‘Stacking functions’ with gardening

Spring is finally here! Several Surrey high school clubs are  getting busy outdoors which is great to see. Gardening (and related activities)  is something that Permaculture refers to as ‘stacking functions’. It provides solutions and benefits on many levels, here are just a few:

  • Many hands make light work. To mix mulch and spread it in my yard, alone, takes a few hours. To do it with a school garden takes minutes. And that communal activity feels good!

Local Development Club members at Fraser Heights Secondary, preparing mulch

  • Social enterprise ideas, from building planters to sell, to possibly growing microgreens or salad greens to sell locally and in school cafeterias.
  • Building soil increases the carbon it can hold, thus is a low-tech form of ‘carbon sequestration’ that kids and teens can be directly involved in and feel good about.
  • The food produced can be used in many ways: as ingredients for cooking (and therefore learning another skill), or drying herbs to sell as a fundraiser (same with seeds for easy-to-harvest plants like cilantro and spinach). Or maybe the focus is allowing people to come and freely pick what they need, particularly in low-income neighbhourhoods.
  • On a personal level it keeps us more physically active. That was apparent last week while I watched students from Fraser Heights secondary hauling tarps and wheelbarrows full of soil up a steep, slippery slope to where 12 raised beds were waiting to be filled.
  • Becoming more responsible in a very direct way: learning to grow a bit of what we eat. After all, eating is an activity everyone does but only 1-2% of the population does it on a commercial scale. That’s not very resilient!
  • Experience first-hand the time and labour it takes to produce food. Planting carrots in the spring but not harvesting until fall gives students in the classroom a real sense of time scale. You cannot plant something when you are hungry – planning way in advance is required! Even salad greens take 6 weeks to reach a size worth eating.

       Johnston Heights Secondary club members checking out
the school garden in August

  • Practice food security by learning to save seeds and grow produce that can be stored (such as some squashes, carrots, potatoes, dried tomatoes, pickled vegetables).
  • Learn about new foods you may not have tried before. That includes wild foods and things we call ‘invasives’ such as blackberries, dandelion and plantain.

Dandelions are not native to BC, but now an important
source of pollen for bees

  • Over the seasons, learning to watch and observe the natural world. When pollinators are in the garden, what plants are happiest side by side, what happens when you neglect to water and what plants survive, Reading a book or watching videos about gardening and cooking can be interesting and provide a foundation, but then you have to do the activities and learn, often, from making mistakes.
  • Thinking in whole systems, a very useful life skill: soil, water, wind, seeds, sunlight hours, warmth, pollinators, companion planting, composting…the cycle of life!
  • Learn about different plants and how to harvest, store, prepare and eat them. Also, how to ensure plants are part of the larger ecosystem, not just human needs. Pollinators help with at least 35% of the food we eat.

Quinoa, grown locally. Easy to store, keeping some
to sow the following year.

So when you are hot and sweaty in the garden,  frustrated by seeds that did not germinate, or realize that you planted nowhere near enough of something your community needs….just remember it’s a life-long set of skills that are being built, and a fundamental part of what makes us human.

Given that 99% of what we eat is not from native plants, we have to carefully plan how we use the land, what we grow, how to replenish the soil, and learn what plants work well together. The goal is not to provide the majority of our calories from gardening, but to build skills and realize the potential of urban land, suburban yards, community gardens, and “normalizing nature’ in our lives. It puts us back in touch with our daily needs and how we choose to fulfill them.

Check out ‘the Plot’ in Newton sometime!

Oh, and gardening sure makes you appreciate buying fruits and vegetables from the store once you understand just how much work went into that food production. Thank you, farmers!



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