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Solving for Pattern

by Sunday Harrison, Executive Director

Image by Lara Lucretia

Outdoor learning is a true breath of fresh air, after months of being indoors. The vibrant, productive food forests managed by Green Thumbs give children, youth and their families options for safe, engaging interactions with each other, nature and all the seasons have to offer, on school grounds dedicated to learning. We strive for what Wendell Berry, farmer/philosopher, calls Solving for Pattern, where one solution addresses multiple problems, without creating new ones.

Our disconnection from the natural world through the built environment is nowhere more obvious than in elementary school, where nothing in the curriculum instructs teachers to take their students outdoors for learning. Outdoors is for recess, and competitive sport, maybe gym class. Asphalt surfaces define these periods. Back inside, children, who are naturally drawn to animals, plants, and all life forms, are taught instead to focus on the printed word, the numbers, the facts. Of course these are important - but research tells us that even academic success is increased with regular experiential garden-based activities. Gardens bring learning to life, and life to learning.

This fall, students were just so happy to be back in school to see their friends, full stop. The garden time just put them over the top with excitement - our outdoor classes, in person for the first time since the pandemic began, were brilliant with joy. Students were engaged in harvesting okra and eggplant, the last of the tomatoes and peppers, parsley, celery, and fragrant herbs, as well as native flower seeds. They planted cover crops and garlic, tree seedlings, raked leaves and spread them as mulch on garden beds, and composted the plant residues. Teachers signed up for every available slot, and our placement students helped to run each in-person program along with Cara McArthur, our Indigenous Program Co-ordinator. Ohemaa, our Program Manager, ran dozens of programs online as well, the most popular being Trees from Seed and Microgreens (Pea Shoots). Both of these are 2-part, hands-on programs available online, and teachers can sign up at

Wendell Berry coined the phrase Solving for Pattern in his 1981 book The Gift of Good Land. He elucidated a good solution as one that solves more than one problem without creating new problems - requiring that the problem solver see the world from a wider vantage point. He discussed what now would be called “agroecology” - that is, an agriculture that refuses chemicals and feedlots, monocultures and an industrial approach to production, in favour of working with nature and setting health as the goal - soil health, animal health, human health. His writing draws from the land and ventures into the political:

Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put its eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, and to make “going for broke” its only way of going. But to grow grain should not make it impossible to pasture livestock, and to have a lot of power should not make it impossible to use only a little.

Berry postulates an agriculture that takes the whole ecosystem into account. He understood soil as the enduring wealth upon which any yield depends.

… And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people. In a biological pattern – as in the pattern of a community – the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.

It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.

Back to our school gardens, and how we are solving for pattern. Our role as a community partner ensures that the land is cared for, since gardening is not part of anyone’s job description at the public school level, except for lawn mowing. Because we bring labour and programs during the summer season, the critical care needed at that time is provided. It behooves us to remember that the whole reason for the elementary school year being designated from September to June, was to give families the summer months to care for the land. Okay, there was some child labour involved there, but it was most often shared family labour.

The labour we bring is physical, mental and spiritual, in person and online. Each of our school gardens is different, as each school has its own character, demographics and food culture. Each garden has different soils, surrounding trees, different amounts of light. Thus, a solution in one place will not necessarily work in another. Composting is only possible at a certain scale in each garden, necessitating external inputs. But learning about the nutrient cycling that takes place in a compost bin is possible at any scale, with various types of bins and methods. So with education as a goal, our solutions can be enacted at the scale of a worm bin in a classroom or a full three-cubic-metre wood-and-wire bin in the schoolyard. The children’s harvest of tomatoes and peppers, raspberries and swiss chard can grace the school lunch program or provide an extended activity back in the classroom - harvesting the seeds from the fruit, learning more about the plants’ life cycle. It is well known now to refer to all the various subjects that intersect in the garden - from math to language, science to social studies. An ecosystem of human knowledge, demonstrated through experience, makes the academic subjects come alive.

Children who have trouble learning from textbooks, paper and pencils find their comfort in the garden. Their connection to food, land, health, environment and education - all wrapped up in the sensory experience of the garden - sets them up for future mental and physical health. Indigenous people say that the land is their first teacher, and that “school” was going out on the land with your family and elders, learning by doing. Here the painful legacy of residential school and the genocidal intent behind it comes into view - a view we must not shy away from. The land is still here, still indigenous, with plants, animals and humans who have been here since time immemorial, and who know how to live without wrecking the place. Solving for pattern means seeing ourselves as part of nature, not above her, and conducting ourselves accordingly. Since public education is mandated to help children find their place in the world, what world are we giving them? Can our schools be places of deep inquiry and knowing, of connecting to the land not just through a Land Acknowledgement on the PA system each morning, important as that is, but with an intersectional engagement with food, land and culture.

The sheer diversity of humans in our partner schools is remarkable, with over 40 languages spoken at home. What a fantastic gift this city gives us, to meet people from all over the world! Many are aching to connect to the land, to get their hands in the soil and grow their favourite foods. This then, is part of a solution to food insecurity, lack of food affordability, and the need for what Chef Bashir Munye calls “cultural nutrients.” Summer in the school garden, then, is ideally shared with families, toddlers, seniors, community members. Berry again:

It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it.

Our post-secondary students on placements are part of the larger pattern, an ecosystem of education. They, in exchange for school credit, work with us to continuously improve our programs. They assemble the kits for delivery to teachers. They write up their experiences and examine their own career goals. Future teachers, nurses, community workers and child and youth caregivers develop their skills, while providing Green Thumbs’ programs with enough adult supervision to enable the rotation of students through the various activities, so no long lineups waiting for your turn. A good solution to the labour we need is the university and college credits needed for a degree or certificate. Of course the parent volunteers, caring neighbours, an engaged Board of Directors, the many contributors and donors round out the picture. We could not do it without you!

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