Unexpected ways to find garden success

Over the past month I have begun to host family-friendly gardening workshops in my backyard (with the help of my co-host!). Most of the workshops have been free, so to make people feel like they have “registered” I asked them to answer a few questions about what their gardening challenges are and what they’d like their kids to get out of the experience. Okay, I admit it, in part I was just plain curious to know what people would say.

The answers revealed what you may expect from parents who wanted to participate in a family-friendly gardening workshop—many wanted their kids to know where food came from and to experience nature close-up.

I hoped that by preparing for these workshops I would have a whole bunch of wonderful content to share on the blog. And I do! But in the midst of the busyness of preparing and the chaos of getting 20 pairs of hands (aged six months+) digging in the soil all at once, I have not yet translated the workshop experience to a blog format. I didn’t even take a single picture during the first one.

During this same month of workshops the weather has been unseasonably, no, incredibly warm. May 1st was HOT, eerily so, but we took advantage of it and headed to the beach (for the 3rd time in two weeks, unheard of during a Vancouver spring).

And at the beach we did all the typical beach-y things, including this:

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We put our heads down and dug in sand, poured water and played in the elements with complete focus. It was then that I had an epiphany: playing on the beach we were achieving many of those things that the parents at the workshop wanted for their kids. We were immersed in the textures of the sand, the joy of pouring water and transforming natural elements to a small garden of our imagination’s making. We were in close connection to nature and we were having fun!

True, we weren’t learning how food grows, but the kids did decide to create a garden for the castle, their hearts were gardening. And I think that is what really counts.

When people talk about a connection to nature they are not usually thinking of an intellectual connection, it is something that comes from the heart. Play brings that heart connection.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

And this is where “learning” in the formal, adult understanding of the word departs from how children learn. If you can trust that play is a path to learning you can enjoy the gift of an incredible day at the beach with friends with no guilt for how weedy or unplanted your garden may be. A family garden may just have to be a messy one.

So, go ahead, count your sandcastles as a gardening success. After all—

 

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

Why Earth Day is more important than ever

It’s amazing, today marks the 46th Earth Day to be celebrated in North America.

Earth Day as we know it got it’s start in 1970 as the impacts of toxic, persistent agricultural pesticides and unabated industrial pollution were beginning to be recognized. Earth Day became a time that people would gather together and give back to the earth—planting trees, beach clean ups and other environmentally worthy acts.

The last time I wrote about Earth Day I was focused on doing this type of Earth give-back too. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is worthwhile to shift our focus, for one day or many, to consciously try to lighten our footprint and repair some of the environmental damage that has been done. But increasingly when I think of the “Earth”, I think of how much nature contributes to our own well-being.

In recent years there has been a surge of neuroscience and psychology research that measures the positive benefits that time in nature has on human mental health and well-being. For example:

Stanford’s Gregory Bratman designed an experiment in which participants took a 50-minute walk in either a natural or an urban environment. People who took the nature walk experienced decreased anxiety, brooding and negative emotion and increased memory performance. Bratman’s team found walking in natural environments can decrease rumination, the unhealthy but familiar habit of thinking over and over about causes and consequences of negative experiences. Their study also showed neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness was reduced in participants who walked through nature compared with those who walked through an urban environment.

Korean researchers investigated the differences in brain activity when volunteers just looked at urban versus natural scenery. For those viewing urban images, MRI scans showed increased blood flow to the amygdala region. In contrast, areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism lit up for those who viewed natural scenes.

In Japan, scientists found people spending time in nature — shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — inhale “beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions” which interact with gut bacteria to strengthen the body’s immune system and improve both mental and physical health.

Nature keeps us healthy. We should be keeping nature healthy too, and bring nature more closely into our everyday lives. How’s that for an Earth Day commitment!

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It is becoming increasingly apparent that considering the environmental impacts of our actions is not just about doing something good for the planet, it’s about securing a healthy future for humans. We’re in this together. And that is doubly true for the littlest humans among us who have a lot of living left to do on this blue planet.

So while I get a certain sense of nostalgia when my kids tell me that they are talking about the importance of recycling at daycare in the lead up to Earth Day (recycling is such a 90’s enviro issue!), I also want them to appreciate that there is a deeper reason for caring for the Earth. As a study published in Nature shows, as we become an increasingly urbanized species we are more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Researchers found people who lived in cities for their first 15 years are more likely to have a permanently raised sensitivity to stress.

Spending time in nature will be more important for this generation of children than ever. Scientist, advocate, nature-lover and Earth Day pioneer Rachel Carson summed up the incredible gift that Earth gives us most eloquently—

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
— Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day to you and yours.

Ode to the beach (winter version)

When someone says “beach” the first things that come to mind are often summer, sunshine, swimming and ice cream. I love all of the things, but this winter I found a new appreciation for the winter beach experience.

A multigenerational team of explorers (aka my extended family) discovered that the winter beach offers streams to fjord, sand banks to slide on, endless rocks to chuck and treasures of beach glass to hunt for—all without getting a sun burn.

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Our time exploring the winter beach-scape were some of my favourite moments of the holidays. There was a big storm that entirely changed the streams and sand banks overnight. We went on a night walk exploring the beach with flashlights, a big hit since we rarely experience real dark and a sky full of stars. With my kids approaching 5 and 2 1/2 it made me wonder what kind of memories they may make from these places and experiences.

For many adults when we reflect on our dearest childhood memories nature often plays a role—being outside in a thunderstorm, the quietness of a lake during an early morning fishing trip or the sweet smell of wildflowers in the heat of the summer. I’m sure you can vividly re-call a few of your own childhood nature experiences.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably are well aware that today’s kids have far fewer opportunities to play freely outside as we did: compared to the 1970s, American children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities* and this finding is pretty consistent across Canada and the UK. I can’t help but feel saddened by this fact, because in my heart of hearts I think most kids are happiest when they are outside freely playing. In fact, I think most people are happiest that way.

Playing on the winter beach was a good reminder of how simple it can be to get outside. Fresh air, water, rocks, logs and unstructured time. A perfect counterbalance to the more frenzied side of the holidays. Will my kids remember these beach experiences? I don’t know. But their contentment in the moment suggests that they appreciate it enough right now to make it worthwhile. I’m pretty sure all of the adults present will be holding onto these memories for years to come too 🙂

What are some of your favourite winter places to get outside?

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Places where our hearts grow fonder

Many of my most powerful memories are linked to places outside. There were some upsides to growing up in northern Canada. The north can be tough, but there is a particular sense of freedom to be found in the vast landscapes.

It’s winter. It’s dark. I am less than nine years old outside in my front yard building snow caves. The snow piles up high through the winter and when the snowplows throw the snow from the road it creates a long hill running across the front of each yard. To a child these snow hills are massive! They are perfect for digging into. With just a shovel you can create your own subterranean snow world of caves and tunnels.

Clad in my snow suit, mitts and boots I feel warm. Lying on my back in the cave I look up at the snow above and the street lights shining down. The street is absolutely still and the bright lights of the street lamps set the endless white of snow-covered yards and streets aglow in a shimmering, sparkling light. The landscape around me is as vast as a tundra.

I feel happy.

In that moment I feel so comfortable. One person lying still and safe in my snow cave with a vast, quiet snow world stretching out in all directions. I am at home. Life is infinite.

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A rite of passage!

This memory of the snow caves has stayed with me all these years. I can feel the vastness of my childhood snow world and see the sparkle of the snow in vivid detail. I’ve often wondered why this particular moment plays so strongly in my memory. Something about the sense of connectedness and the sense of freedom, these are feelings that I still seek. I still love snow and the hushed quality of winter. I love to be alone in nature (even when that “nature” is contained in a small city lot). Reading the, Last Child in the Woods, I can relate to Louv’s call for protection of the freedom to play outside that kids once experienced. Depending where you live it may no longer be okay to let your child dig caves of snow by themselves on dark winter nights. But it is just as important, maybe even more important than it has ever been. To have your own experience of making your own safe place (your snow cave), to watch the world around you from a place that resonates with your soul (sparkling tundras of snow) and to feel at the centre of your being an infinite sense of connectedness and freedom– to do and to feel these things is at the heart of what it is to be human. After all, we are, by the timescale, still 99% hunter-gather. We have a need to express that. As the pace of life and time with screens continues to accelerate in our culture we all need, more than ever, opportunities to ground ourselves in ways that help us feel connected to other humans and the natural world. To do things that lift our spirit in a playful, freeing way. So as the days continue to darken and the busyness of the holiday season rev up our pace even more, let’s save some space for winter play. I bet you could make a really cool snow cave if you gave it a try! You might not be able to leave your kids to play on their own in the snow, but you can initiate the opportunity to play together and then slip back while kids continue to romp (mulled wine in a snow bank, anyone?). Or maybe you’ll all find yourselves laying on your backs, looking up at a winter night sky, feeling infinite. Some true winter magic. In the northern latitudes we don’t usually get quite as excited about welcoming winter as we do welcoming summer, but let me be the first to say– c’mon winter, let’s go play. Happy holiday season!   PS. If you need more convincing that play is vital Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED Talk should do the trick:

U-pick, We-pick, We all pick…

IMG_7224Greetings!

It is time to gather up buckets large and small and get into the fields. Farms and gardens are now brimming with bounty, including  sweet, juicy berries.

I made my first attempt at u-picking with a toddler and it went pretty well! She nearly ate her weight in strawberries (mainly from my bucket), but was pretty happy to run around the fields and hunt for the babiest and the biggest strawberries of all while a friend and I picked away.

For this first foray we chose a place close to home and found Saturdays at a u-pick are a popular family event. From the wagons and buckets brought you could tell some of these families were seasoned harvesters. While I did not come away with enough strawberries to make jam, my daughter did leave saying, “it was nice to go pick strawberries,” music to a u-pick loving mama’s ears.

IMG_7225 It was nice! And from the buzz on the playground lately a lot of parents are getting their berry fix by bringing their kids along to a u-pick. A few simple tips for success: pack a picnic, bring extra hands along if you can and don’t feel sheepish about buying more from the stand than you actually pick. Hey, it’s all about the experience of getting closer to your food and you will definitely achieve that just by getting to a farm.

Looking for the best places to get my fruit fix I’ve found that organic u-picks are all too rare, so I put the word out to a group of BC organic growers requesting suggestions of family-friendly u-picks. I’m already trying to figure out how future road trips can swing by the amazing sounding places below. You can also find farms near you at www.bcfarmfresh.com (for the Fraser Valley, BC) or www.pickyourown.org (listings around the world and good tips for canning and preserving).

First up, the only un-certified organic operation on the list, but well worth a mention for two reasons: it is incredibly close to Vancouver (near the airport) and the farm legacy is being carried on by the original farmers’ grandson, pretty courageous for someone whose barely 20.

Cherry Lane Farms, Richmond, BC
– organic, not certified
– u-pick cherries, apples, plums and greens, plus very delicious apple cider

I haven’t visited this one, but I will soon…
North Arm Farms, Pemberton, BC
– certified organic
– u-pick strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Plus ducks, a farm stand and pumpkins in the fall.

Another new discovery for me, blueberries, yum!
Circle K Blueberry Ranch, Royston, BC
– certified organic & family friendly
– u-pick blueberries

One of my favourite places is the Cawston Valley in the summer. The valley has the highest concentration of fruit stands in Canada and is the hot, dry, sweet-fruit-filled epitome of summer. While you’re there also stop in at the Blush Lane Orchard’s fruit stand for the sweetest organic peaches ever.

Similkameen River Organic Farm, Cawston, BC
– certified organicIMG_7234
– all sorts of veggies

Pilgrims Produce, near Vernon, BC
– certified organic
– u-pick strawberries, saskatoon berries, raspberries and black
currants

My sister and I were tipped off to this u-pickers paradise while buying canning jars from an Okanagan thrift store. I’ve made multiple trips back, it is the perfect place to u-pick tomatoes for canning your own salsa or pasta sauce.

Covert Farms, Oliver, BC
– certified organic
– u-pick strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, peppers, you name it. They also offer farm camps for kids and a winery for adults.

Last, but not least, a farm where the animals look as happy as the cartoons…

Happy Pig Organic Farm, Bulkley Valley, near Smithers, BC
– certified organic
– not a u-pick, but lots of critters for kids to get to know. A chance to give belly rubs to pasture-raised pigs, milk a goat, collect eggs, feed chickens or turkeys and sneak a pet of an alpaca. Not an official petting farm, but kids are very welcome.

Happy picking. It’s time to fill your  buckets and then your belly with the goodness of summer.

To Market, To Market

The longest day of the year is upon us–it’s officially summer! This is the time that locavores most closely equate with heaven, farmers’ markets are now brimming with all sorts of goodness. Inspired by a recent market meet-up organized by the Vancouver Forest Nursery group this post is dedicated to letting your kids take a deep-dive exploration of your local farmers’ market.

Farmers-Market-Take-Your-KidsSimply going to the market is a pleasure trip for the senses. I think I’ve been unconsciously trying to bribe my daughter into loving the market by always ensuring our visit includes some sort of fresh fruit, artisan cheese or baked goodie. Or maybe I’m just sharing the small luxuries that I like to indulge in on market day. Whichever is the case, we’ve already had a few outings where it seemed a good time was had by all, a way better success rate than when she was a baby. And, as inspired by the Forest Nursery folks, there is so much more you can do with even slightly older kids to get them involved in the market experience.

  • Market dollars – Let kids be a part of the market economy with a few dollars of their own to spend as they please. Their selections may surprise you, and they might just find the next family food favourite.
  • Map it out – For kids (and parents) with a fondness for maps bringing one along to the market is a great way to have children start a conversation with vendors. A simple, “where are you from?”, turns into a conversation about farms, fields and orchards in the surrounding areas all of which can be located on the map.
  • Scavenger hunt – Who doesn’t love the challenge of a good hunt? The farmers’ market is a great place to have a scavenger hunt and you don’t need to limit yourself to finding fruits & veggies, the people at the market make great “finds” too. Here’s a kid-friendly scavenger hunt list from Organic Authority to get you started.

With the resurgence of markets in North America and their persistence elsewhere, a visit to a local market can also fit into almost any of your holiday plans. I admit that I’m a bit market-obsessed and don’t feel like I’ve really experienced a place without hitting up the local market, but if you haven’t tried it, please do. You will be sure to stumble onto some kind of sweet surprise and the vendors can introduce you to new tastes and share local lore that you wouldn’t come across elsewhere.

And to finisto-market-to-market-medh off, here is some market magic to add to your bookshelves. The beautifully illustrated children’s book To Market, To Market is a necessary addition to any foodie-family’s collection.

Feel free to post and share the chronicles of your own market adventures. We’d all love to know what you discover!

Happy Solstice and happy market hunting!

30 X 30 Challenge

Hi there,

I know I’ve promised more on birds, bees and butterflies, but sometimes plans need to change. I happened to catch an interview yesterday with David Suzuki talking about the disconnection between kids and nature. No surprise, I was excited to hear one of my favourite Canadians talking about how important it is for kids to get out into nature.

For the month of IMG_0627May the David Suzuki Foundation is hosting a 30 X 30 Challenge to get Canadians (adults and children) to  spend 30 minutes outside each day for the 30 days of May. I feel a bit sheepish that I did not even know this was going on, but it’s not too late to get on board and start spending your 30 minutes per day outdoors.

I highly recommend you listen to David’s 15 minute interview on CBC Q. One of the things I appreciate about David Suzuki is that he says what he feels and he ‘s not happy at all about the screen time kids are spending these days and parents fear of kids spending idle time outdoors. He quotes a statistic that the average Canadian child spends just 6 minutes doing outdoor activities a day, but spends 6 hours a day in front of a computer or TV. If that’s even partially accurate it is very alarming.

You know what he’s saying isn’t scripted when he talks about people plugging in “ear pods”. He debates the hypothesis that us urbanized humans are now an indoor species and argues (convincingly) that our evolutionary history means we still require movement and interaction with nature. Hear, hear.

This got me thinking about the time I spend outside, both on my own and with my daughter. Since having a child my time outdoors has probably increased overall, mainly because I’ve tried not to work full time while my daughter is young. My office job/computer time has been reduced, but my outdoor time has shifted towards a lot of time at playgrounds and less time in forests, mountains and farms (where nature really beckons). For me, gardening is a way of bringing nature into my city (aka everyday) life, but the whole world is a garden worth exploring.

I invite you to join the 30 X 30 Challenge and use it as an incentive to experiment with the positive effects regular connection with nature can have on you and your family. I’m going to try and enjoy at least a few of those 30 minute chunks out in the bigger gardens of our natural ecosystems. The perfect way to kick off summer.

Whether you are in the city or further afield, there is always nature to be found. (Some urban nature video inspiration below.) Enjoy the search and see you next week for bee and butterfly projects.

P.S. If you’re interested in this topic Last Child in the Woods is a great read.

Call of the wild (alive and well in the city)

I missed you last week– I was subsumed with the release of organic market research. But I was thinking of you, and the world outside that is quickly coming to life with the spring days.

A few inspiring things came my way recently, many of which you’ll hear about in upcoming posts, but one that I was particularly struck by was an article,  A Wilder Way, in the New York Times style magazine.Wilderness in the city

“The city may have become our habitat, but we are increasingly learning how we can share it with other species,” says the New York Times.

This is exciting to me because when a trend you’re noticing (and appreciating) is declared in print by one of the most influential media outlets in the world you know that this is not a trend, something substantial is happening.

In cities around the world a movement is afoot to bring nature back into our landscapes and our lives. Lawns and manicured garden beds are slowly being replaced by plantings inspired by local ecology–native plants, wildflowers and perennial plants of all kinds that work with nature and provide habitat for insects and other creatures.

NYC Highline ParkThis is where two things re-connect for mutual benefit: us humans and the wildness of nature. We’ve become a primarily urban species and their has been a price for our rapid shift to city life.

Why we need nature
If you’re reading this you probably already suspect that being in nature is good for human health–fresh air, exercise, clearing the mind. Your hunch is well supported by a varied body of scientific research. It only makes sense, on the timescale of human existence the vast amount of our human history has been spent living in close proximity with nature. Evolutionarily speaking we are not that well adapted to live without nature.

Our minds and bodies function better when nature is around us. Hospital patients even recover more quickly when they have a view of plants and greenery rather than brick or concrete. We are truly better off when we have nature in our daily lives (Green Nature/Human Nature is a fascinating read that explores this connection).

Why nature needs us
The wild things of the world are impacted by human activity, now more than ever. Back to the New York Times:

“For many a city dweller, this is as close to nature as they will ever get. For urban bees, butterflies and birds, this is nature.”

The world we create is also the word that nature exists in. The nature, however small, we can create in cities is becoming increasingly important. We don’t tend to think of cities as “habitats”, but when it comes to insect life our cities can be more hospitable habitats than some rural landscapes.

Take bees for example. Urban beekeeping is a rising trend and surprisingly the city is a great place for a honeybee to live. There is a huge diversity of plant life with varying bloom times that provide steady sources of nectar (bee food), unlike mono-cropped agricultural areas. Many cities now have cosmetic pesticide bans that protect foraging bees from exposure to harmful toxins, unlike most agricultural areas. You won’t find GMO crops in the city either. When drought hits, city dwellers still get to water their gardens keeping up the bee food supply. Now you sticklers out there might point out that honeybees are not native to North America, true. But honeybees have become a pollinator that is integral to the functioning of our food system and what’s good for the honeybee is good for many other insects.

Bringing nature closer to home
The next few posts are going to revolve around the themes of birds, butterflies and bees and simple projects that nature-supporting, city dwellers of all ages can do to help bring more nature to the places we live. We’ll be making close encounters with the wild things of this world a more frequent occurrence.
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In the meantime, get inspired by visiting an ecology-inspired park. You don’t have to travel as far as New York’s High Line (pictured above), many cities are integrating native plantings into park landscapes. Vancouver’s Habitat Island deserves mention on the international list of really cool nature-inspired parks. Built as part of the Olympic Village development in Southeast False Creek the small island is home to over 200 native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses and the tideline was carefully designed to support local marine life. The design was an official success when Habitat Island was the site of the first herring spawn in False Creek for decades! Many kids and families give this little island oasis rave reviews.

Stay on the lookout this weekend for the wild things that call your neighbourhood home; feel free to post photos of what you find.

See you next week with an Earth Day special edition and a post that’s for the birds.