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Jack James and the beanstalk: Calgary high school horticulture program blooms

Within a southeast Calgary high school, nestled at the confluence of Forest Lawn and Penbrooke Meadows, is a garden of such immense proportions.

It has served students and the community in many ways… for 37 years.  

Jack James’s horticulture program has been running since the school opened in 1983. With the school undergoing a remodification in 2016, the program has become even more advanced.

Roughly two years ago, garden construction began as an extension of the horticulture classroom.

The school has not only a garden and greenhouse, but an atrium, aquaponics system, and a beehive. They have a habitat for beneficial insects, mother-plant garden for propagation, traditional garden for ceremony, nursery production and more.

Currently, the school estimates they have more than 50 species planted. They have vegetables, annuals, perennials, vines, trees and shrubs.

Expert level instructors

Alexis Kolk started as the horticulture instructor but after three years, she went to get her teaching degree. She has now been the horticulture teacher for two years, and Keith Brady is the horticulture instructor. Brady has worked in the field for 37 years.

The two staff members have worked hard to ensure the program could educate kids on multiple aspects of outdoor work and possible horticulture careers. 

“We introduce them to different types of small equipment that they’d be using, how to maintain and service them,” Brady said.

“We do a lot of projects with wood and building things, just to get them trained on how to use a screwdriver and stuff like that.”

A disassembled chainsaw rested on the table, ready for a student to reassemble it. BRITTANY BURRIDGE FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

In another area rests large fish tanks and greenery emerging from pipes. Students are able to get involved with a hydroponic growing system, learning about the process of growing plants in liquid—a perfect project for when winter puts a hold on outdoor gardening. 

Fish feces are used to fertilize the plants. The water is then filtered again to give the fish fresh, clean water.

“Very much a learning experience, a very steep learning curve,” Kolk said about the hydroponics. 

“The greenhouse is where we excel a little bit more than the indoor growing.”

Greenhouse growth

Currently, the greenhouse is getting organized for the summer. Kids are welcome to take home plants, and some are for sale. Kolk said majority of the greenery is student-planted and sown. 

“Farm kids know it, small town kids often know, and there’s way more knowledge around [growing]. Inner-city, there’s some kids who have never grown something,” Kolk said. 

While the greenhouse does well, Kolk said the construction brought a few issues as growers were not consulted upon building.

“They didn’t put a drain in our floor, and they put UV resistant windows in, so we have to have grow lights inside our greenhouse,” she said. 

“It just goes to show why having an industry expert is important.”

Plants under the growing lights. BRITTANY BURRIDGE FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY.

Even with certain flaws, Kolk and Brady said they are happy the students have the opportunity to problem solve. 

The biggest request within the garden, Kolk said, is basil and tropical house plants. Last year, Kale was a popular item for the greenhouse.

“At one point we were taking down bowls full of lettuce, vegetables, we had some peas, we’ve grown tomatoes. Kids were coming down from the kitchen every day to take vegetables and cool stuff like that,” Brady said. 

Kolk mentioned they also team up with the commercial kitchen, which requires a lot of communication to organize food quantities.

Eventually, the school hopes the garden will be used for outdoor gatherings, student and staff barbeques, grad photos, and community engagement.

With more than 100 students enrolled in the horticulture program annually, the garden has already come a long way. 

Kolk and Brady said that each plant in the garden serves a purpose. They have a pollinator garden for the beehive, they cut flowers for floral design class, and have trees and shrubs for care and maintenance lessons.


Bees in the garden. PROVIDED BY ALEXIS KOLK.

“A big addition to this garden in the last year has been this beehive. So, we’re partnered with Alveoli. They’re urban beekeepers, and they’ve got this hive here. In the fall, they harvest the honey, and then our kitchen uses the honey,” Kolk said.

“We’ve had like three different workshops out here this year. They came in and split the hives. So, the students get to be really quite involved with the bees, which has been fun.”

A water feature was installed, with Brady being the driving force. Once they built the pond, they said they noticed bees were dying in the water as it was too deep. They asked students to brainstorm a solution. 

Installing a smaller water feature near the bees ended up doing the trick. 

“It worked amazing,” Brady said.

“In a hot day, the bees like to jump on the rocks and get close to the water and a few of them drop in there.” 

While at first they were worried about the loss of some of their bees, they found out the queen lays roughly 1,000 eggs a day.

“We have something like 20,000 strong in our hive. For us to have 10 dead bees, we were worked up, but it turns out it’s not too bad,” Kolk said. 

Winning water feature

Kolk predicted that the pond has been the greatest attraction of wildlife, as Brady said he saw a Grackle earlier Thursday morning. 

Before the immense amount of work, Kolk said the garden used to be inhabited by gophers, grasshoppers and weeds. 


“Each semester, with each group of students, we go through habitat garden checklist and go and check who lives in our garden and what habitats we’re providing, and what we can do to provide a better habitat,” Kolk said. 

“Just over the last three semesters, it’s been really cool to watch that change and grow, the more plants and the more variety and the more features we add to our garden.”

A large rock painted as a ladybug sits beside the pond. Brady sent a student out to find it.

Alexis Kolk (left) and Keith Brady (right) and the ladybug (front). BRITTANY BURRIDGE / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“We spend a lot of time trying to get our kids to laugh. A lot of these kids don’t have a whole lot to laugh about,” Kolk said.

“We like to have a little bit of fun, and learn about horticulture,” Brady said. 

For the budding arbourist

Five large trees occupy a courtyard with magnificent green leaves. Kolk and Brady estimate the trees have been there since the beginning of the program. 

“When I got here three years ago they were in rough shape. There was lots of understory plants and we got rid of them for more nutrients. The kids did lots of research this year, we interacted with professional arbourists,” Brady said. 

“We got quotes, we raised money, and a couple of weeks ago had a professional arbour care team in here injecting the trees and working with the kids. It was a fun day.” 

Kolk said they also invited students from previous years who were involved with the trees and brought kids from all sorts of areas in the school together. 

The trees were dying of neglect, and Brady said he figured it would be roughly 30 years before they could enjoy the canopy of the trees again. 

“I’ve seen a big difference in the trees. This is the strongest canopy I’ve seen since we’ve been here,” Brady said. 

Trees in the fall. PROVIDED BY ALEXIS KOLK
Brady said the black soot on the trees is a tell-tale sign of faces from an insect that’s hurting the trees. BRITTANY BURRIDGE FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY.

Cedar planters and Indigenous studies

What’s growing from farthest to closest: Juniper and Cedar, Prairie Sage, Tobacco, and soon to be Sweet Grass. BRITTANY BURRIDGE FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY.

A space in the courtyard holds four cedar planters, which are shared with the Indigenous Studies class within Jack James High School.

Kolk and Brady said a larger project is to revitalize the school’s outdoor spaces. They want to create an inclusive community space that acknowledges, honours and tells the authentic history of the land they are on: Treaty 7 land.

Their hope is that the space will be an outdoor learning space where students and members of the community can connect with the land, learn about the Treaty, and develop an understanding of their roles and responsibilities as treaty people. 

“They smudge out here, they do a lot of offerings, and they’re doing a lot of work around these trees too. The horticulture and Indigenous class paired off and we have this traditional medicine garden,” Kolk said.

“We’ve got Juniper and Cedar in the first one, then we’ve got Prairie Sage that we’ve harvested from the field. Tobacco growing in here, and this will be our Sweet Grass planter.” 

The space, they said, and the land acknowledgement will be an invitation for students and community members to commit to actions in the community that represent support reconciliation, allyship, and moving forward. 

Student experience with the garden

Tristan Norris is a student at Jack James High school who has found a career thanks to the program. He now works for Sky High Tree service, and arbour care company.

“Every day we either remove, prune, plant and fertilize trees. Right now, I am just pulling branches to the chipper, cleaning up and helping climbers into the trees,” Norris said. 

“The horticulture program at Jack James has helped me be more of a green thumb and helping me get into the workforce and find jobs that are horticulture related.”

Brady said Tristan is a strong kid who is into sports, with a head on his shoulders to do arbour care safely. 

“We introduced him to some friends in the industry, and it was just going to be a few days to get an insight into what they do and a little knowledge about what it’s like to work in an arbor care team, and that was six weeks ago. He absolutely loves it,” Brady said.

“Haven’t seen him since,” Kolk said, with a smile. 

“We have to drag him off the site once a week to come and do his schoolwork. [Brady] got him the job, and all the teachers he’s got surround around him and say, ‘okay, we’ll get you through high school.’ We’re pushing him through the rest of his schooling, so he doesn’t lose that position.” 

Norris said there’s a lot to learn and the skills provided by the program helped him land a job.

“I encourage other students to join very much because there is a lot of jobs in the horticulture field, and you learn different things that are plant-related like hydroponics,” he said. 

Plans for a future garden

Kolk and Brady said they’re working their way around the school to beautify the area and give students a sense of pride in ownership. 

They hope to have off campus field trips with the kids once COVID-19 subsides. They had a partnership with a community garden at the Alex Center, and hope to take care of gardens at different facilities. 

Kolk and Brady said their extensive program allows them to instill a sense of responsibility and collaboration within their students.

Kolk and Brady said they hope to build their capacity to take on small maintenance and landscaping jobs in the community with the students. They hope to help students acquire skills and employment in the green industry. They are able to offer Green Certificate training which is RAP style program for horticulture and agriculture.

“I think this is the best program in the whole city of Calgary in high school horticulture,” Brady said. 

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s doing even close to what we’re doing”