Monday, 4 September 2017

Elmbank Grow-to-Learn Program 2017

Hi all! Wow, this summer just flew by. I'm Kaila, the full time garden manager at Elmbank Junior Middle Academy. I want to come right out and say I am an amateur gardener, this year will be my first full grow season. I've learned A LOT in the last 4 months from Elmbank co-manager, Clara, and Liane from TCI, as well as all others from the Grow-to-Learn program.

Leaving the garden after planting our Kale and Radish beds, this past May
When I first walked into Elmbank garden in May, I was overwhelmed by the size (though Elmbank is smallest garden within the program) of the garden, and the idea that I had to weed all 29 beds in preparation for summer. But, with Clara's guidance and support, as well as the help of some keen students at Elmbank, we got through it.

 Figuring out the garden set up for the grow season was a bit of a puzzle for me at the beginning, but lucky I had the set up from the previous year to assist in effectively rotating the crops. I had many the suggestion from the junior students on what to plant (mainly watermelon), though they took great interest in the cherry tree and apple tree. Unfortunately, though, as all six of our fruit tree are very young, there wasn't much fruit and the fruit that did ripen got eaten by birds before we got to them (much to my students' disappointment). That didn't stop their continued interest in running into the garden, wide eyed and ready to dig up worms. They loved to gaze at caterpillars which ate my dill, fascinated by the idea that they would turn into butterflies.

Though markets here at Elmbank do not draw in the crowds like TCI and Polanyi, we have our regulars who come every week for our tomatoes, kale, beets, carrots, among so much more. The garden harvest weight is quickly approaching 400lbs as of last week. While all of it doesn't get sold, the local food bank is always happy to see me walk in with fresh veggies from the garden. It's very rewarding to see such big smiles from the community when they see me come to donate.
Our first garden Market, Elmbank students were excited to see what the garden can do
Community members proudly displaying our produce from last week
I do have some regrets, though I'm quite proud of the garden (weeds and all). Seeing the enthusiasm the community has for our tomatoes and eggplants, I could have planted more beds with them. We've also been having trouble with powdery mildew which has attacked all our squash plants (it will be a sad day when I have to tell the students that our cantaloupes dying), and the wind wasn't too kind to our brand new tent :(

All in all, this summer has been quite productive

Monday, 28 August 2017

Reflections at Thistletown

Our Focus on Youth summer students working hard
to weed the strawberry bed.
We're coming to the end of August now and there's more talk about back-to-school and things in the garden are more focused on the end of the season. The past couple of weeks there has been more monarchs fluttering around and the produce available has been changing - we really won't be planting much more than greens and maybe some radish now at this point. Our final crop of carrots and beets were planted at the end of the July with an anticipated harvest beginning in mid September. Tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, string beans and sweet peppers are all happily producing lots of delicious veggies now and contributing to the 1500+ pounds of produce that have come out of the garden so far. Still, there are some new things that we're expecting before the garden season ends: apples, potatoes, corn, leek, turnips, squash, rapini, kohlrabi, red meat/rainbow radish, and okra. My timing could have been a bit better as these will only be coming in September - oh well, something to remember for next year! Other things, like our peas, strawberries, currants, and cabbage are all done for the season now. Although, our cabbage will be coming out again in the form of delicious sauerkraut! I still haven't managed to successfully grow spinach this year and am hopeful that I will have some before the end of the year.

Our first cabbage harvest!

One of the bigger projects we worked on this summer: creating an area to act as our perennial herb garden.

Beautiful colours at our market table!
Hard to believe that at this point, the focus in the garden really has switched from actively planting and managing for harvest to planning for the end of the year. In the past couple of weeks, the cabbage beds were weeded, compost added, and now we have a cover crop of buckwheat and clover growing there with the intention that they will help fix the nutrients in the soil for next year's crops. As crops come to the end of their life in the garden, the next task will be preparing everything for the winter - weeding, laying down compost, cover crops where needed and if time allows, and mulching the beds with straw to protect them through the winter. This is also when we will begin working our compost piles - we're moving our compost bins (slightly) and will be flipping the compost piles and removing the nutrient-dense soil that has formed throughout the season and adding this to our veggie beds.

I also find this to be a good time for reflection - what worked, what did not, what did I do right, and what could I do better/differently are just some of the questions I start asking myself. This is all made easier because it's so quiet now that our summer students are gone! I can't express how grateful I am for all of their help and everything they taught me throughout their six weeks in the garden. One the side of things we did right: we have had a lot more people participating in our community compost exchange, where community member exchange their food scraps in exchange for market bucks to use at our Friday markets. And on the side of where we can improve: We've got to grow more carrots next year and plant our okra sooner!

On that note, the below are reflections on the season from three of our four Focus on Youth students:

Yared working hard to weed 
After working for more than 4 weeks, the TCI Garden has been an outstanding experience! I really like how there are certain unique vegetables, even I am not familiar with, until now. Examples include, Arugula, Mustard Green, etc. I also like certain tasks in the garden, mostly stuff like weeding, specifically in the shade, painting signs, changing the main sign for market days, and staying in the market, in general. There are also types of fruits I enjoy at the garden. Mostly it's the strawberries, but due to spring being over, I already miss eating the organic flavour. Although, currants are pretty cool as well, despite it's sour taste. Overall, the TCI garden has been really fun and I am going to miss working there. Thank you to the PACT TCI Garden Managers Liane & Clara, and a HUGE thank you to the FOYT for the job!  - Yared 

Sakariye showing off our first bean harvest
Working at the garden was an exciting new experience for me, especially as my first job. I learned how to weed, take care of plants, and harvest a variety of fruits and vegetables.  All while understanding the hard work and effort that farmers do to bring food to stores. Nevertheless, my first task at the garden was weeding. Although disliked by most people, weeding was pretty easy as soon as I learned how to get past the thorns and grab straight to the roots, which cause weeding to be a fast and easy job. Nonetheless, the feeling of completion always created enough content for me to continue to my next task with vigour. In regard to my working preferences, the job I always liked to do when working was selling produce during our weekly market. This was because the market provided a means for me to interact with members of our community and allowed me to see all the produce I worked hard to bear get sold. Due to this and the friendly environment I have while working, I can say, without a doubt, that the garden will continue to be a great place to work for the rest of my time. -Sakariye

This summer has been unlike any. Working at the TCI garden almost doesn’t feel like work. It’s something very special and intimate. I have always yearned to spend more time in nature. The TCI garden has fulfilled that need of mine. I always find it fascinating when I spot a beautiful butterfly or a cool beetle. Learning where the food we eat comes from and how it grows is a must know! Grocery stores have created this disconnect that does not allow us to truly connect with our food and appreciate it. Planting, maintaining, and harvesting vegetables has made me less wasteful and made me appreciate food even more. 
Our carrot harvesting expert! 
I have learned so much during my time at the garden. I learned about the very crucial process of weeding, tomato pruning, constructing a vegetable bed, marketing, crucial social skills, and much more! I learned how to better connect with people thanks to market days. During market days, I would wave at passing cars or people walking by as I was eager to start a conversation with them. Working at the garden also brought out my inner artist! I worked on a few sign posts and some signs. In my opinion, my art was somewhat beautiful. 
I am so thankful to be working at the TCI garden, with such great colleagues. I have learned so much from the garden managers and my fellow co-workers. I have shared many great conversations. I have encountered many beautiful moments. I would like to thank PACT, my co-workers, and the TDSB for making my summer such a memorable one!   - Vedarth

Some of this year's garlic. We are selling most heads at our Friday market
and the biggest/best heads of garlic will separated into their cloves
 be planted to produce more garlic heads for next year. 
These students worked so hard this summer and they have my deepest thanks for all their amazing effort to help manage the garden. I will leave things on that note for now! I have to get back to planning on how things will progress over the next few weeks as things wind down although there is one thing I am really looking forward to: planting the garlic for next year!

Next month, I will try to provide an update in photos of how the season progressed from start to finish.

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!