Epicurious 

How does your garden grow?

With signs of spring emerging everywhere and food prices steadily rising, it's easy to see why people are interested in getting their hands dirty in the garden. The idea is so popular here in Whistler, in fact, that the Whistler Community Services Society's (WCSS) community greenhouse program has already sold out all of its spots for this season, and waitlisted an additional 60 people who are eager to have a chance to grow their own tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other veggies throughout the spring and summer months.

Among many other tasks, Kari Mancer coordinates the greenhouse program for WCSS.

"It's probably one of my favourite parts of the job because it's just so well-received with everyone," she said with a smile.

She took it over from Stephen Milstein, a local psychologist and agriculture advocate, who developed the concept after delving into the world of backyard gardening.

"He started growing vegetables under a cold frame in his backyard," Mancer explained. "And then later developed a greenhouse that did really well, so he decided he should bring it into the community."

With a renter-rich market in Whistler, most people don't have the space, or permission from their landlords, to start their own backyard gardens.

"Most people just have a little patio deck, or not even," she said.

WCSS loved the idea of a community greenhouse program, and started the project with just two buildings housed on land owned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler, which offers use of the land rent-free and pays Hydro costs for the project.

Over the past five years, the program has grown to include four, 20-foot by 40-foot greenhouses, which are located at Myrtle Philip Community School, Alpha Lake Park, and two at Spruce Grove Field House. Each contains 18 boxes that are rigged with heating cables and irrigation systems.

Last year, the Community Foundation of Whistler and the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation contributed money to the project, allowing WCSS to build the fourth greenhouse at Alpha Lake Park, which provided an additional 18 boxes and allowed almost 54 more community members to participate in the program.

And it appears that people of all ages and stages are interested in learning the finer points of food production. Mancer said they see everyone from families and young couples to seniors.

For just $60, participants receive a WCSS membership and access to the greenhouses, which include seeds, hydro costs, fertilizer, a gardening course, and additional support to help assist in the learning process.

Because apparently, contrary to popular belief, gardening isn't as simple as having a green thumb or not. There's a lot of technical knowledge, homework and maintenance required to make sure your garden thrives.

"Each type of seed has to be planted at a different depth and certain plants are better neighbours than others," Mancer said. "So we have a little diagram where people can plan out their box."

The program is designed to promote social and environmental sustainability, allowing community members to grow their own organic herbs and vegetables six months of the year, while 10 per cent of the harvest is donated to the Whistler Food Bank. There's also a strong social component; it's a place to spend time with family and friends, and to get to know your neighbours, all while learning about where our food comes from and creating "food security."

Now, WCSS is working on sharing their greenhouse expertise with other groups throughout the community. They've seen many other communities come looking for information to help set up their own community greenhouse programs, and are more than willing to share their framework and knowledge. Depending on the selected site, it can cost around $15,000 to build a similar greenhouse.

"The idea would be to offer it to, say, a strata group or an area like Bayshores, to get together and try to build one," Mancer said.

Extra helpings

Okay, so digging in the dirt doesn't appeal to you. Well, Farmers' Markets are another great way to get fresh produce from local sources. And though the summer Whistler Farmers' Market doesn't start until Father's Day, you can still get your fill at the indoor winter farmers' market, which takes place at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre each Sunday.

Or, head to the web. The Pemberton Farmer's Institute recently launched a brand new website designed to link consumers and producers within the Sea to Sky region by offering up an online market, plus jobs and information on all aspects of local agriculture. Check it out for yourself at www.pembertonfarmers.com .

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