Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Upper Canada College Prep School Gets Back to the Garden

Web site editor's introduction:
On a family visit to Toronto last fall, my wife Joan, my old friend David Fairlie and I took a stroll through the gates of UCC to visit the Prep. There, front and centre on display at the entrance to the venerable old school, was a thriving food garden full of children taking part in an exemplary model of urban agriculture education.

45 years ago, as ten year olds, Dave and I had met at that same entrance and walked up those steps as "new boys". Much of our education took place at UCC. What was so thrilling to me, returning as an adult, was seeing my school now promoting a subject that I have made my business for the past 28 years - the growing of food in cities.

I was thrilled to see youngsters rushing outside to taste food they grew themselves and setting up sketch pads to do their art lessons amongst the plants. The location is the same as in my day, but the landscape is now edible and the garden is part of the school curriculum. I also noted the passage of time when I saw buildings named after my teachers, whose faces and voices are still clear in my mind.

On parting, garden instructor Lori Burnison told me how happy she was to meet an "old boy" who had made his career as an environmentalist.

Michael Levenston
City Farmer Society
Vancouver BC

Upper Canada College Prep School Gets Back to the Garden

By Julie Johnston
Coordinator, Environment and Sustainability Programs
Upper Canada College, Toronto
Update: March 2009
Julie is presently on Pender Island.
GreenHeart Education
Pender Island, BC, Canada
GreenHeart Education - The Value of School Gardens

Picture this. It's a beautiful September day. One of those autumn days that shouts, "Bring the kids outside to learn!" The school's courtyard is a hive of activity and excitement. The youngest students are getting a tour of the learning garden from their grade six tour guides. An art class settles in for a peaceful hour of sketching. And some grade 5 boys are collecting mint and lemon balm leaves from the "scratch and sniff" bed to make tea bags to share with parents and other visitors. Everyone enjoys an alpine strawberry, a ground cherry or a tiny tomato. Shouts of discovery (Look, a cucumber! a squash! purple beans! some carrots!) fill the air. This is their garden, and these Upper Canada College students love it.

Upper Canada College is a day and boarding school for 1400 boys from kindergarten to grade 12. Founded in 1829 and situated on a 43-acre campus in the heart of Toronto, it is the oldest independent school in Ontario. The learning garden is just one project - certainly the most joy-giving one to date - in UCC's Green School for the 21st Century initiative. First born in 2002 as the legacy of retiring principal, J. Douglas Blakey, the Green School is a three-pronged approach to school greening: facilities and operation; curriculum and professional development; and organizational behaviour. All stakeholders (students, faculty, staff, families, alumni and donors, suppliers, food services) are involved in some way, from green purchasing policies to student and parent Green Teams. Transformation and change require everyone's commitment, input and actions.

PHOTO: Lori Burnison, Gardener (left). Nina Gouveia, Food Services (right). School grown veggis and dips for students to sample. Lori

The Learning Garden began, after a three-stage approval process, with a butterfly garden in 2003, a project with grade 5 science classes. The school's gardeners designed the garden but student groups each had a plot and had to choose between two different plants by researching which of the two was better for attracting butterflies and other beneficial insects, presenting their rationale for the choices they made.

In 2004, the butterfly weed (one of the chosen plants) was covered in monarch butterflies and their larvae. In 2005, birdfeeders were added to the garden and fewer butterflies showed up. Was there a lesson here? Were they positioned too close to the garden? (Or, even sadder, was it a bad year for the already endangered monarchs?)

Before the vegetable garden came inspiration. Lori Burnison, one of the school's gardeners, got inspired by attending a workshop in the community/school garden at Winchester School in Toronto, and by visiting Everdale Environmental Learning Centre north of the city for their workshop on Starting a Vegetable Garden. Our Learning Garden was born in March 2005. Lori is grateful to the Everdale folks who helped with the visioning and garden design process and who worked with students in the garden.

A small group of grade 5 boys studied organic farming as part of their year-end project, so they helped grow seedlings and planted them in the garden, later showing them off during a presentation and tours for parents.

The Green Club helped build the garden (about a foot of topsoil was added) and then planted, seeded, weeded and harvested. During a work day at the end of May, they got everything planted in one hour!

In June, the kindergarten class harvested radishes, sampled pea leaves (kids love pea leaves), and planted tomatoes. Romaine and red leaf lettuces were harvested before the end of school and served up in the cafeteria. Carrots and strawberries were mulched.

A lot happened over the summer that the students didn't get to see (though next summer, as a fundraiser, we hope to auction off the privilege of adopting and tending the garden for a week to 8 or 10 lucky families).

Lori picked and donated fresh produce to The Stop Community Centre. (The Stop has a large kitchen and offers several food programs, so food donations go to cooking classes and courses in nutrition for new moms; what's left goes to their food bank.) The grade 9 Horizons (summer school) science class held a harvest and healthy snack workshop in the garden.

In August, hordes of summer daycampers and their parents caused some problems with trampling and over sampling, but the strawberries and beans were hits. Lori seeded kale (to replace the peas) and purple beans and spinach, and hauled still more produce to the community centre.

In September, the garden was a welcome back surprise for staff and students, who were met with towering sunflowers, ripening cherry tomatoes, and sweet alpine strawberries - the favourite of the whole school - underscoring the idea of the garden as purveyor of nature's gifts.

The main goal for the Learning Garden is reconnecting young people with where their food comes from, and highlighting the idea of food security (though we don't call it that with the kids). It's also a great place to learn about sharing ("only one gift per visit to the garden). Let's hear it for abundance!

In the fall term, the garden became the site of tours for students, faculty and parents by last year's student gardeners, nutrition workshops for the grade 5 classes, and sketching and painting that led to a magnificent K-7 exhibit of garden art. The kindergartners planted tulip bulbs, the Green Club dug potatoes, produced organic mint and lemon balm tea bags for homecoming weekend, and took part in a seed saving workshop. Salsa was made with tomatillos from the garden and served during a Mexican theme day in the dining hall.

During the fall, 50 pounds of organic produce (potatoes, carrots and beets), worth about $200 at market prices, was donated to the food bank. We wondered how to help the students grasp the total donation of 200 pounds of vegetables. How many meals was that? How many dollars' worth? How many kids in weight?

In October, the grade 6 classes took the pepper plants inside and put the garden to bed for the winter. This turned into an ecological experiment, as some plants were left standing, everything else was cut down, and then some sections were mulched with leaves while the tomato and root vegetable sections were planted with winter rye as a cover crop. In the spring, students will do some soil testing.

The enthusiasm of teachers grew and blossomed throughout the fall. Isn't it interesting that a school community's excitement piques as its garden begins its season of rest!

Plans for the garden include a poetry trail, permanent signage and experiments with raised planters. Also in the works is a professional development workshop full of tips and tricks for taking students into the garden, as well as packaged "garden lessons" on sensory awareness in the scratch and sniff herb patch, First Nations stories for the traditional Huron "Three Sisters Garden," and activities for under the nearby gingko tree.

"I appreciate that it's tough for teachers to take kids outside," says Lori, the garden's godmother, "but the rewards are worth it."

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Revised March 22, 2009

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture