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Snow takes its toll on community greenhouses

Two of three in Whistler collapse

By Vivian Moreau

When Betty McWhinnie lived near Toronto she had a huge garden. But when she moved to Whistler 20 years ago there wasn’t any space to plant a vegetable garden outside her townhome and she did without.

All that changed four years ago when two community greenhouses were built at the end of Spruce Grove Field House parking lot. Since then she’s grown tomatoes, green beans, Swiss chard, carrots and beets in a single 2.5 foot by eight foot raised bed.

And although McWhinnie will be able to plant again come April it’s not known if two other greenhouses, one at Spruce Grove and another at Myrtle Philip school, will be available. Heavy snowfall this winter took its toll on the two covered greenhouses, causing frames to buckle and collapse.

Stephen Milstein was the driving force behind the greenhouses being constructed in 2004. A vegetarian and psychologist who lobbied the municipality to support the project, he volunteers under the auspices of Whistler Community Services Society, working with retired stevedore Jim Cook to keep the greenhouses up and running. Milstein is looking to raise $6,000 quickly to replace twisted frames and collapsed woven poly covers for the two damaged greenhouses.

Forty people sign up each spring and pay $55 for the pleasure of growing organic vegetables in the greenhouses. Organic seeds are purchased from a Victoria grower, Milstein said, and the beds are watered and heated with an automated irrigation and heat tracer system. Cook grows tomato starter plants for participants, plants that grow to the ceiling of the 10-foot high greenhouses. Growing beds have bottoms made from recycled galvanized roofing and sit on recycled plastic bricks, Milstein said. The municipality provides free water and power.

And although McWhinnie said she rents a growing bed in order to avoid having to buy “chemically-induced vegetables” and to contribute a portion of the harvest to Whistler’s food bank, Milstein and Cook say there are other reasons to take part in greenhouse gardening.

“It’s a social thing,” Cook said. “It gets to be like curling.”

The greenhouses are not just about growing vegetables.

“You go down there on a summer day,” Milstein said, “and people are socializing and helping each other out and sharing and there’s a sense of community and that’s what this is all about.”

Milstein hopes local foundations will assist in covering the costs of repairing the greenhouses so that gardeners can start planting mid-April. And next year covers will be taken off the greenhouses and stored for the winter, he said.