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June 24, 2024

PaRx People: A Conversation with Christina Keys and Dr. Eugenie Waters

Christina Keys is a former geography teacher with qualifications in international development and food security. Dr. Eugenie Waters is an Ottawa family physician, gardening enthusiast and cycling advocate who is passionate about climate change and health. Christina and Dr. Waters led the establishment of native plant gardens at their children’s schools in Ottawa, École élémentaire publique Trille des Bois and Manor Park Public School, respectively. They also work together on various community native plant garden projects through their involvement with the Manor Park Community Association’s (MPCA) Environmental Sustainability Committee.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Eugenie and Christina to learn about why increasing school and neighbourhood nature access is so important to them, the unexpected benefits of their native plant garden projects, how their early nature experiences informed their life’s work, and more.


Tell me about your early experiences in nature, and how they contributed to your career and interests today.

 Eugenie: My dad grew up on a farm, so my first memories of nature involved going there on long car rides outside of the city. One particular memory is of walking to the big, steep ravine at the back of the apple orchard with my grandmother, and discovering all sorts of things down there. We found bones from cattle, which was very exciting, and decomposing trees and tree stumps, and peat—that unique texture, touch and smell. That's my first memory: the multi-sensory experience of being out in the woods.

Eugenie with a cousin on her grandparents’ farm near St. George, ON in 1988. Photo supplied.


I have a complicated relationship with the history of that farm. My grandfather had sprayed DDT in the apple orchard, and at the time they used open tractors; there wasn't a cab, there was no protection. Later in life, in his late sixties, he developed some health issues we think came from his exposure to pesticides. The food he grew on the farm fed many people but also probably affected his health, and certainly impacted his quality of life. There was harm there too.

My mom and my grandmothers on both sides were gardeners, so I was also often outside getting my hands dirty alongside them. I've always enjoyed being outside and busy and accomplishing things.

I spent most of my growing-up years in the Niagara region, and there were a few favourite, small conservation areas nearby we would sometimes go for afternoon walks in. I remember, when I was eight or ten years old, the feeling of freedom of riding my bike for the first time to the park by myself, being outdoors and independent. We would go along this overgrown bicycle and walking path that was beside a stream in our neighbourhood.

My parents practised Buddhism when I was growing up, and are part of Soka Gakkai International. I practise Buddhism as well.

I grew up in an environment where the philosophical underpinning of the oneness of self and environment says we are intimately connected. We're not two different entities. We are nature.

Around when I started university, Soka Gakkai International was working with the Earth Charter movement to promote it as a key document to share the Sustainable Development Goals. The Earth Charter came out of the Rio Summit, and its concepts are all about education, environmental issues, and intersections with poverty, health and children's welfare. I helped a student group bring a travelling exhibit to the university. It was a foundational experience for me in terms of educating others about the environment, and our role in hopefully protecting it.


Eugenie setting up an exhibit on the Earth Charter in London, ON with Soka Gakkai Internatonal Canada friends in 2012. Photo supplied.


Christina: My early nature experiences were mostly in my immediate area: my parents’ backyard, and catching tadpoles in the lovely pond down the street. I live in the neighbourhood I grew up in now, and that pond is a little further down the street.

When you're a kid, it's very intimate when you're looking at all the little things in a backyard. You’re up very close, and inside the trees, and cuddled in. The other day in my parents’ backyard, we found the purple trillium that was there when I was a kid. My parents never go back there anymore so they thought it was gone.

My aunt and uncle just moved away from their farm last year after living there for 40 years. We'd be out there—it was only a 20-minute drive—at least once a month with the cows and dogs and horses. I only realized when I grew up that that was rare to live in a city and have that experience of farm animals and being in the countryside. My grandparents also had a cottage that's on a tiny little island with a very Georgian Bay feel, in a very classic Canadian landscape.

We were also lucky enough to travel all over Canada on road trips every summer. We went to PEI a few years, and the Rockies other years. I lived in the Rockies in the summer during university, and did hiking and a little bit of mountain biking.

But it was always not so much the big landscapes and vistas I remember. It was the little lichens and mosses, the ferns, those things right next to you when you sit down to take a water break and have a snack. I think that's why I love gardening now.

I remember identifying as an environmentalist from a very young age. My picture in the yearbook when I graduated was me hugging a tree. But I wouldn't have been one if I hadn't been exposed to a lot of natural areas; my backyard, and riding my bike, and playing up and down the street with friends, and hiding in the neighbour’s garden playing tag. It was a very old, suburban neighbourhood with mature trees and a rich environment.  We were lucky to have a lot of that just built into the landscape, which I think a lot of newer areas, and poorer areas, don't have access to.

Christina hiking near Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand in 2015. Photo supplied.

In university I took environmental studies and international development, and from there worked in organic agriculture. Then I studied food security and became a holistic nutritionist, and eventually became a highschool teacher and taught outdoor education in New Zealand.

Tell me about your school native plant garden projects. What was your inspiration, and how did you make it happen?

Christina: As a former teacher, I wanted to give that experience to the teachers at my son's school. When we first started the project, the kindergarten teachers were super keen, but didn't know how to do it.

Teachers typically don't have a lot of time, so I wanted to create a school garden to make it easier for them to integrate into their programming and curriculum. I wanted the kids to have access to nature through the school.

Eugenie: My children go to a different school very close by, but the landscapes of the schoolyards are very different. The one Christina's son goes to has big, green, open fields. It's part city park and part school property, and the line between them is blurred. There's no fence around the perimeter and it's quite expansive. Whereas my children go to a school in a more dense, urban neighbourhood just a few kilometers away. The schoolyard is mostly asphalt, and they just put down mulch in areas where there are too many children playing for grass to grow.

The schoolyard, which used to be a parking lot, is surrounded by a chain link fence about seven feet tall, and it's quite tight. Considerable landscaping effort turned it into a schoolyard, and they planted quite a few trees. An active schoolyard committee would garden at the school, and there were some raised-bed gardens, which were interesting and engaging for the students.

My inspiration for the schoolyard garden partly came out of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. No volunteers were allowed on school property at all, so all those areas that had previously been tended were now completely trampled by children. Former gardens were now just compacted bare dirt. I knew there was a City of Ottawa grant program for environmental projects, and Christina and I had started working on a grant application at Manor Park Public School, and I thought, having gotten that experience under my belt, we could do something at my school too.

Christina and Eugenie sowing seeds for community native plant gardens in Manor Park in 2024. Photo supplied.

Christina and I already had a bit of a reputation for doing community projects like native plant gardening, and educating our community about invasive species. We’d been writing educational articles in the community newspaper, and had basically become columnists for the paper. In a way we had already naturally built up some allies and trust in the community

At my children's school, part of the way we were able to sell it was by talking to the Parent Council, when I proposed the project and the grant, about ecosystem services. The schoolyard has a lot of problems related to water, because it was designed with a little hill in the center for a slide, and stairs the kids would walk up. It was all very naturalized looking, but there were never enough plants or trees, which caused a huge erosion problem.

Every year or two the school board would bring in a big dump truck of mulch, and then over the year it would get into certain corners of the school yard, and across the asphalt, and mud would be tracked into the school. In the spring there would be these big puddles of muddy, standing water, and people would slip on the ice, and the kids would get all muddy. These were common frustrations about the school yard parents were bringing up.

I wouldn't say it's solved yet, but after we finished the project I was speaking with the custodian. He said, oh my goodness Eugenie, it's amazing. There's no mud in the school anymore because the rain garden is keeping all that soil intact instead of just being compacted.

Our beautiful garden is now providing huge ecosystem services, including rainwater management and erosion control, which are improving how the classrooms work.

One of the interesting connections is that the city has been piloting a Rain Ready Ottawa program to help homeowners and property owners deal with flood risk and rainwater management on their properties. I watched the webinars the city put together, and then I used them to design this garden—and it was really exciting that it actually worked.

In both cases we did lots of administrative work behind the scenes. But it’s very rewarding when it comes through.

Eugenie and family at the 2019 Climate March in Ottawa, ON. Photo supplied.

Why, as a busy physician, Eugenie, was it important for you to spend time and energy on greening your children’s school?

Eugenie: I'm very aware of the climate emergency. It's something that feels pressing. You want to help move the conversation forward and increase awareness in a way that’s solutions focused, because there's a lot to be worried about. We had a significant ice storm a year ago where we lost lots of trees. Last year we had days where schoolchildren had to stay inside because of the smoke.

I want to be able to take action in areas where I can see outcomes in my local community where I have relationships. My family medicine practice is in the same neighbourhood as the school. Everything is within a small radius, so it just feels very close to home.

In hindsight it was kind of crazy, but I told the school I could come in for a few windows of time on my flex days, when I usually do my paperwork, and garden with the kids for a couple of hours at a time. And so the teachers signed up for sessions with me. We had tons of plants and shrubs to get in the ground within a short period of time. It was completely exhausting, and I developed such a huge appreciation for teachers.

It was wonderful and so fun and special to see children who had never planted anything before digging a hole and putting their hands in the dirt for the first time.

It’s also a little bit of an escape. Over the last few years, especially, there have been a lot of stresses and pressures in the health-care system. You don’t always feel like you can get your patients the care they need because of certain health-care system issues. To be able to work on something that has some alignment, but is also outside of that for me, has been very refreshing, rewarding, and exciting. It’s a great stress reliever.

How have you seen children, teachers and your community engaging with your wildlife gardens?

Christina: Well, the summer camp at the school really stepped up and used our garden. I gave the camp counsellors pictures of what the plants would look like, and labels for them, with great little plant stakes to stick in the ground. Then the kids had to run around and figure out which label goes where.

Planter box labelled by Summer Day Camp kids at Manor Park Public School. Photo supplied.

It was very much the kids doing the work after we set it up, which is difficult in gardening sometimes because the design affects the behaviour of the plants later on. But I think we were able to set up both our schools gardens in a way the kids could then take over.

Whenever we're gardening anywhere in the neighbourhood, we talk to people walking by. Sometimes we're in a hurry because we have to get home to our kids, and we only have 45 minutes to take care of this little community garden, but talking to curious neighbours really is one of the most important things we do. We’ve also tried to prioritize signage that says what we're doing, especially if it's in progress—especially when we plant plants that will eventually be six feet tall.

The part the public tends to like about gardening is the pretty flowers. But if they're interested, we love to talk about its positive effects on climate change, carbon sequestration and other ecological services, and how it’s providing mental health benefits through beautification of the neighbourhood.

We also see our gardens drawing wildlife. At Manor Park School, within the first year after we put the demonstration garden in, all sorts of interesting insects and butterflies started appearing, along with birds eating the seed heads. There’s a kindergarten teacher at Manor Park who has his own YouTube channel with lots of inquiry-based teaching style videos. He does wonder walks with the children around the garden.

Sometimes I’ll take a break from my son's soccer practice and wander over to do some watering. And then another parent will come over and say, Oh, what are you doing? What are these plants? And next thing you know, she has a native plant garden in her backyard. It’s proselytizing [laughs]. I try and let them come to me.

Christina installing a native plant garden at Social Harvest in Ottawa, ON in 2022. Photo supplied.

We've both also been converting our properties to native plant gardens. We wanted neighbours to walk by, see the pretty flowers, and think, I want to grow that in my yard. I'd like to do more educational signage this year. We have all the plant labels out there so people can research them and go buy them. It’s like a mini wildlife refuge at both our properties, and we wanted to expand that into other gardens all around the neighbourhood. Getting the neighbours on board one by one is huge for that.


How does spending time outside contribute to your own health and wellbeing today?

Christina: For me it's partly the physical activity. The advice I’ve heard lately around exercise is to find something you enjoy. That’s one reason why I'm doing it, because I know it's very beneficial for me.

Gardening also just puts my mind at rest. It's pure leisure for me to not always be stressing about running the house or getting this done or that done. I'm able to focus on something else and let my mind just be at rest. It’s been really beneficial for my mental health and physical health.

But walking around and seeing invasive species has a negative impact on my mental health. Arguably more important than planting native plants is removing the invasives. It’s very hard to convince people at a community level to work to remove invasive species, and educate them about the ecological harm they do to the natural areas they love, especially those who are already gardeners.

A lot of people love their Lily of the Valley and Periwinkle. In Ottawa we have Dog-Strangling Vine and invasive Buckthorn, and they just smother other plants when they get out into natural wooded areas. A lot of people think, if it doesn't spread, and I just keep it in my garden, it's okay. But there are birds coming to your garden, and taking the seeds and dropping them in other areas they visit.

But as a new native plant gardener, and having lived in New Zealand where invasive mammal species killed all the native ones, it was an easy step for me to learn about them. It is incredibly empowering as an environmentalist to actually take that action of removing the invasive species, and replacing them with natives, and seeing how the conversion happens so easily in some cases.

Eugenie hiking with her father and sister near Banff, AB in the summer of 2018. Photo supplied.

Eugenie: I would echo those things. The other thing I would add is that because I’m learning about native plants, whenever I'm going for a walk or riding my bike now, especially in a new part of the city, it turns on my observational senses. I find it really enjoyable and helpful to be in a new conservation or urban area and recognize the plants, and know what they do, why they're useful, and what is invasive or beneficial.

I think it's good for us like to keep learning new things. It adds a layer of engagement with your environment that you get to enjoy in a whole new way

Related to learning new things, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of the books I read when I first started learning about plants in a deeper way. It describes the relationship between Indigenous views and the traditional scientific method in terms of botany and ecology. Reading that book was mind-blowing for me. As a multi-generational settler here, it made me see everything in the plants around us differently.


Do you involve your families in your gardening work?

Christina: Well, they have no choice! [laughs]

Eugenie: I don't make my kids do anything, but they see me doing it, certainly, as an example. The founder of the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library is a resident of Ottawa who was inspired by Braiding Sweetgrass. She really wanted to contribute to reconciliation and learn something new, and she was interested in plants, so she founded a volunteer network of people who learn about native plants and harvest their own seeds. Volunteers package them up, they get labelled, and then there are events where they give away the seeds and other people can learn how to winter sow them. You plant them in small pots and then protect them through the winter, outside. They get covered in snow and experience the seasons, but you get a better germination rate. Then you can take them and plant them in your garden, or share them with your neighbours, and then in theory give seeds back to the library.

Eugenie and Christina with Mélanie Ouelette, founder of the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library, at the Manor Park seed giveaway event in 2023. Photo supplied.

It's this little reciprocal, expanding, volunteer-based movement in Ottawa that's been really neat to see flourish over the last few years. Because of that, and our community work, I have a mini nursery on my back patio for winter sowing, and I have some grow lights in my home my kids get to experience.


Where are your favourite places to spend time outside in the Ottawa area?

Christina: My yard, and my own garden. I've switched it almost entirely over from all grass into native plant gardens through the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library, so I've been able to do it on a large scale on a tiny budget. I've also taken over my elderly neigbour’s very long-standing vegetable garden. I love being able to share that land she needs cared for.

Just Food is a local non-profit that works for food security within Ottawa. They run the community garden network, and I rented out a small, very affordable space at their farm last summer, which is quite a large space for community gardening. It is such a wonderful place to go and enjoy the Green Belt in Ottawa, and just slowly try to nourish the soil and convert it over to organic agriculture.

And then Richelieu Park, which is very accessible and close by, is the only urban sugarbush in the world. They have a lovely maple forest there. I enjoy looking at the little trout lilies in the spring, and all the different flower species through the seasons, and the changing leaves in the fall.

Christina celebrating Hallowe'en with her son in Richelieu Park in 2023. Photo supplied.

Eugenie: I would echo a few of those. But the biggest one is how I love to ride my bike to get where I need to go. Ottawa has the Rideau River and Ottawa River, and thanks to the National Capital Commission, there are fabulous shared bicycle and walking paths alongside them.

I love using the bicycle network, and the feeling of openness when you travel from wherever you are in the city to the wide Ottawa River. I just love that feeling.

We've had a few new pedestrian bridges open over the rivers in the last couple of years. There’s a really special one in the West End called the Chief William Commanda Bridge that used to be an abandoned bridge on a railway line. They opened it last year for active transportation. It just feels so special to be out there.


Access to nature is not equitable across Canada. How can greening school grounds reduce barriers to nature access in your community, and what work still needs to be done?

Christina: Kids may not have access to nature outside of schools, so it should be built into their curricula and experience on the school grounds during recess.

I’d say the thing that needs to be supported is facilitating volunteers like us to be able to do the work. The logistical process of getting approval needs to be streamlined and much easier. I think insurance is a big barrier to doing that, but it's so crucial that it needs to be sorted through.

Teachers also need fewer contact hours so they have more preparation time. What we're adding is new, so they don't have prior lesson plans to rely on. If teachers had more time they'd be able to go out in the garden, and talk with us and look at what's there, then create lesson plans. There are lots of resources online, but as a former teacher I understand it's really hard to sift through them and figure out what's great for your students and curriculum in your classroom that year.

Chrstina teaching highschool students about river ecosystems in Ōtautahi/Christchurch, New Zealand in 2018. Photo supplied.

Teachers need more funding and support to enable the kids to have access to what we do and build, and we need to be able to build it more easily.

Eugenie: I think those are key points. My children's school has a smaller schoolyard, but they fortunately have a good culture of doing lots of outings. They do have that built into the curriculum. They call them nature walks, and often they’re to a local playground or neighbourhood park, or over to a forest to help with maple syrup sap collection. The teacher will decide, next Friday we're going to take a walk to Optimist Park, and they'll make a callout for a couple of parents to accompany them as chaperones.

I do feel like for a public school it is relatively unique to do that so frequently. But there are liability issues, and barriers in terms of access to volunteers. Some schools have a lot more parent volunteer capacity. I have the benefit of a job where I can set my own hours to a degree, and I have some flex time, so I'm able to help out at my children's school.


Do you have any tips for parents and kids who are trying to fit more green time into their lives?

Christina: Grow plants. I had a very hard time accessing anything outside of my property the last few years. My son, my late son, was very medically complex and disabled, so driving far places was very difficult. Going to the beach or Gatineau Park was impossible. It took me months to even get to the little marsh down the road because I couldn't leave him. So for me, the solution was to grow plants.

He would be asleep, and I'd be able to pop outside and garden for just five minutes, and then come back in.

Having access to nature immediately next to you is so crucial for a lot of families who don't have the time, money, ability or transportation, or have too many responsibilities, to plan something and get far away.

You can grow in the shade, you can grow in containers. Houseplants are also wonderful. I've lived in apartments most of my life, and I was renting until the last couple of years, but I always had containers growing flowers in any apartment where we had a balcony. There are lots of different types of things you can grow in different situations.

Christina purchasing native trees and shrubs for her Ottawa property in 2023. Photo supplied.

I would also say to look up programs in your area like the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library. It’s now mentoring programs across the country. We also send out seeds across eastern Canada, and all the excess seeds in early January after our events are done. And then there are programs like Just Food’s seed and soil program where they give away free soil and vegetable seeds. There are programs everywhere for you to just get some plants so you can have that experience right outside your door.

I would also add that kids naturally mimic the adults around them. As a parent, just doing what you love outdoors in nature naturally is mentoring your kids and showing them through your own example. My kids make fun of me sometimes about spending time in the garden—you know, mom and her plants—but I know it's still having an influence.

Eugenie: I think the same thing. I take my kids on my bike, or get them to bike with me. Some of my favourite moments are when I have one of my kids on the back of my bike, and they're just yakking away, or singing, and we're moving along on our way. It feels great to be outdoors with my children.

From a health-care provider point of view, one of the challenges parents are facing right now is screen time, all the time. It’s just a magnet everywhere. It's very hard to have limits, especially when homework requires it. Parents are also on their screens all the time. But too much screen time takes away from the potential other uses of our time, which often can be time outside.

Carving out time without screens is a 21st century problem we and schools all need to try to navigate around. But I think being conscious of it as best we can is one thing all of us can try to do as parents.

Eugenie and Christina promoting native plant gardens with their kids with the Manor Park Community Association's Environmental Sustainability Committee in 2023. Photo supplied.

What role do you think health professionals have to play in inspiring and helping kids, and their parents, to connect to and protect nature and the planet?

Christina: I have one big thing and one smaller thing. The smaller thing from my own experience is advocacy for better accessibility in natural areas and playgrounds. A kid in a wheelchair can't go across mulch. I think health-care providers who have them as patients can very much support that advocacy.

And then the bigger thing is advocacy for a more equitable society overall. You all see firsthand the effects of poverty and lack of access to housing and secure jobs on your health. Advocacy for universal basic income, better public transportation, better active transportation—all of those things play a role in creating leisure time that can then be spent in a way that nourishes you, like outside in a green space.

We also need to create more green spaces. We want to create a tiny forest in our neighbourhood at my child's school that would create enormous access to green space, and allow kids to watch those trees grow over the next 100 years.

And also doing exactly what Eugenie is doing, which is volunteering in your local community. Community vegetable gardens and native plant gardens create spaces for patients to enjoy, which has indirect and direct impacts on overall community health. In my work as an environmentalist, I feel I’ve never had such impact as I do now with gardening, just getting to go and play with flowers. You see the bee going to the flower as you pull it out of the shipment box, before it’s even in the ground. You see the direct benefit to wildlife. And then to be able to see the community enjoy it as well is really rewarding.

Eugenie: Those are amazing concepts and ideas. Down at the micro level of my one-on-one interactions with patients, I ask people about getting outside when I'm talking with them about their mental health, or any number of conditions. I'm more aware to ask them what they enjoy doing outside, especially when we're talking about physical activity. And I emphasize the benefits of spending time out in nature, and why that's helpful for them from a physiologic point of view.

Eugenie and Christina planting a native plant garden along the Aviation Parkway in Ottawa, ON in 2023. Photo supplied.

That little bit of psychoeducation around the benefits of committing to spending a certain amount of time outdoors in whatever local green or natural space they have access to can be really helpful, whether it’s their balcony or container garden, or a local park or walking trail.

And taking from the equitable and accessible angle you were speaking of, Christina, making it safer for people to move around in their communities without relying on cars is a really big one. The National Capital Commission is starting these great pilots with free bus service to get to parks. Last year they ran an electric bike borrowing program which allowed people to access parts of Gatineau Park they wouldn't be able to otherwise.

There are lots of innovative, system-level things that can be done to increase access. For example, having safe bike lanes that parents feel comfortable letting their 10 year olds use to go by themselves to green spaces, which I was able to do when I was little. I think parents are a lot more hesitant about that now because cars have gotten bigger and faster, and sometimes drivers are looking at their phones. There are reasons why parents hesitate to let their kids access nature independently.

These are ways we can all advocate to make our local parks and greenspaces more accessible, and also more animated. And more exposure to natural areas and creating gardens naturally leads to children, neighbours and everyone in the community wanting to protect them, and nature in general.


Lean more about the school gardens Dr. Waters and Christina created here.

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