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Community gardens, school gardens, even guerrilla gardens are transforming underused spaces into random acts of beauty

Ask half a dozen people what they mean by gardening, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Some folks are purely food gardeners, cultivating vegetable plots; others are dedicated decorative gardeners, tending a perennial border or property of various ornamental plants. Others may combine both worlds, utilizing small spaces such as balconies or decks for container gardens.

Some gardeners regard themselves as stewards of the land, whose role is to encourage others. They may develop a school gardening program or a community allotment garden, where people can grow food, or embark on so-called guerrilla gardening, creating pride in an otherwise “wasted space.” These gardeners are perhaps doing what plant enthusiasts do best: sharing their knowledge, seeds, skills and plants with others. It’s exciting and inspiring to watch, and even more exciting to be part of.

Some gardeners regard themselves as stewards of the land, whose role is to encourage others. They may develop a school gardening program or a community allotment garden, where people can grow food, or embark on so-called guerrilla gardening, creating pride in an otherwise “wasted space.” These gardeners are perhaps doing what plant enthusiasts do best: sharing their knowledge, seeds, skills and plants with others. It’s exciting and inspiring to watch, and even more exciting to be part of.

School gardens: Reconnecting students with nature

Students, staff and visitors to Avon View High School in Windsor, NS, are greeted by a mosaic planting of the school’s crest. Sitting on a raised bed, the crest is the work of students in the Options and Opportunities program—where students learn the curriculum by working together and experiencing out-of-school activities—taught by Greg Wile, and formerly by Rick Forand, who passed away from pancreatic cancer this past April. In a sunny site behind the school, class members have also created half a dozen raised beds, with frames for trellising and for holding shade cloth over tender plants. A lush crop of vegetables grows there, including salad greens, Swiss chard, tomatoes, squash, beans and peppers.

“We have a component of our curriculum called Healthy Living,” Wile says. “Gardening fills a variety of bills in that component, teaching the students skills, giving them exercise and helping them learn about the pleasures of good food they grow themselves.”

Wile and Forand were able to get a grant from the provincial department of agriculture to start the project. Additionally, a number of local businesses contributed supplies and services.

Over the summer, a student went once a week to tend to any weeding or watering as needed, and Wile himself was also there regularly to tend to the crops. While he says the food produced is a nice benefit, it’s the enthusiasm of the students that has been the greatest reward.

“They are reconnecting with nature,” he says. “This generation is that much further removed from the family farms that so many of us once knew, but they’re keen to learn the skills involved in growing living plants.”

At least one of his students hopes to pursue a career in horticulture after graduation, and this autumn, Wile will make a presentation to teachers from around the province on growing indoor herb gardens in their classrooms.

My own fondness for gardening was deeply influenced by having grandparents who had gardens, so my favourite mantra is “Get ‘em while they’re young”—introduce children to the joys of growing plants, and they are apt to keep gardening for life. They learn that food really does taste better when they grow it themselves—especially if, for example, their school gets involved in making meals using the produce they have grown. Beyond the satisfaction of teaching children to be healthy eaters, there’s something immensely gratifying in watching them go from being grossed out by worms, bugs and other living creatures, to being excited by them.

Dr. Arthur Hines Elementary School in Summerville, also in Hants County, has a long-running school garden—the students have planted a huge vegetable garden each year for nearly a decade. Each spring, the Primary to Grade 6 classes take on the task of planting a particular vegetable—the Primary kids do potatoes, Grade 1s do onions, and so on—and each class also plants a special variety of vegetable, one they choose as a class.

In autumn, chef Michael Howell, from Wolfville, NS, comes to the school to help harvest the produce and cook a special lunch—“from dirt to plate in two hours.” Slow Food Nova Scotia, which Howell is involved with, has made a video of the activity (excerpts are available at slowfoodns.com/2012/05/the-edible-schoolyard).

Community allotments: Neighbours gardening together

Windsor is known as the home of the late Howard Dill, breeder of giant pumpkins. It’s now also able to take pride in having a thriving community garden.

Kathy Aldous, active living coordinator with the Municipality of West Hants, explains how the project came together. It began with New Boundaries, which is a non-profit organization in Windsor that provides learning opportunities for adults with diverse abilities.

“New Boundaries came up with the idea of having raised-bed gardens for their clients, and they approached the Community Health Board to get some funding,” she says. The West Hants/Uniacke Community Health Board had been looking for an opportunity to expand on the gardens established at local schools. “A partnership was formed; the raised beds for New Boundaries were created, along with 25 beds for use by organizations and individuals from Windsor and West Hants.”

A visit to the New Boundaries grounds tells the story: there are four tidy rows of raised 4- by 8-foot beds, each bed planted and tended by a family or a community organization. The Mount Denson Garden Club has a bed, as does the Family Resource Centre. Gardeners pay a $10 fee up front; they receive a key to the shed, where garden tools are available for use. When they return the key at the end of the season, they get half of their money back; the other half goes toward maintenance costs.

Aldous says the response to the allotments has been very positive. The plots have a variety of crops; a few incorporate colourful annual flowers, and one even sports its own waggish gnome.

This is the first season for the community garden, which has been given the name “No Boundaries,” in acknowledgement of the organization hosting it. Aldous expects it is the first of many such years.

Guerilla gardening: Random acts of beauty

For most of the year, Elisabeth Porter works at Acadia University’s Vaughan Memorial Library. She laughingly says she needs to have summers off so she can focus on her gardening addiction.

In August 2009, she was enjoying a coffee break in the courtyard leading into the library when she had an idea: get a few dedicated gardeners together to spruce up existing plantings around the library, in time to welcome the students back in September.

“Our physical plant’s grounds crew was very busy, and I felt it was something we could do to help,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t just jump in with trowels blazing, so I sent a note to Sara Lochhead, our librarian, asking permission from the university to work on the garden, and got two green thumbs up!”

Porter and several other gardening enthusiasts amended the soil, planted, weeded—and watered, using four-litre jugs of water that they brought out on library book carts.

“Although we are often called ‘guerrilla gardeners,’” she says—referencing a worldwide movement where gardens are planted in vacant lots, median strips and other municipal, public or random spaces—“we’re more aptly called the ‘Got-a-Nod gardeners,’ because we trowel with permission.”

Acadia’s president, Ray Ivany, sent a thank you note to the gardeners after their first efforts, and thus heartened, they decided to expand their horizons.

Once again they asked for permission, and library facilities manager David Morris was happy to support their efforts. The group didn’t want to make additional work for the grounds crew—“we had to consider snow removal as well as lawn mowing and raking”—and the staff at the physical plant reciprocated this consideration with all kinds of help for the gardeners, including manpower to remove overgrown shrubs and hoses to help with watering.

Well-behaved plant material—“No goutweed!” Porter says, with some delight—came from the KC Irving Environmental Science Centre/Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens on campus, as well as from library staff, and from employees with the Town of Wolfville.

Perennial grasses, daylilies and serviceberry shrubs soften the north- and east-facing brick walls of the Beveridge Arts Centre; the flowerheads of the maturing grasses provide interest throughout the non-gardening months.

By keeping the planting design simple, Porter and her cohorts created a beautiful, low-maintenance garden that will stand the test of time, welcoming staff, students and visitors.

One special aspect of the garden is Oti’s Memorial Tree.

James “Oti” Ochola, originally from Kenya, was an Acadia student who drowned in spring 2010. His sisters Rosa and Janet worked as student assistants at the library; in his memory, an oak tree was planted.

It is surrounded with large rocks—perfect for sitting and sharing Oti’s story.

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