I don’t know if I was imagining this, but sitting in Sunday’s office, I could smell whiffs of pine and grass with a touch of sweet soil. After learning how passionate she is about horticulture and the environment, it’s not a stretch to think she literally just left the garden before our interview. Sunday spoke with a soft intensity, and what I thought would be a conversation about gardening was actually more about inspiring children and developing a better understanding of how we can all become more self-sufficient. Green Thumbs is Sunday’s expression of both her purpose and what feels like her duty, so I wanted to know when this curiosity started:
Do you remember your favourite thing to do as a little girl?
Well, it must have had something to do with plants because it really came back to me as an adult. And I remember that my first plant was mint and it was just such a strong scent and I remember picking it. I must have been about 4. It’s like one of my only memories from before school age.
Is it interesting to you that it feels sort of full circle?
It does. I mean I didn’t come back to plants in my life until later. I was in the printing industry for many years. I worked in art and design and pre-press, basically all-in service of the printing industry. Then I decided that I wanted to change my career and I went back to school for horticulture. I was maybe in my thirties.
What was the trigger?
I always kept gardening and I realized I didn’t want to waste paper anymore. Some of the work that I was doing in the printing industry was dead and dull and felt like a waste of paper. I had this hobby of gardening and I thought, well, I want to see if I could actually change my career and get into something gardening related.
Was this all in Toronto? Where were you when this was happening?
Yeah, Toronto and also Central Ontario. I lived in the Bancroft area for a few years and that really kind of cemented my love of gardening. Because the season is so short you kind of just enjoy every minute of it up there, so when I came back to Toronto I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven because the season was so much longer and winter was so much shorter. But I do love the north. The short and beautiful summer. The farther north you go the longer the day is so the plants actually grow longer through the day. If something is supposed to be 60 days to maturity, when the day is longer the plant reaches that maturity in 50 days. So even if you have an early frost you’re okay.
So this is a clear passion of yours, not something that you just tried or you just fell into. Can you tell me more?
Yeah, and then when I did change my career I realized I didn’t just want to be gardening as an occupation, I wanted to do something for children. I wanted my kids to have what I had, which was that experience of a beautiful plant at an early age. And having come back to the city from a rural environment, I wanted to make sure that my kids had an opportunity to know where foods come from and to know about soil and plants and gardening. I was actually on mat-leave and I started researching childrens’ gardening programs and I thought, “okay I can do that.” That’s how it started. That was 1999.
Basically, it was something you wanted to give to your kids?
Yes, and also coupled with the realization that I also didn’t want to just garden for upper-income homeowners. That wasn’t a satisfying occupation, much as it would have been very satisfying to work and design and plan for something to flower and every season and all the stuff that real landscape architects do. Part of me would have enjoyed that, but I was also really motivated by wanting to do something for kids.
What would you say was the first time you really made that into a reality?
It was kind of more like lucky timing. I developed a children’s garden proposal and I brought it to my local park. At that time, there were a lot of cutbacks at the city level so the staff at the park were really happy to see a community member come forward with a program that they didn’t have to fund. They were happy to sign a letter of support and I did get funding to start an after-school food program for children in my neighbourhood.
Were you thinking of Green Thumbs back then?
No, I really thought the after-school approach was the best. But I had a child in the program who said, “hey my school has this big open area. They just removed a bunch of portables. We should have a garden there.” She was one of those keen kids in the after-school program. So we ended up getting involved with the school garden program. That was 2001. It wasn’t long before we ended up being a school garden organization as opposed to an after-school program.
What would you say the kids get out of this?
I think to have something that engages all five senses during the school day that’s instructional but fun and engaging. To me, it’s about making education more inclusive of different types of learners. Not everyone learns well with chalk and talk or sitting behind a desk. A lot of people need to move, a lot of people need to feel, touch, smell and taste in order to stimulate their intellect. I think that kids really need more than what our education system offers.
What kind of attention do you have to give these gardens?
Depends on the size of the garden. One of our gardens is really large. The one we started in 2001 is actually 11,000 square feet. It’s like a football field. There’s trees and shrubs and native beds.
What are your thoughts on the environmental impact that you’re having? Also, talk about the long-term impact you hope to have on the kids and possibly the environment.
First thing is land-use. So instead of being just planted in grass or being paved over, there is biodiversity. There are multiple soil layers, there’s trees and shrubs, there’s pollinator plants; so because there’s so many different types of plants in the garden, there are just endless opportunities for learning, not only about those individual plants, but about the ecosystem that they’re living in.
Is this a fair statement — it would benefit the environment if people who did live in homes or had access to land grew their own food.
Absolutely! The estimate is that people living within cities can grow 10% of their own food and even that has quantifiable benefits to the environment. That’s not the big answer, but it’s part.
What’s next for Green Thumbs?
We’re trying to figure out if we’re going to ramp it up and start new school gardens, or if we’re going to stick with what we’ve got but go deeper. I would say we’re probably headed in the direction of the second thing. I think that deepening our programming in the community is probably where we’re headed. Some more preschoolers, more teenagers or adults, and seniors. We do have the beginnings of an intergenerational program between seniors and our youth program. We’d like to build on that.
Sunday Harrison hosted a Boomerang Workshop on Organic Gardening in Toronto. Become a Boomerang Member for free & sign up for workshops across Toronto like organic gardening and terrarium making.