A Winter Update From Building Roots’ Urban Farm at Ashbridge Estate

The Building Roots urban farm at Ashbridge Estate is small (there’s not a lot of room in a city) but mighty – mighty enough to transform this worrying year to reliable joy for a dozen participants. From May through October we gathered weekly to perform and witness many small magics.

First there’s the obvious – from minuscule specks of seed and spindly 3” seedlings, we produced … food.

That’s peppers, tomatoes, peas, beans, zucchini, bitter melon, turnips, kohlrabi, garlic, chard, mint, dill, thyme, basil, and more.

We know the seed needs to be in the right place (for sun), with the right resources (water and good soil) and the right helpers (soil micro-organisms, and a human helper (to provide a stake, prune suckers, protect against pests and disease).  

So far, that’s just like a child growing up to be a poet or an engineer or an analyst – to flourish, both seed and child need  many things to come together: a suitable environment, resources, helpers – and time.

But then there’s the mystery of it. We don’t know all about how a seed becomes a mature plant, and certainly not about how a child explores and develops its talents. Watching something creative and mysterious unfold is a joy that nourished the farm crew every week. (It also sent a few of us to botany books!)

Second, the farm is volunteer-powered, raising this food not for ourselves but for the Building Roots produce bags distributed at the Moss Park Market year-round. 

The kindness of people to each other is another magic, one of the greatest there is. Our dozen participants joined a river of human decency that flowed this year. 

We also produced food for bees and other pollinators – borage, yarrow, dill, cosmos, zinnia, apple blossoms, and clover among our well-received offerings.

Over the season we put in more than 800 hours; why? Making a gift of time and attention is very satisfying and more-ish. There are reductionist explanations for the pleasure of giving to others (a boost of oxytocin is one), but the experiential fact is that we’re social beings and like to connect. 

At the farm – masked and distanced – we are engaged in a collaborative project, connecting strongly with each other, with the people who eat what we produce, with the warm-hearted staff at our host, the Ontario Heritage Trust, and with a dozen businesses and organizations that were generous to the farm. 

To name just four – Miceli’s Seasonals gifted us 15 (!) flats of seedlings; Lazy Daisy Café provided coffee grounds for soil amendment; FoodShare through CAMh gave garlic to plant and a beautiful cedar 3-bin composter; and with our participation Not Far From The Tree delivered a few hundred pounds of organic fruit to the Moss Park Market. (And Manning Canning turned some of that into jars of applesauce for the market.)

This is the instigation of a virtuous cycle – resources flowing to us that we put to use for others, enabling them in turn to be more for those around them. 

To all who supported the urban farm this year, our deepest thanks for enabling this flow of goodness.

We also gave to each other – blueberry muffins, nasturtium pesto, green-tomato chutney, kombucha starter, gecko keychains – and connections beyond the farm to mushroom foraging, tai chi in the park, and more – and ad hoc workshops on pruning, propagating, raising caterpillars to butterflies, hugelkultur, plant families, Three-Sisters plantings, tying secure knots and splices. The Building Roots urban farm is a learning place!

Third, every week we turned our backs on cement, pandemics, job worries, and odious politics … to spend a sunny morning surrounded by trees, flower beds, and birdsong, collaborating with companionable others in light physical exercise that has a kindly and creative purpose. 

That’s a checkmark on most of the major factors that contribute to personal and social well-being.

That’s how this otherwise difficult year paradoxically gave us six months of laughter, abundance, and delight. It’s how we delivered weekly harvests to the Moss Park Market. And it’s how, from small seeds, we at the urban farm nurture the Building Roots mission of social cohesion. To manifest its potential, social cohesion – like a seed or a child – needs a nourishing environment, resources, helpers … and time.

My wish for 2021 is that, whatever else is going on, ever more of us engage in the small magics that give others – and ourselves – the joy of flourishing.

This picture as a group was taken while health and safety regulations permitted gathering in small numbers with the express consent and awareness of each individual participating.


An emotionally charged ode to how our year of change is progressing in an annual season of change this fall.

Outside my door bees are busy at the blue asters, robins and grackles are rustling in the Virginia creeper for the purple berries; yesterday geese were calling; the nights are drawing in. 

As a gardener, I’m deeply ambivalent about October. What’s done is done, well or ill alike; it’s time to say this story’s over, say farewell to the season. And yet in the same moment, I’m also looking to the next season, because the last fall task at the Ashbridge Urban Farm is to get ready for spring – clear and mulch the beds so they’ll be prepared for an early start. 

In just a month I’ll be poring through catalogues, trying to shorten wishful lists of heirloom food plants; eight weeks after that is not too early to start the seeds of woody herbs; four weeks takes me to cabbages; another four and it’s time to start tomato seeds; and a few weeks after that we’re off and running hard to keep ahead of the season.

The Roman god Janus, with one face looking to the past and the other to the future, represented transitions, both literal and metaphorical – doorways and gates, war and peace, motion and time. The month of January is named for the transition from one calendar year to the next; if a gardener had decided this, January would be a fall month.

We’re all in a transition now, as the pandemic reality sinks in: this isn’t a 3-month sprint, it’s an 18-month marathon. It’s very not clear how we get through it – individually, or as a city, or an economy, or as a species. But as I think about it, my thoughts keep drifting to peoples and countries that have gone through – are going through – far worse disruptions.

This isn’t a 3-month sprint, it’s an 18-month marathon.

The people of Fukushima and Chernobyl and the Three Gorges Dam. The people of the Gulf of Mexico and Puerto Rico. The peoples of the Arctic and California and Australia and the Amazon and Fiji and the Maldives and the Solomon Islands. The people of Afghanistan and Syria and North Vietnam and the Crimea. The people of Greece and Brazil. The Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Buddhists of Tibet. The people of Minamata and Grassy Narrows and Flint and Love Canal and Bhopal. The child soldiers of the Congo and the children of the Sixties Scoop.

These are just highlights you might recognize; there are terribly many more.

So I think some balance is called for. 

Yes, coping with covid-19 is disruptive. Yes, being so unsure of what to do next or what comes next makes us anxious. Yes, we in Canada have been living in a bubble of stability compared to the rest of the world, and so a big change leaves us unprepared, unnerved, unsure how to adapt. 

But good golly, the essence of being human is our amazing, outstanding ability to adapt! We can do this. Most of our families have, within one or two generations back, surmounted major change; we too can adapt – to this transition period when the virus is loose, and again when it’s been quelled.

Looking forward – adaptation will require spirit, ingenuity, collaboration, lateral thinking – we humans have got those totally covered. And looking back, in a Janus spirit, to January – my first post of the year, before we were even aware of the pandemic, was about adapting to (a different) change by embracing it.

It began,

“The past year had me continually adapting to new circumstances, both bad and good. Jolting change is wearing, but it may be what 2020 has in store for most of us. If that’s right, we will need to keep each other’s energy up, and our own,”

and ended,

“Change is coming… Here’s to seeing a 2020 when our choices are better because we require it – and when we help each other embrace them.”

Just two months after that post, the Building Roots team adapted instantly to the pandemic, embracing the reality of the situation and putting better choices on the table (literally as well as figuratively) for people. We’re not the only organization to do that, to be sure. Every one of us has the ability to use mind, body, and spirit to adapt and to help each other. 

Here’s to having that very human capability strengthen us in this “season” of pandemic – and to having it give us empathy with other people’s troubles. It may be October now, but any farmer will tell you that when trouble hits we band together to get everyone through it – and that April is up ahead.

Kate Hamilton is the Urban Farm Manager and coordinates the Building Roots urban farming initiative at Ashbridge Estate and skills workshop series. You can find Kate almost weekly at the Ashbridge Estate location or writing inspiring articles such as this piece.

The Building Roots Urban Farm

On the radio I hear people feeling distraught that distancing has taken their summer away – no cottage, no music or food festivals, no bar patios; how will they even know it’s summer?

I’m not lost in time at all. Snowdrops, daffodils, bright forsythia, flamboyant magnolia, and brilliant tulips are my countdown to getting seed in the ground & doing my part to help sun & soil make food.

Now that the polar vortex is behind us and the City has decided the rules for teamwork gardening, I’ve been preparing beds at the Building Roots volunteer-powered urban farm.

We grow vegetables for the Building Roots market at Moss Park – a food desert (which means you can’t find fresh food for many blocks). Last year we delivered radish and lettuce and spinach, peas and beans, tomatoes and zucchini and garlic, and – the market serves a diverse culinary base – callaloo and Ethiopian kale. This year we’re adding other nutritious greens including fenugreek (mehti) and tatsoi.

The urban farm is in a lovely spot at Ashbridge Estate, an Ontario Heritage Trust site in east Toronto. Last year we doubled the growing space, but it’s not a huge area so I was able to start the beds working alone.

(There are new rules this year – signing in and out, sanitizing tools – but the distancing feels normal: we’re always only a couple of people at a time, much more than 6’ apart, comfortably companionable.)

Dig, dig, dig … the best way to get a summer body back! If you’re missing your gym, come lend a hand – farm work uses every muscle – in the beautiful outdoors with sunshine, trees, and birdsong : )

My first session didn’t involve any digging, though. I just walked around seeing how the beds had come through the winter, and noticing –

  • Garlic – planted in October – poking up
  • Self-seeded Ethiopian kale, well along in our cold frame
  • Overwintered Noir de Pardailhan turnips going to seed for us

These are a tether anchored in last fall, reaching through the dead of winter to this moment in spring. They tell me where we are in the sun’s circle, in the year’s cycle, and I know what to do next.

This sense of the season is not something I grew up with; it came from the doing. All kinds of production have their own lore built in; what is yours instilling in you?

Keeping It Together (Part 3)

Well-being is about mind, body, and spirit – or some say mind, body, and emotions. This post is about spirit, with three points.

1.     Attitude is everything

Notes from people who’ve been there themselves –

There are actual immunological reasons to cultivate happiness, joy, awe, wonder (short and sensible article). Try a “happiness library” or a shared Spotify account of music that celebrates joy, courage, achievement. (I’d include the blues song “Strawberry Jam”; see if you can find it.)

A few people who are quite comfortable living alone have written about this being different: they’re feeling frighteningly invisible. Touch (see below) helps with that; just as important is to manifest your existence to others. We need to be seen, at least metaphorically. Helping is a way to have an effect in the world, and thanks to the ‘net there are ways to do that even now. It also puts some beacons in the murky future to steer by, and gives you accomplishments as milestones. An hour a week on a help line? It does matter.

Some ways to contain waves of worry here. And don’t be too stubborn to reach out when you want to.

2.     Own your time

Often one wished for more free time, but what we have now is uncomfortable – “A sustained, long-run lockdown means that a vast stretch of undifferentiated time is unfurling ahead of us, stripped bare of the usual divisions and markers.”

We need milestones: “We want to feel time is precious; we don’t want to write it off. We don’t want to lose a summer that we’ll never get back. We don’t want to do time; we don’t want to be inside. We want to live.” [source, a thoughtful article]

So live! Own your life, even now: create your own milestones –

  • Make the effort to make memories – create a rich subjective time. “[D]istinct events and experiences … stretch out the temporal landscape.” [source]
  • Put a fixed point in your day – a sit-down lunch, blues at 8pm, 5 minutes screaming into a pillow, whatever: something you want and decide on and will look forward to.
  • Try one of the things you’ve never had time for. Time is the one renewable resource we all have; don’t let it slip through your fingers. This too is life: what will you do with it? Whether it’s building a puppet theatre or playing recorder or saying hello in a dozen languages or making papier mache animals, you can do it – and when you have, you’ll feel good and want to do another.

3.     The importance of touch

Touch is really important to well-being. For those of us living alone, and for all of us who now aren’t touching many things out in the world, this is a significant loss even if we’re not directly aware of its effects.

  • The challenges of isolating (G&M article)
  • Short overview of the importance of touch. Neuroscientist David Lindon writes that our skin is a social organ that cultivates cooperation, improves health and enhances development.
  • From another article: “Touch makes your brain grow…. Touch is how we become part of this human community.” Touch “let me know that I existed, that I was here.” [source]

What to do with that knowledge? Well, it’s a wonderful fact that our brains don’t distinguish clearly between experience and memory.

  • Take a few minutes to remember – the feeling of being hand-in-hand with another person, the hugs you’ve had, running your fingers along rough bark or soft pine needles, the wind on your arms and the sun on your face, petting a dog’s head or wrestling a snowsuit onto a squirming child, cuddling and dancing, turning a key in a lock or leaning against a heavy door, the weight of a teacup or the warmth of a sweater.
  • Pull up your touch memories every day – you have them, and they will help in the now.

You can add new touch experiences, even now.

  • Massage your feet, noticing how it feels in your foot and in your hands. Rest your cheek against a windowpane and experience its texture. Close your eyes and feel a sheet of paper and a piece of wood: can you tell the difference? What is the difference? What are the fabric textures in your closet?
  • If you can get outdoors, try short barefoot walks. (In the city, choose your place and watch for glass!) You too may discover “the small joy of finding a dandelion stalk caught between the toes … touching rocks and roots, just feels good.”

Mental imagery works with photographs too.

  • In this gallery of outstanding wildlife shots, imagine stroking the fur of the arctic fox, touching the wrinkled orangutan cheek, feeling the hard scales of the pangolin, shaking hands with the mountain gorilla, being explored by the elephant’s trunk.

And for off-the-wall inspiration, here’s an inventive wood-worker’s creation, Proud Parent. The video is 16min and it’s a giggle – I think you won’t count it as lost time!

Last word

A quote I’m finding very helpful –

“Inspiration and small pleasures can hide in plain sight, patiently waiting for a keen co-conspirator to spring them loose.” – Jez Burrows, Dictionary Stories

Net Picks (Part 3)

Now that so much performance art is online, it’s almost overwhelming.

What’s working for me is to listen to radio or music while I’m doing dishes or other chores; a walk after dinner and then relax into culture / entertainment. I choose the performance or venue in the morning – all day I have a fine evening to look forward to!

Or – just click on something, check it out – the world is out there, and bursting with variety.


  • Children’s bedtime stories read by Dolly Parton; her Imagination Library has delivered more than 130m free books to children. Here’s The little engine that could on YouTube, which to my surprise has tremendous present relevance (essential work, role of the powerful, small-scale kindness, persistence, …); there are lots more stories.
  • Poetry Jukebox – requests read by actor Samuel West and friends. Completely accessible; try #2, The Lion and Albert (3min), or #6, On the Ning Nang Nong (1min), both very silly. There are also wry, loving, angry, and courageous  selections. Try #21, Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things (1½ min).
  • The Ancient Mariner Big Read  and article on this 3-year project
  • Spoken word for Earth Day (3min, top-quality performance)


  • CBC’s Laugh Out Loud not an essential service?!! Dozens of past episodes available. Laughter is good for spirit – and boosts health too.


  • ArtUK exhibits 250,000 artworks from 3,290 UK venues and 4,500 artists. In May an innovative new feature will launch – Curations – create your own virtual exhibition.
  • All the arts – a new Canadian site, Arts At Home, brings together sites for art, dance, music, theatre, and more. Find it here – Harbourfront’s Thursday Crafternoons,


  • Bella Dance online – for children and adults – from Yellowknife, NWT, Includes charming activities and resources for kids under 7yo. article
  • Article listing more dance opportunities with top ballet performers
  • Cinderella and other performances by the Australian Ballet
  • Swan (5min) – Royal Birmingham Ballet



  • UK’s National Theatre – a new play every Thursday on YouTube, free for a week.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber is releasing musicals on YouTube each week, Fridays at 7pm BST, for 48 hours. (Also on that channel, excerpts from other Weber operas.)
  • Link list of more theatre and ballet – too many to detail! Shakespeare’s Globe, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre (BSL and spoken English), the Broken Wings ballet, puppet performances of I have seen my hat, This is not my hat and We found a hat.
  • Another link list of theatre, with selections for all ages. Anansi the Spider, I wish I was a mountain, A Tiger’s Tale (! until May 24) – also Mother Courage (15-22 May), A Doll’s House, and much much more.

Inner world

  • Mondays at 7pm, Toronto’s Annie Lockerbie Newton’s 31min meditation streaming on Facebook and Instagram.
  • TED talks – short talks on new ideas and achievements. Most are high quality.
  • Code.org has a very gentle introduction to coding as a technique for breaking big tasks down into smaller ones (a useful skill : ) and making a computer do what you tell it to (highly absorbing). The “classes” are set up as puzzles – try Dance Party. There’s also a 1pm ET “Code Break” session on Wednesdays.
  • Unusual – DigVentures is waiving the fee for the June 1 course How to do archaeology. A 6-week certificate course approved by the UK’s Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. Discover the parts of a dig, the clues, the roles.

“Inspired by the DigVentures course, one woman has dug a trench a metre-deep in her back garden, in which she has found nothing more precious than a fork and a marble. ‘But a couple of days ago when sitting in my trench with my brush and my palette knife, I suddenly realised that I actually felt happy and unstressed – both feelings somewhat alien to me currently.’” [article]

Escape to the wider world

  • YouTube walking videos – it’s a thing.
  • Visit Amsterdam – article linking to excellent online resources, from the Rijksmuseum which has been digitizing for years, to photographers to music to street art.
    • Challenge: curate your own guide to another city.
  • Remote Tourism – live experience with a guide (article). Realtime is engaging : )

Participants decide which way to turn, what to look at. On Wednesday when I watched, we were in the oldest village in the Faroe Islands. There was a nasty North Atlantic storm blowing in, so the guide turned back from the hills into the village where there was more shelter. Had to avoid the geese. Who knows where next!

  • Nest-flix and other delights – article linking to the Cornell Lab birdcams, Edinburgh Zoo, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and more. “They offer connection and continuity – the transporting sensation of watching a creature indifferent to human endeavour going about its life.”
  • HotDocs at home through CBC TV. Toronto’s film festivals are known worldwide – here’s a front-row seat to documentaries about current issues – with no standing in line.
  • 10 of the world’s best museum and gallery tours (suggestion: start with the Natural History Museum, London – its online presence is excellent)
  • Go local – The Radio Garden app and article suggesting a few stations.

For light relief right now, in the moment –

Net Picks (Part 2)

7:30pm every evening – go out on the street to cheer for our healthcare workers. If you have a musical instrument, bring it! On my corner there`s bagpipes and an accordion : )

Keeping It Together (Part 2)

Advice from astronaut Scott Kelly and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Vincent Lavoie, acrobat with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, says high-level performers have a particular “strength in our wheelhouse – to look at the situation and head straight to something that’s productive, rather than dwelling on our misfortune.” Nice to be like that!

OK. Well-being is about mind, body, and spirit – or some say mind, body, and emotions. This post is about body.

Eat well

Bodies have amazing layers of defences against getting sick. This is a time to treat those systems well – give eating for health a little more attention than usual.

The Globe and Mail’s nutrition writer, Leslie Beck, posted an article about immune-supportive nutrients, with good explanations. The article organizes these foods by nutrient, but if you’re on a tiny budget (as I am), just lean more often towards the foods she mentions –

  • almonds, dried apricots, asparagus, avocado
  • beef, black beans, Brazil nuts, fortified breakfast cereals, broccoli, brown rice, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash
  • cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cashews, cauliflower, cheese, chicken, chickpeas, citrus fruit, cottage cheese, crab
  • eggs
  • halibut, hazelnuts, herring
  • kale, kidney beans, kiwifruit
  • lentils, liver
  • mango, milk
  • fortified orange juice, oysters
  • green peas, peanut butter, peanuts, pork, pumpkin seeds, bell peppers
  • safflower oil, salmon, sardines, shrimp, spinach, strawberries, sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, sweet potato, Swiss chard, tomato juice, tuna, turkey
  • wheat germ, wheat germ oil
  • yogurt


Even a little mild-to-moderate exercise makes you feel better & more competent, boosts your immune system, and lifts your mood a bit for hours after. Do not overdo it – just take 10-15 minutes – 2-3 times a day is great, especially for cooped-up children and under-25s who have energy they need to burn.

Note – If you have any physical constraints, check with your doctor for what’s right for you to do. These are only useful links; this is not medical advice!

  • Canada’s famous 5BX (men) and XBX (women) – basic exercises to achieve a reasonably high level of fitness. For any age and level. No equipment. 11-12min/day, starting easy(ish). Designed for the RCAF in the 1950s, after 1/3 of pilots were rated unfit. Used today by the British royal family including William and Kate.
  • DareBEE – remarkable resource site by a small group of volunteers and fitness professionals –  fitness should be “accessible for everyone, not just people who can pay for it.” There’s something for everyone here.

I usually prefer exercise that accomplishes something (growing vegetables, walking) but this site is becoming a constant companion.

Search out spring

(On current rules, “You can go for a walk if you have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, if you don’t have a recent history of travel outside the country, and if you don’t have symptoms that could be COVID-19.” Toronto park infrastructure is closed, but you can still walk. Go alone or with a housemate, do not meet up with others, and stay 6’ away from other walkers.)

Starting in March there is a joyous and totally easy thing to do – just walk around for a few blocks searching out spring.

It doesn’t feel like spring yet – but the plants know more than we do! Snowdrops are in bloom, yellow and blue crocuses are open, tulip leaves are poking up. The first buds are swelling on rose bushes, and willows are turning yellow.

If you have a camera, take photos and share. People who can’t go out need to see this too.

Especially when your mind is fast-cycling and getting you worked up, a simple walk can put you back in control.

“Time spent in nature is linked to lower stress, restored attention, a balanced nervous system, increased levels of cancer-fighting “natural killer cells”, the activation of neural pathways associated with calm, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression. Phytoncides (compounds emitted from trees and plants), relaxation, stress reduction and awe are known to enhance immune function.”

Spring symbolizes endurance and renewal – good thoughts at this vexing time. Let Toronto’s marvellous natural infrastructure help you through. It’s there, waiting for you to see it.

Take a virtual walk

Even if you can’t go out, you can still get nature’s support.

A study in “horticultural therapy” showed that hospital patients who can see trees and gardens out the window recover faster, and report less anxiety and pain, than patients whose window looks onto a parking lot.

Experiencing nature reduces fear and pain – what can you do with that? Well –

Imagination is a human super-power, and you have it.

Think of a setting you like – mountain, lake, forest, beach? – or an animal, butterfly, flower, tree. Go looking for it on the net, or in your mind`s eye. Focus on a scene – Look closely, get immersed, imagine it with all your senses. Water lapping on the shore, pine scent on the warm breeze… Go “away” for 5 minutes, or 20.

You can enhance the experience with birdsong (I’ve been playing these every day. They make things .. just a bit better) –

Other ways to travel without leaving home.

Make a home retreat

Turn one small corner of a room into a mini-environment. Hang a flowered curtain or forest poster in the corner, put a comfortable chair or cushions facing it; add a little stack of resources – hobby or craft materials, books or magazines – and a water bottle so you don’t have to get up; maybe an incense burner, a bunch of flowers. Set birdsong or gentle music playing and settle in … Aaaah, that’s better!

If you have children at home, it will help them too.

With a large screen, you can also transform this corner into a personal travel guide – tour world-famous sites, museums and galleries, the Leslie Street Spit.

It’s really nice to have a place that means relaxing. Even in ordinary times a dedicated retreat like this is a luxury. And it’s your home, so how you arrange your furniture is totally up to you.

Net Picks (Part 1)

Short giggle gems:

Two absorbing resources:

  • For children – Scouts’ 100 games and activities for “The great indoors.”
  • Learn to tie knots and what each is good for. Why not? Two good sites here and here.

Two audio treats:

  • Famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma is posting Songs of Comfort – here’s the first (short)
  • YouTube birdsong with forest view (long; excellent improvement for indoor living)

And two collective actions:

  • Choir choir choir – Canada’s duo famous for big-group sing-alongs – did a virtual sing-along; thousands joined in. (They plan to do more.)
  • At 7:30 pm every night, take 5min to make a loud happy noise outside in thanks to our healthcare workers. Clap, sing, whatever. On my street a couple of nights ago we had a bagpipe, singers, garbage-bin drummers … all 6’ apart and that works just fine : )

Keeping It Together

Fun tidbits:

If you’re reading this online, you are connected to a glorious resource, the internet. You can –

  • Challenge yourself with puzzles and logic games – more absorbing than candy crush
  • Learn things, from sewing to toaster repair, and about things, from gardening to geology
  • See amazing visuals (and engage your other senses)
  • Hear classical music (de-stressing), watch/read classic literature (thought-provoking)

Well-being is about mind, body, and spirit – or some would say mind, body, and emotions. This post is about mind.

Everything listed is free, and ad-free as far as I know. I do have AdBlockerPlus installed. (A few sites want me to disable it; you can, but I just go somewhere else: I like an ad-free life.)

There’s a whole lot more, and lots I don’t know about. I hope to invite your suggestions in future – so we can pool our keep-it-together resources!

Add to yourself

Own your time – choose a small, light-hearted project – accomplishment feels fantastic.

  • An internet search for “how to…” will find step-by-step instructions and explanations and videos for just about anything.
    • My best project was to start learning to play a recorder. I have zero music training, but Value Village had a recorder for $3…. Music tunes up the brain (pun!), so that’s a 3-in-1 – learning, brain agility, and (some day…) music.
  • A site for starting a language: DuoLingo. You have to sign up, but it’s free and gentle.
  • Do a MOOC – free online courses of good quality.

Enrich yourself

Stretch yourself

  • Scroll down here and try Tiles and Set – matching games with a twist. (Both include colour matching, so, not for people who have colour-blindness.)
  • If you like the Set game, here’s another site.
  • Good word games, especially Popword and Eight Letters. Timed; you need a fair bit of English to get very far, but even trying to find words is super exercise.

Amuse yourself

According to research, laughter boosts the immune system. Here’s some help with that – 

Relax yourself

  • Put yourself in the scene with wildlife photo galleries. Explore more than the visual – notice the textures, imagine the sounds, the temperature, what the air is like.
  • With kids – or without them!  – a wildlife gallery can launch a week’s worth of projects. Pick a photo and (1) learn about the animal, (2) draw it in different poses, (3) write a story or poem or song about it, (4) make a collage of photos of it, (5) tell someone about it in 5 minutes, (6) find out what else the photographer has done.

Defying winter – Part II: Go out to be out

Now the sun is getting its strength back, grab every bit of sunshine you can. Sunshine lifts spirits. That makes you feel more capable. There’s no logic to that, it just is.

Even just stand in a doorway with your face to the sun: delicious!  But Toronto has more to offer: it’s exceptionally good for late-winter explorations. This post has two parts: On Your Own Time – short adventures that work for me, with some great places to see and be; and With Others – walking tours with a leader who talks a bit about what you’re seeing.

All free, because if there’s a charge I make an excuse to stay home : )

Second tip for defying winter: good socks and dry boots that are big enough for the socks. (Pre-owned boots are an inexpensive aid to well-being!) With head, neck, and feet cosy, on a sunny late-winter day you can be comfortable enough to feel great.

On Your Own Time

Usually I plan to be out for an hour – a little break, not a big project – but I’ve learned to bring a sandwich and thermos in case I want to explore a while longer.


  1. Take your phone and walk a few blocks in your neighbourhood photographing the first signs of spring – or whatever catches your eye.
  2. Check out local small parks. Parks map. City staff workto make these nice for us. Simply be there: tea and a sandwich on a bench in spring sunshine = twenty minutes of peace.
  3. Explore the area around each TTC station just to see what it’s like. There’s plenty of variety:
    • The Bloor-Danforth line has 31 stations; it’s 26km (16mi) long.
    • The Yonge-University line has 38 stations; it’s 39km (24mi) long.
  4. Visit the big parks. See migratory birds return from the south, experience oak savannah, watch salmon leaping upstream, take a ferry and walk the largest urban car-free community in North America – all in Toronto, on public transit!

After you’ve gone out a few times, you may find friends will want to join you. It can be that easy to start a companionable habit that magics an hour or so in each week into a mini-vacation.

A few exceptional places

2h/week in nature is good for health & happiness. Just do it; you’ll thank yourself.

Etienne Brule Park – Old Mill Station – salmon run in spring and fall; I have seen this myself. “Perfect for getting away from the city noise for an afternoon to relax in nature.” 6min spring slideshow and fall photos – this too is the city you live in!

High Park – High Park Station – 399 acres, cherries in bloom in spring, oak savannah, nature centre, paths along the Humber River, lakeshore, much more. “A walk along Grenadier Pond … will make you forget you are in the largest city in Canada.”

Leslie Street Spit and Tommy Thompson Park – Queen streetcar to Leslie St, short walk south – lakeshore, migratory birds, unique urban wilderness (CBC Nature of Things episode). Monday-Friday, 4pm-9pm; weekends, 5:30am-9pm. Photos.

Don River Valley trails – see the link for many ways to get into Don River Valley Park, a long stretch of 200 hectares from Pottery Road to Corktown Common. Salmon run on the Don as well as on the Humber. The city is a bit more evident here but if you want to stretch your legs in a long (or short) meditative walk with trees, this is a great place for it.

Ashbridge’s Bay Park – Queen streetcar east to Coxwell, short walk south – stretches into the lake; migratory birds; on the 56km Martin Goodman Trail.

Toronto Island Park – a 10min walk from Union Station to a ferry (there’s a charge for the ferry) that runs May-September. 15 islands, footpaths and bridges. 200yo lighthouse, Lake Ontario, and one of the largest urban car-free communities in North America.

Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat and Garden – Queen streetcar 501 west to the Humber Loop, walk south 12min – wildflowers, shrubs, trees, grasses make it beautiful anytime. It’s a long ride – bring a book, headphones, or a pal to chat with. Best times for butterflies, early morning and early evening, April to mid-October. More info and photos.

Kay Gardener section of the long Beltline Trail – Eglinton West Station, short walk north (map – scroll down) – wanders along old ravines and through hidden green spaces.

Self-directed walks

It’s nice to have a map when you go someplace for the first time.

City of Toronto – route map and details for 11 Discovery Walks – Don Valley, Uptown, Downtown, Ravines, and more.

Daily Hive – resources for a dozen interesting walks. Includes High Park and Toronto Islands, the Beaches, Kensington Market, open space in the downtown core, and more.

City of Toronto – route map and details for four urban walks.

City of Toronto – Trails maps for the east and west sides of the city – PDF, hard to read until you zoom in, but useful.

With Others

Free short walking tours

Riverside Walks – free local walk monthly, May-October.  On May 3 – Wild Plants, 11am; register here.

Toronto Free Walking Tours – daily walks at 10am (!check the schedule), starting from the Berczy Park Dog Fountain, 35 Wellington St E.

Tour Guys – daily fun free walks. Downtown Toronto – 10am; from May 1, 10am, noon, and 2pm.

ROM – free guided walks, every week May-October – Toronto neighbourhoods and history. Sunday at 2pm, Wednesday at 6pm.

Heritage Toronto – free guided walks every week May-October. (In February their schedule isn’t up yet.)

Jane’s Walks. Jane Jacobs was an extraordinary city organizer and advocate of people-centred design. (In February their full schedule isn’t up yet.) Annual Jane’s Walk Festival May 1-3.

High Park Nature Centre – free walking tours, first and third Sunday of the month, 10:30am. Schedule. Led by volunteer scientists, historians, and naturalists.

Toronto Botanical Garden – free weekly guided garden and ravine tours, summer Thursdays 6pm. Connects directly to the wonderful Edwards Gardens and Wilket Creek Ravine.

Club walks

These groups welcome newcomers, and share remarkable information that makes your world richer. Just recognize that some walks are more about discovery than walking – e.g., with birdwatchers, being quiet and staying still for a while are part of the adventure.

Toronto Field Naturalists (TFN) – Frequent public (free) walks with an informative leader. Schedule. Colonel Smith Park, Scarborough Bluffs, Warden Woods will take you out of the downtown core to see things you might never get to on your own.

Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) – Frequent public (free) walks, beginners welcome. Schedule. Most are local – April 23 and 25 at Leslie Street Spit, April 26 at Humber Bay Park, May 9 at High Park, May 13 at Ashbridges Bay… Woodcocks, spring migrants, orioles – see them, hear them, be delighted.

One more tip

Don’t be paralyzed by all these choices! – just do something. Next week you can do another.