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From the ground up - Whistler community greenhouses are growing bigger expectations

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The Thanksgiving leftovers are barely put away, the frost is well and truly on the pumpkin, and there are still gardeners who are thankful that they still have fresh tomatoes awaiting harvest in Whistler’s community greenhouses.

Operated by Whistler Community Services Society, whose mandate is to support social sustainability, the three greenhouses — two at Spruce Grove Park and one at Myrtle Phillip Park — have been something of a marvel in local community and communal gardening. They’ve defied snow and ice, collapsing roofs and all expectations to produce harvest after harvest of tomatoes, lettuce, mesclun, carrots, and more — provided the gardeners were smart enough to do succession planting.

With concern sprouting up all over about the food we eat and where it comes from, the all-organic greenhouses have proven so popular that in a serendipitous coincidence four years after they started, a fourth one is being planned for spring 2008. (See details below to sign up.) Each gardener gets a 20-square-foot plot in a cedar box, with 18 gardeners per greenhouse (13 were turned away this season).

And, no, this is not the 80,000-square-foot greenhouse being proposed next to the athletes’ village. However, not surprisingly, both projects have the same “father” to thank — Steve Milstein. He started it all by erecting a small greenhouse next to his home on a sunny lot in Alpine Meadows and wowing friends and neighbours with three-pound tomatoes and giant Brussels sprouts when they said it couldn’t be done.

While every gardener just loves mucking about in the dirt, there are several fine features about this gentile way of gardening in the greenhouses that one can only see as a bonus. One of the nicest is that you don’t break your back bending over since the boxes are waist-high.

As well, since your plot is drip irrigated, you don’t have to worry about watering. And the heat tracers in the soil mean your garden will defy all seasonal expectations and deliver cherry tomatoes even after you’ve been up skiing — at least this year it will.

“You can grow six months out of the year, and sometimes there are surprises after the winter — you’ll have lettuce or carrots come up because they’ve self-seeded,” says Kari Mancer, executive assistant and the current greenhouse coordinator with WCSS.

One of the nicest sidelines that also comes with community gardening is the communality and conviviality of sharing with your fellow gardeners everything from gardening tips to surplus harvests or duties when you are off on vacation. The idea of sharing even goes beyond, as extra produce in each greenhouse goes into a bin destined for the local food bank.

“We all share and learn from each other,” says Jim Cook, who, though he will humbly deny it, is seen as the amazingly hard-working, hands-on garden coordinator with triple green thumbs (Jim was also named Whistler’s Citizen of the Year for 2007).

Why does he put in so much time and effort?

“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I guess the enjoyment for me is when people come up and say thanks for all the work you put in. That’s when you realize you have contributed something.”

But this project is by no means the result of any singular effort. As the word “community” in the name suggests, the greenhouses have been a success from the get-go only through the dedication and support of countless people and organizations, including the original lunch club that met once a month with Steve to figure out ways to be more sustainable.

So it’s only natural that Jim, in turn, tips his baseball cap to people like Paul Beswetherick, the head of horticulture at muni hall, who is instrumental in getting the soil analyses done which determine what nutrients to add and when. Jim does not use compost, nor does he add things like bone meal or fish fertilizer to replenish the soil, but magic ingredients like trace elements from glacial till have proven invaluable in keeping the greenery growing.

And that’s another bonus about using the community greenhouses: you won’t have to worry about creating bear attractants with your own veggie garden or compost heap. Contrary to current myths, there are no current bylaws against compost heaps and gardens per se, but there are bylaws against keeping food or food waste on your property unsecured, not to mention the wisdom of plain common sense.

So with so much of the work done for you, what will you get to do with your garden plot? Tenderly weed and prune it, pinch back the tips for bushier growth, invent innovative trellises from bamboo or piping to support your growing concerns, pick your bounty once it’s ready and plant more of the special organic seed Jim will order for you to keep your household continuously in fresh bounty for at least half of the year.

And what with all the help and encouragement you receive, you may well get hooked like Jim and Steve and find yourself branching out into all sorts of sustainable directions.

 

GET GROWING

Spring may seem like eons away, but with folks already starting to line up, you won’t want to delay in securing your own easy-growing garden plot in the community greenhouses.

For a modest fee of $55, which includes your Whistler Community Services membership, you can rent your own 20-square-foot box plus two free-standing pots for the season.

The price includes all the organic seed you could possibly use (you can order more if you change your mind or run out as the season grows on). The selection is huge, from five kinds of beets to herbs, beans, cukes, chard and a plethora of tomatoes as well as edible flowers.

Jim is constantly testing varieties to see what performs best and picking up new varieties — they had 18 different organic veggies growing in the greenhouses this year. Jim also gives you a boost by doing things like starting tomatoes early in hot frames to give you a head start. And of course, the soil, nutrients and automatic watering are also included so you just have to do the fun parts — tending your tender creations and then eating the fruits of your labour.

Call Whistler Community Services at 604-932-0113 to reserve your garden plot for next year.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who believes we reap what we sow.

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