WESTERN MANITOULIN—Having recently become an incorporated group, the Western Manitoulin Community Garden (WMCG) committee has been meeting this winter to review the inaugural 2017 season and plan for the season to come.

In the spring of 2017, the Manitoulin Child Poverty Task Force (CPTF), under the auspice of Noojmowin Teg Health Centre (NTHC), was awarded the Manitoulin Community Fresh Food Initiative (MCFFI) grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to help address food security on the Island.

The grant monies were subsequently shared among four geographic areas on Manitoulin. Gardens have been established in 11 communities thanks to the grant and the efforts of Noojmowin Teg. The project assist community gardens that were already established, as well as new community garden initiatives, such as Western Manitoulin’s.

Chuc and Linda Willson, as members of the CPTF through Kids Can Grow, were recruited by Kristin Bickell of NTHC to oversee the start-up of the project in Western Manitoulin. Having received the grant funding at the beginning of May 2017, it was clear the goal for the first season would be to put the basics in place. With this the search began for a garden site. Early in their search the Willson’s approached High McLaughlin of McLaughlin Real Estate about potential sites. To their delight, Mr. McLaughlin offered the use of a six acre piece of land he owned at the intersection of Highways 540 and 540B. The generosity of this offer was beyond their expectations and the  location ideal.

The Western Manitoulin Community Garden was originally envisioned to be modest in size, but with the offer of six acres, a much bigger dream-and challenge-was born. The community now had the opportunity to create not only a vegetable garden but also an orchard, berry  bushes, flower gardens and more. It would be a place accessible to all and dedicated to the Island tradition of growing great gardens and sharing the bounty.

The MCFFI paid for plants and seeds as well as water tanks, hoses, a composting unit, shed and picnic table, tools and a drip irrigation system. With the help of volunteers and local businesses, a garden area of 200 x 250 foot was tilled, asparagus planted and a vegetable garden of 200 x 50 feet was seeded. Young garden enthusiasts from the Grade 2 to 3 class of C.C. McLean Public School transplanted vegetables and flowers they had grown in the classroom. Despite challenging weather, the garden grew reasonably well.

Unfortunately, grant money for fencing arrived too late to prevent damage by deer. A solar electric fence has since been erected. In the late fall, the students from C.C. McLean returned to plant 1,000 garlic cloves originating from the garden of late Steve Hall.

Linda Willson summarized WMGC’s inaugural season by saying, “the 2017 season was a time of basic beginnings. The Trillium grant along with guidance and support from Noojmowin Teg have provided a  wonderful opportunity to create a healthy, vibrant space for the community. We’re excited about the future. Planning for the new season and beyond is underway.”

At a recent meeting, the community garden committee decided to make the WMCF an incorporated body. This was accomplished by forming an alliance with the Northern Ontario Permaculture Research Institute (NOPRI), located near Little Current. NOPRI has been working for some 10 years to create a Northern Ontario centre for the practice, instruction and research in permaculture. They were recently awarded a Premier’s Award for innovation in agriculture. Western Manitoulin Community Garden will function as an independent branch of NOPRI, while benefitting from their expertise.

“The 2018 season will see a lot of activity at the garden,” stated Chuc Willson, “and we want to emphasize that the garden is for the people of Western Manitoulin. Our group will work with the community to achieve a common vision. We know we can count on receiving lots of help.”

In 2018, individual garden spaces will be available on a rental basis. There will also be a shared common garden area available to individuals and families without charge. Part of the common garden will be planted and maintained by the Garden Club of C.C. McLean. Another section will be devoted to perennial plants such as rhubarb, horseradish and the 1,000 asparagus plants that were planted last season. A team of experienced gardeners will be recruited to mentor beginning gardeners.

A Children’s Garden including a play area will feature easy-to-grow vegetables such as radish, cherry tomatoes and snow peas. Raised garden beds for elders and those with disabilities will be constructed. There will also be space for berry bushes and an “edible forest” of fruit and nut trees along with other edible plants. Accessible pathways will wind throughout the site.

A wildflower meadow to attract pollinators is envisioned along with beekeeping. Uncultivated areas will be set aside as habitat for beneficial insects, frogs, toads and snakes that help keep gardens free of pests.

Composting will be an essential aspect of the garden. Material for composting will be sourced from surrounding communities. This will help divert large volumes of organic waste from landfills.

Land based art will enhance the site including quilt block murals on water tanks, sculptures and designs using natural materials along with natural arbours, fences and gates. Shade structures, a pavilion and washroom facilities are included in the goals of the committee.

Special events are also being planned. A kite festival is being organized for the spring under the sponsorship of Lyons Memorial United Church. Other events such as gardening workshops, a garlic festival and a fall feast are also under consideration.

“This is a big dream that will unfold over many years,” said Linda Willson. “Our vision is for the Community Garden to be a place for all members of the community to enjoy whether they garden or not. As they say, many hands make light work. We hope folks from all over Western Manitoulin will get involved and contribute as best they can.”

“Whether it’s donating perennials or berry bushes,” Ms. Willson continued, “planting a tree in memory of a  loved one; sharing your gardening skills, doing some weeding; or helping to maintain the grounds- there are many ways to contribute.”

The Western Manitoulin Community Garden committee invites interested attend the next meeting on Wednesday, February 21, 7 pm, Gordon-Barrie Island Hall. Or if you, friends or family would like to help in any way please email: manitoulinwestcommunitygarden@gmail.com