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The Three Sisters garden. Photo: Chris Chase.

The Three Sisters garden at Algonquin College grows food and thoughtful learning

By Alison Larabie Chase on July 7, 2022

The Three Sisters garden. Photo: Chris Chase.

Algonquin College’s Three Sisters garden aims to support truth and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples through education, natural beauty, and delicious food. And here’s the best part: Anyone is welcome to go and spend time in it.

In 2019, as part of its commitment to truth and reconciliation, horticulture studies students at Algonquin College planted a ceremonial Three Sisters garden on a disused section of its main campus on Woodroffe Avenue. The Three Sisters, according to the Haudenosaunee creation story, are the sacred plants of corn, squash, and beans that were a gift from the Creator, and their cultivation and harvest sustained all who live on Turtle Island (now known as North America) through the long winters.

Corn, bean, and squash plants—the three sisters—grow together. Photo: Chris Chase.

After a year of lying fallow due to the pandemic, in 2022 the Three Sisters garden is thriving once again. The space serves many purposes for students and the Algonquin community, says Jeff Turner, senior manager for Indigenous partnerships and special projects.

“The Three Sisters story is interesting and people can relate to it. It’s food-related, it’s gardening, and it’s historical. Our Vice President of Truth and Reconciliation, a few years ago, was telling stories about the Three Sisters garden, and at a meeting we had one day, I said ‘we should have one!’ And there’s this really brilliant place, this really cool little courtyard, behind the student commons centre and our hospitality wing. So I reached out to my colleagues at the horticulture program and suggested it as an opportunity to extend the learning to those students,” Turner says.

The Three Sisters, according to the Haudenosaunee creation story, are the sacred plants of corn, squash, and beans that were a gift from the Creator, and their cultivation and harvest sustained all who live on Turtle Island

Since then, the garden has been expanded with a focus on making the space more inhabitable and more interesting. “Just these last few months, we added additional plant material (all Indigenous) and made it more of a courtyard. And we’ve been extending an invitation for staff to come and visit the courtyard, stay and enjoy it,” Turner says.

The garden’s learning opportunities extend to students of all ages, including kids who attend the daycare centre that’s part of Algonquin’s early childhood education program. “We start very early here,” Turner says with a smile. The children regularly participate in nature walks around campus with Jason Vodden, one of the instructors in the horticultural studies program, but this year Turner says they got even more hands-on:

“The five-year-olds came marching over in rain gear and rubber boots, and it was the cutest thing. And they helped Jason plant the beans.”

For the older students studying in the horticulture program, the garden is a chance to be part of a legacy. Turner says he speaks to students as they finish their term working on the garden about its significance and importance to Indigenous culture and the college’s commitment to truth and reconciliation.

“What I was trying to convey to them is that it’s more than just a little landscape project that they’re doing on campus. And they had quite an appreciation for that. It resonated.”

Because the Algonquin College campus is public space (something many in Ottawa may not realize!) Turner says folks are more than welcome to come visit the garden, and though there isn’t any signage and it may be a little hard to find, it’s worth doing.

Corn, soon. Photo: Chris Chase.

“When you find this space, sandwiched in between two buildings… it used to be a hot, dry barren piece of land that grew weeds. I never liked the sight of it. It’s transformed now.”

There are a few picnic tables with umbrellas where people can sit and relax. Turner notes that it’s also attracting more birds since they’ve added other Indigenous plants like birch trees, nannyberries, strawberries and serviceberries. At the bidding of the culinary services program, they also added chives, which the cooking classes and on-campus restaurant use in great quantities.

Beans! Photo: Chris Chase.

So where does all the delicious food grown in the garden go to in the fall?

“The harvest is shared in a couple of ways. First of all, we make it available to our faculty and staff, we let people know they can come and help themselves. Because we don’t want it to spoil,” Turner says. The college’s culinary services program takes the lion’s share of the harvest for use in the campus cafeteria, the Restaurant International, and special event catering. And there’s no shortage of it: “Last year we had a huge harvest. Just baskets and baskets of squash.”

Future squash. Photo: Chris Chase.

If you’re in the Baseline and Woodroffe area and you have some spare time, take a wander through the Algonquin campus and see if you can find the garden, tucked between the student commons building and the culinary school, near the Connections bookstore. Turner says it will soon be easier for visitors who stumble upon this unique space to learn and understand where they are.

“There’s going to be a plaque created that dedicates the space, which will include a QR code and that will take you to the story of the Three Sisters garden.”

The Three Sisters garden is located on the Woodroffe Campus of Algonquin College. It is open to the public.