Chilliwack school garden program has deep roots

Student gardeners finishing up growing season with judging at home and at the Chilliwack Fair

Garden judge Gloria Wagner checks off a marking rubric as she walks through Leanne Tams' garden in Greendale. Tams takes part in the Chilliwack Schools Garden Program every year

Last week, Leanne Tams’ garden was a lush mixture of healthy greens with just a few pops of colour in the mix.

A lone pink flower hid in her row of lavetera, a few sunflowers were bursting open, and dark red streaks bled through her beet leaves. The beets are ready to pick anytime now, she points out, but she’ll let her grows a little longer. Beets are one of her favourite vegetables, after all, and she wants to get the most of them.

And by next weekend, the garden should be in full bloom and ready to be picked over for her finest produce and flowers. Those will be delivered to the Chilliwack Fair’s exhibition volunteers, and placed for all to admire on tables for the three-day fair (Aug. 5-7).

They’ll be judged on size, quality, and presentation. But Tams isn’t nervous. At age 18, she’s already a seasoned gardener. She knows, for example, that her carrots will come in straight through her soft, tended soil. And she knows her soil is softer because of the cedar hedge the garden backs onto, at her parents’ home in Greendale. She’s even kept good control of the leaf miner bugs that have ravaged many other gardeners’ beet plants this year, by picking off the affected leaves as they showed signs of damage.

Those same skills mean her bean plants are thick and climbing up their poles, the ground is weed-free, and the rows are marked with cute, wooden stakes.

While she prepares to enter the Chilliwack Fair, Tams is also being judged on site, for the Chilliwack Schools Garden Program. It’s one of Chilliwack’s longest running youth programs, dating back to 1904. It operates with the help of community donations and through dedicated volunteers. There are about 200 students enrolled this year, and each participant is given instructions and seeds to get started, for a cost of a $2 donation to help keep the program running.

The program has its own awards night, and the judges visit the gardens throughout the season to keep track of progress, encourage students to keep trying, and to offer suggestions and support.

Tams got into the garden program the way most kids do — through the influence of her parents.

“My dad was a judge for the program, and he had a lot of fun judging,” she says. He convinced her to give it a try, and she’s been a keen gardener ever since.

“It is a lot of fun,” she says.

It helps that her family enjoys gardening. And it’s also been handy that one of the programs judges, Gloria Wagner, is a long-time neighbour. She popped over last week to look over the garden, clipboard in hand.

“You have a baby cucumber here!” Gloria Wagner calls out as she inspects the garden space. She also has lettuce that looks ready for the table, and two sturdy stalks of corn.

All in all, it’s a complete senior garden for Chilliwack’s School Garden Program. But kids and teens wanting to get involved  don’t need a big plot like Tams’ to get started. They don’t need to live in the countryside, or even have gardening experience. Even a patio planter or container garden can be used, and judges offer tips and tricks on their visits.

Tams’ plot is six by eight metres, but a small senior garden only needs a minimum of one by three metres. Containers need to be 30 cm across and 30 cm deep.

The program volunteers like Wagner also encourage their student participants to get involved in the exhibition portion of the Chilliwack Fair. Tams will enter in both her own age category and adult categories.

This is Tams’ last year in the school program, but she says she will continue gardening in her adult years. There’s still plenty to learn, and things to try.

One of lessons of this year’s garden, is that it’s not always an exact science. Sometimes, you can’t predict what a gardening season will bring.

For example, this year one of her rows of flowers was supposed to be zinnias, as per regulations. But the seed packet she was given was a mix of zinnias and cosmos. She had briefly considered thinning the plants out, but decided to see how they each faired.

She’s come a long way from the young girl who first plotted out her junior garden. It used to take her an entire day. Now, she can get the job done in just a few hours. And the upkeep is getting easier, too.

“I check on it once a week to see how things are going,” she says.

She’s done a good job of clearing her plot of weeds over the years, learning to dig deep into the soil to get them at the root. So even weeding is now limited to a couple of times a season. She’s also learned what she likes about gardening, and what vegetables she likes.

“I’ve always loved growing corn,” she says. “And I love beets. I find everything that you grow is that much more rewarding when you get to eat it.”

To get a look at some of the produce and flowers grown and cared for by Chilliwack’s students, stop by the exhibition booths at the Chilliwack Fair, Aug. 5 to 7.





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