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Chuckanut Center: New name, fresh opportunities

Feb 1st, 2016 | Category: Community

Heirloom Tomato Seed Project under way

by Mary Vermillion

With seven years of planning and construction behind them, the Chuckanut Center at the historic Fairhaven Rose Garden has come a long way.

The non-profit organization’s board recently simplified its name from the Center for Local Self Reliance to the more approachable and geographically appropriate Chuckanut Center. (Chuckanut Drive begins just beyond the center’s driveway, and the pioneering history of the road suits the non-profit’s intent to inspire community agriculture.)

Board president Shannon Maris was among the volunteers who refurbished the historic caretaker’s home. COURTESY PHOTOS

Board president Shannon Maris was among the volunteers who refurbished the historic caretaker’s home. COURTESY PHOTOS

The board’s vision of a center where residents can practice and teach gardening and food preservation skills appealed to City of Bellingham staff, who in 2008 awarded a license agreement to the group to rehabilitate the city-owned site. Fast forward to 2016, and major repairs on the 100-year old caretaker’s home are nearly complete; a new fence protects vegetables, fruit trees and roses from deer; new flooring has been completed; and gardeners work the soil.

Board president Shannon Maris credits a core of dedicated, skilled volunteers for keeping the momentum alive during seven years of construction challenges that required equal parts elbow grease and patience. Why is she involved? “Personally, I want to change the world. The center was an opportunity to walk the talk,” she said.

“Things seem to be coming as we need them. It’s like magic,” Maris added. “One day, we’re thinking wouldn’t it be great if we had orchard trees. And then we receive a donation.”

The board is grateful for community support; volunteers have provided 99 percent of the labor with local businesses donating or discounting services. “Now, we’re shifting from construction to administration, and people with those skills are showing up,” Maris said.

COURTESY PHOTO

COURTESY PHOTO

A grand opening is planned for June when permits and certificate of occupancy are signed. It will be a few months before community members can rent the renovated caretaker’s home for events. Volunteers are developing a booking process and calendar. They expect to be able to accept reservations beginning in September. Meanwhile, the learning, teaching and testing demonstration plots are ready for more gardeners. And board members hope community members – especially south side Bellingham residents – will submit proposals.

Unlike community gardens where individuals grow food for their own use, the Chuckanut Center garden plots are designed to demonstrate plants and varieties that can be cultivated for food, medicine and other uses. For instance, a community member developed a kimchi garden to teach fermentation skills. At Explorations Academy’s plot, students gain hands-on experience with the independent high school’s food, gardening and cooking curriculum. They donate half of their 800 to 1,200-pound annual harvest to the Bellingham Food Book. Interested gardeners can propose a demonstration garden by downloading the form at chuckanutcenter.org.

COURTESY PHOTO

COURTESY PHOTO

While all ideas are welcome, Maris said the board would particularly love to see proposals on cold hardy gardening, storage crops or alternate grain trials. Their wish list also includes gardeners to care for the established medicinal garden and new orchard trees, and develop a vermicomposting project or biodynamic demonstration garden.

Local resident and gardener Celt Schira said the center was crucial to her heirloom tomato project. “I had more than 80 tomato seed varieties in my refrigerator,” said Schira, who began collecting seeds as a hobby in 1999. “It’s a wonderful collaboration because I needed a fairly good chunk of land to do this. I had too many plants and not enough space or fencing for the deer at my home. I didn’t have any expectations, especially for the older seeds. But, the first year, we ended up with 3,000 tomato starts. I was humbled and impressed. It was a smashing success. We’ll do it again – only on purpose – this year.”

Schira’s goal is to replenish seed of tomato varieties that do well in the Pacific Northwest’s cooler environment. In the coming months, Schira and a band of volunteers will plant 42 tomato varieties at their Chuckanut Center garden plot. (Save the date: The starts will be sold at during a May 14 sale at the center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

Schira is also planning a second demonstration garden where she will adapt heritage field corn varieties to a maritime environment. She credits the Chuckanut Center for allowing her to explore the question: what would it look like if we ate what we grew and we grew what we ate? Answer: a lot of really good food.

The Chuckanut Center is located at 107 Chuckanut Drive North in Bellingham. For more information, check out chuckanutcenter.org. Learn how to get involved and support the Chuckanut Center at a fundraiser at Aslan Brewery in Bellingham on Thursday, March 31 at 6 p.m. Ten percent of the evening’s sales will be donated to the Chuckanut Center. 

 Published in the February 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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