Island Greens

By Mike Matthews

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When Jim Harris, retirement from teaching impending, contemplated leaving Ontario, he did some research to identify the ideal spot to accommodate him and his wife, Margaret, also a teacher, in their later years.

“I concluded that there were four places in the world that could suit us,” says Jim. “There was Perth in southwest Australia, the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the coast near Durban in South Africa, and the southern part of Canada’s West Coast. However, I knew Perth was probably not the perfect climate, the Black Sea area would present language difficulties, and that South Africa might have some cultural challenges.” 

For climate, language and culture, the B.C. coast seemed a good choice, and relatives living on Protection Island in Nanaimo’s harbour enticed the near-to-retirement teachers to visit. Walking near the south shore of the mile-long island, Jim experienced a revelation.

“It just hit me that this was the perfect place. With a little over 200 people, the island was just about the right size, the ideal village,” he says, “and we’ve never looked back.”

Of course, retirees are always looking for new adventures and challenges to get the best from these golden years. Jim’s teaching experience was in horticulture, and it didn’t take him long to establish a productive garden in the new home on Protection’s western shore. Indeed, the Harris garden is an extraordinary example of beauty, variety and productivity. “Every day we try to eat from the garden,” says Jim.

With their own garden well established, Jim came up with the idea of organizing a community garden where neighbours whose properties weren’t suitable for gardening could grow their own produce. Initially, there were concerns about slicing up public parkland into garden beds, and debate about fair allotment of plots. Finally, in 2007, with support from residents, City of Nanaimo planners and council members, the garden was established in a sunny park in the centre of the island.

The Harris’ skills handily overlap. Margaret is a major force on the island. Her enterprises include fabric handicrafts - handbags, sewing bags, knitting bags - and organizing and scheduling a variety of fundraising activities that support the garden. 
“We have plant and baking sales, dessert auctions and dances,” Margaret says, “which bring community members together in ways that are fun for all of us and at the same time provide needed funds for the garden.”

The Garden is managed by D.I.G.S., the Douglas Island Garden Society. An early name for Protection Island, Douglas Island saves the society from being named P.I.G.S.
The D.I.G.S. garden attracts gardeners and visitors throughout the year. From first blooms in the spring to fall harvest and winter greens, the garden is an attractive spot for neighbours to meet, chat, exchange garden lore and borrow books from the D.I.G.S. library. As well, during the summer months, seasonal produce abounds. Donations for the produce are dropped into a gardener’s rubber boot at a historic lemonade stand at the garden gate. 

“It’s a central feature of Protection Island’s annual garden tour,” says tour organizer Heather Cooling. “After visiting individual gardens, which feature rockwork, reflecting pools, and ornamental displays, people enjoy putting together a picture of how the whole island shares a special place at the community garden. Not to mention the produce!”

A distinctive feature of Protection Island’s community garden is its weekly sessions for youngsters: Little Diggers. As the adult volunteers cultivate, plant and weed the 100-square metres of communal beds or individual plots, children work busily alongside them planting and tending their own tiny beds and working on such co-operative projects as the Tater Towers - five-foot-high (1.5-metre-high) soil-filled enclosures of timber with potato plants thrusting through apertures at each level, which saves garden space.

Margaret and Jim’s teaching experience shows its value in the education at the garden. “I’ve invited other adults to work with the kids, but it seems many people aren’t comfortable doing that. And I’ve had lots of experience,” says Jim. His skill in getting youngsters motivated and involved is seen at the Little Diggers Sunday sessions, with their enthusiastic teacher talking with them about compost, worms, bulbs and seeds.

Little Diggers is a hit with kids and parents alike. “It’s wonderful,” says Josephine Kenchenten, whose two children are regulars. “They do things and they learn things, and it doesn’t end down at D.I.G.S. It continues! They bring things, ideas, home.”

Jim does it all, yet always consults with other D.I.G.S. members about what should be done, and how, and where, and acknowledges their guidance. “I’ve had to learn things,” he says. “For example, at home I put copper sulphate on my tomatoes, to armour them against blight. I’ve been told by fellow gardeners that’s a no-no. So we don’t do that at the community garden.”

“What’s so special about Jim Harris?” asks a D.I.G.S. volunteer. “High achievement! Low profile!” This year the City of Nanaimo initiated awards for local “green” enterprises and Protection Island was given two awards: one for a house built according to environmental consideration in materials and construction, the other for Jim Harris’ work. The award referenced Jim’s work with the Little Diggers, as well as his leadership at the community garden.

At a gathering to celebrate the award, Jim characteristically transferred credit from himself to the D.I.G.S. members who simply “show up” week after week to work in the garden. No one shows up as regularly as Jim: weekends and weekdays, to gather seaweed or leaves for the garden’s compost, to sow and to reap, to weed and water, to build and repair, or to receive goods and services brought from town at the garden’s tiny headquarters shed. Jim, one-man gang, is like the legendary football hero who drops back to block and protect the passer, throws the pass, races downfield to catch it, then runs ahead to block for the pass receiver.



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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

What a wonderful story. We have known Marg & Jim for many years and know what a passion they have for life and living things. We miss them in the Ottawa Valley but are very
lucky to have visited Protection Island and have viewed their beautiful garden and eaten their
delicious produce. Delighted that they are continuing to "teach" our young people how to create gardens and make our world a more beautiful place.

Posted by Joyce & Peter Cowan | August 9, 2011 Report Violation

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