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Home & Garden

From Rhubarb to Roses - Helen Pacholko Park: A Community Garden in Bloom

Sherri Duncan & Jackie Dings
BY Sherri Duncan & Jackie Dings
(1 Vote)

What do you do when you don’t have room for a garden of your own or you wish to be surrounded by other like-minded people outdoors growing vegetables and playing in the dirt?  Perhaps a community garden is the answer. For many, gardening starts in childhood. For me, it started with my grandma and carried on with my dad.  Both had gardens that were the envy of their friends.

Childhood memories of my grandmother’s garden are fresh in my mind’s eye. I clearly recall eating carrots right out of the garden. Grandpa would wipe them on his overalls and tell me “this is the way they taste best”. I chomped on the fresh orange veggie (not entirely sure about the taste of the addition of dirt) and then Grandma and I would continue our tour. As we walked through the rows of lettuce, radishes, swiss chard, beans and several other vegetables we paused to notice the different leaves, listen to the birds and pick a few weeds growing near the edge. I learned why some vegetables grow underground and others grew above ground.  At the end of each row, a new plant was there including rhubarb, roses and sunflowers.The entire garden was surrounded by an 8-foot fence with sweet peas and gladiolas lining it and filling in the metal chicken wire fencing with petals of blue, pink, white and yellow. How I wish I could have bottled the smell of Grandma’s cheek and the sweet peas to smell when I need her the most all these years later. At the end of the garden tour as a child, we took our fresh vegetables (carefully wrapped in grandma’s apron) back to the house – often to make a bowl of fresh vegetable stew. How I miss these precious moments with my grandparents.

All these years later, fresh vegetable stew is served every July to all of the grandchildren who are able to gather. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Grandma and Grandpa, their 65-year marriage and the many treasured memories at the farm including the huge garden. All these years later as a grandmother myself who now lives in Fort McMurray, my yard is not large enough to support a garden.

In thinking about new growth to come to our community this spring, I had a yearning to know more about the community garden and adopt a park program located in Thickwood.  The Helen Pacholko Park “offers a place for community members to come together and take pride and ownership of a small plot of land in a community garden”.   In a Fort McMurray garden blog, a little bit about the history of this lovely community treasure was written:

“The Helen Pacholko Park was established on 10 acres of land in 1989. For over 16 years Helen tended and developed the park into a place of beauty in the heart of Thickwood.  The park is a public park; it belongs to all citizens of Fort McMurray and it is up to us to take care of it. It is a beautiful space in our neighbourhood, and it raises property value, and we are privileged to have it.”

I invited Jackie Dings (long time gardener and volunteer at the Community Gardens and Helen Pacholko Park) to sit with me to help me understand the park history and community significance:

Q: When did your gardening experience begin?

JD: I am the 11th child of 11 children born into a farming family in rural Quebec. My mom gardened all her life, it was just a way of living and feeding her family. From as far back as I can remember I worked in the garden weeding, picking vegetables and helping prepare them for winter storage, making pickles, jams and jellies from berries bushes. I didn’t realize back then how fortunate I was to be able to walk into the garden if I wanted a snack and pick fresh vegetable, berries or apples to eat.   When I was 13, as part of 4H club activities, I had my own small garden space.  It was my responsibility to plant, water, and tend to the garden.  What an amazing learning experience

Q: When did you become involved with the community gardens?

JD: I became really involved in 2009. A friend had a plot and that is how I was introduced to Sandra Campbell. Sandra has been an integral part of this park and community garden.

Q: Tell me about the Helen Pacholko Park andcommunity gardens

JD: I called Sandra to ask her about the history of the park and here is what she shared with me:

“Helen was adamant that the park was meant for passive play. The Anglican Church was initially slated to be built halfway between the four-way stop and Hillcrest and Helen was instrumental in convincing them to trade for the corner lot where they remain today. She was a visionary and could name each plant in both English and Latin.  She insisted on keeping the centre of the park open for gatherings and kite flying because there are no overhead wires. She seconded the “Big Rock” for large muscle development as well as rocks for Mr. Rabbits Garden”. Sandra Campbell phone interview February 8, 2017.

Jackie then continued. Sandra has been instrumental in creating a sense of community at the park. After my first season of gardening, I realized how much work Sandra did on her own; just to maintain the gardens and surrounding areas throughout the season. Spring and fall work bees evolved, involving all the gardeners and creating a better and bigger sense of community as people got to meet each other, share triumphs and failures stories.

I wanted to know more about the park and so through our conversation, I learned that in the community gardens and adopt a park there are currently 12 flower beds. Over the years they have been named including: Mr. Rabbit’s garden, the Mountain, Breast Cancer Bed and Grasshopper Bed to name a few. Since 2006 the park has really taken on a community project feel.  Prior to May 2016, they had approximately 60 volunteers including families with children, contributing to the garden and park. Volunteers range in ability from new to gardening,  to those with some experience and the well-seasoned gardener. The experienced gardeners support and guide the new gardeners.  A sense of community is built between the volunteers as they support each other by sharing knowledge, experiences and helping each other throughout the season. Some volunteers have gardened in other provinces or countries and quickly learn that gardening in the north is, different.  Our volunteers are very culturally diverse and this brings a real richness to the group including new techniques and gardening ideas.

Q: What are some of the ways community members can become involved in the community garden?

JD: There are currently 29 vegetable plots that make up the community gardens. Plots are roughly 16 feet by 16 feet.  This is enough room to grow root vegetables, legumes, cabbage, zucchinis, squashes and of course pumpkins to name a few. The area is not fenced in so we encourage gardeners to get to know each other and monitor who is in the garden.  At times passersby will walk through the garden to see what and how things are growing and often stop to ask a question.  Our biggest thief a few years ago was a groundhog who made himself at home, under the water tank.  It did take us a few days to figure out what was eating the vegetables.

There is no monetary commitment to be part of the community garden but there is a time commitment. Gardeners must attend the annual general meeting in April, a spring and fall work bee as well as regular upkeep and maintenance of the surrounding communal areas which includes rhubarb, nan-king cherries, Saskatoon bushes, raspberries and red currents. 

Q: What are some of the ways community members can become involved in the adopt-a-park?

JD: This program includes 12 flower beds that are established throughout the park.  When individuals adopt a flower bed, they agree to be custodian of a flower bed.  This entails planning, planting, tending and watering of the flower bed throughout the season.  Your creativity is the limit to how the flower bed looks.

Some of the flower beds had been named previously while others have been named by their adoptees.  One of the flower beds I tend to is the “pink ribbon bed” in honour of my mother and others who have fought the battle against breast cancer.  We continue to work closely with RMWB  Parks department and the adopt-a-park program in our endeavour to maintain the park’s natural beauty.

Q: Is there anything else you think I should know?

JD: The park also currently has 4 memorial trees and 2 memorial benches. The park is a great place to go for a walk, have a picnic or fly a kite with your child or friend. The open space and trees are a popular spot with photographers and photo shoots. The area has been used as a wedding location, birthday party venue and in the old days, a skating rink!

One of my favourite features is the sandbox. This is play space that is open to all of the community for use. There are toys there that have been donated by folks for children when they are in the park. We often see Nanny’s bring their young charges, walking groups of moms stop by and families come for picnics at the tables.

After the wildfire, the soil was tested and it came back healthy for regrowth.  Many families put in a garden. There were 5 families who were part of our garden who lost their homes. When we returned, it was a lot of work to get back into shape but we did it. I am really proud of the hard work the whole garden community put in.

Q: For someone like me who is just thinking about gardening, do you have any suggestions?

JD: Although we live in the North, you would be surprised at how many varieties of fruits, vegetables and berries can be grown in our region.   Our long summer days are perfect for gardening.  If you think you may want to try your hand at gardening, just do it. Whether it’s at a community garden or in your own backyard the rewards are exponential to your health and happiness.

So, why should you consider planting a garden this spring? Other than the obvious - fresh vegetables to eat, I found many positive reasons that this might be a new project for you and perhaps your family to become involved in.


Physical Benefits

  • Gardening takes work and provides you with fresh air and sunshine
  • Building various structures (paths, fences, trellis’)
  • Watering the plants
  • Preparing the soil (digging, moving, loading and unloading)


Social Benefits

  • You can become part of a community of gardeners
  • It fosters a sense of community and builds a network of others with common interests
  • Provides a common meeting area for community members to gather
  • There can be cultural opportunities for sharing recipes and various herbs
  • Sharing of interests – for example, workshops on various gardening techniques such as pruning


Emotional Well-Being

  • Improves emotional health (also knows as horticulture therapy)
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Positively impacts the community
  • Provides a sense of belonging


Overall Improvement in Health:

  • Increase access to fresh vegetables and overall well-being.


To become involved as a gardener in the community garden or to gather more information please contact Jackie Dings by e-mail:

To become involved with or volunteer with the “Adopt-a-Park” please contact Crystal Carwardine: or Jackie Dings: