planting values

farmhouse on Bathurst street at Davenport road City of Toronto Archives

scan6107-page-001 TTC yards, Wychwood from the old Gage property across Davenport looking south CTA F1244 it60.14


In the Spring of 1914 residents of this neighborhood were treated to an odd sight. The Victorian farmhouse on the south side of Davenport just west of Bathurst seemed to have sunk into the ground. This relic of the rural past, as a result of the Bathurst hill grading, was now well below the road level.


The fate of the farmhouse symbolized a larger crisis. Weekend country motorists saw evidence of it in the  boarded up country schools, abandoned crossroad settlements and dilapidated barns.  Old farming families were losing the next generation of workers in a population drift of the young into the towns and cities.

Forks of the Credit 1909

Meanwhile, there were more mouths to feed and fewer farms to grow the food. Housewives were told that the decline in farm labour was at the root of rising prices for fresh produce, dairy products and eggs. Farmers complained that immigrants stayed in the city. Agriculture, long at the centre of cultural identity and economic power, was in peril.



Sir William Macdonald, a wealthy Montreal tobacco manufacturer, made it his mission to stem the rural exodus. He  recruited as the head of a national campaign an individual who had proved his ability in revitalizing farming. Dr. Robertson had become known as “Agricultural Wizard of the North” for his zealous upgrade of  standards and practices as national Commissioner of Agriculture and Dairying.

Dr. James Wilson Robertson  Children of the land, the story of the Macdonald movement in Canada (1910)

Between 1904 to 1907 they conducted a campaign for the improvement of rural life aimed at children and youth. The work was centered on a network of school gardens created in the four eastern provinces. These would be used to pass on skills by teachers with specialist training. The “gardens” were not decorative beds to prettify the school lawn, they were laboratories of best farming practices developed at the dominion’s newly formed agricultural think tanks, the  Macdonald Institute in Guelph, Ontario and later, the Macdonald College in St. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec.

2014-05-12 23.02.52 Among School Gardens

In the decade before the First World War, children were drawn by cash prizes to take part in competitions. In Toronto, the “Catch the Fly”  challenge spurred kids to build traps and amass the largest possible number of the disease-spreading insects.  Meantime, their country cohorts were also hunting, harvesting and tabulating.  The Macdonald Fund’s “Seed Grain Contest” asked them to select the seeds of the most the most robust plants and plant a quarter of an acre plot with these. The competitors’ performance was judged by their next year’s yield in the weight of the grain and number of seeds produced.

Among School Gardens planting Among School Gardens

The boast of the Macdonald Fund was that in demonstrating the importance of seed selection through its competitions, crops in the eastern provinces increased by half a million dollars in 1906. The knowledge of new methods for the protection of crops from insects and fungal diseases, and benefits of crop rotation were also spread to the larger farming population through youth training.

Canadian Boys Spraying Potatoes  Among School Gardens



Beyond the focus on scientific and organizational aspects of growing food, the movement used the school gardens to promote Nature Study and rural heritage.  The provincial department of agriculture and the Agricultural College published illustrated texts to complement children’s garden work. Subjects ranged from the life of bees to the story of how a Canadian farmer had developed the MacIntosh apple.

Mr. McIntosh of Dundela and the original McIntosh tree. Fig. 74 Bulletin of the Ontario Agricultural College and Dept of Agriculture Stories of  Mr. McIntosh of Dundela and the original McIntosh tree. Fig. 74 Ontario Agricultural College and Experimental Farm, Bulletin 124 December 1902

Ontario Department of Agriculture Nature Study  “Nature Studies or Studies in Agriculture” Ontario Department of Agriculture, Ontario Agricultural College Bulletin 243, December 1916  

Girl with pumpkin from Tretheway farm ca. 1909

Written for American readers, M. Louise Greene’s  Among School Gardens (1910) opens with an account of the Macdonald movement as a shining example of how its leadership had resulted in the wide acceptance of gardening as part of public education.  Greene cites a progressive educator’s praise of this Canadian achievement.

The work of the garden is recognized as a legitimate part of the school program and it is already interwoven with a considerable part of the other studies. The garden is becoming the outer classroom of the school, and its plots are its blackboards. The garden is … an organic part of the school in which the boys and girls work among growing things and grow themselves in body and mind and spiritual outlook. Cowley, R.H. The Macdonald School Gardens of Canada, Queens Quarterly p. 401


the Macdonald movement Children of the land

School gardens were a hit in the cities because they were seen  as an ideal remedy for the range of social problems being tackled by camps of largely female volunteer workers. They were perceived, like playgrounds, as safe places in the midst of the city in which normative behavior could be nurtured. Gardens to fix the children and gardening children to fix society was the enticingly tidy formula.

1913 May 17 gardening school FAIR LITTLE GARDENERS AT THE TORONTO NORMAL SCHOOL The Star  May 24, 1913 p. 31



Whether for rehabilitation or punishment, the city police court directed adult male offenders to institutions with such names as “the Farm for Inebriates” or “the Jail Farm”.  A network of similar penal facilities for juvenile delinquents including the Mimico and the Victoria Industrial Schools was the dreaded end-game destination once you appeared before Commissioner Starr of the Juvenile Court. Typically located in suburban villages, they often proved to be too close to the city for inmates to resist the temptation of an exhilarating break-out.

28. Two Lads Globe August 18, 1913 p.6 The Globe August 18, 1913 p.6Boys at work in Home Farm ca. 1910

Farming was used to instill desirable behaviors and attitudes in the errant lads.  High on this list was personal industry and respect for property.  It was assumed that in growing plants the delinquents would be sensitized to the natural laws that governed plant life and from this would come the realization that the laws of society were equally imperative to their own lives.



The problem of how to occupy children during their leisure hours loomed large in the minds of parents, teachers and other authorities brought up with the maxim “idle hands are the devil’s tool”. The urban corollary of the question: “How to keep them down on the farm” was “How to keep them off the streets”. The school garden was the panacea:

Perhaps best of all is that teaching of the saner and sweeter side of life which comes when the school garden takes the child off the city streets, away from crowded alleys, vicious surroundings, and in, the country, often from misspent leisure; when it finds happy work for idle hands, health for enfeebled bodies, and training for the will and affections. M. Louise Greene,  Among School Gardens  p. 37


Children Who Need School Gardens Among School Gardens Among School Gardens


A source of fascination and anxiety in Toronto, the overcrowded living conditions and such unsavory foreign displays as the Ward’s chicken warehouse and rag picker yards were seen as an affront to the norms of civic behavior. This was yet another cause for which the school garden was pressed into service. The Toronto Horticultural Society’s  school-based home garden competition was a rate-payer oriented expression of the movement.

Among School Gardens civic pride school gardens 'mine' p. 4 Among School Gardens

We feel that educating... Toronto Horticultural Society Yearbook 1911 Toronto Horticultural Society Yearbook 1911, School Children’s Home Gardens

The annual competition was aimed not only at developing the child’s pride in his or her private plot but, like the Macdonald movement, it was intended to have a viral educational effect. The child’s parents would be made aware of the decorum, the neat appearance required of their property.  The tidy demarcation of private from public living space expressed by a well-designed garden bounded by a vine-softened fence was the emblem of a good citizen.  The appearance of your yard marked you as an outsider or a contributor to the value of your neighborhood, your community and your city.

James-gardening at Hillcrest PS



A block from where the students of Hillcrest Public School a century ago worked on their school gardens, The Stop‘s Green Barn facility offers district schools a free, four-unit program on food security for Grades Four and Five.  While not a school garden program, it nevertheless works with the some of the same goals that drove the Macdonald movement.


Students learn about composting, beneficial insects, companion planting and growing food in an urban environment. However, instead of manual training, scientific study and ongoing outdoor activity emphasized in the traditional school gardens,  The Stop helps students to develop the attitudes and skills necessary to be environmentally and socially sensitive food consumers.


A century ago to ask “Where does food come from?” would have seemed ridiculous. Today it is the starting point for in-depth explanation and debate. Similarly, living before effective refrigeration and food preservatives.the role of worms in the life cycle would have been a well-known  to city children, today it’s a mind-blowing  phenomenon.


The question, “How do you make your food choices?” at The Stop is an opportunity for guided discussion on how certain additives make one crave junk food, how cultural heritage and family culture is reinforced through meals, how body image and social pressure may drive one to unhealthy dieting, etc.  A game called “The Basic Needs” which requires students to calculate how they would cover household costs on a limited income builds empathy and respect for neighbors who live in poverty.


The most striking contrast between the school garden educational agenda a century ago and today lies in how it promotes communal celebration over individual enterprise. The culmination of The Stop’s school program involves everyone sitting down together for a meal produced by the students themselves. The served food carries the memory of the tastings in the garden, the skills learned in the kitchen, and the pleasure of conversation. The take-away lesson is that we connect through food and that our individual well-being is intertwined with that of our environment and community.

TheStopCFC-SummerCamp_Cooking2 photos: The Stop Community Food Centre / Zoe Alexopoulos.

 Thank you Xuan-Yen Cao, Donovan and Kathe Rogers