When local school kids first stuck their shovels into the ground for the Chilliwack Schools Garden Program, the Titanic hadn't been built yet, let alone sunk, and no one had ever heard of a world war.
"It's one of the oldest school garden programs in Canada," said program chair George Marien to trustees at a school board meeting last month.
The deadline to sign up for this year's program is March 7, and Marien had come to the meeting to urge trustees to promote it during their school visits.
The concept of school gardens first emerged in 1904, when the Chilliwack Agricultural Society sponsored a school competition for the annual Chilliwack Fair.
Ten local schools competed that year, and Cheam school took home top honours. Horticultural powerhouse Chilliwack Central unseated them the following year.
The student gardens were grown on school grounds until 1925, when officials put in place the current practice of having kids grow their gardens at home.
More recently, organizers introduced container gardening to accommodate city kids who might only have balconies and patios to grow on.
"We're really trying to encourage children with an urban background, who really have no exposure to farming, to take on some horticultural activities," said Marien.
The purpose of getting kids to grow vegetables (and, more recently, flowers) has shifted over the years.
Originally, the goals were loftier than merely teaching students how to hoe, dig or pull weeds.
The program was to "provide the basis for problems in arithmetic, objects for drawing, subjects for composition and illustrations for history and geography," according to a 1915 news article. "It provide[d] an opportunity for the development of the faculty of observation, the power to see things definitely, to reach right conclusions with reference to the observations, and to make correct mental notes . . . to state the right colour, the exact length, the exact shape and position . . . the spirit of enquiry is encouraged and the drudgery of practical agriculture [was] at least partially displaced by a new and intelligent interest in the principles which underline it."
Today, with a growing push toward eating more locally grown food and living more sustainably, the aims of the program have changed.
"The whole goal of this is to increase awareness of food production," said Marien, who said few people, let alone kids, in the Fraser Valley realize only a small fraction of the food grown on our fertile farmland is eaten locally.
A retired medical researcher, Marien said growing vegetables gives kids who are used to highly processed foods and grocery-store produce a chance to see want "real," fresh food looks like.
Strathcona vice-principal Iain Gardner, the program's public schools liaison, agrees.
"When you're in an urban setting it's just that much harder to get back to nature. This provides an opportunity," he said.
Gardner's favourite part of the program is when his own kids bring home their seed packets in April.
"They get me mucking around in the backyard," he said.
Last year, 172 public, private and home-school kids from kindergarten to Grade 12 grew gardens for the program.
Participants are supplied with seeds in April and encouraged to follow the advice of horticultural experts on the program's website for planting and tending their crop.
The gardens, which come in a number of categories, are inspected up to three times during the growing season, and the best produce in each category and age group is selected to compete in the Chilliwack Fair in August.
? For more information about the Chilliwack Schools Garden Program, including registration forms, visit http: //garden.sd33.bc.ca/Home.html.
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