There’s no such thing as too many gardens.

June 12, 2012 at 4:49 am (Eleanor, environment, Gardening, Other, parenting, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I’ve been saying for the last month and a half that perhaps I’ve over-extended myself with all the gardens I’ve been involved with lately, but they’re all so dear to me, that I can’t possibly think about not participating in one of them.  Closest to home and to my heart is my own backyard garden, where despite the slugs eating all the seeds I’ve tried to start outdoors, I’ve enjoyed lots of greenhouse-grown spinach and lettuce salads, the asparagus has finally sprung forth, the apples are the size of quarters, the flowering kale is 7 feet tall, and the sage is ablaze with purple flowers.

woven wood bean trellis in my home garden

The Family Center where I take my son for a children’s play group finally received a plot in the community garden next-door and, knowing that I am a gardener and student of permaculture, the newly-formed gardening group asked me to come and help out with garden planning and seed starting.  It was a fun morning and I think I even blew a few minds with my explanation of “weeds” as helpers and indicator species.  For example, when asked what to do about dandelions in the garden, I pointed out that, not only are all parts of the plant useful in a myriad of ways as food or medicine, but that the plant itself plays a vital role in rehabilitating worn and compacted soil by reaching deep down with its thick tap root and drawing up water and nutrients that are out of reach of other plants.  After reflecting on this, most members of the gardening group were “wowed” by this new perspective on a plant which has undeservedly earned the ire of gardeners all over.

garden art by landed learning students

Also, I was involved in helping plan the 10-year Reunion of the Intergenerational Landed Learning Learning Project at UBC Farm.  This is the third year that I’ve been involved in the project, so I volunteered to run an activity booth to share with others my passion for permaculture.

activity booth set-up

I worked very hard over the last couple months working on a card game aimed at educating people about the myriad connections between elements of natural and man-made landscapes.  I created a deck of fifty-two cards (and counting…), each one featuring a different element (for example: chicken, human, bathtub, rain) with their inputs and yields listed on the back.  As with dominoes, game play involves laying one of your cards down next to one that’s already been played, but it has to link up–that is, where a connection of resource use or energy flow can be made, or, where the output of one card serves the needs of the other.

permaculture card game

It’s more of an educational toy than a winner-takes-all game, but I think it’s a fun way to illustrate the interconnectedness of man-made systems with those of the natural world.  How well the point came across, I don’t really know, but I do know that people had fun thinking outside the box.  More than one participant caught on to the fact that all the excess heat and steam produced by taking a shower or using a clothes dryer could, with good design, be directed for secondary use to heat a greenhouse, for example, instead of simply being released into the atmosphere.  This is exactly what I wanted people to get out of the game: an understanding that thinking differently about how we design our homes and lay out our neighborhoods and cities, we can create landscapes that both serve the needs of humans and reduce energy and resource consumption.

I have learned so much myself from my involvement with Landed Learning, but I’ve also gained an incredible sense of confidence and pleasure in my role as a mentor and educator, which brings me to my third garden engagement, the Children’s Garden at Charles Dickens Annex.  My daughter started kindergarten this year at this wonderful little neighborhood school.  It’s K-3 and very small, which we like a lot, but the garden, which was established over 30 years ago, has experienced an unfortunately high variability in maintenance and parent involvement over the years.  I’d like to change that by tailoring some of what I’ve learned through my involvement with the Landed Learning Project to working with the younger kids of Charles Dickens Annex.  This year, we have a group of at least 6 parents dedicated to cleaning up the garden and getting the kids from all six classes involved in planting the garden.

At the beginning of the spring, the school owned no seeds, tools, or gloves to even get started in the garden, so one of the parent volunteers who writes for a living submitted a very well-written and thoughtful application for a Small Neighborhoods Grant that will supply the funds for these items as well as pay for someone from the Environmental Youth Alliance to visit our school and speak with the kids about bees and the importance of their role as pollinators.

We’ve had two garden clean-up parties so far, at which we transplanted the blueberry bushes, and prepared the raised beds for planting by weeding and adding compost to them.  There are two mature apple trees in the back of the garden from which the children harvested fruit in the fall to make apple pie for their Thanksgiving celebration lunch.  The trees, however, were quite overgrown, making it difficult for people, even little people, to move around them.  I made it my project to prune these trees during the garden clean-ups and, although it was a bit late in the year to prune fruit trees and we did lose a lot of the flowers, the trees are now producing a lot of fruit and look much better.  I think the increased air flow and light that will penetrate through the branches will help keep these trees healthy for a long time to come.

annex kids started pea seeds on classroom windowsills

We’ve also submitted a grant application to the Vancouver Greenest City Fund to supply the school with funds for some additional projects.  For starters, we need to build a new composting system.  At this point, there is no flow to the compost system; new organic material is simply added willy-nilly to one of four separate black compost bins and the result is a big mess.  Composting is an important part of organic gardening, as it completes the cycle of nutrient flow, returning to the soil what has been removed.  But, if we’re going to educate kids and participating parents, we need to do it properly so that it results in a nutrient-rich compost that is safe and effective, not smelly and harboring potentially dangerous pathogens.  So, we’re asking for materials to build a single three-bin composting system with clearly-labelled compartments for adding new material, turning in-process material, and completed compost.  We’ll add labels with instructions on what can and cannot be composted in a small backyard system.  Additionally, our grant application requests funds for rebuilding the raised garden beds, as some of them are starting to rot and they’re all quite low to the ground, which makes them inaccessible to students that use wheelchairs and walkers.  The paths through the garden are also prohibitively narrow for children who use mobility devices so it would be nice to redesign the layout of the beds to accommodate those students.

Another project I’ve been brainstorming for the Annex is the creation of a food forest play space on the back side of the school.  The idea came to me when I observed my daughter and her friends playing under the overgrown bushes.  They had formed a club called the “Nature Nuts” and were hiding out in their “clubhouse.”  It brought to mind a book I read a while back: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit-Disorder, in which author Richard Louv argues that urban children suffer from a lack of natural spaces in which to play freely and imaginatively.

Looking around the grounds of my daughter’s school, I notice exactly what Louv describes: fancy modern (and no doubt expensive) play equipment that offers a limited array of ways to play and a large grassy field ringed by some nice shade trees.  There’s no denying that the latter affords ample space for running around, playing sports, and having picnics, and the former aids children’s development of skills and coordination, but neither offers much for the imagination.  By contrast, natural spaces with varied topographies, trees for climbing and swinging from, overgrown bushes to hide in and around–these allow children to escape to other worlds and play anything they want.

I realize many parents feel that it is unsafe for a child to be out of sight in a public place because there are bad people in the world and tragic things have happened to children in places where they should have been safe, like on school grounds.  That being said, children shouldn’t be denied a connection to nature because their parents have been fed a dose of media-hyped paranoia about child predators.  And maybe, just maybe, access to nature for all members of society can have a humanizing effect and engender more sensitivity and compassion in all people.


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On Being a Full-time Mom

July 3, 2008 at 4:15 pm (goings-on, Other, parenting) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

So, I finally quit my job.  Yeah, I’d been thinking about it for a little while, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the route of full-time mommyhood.  Why?  Because of so many societal and cultural pressures to always do more: to work more, make more, be more.  Especially as an educated woman of a certain class, it’s as if I’m expected not to fritter away the workplace opportunities that countless women before me had to fight a political and cultural uphill battle to gain.

That we farm out chores like housework and childcare to women of a lower socio-economic class than ourselves belies how much we really value the most intimate functions of domestic life.  I’m not arguing that cleaning toilets and mopping floors is for everyone.  (Although, housework can easily burn as many calories as a trip to the gym, so why not save money on the maid and the membership?)  Childcare, on the other hand, performed full-time by loving and invested parents, has got to be better than institutional care for a young child’s social and emotional development–their confidence, self-esteem, and sense of security in the world.

Ultimately, I think, children value your time and attention more than the things you can buy them and the shiny wrappings in which they come.  Young children who haven’t yet attended school and have no experience yet of peer-pressure and cultural cues, do not care that their clothes aren’t name-brand or that their furniture and toys are second-hand.  In fact, they don’t even know what a brand is or what consignment means.  So, what better time to be poor than when your children are young?

People are always congratulating Stephen on making it through his Master’s program having had a baby in his first year, but we say grad school, with it’s flexible and autonomous work schedule, was the ideal time to have a baby.  Stephen was always able to work around me, whether I worked a solid and stable two full days like at the bakery or a random and ever-changing schedule of afternoon demos like with Horizon.  In the end, though, me working full days was better for Stephen because when he had to come home early for me to be off to do a demo, the commute-time meant he only got two or three hours of work done on some days–hardly even a half-day.

This summer, Stephen landed a job with a hedge fund manager that not only pays amazingly well, but that he really likes and looks forward to doing part-time even when he has to return to school in the fall (if he returns to school in the fall).  Since Stephen is able to make at least three times more than me per hour and since he can easily make all of our financial ends meet, my work was just cutting into our time together as a family.  When Eleanor was four months old, I went back to work because we needed the money and I’ve been working Saturday or Sunday–sometimes both–ever since in order to not cut into Stephen’s work week too much (since we don’t have a nanny, me going to work means he has to stay home with Eleanor).  Only having one-day weekends–our “family fun day”–was a sacrifice we were willing to make when it was financially necessary and now that it isn’t, it’s a sacrifice I can’t rationalize making any more.  We were starting to wonder how we’d spend all the extra money we were making, anyway, and then it occurred to us that we didn’t need to make money that we can’t use.

Things would be different if my job at Horizon was something that really fulfilled me on more than a financial level–my ego, my soul, my future.  Don’t get me wrong, Horizon was a great company to work for, the job I was doing was engaging, my boss was really flexible, and the pay was great.  I certainly got a lot of practice speaking off the cuff and to groups of strangers and, in general, dealing with the public.  These are valuable skills that I can take with me to any future position and, on a personal level, I feel more confident with the experience of this job under my belt.  But, alas, I was in sales and marketing–a department I was never quite comfortable with, although I didn’t have to be an aggressive salesperson because I never worked on commission.  That I was “marketing” to the public made me feel, sometimes, like I was just out there hawking products.  Sometimes, the products were awesome–organic, local, independently-owned, something I’d actually buy–but a lot of the time I was demoing products that I didn’t personally like or regard as being particularly healthy or eco-friendly.  On those occasions, I made it my personal mission to at least use the demo as an opportunity to discuss with members of the public the environmental impacts of their food choices and why they should consider paying the little bit extra for quality organic products made closer to home.  But, let’s face it, I mostly worked in Capers and Choices markets, which are the Talley’s Green Grocery of Vancouver–meaning, if you’re shopping there, you already care.  So, basically, I came to feel like I was preaching to the converted.

So, what’s next?  Well, in the fall I want to start volunteering at the Aquarium again.  Maybe this time I can be a presenter or group leader or something a little more engaging than data entry, not that I didn’t learn a lot about the coastal geography of the Pacific Northwest by entering data for the Cetaceans Sightings Network.  Also, I’m thinking of enrolling in a yoga teacher training program; there’s a dearth of child-friendly yoga classes in my area.  Ultimately, though, this move to not hold a permanent paid position for the time being, allows me to spend every glorious day of summer with my little girl and what could be better than that?!

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Preschool Rules!

November 7, 2007 at 3:28 pm (Eleanor, parenting) (, , , , )

In case you haven’t heard, the Vancouver Civic strike is over, which means I have been able to return in recent weeks to the tot gym with Eleanor. Don’t get me wrong, the tot gym is great–all the tricycles and sliding boards I don’t have the money or room for, for the low low price of $2.50 a visit! But, yesterday I tried out the family center’s drop-in preschool for the first time and now I’m kicking myself for not taking Eleanor there sooner. And, it wasn’t even closed during the strike (but I bet it was busy busy busy)!

Neighborhood moms had told me a while back about this place where you could go with your kid to play and do crafts. At first, I pooh-poohed getting out and about at 9 in the morning, but fortunately, the end of day light savings time has us in early-bird mode around here (well, it’s either get up an hour earlier to preserve our peaceful mornings without Eleanor or wake up with her and rush rush rush, ’cause she doesn’t seem to get that she could be sleeping in). I assumed I would be asked to at least purchase some kind of membership or pay some dues for the privilege of using their facilities, their paint and craft supplies, their toys and playground. Oh, and there’s free coffee! What does it all cost? A banana!

No lie. A banana is what I paid. Every parent brings a piece of fruit that gets cut up and split amongst all the kids at snack time. But, first comes play time! There were kids playing house in one corner, dress-up in another. There was a paint station with several easels beside the playdough table and a crafts table (where Eleanor got glue in her hair). There was a jungle gym were she first tested her strength hanging from the monkey bars and lasted a few seconds before dropping safely to the mat below. For older kids (like 3- and 4-year-olds) there were games and puzzles. Play time was absolute mayhem! They say the afternoon session is much quieter.

After play time came singing, for which Eleanor didn’t really want to sit still. She’s never had to learn a time for this and a time for that, since I pretty much follow her schedule at home. Anyway, she cried briefly because I wouldn’t let her run off to the bi-dah (the slide), but she got over it and got excited when she saw one of the nice ladies bringing around plates of fruit. Yay snack time!

Oh, and the ladies that work there are sooooooo nice! They did a great job of making me feel welcome as a first-timer and introduced me around (although I recognized a few moms and caretakers from other neighborhood programs and playgrounds). And–get this–since there are paid attendants present, once Eleanor gets more familiar with the place and the people, I’ll be able to leave her in the preschool while I go downstairs and have a coffee in the lounge! For the cost of a single piece of fruit!

I’d like to say thank you to the Canadian federal government and the city government of Vancouver for this wonderful service!

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An Eleanor Update

October 30, 2007 at 9:34 pm (Eleanor, parenting)

My little smartie pants can now strings words together to communicate a whole idea or to tell me a story.  The other day at the tot gym Eleanor got upset because some older kids (we’re talking three-year-olds here) wouldn’t let her play in the block house they had built.   I was watching this from the bench on the other side of the gymnasium, so I had some reference for when she came over to me and said, crying, “Mommy… Allie… set… ment… chirdet… hows.”  Translation: “Mommy, I’m sad and I’m mad at those children that won’t let me play in the house.”  Good girl!

Well, we didn’t have to wait long before the big kids were done playing with the blocks and I started to build a new block house just for Eleanor.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t long before some other children wanted to play in our house and, though they kind of took over, I couldn’t very well send them away or condone Eleanor pushing them away.  I didn’t want to show Eleanor that what the bigger kids had done to her earlier was the right thing to do.  And, of course, I didn’t want to make the little kids “set” and “ment!”

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Globalization and Grandmas

October 20, 2007 at 4:48 pm (parenting) (, , , )

These days, especially in Vancouver, it seems just about everyone I know is from somewhere else. In fact, Eleanor is one of the only Vancouverites I know to actually be born here. Since moving to Vancouver, I have met people from all over the world. I used to joke that the bakery where I was working was Canadian-owned but internationally-operated since employees came from places as scattered as the Philippines, Japan, Bosnia, England, the US, and Mexico. This state of affairs is probably exaggerated in Vancouver, as it is a world-class port city, but it is by no means unique to Vancouver. Moving all over the world, or at least across a continent, is a pretty common occurrence in this era of globalization.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Presumably, people didn’t move far from home because they lacked the opportunity or the means to do so. But, I know better. This whole experience of raising a child far from home and family has really made me see the value of grandmas!

When I was a kid, my family was only a thirty-minute car ride from my grandparents’ house. I used to think it was so cool that my brother and I could visit so often, even for trips of a week or more in the summertime. I figured my mom was being really nice to allow us this privilege. Now, I know better: she didn’t do it for us; she wanted some time to herself!

This childcare thing is relentless, especially when you don’t make use of a nanny or daycare. Yes, believe it or not, Stephen and I take full responsibility for Eleanor 24/7. What we really need is a grandma or two. Some grandpas would be nice, too. And, maybe even an aunt or an uncle.

Someone should come up with a meet-up service to match lonely parents in need of a break with lonely empty-nesters whose own children and grandchildren live far away like us.  I’m thinking “Rent-a-Granny” or “Grandma for a Day” or some such business idea.  Any takers?

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Diaper Free… Well, Mostly

October 19, 2007 at 5:32 am (Eleanor, Other, parenting) (, , , , )

When I tell people that Eleanor is pretty much potty-trained at only twenty months of age, they invariably want to know what I’ve done to achieve this. Well, it’s not so much what I’ve done, but what I haven’t done that’s made it possible. Quite simply, I haven’t given root to the false, yet extremely common (for the under-two crowd), belief that you should use your pants as a toilet. Put another way, I have simply tried to raise Eleanor knowing what the potty is for even when she couldn’t use it or tell me she had to go.

To this end, Eleanor has been “toileting” in a more appropriate place at every opportunity since she was five weeks old. At first, it was the sink, although I’ve heard tell of people who keep plastic bowls or buckets near the newborn-family bed for night work. We purchased the smallest plastic potty we could find as soon as she was big enough to sit up steady on it. By “every opportunity,” I simply mean whenever I happened to get the sense that she needed, or was about, to go; obviously, it’s easier to tell in the beginning with a no. two, so we actually achieved diaper-free no. twos about eight weeks before the recent successes with no. ones. Often it happened that I made the assumption her diaper would be wet, given how long it had been since the previous change; upon removal, the diaper would prove to be dry and I would simply hold her over the sink or sit her on the potty to see if she had to go.

For many months, maybe the whole first year we were doing this, it was simply an exercise on my part, lacking any recognition or understanding on hers. But, by consistently showing her how it’s done–and without any real encouragement or pressure–she simply came to know that using the actual toilet is the way toileting is done. And why shouldn’t she have learned that from the beginning? It came completely naturally to her, I think in no small part due to the fact that she was never given the opportunity to learn otherwise, but also because she was equipped for it all along. The potty, for E, was not this strange seat that entered her life on her second birthday (or third or fourth) and gave occasion to her parents to get angry with her or become frustrated with her for not understanding what they wanted her to do. I truly think that Eleanor has done as much at every stage to recognize needing to go, communicating that need, and then doing the deed as she was physically and mentally able to do at the time.

In the last week, something must have clicked. The whole process is mentally and physically there. She’s now going for entire days at a time wearing diapers but never wetting them. She even wears panties around the house sometimes. (She’s so skinny, though, the loss of all that bulk means falls hurt more and her pants are huge.)
Contrary to what I stated above about it being easier to pick up on the no. two cues, so to speak, this whole diaper-free enterprise actually arose because of five-week old Eleanor’s thankfully-short-lived habit of grunting when she had to pee at night. Several nights in a row, she kept me awake for at least an hour grunting as if she was trying to go in her sleep. Each night, when I got her up and took her to the bathroom to change her, I discovered a dry diaper. Each night, the dry diaper was soon followed by a wet diaper and a wet counter. Since she wasn’t get any wear out of these diapers, it seemed a waste that I should still have to toss it in the diaper pail. I figured, every diaper I kept out of the diaper pail meant I could go a little bit longer without having to wash and fold a load of cloth diapers.

Wait: rewind a few months to the pregnancy workshop I attended at a local community center. The discussion leaders that night were Hope and Bonnie, the two-woman doula team that taught the pre-natal class I signed up for post-workshop. They were a little out there in an earth-mother-love kinda way, which is cool, but they had some kinda “out there” pregnancy and childcare books arrayed on the table, one of which caught my eye: Diaper Free, Naturally! or something like that. That’s where I first came across the ideas and methods described above, as well as some shocking data showing that the age at which “toilet-training” (a modern idea, by the way) typically begins, has risen steadily during the decades since the inception of disposable diapering (which I never would have considered even if I knew my kid could never be housebroken). Diaper companies keep making larger sizes, more specialized fits for active toddlers, and now Goodnites for bed-wetting older children. With the addition of adult diapers for the incontinent (probably just the same companies, different names), diaper makers pretty much have you for life. What’s next? Disposable underwear?

Fast-forward. So, on the fourth night, knowing that Eleanor would soon let loose all over the counter, I decided to save a diaper and hold her over the sink. I was struck by how easy the diaper-free approach really could be and I just kept doing it one diaper at a time. She was only five weeks old when we started and her floppy head posed a challenge for getting her into position, but with practice I figured out how to grasp her under the thighs and rest her head between my arms. And, best of all, the grunting stopped and I could get back to my then-favorite past-time: sleep!

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