Gardens - Featured Gardens

Northern exposure: A greenhouse in Churchill, Manitoba

How do you beat -50°C and polar bears, and enjoy fresh veggies in the “frozen north”?

Paul Ratson and his partner Pam O’Leary are hardy. And, not just because they live on the shores of Hudson Bay “just out of town.” That town is Churchill. Here, phrases like “the frozen north” and “land of the midnight sun” spring to mind and reflect challenging growing conditions.

Ratson came here in 1975; Pam in 1992. They operate Nature 1st Tours, where they conduct hiking and bus tours of the area. Adds O’Leary: “We also provide polar bear security for companies.” (Hang on to that thought…)

Ratson and O’Leary built a small greenhouse where carrots, tomatoes, peas and lettuce thrive. I was impressed when I first visited them five years ago and, when I returned to Churchill last summer, I wondered whether it was still operational.

It was. Their experiment continues. While standing in the warmth of the greenhouse, I ask why they built it in the first place. “We both love gardening, and store-bought vegetables are expensive and not necessarily fresh,” explains Ratson. “We began with a few tomatoes in the house, then built the greenhouse.”

northern-exposure-ratson.jpgBuilding the greenhouse
Seeing as materials are difficult to get in the North, I wonder about construction issues. “Actually, we have no fresh water here, so a truck delivers it (at $.12/gallon) and fills an old water tank,” says O’Leary. “An electric pump enables us to water plants with a hose.”

“Our greenhouse is about 10x30 feet—enough room to walk around the beds,” continues Ratson. “We erected a 2x4 frame and covered the walls with old windows we found at the dump. On the internet we found a company selling greenhouse fabric—supposedly good for northern greenhouses—and covered the roof with it. We put a huge, old heater fan in one wall to ventilate heat. The greenhouse faces south and a large shop to the north protects it from Arctic winds. Now we have three round beds, about five feet wide.”

Dealing with weather and soil challenges
With construction complete, I figure there must have been additional challenges. I wasn’t prepared for what would be obvious to a northerner.

It’s not simply the -50°C temperatures that pose problems. As O’Leary explains, there is no soil either. “We filled the beds with dried seaweed, lake bottom and fermented grain screenings,” she explains. “We mixed them together, adding peat moss, and hoped for the best. Every year we add two or three bags of topsoil plus sheep manure we transport from the south."

photo caption: Paul Ratson in the greenhouse.


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