Inuvik is in the land of the midnight sun, but it's also a land of climatic extremes. Gardeners in the Northwest Territories sometimes need to wear parkas on Canada Day; many of them keep piles of old blankets handy for their plants in case there's a sudden snowfall in August.
But when locals Ron Morrison and Peter Clarkson (who's now the mayor of Inuvik) proposed that an old hockey arena slated for demolition be turned into a plant-filled greenhouse where people could garden from May through September, some residents scoffed. Nothing on that scale had been done in North America before, and certainly not in a frigid, northern town of just 3,500 people. Yet, the arena, part of the notorious old Grollier Hall Residential School, sat empty because Inuvik had a newer, improved facility.
But gardeners, especially northern ones, are a persistent lot. And Morrison and Clarkson were no exception. Both avid plantsmen with home-built greenhouses, they were used to a challenge. After all, they'd been gardening in permafrost for years.
In the fall of 1998, soon after coming up with the idea, the pair formed the non-profit Inuvik Community Garden Society and sought approval to use the arena from owner Aurora College. Then they initiated a greenhouse feasibility study and started soliciting funds. Given that Clarkson was deputy mayor at the time, he knew his way around the various levels of government. Before long, the society had funding commitments from both the territorial and federal governments, as well as a variety of private donors. Half a million dollars later, the arena was on its way to becoming a greenhouse.
"We started work January 4, 1999," remembers Clarkson. "We had a foreman and five workers, and there they were, two degrees above the Arctic Circle in minus 35-degree weather, tearing down boards and metal and insulation-converting a hockey rink into a greenhouse. The sun doesn't even come up at that time of year. People thought we were insane."
By the summer of 1999, $70,000 of greenhouse plastic was in place, the arena-turned-greenhouse had kicked into its first year of production-and the once skeptical locals were changing their tune. Today, the facility boasts a 360-square-metre commercial operation on the second floor, and a main floor triple that size with roughly 80 garden plots maintained by nearly 100 gardeners, with a waiting list of others wanting to get in.
One reason for the greenhouse's popularity is that many residents live in apartments, without a yard to tend. And those who do have yards have trouble gardening in permafrost.
"Outdoors, the soil isn't great and the bugs eat you alive," explains Kristen Wenghofer, greenhouse co-ordinator. "It's much easier inside the greenhouse, which is warm and quiet, and a great place to escape to." Wenghofer, who moved north with her husband and two young children 18 months ago, is a self-taught gardener who once ran a garden design business in Peterborough, Ontario. Before assuming the position of co-ordinator, she tended a plot in the greenhouse. "Because of it, I met a ton of people I never would have known otherwise," says Wenghofer. "The greenhouse is a great way of pulling the community together."