‘With a mixture of seaweed, sand, peat moss and soil gathered from the shores of shallow lakes, plus countless hours of hard work, a Churchill couple is operating a unique gardening experiment on the rocky shore of Hudson Bay…’
-from ‘Northern hothouse succeeds’, Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, August 17, 1985
It is a rainy Sunday afternoon on the coast of Hudson Bay, almost 20 years to the day after this article was written, and I am touring this ‘unique garden’ with Bill and Diane Erickson, the hard working Churchill couple who pioneered Boreal Gardens in 1973, as a long-term research project studying viable food plants for the north.
The tour begins inside ‘Super Tunnel’, a large greenhouse made of wood framed tunnels covered in translucent fiberglass. Under cover of ‘Super Tunnel’, one of three greenhouses at Boreal Gardens, the growing season may extend more than six months (180-200 days), compared to less than three available outside (around 81 not-necessarily-consecutive frost-free days). Plants grow up trellises and on raised beds of soil, peat, seaweed and lake bottom, underlain by bricks, which hold the much needed heat through the night.
They grow potatoes, peas, beans, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and cucumbers. Zucchini and other squash, with their large yellow flowers, grow up and off the ground in ‘cages’. Raspberry bushes are loaded with berries, as is the strawberry patch. Beet greens and swiss chard and kale are all huge and colorful, beaming even. The lilies and dahlias and hollyhocks are all blooming, and the clematis is growing like mad, a sharp contrast to the tiny ground hugging tundra outside.
Each spring, they grow bedding plants for sale, and in the summer their rhubarb pies have been a big hit at Gypsy’s Bakery for years. They pick and preserve local berries, selling their jams and jellies in gift shops around town. This is truly a labour of love, for while such marketing may help to offset the cost of operating the greenhouses a bit, it hardly covers the hours of work and volunteer hours required to keep a ‘northern hothouse’ functioning.
Boreal Gardens was the Erickson’s project from the beginning. Boreal Gardens was just another gravel pit being used as a dump site. Even so, being granted permission to build the greenhouses there was not easy, but build they did. And in addition to their greenhouses, they’ve also built a 3 300 square-foot house with an above ground basement, and large picture windows set 12ft off the ground, overlooking Hudson Bay.
Everything you see at Boreal Gardens is the result of a personal investment of both time and money. The Ericksons were their own construction crew, along with lots of volunteers, building it, literally, from the ground up, working rain or snow or shine.
Boreal Gardens is not only an example of perseverance and team work (Bill says ‘Diane does most of the gardening, but once the tomatoes are in the tubes, I take over’), but of creativity as well. Over the years, it has become a study in energy efficiency and an example that more of the north should be following.
With water being the limiting factor in the greenhouse, the couple takes advantage of the snow run-off into the ponds each spring, both to water the plants and to sustain the hydroponic tomatoes that are thriving in the original greenhouse – the one they finished building even before their house.
From 1980-88 Boreal Gardens was the test site for a 50 kWatt wind turbine, a co-operative project between the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the National Research Council, Indal Technologies Inc. and Manitoba Hydro. The power generated by the wind mill went directly into the town grid.
They have had a composting toilet since 1974, and a well in the basement that taps into a natural spring that runs for six months out of the year. They store water for the remainder of the year in a heavily insulated holding tank outside the house.
I leave Boreal Gardens impressed and inspired, partly because I love plants, but more so in appreciation of the work involved in creating this ecosystem; designing it, building it, and maintaining it…as a work in progress and as an example of the true pioneer spirit.
- prepared by Carmen Spiech