We Have a Garden!

Last week, while spring flurries flew around us, we built a new school food garden. Dundas Public School and First Nations School of Toronto now have a shared school garden!

The process has been in the works for over a year, but last week the physical garden build finally happened! I work at Dundas and First Nations on Tuesdays and Thursdays (through a project with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre) so those were the days that we built the garden. On Monday, I headed over there after a day of teaching at another school, and in the pouring rain, a co-worker, a teacher and I plotted out where we’d put the garden beds with some little flags, so that we could get right to digging the next morning.

As I walked into the school on Tuesday morning, I could sense the excitement! The smiles I saw on both staff and students were clear – they were just as excited as I was to see this garden come into being!

The ground where the garden got built looks pretty flat, but is actually deceptively slanted, and I wanted to make sure the garden containers were pretty level (’cause I knew it would bother me in the future if they were askew…). On Tuesday morning, grade 7/8 and grade 5 students came out to level the ground. We didn’t need to dig a ton, but we did a bit of digging with trowels and shovels, and used a nice big level to check our work. Though it didn’t seem like that much, the work was important and well done! Thanks!

Checking that the ground is level and ready for the garden containers.

Checking that the ground is level and ready for the garden containers.

Now, the garden space was ready for the containers.

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Soon, our garden container delivery arrived from FoodShare. We had ordered 6 cedar containers to be built at FoodShare, which were partially donated and partially paid for by the schools. It was super exciting to finally see them! We pulled them out of the truck, then rolled them into place. At this point, a few high school students from SEED Alternative school came to help out as well. Wow, was I ever thankful for their help! They did all of the fiddly work of putting the garden containers in place – making sure they were all level, that they were all the same distance from each other, etc. I feel good about how all of the beds got placed. These students were so responsible and enthusiastic! So great!

And the best photo from the garden building, day one:

Look at what sprouted from the new school garden! :) Oh, it's me and Gurpreet!

Look at what sprouted from the new school garden! :) Oh, it’s me and Gurpreet!

We’d rejigged the day a bit, because it was threatening to rain. We thought that getting a giant soil delivery on a rainy would not be the best idea… So on Tuesday afternoon, I ended up doing an in-class seed starting lesson with some grade 3/4s. I’m so glad everyone was flexible with our rescheduling.

Thursday was the day to fill the garden beds! Our day started with some unexpected delays – our soil delivery came a bit later than we’d hoped, and then didn’t include the right landscape fabric, so we had to send someone out shopping. But one thing I’ve definitely gotten better and better at through working with kids is going with the flow and making up lessons on the fly. I had two classes (gr 3/4 and gr 1/2) come out to the garden hoping to move gravel and soil, but the delivery hadn’t yet arrived. I was glad anyway that they got to see part of the garden building process, but why not also turn this into a math lesson? A grade 2/3 teacher had mentioned that she’d taken her class out on the Wednesday to do some measurement and estimation activities. With the classes that were out there on Thursday morning, we had them guess the size of the gardens using the sizes of their hands and feet, estimate capacity using the buckets we were using to carry soil, etc. The grade 3/4 teacher said she was about to start teaching area and volume, so it’s great that she’s got a real life example to refer back to with them.

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Measuring the garden beds, as we waited for the soil delivery.

By the time AM recess was over, we were ready for classes. We had quickly stapled the landscape fabric into place, with help from some SEED Alternative students who had come to help out again. And then the younger grades started arriving, ready to use their muscles to carry soil! Shoveling, bucket carrying, bucket emptying, soil smoothing… Lots of work got done!

We got so much work done in the first hour and a half in the morning, that I was starting to feel like we had to ration our work for the afternoon, to make sure there was something for all of the afternoon classes to do. It ended up working quite perfectly. I carried over a few bucket loads myself at the end of the day to finish things up, but most of the work was done by students throughout the day. Good work everyone!

Grand reveal [drumroll please!] this is what it looked like at the end of the day:

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The following day, a teacher worked with some parents and students to install a couple of steel containers that the school already had, which were waiting to be put into the garden. They drilled drainage holes, put them in place, and then added some gravel and soil. Awesome!

On Friday afternoon, I happened to drive by the garden with my parents and pointed it out to them. I was reminded of driving by that space with my mom a few years ago, as I was just getting started as a School Garden Educator. We discussed how it looked like a great space to start a school garden. As fate would have it, I got to be a part of building this garden and the food garden programme. Very proud to be part of this project!

The buzz the garden has already created is clear! I had many brief chats with parents I was meeting for the first time but who had heard and read about the garden from their kids and in the school newsletter. Kids were telling me how excited they were to start planting and how much fun they had helping to build the garden! The garden still has room and dreams for development, but for now, this is our new school garden for Dundas St PS and First Nations School of Toronto. We started planting our first seeds this week too, but more on that later…

Happy growing!

Talking about Food Waste in Schools

 

I salvaged this banana from a school compost bucket today.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve found totally uneaten and unbruised food in school compost buckets and bins. I’ve salvaged apples, banana, carrots…

As I was grabbing this banana from the compost bucket, a grade 2 girl came over and was about to toss a full, huge, untouched apple in the compost. Here’s the conversation we had:

Me: “Why are you putting that apple in here?”

Student: “Well I don’t want it.”

Me: “Maybe you could just take it home then.”

Student: “But my mom will be so angry that I didn’t eat it.”

Me: “Hmm, but I think your mom would be more upset if she knew you threw it out.”

Student: “I guess you’re right.”

So how do we expand this conversation at school? How do we prevent (or at least reduce) food being tossed, because of a fear of parent criticism if uneaten food is brought home?

There’s so much that can be said about food waste and I won’t go deep into it here; enough of these discussions are already online. But the conversation I want to start is to think of ways to address this with elementary school kids. What angles of the food waste issue would get through to young students? What activities and initiatives can get them thinking about it?

One discussion I had with some older elementary students during a waste audit a couple of years ago was to think about all of the energy that went into the growing, harvesting and transporting the food, and how throwing it out is not only throwing out the fruit itself, but a waste of all of the energy that was used along the way. And whenever we come across some whole fruits and veggies in the compost bins when checking those out with students, I ask them whether we should put whole apples, bananas, etc in the compost, and what we should do with them instead (eat them!). I do address food waste here and there, but I want to think of ways to make this a more concerted effort and to incorporate it into the school culture, in similar ways that composting has become second nature with the school gardens.

Please share your thoughts and ideas!

Happy growing!

March Break EcoCamp, the 3rd edition

Sometimes, mostly during school holidays, I emerge from my east-end bubble and head off to work at the other side of the universe… I mean the west end of Toronto. ;-)

As I’ve written a lot about over the years, I’m really lucky to work in High Park. I’ve worked there for 5 summers already, with the summer EcoCamp day camp programme. In 2013, we started our first March Break EcoCamp. I’ve been able to work all three of the March Break camps.

Planning for March Break camp presents some different challenges from summer camp. A few weeks before March Break, when doing the planning, you really have no idea what the weather will be. Sure, summer weather can be somewhat unpredictable, but March Break is super varying from year to year, even sometimes from day to day. (For more on that, read what I wrote about last year’s March Break EcoCamp.) But our EcoCamp schedules are pretty flexible anyway, so we can adapt to the needs and interests of the group of campers; having backup plans for different weather is really not much different. This year, the weather was surprisingly stable all week – a few degrees above freezing during the days, just below freezing at night, and sunny most days. Most of the snow was gone by the time March Break started, but there was still a good amount of ice here and there to explore.

This year’s crew of campers was very curious and excited about experiments. Checking out the Nature Museum in the mornings was a hit, where they got to explore and ask questions about all sorts of things we’ve collected in the gardens and around High Park over the years. They were pretty into books, and lots of good conversations came from what we read during the week. They were good at playing and working together fairly independently of us, so we did lots of semi-structured outdoor activities, where we gave them some sort of focus, but they really had a chance to show their creativity. They also really liked journaling and sharing their daily highlights. On the first day of camp, we mapped our favourite parts of the day. Throughout the week, there were lots of great drawings and stories in their camp journals.

Our age group for this camp is theoretically 6-10, but we ended up with a slightly younger crew this time. We had a couple of 5 year olds, only one 8 and one 9 year old, and most of the campers were 6 or 7. I love this age group and connect well with them; I was excited! Definitely some quality silliness throughout the week. :) But having a younger age group also often means increased spaciness… :) They were definitely one of those groups where you often feel like you’re herding cats – you get 12 of the 15 kids ready to go outside, and while you go to help the last 3 get ready, another 5 have managed to get distracted by something else… hah. But once we got them focused on something, they’d often be really into it. There was definitely lots of nature knowledge in the group, they asked great questions, and were great at taking turns with different tasks (especially important with our baking activities).

We spend about half of our time (if not more) outside, which this group of campers loved! They were really into birds. There’s a great bird-watching spot right by our kitchen – we spent tons of time there! While it often took quite a while to get the attention of these kiddos to explain activities, etc., they all just quieted down as we approached the birds. We could stand there for quite a while, and they were all mesmerized!

This group also really liked building. One day, we did an activity called “Micro-Hikes” from a lesson guide called Into Nature. In this activity, a small creature (in this case, it was Pinecone Acornhead) wants to join us on our hikes, but is too small to come along on our rambles through all of High Park. So Pinecone Acornhead asked the kids to create hikes for her that were her size. The kids loved building little structures in the garden and creating stories about them, and then taking Pinecone Acornhead on guided tours of their nature hikes. A couple of days later, they built human-sized structures, and took each other on guided tours of them. We also taught them about compasses on the first day of camp and they created their own maps. Throughout the rest of the week, there were often discussions about what direction we were going while on our hikes.

We also spent lots of time observing and experimenting with ice. We made ice decorations for the garden (and watched how they melted), using found objects from the garden, and some water and string in muffin tins. On one of our hikes, some of the kids also discovered a big patch of very cool ice crystals (which some of the kids thought would make us rich). And when we hiked down to Lake Ontario one day, we started by making predictions about whether or not the lake would be frozen; turned out, it was partially frozen. We saw some cool ice formations down there, the coolest of which was one that just I and a couple of campers saw as we were lagging behind the group – a perfect circle in the lake ice, with a circular chunk of ice floating in the middle. Very neat!

Since this group wanted to do lots of experiments, we framed all of our baking as experiments (not a stretch by any means, but just using the right wording really worked to get them excited about some slightly strange recipes). One thing I’d been wanting to try with kids was baking sourdough bread, and March Break seemed like the perfect time to do this – we had enough time, and the kitchen didn’t get super hot like it does over the summer. Definitely a successful experiment! We started feeding the sourdough starter (which I’d brought from home) on Wednesday, and baked in on Friday morning. They were really excited about seeing how the dough had bubbled and grown each time we fed it, and liked smelling the changes too. We also made some butter (using whipping cream) to have with the fresh bread. All but one of the kids tasted the bread, and while some of them found it a bit strange or too sour, many of them loved it! There were 3 kids who just kept coming back for more… I found it to be one of the best batches of sourdough rye bread I’ve made so far – I’m wondering what the magic was at the High Park Teaching Kitchen, and how I can recreate that at home. (Though I’ve been very happy with the sourdough rye I’ve made at home too.) We did some other baking and cooking throughout the week too: we made pizza (including making the dough from scratch), beet chocolate muffins, and popcorn with spices.

Aaand, some bonus pictures! I love taking nature pictures, and took lots throughout the week. Here are a few more which I didn’t fit into the topics I was writing about in the post. :)

What a great March Break full of laughter, adventures, silliness, experimenting…!

Happy growing (and cooking and exploring)!

Linking Food and Gardens with the Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I wrote a guest blog post for the Ontario Edible Education Network. Check it out here:

http://sustainontario.com/2015/03/11/25876/blog/edible-resource-school-food-garden-lesson-planning-with-seedlingstories

Happy growing!

Planning the Garden with Kids

Over the years, selecting crops for the Blake school food garden has happened in a few different ways. There has been input from parents, teachers, and community members. I’ve also chosen some crops based on growing speed and seasons (trying to maximise spring and fall crops, while kids are in school), ease of growing, and what we can use for in-class cooking activities or curriculum-linked lessons. Until this year, though, the students had not had much say in what we’ve planted. This year, I created some new lessons to get them more involved.

With the grade 3/4 class, we started by going out to the garden in the winter and measuring the plots, and also observing what is in and around the garden that might help or hinder the plants’ growth. The students noticed the big Norway Maples at one end of the garden, and observed that those would create shade – the easternmost plots of the garden definitely get less sun than the other beds. We also talked about how the fence around the garden not only protects the garden, but that we could also grow vining plants along it. While we didn’t directly use the measurements that we took in the garden (I didn’t want to focus too much on exactly how many of each plant we can fit per garden bed), it was a good way to get them thinking about the fact that gardeners and farmers need to think about space when planning their gardens and fields. It was also a real-world measuring lesson. It was interesting to see the different strategies the students came up with to get around the fact that they were using metre sticks, but the garden beds are more than a metre long; some students paired up with another group and put the metre sticks end to end, some had one group member put their finger where the metre stick ended and then measure the rest of the bed from there, and some were a little puzzled at first, but got ideas by observing other groups. It’s neat to see the different ways in which the students think and solve problems.

While I was outside with half of the grade 3/4 class, the teacher worked with the other half to start to think about what crops they would like to plant. They worked with a modified version of the Foodland Ontario Availability Guide. This chart is great for knowing when you can buy Ontario produce (including storage and greenhouse crops), but doesn’t show when different fruits and vegetables can be harvested in the garden. I modified it to show when different crops could be harvested in our garden. Based on this chart, the students started to make lists of what they would like to grow; they took into account the timing of the school year, the size of plants, and, of course, what they would most like to grow and eat. They then surveyed classmates to start looking for the most popular food plants in their class.

I also did this lesson with a grade 1/2 class, a grade 2/3 class, and the grade 4-6 MID class. With these classes, we started by looking at plant parts we eat (e.g. carrots are roots, broccoli is flower buds, peas are seeds, etc.), and then led that into a brainstorm of their favourite fruits and vegetables, and/or what they would most like to grow in the garden. Based on their brainstorm lists, I put together a chart showing which plants need lots of sun, which can handle some shade, and which ones we cannot grow in the Blake school garden. We discussed how bananas and oranges cannot grow here because of the weather, and that apples and peaches would be a challenge to grow because the small size of our garden does not really allow for fruit trees.

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Based on this chart, the students worked on their own or in pairs to map what they would like to grow in the garden. They had a few criteria to follow. They had to write their names and a title for their map (Blake Food Garden 2015) and they had to have a legend or key to explain the symbols they were using. Plants had to be placed in the appropriate beds, whether more sunny or more shady. And to account for the issue of spacing (i.e. avoiding over-crowding), they could have a maximum of two types of plants per garden bed. I was really impressed by how well this went! As I said, this was the first time I had done any garden crop planning with students, so I was a bit nervous going into it, wondering if it would be engaging enough. It definitely was! Lots of thought went into their planning – some students had a big mix of different plants throughout the garden, others wanted to focus on just a few of their favourite crops. One grade 2 boy, who was really focused on the task, was putting just one type of plant per garden bed. When I asked him to tell me about his map, he said “I want everything to be organised in one garden bed so when I go out to harvest I only need to go to one bed.” It was really neat to see him thinking ahead like that!

It was really nice to try these new lessons with teachers with whom I’ve developed a great working relationship over the past 4 years! I had been thinking of doing some sort of lessons about garden planning, but had not been able to find any lesson plans that I was very happy with. After coming up with a list of themes and things I wanted to accomplish with these lessons, I e-mailed the teachers and they really helped me work through the ideas and put them together into a coherent lesson plan. It’s great to have the opportunity to bounce ideas back and forth with these teachers, knowing that I’ll get both support and honest feedback throughout the process. I now feel confident that I can take these lessons to my other schools next year.

Bulletin Board display about garden planning.

Bulletin Board display about garden planning.

It was great to have the students involved in these garden planning conversations and lessons. That said, I will not choose all of the crops based solely on the students’ ideas – if I did, the garden would consist mostly of watermelons and strawberries. :) Though kale proved to be quite popular too, actually. The popularity of kale is really great to see; I know that most of these students were not familiar with kale when I first taught them in Kindergarten, and now they see it as a staple in the food garden. It’s neat to see how the garden has influenced their healthy food choices. (Though one mom said that her grade 2 daughter will now only eat kale which has been harvested in the past few hours. Apparently I’m creating kale connoisseurs.) I’m not excited about their growing love of kale because I have any particular affinity for kale or because I follow any sort of “super-food” trends (though, admittedly, I do love kale, how easy it is to grow, and how versatile it is), but as I said, I find it rewarding to see how this is demonstrating the positive influence that the garden is having on the kids. Based on the kids’ garden plans and maps, I think we will try growing sweet potatoes this year, and will grow a Three Sisters garden again, as many kids wanted to grow corn and pumpkins. When we discussed crop selections at a garden committee meeting, one teacher gave a good justification for not basing crop selections only on the students’ choices; she said that it’s worth growing things that they kids wouldn’t normally eat – in the garden, they’re willing to try different things, so it’s good to introduce new vegetables to them in the garden.

I’m really looking forward to starting my 5th (!) growing season in the Blake Garden!

Happy growing!

Why I love February

People assume that, being a gardener, I must not like winter, that I must constantly be waiting for spring. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I love winter. I nearly wrote that winter might be my favourite season, but then I started to think about all of the great things I like about all of the other seasons too. I definitely can’t choose a favourite! I very rarely find myself thinking, in any season, “Wow, I can’t wait for this season to be over”. What I do find is that I love living somewhere with seasonal changes throughout the year. I do need the variety. In a few weeks, I’ll be ready to dig my fingers into the soil. For now, I’m enjoying the weather we have right now. (I also have minor moments of panic of the coming spring, thinking of just how crazy everything gets once the gardens get going and of all of the planning that I still need to do… Winter is the time of year when I have a wee bit more time to breathe and think.)

At the time of year when so many people are feeling done with winter, I find myself loving it the most. Of the winter months, I feel like February is often the most likely to be snowy. And I love snow! In February, the days are also getting noticeably longer. February was so sunny this year, not at all dreary. I find the combination of longer days and snow so energizing! As is often the case, we didn’t really get much in the way of snow until mid to late January. While many people are saying that they can’t wait for the long winter to be over, I feel like winter just started a few weeks ago! With my love of snow, I always feel like winter is just a little too short – until at least the end of March, I keep hoping for one more good snowfall, for one more chance to ski…

So how do I go through the winter with such enthusiasm? One thing is that I definitely dress for it. Being someone who spends a lot of time in dirt, I’m generally not known for my sense of style. :) That probably goes out the window even more in the winter. Nearly every day for the past few months, I’ve worn snowpants whenever I’ve gone outside. I have some nice black snowpants that don’t immediately look like snowpants, so I’m totally fine wearing them when walking around the city. I also wear longjohns – I find Merino ones great, because they’re really warm, but also thin enough to wear under even relatively tight pants. I’ve rarely felt cold while outside this winter, despite the nippy weather we’ve had. And I’m someone who gets cold really easily. I’ve just learned to dress strategically. Ok, I might look a little dorky, but hey, I’m warm. (As the Scandinavians say, there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.) And don’t start to think this cold tolerance is because I go from a warm house to a warm car to a warm office; I walk to work and nearly everywhere else I go, so I spend plenty of time outside every day.

My biggest tip for “getting through” the winter is to just get outside and enjoy it! Cross country skiing is probably one of my favourite things ever. I often get really excited before I go skiing, and then am afraid that the reality won’t live up to the expectations. And then I get on my skis, and it’s 100 times better than I’d even imagined. Ahh, lovely… I’ve only gotten out skiing twice this year so far (hopefully a bit more to come…), once right in the city and once at Albion Hills conservation area (beautiful trails – highly recommended). I also love walking in the snow, noticing the changes in texture and sound (squeaky, crunchy, quiet…), I enjoy the quietness of snowy days, the art created by ice and snow… I like looking for animal tracks in the snow, looking for signs of the stories the animals have left behind, looking and listening for winter birds, and exploring how animals adapt to winter. I enjoy skating, and seeing all of the busy skating rinks through the city, and in good winters like this year, even seeing people skate on Grenadier Pond and Lake Ontario. And, frankly, I just like playing in the snow! I’ve just never let go of my childhood love for winter, and I hope I never do.

One of my favourite days this winter was probably a really snowy Saturday a couple of weeks back. I started my day with a walk to Broadview Station where I hopped on the shuttle bus to the Evergreen Brickworks. I did some market shopping, and then went for walk in the quarry out back. So quiet and lovely. I had somewhere to be around noon, but after my walk home from there, I had no desire to stay inside on such a beautiful snowy day. I found a friend willing to brave the elements with me, and we headed down to the Beaches to check out the Winter Station art installments along the beach. Very cool. The Winter Stations themselves were neat, but it was also very cool to see the art that nature had created along the shore of the lake. So glad I spent that day outside!

Though I don’t do a whole lot outside with my school garden, I am lucky to work outside with kids in High Park during the winter holidays and March Break. At the schools, we do occasional winter garden scavenger hunts, but other than that we’re mostly indoors in winter. But in High Park, we still get to hike, play, explore… Working outside in the winter with kids is great, because they get as excited about the snow as I do!

Ok, now I feel I’ve given a little balance to Winter! You were in need of a little loving! :)

Happy growing (and skiing and playing and enjoying)!

Sprouting in Class: the 10 metre diet

Can you get more local than growing food right in the classroom? Ok, we won’t be growing all of our food in a classroom, but it is pretty neat to grow something in class, in the winter, that you can taste two weeks after planting.

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The grow-light stand.

We have a great three-tier grow-light stand at Blake school, which we use for starting our seedlings in the spring. But besides those few weeks in April and May, the grow-light stand just sits in the hall. For a couple of years, I’d been meaning to use it at other times of year as well; this winter I finally came up with a lesson plan and got a grade 4/5 teacher on board to try it out. Over a couple of weeks, we grew some shoots and microgreens and then had a chance to taste them.

We started on a Wednesday in early February. We planted peas, sunflowers, clover and radishes. We used a couple of different growing media: coconut coir and seeding soil. I had an old block of coconut coir, which turned out to be somewhat defective – it didn’t really absorb water nor break down – so that was sort of annoying. But the new block of coir I had bought worked its magic! We put it in a bucket and added warm water, and a few minutes later, it was pretty amazing to see how it had expanded to many times its size and absorbed all of the water! I wish I’d taken a picture! So the students worked in groups to fill the seeding trays with coir or with soil, and then plant and water the seeds.

After we’d done the planting, we did a short lesson called “Mapping a Meal”. In this lesson, we list the ingredients in a meal and trace them all back to plants. We looked at a pizza, so listed things like tomato sauce, peppers, pineapple, onions, crust, cheese, pepperoni, etc. Some of the ingredients are just directly plants, but others we traced back to how the energy initially came from plants (e.g. cheese-milk-cow-grass).

Two weeks later, I worked with this class again to taste what we’d grown. What I didn’t think about when planning this lesson initially was that there was a 4-day weekend within that two week stretch. Wee sprouts/shoots/microgreens do not like 4 days without being watered… Many of the plants hadn’t made it through the weekend, but we did manage to revive enough of them to make the tasting lesson worth it. The sunflower shoots had mostly wilted, but everyone got to taste some pea, clover and radish shoots. (The beauty of gardening at school is that even if things don’t grow, it’s still a learning experience.)The pea shoots were definitely the most popular, but some of the students liked the spiciness of the radish shoots.

After everyone had a chance to taste the different shoots (and have seconds and thirds…), we followed up with a Food Miles lesson. We looked at a bunch of pictures of foods from grocery store flyers, and then tried to map (on a world map) where the different foods had come from. We then addressed how the foods get to us from these various faraway places, why we import so much food, some potential challenges with importing food, and how we can tell where our food come from. The teacher also linked it to the trading they’d been learning about in their ancient civilizations unit – I love it when my lessons link with what classes are currently working on! Of course we can’t grow all of the food we need in the classroom or the school garden, but it was pretty cool to grow some right in class and to taste it together!

I will definitely do some sprouting lessons again, using the grow-lights. Some things I learned: coconut coir dries out faster than soil, and it’s important to make sure there are no long weekends during the growing period…

Coming up soon: garden planning and mapping lessons, and other winter fun!

Happy growing!

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