Tuesday, 17 May 2016

School Garden Initiatives in Montreal: Between Successes and Not-Quite-Successes

Author: Morganne Blais-McPherson

If you have kids in an urban school or if you’re teaching in one, you’ve probably heard the words “school garden” or “community garden” at least once. It seems that more and more, parents and teachers are seeing today’s young generation as one that is increasingly disconnected with nature. We even have a fancy new term for this phenomenon – “nature deficit disorder”.

This week, I interviewed two teachers on their own school garden initiatives. One is a tale of (mostly) successes, the other a tale of (mostly) not-quite-successes.

I decided to do these interviews because my mother has long lamented the fact that her desires for a successful community/school garden were largely unfulfilled.  [Okay, she’s the one presenting us with the tale of (mostly) not-quite-successes.] But the thing is, despite my mother’s pessimism, these projects aren’t always not-quite-successes! In fact, Montreal has plenty of examples of successful school initiatives.

Like my mother, I’m over-ambitious, and my dreams of one day having a conference for Montreal teachers interested in school gardens will probably not come to life anytime soon. Because wouldn’t it be great if teachers could share their ideas and experiences? Instead, I present to you sections from two interviews of teachers who have never met each other.

What do you gather from these interviews? What do you see as decisions that led to success? Do you recognize any of these challenges in your own garden initiatives? What do you do to address these problems? I invite anyone to comment on this post with your own experiences!

But first, a little bit of background.

Franzi currently teaches grade 1 at Westmount Park. Franzi graduated with a BEd from McGill in 2010, after which she spent 18 months teaching kindergarten ESL in Korea.
She has been teaching everything from Physical Education to homeroom in Quebec since 2012. She is now acting as a consultant for the school garden at Royal Vale, where she used to teach.

Heather currently teaches grade 10 and 11 sciences at Laval Senior Academy (formerly Laval Liberty High School, formerly Western Laval High School, formerly Chomedey High School). Heather has been teaching science since 1990. After teaching in Winnipeg for a year, she moved to Quebec and started teaching at Lindsay Place. She then worked at Laurentian Regional for five years before finally ending up in her current position. Heather completed her Bachelors at the University of Winnipeg with a double major in Environmental Sciences and Biology. She then continued onto a Master’s in Agriculture in plant  breeding and plant genetics at the University of Manitoba, after which she did her BEd at the University of Manitoba. She is currently working on her PhD at McGill in Science Education while teaching full-time.

Students Creating Community Garden, April 2011

Community Garden


Why did you get involved in this project?

Okay, so, I’m clearly the hippie on any staff. I was having a meet-the-teacher night in September 2012, and some parents came up to me afterwards and said, “You might be the person we’ve been looking for! A handful of us have had this dream of having a school garden, but we haven’t had anyone who has been willing or able to execute it”.

We started organizing meetings and we’d invite staff members – who did not come – and parents of the community. Then we’d try to come up with a plan. For example, “What’s our goal for this year?” If we want to have a garden, what do we need to do? Is there a school that we can look to? And we looked to Saint Monica on Terrebonne in NDG. Santa Monica had a partnership with Action Communautaire. So, I got into contact with them, and we had a meeting with Lauren Pochereva. She told me, “You’re going to need grants, you’re going to need fundraising, this is when you should start planting, you’re going to need to buy compost and soil…” She was a really great guide, and I met with her quite a bit.

Once we started the fundraising, we saw how challenging it could be, and so we started applying for grants to get larger sums of money. We delegated the grant writing amongst the parents and I would verify and check off on everything as the school representative. Our principal was 100% behind us, the only issue was whether the soil had heavy metals or toxins. So, we had to get the soil tested and it came back clean, although completely nutrient deficient.

However, to have a garden that the kids were involved with, we had to sprout. We couldn’t just plant plants. We wanted the kids to see it from the beginning to end, the whole process. So what we did was to ask Lauren to help us build a growth station, which came with Aztec domes, lights, timer, everything.

At that point, there were no teachers onboard yet. There were teachers who were interested, but no teacher who wanted to commit. Both years, it was essentially me and the parents. However, when it came to planting, it was only me, because the parents couldn’t be in the building. So I came up with a schedule, and from March until June, I gave up all my spares and told teachers that they could sign up and send students during those times. I’d have six to eight students at a time and I would plant with them and then they’d go back to class.

How easy was it to get students involved? Was it easier because they were elementary kids?

Well, I also worked with high school students because Royal Vale is a high school and elementary school. But yes, definitely, the thing is with little kids, they’re super pumped when there’s a special project. But the high school kids at Royal Vale are really good - I use them more for muscles. They built the composter and the beds. They turned the soil when it was time to add compost. When it came to removing the grass from the soccer field, they did it. I did do some planting with them too, but I think they liked being outside using their bodies more… What they enjoyed was being outside, working in the dirt.. They just had fun together.

How did you reach out to the high school students?

There is a science teacher who I got along with quite well, and he was determined to revive this environmental club that was there in name but not in spirit or in physical reality. So, he had kids sign up and whenever I needed his help, I asked him if he could free up any students to help outside. And he would talk to their teachers and get them released from their class... The revival of the environmental club was essentially helping in the garden.

What were the goals of the project?

Our main goal was to have food in the cafeteria, but it’s insane how big the garden has to be for that to be viable. What we did do with the produce is that the families who were signed up would take the food home. In the spring, the first thing we would do was mesclun, radishes, and sometimes cherry tomatoes. And those we would eat in class. We even had a parent donate flatware and glasses.

Then in the fall, they had a really great idea to keep the momentum going. They had garden tours. The parent volunteers would come and invite classes to do a tour of the garden, letting them take a little baggy of food home. They were able to take tomatoes, kale, carrots, beets, beans - things that were easy to pick. The kids loved it.

But if you go on our website (http://rvsgarden.technominds.com/), you can see our goals and the pillars of sustainable living that these parents wanted to have reinforced at the school. They’re very concerned with “nature deficit disorder”. Their kids were not getting enough time outside, they didn’t know where food came from, nor did their kids have any interest in that. That was also my point. I hated the fact that my students, even in Korea, were drawing strawberries in trees… like, what are you doing?!? Strawberries don’t grow on trees! Even yesterday, I caught my kids talking about blueberry trees. So in that sense, it was really good and it definitely had a huge impact on them.

When you were working on the garden, were you able to bring in concepts of sustainability?

Well, I teach elementary school and there’s only so much time I get with them to plant. It was really at the planting parties that we would talk about the purpose of the garden, bringing the community together, eating better, knowing where food comes from, why we’re planting organic. But unfortunately, it’s only a fraction of the student body that is getting this information.

And you did all of this while teaching a full-course load?

Yeah, I was teaching and then in my spares I would be planting. And once the planting was done, there would be a little lull and then we would transplant. So as soon as things got big enough to move, we started saving our “berlingots de lait” and we transplanted all the seedlings (and I kept them all in my class – all my windowsills, tables were covered in plants). And the kids loved it. It was a lot of work but I was passionate about it, and now they’re continuing it. The parents wanted to continue it and there are three teachers who really want it to succeed. And there’s so much money in the ground right now that they need it to succeed. The problem is that they don’t necessarily have the knowledge of how plants grow, when to seed, what to seed, when to transplant, how to water.. So it’s been a bit more challenging and I’ve met with them twice so far to help them and to explain how things work. But they’re definitely reducing the scale of the garden this year.. or the garden has the same square footage but the diversity is less varied because they were a bit overwhelmed when they realized how much time it took.

It seems that the parents are really involved. What are the parents’ tasks?

So there’s a core group of parents, the parents who first approached me. They did things like help write grants, they helped find places in the community where we got prizes, they came to meetings, they helped me think it out, they went to buy things like wheelbarrows because I don’t have a car. They promoted it. One of the dads was the one who made the website. He made the online garden schedule.

During the summer, it wasn’t necessarily that core group. There were other families helping out too, those who had come to the planting party. And there would be problems sometimes. For example, people couldn’t find the water key or the water hose would get run over by the lawnmower. But generally, it worked all summer. We never had a whole crop fail because it didn’t get enough water.

Franzi in the garden

And your knowledge about gardening, was it from Lauren or was it previous knowledge?

In terms of how to make a school garden, the people to call, the things to buy, Lauren helped a lot. But when it came to knowing about planting, it was really from my childhood. I grew up on a farm, I always gardened, and so it’s a matter of being in touch with my roots more than anything. Because the people who are in charge now do not have that. They have never sown anything in their life. Knowledge is a big challenge. People get really nervous – they don’t want to kill things. They don’t know how to water, if they’re overwatering, under-watering, they don’t know what signs to look for, if a plant is thirsty or if a plant is drowning.. Also, I think there’s just a lack of knowledge in the variety that you can have. And the planting season – what comes first. What do the leaves look like? It’s very different. And I think they can learn it, but it’s hard to teach kids when you don’t know yourself. So I’m curious as to how that’s going.

Are there any books?

For sure there’s literature! Lauren had books that she offered and I didn’t take them because it was our first year and I felt that I was getting enough information just from her. And that’s the thing - there are people in the community who do know. I’m not quite sure why they’re not reaching out this year, because she was my lifeline. Plants get sick! This last year, a bunch of my tomatoes got some sort of weird blight and she’s the first person I sent my photos to. She came and got a sample and brought the sample to a lab. So there are those resources. They cost money, but I think it’s worth it. It definitely makes things more successful. Maybe it’s a pride issue or a time issue or a monetary issue, but you need to have experts.

But there are grants out there! I feel like a lot of teachers aren’t aware of how much money is accessible to them...

Yeah, we have no idea. This is what especially Royal Vale needs to get on top of. You’ll always have to buy compost, you’ll always have to buy seeds. And it’s going to cost money. Our budget for the first year was 12,000$, and that’s a lot of money. But just the soil test cost 400$. I think principals need to be aware of what money is available.

About costs – did you have any problems with theft?

That happened at Saint Monica, but we didn’t have anything particularly valuable. They planted things that are more expensive like raspberry canes, trees, etc. And I’m pretty sure they had theft of raspberry canes.

Our school is also a little bit less accessible. Saint Monica’s is right on the street. Ours is enclosed on three sides with a fence, not because we put the fence there but because the plot is beside soccer fields. Our garden is off to the side and is all fenced in. We put a lock on the main fence because dog walkers were going in and using it as a dog run. And we’ve had people break the lock, we had people cut holes in the fence to get inside.. We had a situation where an ambulance got called because a guy put his dog over the fence and the leash got stuck or something and then he got caught on the fence… I don’t know. Ridiculous.

The only thievery we really had were squirrels who ate everything. So squirrels were our biggest enemy. We definitely had people breaking glass near the garden, which was dangerous. And the high school students built two strawberry bins out of cedar and we had people stack them for no reason so that we couldn’t use them. Or people taking lids off our composter for no reason..

What are some of the key successes?

First of all, that anything grew. We had certain things that were very productive – tomatoes, eggplant, beans, carrots, and peas. In all, we probably had a third of the school involved directly in planting, transplanting, working in the garden once it was outside. The second year, our party was even bigger, so it was obviously being spoken about.

Our other successes – we got third place in the Jack Layton Sustainability Award. We got a partnership grant with Earthsown, and they gave us a ton of money and sent us a consultant to help us build a shed. We definitely got a lot of recognition - our class made the paper in NDG.

Also, the fact that the schoolboard was going to destroy the garden to build a parking lot. I got wind of this, and I was like “Mhm mhm, no”. My principal kept her ear on the ground and when she heard that they were going to come propose this parking lot to the governing board, she told me, “You gotta be there”. And so I was there with a bunch of parents. Even ladies with fake nails were saying, “I don’t garden, but this is b**ls**t”. And you know why they wanted to build the parking lot? Because when these people would come to meetings, they would park on the street and get parking tickets. I said, “You know what’s funny? A week ago, the school board–changed to remain anonymous of the school–gave us a green grant of 1500$ and now you want to pave the garden?” They then told us that they would just move it over and build us a new greenhouse. I asked them, “With what money? And sorry, you’re going to build it? So all the work that the children did, you’re going to destroy it. And then you are going to build it for the kids and teach them what? That what they did wasn’t good enough? But that don’t worry, Big Daddy is going to build it for you? That money can solve everything?” The parents were clapping. It was a good moment – I was shaking in my boots though. Anyway, the project got cancelled.

What do you think was successful from an educational standpoint?

Well, it depends. I wasn’t teaching math by doing this. I was teaching about living things. Lifecycles, healthy eating... I don’t know - for me, it’s a life skill. Learning how to be patient, waiting for things to grow, how to take care of living things. And these are actually in the curriculum. As well, there are just larger aspects - cross-curricular competencies. Things like working together.

Even for ERC, I always do a couple weeks of environmental ethics. And my kids, man, they’re like little soldiers. They told me yesterday, “I told my dad to stop driving his car and it worked!” And that’s cool. When we went out in the park yesterday to do our Earth Day litter pick up, I had kids who refused to put one orange peel in the garbage because “orange peels go in the compost!” Woah, okay guys, I’ll bring it inside… One orange peel… And you know, they’re arguing, “Stop picking up the rocks! That’s part of nature! Stop picking up the sticks! That’s part of nature”.


Why did you get involved in this project?

Well, it wasn’t really my idea in the first place. There’s another person at our school who is really into student involvement. He had the idea and asked if I could help. I said yes, and then… it became my project. It was that fast. So, because I have a Master’s degree in agriculture, it became my community garden.

What do you mean by “your” community garden?

I mean, no one else helped on it, it was mine. We did get a lot of students building the garden. We had a volunteer day where we had around 20 students setting up the structure for the garden. We had students planting the edibles that went into the garden. So, the first year, we had students involved until mid-summer. The second year we had half the number of students helping out planting. And then the third year, it kind of died.

Were there any parents involved?

A few parents helped the initial year to build the garden. We had to rent a rototiller, we had to plough the field – it had never been used for anything, it was a weed patch, so we ploughed it. We built the beds, we got in the soil. There were three other teachers or professional staff and maybe three or four parents that were helping at the beginning.

By the third year, there was almost no help. There were some students and there were two community members who grew stuff in the garden - we had eighteen plots that were roughly 5m x 3m and the community people had three or four of them going. The rest of them, the students planted them and didn’t look after them.

What were the main goals of the garden?

The main goal was for student involvement and so that students could have the opportunity to understand the procedures of growing plants. It’s an urban school and a lot of the kids have never grown anything before. We were also hoping to have some kind of crop that we could put out on the cafeteria tables so we could just say, “Help yourselves to the tomatoes, radishes, etc”.

What are some of its successes?

The first year we had some tomatoes. I was able to harvest tomatoes before the first days of school. We always had radishes. The sunflowers were gorgeous. The first year was the best year because the kids were more involved and there was more work done on it. And it got kids involved. That was the main purpose and on that it did very well.

How did you get the students involved?

The school had a huge leadership program, so if they did a hundred hours, they got four credits towards their school and it showed up on their CV. So a lot of them got involved for those kinds of reasons. They were interested in greening up the place and they knew it would reward them somehow.

Did the students enjoy working on the garden?

There were always two or three students who really really enjoyed it. They were the ones who would show up in the summer and do a bit of work. They thought it was really cool to grow something. One of the girls and a friend of hers built an herb garden. They did a spiral with an intricate design. They were very proud of it.

Did you get any experts?

I didn’t need any. I have a Master’s in agriculture and so I knew what needed to be done. It was just a matter of getting the manpower to do it.

What were some of the problems?

We didn’t have enough for a fence, and that’s why I kept on writing for grants. We wanted some kind of fence to take care of the property – that never happened. There was a zoning problem which made it so that in the end so we couldn’t get a fence… Initially, the City of Laval was thinking of taking the property and building a metro stop, or maybe a pool, or maybe a skating rink. We were then told to stop developing the site, and that’s when the project really crashed. Because we couldn’t build a fence, things were stolen, things went missing.

Within a few months, our two wooden water barrels were stolen pretty quickly. And one of the parents had donated two apple trees and they must have been about fifteen feet – they were not small apple trees. They were two years away from fruit bearing. And she bought them to commemorate her father that had died the year before. We noticed six months after they were planted that they were uprooted and gone. I just gave up at that point.

The main problem though was that no one looked after it in the summer. The first couple of years there were students who were really keen, and they came in once and a while on their own. And then I weeded, because my son was at football at the school, so I didn’t mind dropping him off, hoeing for three hours, then driving him home. But there was very little support.

Are there any resources that you lacked that you would have liked to have?

I think a fence and manpower. I had the background. We had support also from a community called CRÉ de Laval, which was a green committee in Laval. They donated seeds and they came by periodically to check it out. So there was support in that context, but I mostly knew what I was doing. I got in truckloads of good soil, I hoed, I raked, I weeded, I knew what I was doing..

And what is the plot being used for now?

It’s gone back to its original state. As a weed patch.

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