A Garden Grows in Gillam

 In Building Knowledge, Food Skills & Nutrition, Newsletter

Pretty much everyone in Canada knows where Gillam is these days: too bad it isn’t because of the school’s Garden Club because it deserves it.  The Club, for students in grades 3 to 6, has about 30 members.  It is a labour of love for teacher Krista Semenchuk, who took over the project about 6 years ago.  “I am not a gardener,” she insists, but later reflects, “well I guess I have learned to be one.  I am learning along with the kids, we are learning from each other. There aren’t a lot of gardening experts this far north. I say, ‘this is a big experiment, I don’t know if it is going to work out, but we are going to give it a try’.  And it usually does.”

Raised beds of Gillam’s garden in July. Produce is shared with Garden Club members.

Gardening in Gillam, an area of bogs and rocks, has its challenges with a hardiness zone of 1b and an 8 week frost free period.  The long hours of daylight help though, and things grow quickly.  Plants in the garden grow along the fence and in the 13 raised beds, most of them 4 x 20 feet.  There is also a small green house. Krista and the crew grow cabbage, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, rhubarb, herbs, zucchini, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, bean, peas, corn, sunflowers, and, flowers.  Food Matters Manitoba was able to deliver a truck load of plants this summer to augment what was started locally, thanks to a gift from Sage Garden Greenhouses.

In the “3 Sisters” bed they are growing corn, peas and beans and she is planning on expanding the bed so she can add squash.  On Indigenous Peoples Day she used the garden as a learning centre to teach about the 3 Sisters and living off the land.  The children planted beans and took them home.

This year some of the seedings they began indoors for transplanting outside later were sold at a plant sale, which was both a fundraiser and awareness builder.  The kids were very excited by their success, raising $500 for the Club. There are not a lot of gardens in Gillam, a town of about 1200 people.  The school garden is a demonstration of what is possible.

Krista volunteers a lot of time over the summer to maintain the garden. There have been some frustrations, such as occasional vandalism, which can be discouraging, but she just reminds herself that she is doing this for the kids.  When a parent shares a picture of food which was prepared by the family from very local produce she knows that this is worth it.  The kids are learning self reliance and to be proud of what they can do with their hands.  These are vital life lessons.  Respect for the land is a culturally important value.

Krista has observed that by grade 6 the kid’s interest drops off.  She is not sure why, maybe gardening isn’t the cool thing to do.  She has been freezing some of the produce this summer and is looking to offering a cooking class with it, hoping that might be of interest to the older, middle year students.  She heard about one boy, in grade 5, who didn’t join the Club, but was watching what she did.  At home he got his dad to help him and they set up their own garden.  She is happy to have sparked an interest.

A Garden Club member decorates the water (nipe in Cree) tank.

In the late 90s when Krista finished her Education degree there were no jobs in the south so she took a 6 month contract in Gillam and she is still there.  She works with the students who require extra support allowing her to have a more flexible schedule to support the Club.  The school has two Areo Garden Farms units, an indoor hydroponic system.  Starting in September they plant lettuce, tomatoes and herbs and have them growing all year round.

During the summer, when the produce is ready, she posts in the local news network, which is how she also puts out a call for help when the garden needs attention.  The main harvest in the fall, is undertaken by the Club and the kids who are members get to take the produce home.  That is an important aspect of the project, bringing the cycle from the seed to a meal full circle.