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Dig In! Celebrates ECOFEST with seed planting

March 18, 2018
Mar.12.18 soil block workshop

Lots of busy bees planting seeds in the Anthropology Greenhouse. Photo by Sam Lucchetta.

Spring is just around the corner, which means Dig In! has already kicked off this year’s growing season with a Seed Planting Workshop generously sponsored by UTERN (University of Toronto Environmental Resource Network) in the Anthropology Greenhouse on March 12th. Scheduled to coincide with this year’s ECOFEST, participants got their hands dirty with an introduction to soil blocking, which is a more eco-friendly way to start seedlings that reduces shock to fragile root systems during transplanting. Dig In! volunteers had the opportunity to plant some of this year’s crops that benefit from early seed-starting, such as an array of peppers, kale, basil, parsley, rhubarb, onions, leeks, and lettuce.  Some of the kale has already sprouted less than a week later!

Soil block, rhubarb

Planting rhubarb seeds in soil blocks. Photo by Sam Lucchetta.

As April rolls in, we look forward to the first signs of spring as more seeds begin to sprout. We’re planning a second seed planting workshop on Wednesday, April 11, when we’ll plant more fast growing crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

We’re in the process of scheduling our regular work days, to commence in mid April. One of our first work day tasks will be distributing compost to our gardens, and direct seeding crops that fare best when they are direct sown, such as carrots, beans, peas and radishes. More information will go out on our email list, so be sure to join our listserv here.

Interested in doing your own soil blocking, or learning more? You can find a photo of the soil block recipe we use, as well as links to other online resources, at a previous blog post here.

ECOFEST 2018 continues until March 23, 2018. Check out what other great events are happening at https://www.facebook.com/uoftecofest/

seeds, Mar. 12, 2018 workshop

Choosing what seeds to plant next. Photo by Sam Lucchetta.

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Infectious Viral Fun!

February 6, 2018

Lana Tran twitter postOn January 24, we had 30 participants come out for our Permaculture 101 and Garden Planning Workshop at OISE. Ivan Chan from Eden in Season kicked things off with a one-hour lesson on some of the core principles of permaculture, such as integration, diversity and resilience. Before planning a garden, it’s important to first start with observation of the site you wish to transform, and then design based on your observations in order to achieve your garden planning goals. Taking into consideration the various characteristics of the site is key. What can be changed, and what must we figure out how to incorporate into our design? Soil for example can be improved over time through the addition of organic matter like compost, whereas the topography, surrounding buildings, and climate are not easily modified – particularly by students whose gardening is subject to the approval of the University administration. We can only use land that University Grounds (Facilities and Services) permits us to use, frequently in collaboration with other relevant departments. For our context, we must learn to work with the university bureaucracy if we want to garden on university property.

Once you’ve observed a site and come up with a design, you need to consider the resources that will need to go into making the garden a reality, such as seeds, compost, water, sun, and labour. Over the years, we’ve found that our best gardens are those located near already existing sprinkler systems, thereby limiting the labour required for manual irrigation.

Ivan also had us thinking about the shapes we find occurring in nature, such as spirals, snowflakes, or the way branches and roots grow. In nature, we rarely encounter straight gridlines or triangles. Instead, there are more complicated, interconnected patterns and undulations. Finally, Ivan encouraged us to introduce another core principle to our gardening ethic: stimulating infectious viral fun! Labour is one of the most important resources we rely upon to start and maintain any garden, so making the work fun and rewarding is key to ensuring volunteers continue to stay involved.

Charles, Jan. 24 workshop

Charles presenting his group’s ideas for the Anthropology Greenhouse

After our introduction to permaculture, we broke into four groups to brainstorm ideas for our different projects this season: the UTSU Gardens, the Sid Smith Plot, the Anthropology Garden and Greenhouse, and the hope of establishing a spiral herb mound at Hart House post ramp construction (the ramp will be built on top of our previous garden in front of the building.) Each group was provided with some background for their relevant site to inform their plans, and after 20 minutes they presented their ideas to the larger group.

Some of the ideas involved the importance of rotating crops to ensure soil health, and the need to avoid soil compaction. Others came up with ways to integrate vertical systems to make better use of the limited space, or how to tap into various funding sources to buy any required materials. It was wonderful to sense the excitement in the air at all the possibilities of what we could achieve through working together collaboratively. It was also great to meet so many people with different backgrounds and skill sets, eager to share their knowledge.

A special thank you to Ivan Chan for facilitating this workshop for us, and to UTSU for contributing an honorarium. Thanks as well to all of those who came out and contributed to such a successful planning exercise!

Kristy Bard
Coordinator, Dig In! Campus Agriculture

Permaculture 101 with Ivan Chan & 2018 Garden Planning Workshop

January 7, 2018

Dig In! Campus Agriculture Presents

PERMACULTURE 101 with Ivan Chan, followed by a 2018 Garden Planning Workshop

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2018, 3:00-5:00PM, OISE ROOM 2205

Toronto native Ivan Chan received his Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, and has since established Eden in Season in Meaford, where he designs edible gardens, supplies and harvests from a diversity of perennial crops. At this workshop, Ivan will present how permaculture ideas can be applied to urban gardens, and then we’ll break out into discussion groups to brainstorm and plan out Dig In!’s 2018 growing season.  View a summary of our campus agriculture projects here

Please RSVP at https://www.facebook.com/events/160218841274491/

Click here to view the pdf event poster. Jan. 24 Permaculture 101 poster

Salad Fest Hosted by Dig In! and UC Lit Sustainability Commission

December 10, 2017
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Salad Fest, photo by Samantha Lucchetta

The sky is grey, the trees are bare, and the city is very, very cold. Winter is here. Although harvest time is now behind us, the last of the campus’s veggies were able to make a colourful, final appearance at Salad Fest on November 29th.

Salad Fest was a collaboration between Dig In! and the University College Literary & Athletic Society’s Sustainability Commission. The University College Commuter Student Centre was the cozy venue for the event, from noon until two. A small crowd of students had trickled in just in time for lunch to take a small break during this stressful time of year. The menu consisted of salad made of various herbs and leafy greens from the Anthropology Greenhouse and the Huron Sussex Community Garden, such as kale, collards, sorrel, chives, spinach, and arugula. Garlic and onions were sourced from Dig In! Coordinator Kristy Bard’s Pomona Farm, and some pickled radishes grown near Meaford at Eden in Season was an excellent addition. We also had various dried and fresh herbs on hand, such as mint, lemon balm, golden rod, yarrow, lilac, catnip, pennyroyal tea and stinging nettle for concocting medicinal teas.

To kick off the event, cutlery courtesy of the Sustainability Office were given out as prizes for correctly answering agriculture-related trivia questions. The reusable cutlery consisted of a set of chopsticks, a fork, and a spoon conveniently packaged in a small carrying case. After the trivia session, Salad Fest participants tucked into platefuls of salad with their new, reusable utensils.

As people ate their salad and sipped their tea, the kitchen area of the Commuter Student Centre buzzed with conversation. Overheard were discussions on campus spaces available for gardening, how to get university students and staff more involved in sustainability initiatives, and a permaculture workshop Dig In! is planning for scheduled for early 2018.

Although this is a listless time of year, Dig In! will continue to host activities and prep for planting season. As an increasing number of people at U of T become interested in urban agriculture and sustainability, we look forward to an exciting growing season this coming spring and summer!

~Sam Lucchetta, Dig In! volunteer

Join us November 29 for Salad Fest!

November 19, 2017

Salad Fest

In collaboration with the UC Lit Sustainability Commission, Dig In! will be co-hosting this event featuring campus grown veggies and herbs from the Anthropology Greenhouse. Come have a wholesome and healthy salad to cleanse your exam blues and late night junk food irks! We will also have fresh and dried herbs available for tea.

Join us in conversation about vegetarianism, sustainable local food, and agricultural opportunities (on campus and at home) while enjoying a nice, healthy, and wholesome plate of salad and warm cup of tea. We’ll have some fun trivia questions related to campus agriculture, for which the Sustainability Office will be providing portable (and reusable!) cutlery as prizes. Please RSVP at https://www.facebook.com/events/1992276201054921/

Bees are the Best: Dig In! Hosts Pollinator Workshop

October 18, 2017
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Don and Nelly Young digging in to some delicious honey at the Sept. 29 Pollinator Workshop. Photo by Jonathan Sabeniano

by Don Young

I didn’t expect surprises but there were many at Dig In!’s Pollinator Workshop on September 29. Gillian Leitch, landscape designer (altereden.ca), beekeeper and a Director with Bee City Canada (beecitycanada.org) led the workshop, which was co-sponsored by The Sierra Club and U of T Bees. We began after a delicious honey tasting that had all licking their fingers as well as their lips.

First surprise – honeybees are not native to North America! They were brought here by European settlers. Honeybees are great pollinators but are viewed by some as a monoculture that threatens biological diversity. An invasive species, they’ve competed with native bees and other pollinators for food, right from the beginning. Native bees and other pollinating insects are equally important, if not more so, in the essential service of pollinating most of our edible and decorative plants, as well as all fruit-bearing trees. Without pollinators – and bees of all kinds are the best – food production would plummet and, along with it, all animal life, including human.

Gillian has helped to make Toronto the first Bee City in Canada and is involved in the City’s Biodiversity and Pollinator Protection Strategies, which have buy-ins from all City departments. A leader in the City’s Pollinator Working Group, she is helping to map habitat, promote pollinator gardens and pollinator-friendly plants and trees, green roofs with shade and deeper soil, linked green spaces, the conversion of old landfill sites and pollinator-friendly roadsides. (For more information, visit livegreentoronto.ca) Bee City is signing up businesses and institutions to support these efforts. Gillian would love to help U of T become the first Bee City University in Canada.

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Gillian Leitch teaching us about pollinators. Photo by Jonathan Sabeniano

Neonicotinoids and other pesticides threaten to destroy all of this good work. Neonics are 7,000 times more toxic than DDT and have spread throughout our environment, thanks to commercial agriculture, especially corn and soy production. The kernels and seeds are coated with sticky neonics, which are then separated with talcum powder for planting. The toxin gets into the air during seeding. Neonics are in the air we breathe, in the water we drink and in the food we eat. They are deadly to all pollinators and have been linked to various animal and human ailments – research is currently underway linking them to autism.

For gardeners, the workshop offered much advice on what to grow and, again, many surprises. Who knew that heavy mulching was wasteful and bad for pollinators? Most native bees build their nests in holes in the ground. Covering up these holes can leave them homeless or without a place to dig.  At least 10 percent of your garden should remain un-mulched, especially around the edges where bees prefer to nest. Instead of mulch, apply compost around each plant. And ignore the signs telling you to “keep off the grass.” Walk on all the lawns you can. Your footprints create edges where bees can gain access.  As Dig In! volunteers, we should help pollinators to dig in too. In turn, they will help us make a success of campus agriculture.

For further information:

Inspiration from Ryerson Urban Farm

October 5, 2017

IMG_6497On September 8, I had the pleasure of visiting the Ryerson Urban Farm located on the rooftop of the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre as part of an urban geography field course I’m taking this term called Toronto’s Urban Metabolism (GGR481).

Arlene Throness, the Urban Farm Manager, led the tour and described to us the many beneficial functions green roofs perform. Green roofs reduce long-term building expenses because they have a cooling effect in the summer, while at the same time absorbing heat from concrete to lessen the urban heat effect. They extend the life of the building by forming a protective membrane, and soak up storm water to prevent flooding.

When I asked Arlene if she had any suggestions for how we might get something similar started at U of T, she noted that staffing is a huge part of ensuring the success of any urban agriculture project.  When Ryerson’s urban farm launched in 2013, they had one full time and two part time staff devoted to it. This year, they have two full time staff, and several work study students working over the summer, in addition to volunteers ranging from community members, students and researchers.

Those of us who’ve been volunteering with Dig In! Campus Agriculture for many years have long recognized the importance of staffing. Although we started as a student led initiative, just like the Ryerson Urban Farm, eventually those student leaders graduated and Hart House began to support us through the hiring of casual staff to serve as the Campus Agriculture Coordinators. These coordinators were critical in ensuring Dig In thrived over the years, and their work is documented in other sections of this website.

Unfortunately, Hart House is no longer able to support us by providing this level of staffing. It’s why we started a petition in collaboration with the Huron-Sussex Community Garden calling on U of T to fill this gap by hiring a full time, continuing Campus Agriculture Coordinator. If you would like to sign this petition, you can do so at https://www.change.org/p/university-of-toronto-creation-of-a-u-of-t-campus-agriculture-coordinator.  We’ve drafted a budget and job description which can be read here.

The other tip Arlene gave us was that it’s much easier to start a roof farm on a new building that’s constructed with a green roof rather than deal with the expense of trying to retrofit an older building with a green roof. This should be an easy task given the Toronto bylaw requiring new buildings with a larger floor area of 2,000m2 to have green roofs, and also given that new buildings are being constructed at U of T all the time and this University likes to market itself as a leader in sustainability.

IMG_6503In 2004, when the Ryerson George Vari building was built with a green roof, the roof was only planted with daylilies. Over the course of ten years, 80 species of plants grew as birds sowed dandelion, vetch, and many other seeds. Eventually, trees began to grow before the University intervened by inviting a student community garden group to start maintaining the roof as a space to grow food in what had become fertile soil. Indeed, Ryerson’s experience has shown that food grows better on the roof than it does in their ground level plots. Another benefit to being on the roof in being able to have compost piles without fear of animal pests – a concern U of T Grounds Services has consistently raised every time we’ve proposed outdoor composting near our garden plots.

The Ryerson Urban Farm soil was initially prepped for growing food through the use of sheet mulching, where a tarp was used to cover the soil for three weeks, causing the weeds to decompose and stimulating life in the soil. When the tarp was removed, they dug 18 inch wide paths, piling the soil on top of 30 inch wide row beds to increase the soil depth from 6 inches to 1 foot – deep enough for root crops. Each plot is on a five year crop rotation.

The Ryerson Urban Farm is an excellent example of how food can be ecologically grown, without pesticides and harmful fertilizers. Here, the only fertilization is from liquid seaweed, fish emulsion, and compost tea. Radishes and salad greens are produced every 21 days, and lettuce is their big cash crop. Hungry Ryerson students directly benefit from the 10,000 pounds of produce the farm produces every year, thanks to food donations made to the student emergency food bank.

Institutionally, the Ryerson Urban Farm falls under the umbrella of ancillary and food services. It connects to the community via its weekly farmers market and CSA program, whereby customers buy shares of the harvest at the beginning of the season, receiving a basket of food every week in exchange. Some of these customers volunteer to help on the farm itself via a drop-in volunteer program. Produce is also sold to the University’s food services and local restaurants, resulting in $20,000 in sales last year, and $30,000 so far this year. $5000 in income is also generated through a ten week gardening training program hosted in the Spring. The farm is able to support a fifth of its budget through these revenue streams; the remainder currently is generated through donations.

Ever since I started gardening, I’ve felt the positive mental health impacts of being around plants. Being up on the Ryerson Urban Farm was no exception – it’s why so many people love to volunteer and visit. Eating fresh, locally food grown from this roof has additional health benefits, of course. And from the perspective of a University’s core mission, the research possibilities are endless. This space is providing research opportunities that delve into the social and economic benefits of urban agriculture, not to mention scientific studies surrounding organic and biodynamic agriculture.

The Ryerson Urban Farm has been so successful, they will establish another roof farm on a building currently under construction across the street. This one will include a greenhouse. Although U of T likes to tout itself as a leader in sustainability, it seems to me when it comes to urban agriculture Ryerson has us beat. Creating a full time Campus Agriculture Coordinator position would go a long way in ensuring we’re able to catch up. Help us convince U of T this is needed by signing our petition here.

-Kristy Bard, Dig In! Campus Agriculture Volunteer and Coordinator