Greenhouses a Growing Trend in the Arctic

by VR Sreeraman on Aug 19 2007 3:43 PM

Facing huge costs to import fresh fruits and vegetables, residents of Canada's far north are beginning to grow their own, erecting greenhouses atop the Arctic permafrost.

In this tiny community at the southern tip of Baffin Island, a few hundred kilometers (miles) from the Arctic Circle, beans, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and herbs seem to be thriving in 20 plots under a steel-frame glass enclosure.

It is the first greenhouse to be built in Iqaluit, and only the second in the North. Both have survived Arctic blizzards.

Cold frames are also popping up in backyards throughout the region.

In 2005, the townsfolk of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, converted an old hockey arena into a plot to grow vegetables.

Here, the 75-member Iqaluit Greenhouse Society had planned to build a similarly massive multi-million-dollar bio-dome on the rocky, wind-swept island tundra, but lack of funding stalled the project.

In the interim, the group built a modest greenhouse for 150,000 dollars last year to test what would grow north of the 60th parallel. Its premiere growing season kicked off in June.

"We hope to learn what we can grow in northern communities, to help us become more self-reliant," said Mary Ellen Thomas of the Nunavut Research Institute, which backed the project.

Importing food to Canada's far north by air freight is very expensive, and then keeping it fresh in cold storage requires much electricity.

At the local grocer, imported fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at quadruple the prices of produce in Toronto, Canada's largest metropolis, thousands of kilometers (miles) to the south.

The high cost of food compounds poverty and malnutrition in the North, said Thomas.

A few locals have tried to grow their own vegetables at home, but had to germinate vegetables indoors and transplant them into outdoor pots when the weather warmed for eight to 10 weeks each summer.

And they produced very few fresh vegetables.

"Every month in the Arctic, there can be snow (to spoil gardens)," said Thomas.

Since June, members of the Iqaluit Greenhouse Society have patiently tended to their test plots during lunch breaks and after work, each spending about 1.5 hours per week in their shiny, new, community greenhouse.

It is only 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit) outside on this sunny day in early August, but inside the greenhouse it is a balmy 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

On the roof, a weather station measures winds, temperatures inside and out, rainfall and humidity, and automatically opens or closes vents, accordingly, to maintain ideal growing conditions.

The floor is insulated with 25 centimeters (10 inches) of foam to protect plants from the icy permafrost.

"Hopefully, the greenhouse will encourage healthy living," said Peter Workman of the Iqaluit Greenhouse Society. "Gardening is good for mental health," he added.

At the beginning, buying seeds proved troublesome. "Just as we got started in June, the planting season in southern Canada was over and seed companies had pulled their seeds off store shelves," Workman explained.

Because native dirt is tainted with rust, blighting vegetables and rendering them inedible, potting soil had to be brought in.

As well, with little or no sunshine for some months of the year in the Arctic Circle and 24-hour daily sunshine for others, the growing season is short, Workman lamented.

The group is hoping to extend it by two months, planting in May of next year and harvesting in late October, he said.

Incidentally, although global warming is wreaking havoc on much of the Arctic, creating thin ice hazards for Inuit hunters, for example, it could be a boon to northern gardeners, he said.