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PRIME Meet gardening green thumb Jack Kouwenhoven

Jack Kouwenhoven and one of his grapevines. - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS FILE
Jack Kouwenhoven and one of his grapevines.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS FILE

Jack Kouwenhoven has been gardening with gusto since he was just 10 years old.

Hale and hearty at the age of 85, he's been tending a garden for an astounding 75 years.

"Gardening is my passion," he says simply.

He loves gardening — and sharing his considerable knowledge about it with others.

Kouwenhoven is a proud member of the Chilliwack Garden Club, and the Chilliwack Schools Garden Program, and the International Order of Foresters.

He helps kick off the Plant A Row Grow A Row program with Food Matters Chilliwack every spring with an introductory workshop.

"When growing vegetables, you're in complete control," says Kouwenhoven. "I grow a lot from seed because you can choose which varieties you want."

The immense health benefits are part of the allure, and he particularly enjoys getting young people excited about backyard gardening.

He's been cultivating fruit trees, grapes, vegetables and more from his home on a half-acre property on Yale Road east. He also worked in silviculture for BC Forest Service during most of his working life, as well as stints as a carpenter, and hardware store assistant manager.

The garden is what makes his heart beat a little faster.

"To grow something yourself is interesting and exciting."

He first learned how to be a successful food gardener, as a child, from his father, growing up in Maassluis, Holland before the Second World War. It's part of what got the Kouwenhoven family through the ordeal, he figures.

Jack's father, Dirk, had an allotment garden that they tended to feed their family of seven, growing potatoes, cabbage, turnips, cauliflower and more.

They grew lots of potatoes, of course, and potatoes were piled up for use as rocket fuel during the war.

When he came to Chilliwack, it was to help his father build a house next to the old fairgrounds. That started a lifelong connection to the fair.

He's been growing vegetables to show at the fair for 50 years, and this year was no different. He entered 60 exhibits for consideration by the fair judges. What do they look for? Uniformity, he says.

The educational aspects of showing at the fair are very appealing to him.

"I always like to share what I know. People often tell me I should write a book. I need to pass on some of these tricks."

He likes to show young people for example, how beets are a two-for-one vegetable, with the beautiful greens that are edible as well as the red base of the beetroot.

He's in his 19th year of working with student gardeners for the Schools Garden program.

"There's nothing like seeing the excitement on a child's face when they bring you a carrot that they themselves have grown. They always want me to taste it, too," he says.

It reminds him sometimes of how hard they struggled to survive, with the help of the family farm during the war, without refrigeration.

"We also didn't have the nice soil that we get to work with now."

So many things have changed over the decades.

Raised bed gardening has become a big deal in recent years, and is ideal for seniors and anyone with mobility issues.

"Raised beds are a godsend. It's important to build them narrow enough so you can pull weeds from both sides."

In recent years, he's sought out lighter tools, like hoes, and avoids kneeling, except during planting.

Overall, the 2014 garden year has been fantastic, with lots of sunshine, but not too hot temperatures.

"I cannot ever remember a season as perfect as this one has been."

Anyone interested in his gardening advice can check out his blog, jacksgardentips.wordpress.com

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