The Hottest Place In Town

The Hottest Place in Town                                               


Some people might argue that our dorm is the hottest place in town…I can’t figure out why the heat is turned up so high in some of our buildings.  But…there is another hot place in McMurdo…the greenhouse!  It’s not in operation during the summer season anymore, but it will staffed and open again toward the end of February, when winter-over personnel arrive on station.  Some of the people already in McMurdo will also be spending the long, dark, cold winter here on station.  That means they could be among those spending a year here in McMurdo.  Fresh vegetables and a burst of color will be very important during those long winter months.

 greenhouse sign

We have not had any fresh vegetables here for weeks now.  I can’t tell you how much I miss lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and every fresh vegetable!  We have a limited quantity of fresh fruit right now as well…and what is here is not really that fresh anymore.  Flights down here have been backed up due to warm weather causing problems with the runway on the ice shelf.  Mail and fresh vegetables are not the priority…people and equipment take priority and that means…NO freshies! 

I think we’re all a bit spoiled back home with the ease of finding fresh fruits and vegetables.  Right now I’m dreaming of my local supermarket, and what I’d buy if I had the chance to shop.  I’d head directly to the produce section!!

Let me tell you more about how the greenhouse in McMurdo works.

It is like an explosion of color and smells…much appreciated after the lack of those things in this environment.  The first thing I noticed when I visited on a prior trip here….yellow marigolds and multi-colored pansies.  Seeing real flowers down here is such a morale booster.  I couldn’t help thinking of my parents, the master gardeners, while I was visiting the greenhouse. 


There is usually one person in charge of the greenhouse, but many people on station volunteer in their spare time.

 greenhouse-tray of pansies

The method of growing things here is a form of hydroponics called the nutrient film method.  There’s a balance between the water and three different chemicals added to give the plants the nutrients they need—no matter what stage of the growth cycle they’re in.  The plants are always getting a trickle of water, so a film of the nutrients is over the roots at all times.  No soil is used here….it would be a violation of the Antarctic Treaty to have nonnative soils, so they use troughs made of PVC pipe…with little pockets in some layers of rubber…to hold the plants firmly in place. 

 greenhouse-trays of plants

Let’s start out with the seedling beds…this is how the plants get started.  There is something called “rock wool” that is heated up and spun like cotton candy.  What you see below is a small piece of the rock wool…and I think you will be able to see that it is in little sections, each with a small indentation for placing the seeds inside. 

greenhouse-Adam with seed mat

Here you can see the seeds just starting to sprout.  They are kept in this rock wool until they are big enough to transplant to the troughs or larger pots…which might take a while.



These seedlings are a little bit larger.

 greenhouse-larger seedlings

The three chemical mixtures put in the water add nutrients usually found in soil.  They stimulate structural and vegetative growth; add things such as manganese, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, cobalt, iron, and molybdenum; and stimulate flower and fruit development. 

 greenhouse-3chemical mixtures

One of the biggest environmental challenges other than not using real soil is the lack of humidity in Antarctica.  Plants need humidity for photosynthesis… the process of making their own food.  The humidity created in the greenhouse is such a change from the dryness we experience everywhere else around here.  Artificial light is used throughout the greenhouse, as shown below.

 greenhouse-lots of plants

Eleven different water systems keep things going here in the greenhouse.  Each system has items used in fish tanks…an aerator, pump, and heater.  As water is pumped through each system, it returns to tanks similar to the one in the photo below.  The main water supply is stored in a huge tank that is re-filled one to two times per week. The greenhouse uses about 60 gallons of water per day.

Below you’ll see one of the eleven water systems used in the greenhouse.

 greenhouse-water systems

This tank holds 900 liters of water.

greenhouse-water tank 

Another important part of the process is the release of carbon dioxide into the overall greenhouse environment.  This raises the ambient carbon dioxide levels to provide optimum growth levels.  Plants need carbon dioxide to grow.

 greenhouse-carbon dioxide tank

When I last visited the greenhouse, Adam (a volunteer) lifted up the layer of rubber so I could see the root growth underneath some of the plants growing in the troughs.  It was incredible to see such healthy root systems. 

 greenhouse-roots and rubber mat1

 This is the root system of the bibb lettuce.

 greenhouse-roots and rubber mat2                    

You might see flowers from a cucumber plant.

greenhouse-cucumber flowers

Or later, cucumbers growing on the vines.


I love cherry tomatoes.  It’s cool how they ripen from the top of the stem to the bottom.

greenhouse-cherry tomatoes 

Of course all of the vegetables and herbs grown here are consumed by the residents of McMurdo Station.  The greenhouse is used all winter long for the smaller number of residents at the station.  People can call up and order things like fresh basil for homemade pizza.  Herbs such as cilantro, chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and basil add a lot of flavor. 


Here’s some Swiss chard that was ready to cut and eat…

greenhouse-swiss chard 

It’s great to get fresh lettuce with our meals…and I MISS THAT!  I can’t wait until we get freshies again!


One thing I really liked about the greenhouse is that there were two hammocks and one comfy old chair that anyone could use.  I learned that anyone in McMurdo can go up there to hang out, read, talk on the phone, and even bring their lunch or dinner.  That sounded like a nice change of pace. 

Next time a winter-over resident needs a boost of color, they know where to come…the hottest place in town.




11 responses to “The Hottest Place In Town

  1. I notice your comment that mail and freshies are not a priority. It is quite diff now than in the ’70s. Mail was the # 1 priority. Freshies were #2 and fresh eggs were a close #3.

    Forty years later and my whole family still calls fresh fruit and veggies, “freshies.”

    The idea of creating a green house in McM is something that I had never heard of. Good out of the box thinking.

    • Hi Chief,
      The greenhouse is a great idea, particularly for those wintering over. The first time I was here in 1998, we rarely had fresh eggs…I can remember deviled eggs at Thanksgiving. The second time, 2006, we had eggs cooked to order at Sunday brunch. I think now we can get them every day, but I don’t go to the galley for breakfast.

      I wish mail and freshies would move higher up on the priority list…we could use a bit of both here right now. Flat mail and packages get through more quickly, but larger packages haven’t made their way here since early December. Some people are waiting on packages mailed from home back in November. I’ve been lucky and have gotten a lot of mail lately…all flat stuff. I had warned people before I left home that this might be the only way to get things through. It sure is a morale booster to get mail and fresh fruit and veggies. 🙂 Thanks for writing again!

      • As far as ‘morale of the troops’ is concerned, I would think that a higher percent of the folks at McM and Pole now want to be there. When the Navy was there there were a lot of service folk that did not want to be there, hence I H T F P, and the biggie is that mail delivery is the #1 priority everywhere in the U.S. military.

        I never ate scrambled eggs on the Ice. I wanted fresh eggs so I always had them over easy,

    • Who is the greenhouse technician this year?I’ve got a few questions. Although I visited several bases there a few years ago, I never made it to McMurdo. Looks beautiful and fascinating.

    • Hi Linda,
      I really miss cooking up some fresh food….especially vegetables. I will be cooking nonstop when I get home! 🙂

  2. Betty, don’t be mad at me, but I just ate a salad for lunch. But trust me, after reading this, I’ll be much more grateful for my greens! Hugs from your favorite former student!

    • Hi Sarah! You’d better appreciate those greens! 🙂 Keep reading my blogs….I’m not done teaching you yet! Miss you and we WILL connect on the Cape this spring. Stay in touch! xx

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