July 8, 2005

Iqaluit: An Arctic gardener's delight

"I love the idea of being able to go out and pick a head of lettuce"


Guy Plaza grows red, white, pink and purple geraniums year-round in his greenhouse. (PHOTOS BY TINA ROSE)

Nunavut's cool summers mean short growing seasons, but that hasn't stopped green-thumbed Iqalummit from digging in the dirt. Soon, greens and vegetables will be sprouting in carefully managed greenhouses around the capital.

Guy Plaza started building his greenhouse five years ago. Now he grows everything from geraniums to herbs for cooking. He composts leaves and scraps from his kitchen to enrich the soil.

To heat his greenhouse, Plaza deflects warm air from his forced air furnace into the greenhouse space, which keeps the plants from freezing in the winter. In the summer, Plaza says the greenhouse helps keep the rest of his house warm.

"The little bit extra that it costs in the winter makes up in the summer," Plaza said. "It's nice when you look outside and it's -30, but inside it's nice and green." The temperature in his greenhouse ranges from 35 to 40 in the summer, down to 15 in the winter.

An avid outdoor gardener, Mary Nashook started growing vegetables in a greenhouse last summer. Her summer's efforts produced over 10 pounds of potatoes, among other vegetables and herbs.

Suzanne Laliberté grows green onions, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley and mint in her greenhouse, along with many other vegetables and herbs.

This summer, Nashook is looking forward to fresh vegetables for her salads, including lettuce, spinach, radishes, and snow peas, a treat she expects to enjoy once a week come July.

She started the seeds in pots indoors, and then transplanted the seedlings into beds in the greenhouse. Nashook says she gardens in "arctic soil" which is a combination of her composted dirt and soil she buys at yard sales.

Suzanne Laliberté's greenhouse is a lush green space full of herbs and vegetables, including three types of lettuce, tomatoes, snow peas and green onions.

This summer, while Laliberté is traveling, Jim Currie is tending to the greens.

"I love the idea of being able to go out and pick a head of lettuce, and then going home and making a salad," Currie said.

Laliberté plants in a combination of composted dirt, old soil that she heats to kill bacteria, and manure, which provides nutrients for the plants.

John Lamb and Shane Brown hold the plywood while Marie-Claude Lavoie takes her turn with the saw on June 25, when members of the Iqaluit Greenhouse Society gathered to build cold frames for summer planting.

In past summers, Laliberte has also grown potatoes outside in cold frames.

The Iqaluit Greenhouse Society hopes to bring the gardening experience to the whole community with their plans of building an arena-sized greenhouse complex. This summer they're occupying the future greenhouse location near the power station by building cold frames on the site to show that plants will survive and grow.

Members of the society gathered on June 25 to saw wood and hammer nails to build the outdoor beds for their summer planting. Soon beans, peas, tomatoes and potatoes will be growing in the cold frames.

Each wood frame contains 18 inches of sand, soil and peat moss, which was mixed together in a composter. The boxes, made of reclaimed timber, have adjustable lids to protect the plants from the elements.

The greenhouse site was awarded to the Iqaluit Greenhouse Society by the City of Iqaluit on March 24 for $1 a year for the next 26 years. Like Plaza's greenhouse, the Iqaluit greenhouse may use deflected heat from the power corporation to warm the building in the colder months.

While they could be fruitful, the cold frames are merely a summer demonstration project leading up to the society's ultimate goal, a giant community greenhouse, complete with 150 plots, a research pod for testing growth in the North, and a community pod with a stage, café, meeting rooms, artist display area, and a gathering place.

The idea for the Iqaluit greenhouse was inspired by the Inuvik project, which became self-sustaining after only five years, in part by growing bedding plants. The Iqaluit Greenhouse Society has hopes of growing office plants and renting office space to help meet the costs of running their planned facility.

"We're willing to learn from our own mistakes, but there's no point in reinventing the wheel," said Fran Carter, vice president of the Iqaluit Greenhouse Society. "This isn't new. The community aspect is what's novel about our project."

Joanne Rose transplants arctic tundra flowers grown from seed in her own garden into the Legislative Assembly gardens.

Greenhouses aren't the only option for arctic gardening. Joanne Rose has had an outdoor flower and vegetable garden in Iqaluit for more than 15 years.

Each summer she transplants annual bedding plants, such as pansies, petunias and sweet williams, into her flower beds. A few perennials reappear each summer, including delphiniums, chives, and monks hood from the Mackenzie Delta.

Rose has successfully grown green onions, radishes and potatoes entirely outside. She also incorporates native tundra plants into her garden, including arctic poppies, arctic sorrel and chamomile.

In 1993, Rose transplanted a five cm. coniferous tree from Fort Smith into her garden. Twelve years later it's 60 cm. tall, and still growing.

Rose digs up soil locally at the West 40, and ships it in on sealift. This year she'll be using some of Jim Little's compost for the first time.

"One day a little boy walked down into the yard and asked me 'Is this really a garden?' because he'd never seen one before," said Rose. "It makes me happy and it makes a lot of other people happy. I like it best when people are walking or driving down the road and they stop and do a double take because it's so unexpected."