Caterpillars of 2017

By the time I’m posting this, our lovely Monarchs have taken off on their amazing trip to Mexico. But I still wanted to share my summer excitement about them. It was an amazing year for Monarch butterflies! Last year, I didn’t see my first Monarch until some time in August, and even then, I only saw about one a week. This year, I’d often see multiple butterflies at the same time. It was amazing!

Already at the end of June, I was seeing Monarch caterpillars munching away on milkweed plants in High Park, in my neighbourhood and at the cottage. Little kid at Christmas giddiness is probably an appropriate comparison to describe my level of excitement about this!

At the beginning of July, I spent a few days up at the cottage, and right away went to check out our little milkweed patch. We’ve got a little area between our woodshed and the river that we’ve stopped mowing in the past few years, and it’s amazing watching it spring to life! (We’re lucky to have a family cottage in a pretty remote area with tons of wildlife and plant diversity. The province even acknowledged how special our area is by creating a Provincial Park you’ve probably never heard of: ) Sure enough, I found a Monarch caterpillar almost right away. It was tiny! My mom was totally incredulous that I’d found it, in among all of those plants and wee critters everywhere, but there it was. The trick, I found this summer, was looking for holes in milkweed leaves and flipping them over on the search for caterpillars. By the next day, we’d found at least 5 caterpillars in our little milkweed patch.

Back at work the next week, we had a couple of volunteers helping with our Drop-In programme in the High Park Children’s Garden. One of them, who has been raising Monarchs for years, found a few caterpillars. We kept one for showing the kids and for raising ourselves so we could show our EcoCampers as it grew and developed. One of my favourite memories from when I was in grade 2 was seeing a Monarch butterfly come out of it’s chrysalis in our class, so I’m always excited to have moments like this to share with kids I’m working with.


A couple of days later, I was collecting milkweed leaves to feed our new little camp/office friend and found a Monarch egg. Without even looking for them. A few days later, another egg. My caterpillar colony was growing totally unintentionally. At home, my landlords have milkweed in the front yard, and I found some wee caterpillars and eggs there too. One day, I even saw a Monarch in High Park laying eggs on one of our Children’s Garden milkweed plants. They were everywhere! It was amazing!

One day at High Park EcoCamp, I was showing a couple of the caterpillars to our Sprouts group (our 4-5 year old campers). After we’d had a chat about them, the kids of course wanted to name them. One girl put up her hand and said: “I want to name the big one… hmmm…. Joey!” Great! Another girl then put up her hand and said: “I want to name the little one… hmmm… Joey!” We decided that maybe they should have different names, so another girl suggested Teddy. Cool. Our caterpillar: Teddy and Joey. But then a couple of the boys at the front started calling out “Peanut Butter!” “Hummus!” Thus, our caterpillars acquired last names as well: Teddy Peanut Butter and Joey Hummus. 🙂

A few days later, though, I came into my office to find a guilty-looking spider who had gotten into one of our bug boxes and eaten Teddy Peanut Butter and Joey Hummus. 😦 That put an end to naming our caterpillars… And as sad as it was, I wasn’t too upset. There’s a food chain lesson in there too. After that, though, I did cover all of the other bug boxes with paper towel or fabric to keep other critters out.


Wait, this isn’t what everyone’s office looks like?

As the caterpillars continued to grow and develop (and eat! A lot!), I had to keep making sure they were well fed. I didn’t want to leave them in my High Park office for a whole weekend, so home they came. I had a few subway rides back and forth with the bug boxes. (I did get a few curious looks on the TTC… but hey, it’s Toronto. People are used to seeing all sorts of things.) Luckily quite a few people in my neighbourhood have milkweed growing, so I had lots of leaves to feed my little critters. My neighbourhood Facebook group had lots of people sharing their pictures of their developing caterpillars, sharing tips and tricks, and generally being excited about Monarchs. (Have I mentioned that I love my neighbourhood?) I had a couple of weekends when I was going out of town, and taking my caterpillars/chrysalises with me was not practical. Luckily I found some good babysitters along the way, who even sent me photographic updates.

One day, while at work in High Park, I noticed that one of the caterpillars was finding a place to attach itself onto the lid of the bug bin and to transform into a chrysalis. Some of the caterpillars had already gone through this tranformation, but I hadn’t actually seen it myself. I noticed it was starting to happen, so I called a couple of my co-workers over and we watched the process. It is seriously weird. The caterpillar’s skin breaks open, it wiggles it off, and inside is the chrysalis. It was pretty amazing to see!

After another weekend of bringing the last of the chrysalises home, I noticed one Monday morning that the chrysalises had turned dark and that I could see the orange and black colouring of the Monarch butterfly wings. I knew this was an indication that the butterflies would emerge that day. Well, time for another subway ride with my butterfly friends! As I was sitting on the subway heading to work, I noticed that the butterflies were emerging from their chrysalises. Urban nature at it’s finest! 😉 I watched in fascination. A couple of folks sitting close by were curious about what was going on, and were pretty impressed when I told them. When I got to High Park, the butterflies were still filling and stretching out their wings, and weren’t quite ready to go outside yet. But then they started trying to fly in their little bug boxes, and I knew it was time for them to go. Of course, they’d chosen the windiest stormiest day of the summer. I took them over to the blooming butterfly bushes near our office, and it was pretty amazing how they climbed on me for a little while before heading over to the flowers and then flew off. It was a pretty amazing feeling to release these butterflies who I’d known since they were eggs! Wow! It was a cool/fascinating/educational/amazing (unintentional) summer project. I was also relieved that the last of the butterflies had flown off and that I no longer needed to take bug boxes on weekly subway rides…

When I headed down to the Children’s Garden at the end of the camp day, a few of the campers and one of the camp counselors showed me a giant caterpillar they had just found. “Hey Elin, you’ve been taking care of caterpillars! Want to take care of this one too?” OH NO! Hah. Though I had thoroughly enjoyed the Monarch raising over the summer, I was also happy to be done with that task for a while… this particular (giant) caterpillar had to fend for itself.



Happy growing!

“Dancing with Smurfs,” “Banana Legs” and how I choose seeds for school gardens

There are zillions of tomato varieties out there! How to choose!?! I was a little overwhelmed this spring, having to choose seeds for 5 different school food gardens. (Don’t get me wrong, it IS exciting to choose seeds… but keeping track of your seed needs for 5 gardens can get a little crazy too.) With a list in hand, I headed to check out Urban Harvest‘s market stand at The Stop’s Farmer’s Market at Wychwood Barns one Saturday morning in March. Again, slightly overwhelming with all of the beautiful variety of vegetable seeds they sell. (Urban Harvest is one of my favourite seed producers.  They grow their seeds locally, so I know they’re suited to our climate. They’re organic, which I try to support as much as possible. They are super knowledgeable – Colette, the owner, has answered countless questions and provided tons of suggestions over the years. They sell their seeds at the markets I go to anyway, so it’s very convenient. And, they have lots of fun rare and heirloom seed varieties.)

I had a couple of criteria for choosing tomato seeds: I want tomatoes that ripen later in the season, so that we will have some to harvest when kids are back in school in September. I look for tomatoes that are more interesting than just regular round red tomatoes. I try to choose a variety of shapes, sizes, uses…

Keeping those criteria in mind, I still had oh so many to choose from! So what did the final decisions come down to? Fun tomato names, of course! When you’re growing vegetables with children, you want to make the things you grow as appealing as possible for them, and having fun names definitely helps. And that is how this year’s tomato selection came to include “Dancing with Smurfs,” “Banana Legs,” and “Garden Peach” varieties. They have proven popular so far… now let’s hope we can taste some in a few months and see if they are just as exciting then!


This year’s new tomato varieties.


Tomatoes aren’t the only exciting vegetables to choose, though! From amongst the many fun carrot varieties, I chose “Cosmic Purple” and “Little Fingers.” “Easter Egg” radishes are always exciting, because they grow into a mix of different colours. Tatsoi is a leafy green with a nice mild taste, which has converted many a child who had previously refused to eat green things, so I bought more tatsoi seeds. I also found that there’s a Rainbow variety! “Rainbow Dinosaur” kale was definitely a hit last year, so why not try some rainbow tatsoi as well? And then there are the names that children just find amusing for some reason or another… They like saying “arugula,” though calling it “rocket” appeals to lots of kiddos too. And one class has decided that “bok choy” is incredibly fun to say, so they planted some of that. I also try to plant a couple of new things every year, so this year we’re trying celery and quinoa at some of the gardens.


To introduce students to some of these fun varieties, and to get them to think about how the plants will grow, I created a simple worksheet that they worked on while I planted with small groups within the class. For the younger grades, students had to draw the seed, and then imagine what the plant would look like in 2 weeks and when it is ready to harvest. For slightly older grades, I created information sheets about the plants for them to use to answer a few questions about the plant they were seeding. And with the grade 4s and 5s, students used seed catalogues to learn about their seeds.


Planting a so many different varieties is not only fun, but also provides a lot of learning opportunities. Today, during a grade 5/6 biodiversity lesson, it was great to be able to discuss biodiversity in our food not only in a theoretical sense, but also to be able to give examples from our own school garden. And of course having biodiversity in the garden provides many advantages in itself: resilience in different weather and against different pests and diseases, different blooming times ensure a pollinator friendly garden, and of course having so many different flavours to try!


This year’s big seed purchase! Lots of fun things to try.

It’s been a fairly rainy April, but with some warm sunny days in between as well. Things are definitely green in the gardens, and it has been great not having to worry about watering. I look forward to tasting some of our beautiful crops – both the new ones, and the tried and true varieties – with the students in the coming weeks and months.

Happy growing!

“Well it’s obviously not a carrot seed!”

I’ve had a few heartwarming moments in or related to the school gardens in the past few weeks that I want to share. It’s always so nice to see/hear when kids have learned something or taken something home from our garden lessons. When I’m in the thick of things and teaching a lesson, I don’t always get a chance to notice and absorb these moments, so it’s nice sometimes to be able to step back a bit or hear from parents or kids about how the garden has influenced them.

I was at Withrow earlier this week and harvesting some herbs with Kindergarten kids to make some kale and herb pesto. A grade 6 girl saw us with our harvest, and was excited that we were about to do some cooking. She told me: “Hey, I remember making kale chips with you when I was little. We still make them at home all the time!”

That same afternoon, on my way home, I ran into some kids and their mom. One of the boys had made kale pesto with me earlier that day and was excited to see me and tell mom about the pesto they’d made and eaten. Then the mom mentioned that one of her other sons had come home a couple of weeks ago, and was so excited about the salsa we’d made in class that he and his brother went and harvested all of the ripe tomatoes in their own garden and whipped up another batch of salsa! Yum!

Last Saturday, I was working at the farmers’ market, and came home with a mountain of beet greens. (We sold lots of beets, and some folks asked for the greens to be removed. I have a hard time seeing this delicious food go into the compost, so I inevitably come home with so many of the greens!) As I was walking through the park near my house, I saw a few kiddos that I know from the neighbourhood – one grade 1 student and her 3-year-old sister, as well as a former student who is probably in about grade 2 or 3 now. They came up to chat with me, and the 3-year-old asked if I’d just been to the grocery store. I explained that I had been at the market selling veggies with some farmers that I work for (the wonderful Wooler Dale Farm, in case you’re wondering!). This made total sense to the grade 1 kiddo, who explained to her little sister “She’s my garden teacher!”  The eldest of the three girls asked in great awe “So do you get to bring home vegetables when you work at the market!?!” I had some of those beet greens sticking out of my bag, so I asked if they wanted to taste some. The eldest and youngest of the crew were super keen, and ran to their dads who were standing nearby, to show them what they were eating! (I know their dads from the neighbourhood and told them what I was feeding their kiddos – beet greens, of all things!) Well, the 3-year-old LOVED them and came back for 2nds and 3rds! 😀

A couple of weeks ago at Blake, we had a guest educator (from Green Thumbs Growing Kids) doing a lesson about seeds and biodiversity. It was really neat to get to step back a bit and hear what the kids already know about seeds. This is a grade 3 class and I’ve known all of these students since they were in Junior Kindergarten, so they’ve had their fair share of garden lessons over the years. One of the first activities they did during this lesson was that each student got a seed in their hand (there were 4 different types of seeds). They had to A) find the others in their class with the same seed and B) sit at the table that had a picture of the corresponding plant to their seed. The seeds/plants that the students got were lettuce, carrots, peas and squash. As they got their seeds, I heard one of the boys say right away, “Well it’s definitely not a carrot seed!” Sure enough, he was right – he had gotten lettuce seeds. But, you may think, lettuce and carrots are very different plants, of course the seeds would be different! But just think for a moment – can you picture what either of those two seeds look like? They’re definitely not seeds we see on a regular basis, like squash or pea seeds. I asked him how he knew. His answer: “Well, we’ve planted them in the garden, and also I remember seeing them growing in the garden.” Yes! They have learned something over the years! 🙂 For reference, here are pictures of carrot and lettuce seeds (lettuce seeds also come in darker colours):

Happy growing (and harvesting)!

Summer heat

Well that was one seriously hot and dry summer! Much of Ontario has been in a drought, the most severe in 30ish years it seems. It’s been a super challenging season for farmers, many of whom have lost some crops and have had serious decreases in yields of other crops. The spring was quite cold and so things got planted late, and then once things got planted/seeded, it didn’t rain. For months. And it’s been hot hot hot!

As a School Garden Educator, the drought has affected “my” school gardens, but I’m lucky that it does not directly affect my livelihood. With school gardens (at least the small school gardens I work in), it is of course lovely when we get great yields and get to taste lots of food we have grown ourselves, but nobody is depending on these gardens to feed themselves or their families. With school food gardens, anything is a teachable moment.

It has been super interesting observing how the school gardens fare in different summers. Much depends, of course, on the care they get over the summer. And each garden has their own microclimate, with some being shadier, some being in more open areas, etc. But either way, it’s been interesting to start to learn which plants can handle a severe drought and which ones have not been happy this summer. Basil is one which has really surprised me – I thought it would be delicate and would wither in the heat. But it’s been thriving! The High Park Children’s Garden was exploding with basil in August (though admittedly that garden got lots of love over the summer). And even the basil in the Withrow school garden (which hardly got watered at all) was still alive and doing relatively well. And any mildew problems we’ve had with basil came significantly later than last year and have not spread nearly as quickly.

Lots of cooler weather plants bolted (went to seed) super early this year. The spring season was short for lettuce, radishes, cilantro, arugula, etc. BUT, some of those seeds have already started to grow a fall crop. Bonus! The Withrow garden certainly has its fair share of arugula coming up, and I promise you, no humans were involved in planting that particular crop. The plants did that all by themselves!

A few plants kept on surviving, but just didn’t grow. Even though I was impressed that the basil survived the drought, it was sort of funny to see that even a couple of months after being planted, they had hardly grown at all. The tomato plants were similar – still alive, but only barely bigger than when we had planted them. And though these poor little mouse melon/fairy watermelon plants and squash plants did eventually start to grow, there’s no hope of them actually producing fruits before the winter comes…

Despite the drought not affecting my livelihood directly, I definitely find that as a gardener, I am very aware of the weather. (Of course working outside most of the year leads me to know what the weather is doing too, seeing as I need to dress for it every day…) I’m always surprised to find people who have NO idea of what the weather has really been doing. It surprised me many times over the summer, when people came to the farmers’ market and were truly puzzled by why we had less produce than we do in most years… Anyway, we have had a few good conversations with students at the school gardens, about why this summer may have been challenging for our gardens (and for farmers) and about what the word “drought” means.


As I write this, on the first full day of fall, it is ironically a cool and rainy day. Hopefully the seeds we planted with students this past week will have a good fall of growing! We planted a few sunflower seeds for sprouts, and a variety of quick-growing fall crops like radishes, lettuce, mustard greens, etc. Hopefully I’ll have picture and stories of fall crops soon…

Happy growing!

Yummy nummy rice paper wraps

There hasn’t been much to harvest in the school gardens yet this spring (though things are starting to grow faster and faster in the last week or so with the heat we’ve been having), but we’ve still made a bit of food with some classes. A few classes have made Stone Soup, which is always fun. Some root veggies have also made their appearances in some classes.

With the spring being fairly dry and cool (hard to believe, as this week has been hot hot hot!), we didn’t yet have any salad greens growing when a Withrow teacher wanted to make some salad with her class. One of the things I really hope kids learn from garden programming is the seasonality of our food, and how our food is dependent on weather, among many other factors. I didn’t want to buy imported salad greens, so I started thinking of what local produce is available at the beginning of May. Well the farmers I work for (Wooler Dale Farm), still have lots of delicious root vegetables stored from the fall. I picked up a bunch of them from market one weekend, and took them to this Senior Kindergarten class. Students peeled and grated some beets, multi-coloured carrots, daikon radishes, watermelon radishes, and cut up some cabbage with scissors. We also harvested some chives from the school garden, and added a very simple oil and apple cider vinegar dressing. 5 year olds and root veggie salad, you ask? Well, the only complaint I heard was “We were only allowed to have 4 servings!”


The success of this salad inspired another cooking session with the grade 4/5 class at Blake. Instead of just making a salad, I thought the older students would enjoy making some rice paper wraps. We used the same ingredients as above, and then wrapped them in rice paper and added some rice noodles too. These wraps were so popular that many kids asked for the recipe. Since I was going to write that up anyway for the students to take home, I figured I’d write a little post about it here too. Ok, it wasn’t really a recipe per se, but here’s some inspiration at least.


Rice paper vegetable wraps

This is what we used when we did this with the grade 4/5 class, since it’s what I had available. But use any vegetables or other ingredients you’d like.


  • beetroot (red/purple and candy-stripe varieties)
  • carrots (orange, yellow and orange varieties)
  • radishes (daikon, watermelon and pink)
  • cabbage
  • herbs (we used chives and oregano from the garden)
  • rice paper
  • rice noodles
  • rice vinegar
  • sesame oil


  1. Boil some water.
  2. Put rice noodles in a heat-safe bowl or pot. Cover with boiling water and let sit.
  3. Wash, peel and grate or cut vegetables.
  4. Mix the dressing. We used equal parts rice vinegar and sesame oil.
  5. Put some hot/warm water in another heat-safe bowl or put. Put in one or two sheets of rice paper until soft. Remove one sheet at a time and put it on a plate or cutting board.
  6. Place vegetables, dressing and noodles in the middle of the rice paper. Fold the rice paper around the vegetables.
  7. Eat and enjoy!

Rice paper wraps and rice noodles are inexpensive and available at most grocery stores (I bought them in Toronto’s East Chinatown, but they’re available at No Frills, Food Basics…). You can easily use whatever vegetables you have at home that need to be used up. Each family member can make their own wraps so they can choose their favourite vegetables (though you can have “rules” like every wrap has to include at least 2 different vegetables, or encouraging kids to have as many colours in their wraps as possible).

They were quite the hit among the students. As one of the girls said “These are great for three reasons: they’re cheap, they’re delicious and they’re healthy!”



Happy growing (and eating)!


Worming into Spring

As happens every spring, at the time of year when I have most to write about, I have the least time to write… But a little update at least.

It’s been a cool and dry spring, so things are a little slow to get started. It’s definitely not unusual to get snow and/or freezing rain in April in Toronto, but after a mild and fairly snowless winter, we got one of our biggest snowfalls of the year at the beginning of April. (Hey, I love snow, I was excited!) What was a little more unusual to see were the snow flurries we had in mid-May! (The pictures below are from our icy Easter and snowy beginning of April.)

Once it was time for seeds to go in, it pretty much stopped raining. There has been a bit of rain here and there and it seems nice and fresh in the morning, but if you dig just a centimetre or two down, it’s still bone dry. Luckily kids love watering, so I’ve been keeping them nice and busy with that…

Some of the plants that are currently looking nice and green (besides the weeds…) are some plants we left in the ground last fall, like kale and kohlrabi. Partially we left them in just for this reason – so that there would be something to see growing already early in the spring. They’re also biennial plants, meaning that they go to seed in their second year. They’re just starting to bloom now, and will start producing seeds in the coming weeks. I love that kids can see the process of them blooming, being pollinated and going to seed. And since the flower buds look a lot like broccoli, it’s a nice connection to make with the kids a) about them being in the same plant family and b) that when we’re eating broccoli we’re eating flower buds.

I’ve also done some worm and worm casting harvesting with some classes both at Dundas and at Withrow. A Dundas teacher had a VERY full worm bin, with lots of castings (yup, that’s worm poop!) that we can use in the garden. So a couple of classes spent a few hours one day sorting the worms from the castings, so that the worms could return to their home in the worm bin and the compost can be used out in the garden. Some kids were a bit grossed out, but most were pretty excited! We got a LOT of castings, which we’ll mostly use when transplanting seedlings into the garden in the coming weeks.

At Withrow, a teacher wanted to start up a vermicomposter in his classroom, so I took kids out to the schoolyard compost bin to harvest some worms and take them to their new home in the classroom. This particular class spends tons of time outside doing all sorts of hands-on lessons, so they were ready to jump right into it and get their hands dirty! (And don’t worry, the worms were only in the small bags for transportation between the garden and the classroom, where they were introduced to their new vermicomposter home.)

On the topic of composting, I turned the Blake school compost at the end of March. The first (intake) bin was starting to fill up, and it had been a while since it got a proper stir. Well when I opened up the front of the bin, it was very clear what had composted and what had sat frozen all winter. Some Kindergarten kiddos were watching as I opened it, so I got a nice chorus of “Wow! That’s cool!” from them. The bin was definitely ready to be turned, because when I was back a week later, it was steaming hot in there! Things were happening again after a winter’s rest!

I’ve also been working one day a week this spring with Green Thumbs, a wonderful Toronto organization which has started and does programming in a few downtown/east end school food gardens for years! More on the Garden Buddies programme soon…

Happy growing!

Stunning Sunflowers!

Still blooming in November!

Still blooming in November!

It’s been a while since they stopped blooming, but the sunflowers keep on providing learning opportunities! (The sunflowers did keep growing surprisingly late in the warm fall we had, so they provided lots of interesting learning out in the garden for a while too.)

With a donation of lots of different sunflower seed varieties last spring, a few Kindergarten classes planted a whole bunch of sunflower seeds in the Blake school garden. We planted a bunch of varieties: Giganteus, Early Russian, Velvet Queen, Teddy Bear, Autumn Beauty… Gotta love plant variety names!

They resulted in the best sunflower crop we’ve had in any of my school gardens! A few of them grew super tall with huge blossoms! (Not sure if the tallest ones were Russian Mammot, Giganteus, or Early Russian varieties.) I heard from a number of community members not connected with the school about the wonderful huge sunflowers at Blake Street. My landlords told me that their 2-year old would get excited about walking past the school to watch how tall the sunflowers had grown. A daycare worker at one of my other schools asked me if I’d seen the wonderful tall sunflowers at Blake’s garden. 🙂 They definitely drew some good attention to the school garden.


Most of our corn seedlings definitely got munched on - guessing many sunflowers had the same fate...

Most of our corn seedlings definitely got munched on – guessing many sunflowers had the same fate…

It was good that we planted tons of seeds in the spring, as I think there are some local rabbits who have found the garden over the past year or two… Far from all of the seeds grew into full-grown blooming sunflowers, but we had planted so many that a good number still flourished. I don’t see the garden very much over the summer, and every time I went by, I was amazed by the size of the sunflowers (and well, impressed by how well the garden was doing in general!).

As I mentioned, the sunflowers provided lots of different learning opportunities. Early in the school year, I often do a garden scavenger hunt with Kindergarten classes which I call “Let’s Meet the Garden”. The scavenger hunt addresses a Kindergarten math requirement of “measuring using non-standard units”. We look for things longer than a trowel, smaller than a garden glove, etc. Well of course the giant sunflowers were fun to explore – they were definitely longer than a trowel! One class even discovered that some of the sunflowers were taller than their teacher, Mr Stoch! 🙂 It was also really great for the students who are now in Senior Kindergarten and in Grade 1 to see the plants that they had planted from seed just a few months before, having grown way taller than them!

Observing the sunflower blossoms up close was really neat too, both for the kids and myself. It was neat to clearly see that each sunflower “blossom” actually holds hundreds (if not thousands) of actual blossoms – each seed has its own bloom which needs to get pollinated. I found these super fascinating up close, resulting in a ton of close-up photos!

We definitely found lots of pollinators and other beneficial insects visiting our sunflowers – different bee varieties, ladybugs… We also talked about how sunflower seeds could be good food for squirrels or birds over the winter (but decided not to leave many out there for them, as we don’t want too many of those critters getting used to finding food in our school food garden…)

The sunflowers even saved the day for me one rainy day at the end of October. I had made outdoor plans with a couple of classes, but figured out the night before that it was promising to be pouring rain all day. Last minute lesson changes… eeek! Then I remembered that I had all sorts of sunflower seed heads that I’d brought inside – we could explore those! With a Kindergarten class, I read a sunflower storybook, and then in small groups, we used magnifying glasses to just observe the sunflower seed heads up close – we looked at the dried blossoms, checked out the seeds… We even weighed the seed heads (the biggest one was around 3 pounds!). With the grade ones, it turned into a bigger seed activity – with their teacher, they removed the seeds from the pumpkin which would become their jack-o-lantern and counted/estimated the number of seeds in there. With the other half of the class, we checked out the sunflower seed heads up close. And I had also brought a bunch of different seeds which we could describe using different attributes (size, shape, colour, etc), and since they had been learning about patterns in math, they then also made patterns using the seeds. Lots of creativity!

I was also very curious about how many seeds all of these seed heads had. So amazing how many seeds come from just one seed having been planted! The grade 4/5s did some estimating (using some different estimating strategies), and then a few weeks later, the grade 1/2s started counting the seeds… Turns out that’s a longer project that just an hour or so… We started by reading a book called “How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin” – among other things, the book talks about estimating, and also about counting by 2s, 5s and 10s. A nice story – definitely a good one to have in one’s Garden Educator library. The students then worked in groups and started removing the seeds from the seed heads, and then counting them by 10s. Each group had a different sunflower seed head. The group that counted the most got to about 400… and they weren’t even close to being done. (So many seeds!) A project for me to finish over the winter…

And now, what to do with all of the seeds!?! We’ll definitely plant some in the spring. Some folks have suggested roasting and eating some, but I feel like they’re maybe not clean enough. One idea I’ve had is to use some for sprouting/growing shoots in a classroom using our growlights… So I have to find a class that would be into that project.

As many of you surely know, I get pretty excited about and fascinated by seeds, so these sunflowers have been lots of fun for me! But even more fun is when I see students get excited about them too – watching the sunflowers grow, seeing how tall they were, observing the insects visiting the blossoms, examining the development of the seeds, estimating and counting the numbers of seeds (and getting legitimately blown away by the numbers…)… Though the initial fascination with the various aspects of these sunflowers may have been prompted by me, it’s great to see the kids’ own curiosity take over as they go back to observe them week after week, show them to their parents after school, ask questions…

Happy growing (and planning and seed counting…)!

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.


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.


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:


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.



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)!