Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The first 3 months of the season at Thistletown!

Spring was busy this year:
We had lots of birds nesting in the garden including these song sparrows
How is it almost August!? I’ve been meaning to sit down and write a proper update about the PACT grow-to-learn garden at Thistletown CI since May and there’s just been so much to do in the garden that it’s been a challenge to find a moment to write down everything that’s happening! And there’s a lot happening! But, first, let’s start at the beginning:

I’m Liane, the full-time garden manager at Thistletown CI this year, and have Clara, the garden manager from last year, co-managing the garden part time. After completing an internship on an organic vegetable farm last year, I joined the PACT team because, like PACT, I believe in the power of a garden (or even more simply, seeds) to bring people together to create and grow community, educate, and engage, and positively influence sustainability.

One of my first days in the garden when I was still trying to figure out a
growing plan for the year - so many opportunities! And hard to believe it could produce so much!

Back in mid-April, the garden felt like a blank canvas, ready to be designed the way I envisioned, and then the reality of having to weed EVERYTHING and figure out what I was going to plant set in very quickly. One of the main things this spring was turning some of the weed-prone places into perennial areas for more asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, and herbs to try and get some of those typically weedy areas under control. Hopefully, this will translate to more rhubarb and asparagus for all next year (but we’re still having problems with those pesky asparagus beetles). Through the spring there were learning moments: some things got planted a bit too soon (like the radish), scaling my thinking down to a half acre of growing (instead of 7+ acres), learning to prioritize in this space, realizing that strawberry patches are not a bad thing (although we did get rid of some of the older strawberry patches), discovering new pest problems to deal with (aphids have been terrible this year!), and figuring out what made the most sense for the space. Overall, it was a good spring, and at our first market on June 16th we had a selection of veggies that I was proud of: radish, spinach, salad mix, kale, and herbs. 
The day we weeded, added compost, and prepped beds for our hot crops -
a pretty big accomplishment for one day! (That's me in the red hat)

Our hot crops all planted and growing strong!
 That's tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant planted that you can see
(alongside beets in the foreground and bush beans somewhere in there too!)

Harvesting garlic. It needs to dry out for a bit before we will have it at market.
We’re now approaching our seventh market and it’s amazing how much the garden and our selection of produce has changed. Despite all the rain, things have been growing. Just today, we have surpassed 800 pounds of veggies produced by the garden, including 118 pounds of garlic!I still haven’t managed to grow spinach since that first market though. Most of our berries are done for the season now although there are still some raspberries hanging on, we recently added cabbage to the market and will be making sauerkraut in August too, and next week we will finally have zucchini and eggplant, with tomato, peppers and beets, and other deliciousness not too far behind. I know a list of vegetables might not seem that interesting, but to me it is a sign of accomplishment – the time and energy that our students, volunteers, summer staff, and myself have all put into this space is paying off and the community, especially those most in need, will have access to healthy, fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Even our resident groundhog gets his share of the veggies growing in the garden although I wish he would stop nibbling on our beet tops and bush bean greens.

Our first cabbage harvest on July 14th.

Our latest market - lots of veggies to choose from!
Outside of the veggies, the summer hasn’t been nearly as hot or dry as last year, which has been nice Our summer students have especially enjoyed some of the cooler, shady days and are hoping for more who now that they just over half way through their six-week contract with us. We have four students this year and they’ve all been doing a great job so far; hopefully, you’ll be hearing from them in another blog post before long. It’s been nice having more hands helping – volunteers too – in the garden although the weeding still never seems to end (thanks to all this rainy weather we have had). I’m sure the weeding will be finally all done just in time to put the garden to bed for the winter! Until you hear from me next month, I’ll be in the garden getting some of our last veggies for the season planted and establishing our perennial herb garden!


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Community Compost Project 2017

Community Compost Project: PACT Grow Too Learn

The PACT Grow-to-Learn (GTL) Schoolyard Gardening Program and Food Initiative is designed to teach schools and communities about food and gardening. The program creates safe, experiential and positive learning environments in low-income neighbourhoods, as well as acts as a catalyst in raising awareness of important issues related to healthy eating/nutrition, food security, environmental sustainability and hunger in our schools and local communities.

Our JPCI (John Polyani Collegiate Institute) garden is our largest growing site with 47,000 square feet of growing and educational space. The Garden and its programming has become an essential space for local schools and The Lawrence Heights Community. Last year the garden had over 2,200 student visits and over 1,500 community volunteer hours. 15,000 pounds of produce went to volunteers, food banks, and a downtown market where revenue went to fund fulltime summer jobs for high school youth.

Over the last four years we have build up a community compost and waste management project that has allowed us to produce compost for our garden and community gardens. We handle all of our garden waste, and organic materials from local food banks. In  we took a very important step in expanding this project.
Community Housing waste programs have no incentive for proper recycling
and composting. These issues paired with low income families living in a food desert had us and community volunteers wondering what to do. Our collective answer was an incentive based composting program; where the community can bring their pre-sorted compost or yard waste to the garden for garden dollars. These garden dollars then can be used at our weekly community farmer markets. This has not only diverted thousands of pounds of waste from the landfills but has created a reliable incentive based compost program that is rewarding, educational, and provides nutritional food in a respectable and fair way.

In the summer of 2015 we started collecting compost in exchange for market dollars. The community was overjoyed with being able to contribute to the garden, to feel more connected to their food, and to have access to beautiful organic produce. We soon realized the importance of this project at building and creating a strong community. We made meals at each market so that everyone could gather together share stories and leave with a full bag of veggies and a full belly. Soon the meals turned into potlucks, fresh baked bread and goodies, salads, rotis, arepas; the tables were full of veggies and culturally significant dishes. Community members started collecting compost from neighbours. The walk to the garden became a very important part of a lot of seniors’ daily exercise. More community members became invested in the garden; we had more volunteers, and have finally found a fair dignified way to share food in an environmentally positive and incentive based way.
We now need help expanding this project for next season!

We are looking for Farmers and farms who can donate to our weekly community compost markets to help us provide even more families with free vegetables. We can take donations on Mondays and Tuesdays and any donations to our organization are tax deductible we can write you tax receipts for the value of your donation. Donations will go directly to much needed community members, will assist in redirecting thousands of pounds of food waste from landfills and will help build a healthier and stronger community.

2015 Stats
  • 5 community markets
  • 2000 dollars (valued) of exchanged produce with the program
  • 100 sq feet of compost produced from collected waste
  • 20 families involved
2016 stats
  • 11 Community Compost Markets
  • 7,700 dollars of exchanged produce
  • 230 sq feet of finished compost produced
  • 45 families involved
2017 Goals
  • 20 Community Compost Markets
  • 15,000 dollars of exchanged produce
  • 400 sq feet of finished compost
  • 100 families involved
  • Collecting Produce donations from local organic farms
  • Supplying Families with kitchen Compost bins
  • Building a Mobile Outdoor walk-in Cooler

The 2017 expanded Community Compost Project would create:
  • Producing 400 sq feet of finished compost  
  • Weekly Tuesday Markets May-October
  • Over 10,000 dollars worth of organic local produce traded for kitchen scraps
  • Supplying every participant with a kitchen compost collecting bin*
  • Building a Mobile Outdoor Walk-in Refrigerator *
  • Providing 100 families with all their produce needs weekly
  • Weekly Community meals made from produce grown from the garden
  • Monthly workshops on food preservation and gardening
  • Divert thousands of pounds of waste from landfills
  • Create a stronger community and neighbourhood
  • Offer an alternative or additional food source outside of food banks.

Kitchen Compost Bins
After two years of collecting compost and running the markets we have come to realize how important it is to provide community members with proper storage bins for their green waste. Most Participating families bring their vegetable scraps in plastic bags; which then need to be emptied and thrown away. Bags can rip, are messy, and are wasteful. Reusable kitchen compost bins would create a lot less waste, they would have composting information printed on them so that families would know exactly the specifics of what we collect. The containers allow us to standardize the value of the kitchen scraps to garden dollar ratios and would allow us to track our incoming waste weights. We would be looking for 200 high quality bins to use as the program grows and expands.

Mobile Walk-in Cooler
We want to build a mobile walk in cooler to give the program 24/7 onsite access to refrigeration. The retrofitted cargo trailer will also be used for picking up or bringing Pact grown vegetables to markets and food banks fully refrigerated; giving the produce a longer shelf life.
We will be using a CoolBot controller to allow us to hack an air conditioner to use as our cooling source. This saves thousands of dollars and allows us to easily maintain and repair the system without any expensive or proprietary parts. This project will also be used in the robot and tech classes as a classroom tool for product hacking, design, and sensors. Students will then be able to build more monitoring and alert systems on to the cooler itself.
We will also build around the trailer a Harvest specific work zone. This will include a shaded and waterproof work space, preparation tables,two double utility sinks, 4 hose outlets and an industrial spinner for micro greens and salads.

As we look to grow this program on site refrigeration and more walk in cooler space is essential this will allow us to start to store and distribute fresher produce and also take in and store donations from local organic farms. We are hoping to provide 80-100 families all of their fresh produce this season through our program.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Hot Summer Days at Thistletown

Well, I can't really avoid talking about it so I'll start with the obvious topic this summer: IT WAS HOT!! And dry. Thankfully, we have a drip-irrigation system at Thistletown. Unfortunately, I'm sure we used a tonne of water over the summer  (note: I do not know the precise amount; I don't think a tonne is accurate). Drip irrigation cuts down on water use but given the long periods without rain and how often we ran the system, it had to have been a substantial amount. On a positive note, many of the plants loved the heat. So many peppers and eggplants!

Let's rewind a little bit though. We'll go back to the beginning of July when our Focus on Youth Toronto (FOYT) students started working at the garden. The first few weeks after school let out also saw a number of other students coming to the garden to get community service hours. Although we had fewer FOYT students working at the garden than last season (just Dharmik and Ahsif, who added a lot of fun, jokes, and interesting conversation -- oh, and some hard work -- to the garden this summer ;), there were a number of very appreciated helping hands throughout the month. The heat slowed us down, I'm sure, but don't think that stopped us from weeding. I have to admit, though, the compost system got some special attention this summer -- possibly because of it's desirable location in the shade. Ahsif made sure we were chopping materials well, giving it water when it was dry and checking the temperature regularly.

Students volunteers, Diyadam and Leke, on market day -- happy not to be working in the heat! 

 Dharmik poses with the veggies and berries

 Community volunteer, Sarah, helps with the cauliflower harvest

Ahsif, hard at work mulching the garden

Among some of the highlights while working with Ahsif and Dharmik this summer were The Great Garlic Harvest of 2016 (I know, I know, we didn't call it that at the time); making sauerkraut with fellow FOYT students from PACT's John Polanyi Collegiate garden; market days; and our end-of-FOYT party, again with our friends at the JPCI garden and Laura, our awesome garden manager at Elmbank Junior Middle School.

 Proud Ahsif and young Dharmik showcase our impressive garlic harvest

 Okay, I'm sorry I made you pose for these pictures... wait, no I'm not!! :)

 Mid-July market

Making sauerkraut: Agata, one of  JPCI's garden managers, leads us towards delicious fermented goodness

Throughout July and into August, we had a number of other regular visitors and volunteers at the TCI garden who need some shout-outs! We continued to make weekly donations to both the Rexdale Alliance Church foodbank, and Braeburn Neighbourhood Place foodbank. Getting produce to Braeburn became much easier after Dan, a local friend of the garden and instructor of industrial deisgn at Humber College, brought over the completed bike trailer. Thanks Dan! His great design is low-cost, and very light. 

Laura, garden manager at PACT's Elmbank garden was also a regular face at the garden for a number of weeks this summer. She came by on Thursdays to help us with harvesting, weeding, cleaning garlic, and any number of other tasks that helped us and the garden become even more productive. Thanks Laura!  

We also had regular visits from Prince, the mental health and addictions nurse at TCI, and his colleagues, Jodi and Monica. We spent some Friday afternoons doing fun workshops with them and any other students who were at the garden that day. And of course, we did some work at the same time -- usually their favourite garden activity, compost chopping. Thank you Prince, Jodi and Monica!

Of course, we can't forget our dedicated garden volunteers. Thank you to EVERYONE who contributed over the summer! One of our most regular student volunteers was Tommy, who came by even on some of the hottest days. I think he might be close to finishing his 40 hours of community service by now! Sarah is one of the garden's most regular community volunteers and she has seen so many aspects of the garden this season, and shared many of her experiences of learning and healing in the garden. 

Our compost program got underway this summer as well. So far, a few community members have been coming by with their food scraps for our compost. In exchange, they get 'garden bucks' to use at our weekly market. It has been a good start to the program and we hope to get more people involved this season and next! 

 The huge tomato harvests of late August; plus, sauerkraut jarred and ready for sale!

 Sarah poses with the corn -- it's getting so tall!

 No, it's not a pumpkin. It's a huge Yellow Brandywine tomato!!

 The garden started filling up with sunflowers
The beginning of our beautiful, bountiful eggplant harvests

That was the summer, but there's still the fall! School will be back in session, we'll harvest even more, and ready the garden for it's winter sleep. But to wrap up our summer update, here is a reflection on the garden by Ahsif, one of the TCI garden's summer students. 

It’s been my pleasure over the the past two summers to be working at the Thistletown Garden and to be apart of it’s amazing growth. Within this time, I have learned how to maintain plants, trees, soil, compost, and the overall landscape of our garden. In order for the garden to remain healthy and fruitful watering, weeding, trimming and other chores are tasks that need almost daily commitment. There is never a day where something can’t be done to improve our garden. Ironically, even things that have died and made into compost require the same amount of attention in order to create successful compost bins. It’s this constant message of “you get what you give” that surrounds the garden like an aura.

A successful garden requires many hours of many days, and many days of many months in order to be as beautiful and well maintained as it can be. Most evident of this was this summer in the condition of our compost bins. They were inactive, at the beginning of our placement, but as a group we managed to bring heat activity back to the compost as it continues to decompose into soil. This took a few weeks to do as much time was spent watering, cutting-up compost, adding compost, and shoveling compost had to be spent to get our compost bins literally hot. Many groans, grunts, and muscle aches later, this goal was achieved and we finally have fantastic compost bins that were active and heating up! It’s really crazy when you feel the warmth of compost too; who would’ve thought that heaping pile of stinky kitchen scraps and pesky weeds would be in the process of becoming something so essential for plant life? Still boggles my mind even after my second summer of working how nature works in such awesome and efficient ways.

I think this effort of hard work and time to maintain the garden project should be something we all use to treat ourselves as individuals. Being healthy and being happy are goals that everyone should strive for. Spending time on the field, watering, harvesting, cleaning, trimming, weeding, lifting and carrying things, and, reanimating ‘dead’ compost bins, with Clara, Dharmik, the other PACT workers and the volunteers showed me that with time, and effort, seemingly difficult goals are achievable as long as you work with others and never give up your goals.

This past summer working with PACT also gave me the opportunity to make new friends and see old friends too! It’s been quite a stressful summer for me as University is right around the corner and to be surrounded by funny, open and interesting people took the edge off for me and really made this summer a summer to remember. The day at John Polanyi’s awesome garden was some of the most fun I’ve had in quite a while! The food was great, the garden was beautiful, and it was great to see the friends I have gained over the past two summers again.

Overall, this summer, although very hot and humid, felt really well spent with PACT. I’ll miss our weird conversations, the volunteers I have met while working (all of whom were very helpful), the John Polanyi group, Laura from Elmbank, Dharmik, and Clara. All of you made my summer special.

Butterfly lands on Echinacea flower -- does anyone know what kind of butterfly this is? Let me know if you do!