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The Growing Season: Addressing responsible land use, food security, and community building through edible gardens

Set in the heart of the beautiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, Sunrise Waldorf School finds its home in an area abundant with rich fertile farmland, lush forests, and salmon-bearing rivers, all bordered by the ocean. For the past 30 years (Sunrise is now 44), the school has been situated in its current location, but through these three decades with the dedication of families and faculty, Sunrise has been transformed from a former winery to a vibrant centre for education. Orchards have been incorporated, outdoor classrooms created, forested areas for students to explore have been embraced, sports fields introduced, and gardens lovingly created and all work together to create a haven on the seven-acre campus.

Students at Sunrise Waldorf School know the rare pleasure of pulling carrots from the ground they planted themselves. They experience the sensation of touching the warm orange skin and tasting the intense sweet juiciness of a cherry tomato picked from the vine and eaten, there and then, in the garden. They know the satisfaction of collecting seeds - from squash, corn, and sunflowers - and learn how to save them to plant again in the spring. Along with the traditions and celebrations of the year that are typical of a Waldorf school, these experiences have become integral to the turning of the seasons at Sunrise.

In recent years, it became clear that reconciliation work with the First Peoples of this land was an imperative aspect of land conservation and Sunrise began to consult with local Indigenous Elders about land stewardship. Faculty and students began to invite local Elders to share their wisdom about Indigenous and invasive species, plant medicine, and the interdependency between all beings that share the land, water, and air. Students have participated in raising salmon, cultivating habitats for fish and Indigenous species, and created edible gardens in the wider community, thus learning to be responsible land stewards themselves.


Around the same time, other local concerns began impacting people in the area, including Sunrise families; increasing summer droughts precipitated the need for water conservation and smart irrigation strategies, while rising populations and economic shifts in the valley emphasized the need for food security.

In 2020, in response to the growing awareness of these themes, Sunrise parent Jasmine Rose Oberste embarked on a project to reclaim an unused area at the back of the campus with the aim of establishing a student and market garden. Collaborating with local specialists and businesses, she secured grants and generous donations of materials and labour, employing various permaculture techniques to create ecologically sound enduring gardens. One notable sustainable practice involved repurposing onsite resources: concrete from the location was broken up and used for retaining walls, while rotting logs and vines from a neighboring vineyard were used as the base of hügelkultur berms (pronounced hyoo-gul-kulture), a method of mounding organic materials that biodegrade at different rates, releasing nourishment over time and helping to retain water deeper in the soil. A compact gravel parking lot was transformed with straw and manure donations layered to build up the soil which was further augmented by soil donations from a local garden center. In just over a year, with significant volunteer contributions from the parent body, the area underwent a remarkable transformation. Establishing a market garden met the requirements of the Agricultural Land Reserve and yielded an array of produce, including flowers, berries, tomatoes, and onions, which have been sold to the local community from a farmstand. Adjacent to the market garden, a student garden was designed to align with the Waldorf curriculum featuring a diverse range of functions including a dye and textile garden, herb garden, vegetable beds, and outdoor classroom area.

In addition to these gardens, Mediterranean edible gardens have been cultivated in the play yard. These gardens require little water and thrive in the hot dry summers of the region and are designed to allow students to enjoy fresh herbs, and eventually figs, right outside their classrooms. 

Food security and responsible land use were large considerations in these endeavours and so was the community. Like many Waldorf schools, Sunrise has a history of bringing people together from far and wide to share in a vision of providing a quality Waldorf education, fostering collaboration, and creating a better future for our children through intentional community building. 

Our burgeoning food production aligns with our community events and annual festivals. In April, during Earth Day celebrations, all classes actively engage in land work, from seeding and sorting to weeding and planting. Grade 2, in anticipation of their farming block in Grade 3, plant vegetables, using Indigenous companion planting wisdom. The harvest from these efforts culminates in the traditional Michaelmas Soup. With a recipe handed down year after year, this labour of love involves multiple classes and parents in harvesting, cleaning, and chopping garden vegetables to incorporate in a delicious soup. Grade 3 students, as part of their main lesson in weights and measures, prepare apple crisps using apples from our orchard, while Grade 4 contributes Dragon Bread to the Michaelmas feast. As the whole school gathers to enjoy the Michaelmas meal, we share in giving thanks for the abundance of the season and this territory.

In October, as apples begin to fall from the trees, teachers, students, and parents work together to collect them before local black bears find them. The collected apples find various uses; kindergarten find the stars inside each one at snack time, make apple rings and apple sauce, and join efforts in preparing apple desserts for Thanksgiving celebrations. The parents turn the rest of the apple harvest into juice, adding to the joy of Pumpkin Path festivities at Halloween, and later at the Winter Faire, where warm mugs of apple cider offer the last sweetness of the season to Sunrise families.

Recognizing the diverse ways the gardens are woven into Sunrise Waldorf School’s identity and vision, faculty members and parents came together to establish a Garden Committee. Sunrise is thrilled to announce the addition of a Garden Coordinator and Instructor to our Faculty this year, adding consistency and expertise to the garden management at Sunrise. Teachers plan to include more garden time for the students, providing them with immersive learning experiences in food production. This increased engagement aims not only to deepen their understanding of where our food comes from, but also to boost our harvest and contribute to our weekly hot lunch program.

By expanding food production at Sunrise Waldorf School, we continue to uphold our core values of responsible land stewardship, food security, and coming together as a community throughout the changing seasons. 


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