In recent years, VIU has transformed Milner Gardens into a living lab for learners of all ages. For example, the popular Shoots with Roots program fosters a life-long appreciation of nature in elementary school-aged children. There is also a demonstration food garden run by master gardeners for people of all ages to learn from, and three years ago the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden – the only garden of its kind in Canada – was established to showcase more than 200 different species of rhododendrons. Several years ago, Milner Gardens added a Gardening Advice service through a partnership with the Vancouver Island Master Gardeners Association
“Growing our educational experiences as well as connections with VIU programs has been a major thread running throughout our operations, whether we are inviting student researchers onto the property, providing experiential learning opportunities or getting our community members involved as citizen scientists,” says Ball.
VIU students from a variety of programs have the chance to use Milner Gardens for everything from research projects, to a place to showcase their work to community. For example, Baking and Pastry Arts students display their gingerbread house creations every year during Milner Christmas Magic, and Visual Art students use the grounds and trails as an outdoor gallery in the summer. More than 400 Horticulture students have solidified classroom learnings on-site over the past two decades.
On the community engagement side, Milner Gardens is the birthplace of the Coastal Forest Plant Phenology Research and Monitoring Project, which began in 2016 and monitors the effects of climate change on local plant species. The project uses citizen scientists – members of the public, in this case volunteers – to collect data on plant life cycles.
The past year has been a challenging one for the garden, having to close completely in the early days of COVID and cancelling many popular community events, including Milner Christmas Magic and the annual spring and fall plant sales, due to public health restrictions.
“Last year, the garden was lonely – it missed its people,” says Ball. “It’s an important venue for a lot of people to connect with the gardens and with others.”
Future plans include working with local Indigenous partners to create an interpretive walk that uses data from an archeological survey that was recently conducted to learn more about the historical uses of the site by First Nations.
“The history of this site dates back over a thousand years and we want to tell that story in a more thorough way – it’s a story that needs to be told,” says Ball.
Ball is also seeking community support in completing some major capital upgrades and an expansion of the programming on offer.
“We are evaluating how to take care of this place in the long-term,” he says. “We do hope our community will continue to support us in looking after the site so people generations from now can continue enjoying the history and heritage and the value in terms of conservation and education.”
Milner Gardens & Woodland is open Thursday to Sunday, admissions from 11 am to 4:30 pm with viewing until 5 pm.
Jenn McGarrigle, External Communications Advisor, Vancouver Island University