While the North American Native Plant Society has been recognizing gardens across the continent for more than a decade, this year it recognized a school for the first time.
Agnes Macphail PS was awarded this year’s Garden Award, which celebrates plots that conserve local habitats and cultivate North America’s indigenous plants and flowers.
The society recognized the years of hard work and dedication that generations of students and staff have dedicated to this project. The result is a firmly established, beautifully maintained and thriving perennial native garden on their school grounds.
“The native plant garden supports our focus on ecological literacy,” says Grade 7/8 Teacher Ms. Farah Wadia. “It provides opportunities for stewardship and promotes place-based education. The outdoor classroom is a place where we can learn about the importance and significance of native plants, pollinators, ecosystems and more. It is also a comfortable space where children enjoy playing, relaxing and practising mindfulness.”
For Agnes Macphail Principal Matthew Webbe, the garden is a living representation of and connection to Canada's past.
“In Canada, Indigenous Peoples value the harmony between peoples and nature. So much of the teachings we have participated in at our school — in art and culture and history and ecology — are tied directly to First Nations, Métis and Inuit stewardship of and relationship with the natural environment,” says Mr. Webbe. “This garden connects to many themes aligned to the TDSB's strategic priorities related to equity, global citizenship, STEM, mathematics, Eco Literacy and Social Justice.”
The garden was started under the stewardship of former principal Mr. William Parish, who engaged students from the Junior and Intermediate ECO Teams and various Environment Clubs in its design, preparation and planting.
"The outdoor garden is like a peaceful place,”says Grade 8 student Anson. “I use the space to meditate when we go outside. It helps me learn about plants and how they work."
Over the years, subsequent generations of students and staff maintained a variety of native species like the Blue False Indigo, Black-eyed Susan, Turtlehead, Nannyberry, and many more. A number of homeroom classes contributed to this outdoor learning space by growing milkweed from cold stratified seeds and then later transplanting the seedlings into the garden.
"The outdoor garden is like our very own community garden where you can sit to relax, or have a mindfulness breathing session,” says Kelly, Grade 8. “I like that the garden provides milkweed to attract the butterflies."
In 2016, Mr. Parish worked with students to expand the garden. Under the guidance and teachings of Elder Clayton Shirt, students planted a Medicine Wheel perennial garden. When in bloom, these local flowers match the four quadrants of the Medicine Wheel: white, yellow, red and black. The native plants selected for this garden are rooted in First Nations traditions and customs, cultivated for food, healing and medicines. In the centre of these four quadrants is the traditional Eastern White Cedar.
"I use that space any time I feel sad or want to be left alone,” explains Seran, Grade 8. “I sit on the rocks and watch the leaves swaying back and forth. It teaches me to appreciate how lucky we are to have this garden in our school yard. It also shows me to be more mindful about my surroundings and to appreciate nature."
These beautiful gardens promote biodiversity and provide opportunities for learning and stewardship. They support the school's focus on ecological literacy, teach about the importance of indigenous species and encourage place-based environmental education. The gardens are a celebration of connection to the land and the community.
"To me, the outdoor garden represents our school in an environmental way,” says Jenny, Grade 8. “It means a lot to me because I saw the garden being built. I used to play there a lot when I was younger, but I still spend time there. We would play on the rocks or observe the lovely flowers. I enjoy spending time outside in the garden. This year on 'Take Me Outside Day', my teacher Ms. Wadia brought out our class to do mindfulness activities and other activities that involve that space. The outdoor garden shows me to be thankful for my environment."
On October 26, 2019, Ms. Wadia proudly accepted the Garden Award on behalf of the Agnes Macphail school community and former principal and garden founder, Mr. Parish. The staff and students of Agnes Macphail are incredibly proud and appreciative of this recognition from the North American Native Plant Society. They have vowed to continue their outdoor learning and discovery, as well as their efforts to be the agents of environmental change and responsible stewards of the earth.
“We look forward to continuing the work already established,” says Principal Webbe. “We want to support our community members to understand the connection of the garden to Canada's past, to our students’ current learning and to the many experiences future generations of students and families will have in our garden.”