It’s Our Birthday! CEP Turns 20!

TL;DR – We’ve provided thousands of fun and informative environmental education programs over the past 20 years and we hope to provide thousands more over the next 20!

A one year pilot program … turned into 20 years of garden and nature fun!

It’s our Birthday! For the past 20 years we have been honoured to share our love of nature, organic gardening and healthy cooking with children and youth from across the City. Together we have planted veggies, explored High Park and made some very tasty Double Chocolate Zucchini Cake.

As with many of the City of Toronto’s test projects, the High Park Children’s Garden started out as a one year pilot program. Back in 1997 the area just north of the Colborne Lodge Museum included a picnic shelter, parking lot and washrooms. It was quite isolated and our Museum friends around the corner were very much alone. In an effort to make the area safer and encourage people to visit the south end of the park, the City decided that a Children’s Garden with hands-on gardening programs would be the perfect solution … at least for a year.

So in the spring of 1998 holes were cut out of the asphalt in the parking lot, raised beds were made with old wood from an east end boardwalk and a fence was built and painted in what the Parks Branch considers a “classic” neon green colour. Seen from above those garden beds spelled out ABC with a few extra beds tucked in between to give us maximum growing space.

The initial design of the garden included a sand box tucked into the B surrounded by a perennial herb garden and native wildflower gardens on the hillside to reflect the naturalisation projects happening throughout High Park. In an effort to help educate students and families about composting in their own backyard, a variety of compost bins were added beside the picnic shelter helping round out the gardening program with a little compost education and lots of talks about worms! Over the next 5 years new elements were added including a Fedge, a.k.a. Food Hedge along one section of that classic neon green fence with a xeriscape bed planted in the 15.24 cm (6 inches) of soil on the opposite side. The big square bed in the middle of the C was turned into a pollinator garden to attract more butterflies, bees and beneficial wee critters.

The spring of 1998 was a busy one for nature based programs with the City of Toronto. As the High Park Children’s Garden was under construction a program was also being developed to draw attention to the new Discovery Walk Trails throughout the City. It was called the Exploring Toronto Program and its staff would take groups of students and community members on guided hikes through our parks and ravines. The aim of the program was to educate people about the diverse urban wilderness we are so lucky to enjoy here in Toronto. This nature education program proved to be quite popular and students were able to learn about the plants and animals that have adapted to life in the big city.

During the summer of 2001 the two programs officially became one and were then known as the Children’s Garden and Exploring Toronto Programs (it shows you just how dedicated to the programs we were by the simple fact we kept spelling this out for over 15 years!). This was also the summer we first offered six full weeks of Eco Camp (after having run a one week Eco Camp “Pilot Program” the previous year).

Campers participated in gardening activities, hiking and trips to Centre Island. Since that year we’ve expanded Eco Camp to run for 8 weeks during the summer and have added a Sprouts Eco Camp Program for 4 and 5 year olds and a Youth Eco Camp Program for 10 to 14 year olds.

As the years passed and our programs continued to expand, we found ourselves cooking more and more with the fruits and veggies from the Garden. Throughout the years we’ve also cooked up plenty of free harvest lunches for the High Park Harvest Festival and many of our summertime events.

In order to cook all of the yummy food we had to lug practically an entire kitchen around to different Community Centres in big Rubbermaid tubs. The one with the food processor in it was always the heaviest! After serving up all of those tasty treats back at the Children’s Garden, clean-up was also quite the challenge. Especially considering the lack of hot water onsite! This meant we had to wash thousands of dishes  in water heated over a camp stove while using three of those same Rubbermaid tubs (wash, rinse, sanitize!) as sinks.

Finally after packing and unpacking a borrowed City van for the hundredth time the decision was made to build a Children’s Teaching Kitchen. It would replace and use the same footprint as the old picnic shelter at the Garden. Now of course we are quite the environmentally friendly program so just any old kitchen wouldn’t do. We felt the need to make sure we built a kitchen that was environmentally friendly too. After many years of planning, a few false starts and a strike one summer … The straw bale Children’s Teaching Kitchen was finally born! Construction started in the fall of 2011 and our beautiful Kitchen opened the summer of 2012. The building of Kitchenland is a vast and adventurous tale which you can read all about by clicking here. It’s well worth checking out for the photos alone!

Once the Kitchen was built and our cooking programs were finally underway we knew it was time for another little change. It was then that we brought all of our programs together under the title of Children’s Eco Programs … our program name finally fit on our business cards!

Over the past 20 years our programs have continued to grow. We’ve even helped other City Community and Recreation Centres to start their own garden and nature programs. Also in addition to our original school programs and summer Eco Camps we’ve added our Watch Me Grow Family Drop-In Program, a March Break Eco Camp, Cooking with Veggies classes, Edible Cosmetics Workshops, Guide and Scout Programs and of course our Birthday Party Programs. Birthday Parties are all the rage at the Garden these days and a fun outing for the whole family!

Strolling through the High Park Children’s Garden on a sunny spring day can provide little glimpses of life poking its head out of the soil once again. Sauntering through in summer will make you hungry with all the tasty potential the harvest has to offer. Ambling about in autumn will have you marvelling at the plants hardy enough to take on a bit of frost and still keep growing. Wandering along in winter is the perfect time to dream of what to plant in the garden again next spring! A trip to High Park and the Children’s Garden is worthwhile at any time of year.

We’ve enjoyed travelling through time and sharing these fun stories of our humble beginnings and we look forward to creating new stories over the next 20 years with you! In the meantime we’ll keep all the little hands in the soil, little feet on the trail and little tummies in the kitchen!

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