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!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

New Eyes on a New Season at Thistletown CI Garden

Barren beds and emerging garlic in April
The start of this season at Thistletown was definitely a chilly one. As the new garden manager of this incredible space, I spent the first couple weeks of April getting a sense of the garden, and writing garden plans while waiting out the snow (remember that wild snowfall back in April?!). It's hard for me to believe that barren garden is the same one that is now, towards the end of June, burgeoning with life and colour!

Growing garlic and staked tomatoes in early June!
The second half of April was spent preparing the garden beds, doing first plantings and beginning to meet the welcoming staff and students at TCI. On sunny and milder days, community members began to stop by, either to welcome me to the garden, tell me about their connection to it, or simply have a garden chat.

By the beginning of May, the garden was beginning to take shape and I had made my first plantings of a variety of mustard greens, leaf lettuce and spinach. There were some solitary days but I soon began to get help from a dedicated community volunteer, as well as a number of TCI students who were taking an interest in getting their community hours in the garden. I was also seeing more and more of Chef Keith Hoare and the Culinary Program's staff and students, who were coming out to the garden in search of early spring perennials like chives, garden sorrel and lovage.

Oh-so-beautiful asparagus!

Garden beds, now prepped with compost

Being new to the garden, I was frequently discovering plants that were making themselves known as the spring progressed. I began to feel more and more excited about what this garden has to offer and appreciative of all the work that has gone into the Thistletown Garden in years' past. The number of perennials at this garden is amazing! -- including the great variety of fruit trees and berry bushes that were recently added to the space.

Apple blossoms
Perennials near the TCI 'riverbed'

"Three Sisters" sign, newly painted
Throughout May, I began to host classes in the garden, for work periods, and workshops including Carbon Cycles for grade 9 Science, Creative Writing in the Garden for grade 10 English, and Sign Painting with grade 9 Visual Arts. Mr. Simnor's grade 9 Science class began to make a weekly appearance in the garden to help with a variety of activities like planting tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, amending garden beds with compost, and of course... weeding! Thanks team!

Growing lettuce and rapini
I was soon making near-daily deliveries of salad and mustard greens to the TCI kitchen, and planning my first donation to the Rexdale Alliance Church foodbank. With the support of Dan, friend of the garden and faculty at the Humber College School of Construction Technology, we will have a bicycle trailer in order to make regular donations to Braeburn Neighbourhood Centre, another garden alley and foodbank in the community.

It been great to see the close connection with the Culinary Program continue throughout the spring. TCI Culinary Arts students participated in Toronto's Mac and Cheese Festival this year, using fresh chives from the garden in their award-winning dish.

The garden has really begun to flourish and show more and more beauty throughout June. We've been having great harvests of  tatsoi, mizuna and tokyo bekana (Asian greens), lettuce greens, southern giant mustard, rapini, radish, kale, chard, spinach, and strawberries, strawberries and more strawberries! On Friday, June 17th, we held our first market stand at the garden. It was amazing to share our work in the garden so far, and make some money which will go towards a new market tent -- helping to keep our produce even fresher on hot summer days!
Oooo check out that shiny spinach! 

The Southern Giant Mustard is spicy and delicious!

The cabbages are growing... watch out

First strawberry harvest!!! With awesome strawberry sign

It's been three months already but it feels like there's so much more to come! Our summer students with the Focus on Youth Toronto (FOYT) program will be starting the first week of July, our weekly market stands are ramping up as harvests increase, and we are starting our 'market bucks' program so community members can get produce in exchange for volunteering in the garden or bringing their home food waste to our compost system. With the garden now established and growing, there's (I hope?!?) time to think about more garden projects like establishing our permanent herb garden, continuing to expand and improve the compost system, and maintaining and strengthening connections to the local community. Here's to summer at Thistletown CI Garden!  

Garden Markets will run from the third Friday in June until the first Friday in October from 12 - 4pm (20 Fordwich Crescent)
*with exceptions of the following weeks, when it will be held on Thursday:
Thursday, June 30
Thursday, July 21
Thursday, August 25

The captivating borage flower :)

Elmbank JMA is Stoked on Salads!

Well, spring has sprung in the PACT Elmbank JMA garden! Wait, let me take that back... SUMMER has sprung, and has sprung with a vengeance! But the relentless heat and lack of rain hasn't kept students at Elmbank from enjoying all the delicious glory of spring greens! And what better way to enjoy the bounty of spring greens than, you guessed it, Salads!!

Colourful, spicy, salad mix from the PACT Garden at Elmbank JMA
But delicious colourful salads have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is in the ground! We got our hands dirty this spring, planting up a storm in the PACT garden at Elmbank JMA.

Elmbank students busy planting!
This year, students at Elmbank planted 'theme gardens' to keep things interesting. Check out Mr.Anderson's class planting the 'Purple Garden!' Purple Mustard and Purple Mizzuna make fantastic additions to any salad; Mustards add the tang, while Mizzuna adds the texture! The 'Salad Garden' is full of tender sweet lettuce to keep our salads cool and crispy, while the 'Pizza Garden' is where we can find zesty, spicy arugula to add some snap to any bowl of greens! Look for edible flowers in the 'Pollinator Garden' to add colour and diversity to your spring salad. 

Students using a 'planting scheme' to plant the purple garden.
No spring salad is complete without one important ingredient - spring radishes of course! Plenty of people think they don't like these crispy, spicy, pink, white, red, or purple, globed beauties. But I use the word 'think' here strategically, because until you've tasted that perfect spring radish, freshly pulled from the Earth, you haven't TRULY been enlightened to all that radishes can be! Just ask the Kindergartners at Elmbank! They are the radish's BIGGEST fans!

An Elmbank JMA Kindergarten class get's ready to chop and mix up their salad post harvest!

As spring gives way to summer; tender greens go to seed, and summer hot crops begin to set fruit; I am looking forward to staying connected to families at Elmbank through our weekly community markets, and hosting volunteers! 

Come get your veg and explore the garden Wednesdays from 2-5pm starting June 29! If you'd like to volunteer to earn 'garden bucks' that can be used to purchase vegetables at the weekly market, please contact Laura Bennett at, or call 416-655-8002. 

That's all for now from Elmbank JMA! 
Stay tuned for more updates, or better yet, come on out and grow with us! 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Growing to Give


Thank you so much everyone for all of your support throughout this 2015 growing season! We are immensely proud of the many outstanding successes we’ve had experienced this year, both large and small.  It has been a fantastic season and truly a momentous leap forward for the Thistletown Schoolyard Garden Program.  We would like to express our many thanks to all of our supporters, for we could never have achieved so much without your tremendous efforts.
The Thistletown Collegiate schoolyard garden program is CLOSED for the 2015 season.  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us at Stay tuned for more news and updates in Spring 2016!
If you haven’t had a chance yet, but would like to get involved, make volunteering next season your goal! All are welcome to visit and/or help out in the garden.  Volunteering with PACT Grow to Learn provides a great opportunity to be part of a team of dedicated and passionate people. Youth are encouraged to earn community service hours by helping out in the garden. Support a great cause, have fun, meet new people, and gain new skills and knowledge! The Thistletown Collegiate schoolyard garden program operates for drop-in volunteering every weekday. No prior experience needed!  Contact the Project Coordinator of the PACT Grow to Learn Schoolyard Garden Program, at We’d love to hear from you!
For the latest news and to see what’s growing in the Thistletown garden, be sure to check out our Grow to Learn blog and Facebook page.  See below for some highlights of the 2015 season.
As a result of the expansion at the Thistletown Collegiate Schoolyard Garden this season, we were able to increase harvest yields and had the great pleasure several times each week to donate a wide range of organic, local food to neighbours in need with the help of several grassroots organizations committed to social justice and food security in our community.
With more growing space and increased harvest yields this season, we were also able to implement a weekly vegetable stand onsite at the TCI Schoolyard Garden to allow our school community and local neighbours even greater access to the freshest and healthiest produce.  As always, our produce was grown without any synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, using only natural gardening techniques such as composting, companion planting, and crop rotation.  
We invited everyone to come out and enjoy shopping for organic fruits and vegetables at our garden market stall from 12 noon until 4 p.m. every Friday, with fantastic success thanks to our many supporters.  We are looking forward to another great season of onsite garden markets for 2016!
Our market stand supplied a range of widely familiar products such as lettuce salad mixes, red and green cabbage, beets, carrots, tomatoes, radishes and peas, as well as some less common items like salad turnips, collard greens, garden sorrel, and an incredibly diverse suite of culinary herbs.  We were also able to provide unique feature vegetables to ignite the imagination of those creatively inspired in the culinary arts, such as purple string beans, purple peppers, parsnips, and kohlrabi. 
All proceeds from the garden market stall helped support the maintenance and growth of the garden, and ensure that we can continue to provide fresh and healthful produce to those in need and opportunities for youth to get active and involved in growing and community building.  A big thanks to all of our supporters who have helped make the garden market stall so successful this season, and a special thank you goes out to award winning TCI instructor Keith Hoare and his culinary arts students for their much-appreciated support!
We were happy to share our market stand with the Thistletown High School Chefs as part of their fundraising campaign to support their March Break 2017 culinary edu-travel trip to Italy.  The Thistletown High School Chefs marketed incredibly flavourful jams, which were produced using some of the excellent harvests of rhubarb and raspberries from the schoolyard garden, as well as other prepared foods including the Chefs’ famous salsas. 
Cabbage harvests at Thistletown CI schoolyard garden were superbly plentiful this season, and in addition to providing cabbages through food banks and garden market, we turned some of our cabbages into delicious sauerkraut by teaming up with the Lakeshore CI schoolyard garden. 
The garden expansion also encouraged more consistent and extensive support from students, teachers, staff, neighbours, and local grassroots organizations.
Curriculum-linked workshops, work bees, and educational tours were provided throughout the season this year to a wide variety of classes and student groups and clubs including: the Eco Club, special education programs, ESL and Adult ESL, Fine Arts, Culinary Arts, Biology, Nutrition, Physical Education, Mathematics, and Physics.
In addition, students in Fine Arts courses undertook many special projects, such as the creation of permanent educational signs and garden market promotional signs.
The TCI schoolyard garden project also participated in a post-doctoral research project initiated by Dr. Levkoe on the alternative food movement, supported Eco Schools in the production of a short promotional video filmed in part at the schoolyard garden, collaborated with faculty at the Humber College School of Construction Technology in the original design and build of a bicycle trailer for future use in transporting vegetables to local food banks.
Community volunteers and partner organizations also played a great role in the successes of this year.  The Rexdale Alliance Church provided a rich partnership throughout the summer, and offered support on workday activities such as fruit tree planting. Youth participants in after-school and summer programs from the Griffen Centre, the Boys and Girls Club, and Braeburn Neighbourhood Place provided great help out on various workdays this season.  The Rexdale Community Health Network helped support and promote our programming at the Rexdale Foodie Festival, as did the Rexdale Community Garden Network and the Etobicoke Master Gardeners at their Jour Vert summer event. 
In addition to the amazing help provided by both community and student volunteers, 6 high school students supported by the Focus on Youth Toronto (FOYT) program administered by the Toronto District School Board provided immense support for the production of some fantastic fruits and vegetables, and incredible progress on the recently expanded garden space at TCI throughout this season.  The 4 full-time and 2 part-time student participants worked with passion and determination to ensure the fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the garden were both plentiful and of the highest quality.  We have also been lucky to host FOYT student participants from our other schoolyard gardens at Lakeshore CI, West Humber CI, and Elmbank Junior and Middle – thanks so much for all of your assistance everyone! 
Through employment in the schoolyard garden program, FOYT students had the opportunity to develop job and life skills, grow into more informed and responsible community members, and become active and engaged in community-based actions to address food insecurity and patterns of environmental degradation. It has been a great pleasure to offer local youth the chance to access such a meaningful summer employment experience, and, as described below by one of our FOYT students, a work environment that supports a ‘calm and happy feeling’.
The feeling anyone would get even at night time when looking at the sky and the garden is a very calming, happy feeling, like there is constant new growth and that things flourish.

There are many things that anyone could learn from being in or participating in our garden. I learned a few things so far, most of them not about gardening but about responsibility and efficiency. In our garden everyone has their own patch that has to be looked after and maintained. We will help each other at times but we have to make sure that no tasks fall behind. We also get better at prioritizing but since we do not know everything about everything in the garden we rely on the knowledgeable Ben to help guide us and give us a better clue of anything gardening related. The sun position at any point of the day, the kind of crop that goes after another is harvested, that there are specific days of the week that are better for harvesting, planting, maintenance, or other things. I also now have a better idea of all the people, businesses, and products that are involved in just a simple thing such as gardening.

Gardening is important because it is by some considered an art because it requires patience, care and effort. Also it is nice to see plants grow because of something that you did, get exercise, and be in outside air.

Many people find themselves thinking about their lives while gardening because it is very calming. In our garden it is the same thing except you are gardening with people that you would not normally work with at home and what time to start and what time to end at is more a set time than at home. Also what we do with the greens that we harvest is different at the garden from what everyone does with their greens at their house. But gardening is very important because even the most basic humans were foraging for food to have one of the most basic necessities, which was to eat.

Gardening teaches people life skills of the land.

– Helene, Focus on Youth Toronto student employee and Thistletown Collegiate Institute student.

Thank you to Boadway Farms in Mount Albert for a very generous straw donation this season.  With more straw bales available, we have been able to setup more compost bins and improve our onsite production of compost using waste organic materials from the garden, kitchen waste from the Thistletown culinary arts program, and organic yard waste donated by community neighbours.
We would also like to extend a special thank you to Spade and Feather for generous donations of organic manure, which was added into our hot compost piles, and their special Manure Tea product – an incredible elixir and nutrient boost for garden vegetables.
Heritage Tree Care made generous donations of tree stumps and wood chips this season.  Thank you!  Those donations made possible the construction of our new raised-bed five senses garden, outdoor classroom, Hugel Kultur beds, and pollinator and rain garden beds.
We thank Richter’s Herbs for donating a variety of beautiful plants.  With their support, we were able to create an herb spiral in the outdoor classroom with a variety of culinary and medicinal herbs such as tricolour sage and Echinacea.
Thanks go out to Orchard People for supplying the Thistletown Schoolyard Garden with an Eastern Blue Bird nest box.  The nest box, previously used in a long-range research project on Eastern Blue Birds, was installed this season to welcome native bird species as part of a broader integrated pest management strategy.

The TCI garden was also the recipient of a variety of generous donations by various other local community members.  A very special thank you goes out to Sophie Brown for her unbelievable support and contributions to the success of the schoolyard garden, (a list too long to detail, but…) including a generous donation of humming bird feeders.  We look forward to the opportunity to inspire students with an appreciation of these beautiful creatures. Thank you, thank you, thank you!  We cannot thank you enough.

Check out the exciting new projects we have planned for 2016!!!

1) establishment/improvement of a hedgerow of native flower species to support native beneficial insects and improve aesthetics or curb appeal along the perimeter of the garden

2) create a permanent herb garden

3) expand on site capacity for compost system to improve local waste diversion

4) establish more permanent flower beds to improve aesthetic appeal

5) improve infrastructure for garden tours, including more interpretive signage

6) encourage use of garden as event space for creative arts such as musical performances or visual art showings, and catered fundraising events via collaborations with Thistletown CI culinary arts program

7)   offer 'market dollars' redeemable at weekly on site market in exchange for community volunteer contributions

8) improve growing outcomes by expanding use of caterpillar tunnels/row cover equipment 

9) improve facilities for harvest processing by collaborating with Humber College Construction Tech program to design/build outdoor kitchen furniture for  washing, drying and storing, and packing for deliveries 

10) build interest in advanced horticulture practice; develop a competition for best vegetable (e.g. best pumpkin)