Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Growth spurts

Plants, students flourish in school's horticultural program

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A secret garden in the heart of the gritty North End bears apple trees, pear trees among ponds and waterfalls.

Indoor greenhouses burst with seedlings for vegetable and flower gardens.

A 200-year-old cactus shares space with blood-red trumpets that flare off stunning amaryllis.

A gnarled tea tree vents its camphor-like tang, rosemary, its savory punch and a geranium smells sweet, like lemon drops.

Welcome to R.B. Russell, the only school in Winnipeg with a working greenhouse. This greening of the city is on Dufferin Avenue at the foot of the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge, across from the Lord Selkirk projects and the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre.

Perhaps the best crop here is the people: students from broken homes who are growing hopes for brighter futures straight out of the earth.

Every bit of it is tended by kids with tattoos, kids who used to be bullies, kids kicked out of other schools.

Not wannabe gangbangers anymore, in anyone's wildest nightmares.

These kids love going to school on weekends. Seriously. Ditto with summer weeding, tending and fall harvesting.

They've done landscaping at David Livingstone School and other locations, and they put together planting kits for other schools.

Oh, and did I mention they make salsa from scratch?

If that knocks the stuffing out of stereotypes in the 'hood, you're right.

And really, it's not far off from the restorative message of the original Secret Garden, the children's classic about the mean, sad orphan who blossomed into a caring little girl behind the walls of a hidden English garden.

The 38 students from grades 9 to 12 who are enrolled in the horticulture program are the envy of other students: for the peace, the light and the gentle green growth in this place.

They work to the sound of a tropical bird song, from a parakeet named Bobbee. She meows like a cat and giggles like a little girl.

Brittany Murdock, 20, who will graduate this year, sees her future as a mason and outdoor landscaper because of the program. She designed and built the school's water feature in the long lobby overlooking the garden courtyard.

This winter, Murdock's last big project involves engineering an aquaponics system for plant food production with hoses, aquariums and eavestroughs. It will pump pablum out of perch poop for seedlings.

There's something special about walking into the greenhouse, she said.

"You can breathe. It's awesome, just the fact that it's summer inside. You get the light."

Murdock is not the only one who has undergone a transformation once inside the sun-kissed walls.

"Taking care of all these plants, it's teaching me how to grow my own garden... and it's given me a lot of confidence to let my skills come through," Macey MacDonald, 18, said.

Taylor Coleman, 17, is a whippet-thin teen guy: "When you walk into the greenhouse, it feels very calming. It lets you release and be free and embrace the plants," he said.

And Joseph King, 19 dressed in cargo shorts at -30 below and a headband? "My experience is, every time I'm in there it helps my moods, it helps me cope with my stress."

Drew Richard, 19, came to R.B. Russell a step ahead of dropping out, belligerent and scary:

"I got expelled from junior high in Grade 6. I used to be the biggest bully. I didn't know how to handle my anger. So I used to fight."

These days, she's a little mother to her sister, Eileen. At 4, Eileen is shy and shows her budding fashionista flare in a little white floral dress trimmed in candy floss piping.

Richard's now known as "the Lettuce Queen of the North End."

An avid gardener, Richard tends the gardens outside during the summer, filling garbage bags with fresh lettuce for the 'hood. She's enrolling in social work after graduation.

R.B. Russell principal Bev Wahl said she has seen kids find peace from the plants and go on to succeed in their school work, proving the program's value.

"We're definitely going to keep it going," Wahl said.

Teacher Louise Shachtay noted R.B. Russell is the only school in Winnipeg with such an extensive greenhouse program, and over the years the high school has set up links with Red River College, where some students go on to secondary-school programs.

"Therapeutic" comes to mind.

"You get different types of kids coming in... I have 20 seniors and 18 juniors. I want kids to connect with the earth, because I know a lot of kids are disconnected. This is a place of hope in the middle of the city. We've got crime over here," Shachtay said, gesturing to an inner-city housing complex. "We've got shootings over there," her hand gesture shifted in the direction of Dufferin Avenue.

"But here we hardly get any windows broken."

That could be related the sense of healing and solace.

"These kids are learning about nurture. They haven't had that nurturing in their own lives. Some of these kids aren't with their parents. They live with relatives or in group homes. And I tell the kids, 'I don't care where you're from or what you've done. Here we start with a clean slate.' "

Green thumbs

This month's Green Page takes a look at an organic horticultural and landscaping program at R.B. Russell Vocational High School, established 13 years ago under the guidance of teacher and green thumb Louise Shachtay. It's unique in Winnipeg.

Shachtay and others say the greenhouse is an investment in eco-living that's saved the sanity of more than one kid.

Horticulture is not for birdbrains. It's a science, with an encompassing set of disciplines: taxonomy, math, problem-solving skills, soil chemistry and hydroponics. There's also a retail side to the R.B. Russell horticulture program: floral centrepieces, salesmanship and customer relations.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J16

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