Where the plant things are

Nestled against the concrete of urban Whitehorse, straddling the line between nature and the works of man, lies a magical garden bursting with the…

Nestled against the concrete of urban Whitehorse, straddling the line between nature and the works of man, lies a magical garden bursting with the sweet fruits of the Yukon summer.

Raised planter pots host a gathering of plants from all over the world.

No pesticides help them on their journey, only the patient and skilled hands of a small band of committed green-thumbs calling themselves the Urban Gardeners.

Narrow individual plots are arrayed at the front; larger ones at the back are reserved for organizations, such as Whitehorse Elementary School and the Second Opinion Society.

White raspberries grow on a nearby bush, seemingly painted by the guardsmen of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts.

“Golden raspberries … it’s a really honeyish taste, not your typical acidic raspberry,” said Randy Lamb, president of the board of directors of the Urban Gardener’s Association.

Spring onions leapt out of a narrow plot. Hearty perennials from Russia, the plants consist of massive scallion-like shoots tipped with full-sized white onions — a complete onion feast in only one plant.

And they’re good until minus 40, says Lamb.

 For five lonely winters, the spring onions have held on, breaking through the May thaw just as green and healthy as they’d be in late summer.

“We got the seeds from people at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who collected them over in Russia from little community gardens,” said Lamb.

Within the small confines of the Urban Garden, 50 to 100 varieties of plants are on display, hailing from all corners of the globe. Plant diversity is a strong component of the garden’s mission, said Lamb.

“Two years ago I had a bunch of Chinese and Japanese vegetables on display, and people were like, ‘What is that?’”

One, a close relative of bok choy, could survive temperatures as low as minus 5 — in addition to standing up to choking drought and fierce wind.

“Everything else would be wilted and dead, but this plant would have these big luscious leaves on it,” said Lamb.

French sorrel grew unassumingly in a plot behind the spring onions. It looks no different from any other low-lying leafy plant, but after the third chew, the sorrel leaf bursts forth in a cascade of lemon.

“Sour cream, about a dozen (French sorrel) leaves, Knorr soup mix — and that’s like a really wild dip,” said Lamb.

A massive pile of local manure provides the valuable nutrients for the Urban Garden.

Passing by a pile of manure, Lamb noticed a cluster of recently formed mushrooms. Pulling a plastic bag out of his back pocket, he quickly wrapped up the fresh fungi, reserving a spot for them on that evening’s dinner plate.

The vast wealth of the Urban Garden is not solely relegated to those that tend, weed and water its many treasures.

 “We call it the Plant a Row program, and it’s almost like a victory garden, in a sense,” said Lamb, referring to an initiative during the Second World War whereby citizens started small home gardens to reduce pressure on the food supply caused by the war effort.

In every plot, gardeners reserve a specific row of vegetables to be donated to one of Whitehorse’s food security agencies. In the 2008 season alone, the program gathered more than 135 kilograms of fresh vegetable donations.

A plot near the rear of the garden is full to bursting with jungle-like greenery, dwarfing Lamb’s young daughter, who gingerly tends the plants.

For all their size and strength, the plants came about through the weekly efforts of only a handful of children.

The Sprouts program, done in partnership with the department of parks and recreation, teaches children about agriculture through a six-week program that looks at compost, garden insects, and the proper building of a bed.

“They planted a crop, they harvested it, they tended it — and then they had a big salad day at the end,” said Lamb.

One gardener only grows herbs. Bouquets of beautiful flowers splay out in all direction. But at the urban garden, these flowers aren’t just another pretty face — they’re also quite edible.

A handful of hastily harvested petals yields the smell and taste of a fresh cup of chamomile tea.

Tall “Flander’s Fields” poppies hug the rear fence — although they’re not the opium kind, Lamb says.

The whole perimeter of the garden is ringed with massive raspberry and Saskatoon berry bushes — offering summer sweets to any garden member packing a small cup.

 Even when working with common, everyday vegetables — the experts at the Urban Garden are quick to point out the many unknowns of the plants.

On common radishes, popular wisdom holds that the plant part of the radish should be ignored until the radish is harvested and the green part is discarded.

However, the seedpods themselves are storehouses of explosive radish flavour.

“It’s still tender, you can throw them in salads — and now you have hundreds of radish flavoured things,” said Lamb.

The plants may indeed flourish, but the realities of urban life are ever present. The clay cliffs overhead are a popular dumping spot for old bicycles, occasionally sending gardeners scrambling for cover as another two-wheeler tumbles to its demise.

“We were getting about one bike a week at one point last year,” said Lamb.

“I heard years ago that an old vehicle went over the edge,” he said.

The rich cornucopia of the Urban Garden may one day become an excellent venue for guided “taste tours.”

While nothing official has yet been undertaken, next summer Whitehorse residents may have the opportunity to get guided tours of the garden’s many riches.

At a similar urban garden in Inuvik, situated inside an old hockey rink, will host well-advertised garden tours, complete with beer, wine and a live band.

Patrons are asked to dress in formal wear — provided they wear gumboots.

Lamb says the garden is about much more than simply fostering ample stores of mouth-watering Yukon-grown vegetables.

“Another part of the garden is to pull together that community spirit,” said Lamb.

Gardeners tend to each other’s plots, they share secrets, seeds and put in volunteer time to tend the surrounding grounds.

And like the harvest festivals in days of old, the close of a successful growing season is always good reason for celebration.

The salad social, once a common fixture of the garden, involved a short work bee followed by a salad feast, tossed in an enormous communal bowl.

In years past, by harvest time the urban gardeners would find themselves inundated with forests of thick, juicy rhubarb — an ample supply for even the most vociferous pie makers.

As a result, the Rhubarb Rendezvous became a well-anticipated annual event.

“We’d bring people here, we’d harvest the rhubarb, and then down at CYI or something, the local chefs would make a range of things out of rhubarb — pies, preserves, treats,” said Lamb.

For a nominal fee, guests could sit down and ingest a lifetime supply of rhubarb products. Under the plant-a-row program, this yearly avalanche of rhubarb now finds its way into the hands of Whitehorse’s urban needy.

Lamb chuckles when musing about how the Salvation Army deals with their frequent donations of unorthodox vegetables.

With more blue carrots and Japanese frost cabbage in store for next year, the peculiar horn of plenty of the Urban Garden is showing any signs of letting up, or getting any less interesting.