germination experiments, some seed dissection, seed-to-plant matches, and some sorting/observing lessons. This fall, I developed a new seed lesson, which I’ve so far done with grade 3-5 classes. In this “Seed Scavenger Hunt“, students make observations about seeds using different attributes (size, shape, pattern, colour, texture…), and also guess how the seed travels, and justifying their answer. I like the lessons that really have them open their eyes in the garden and schoolyard. When we first went out, they took a quick look around and said they couldn’t find any seeds. I encouraged them to look for flowers, as they often turn into seeds. I got them to smoosh tomatoes and see what was inside. And I showed them that the dry brown parts at the tops of plants often contain seeds. Once they started seeing them, they found seeds everywhere and we ended up heading back to class with cups full of different seeds! I can’t walk anywhere now either, without seeing all of the seeds in parks, front yards, weed patches…

Here are some of the seeds I’ve taken pictures of over the past year or two. Try to guess what they are. I’ve given the answers in the captions, but don’t roll over the picture to reveal the caption until you’ve made your guess. :) Some are simple, some are way more complicated… Which ones did you get? Which ones surprised you? Let me know in the comments!

Another quick and easy seed dispersal activity I’ve done is one we sometimes do at High Park camp – Seed Dispersal Drama. This was super successful this past week with some Kindergarten kiddos. After an introduction about seeds traveling (often reading a book), we move around the field or room pretending to be different types of seeds: we fly like dandelion seeds, bob like coconuts in the waves, twirl like maple keys, pop from our pods, stick to people and animals… They love the different movements, and the Kindergarten teacher I worked with this week said it turned into a vocabulary lesson as well, to learn words like bobbing, floating, twirling, etc.

I’ve used a couple of different seed-themed books this fall. I’ve probably mentioned both of them before, but they’re worth mentioning again. I’ve used A Seed is Sleepy for all kinds of seed lessons over the years. Beautiful illustrations and lots of great information, in an engaging story form. Another one that’s great for younger kids is What Kinds of Seeds Are These? The rhymes are engaging, and kids have to guess what plants the different seeds are from. It also refers to how the plants travel. Would love a food garden specific version of this, but this one is great too! Any seed books you’ve used in lessons or read with your own kids?

The coming weeks will bring a bit more harvesting, some cooking (Stone Soup, among other things…), and cleaning up the gardens before fall. Stay tuned…

Happy growing (and harvesting and seed saving)!

Summer harvests, and other adventures

After getting home from my European adventures, it was time to get right back into the swing of things. Still somewhat jetlagged after just a couple of days at home, I headed back to High Park for my 5th summer of working at High Park EcoCamp. For my first two weeks there, I was with the 4-5 year old “Sprouts”. I haven’t worked that much with that age group over the years, and was afraid I’d be zonked from the jetlag, but it’s amazing the energy you get from little kiddos. Right away on Monday morning, I was pumped and ready to go. The weeks with the Sprouts were great! We saw some wee critters (lots of bugs and slugs), and some bigger ones (some geese and herons, and some creatures in the High Park Zoo). We did lots of gardening and cooking. Brownies with kale? Why, yes please. And pizza from scratch, zucchini muffins, humus, and lots of pickled cukes and beans.

For the last two weeks of camp, I was with our Junior campers; it’s amazing how old 6-9 year olds seem after 2 weeks with the Sprouts. :) With the Juniors, we’re able to cover more ground on our hikes, and we also have some lovely off-site trips to the Humber Valley and canoeing up the Humber River with the Inner City Outtripping Centre down at Sunnyside beach. We explored animals’ habitats in High Park, saw lots of birds (like egrets, herons, swans, wood ducks and Mallard ducks, and lots of cardinals too), found some animals tracks (and made plaster casts of them), and also spent lots of time in the garden exploring, watering, harvesting, and tasting. And of course, we did some cooking too!

I’m so fortunate to be able to spend my summers working outside with kids in such an amazing park! This camp is such a great combination of so many things I love to do and teach about – gardening, cooking, nature activities, environmental lessons… High Park is such a special place in this city.


Now we’re full swing into harvest season, and into the school year as well. Not only is it the time of year for harvesting, cooking and eating local goodness, it’s also the time that plants produce their seeds for next year’s crop. Keep your eyes peeled for my next post about some of the seeds we’ve been finding in the gardens.

Happy growing (and harvesting and cooking and eating)!

Dancing, touristing, eating berries…

In my last post, I promised a couple of posts about my summer. Here’s the first of them. I was super fortunate this year to get to spend my July in Northern Europe. I have a strong connection to Northern Europe, as my family is Estonian, and I have studied both in Sweden and Norway. I had a few reasons for heading to that part of the world this July, but the biggest reason was that I was heading to Tallinn, Estonia to dance in a HUGE folkdance festival with my Estonian folkdance group from Toronto.

Every five years is Song and Dance Festival year in Estonia. This year’s dance festival had 10 000 performers and about 40 000 spectators over 4 performances, while the song festival had 32 000 performers and around 100 000 spectators over two days of performances. This in a country of 1.3 million. I had been to the festival in 1990 and 1994 (no, my math isn’t off – it used to happen every 4 years). My sister performed in the dance festival in 1994, and since then, I’d known that I wanted to perform in it as well some day. Little did I know it would take twenty years. But finally, this dream came true. Our group danced 3 dances, as part of the performance’s finale. With 9200 dancers on stage at once. (The “stage” was a football stadium…) It was pretty spectacular. It was hard to realize that this 20-year dream was finally coming true and the wave of emotion I’d been expecting took a while to reach me – it just didn’t feel real. Finally during the third and fourth performances, I felt goosebumps running down my back and tears welling in my eyes. But really, it wasn’t until about 2 weeks later that the emotions overtook me. It might be 5 years until I next go to the festival, it might take 20 years again, but I am truly thankful that I had the opportunity to dance in this year’s festival.

(If you want to see how the dance performances looked like from the air, check out this link. Spectacular!)

Between lots of practices and performances, there was a bit of time to play tourist in Tallinn as well. Though this was my 12th time there, there are always new things to discover. Just outside of the Medieval Old Town walls were a whole series of small gardens designed by a variety of artists. There’s also a part of town which has become the young, hip neighbourhood (Kalamaja), which I finally visited. Some great restaurants, cafes and shops!

I also (re)discovered some of the fantastic names of the different neighbourhoods in Tallinn. The part of town where I was staying is called Onion Town (Sibulaküla). There’s also a Fish House (Kalamaja), Flower Town (Lilleküla), Eavestrough (Veerenni), and two neighbouring areas named after two different types of bagpipes (Torpilli and Sikupilli). Really, I could keep going…

After Tallinn, I spent a few days on the island where my mom’s parents grew up, Hiiumaa. I’ll admit it, Hiiumaa is not the world’s most exciting place – the main attractions on the tourist map are lighthouses, churches, trees and boulders. But to me, it’s one of the most beautiful and relaxing places on Earth – while in Estonia, it is my home. Though I was equally close with all of my grandparents (all of whom were from Estonia, but just my mom’s parents were from Hiiumaa), I have always felt a stronger connection to Hiiumaa than to any other part of the country.  When there, I stay at the farmhouse where my grandfather grew up, one of my homes-away-from-home. It’s by the sea. It’s calm. There’s always something to do, but also the opportunity to sit and do absolutely nothing. And I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world where I sleep as well as I do in “my” bed there. Ahhhh….

Well, after a couple of weeks in Estonia, it was time to head over the Norway. Seems July isn’t the best time for me to go there, as everyone is on vacation… Many of my friends were away, but I was still able to catch up with a few people, which was lovely. And I borrowed an apartment from friends for the few days I was there – turned out to be nice to have my own space for a bit after a couple of busy weeks in Estonia. This was when the emotion of the Estonian Dance Festival really started to hit me, as I finally had some time on my own to let it sink in.

One morning in Oslo, I felt like I hadn’t eaten enough fruit in the past couple of days. I was headed on a hike for the day, and bought myself a couple of apples to munch on. Well, turns out that wasn’t needed. The whole 12 km route was lined with blueberry bushes which were just FULL of berries. The following day, while going with a friend to pick up her son from daycare, we stumbled upon a giant patch of raspberries, and in their beautiful backyard garden, we gobbled up lots of black currants (after a wonderful garden tour by her 3 year old son). Add to that some local strawberries too. Yum!

And next, it was time to head to Sweden. The second wonderful reason for going to Northern Europe this July was a good friend’s wedding. It was fun and lovely weekend of festivities, meeting lots of new people and getting to speak LOTS of Swedish. The wedding ceremony was outside on the shore of a big lake, and the reception was in a lovely old barn. And the town of Hjo has its own little local organic ice cream factory, which of course had to be visited. And then off to Stockholm for a few last days of the trip. By then, the heat-wave that was hitting Northern Europe was really getting underway. I loved the heat which was drier than Toronto summers tend to be, but with no air conditioning anywhere, it was tempting to spend lots of time in the fridge sections of grocery stores… A great week of visiting, touristing, swimming, wandering… And a visit to Stockholm for me is not complete without a bowl of the best fish soup I’ve ever had, at Kajsas at Hötorgshallen. Seems I eat my way around the places I visit…

I hope you enjoyed this post, though it diverged from the general theme of my blog… But I did stick to the food theme, anyway. :)

Happy growing!

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!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.