Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive

Volunteering at Fort Whyte Alive
By Judy Heppelle, Master Gardener

My volunteer role at Fort Whyte Alive (FWA) came about by chance. In 2010, I sat beside Jane Zoutman at one of the required classes for the Master Gardener (MG) designation. We started talking, Jane telling me about Fort Whyte and her various ‘jobs’ there. At the time, she had just finished cleaning out and revamping the two small garden ponds, “one heck of a smelly, messy job”. To learn more, read Jane’s “Building a Pond Garden.”

She asked me where I was volunteering. I said, “Nowhere, I just want to take these courses; they sound interesting.” She encouraged me to go talk to the volunteer coordinator at FWA. I did just that, had my interview, must have passed the muster, and started volunteering in the gardens the next summer.

There are dozens of volunteer opportunities at FWA – animal tracking with young students, canoeing, Bannock making, Goose Flight attendants in the fall, snowshoe trekking in the winter, and more, but gardening was what I wanted to do and what I did ­­– weeding, raking, mulching, trimming, pruning, and planting in the gardens and yard around the two main buildings, the Alloway Centre and the Interpretive Centre.

In 2016, Annette Bell (a long-time, 35-year volunteer), was cutting back on some of her responsibilities and asked me to take over the team responsible for the North Garden area. There are four garden teams at FWA: the North Garden team, the South Garden team, the Hill Garden team, and the native plant Solar Garden team. The Solar Garden team does not utilize generated solar power to grow plants; that garden sits in front of the bank of solar panels. What else would you call it? There was no Hill Garden or Solar Garden when I first started, and the North Garden was smaller then. The teams have evolved and developed over the years, and as most of the gardeners are at FWA only one day a week, it was less overwhelming and more practical to break up the space into separate teams. Each space has its own unique elements that the garden teams address, including sun/shade, new soil/older soil, and slope/flat challenges.

Besides dealing with what nature throws at us weatherwise including late springs, early frosts, drought, hail, windstorms, and invasive plants, there are animal invaders: rabbits and deer that will eat almost anything (as gardeners know), geese that pull out our newly planted annuals and perennials, and mink that hunt the ponds for frogs, minnows, and goldfish.

Renovations at FWA and regulations due to COVID made the last four summers especially challenging. During the entire summer and fall of 2019, the Interpretive Centre was a construction site. The gardens and building were cordoned off; there was no weeding or planting that summer.

Volunteers weeding North Garden. Photo: Judy Heppelle











Then came the COVID lockdown. There was no gardening in 2020, very little done in 2021, except for the occasional solitary soul pulling weeds occasionally, and then a slow return from the pandemic isolation in 2022. This last season of 2023, we were back to full force with a focus on returning the area to something that at least looked cared for. The most pressing and the toughest jobs were to remove, by any means possible, the Canada thistle, prairie sage, ground vetch, poplar tree shoots, and invasive honeysuckle bushes that had taken over everywhere.

Closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). Photo: Judy Heppelle






It was amazing to find a small rose bush, blooming, hidden under all that unwanted vegetation; the closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), blooming, and holding its own; betony (Stachys officinalis) sending up its spires of pink blossoms; and a small evergreen sending out new growth. We had survivors!

North Garden Pond. Photo: Judy Heppelle





Also, this year a new pump was bought for the North Pond; it worked so well (meaning that it kept its pressure and stayed clean all season) that the expiring pump in the South Pond will be replaced in 2024.
We have a lovely new garden shed with adequate room for all the tools of the trade, a new wheelbarrow, and several lengths of 100-foot hose enabling us to reach the farthest areas of previously inaccessible garden spots.

The Hill, devoid of its Canada thistles and most of its prairie sage. Photo: Judy Heppelle











Several dozen perennials were planted, including varieties of rudbeckia, echinacea, liatris, day lily, iris, ajuga, lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), and penstemon, to name a few. Native grasses and perennials were planted as well along with a few dozen shrubs with the hopes that in a few years they will be the backbone of the North Garden and the Hill. Also planted were ninebark, spireas, Rosa glauca, ‘Gro-low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’), and various diervilla. Herbs, sunflowers, and flowering vines thrived in the large silver planters on the east side of the Interpretive Centre, offering a great source of touch, feel, and smell for visitors.

At FWA, as to be expected, the emphasis is on native plants and shrubs whenever possible, but not exclusively. Gardeners, more knowledgeable and studied than me, have published articles about the benefits of mixing native and non-native plants. If the plant is not invasive, is not a rabbit or deer favourite (think hosta), is enjoyed by pollinators or birds, and has at least two seasons of interesting leaf or colour effect, it’s in! And these plants must be tough. We don’t, we can’t, coddle the greenery at FWA.

Each team volunteers for only one day a week from late April into September. Our team is there Fridays, for no reason other than we’ve always gardened on Fridays. If there is more work to be done or a special project planned, then more hours are scheduled. If the project requires more than one team, we solicit help from the others.

As gardeners, we don’t formally have meetings and tours with the public but there are always kids and adults on their way to classes or events who will stop at the garden to ask questions about individual plants or shrubs. What is that plant? Is that fruit edible?

The South (east side) planters: marigolds, cosmos, vines, herbs, sunflowers, etc. Photo: Judy Heppelle








Fort Whyte has been a wonderful place to volunteer; the experience has been nothing but positive for me. As a team leader, I’ve had to constantly research what might work and what won’t work at FWA. There is some coordinating required including confirming start dates, updating volunteers on various plans, deciding what to purchase, shopping for sales as the season progresses, filling in spaces that cry out for a plant to replace the one we just put in last year that has since been eaten to the ground, discussing what to order for the following gardening season, and presenting next year’s budget to FWA management before year end.

There are Master Gardeners on all the gardening teams. Not all the volunteers are MGs but all of us enjoy gardening, have or had gardens of our own, and enjoy the friendships we’ve made at FWA.

We constantly get “looking good!” from individual staff and acknowledgements from management that we are a vitally important resource for FWA. It’s good to hear that our efforts are “greatly appreciated.”

P.S. One volunteer opportunity often leads to another. One of my team members, Lois MacLellan, an MG herself, is responsible for the grounds and gardens of Oakview Nursing Home on Ness Avenue. A few years back, she asked me if I would help her out there, so I now volunteer on Tuesdays (spring to fall) at Oakview.