How did the Rammed Earth project at SSE come about?

The Hillside Garden project at Salt Spring Elementary School is coordinated by the SSE PAC Garden Committee, a group led by about eight parents with five teachers involved. The group is focused on helping expand outdoor gardening opportunities at SSE. Transformation of the hillside between the Elementary and Middle Schools has been a long-term vision, stretching back nearly 20 years. About six years ago, a group of parents and teachers were able to do some terracing and install a sturdy deer fence around the space. This year, the newly-formed Garden Committee decided to contribute to this vision. We started with a draft design and gathered feedback from the teachers. Providing better access to the garden and safer terracing was a top priority. 

Our first project was to clear years of blackberry and gorse from the space. We planted daffodil bulbs with several classes in October. Then, we opened a new gateway into the garden from near the gym entrance and build a small staircase up to it. Since the ELF StrongStart classroom is right next to the garden, we created a sandbox for them within sight of their class windows. 

When researching garden terracing, we talked with local rammed-earth expert, Joss Krayenhoff, with Sirewall/Terra Firma, and he offered to lead a volunteer-based effort to help get this started. He actually went to SSE as a child, and felt this was exactly the way he wanted to give back to the community. We just needed to come up with funding for materials and recruit volunteers.  


Why a Rammed Earth approach?

Our committee got excited about rammed-earth, not only because Joss offered to help, but also because it uses local materials and is simple enough to be constructed by volunteers. It also provides room for creativity. We were able to incorporate shells, rose quartz, glass art, and other interesting rocks along with color stripes into the walls. Luckily, one of the parents on the Committee, Charlie Gosset, owns an excavating company and offered to do the earth-moving work pro-bono. Others in the community also got involved.

We couldn’t have done this without generous help and donations from Sirewall/Terra Firma Construction and Charlie’s Excavating, as well as from Akerman’s Pit, Windsor Plywood, Gulf Coast Materials, and Dave’s Blasting.

Individual community donors included Celia & Karl Meade, the SSI Garden Club, the SSI Firefighters’ Association, Country Grocer, and Island Savings. This includes cedar 4×4’s for more upcoming terraced beds.

Jana’s Bakeshop, Natureworks, and Barb’s Buns provided snacks for the volunteers. This is truly a community project.

What can you tell me about the Earth Day project?

Over the Earth Day weekend, 24 grown-ups and a number of kids helped build the two terraced garden beds and a 30-foot-long retaining wall. The team included Joss, Charlie, Dan, Stephane, Anna, Myna, Lena, Toby, Brenda, Meghan, Roger, Brian, Jeff, Evan, Nicole, JZ, Doug, Shelly, Leigh, Sylvia, Jerry, Michelle, Sean, Denys and Robin. It was a lot of fun. 

And, it was really physical work, but most of it was pretty straight forward, so we got a good rhythm going. We were extremely lucky, too, that in addition to Joss, two dads with serious construction skills, Dan and Stephane, stayed for the whole weekend to help. 





What kind of a timeline before it looks like a flourishing garden? What’s next?

We pulled the forms to expose the new walls the following week! 

rammed earth walls at SSE

rammed earth walls at SSE

rammed earth walls at SSE

rammed earth walls at SSE

rammed earth walls at SSE

Next, we’ll finish constructing the wooden terraced beds above the new rammed-earth retaining wall. We’ll also develop an updated plan for the rest of the garden — probably focused on building an outdoor gathering space. Then, we’ll need to raise some funding for good growing soil. 

In all likelihood, it will take several years until the Hillside Garden is really “dialed-in.” Once we’ve got soil in the beds, Salt Spring Seeds and Bullock Lake Farm have offered seeds and starts, so you may see some growth this summer. 

Long-term, there are plans for rainwater catchment and perhaps a small greenhouse. Interestingly, studies on successful, sustained school gardens have shown that the first criteria for success is having a strong Garden Committee, followed by teacher training in gardening skills and related curricula. See this article. We’d like to organize something for the teachers who might not have grown up gardening themselves.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

In the spirit of community, while now physically sore and tired, being a part of this Earth Day project was deeply satisfying and creatively collaborative–it was a job well done and a new skill learned. 

If anyone would like to join the Garden Committee, please feel welcome and get in touch ( We usually meet the first Tuesday after school, with a Sunday work party each month. You don’t need to have a child at the school to be involved with helping kids learn one of the most important skills out there: how to grow their own food. 

Kudos to Robin Jenkinson for a fun and well organized volunteer weekend!
And thanks to Robin Jenkinson for telling and writing this story.

—Doug Livingston

Top photo and bottom close-ups: John Cameron
Bobcat Driver and the large block under “…Earth Day project”: Toby Carson and Robin Jenkinson