Bridges: Greenhouse 'curator’ Clay Whitney mentors northern gardeners

·7 min read

On a bitterly cold winter day in Île-à-la-Crosse, young students from Rossignol Elementary School bundled up in their winter gear and traipsed through a metre of snow to get to the neighbouring greenhouse.

“About the fifth student came through the door and he looked into the building,” recalled greenhouse co-ordinator Clay Whitney. “He saw all the plants and, with eyes as wide as saucers, he said, ‘This place is deadly.' ”

For Whitney, moments like that — the young student’s “slow, comical, yet incredulous” awe upon seeing the wealth of vibrant greenery up north in the middle of winter — make it all worth it.

Whitney has been running the greenhouse since the winter of 2019, volunteering his time to plant fruits and vegetables, experiment with ambitious northern gardening projects and teach local students how to grow their own food.

He’s there when students want to learn to plant, harvest and preserve, and when math and science teachers plan greenhouse activities to support what they’re teaching in the classroom.

Because the project is so expansive, Whitney describes his role as “greenhouse curator” — treating the building and the plants inside as a living, interactive museum.

“Not only is a greenhouse, but it’s kind of a conservatory, too,” said Whitney. “We’re not just growing food, per se. We’re also growing other things to show what we can grow in our region.”

Northern Saskatchewan has a short growing season and a harsh winter climate — but in the Île-à-la-Crosse greenhouse, you could forget that you’re north of 55 degrees at any time of year.

At the moment, Whitney and his students are busy harvesting tomatoes by the bagful — black cherry, black krim, green zebra, orange blossom and more.

“The first year we did (tomatoes), we used hothouse varieties, which did all right,” said Whitney. “But I’ve always thought they lack flavour, you know? So that’s why I decided that I would try heritage varieties. And through trial and error, we found the ones that did very well for us.”

Further on in the greenhouse, rows of peas, cucumbers, radishes and broccoli are all coming up too — the taller plants trellised on strands of red rope hanging down from the roof.

“We have three different types of kale, five different types of bok choy and some giant Swiss chard,” he said. “It just makes for a really nice salad or steamed vegetables.”

Rising 10th-grader Lucas Laliberte, who joined the greenhouse club at the start of the year, said the strawberries have been his favourite greenhouse project.

Over the course of the year, Laliberte helped plant four different types of strawberries that reach maturity at four different stages — so he and his classmates can bring fruit home for months on end.

“We had our first crop of strawberries in April, and we were getting about a pound of strawberries out of a 24-food spot every week for about four weeks,” said Whitney.

And with all his new experience from working in the greenhouse, Laliberte is looking forward to spending some of this summer helping his mom in the garden at home.

“I like planting lots of stuff and learning how to do it,” he said. “We’re growing lots of stuff, and it’s all cool.”

Whitney’s own love of gardening began as a teenager in Ontario, when he started a landscaping job.

“I was always into pushing a lawnmower and pruning trees and hedges.”

But his real passion for growing food blossomed when he moved to the West Coast.

“On Vancouver Island, I met a gentleman who was growing apple trees in his backyard,” said Whitney. “He had 50 different varieties in a 35-by-35-foot space — and I’d never seen anything like that before. I’d never seen that many different types of apples to begin with; I only knew about the ones you see at the grocery store.”

Since then, Whitney has been inspired to take on ever more ambitious projects. So, along with planting rows and rows of those staple fruits and vegetables, Whitney and his students are also growing Mediterranean figs, Meyer lemon trees and passion fruit in the northern greenhouse.

“We’ve got the (passion fruit) blossoms already,” said Whitney. “And to see the blossoms is quite the showy thing.”

And the lemon tree, too — which he taught students how to treat for parasites and propagate from healthy cuttings — is “one of the highlights” of his work in Île-à-la-Crosse.

School division director of education Brenda Green, who has been a staunch supporter of the greenhouse project since it got started, said students have benefitted from Whitney’s enthusiasm, experience and imagination.

“Clay has been foundational for the greenhouse programming,” she said. “Not only has he brought in his own expertise, but he’s brought in a varied perspective, having lived elsewhere in Canada too.

“When he brings in lemon trees and things people typically wouldn’t think to grow up north, it adds diversity and creates an open-mindedness to having different types of foods in the north.”

And though the greenhouse has only been in operation for a few years, Green said it is beloved by students and teachers alike.

“I see the smiles on the faces of the students and their engagement,” she said. “They’re looking intently at the plants as the projects are unfolding.”

Green is also excited about how these gardening skills will stay with students for a lifetime.

“In Île-à-la-Crosse, my understanding is that gardening has always been a part of this community,” she said. “And there is potential for career opportunities, and opportunities for a healthier community as well.”

Whitney said students can take their garden skills into adulthood, long after they've graduated.

“It gives them a bit more empowerment, knowing that they can create their own food without having to rely on anybody else to do it,” he said.

At the moment, with so much food coming out of the greenhouse, Whitney is busy looking for ways to get it onto students’ plates, teaching them about healthy eating and fighting back against food insecurity in the north.

“I wanted to come up with a way that we could feed the students a salad at least once a week,” he said. “And that’s where we came up with the idea of planting a whole 60-foot row of salad, and every week a different class would come through and harvest that themselves.

"So every week, all the students in the elementary school were taking a salad home.”

In the future, he’d like to send students home with a salad a day.

And over this summer, when most of the students are away, Whitney wants to make sure none of the crop gets wasted.

“So now we’re making soups out of all of our tomatoes and adding in the greens that we have growing, then canning it,” he said. “We’re going to have a pantry in the school so that students, if they’re hungry, can go get some soup or some pickles or something out of the larder.”

Through all these grand plans for the greenhouse — with more and more of them coming to fruition with every passing season — Whitney always comes back to his love for fresh food, and sharing that love with everyone who walks through the greenhouse doors.

“One of my favourite moments was when we had the pre-K and kindergarten class coming through, and we were planting some mixed greens,” he said. “I was kneeling down, getting down on their level to help plant the stuff.

“And when I turned back and looked around, I got to see the greenhouse from their point of view — from a little child’s point of view. There was just so much stuff going on, it was almost like a jungle.

“It was just like being a kid again for a few minutes.”

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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