Fort McPherson's fast-growing garden has plans for your plate

Last summer, six-year-old Dawson Ford grew his first garden. Every morning, he'd wake up, eat his breakfast, then go outside to water the plants. Before bedtime, back he would go again.

His father, Dave Ford, says nurturing the garden became part of the family routine with Dawson at the helm. Dawson took to the garden like a "living art project" by tending to plants, placing caribou antlers as supports, and painting the garden boxes.

"He really cared for it every day," said Ford. "And it really paid off. It was amazing."

Dawson grew tomatoes, broccoli, lemon balm, herbs, celery and colourful flowers.

"The little six-year-old boy, that was the best one, the best raised bed in the whole community. He had over 30 tomatoes. He had like six cabbages, he had celery, he had the biggest heads of broccoli," said Roberta Alexie, who manages the Northwest Territories community's greenhouse with Dinjii Zhuh Solutions.

"All those things I couldn't believe we could do, and it just ignited something inside of me."

For Ford senior, there's real beauty in it.

"Just to wake up and have a look outside and see all this colour, and know that you're a part of it," he said. "It was something that we helped create by just caring for something. It wouldn't be there if he didn't go out every day and look after it.

"Dawson was so proud of his little garden, to show his grandfather and keep him updated on all the new growth. He got to enjoy his garden and share it with people."

So far, there are 43 residents signed up for a plot this year, including Dawson. The greenhouse will partner with Chief Julius School to teach grades 1 and 2 about gardening.

Alexie recently ordered a second greenhouse to support this growth.

Plans this summer include more garden plots, giving away more growing containers for home gardening, and preparing more flower pots for Elders. There is also new funding for canning materials, so residents can preserve what they harvest.

This year, organizers are beginning work in March. By June, residents are invited to transplant young plants into the community greenhouse or their own plots, according to Alexie.

Trina Nerysoo supports the greenhouse project in her role as community energy coordinator at Dinjii Zhuh Solutions. Nerysoo has big hopes for the greenhouse, and says it has a role to play in advancing food security and education in the region.

Sometimes, fruit and vegetables at the store in small N.W.T. communities "just don't look good," said Nerysoo, but they're still expensive.

"We can change that and show that we can grow," she said.

"I'm gonna grow. My mom, she did long ago... she used to have a garden when she stayed in Aklavik."

Not everyone's garden turned out the same, but it was a learning experience for all.

"The fact that they participated, that's a success," said Nerysoo. "The fact that they want to do it again, that's a success."

Earlier this month, Dinjii Zhuh Solutions issued a call-out for suggestions to name the community greenhouse. With five submissions, organizers closed the contest this week.

The winning submission was from Elder Lucy Wilson, who suggested the name Tetlit Zheh Datłoo, meaning Fort McPherson Greenhouse in Gwich'in.

"In my mind, I always keep the Gwich'in language close to me," said Alexie. "I always want to incorporate our language into the kind of work that we do."

Last year, the community garden distributed 30 hanging flower pots to Elders who were nominated by members of the community. Along with the flowers, Elders would receive notes of thanks explaining why they were nominated.

"When the Elders got their notes, it just made their day," said Alexie. "It brought so much happiness and joy."

There were also flower pots set aside for children. Parents could show up to the greenhouse and request one for a little one.

At the end of last season, participants were invited to share what went well and what to improve. Alexie says she heard people say how good they felt to be in the garden, caring for something.

"It's therapeutic for people to do this, and it's helpful, it makes you feel so good inside knowing you can grow something," said Alexie. "I was so proud of what I was doing. I didn't know that we could do something like this."

One resident told Alexie her garden became a haven for her after a hard day.

"Just going to her garden knowing she could do this, it's almost like the plants made her feel well again," said Alexie. "A lot of the growing stuff that she was doing made a difference in her life. Something she never thought – she could do something like that and feel better."

Last season, residents exchanged photos of meals they made from the vegetables and herbs grown in the community.

Residents of all ages were gardening last year, including Elders into their eighties.

"It helps Elders with dementia. How good is that?" said Nerysoo.

"We all have issues with mental health and I think even in the smaller communities, with drugs and whatnot, you don't know what people are going through."

"Feeling like you have a connection to this earth is so important and it has so many positive effects on our whole being," said Ford, who is a nurse in the community. "So, an activity where every day we're sharing our time and energy with the land, it brings us closer to a place of wellness. It feels so good."

"Little Dawson, his parents said he was so concerned about his garden," said Nerysoo. "He just took so much pride and joy and responsibility. It gave people responsibility and something to look forward to."

When the harvest time came, organizers hosted a year-end feast to celebrate. They cooked local fish alongside produce from the greenhouse, and invited residents to bring extra vegetables from their harvest.

"If it's this successful now, what are we going to see in five years?" Nerysoo said. "I'm just so excited about that."

Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio