The Every Tree Counts Community Grants offer an opportunity to expand the capacity for tree planting in the City of Toronto by engaging diverse, multi-sector groups who bring fresh, innovative ideas to the tree planting and stewardship efforts to reach 40% tree canopy in Toronto. In 2018, Green Thumbs Growing Kids (GTGK) was one of several organizations to receive a grant in support of their innovative native tree seed collection and germination project carried out in partnership with selected schools in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The project has now come to a close and we had a chance to chat with Sunday Harrison, Executive Director at Green Thumbs, to learn about how the project unfolded.
ABOUT GREEN THUMBS
Green Thumbs offers food growing and environmental education programs in select inner-city schools and park sites in Toronto. Their mission is to to empower urban children, youth, adults and families to grow and prepare fresh garden foods, learn about nature and the environment, and foster a positive educational experience. In recent years, GTGK has been working to diversify their approach to school programming, and the grant provided by the Foundation allowed them to expand to include tree seed collection, adding new depth to their partnership with the TDSB.
For their Community Grant project, Green Thumbs proposed to run workshops with elementary aged students centred around tree seed collection from local seed sources and subsequent planting and germination. While sourcing existing saplings was an option, GTGK was intentional in their approach to integrate seed collection into their methodology. This is because cultivating trees from locally collected seed stock increases the likelihood that germinated trees will be well-adapted to the microclimatic conditions of the city, and teaching this to children is invaluable. Growing from seed protects biodiversity within the species, and biodiversity, both within and among species, is the best insurance for climate change resilience. “Teaching biodiversity through seed-based propagation is the main point,” says Sunday, adding, “it would be much easier to purchase seedlings or nursery-grown stock, but we want to convey that each seed is an individual. If the tree is mature and producing lots of seed, the seed will carry a variety of traits forward which could be very useful in climate adaptation.”
Green Thumbs decided to work on school grounds because they offer vast resources of arable land to grow seedlings, they can be used as educational spaces through connections to curriculum, and by developing school ground tree nurseries, staff, students, and the local communities become engaged as caretakers. For this project, GTGK successfully worked with the following schools: Rose Avenue Junior Public School, Bruce Public School, Cresthaven Public School, Sprucecourt Public School, Hawthorne II Bilingual Alternative Junior School, Adam Beck Junior Public School, Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, Church Street Junior Public School, Lord Dufferin Junior and Senior Public School, Victoria Village Public School, Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School, and Clairlea Public School. The project focused on dedicated workshops integrated primarily into the Grade 3 curriculum, with some Grade 2 and Grade 4 students participating through mixed classes. Grade 3 students are ideal for the program since the Science curriculum at Grade 3 is a particularly good fit (they study Plants and Soils), but Grade 4 ‘Habitats and Communities’ and Grade 2 ‘Air and Water in the Environment’ also provided a nice tie in.
The project appealed to those at the TDSB because it supports the school board’s Urban Forest Management Plan in a way that had not yet been mobilized from within. This project also fits with the TDSB’s Go Green Climate Change Action Plan (Action 7 – Invest in Tree Planting) and helps create synergies with the EcoSchools program under the “School Ground Greening” pillar. The project offers multi-pronged benefits to the TDSB: educating children while providing tangible assets like increased shade, reduced heat-island effect, along with increased urban pollinator and biodiverse wildlife habitat.
Another important aspect of this project was the work around naming education and awareness. The folks at Green Thumbs introduced Anishnaabemowin naming practices into the program, engaging local Indigenous leaders and educators in assisting students to understand and appreciate different names and cultural significance of the native tree seeds they were harvesting and planting. Each species of seed collected and planted was taught using English, Latin, and Anishnaabemowin names (where available). Sunday acknowledged how “ensuring that the Indigenous content is fulsome and not tokenistic is a challenge [since] language and culture are hard to visit in a shallow manner,” but explained that the approach is part of a larger effort to increase the use of Indigenous languages, even if it is a single noun that children learn, because it reinforces that these languages are alive and can be learned, spoken, and written.
Seeds that have successfully germinated are intended for distribution back into the local community as seedlings to TDSB locations or directly to members of the community. Given the timelines of the granting cycle, this aspect of the project has yet to be realized, but is in the works as a potential Phase II. Through this project, GTGK and the participating students successfully harvested and planted over 400 seeds! Since germination rates tend to be low (with the exception of Kentucky Coffee Tree) only about ⅛ of those are expected to become plantable seedlings. Nevertheless, that’s still 50 new trees that will find homes in Toronto!
The Foundation is thrilled to support groups like Green Thumbs Growing Kids in innovative projects that help mobilize ordinary residents around tree planting and stewardship. Through a single project, hundreds of students have acquired new skills, new language, and new appreciation for green space cultivation. The hard work of grant recipients like Green Thumbs is helping to create a movement of Torontonians who can help grow and care for our city’s urban trees.