Local green thumbs are fuming over a locked gate that’s preventing the Ucluelet School Garden from blooming as the popular community asset is becoming a devastating graveyard of dried up plants.
“You walk by there and it’s just dead. Everything’s dry and yelling for water,” local gardener Liisa Nielsen told the Westerly News. “My heart breaks.”
The garden has been managed and maintained by local teacher Carey McPherson since 2015, but McPherson told the Westerly that the lock at the gate was changed around the same time that schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March and she was not given a key.
She said School District 70 allowed her back into the garden around the beginning of June, but she needed to ask for the gate to be unlocked each time she wanted to enter the facility and the people she had been borrowing the key from have not been around over the summer.
“It’s been about two months now…There’s a lot of things that have died already, unfortunately, that I planted in June. I was not aware that it would be locked over the summer,” she said.
“I really want to get in there and make it nice again and take care of it before the kids start coming back in the fall, whatever that looks like. It’s a beautiful, big, outdoor classroom, but it does need care.”
A petition with over 700 signatures was recently sent to School District 70 demanding that the garden “be open now and in the future for teachers, caretakers and community volunteers who have invested over $24,000 in local fundraising, grants and donations,” so that it can be maintained and cared for.
“The school garden is a valued educational resource, where students have learned to grow food, work together with nature and have pride of ownership,” the petition reads, in part.
The petition was launched by Mieke Dusseldorp, a self-described “West Coast plant nerd,” who told the Westerly that she wanted to illustrate how appreciated the garden is on the West Coast to school district officials in Port Alberni.
“They’re in another town, so maybe they’re not realizing that it’s actually a jailed up garden that’s just going to weeds right now,” she said. “I thought maybe they weren’t recognizing that it’s a really important place…The community has fundraised, the kids have fundraised, people have donated their time and their energy and their plants and their money and it’s just locked up and going to die.”
She said she was not surprised to see the petition garner so much interest and support and added that she sent it to the school district on July 16 and again on July 24, but was “frustrated” to have received no response.
The Westerly News reached out to SD70 for comment, but did not hear back by presstime.
Dusseldorp said the school garden is a vital, natural classroom for students and suggested all schools should have one.
“Every child should be learning about food and how to grow it. It’s just an incredible way to foster wonderful relationships with nature and to deepen those relationships,” she said. “Why not be teaching the young folks coming up how to grow more food in their own backyard? It’s an important life skill.”
Lorna Watson signed the petition and told the Westerly that gardens require constant maintenance.
“It really does need a lot of work,” she said. “It takes so long and, sometimes, you just can’t retrieve it, like a lot of the perennials that people have paid for to put in the garden are going to go under with the weeds. We may not be able to retrieve them if we don’t get in there and get access soon.”
She said the school garden is a valuable resource for the community and she is frustrated to see the community locked out and unable to care for it.
“It just shouldn’t happen,” she said. “That is a beautiful garden. It’s been supported by the whole community. There’s been a lot of volunteer work and a lot of things given to the garden and to not have it taken care of…I’m really frustrated with it. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
She hopes that if and when the garden reopens, a volunteer group will be able to resurrect the site.
“The weeds get in so deep, but you could get it back on track so that it will be productive and so that, when the kids go back to school, they’ll have something to go back to,” she said.
Nielsen noted the garden had been built up over five years, which could be the amount of time it will take to reestablish what’s been lost, depending on how much damage has been done over the past two months.
“All the seedlings and all the annual plants, like the zucchinis and tomatoes and cucumbers are probably gone, but for the berry trees and the fruit trees it’s possible that it’s not too late,” she said. “We need access to it immediately to start watering and then just to reassess. Nobody’s been in there, so nobody can tell how far gone everything is.”
McPherson said the school’s garden program was created thanks, in part, to funding raised by the students themselves who managed to fundraise just under $7,000 for the facility’s growth by going door to door selling seeds and bulbs.
“One of the benefits is the kids see where their food comes, they take a pride of ownership, they learn in an alternative environment and they get physical education at the same time,” she said adding that along with being enjoyed by the young gardeners, the food grown at the garden has been donated to the Food Bank on the Edge Society and Community Lunch program.
She added teachers have used the garden as a tool and outdoor classroom and a garden club quickly rose in popularity.
“I think it’s really been fantastic and valuable for a lot of our students…It’s a really good sign when the kids come on their own choice, not just for classes,” she said, adding that she hopes to have the garden ready to serve as an “anchor” for students returning from a confusing and socially-distanced summer. “I think it gives the students a sense of power and a sense of hope and a sense of control, which are all especially important right now…I’d love to go in there and clean it all up and have it ready again for the kids.”
She added raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries have been growing in the garden for the past three years and could possibly lure predators if they’re not picked.
“Those are all really ripe right now and I really want to get in there and harvest that food and I’d love to be able to share that around,” she said. “I’m worried that it’s going to be a bear attractant in the middle of town.”
Dusseldorp added she had donated a fruit tree that she was excited to see the kids enjoy.
“My most recent plant donation was a nice, big, mature Cougar Annie concord grape vine that I was really excited about because the grapes would be coming in and be ready to eat by the time the kids are coming back to school in September,” she said.
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