Arctic gardening has long history

Experiments prove gardening works, but not as a money maker



A small group in Iqaluit is raising funds for a $4 million greenhouse and community centre.

It sounds exotic, but among many other strange and exotic items, visitors to the Arctic have tried to import gardening since as long ago as the eighteenth century.

Traders and missionaries grew whatever they could to supplement their shipman’s diet. Several Hudson’s Bay men grew potatoes, onions, carrots, lettuce, turnips and radishes in crude gardens.

Today, several people grow vegetables in small home greenhouses, or herbs in their kitchen window.

People who have been involved with previous Arctic greenhouse experiments say the concept of a larger greenhouse project is sound, but not financially.

Iqaluit residents may remember the greenhouse that brothers John and Tom Webster built near the old arena in 1974.

Asenath Pitseolak, pictured here in 1986, was a horticultural trainee in the Pond Inlet greenhouse. The radishes she’s holding were grown in outdoor plant beds.

Their project started with a small greenhouse outside of their business – Iqaluit’s first skidoo shop. With the help of a summer student from Winnipeg who had some grant money, and an interest in Arctic gardening, the brothers built a larger structure they called the “plastic tunnel,” for about $3,000.

The greenhouse effect was so powerful that Helen Webster, wife of Tom, said that the 24-hour daylight was a problem. “It got too hot.”

Nonetheless it worked, and Webster remembers selling cabbages and lettuce to local people on Saturday mornings, a great boon for locals at a time when fresh produce was scarce.

“The Bay tried their best but they were not a big operation. The sealift really was it,” Webster said.

One of the first official efforts was the “Keewatin Gardens” in Rankin Inlet.

Bush beans grew well in the Pond Inlet greenhouse, in both summer and winter conditions.

Between 1979 and 1984, researchers from the University of Toronto built a series of insulated garden beds on the shores of Hudson Bay. Using local soil only slightly enhanced with peat and lake sediment, they successfully grew potatoes, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, turnips, radishes and beets, proving that vegetables would grow outdoors in the short summer season in a low-tech fashion.

The same group ran a similar project on the east coast of Ellesmere Island at Alexandria Fiord – a former RCMP site still used as a research station – and found that even in the High Arctic, “the seasonal cultivation of potatoes in large-scale outdoor facilities should be considered economically viable.”

John Henderson of Pond Inlet grew lettuce, tomatoes, peas, broccoli and cauliflower in a 16-foot long, L-shaped greenhouse that he built in 1980 or 1981 for somewhere between $8,000 or $10,000. He even had a rosebush.

Henderson, who first learned about greenhouses as a child in Scotland, was surprised at just how well the concept worked in the Arctic.

“There’s a huge amount of light. The biggest problem was obviously the heat. I had to buy an exhaust fan to exhaust the heat out of the building because it did get really hot, about 120 F.”

Henderson’s project sparked the interest of several people around the community, including the Toonoonik-Sahoonik Co-op, which installed its own greenhouse in 1985 with funding from the department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

The co-op started off with a small A-Frame greenhouse, cold frames like the ones used in Rankin Inlet, and several outdoor planters made from empty oil drums cut in half, painted matte black to absorb as much heat as possible, and filled mostly with local soil.

The co-op later winterized the greenhouse, and relocated it next to its Sauniq hotel, where it was sheltered from the wind, and where it could share electricity and heat resources with the hotel.

The Eastern Arctic has seen several greenhouses over the years. This one was built next door to the Sauniq Hotel in Pond Inlet in 1985-86.

The territorial government stepped in next spring with funding for operations. The results of the project are contained in a detailed, 145-page report submitted to the GNWT’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism in March, 1987.

The summer of 1986 was unusually cloudy, but several vegetables grew well in their strange conditions, especially cucumber, tomato and lettuce, which the report recommended as “primary candidates for year-round cultivation.”

Radishes and onions thrived in the outdoor oil drums, but potatoes failed to grow in the cool weather.

In spite of the technical achievement, the project was not a money maker. The report noted that only two vegetables could be produced locally for the same price as they could be imported – Chinese cabbage and lettuce – but also said that freight subsidies distorted the equation, Larry Simpson recalls.

Simpson now works for the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment, but in the 1980s, he was the man who gave funding to the Co-op’s greenhouse project in Pond Inlet while working for the GNWT.

“If you could take that money and put it into a greenhouse, then it could become more feasible, a more creative use of government money,” Simpson said.

The other obstacle is finding somebody with the will to see a project through.

In 1987, Frobuild Construction won an RFP from the GNWT to produce a feasibility study for a commercial greenhouse in Iqaluit. In the Iqaluit Greenhouse Feasibility Report, they found that it could be done, but that it would not be very profitable.

The report even included a market study that said Iqaluit consumers, at the time, would be willing to pay 15 per cent more for locally produced vegetables that were higher quality than what was then available in stores.

That report did suggest that, with some government support, an owner-operator with a green thumb, and no dreams of becoming a millionaire, could make it work.

“It has to be a love affair,” Simpson said.

But finding the people to invest the time and money is not easy.

In Pond Inlet, the expert brought in to work on the project rather suddenly took a job in the South, leaving his assistant, Asenath Pitseolak, to look after the entire project after just a few months of horticultural training and experience.

In the Websters’ case, Helen is blunt: “It needed full-time looking after and we couldn’t give it that time.”

The Iqaluit Community Greenhouse Society is aware of all these obstacles, which is the main reason why their project emphasizes community development, employment and recreation as an integral goal of a greenhouse.

Their plans include a community centre that also serves as a meeting place, social club, café and retail space.

“That’s what I kind of dreamed of, a place where people could go and have a coffee,” said John Henderson, who retired from his project in Pond Inlet in 1985 or 1986, but sees potential in the proposed community greenhouse in Iqaluit.

“You wouldn’t actually make a lot of money in terms of growing things,” Henderson said. “But I used to enjoy going to the greenhouse. That was probably the biggest benefit of all.”

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