Here’s the story of a school garden located in Thurso, Quebec, the birthplace of hockey legend Guy Lafleur. The project was launched in the spring of 2021 by Mélissa Desjardins, an art teacher. School staff, students, and external stakeholders from the community also participated in this project.
With the start of the school year, the time has come to take stock. To understand how to develop a similar project for your school, Mélissa explains the steps she took and the lessons learned.
How it all started
It all started with an email from the school principal, sent to all staff, concerning the Desjardins Foundation Prizes. “I found it interesting,” said Melissa. “It was my first year in teaching, and already it took me a project,” she added. Passionate about gardening, she decided to submit a school garden project, both educational and community-oriented.
With the support of the school administration and another teacher (Gabriel), a project proposal was developed and submitted to the Desjardins Foundation. The project received the most votes from Foundation members, earning them the maximum value of the financial assistance.
Desjardins Foundation Prizes are for driven school and community workers who would like to benefit from up to $3,000 in financial assistance to run projects with elementary or high school students. — Desjardins Foundation Prizes
With the granting of financial assistance, the project had the green light to move forward. Mélissa set up a committee with some members of the school staff (teachers and special education technicians).
The role of the committee involved:
- managing the budget;
- the inventory of needs (space, materials, labor);
- the search for additional sponsors;
- planning the layout of the land.
Although the Desjardins financial assistance was considerable, the committee noticed a shortfall to complete the project. At the same time, Mélissa received another email from the school administration advising her that the Quebec government had funds available for school projects.
Without hesitating, Mélissa took her blurb and submitted it to Mathieu Lacombe, MP for Papineau and Minister of Families. The response was swift, and she secured additional financial assistance of $ 2,000.
When presenting a project, it is necessary to define why, how, and the expected results. “Our project has thrilled a lot of people,” Mélissa said. “For each submission, we got the maximum amount of funding,” she added.
With a total budget of $ 5,000, the next challenge was to ensure continuity when the school year ends. “It had to be a community garden,” Mélissa explained. “For the garden to be viable, it takes people to take care of it in the summer,” she added.
Thus, it was necessary to involve the community and the city. Mélissa was introduced to some municipal administrators and Mayor Benoit Lauzon to present the vision of the project. Enthusiastic, the city administration also wanted to contribute. This time the support was other than financial. It involved visibility in the local newspaper and the city’s official social media pages. The municipality also provided labor, including road workers who helped prepare the ground for construction. Additionally, Ian Lafleur, a local business owner (Pavage Lafleur & fils), donated soil and cedar mulch.
In the end, it was the students and teachers who built and prepared the garden – Mélissa
Mélissa explained that fruits and vegetables could not be grown directly in the soil of the schoolyard. “The school board requested planters that could be moved.,” she said. With the agreement of the school administration, she opted for two types of structures: wooden planters and vertical gardens. “It’s easier for people in the community who want to get involved, including the elderly, because they don’t need to kneel,” she added.
The idea to include vertical gardens came from an article posted by RakeAround and some other social media posts. “I thought it was a good idea to have two types of models and to try vertical gardening,” Mélissa said.
The pandemic context
Managing the project during a pandemic brought its share of puzzles but also opportunities. “I couldn’t involve the students as much as I wanted,” she said. “I would have liked to start all the sowing with all the students, to show them the entire process, from seed to harvest,” she added.
The series of confinements that accompanied each of the waves prevailed over part of the project. “Not all of the students were able to participate in the construction and preparation of seedlings because the concept of the bubble class did not allow this,” she explained.
Mélissa compartmentalized her approach. A few students, some with Autism Spectrum Disorders, were able to take care of the seedlings of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons. Others helped build the planters or set up the vertical gardens.
The pandemic was undoubtedly the biggest constraint encountered during the realization of this project. Otherwise, it would have been relatively easy. – Mélissa
Building the garden
From May 2021, things accelerated with the end of confinement and the return to class. But, first, it was necessary to determine the garden’s space and plan the layout of the structures. The area used is 20 ‘x 20’. The garden has five planters and four vertical gardens that can hold up to 60 plants each.
Removing existing sod
Levelling the ground
Adding planters and soil
Adding cedar mulch and vertical gardens
For the school director, Ms. Hélène Contant, the project was a favorite from the start. “It created something engaging and positive for the students after a difficult year,” she explained.
Initially, Mélissa admitted that she doubted that students might have an interest in a garden at school. However, she was surprised by their response. “Young people are interested in this kind of project,” she exclaimed! “By involving them, it created a sense of belonging and pride,” she added.
The garden also made it possible to test a work pre-integration program offered by Crossroads Youth Employment, a community employment organisation. Jade, a student at the school, was selected to take care of the garden during the summer. She was paid for her involvement. The purpose of the program was also to introduce her to the labor market.
The students were able to eat some strawberries before the end of the school year. However, with the return to school just underway, Mélissa wants them to take advantage of what remains in the garden. “I would like the remaining harvests to be used to prepare soups or salads for students and served in the cafeteria,” she said.
She added that the garden was also for the community (especially during the summer). “People can come and help themselves and harvest what is ready. In return, we ask weeding or watering.”
Although the garden generated plenty of strawberries, lettuce, radishes, and spinach from its first few weeks, the summer presented its fair share of challenges.
- Insects: Japanese beetles were particularly numerous this year and caused significant damage to some plants.
- Heatwaves: In summer, the intense heat usually occurs when people are away on vacation. The garden is therefore left to itself, with no one to ensure adequate watering.
- Vandalism: Although some nearby residents watch out for the garden’s security, one act of destruction has been reported. “Having an unfenced garden, located on a busy street, carries certain risks,” Mélissa admitted, but without generalizing the incident.
To those who would like to launch their school garden project, Mélissa reminds them not to stop themselves over financial matters. Promoting local food, sustainable agriculture, and green projects in schools is part of the agenda of the various levels of government and other organizations. Consequently, budgets exist to stimulate the creation of such school projects.
There’s money; just ask. This is what I learned. – Mélissa
“If we had pushed for a greenhouse, we probably would have had the budget,” she said. “There are budgets available for workers or teachers who want to do such projects in the school environment. It’s just a matter of building a strong case and making an effort to submit your form to the various existing programs,” she added.
Some funds available (Quebec and elsewhere in Canada):
- Desjardins : Desjardins Foundation Prizes (Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick)
- Fondation Monique Ritz-Back : Financial Assistance Programme for 2021-2022 (in Quebec)
- TD Bank : TD Friends of the Environment Foundation Grant (across Canada)
- Metro : Green Apple School Program (Quebec)
- Provincial governments* (contact your local MP)
* Check with your city which funding programs are available.
For Mélissa, no matter the type of garden project, the most challenging aspect is consistency. She explained that the challenges of a garden are relatively easy to overcome with regular, see almost daily, attention. “Often, a few minutes is all it takes to prevent or counter a problem,” she said. “On the other hand, when everyone’s gone on vacation, it gets more difficult,” she admitted.
She concluded by insisting on the need to provide for specific mechanisms (human or technical) to ensure the maintenance of the garden throughout the season. The credibility and viability of this kind of project depend on it.