Cooking with CropBox Greens

By Miche Genest

Greens, greens and more greens. Local. In winter.

I picked up my first Solvest Inc. CropBox subscription order of fresh, local, hydroponically grown greens on January 23 at Baked Café in Whitehorse, located a 10-minute walk from my house (convenient!).

For the uninitiated, the CropBox System is a portable, hydroponic greenhouse system, entirely contained in a sea can, developed by Vertical Crop Consultants, an American company based in North Carolina.

Solvest Inc., a Whitehorse- and Yellowknife-based company that sells custom solar energy systems, is the Canadian provider and distributor of the CropBox system.  Solvest Inc. has a particular interest in the viability of the system for growing fresh greens in remote northern locations.

The company installed its first CropBox unit in Whitehorse in the spring of 2018, and is tweaking the system for optimal production in cold climates. And they are selling the crops — fresh lettuces, kales, chards, herbs — produced in the unit to Whitehorse residents and some restaurants on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

I am a brand new subscriber.

A couple of other subscribers arrived at the cafe at the same time as I. They clearly knew the ropes — one had a clutch of breathable string bags with her and the other a small cooler. (Customers are asked to bring their own bags or containers and transfer their order from the company’s refillable boxes at the pick-up point, part of Solvest Inc.’s effort to be a zero-waste operation. )

Next time I too will bring a cooler, easier than bags because you can lift the whole clump of greens out of the box and put them into the cooler, which insulates the greens if you’re transporting them in cold temperatures, and then sort them at home.

The smell of the fresh greens when I opened the box  was intoxicating — pungent, sweet, peppery — a complex blend of fragrances emanating from  basil, dill and arugula that was utterly uplifting at five o’clock on a winter afternoon.

This first box contained butter lettuce, rainbow chard, and the arugula, Thai basil, Genovese basil (the classic pesto basil), and dill that were causing my nose to twitch. The total weight was 400 grams; though the mix of fresh greens varies from week to week the weight remains the same, and so does the price — $15 for 400 grams. That amount is calculated to  be enough to feed one or two people.

Tarek Bos-Jabbar, who coordinates the CropBox program and operates the unit in Whitehorse, harvests greens such as chard, lettuce and arugula by cutting leaves from the plant. With herbs, he generally harvests the entire plant, with the root plug attached.

Once you get the CropBox order home, there are a few things to sort out. If the herbs come complete with plug, theoretically you can place them in a jar of water and they’ll continue growing. I haven’t yet tried this, but a Whitehorse friend who has subscribed to Cropbox since December reports anecdotally she hasn’t been successful at keeping the herbs going; they tend to wilt fairly soon.

My herbs came without a plug. I cut a couple of millimetres off the ends of the Genovese basil and dill stems and stood them in cold water, but they wilted in a few hours. I think the old trick of refreshing herbs and greens in ice-cold water, and then wrapping them in a tea towel and putting them in a re-sealable bag in the fridge is the way to go. The lettuce I treated this way is still crisp and crunchy, six days after pick-up.

There were a few wilted leaves among each crop but those went straight into a bag in the freezer and, once the bag fills up with other vegetable ends and trimmings, will contribute to vegetable, fish or meat stock. Nothing wasted! (Well, except a bit of dill. See below.)

The flavour of the greens fulfilled all the promise of the first smell: from-the-garden fresh, and to my palate, more intensely alive than the basils and arugulas and lettuces I bring home from the supermarket. This is the crux of the matter: the flavour. In winter, the flavour of greens grown elsewhere and brought up the highway just doesn’t compare.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we did at my house with our first CropBox order, with a rough calculation of number of servings.

 Butter leaf lettuce and arugula: Half the  lettuce and all the arugula went into a mixed salad that fed three people at supper, with seconds all around  (just for interest, the protein was elk smokies and the starch, sourdough buns).

Thai and Genovese basil: On the second day after pick-up my husband turned both basils into pesto, in order to catch the herbs at their best. The pesto was more than enough for 250 grams of linguine, which again, served three people (with no accompaniment except extra grated Parmesan and black pepper).

Rainbow chard and dill: I used all of the chard and a third of the dill in a Colcannon, along with eight large baking potatoes, one large onion and three cups of cheddar and Parmesan, mixed, for a Robbie Burns supper. The dill is not traditional in Colcannon and neither is the chard but it worked; my visiting sister, who is a fine cook, said it was superb.

Our Robbie Burns supper was cancelled due to illness, so I froze two-thirds of the Colcannon for later consumption; there are at least 12 servings in the freezer. The remaining third fed three people at two meals and there is still some left over.

The remaining dill: I bought a cucumber in order to make tzatziki with the rest of the dill, but I didn’t get to it on time and the dill wilted and then rotted in its jar on the windowsill.  Entirely my fault. And a lesson for next time. (See section on storage, above.)

Genovese basil stems: The stems were packed with flavour, so I made a basil simple syrup for use in cocktails and anything else I can come up with.

The remaining lettuce: Salad, to come in the next couple of days; there’s enough left to feed two of us one serving each.

In conclusion, I’m in. I have a small household, so the amounts seem to work for me. Still, it remains to be seen whether we will subsist on greens from CropBox alone for the winter (there are options for ordering more frequently), or whether we will need to augment.

But I’m excited about what might be coming in tomorrow’s box, and the culinary possibilities that will open up.  And I like that this one $15 investment in 400 grams of greens contributed to dishes that fed many mouths — well, the same three mouths — many times over many days. That is, 26 separate servings of very different dishes. And that’s not counting the cocktails that will emerge from the basil syrup.

Ultimate conclusion: Two green thumbs up. (Sorry.)

For information on how to subscribe to the greens program in Whitehorse visit cropboxcanada.ca

Oh, Colcannon! A hearty Scottish or Irish dish combining our winter stalwarts, potatoes and cabbage. Or, in this case, fresh, local rainbow chard and dill.

> Click here to view the recipe for Colcannon

 

Suzanne’s Blog: Winter Pepper

The most notable thing about this photo is not that the pepper plant is dying – this is not an uncommon occurrence with houseplants under my care.  And it is December, the month of low light in the North.

The most notable thing about this photo is that there is a pepper!  In December, in the Yukon!

And this pepper was grown from a local seed!

As I ate local farmer, Grant Dowdell’s, delicious red peppers way back in the summer of 2017, I saved some of the seeds and stored them in an envelope over the winter. I didn’t get around to planting them until midsummer 2018, so the pepper plant was just starting to flower in the Fall when it was time to shut down the greenhouse. Rather than give up, I moved the pepper plant indoors.  And, low and behold, a pepper grew!

I was inspired by Dawsonite, Meg Walker, who last winter managed to get a pepper plant to flower and produce little peppers in her windowsill – quite a feat this far North.

I am very proud of this little red pepper.  It reminds me of both the resilience and the importance of a simple seed –  the starting point in the food chain.

There are many aspects to becoming more food self-sufficient in our own communities.  The cornerstone is our ability to save and re-grow our own seeds.

In an era where technology is considering the production of ‘sterile seeds,’ my red pepper reminds me how devastating that concept would be.  If we can’t save our own seed, what hope is there for global food security?

Tomatoes, in Season and Out

by Miche Genest

Bread And Tomato Salad, a seasonal treat.

A tomato still warm from the sun and just plucked from the vine, eaten in the hand without salt or basil or any other addition, is one of the gardener’s greatest seasonal pleasures. At the first bite you understand that yes, this is more fruit than vegetable; a ripe tomato is as sweet and juicy as any peach or plum.

Now, in early November, it’s hard to find such a tomato in these latitudes. But until very recently the next best thing, a local, greenhouse-grown tomato from Yukon Gardens, was available at Wyke’s Independent Grocer in Whitehorse, around the corner from where I live.

In the second week of October I had just arrived back from Portugal with tomatoes on my mind. In Portugal in September the tomatoes were ripe and plentiful, so plentiful they cooked them down for hours into a sweet, spicy jam we ate at breakfast with fresh bread and creamy butter. We ate fresh tomatoes in our picnic lunches with hard cheeses and dry salamis, and at dinner we had cooked tomatoes in fish stew and in one of the many variations of Carne de Porco a Alentejana (Traditional Pork and Clams from Alentejo) we relished in taverns along the Fisherman’s Way.

On our first shopping trip back in Whitehorse there were the Yukon Garden tomatoes, so ripe they were almost bursting their skins. We came home with a few kilos because I really wanted to try that jam, and I really wanted a bread and tomato salad, whose origins are not Portuguese but Tuscan. I had a large bag of sourdough croutons in the freezer leftover from a catering job, and I had visions of chunks of toasted bread soaked in tomato juice and the rich, green olive oil given to us in Portugal by Maria, a family friend. Maria’s oil is pressed from her own olives, and over the years she has brought members of my family many bottles, and we love it. She decanted ours into an empty cognac bottle and we carried it home wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into one of our knapsacks. It survived the journey.

We ate bread and tomato salad the first night at home. It was everything I had anticipated-the bread both soft and crunchy in its bath of oil and and tomato juices, the tomatoes bright and sweet, the onion sharp, and the cilantro fresh and cool.

The reason I’m allowed to share the recipe here, with First We Eaters, is because every salad ingredient, if not local in October (except the tomatoes), was available in August at the Fireweed Market—tomatoes, cilantro, purple onion. The bread we make at home from a starter brought to Alaska by a German family 100 years ago.

Now that Suzanne’s year of eating only locally has ended, and a few items from abroad are creeping into her diet, we agreed that the olive oil got special dispensation. It was local to us when we were staying in Maria’s house and besides, I’ve known Maria since I was 12 and she was 21, and so what’s local to her is local to me, by association. That’s sound logic, right?

> View the recipe for Bread and Tomato Salad

The Most Northern Apple Tree in Canada!

The Inuvik Community Greenhouse houses the most northern apple tree in Canada. Photo by Ray Solotki.

This is an Autumn Delight apple tree growing in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada at 68 degrees North, well north of the Arctic Circle.

To our knowledge (please correct us if we’re wrong) this is the most northern apple tree in Canada!

This particular apple tree survived an Inuvik winter in the unheated  Inuvik Community Greenhouse, blossomed this spring and is now producing fruit!

Autumn Delight was developed at the University of Saskatchewan  and was supplied by John Lenart and Kim Melton of the Klondike Valley Nursery in Dawson City, Yukon.  John and Kim also sent a Trailman and a Rescue apple tree to Inuvik whose blossoms would have pollinated the Autumn Delight.

John Lenart has spent the past thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north.  Their nursery now has around 65 cultivars. Check out the Klondike Valley Nursery the most northerly nursery in Canada.

The Inuvik Community Greenhouse was refurbished into a growing mecca from an old hockey arena.  It bills itself as the most northerly greenhouse in North America!

Suzanne’s Blog: How Do You Like Them Apples?

A mid-winter treat for Suzanne — a locally-grown apple. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

It is the middle of winter and in my hand I hold a crunchy, juicy, sweet, locally-grown apple.  Yes, that’s right, locally grown – in Dawson City, Yukon – 64 degrees north.  Further north than Iqualuit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse.

It is all thanks to the ingenuity of John Lenart at Klondike Valley Nursery, Canada’s northernmost nursery.  John has spent the last thirty years studying and grafting apple trees in order to cultivate varieties that can withstand the climate of the north.  The nursery now has 65 cultivars and some of those varieties are ‘winter apples’ – meaning that they keep well in cold storage throughout the winter.

2017 was a tough season on the apple trees due to a late frost in the middle ofJune.  But Klondike Valley Nursery has generously been sharing some of their personal apple supply with me for this year of eating local.  And I can tell you that a crunchy locally-grown apple in the middle of winter is a treat beyond all measure!

John Lenart has been cultivating apples n the North for over 30 years. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

In Far Northern Norway a Chef Strives for Polar Permaculture

Chef Benjamin Vidmar in front of his domed greenhouse. Photo courtesy of PolarPermaculture.com.

Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth.

Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard.  How does one grow local food if there is no local soil?

In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.”

Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil.

Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island.

Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.”

Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island.  Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food.

In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town.

What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.

Vertical Agriculture Coming to Carcross

A vertical agriculture facility is in the planning stages with the goal of having it built in Carcross this fall. This innovative project will be the first  of its kind in the Yukon.

Tami Grantham, Natural Resources Coordinator with the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, says:  “What attracted us to this technology is the ability to grow greens year-round. It’s a goal and a mission for the government of Carcross-Tagish First Nation to become food-secure.”

Construction would be managed through a new corporation created as a partnership between the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and Northstar Agriculture of which the First Nation will be 51 per cent owner.

The system will recirculate water from a fish tank through a vegetable grow bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

The vertical part of this type of farming will be in the form of stacked layers that could be up to 10 meters high, in order to maximize production, contained in a warehouse-style space.

Not only would this mean a possibility for fresh local produce and lower food prices in the community, but also the promise of food security, as this system allows year-round growing of vegetables in a sustainable way.

The fish raised would be Tilapia, which is common in farming systems. Vegetables grown would include kale, spinach, and perhaps even strawberries and other vine crops.

 

“Le Refuge” – France Benoit’s charming farm in Yellowknife

France Benoit in Le Refuge - Photo by Up Here Magazine
France Benoit in Le Refuge – Photo by Up Here Magazine

In a beautiful article by Up Here Magazine, France Benoit opens the gate to her home and farm “Le Refuge“, which she has lovingly built and tended to for the past 25 years. On this property, by the shores of Madeline Lake in Yellowknife, France grows a variety of vegetables to feed herself as well as to sell in the local farmer’s market, of which she is a founding member.

France has been kind enough to share many growing and homesteading tips with Suzanne, which we have featured on FWE, and her creative and smart solutions for northern greenhouses keep us inspired.

Thanks, France!

Celery Flavor All Year Round

One way to have celery year round from the garden is to grow celeriac root. Weird looking but quite flavorful, celeriac root is edible raw or cooked, and tastes similar to the stalks of common celery. 

It grows well in the North, keeps well in cold storage all winter, and apparently can have a shelf life of approximately six to eight months if stored properly. You can serve it roasted, stewed, blanched, or mashed, or added to your favorite stews or casseroles.  Peel it and chop it and use it in place of fresh celery in cooking.  Excellent combined with potatoes when cooking mashed potatoes! 

Celeriac Root - Wikimedia Commons
Celeriac Root – Wikimedia Commons

 

Early Leafy Greens in a Cold April Greenhouse?

Asian Greens - Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Asian Greens – Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Take advantage of your greenhouse in April and May,  before you plant your tomatoes and cucumbers, to give you an early crop of spinach or Asian greens!

Riley Brennan, of Dawson City, direct seeds spinach in her greenhouse as soon as the soil thaws in April.  She leaves the greenhouse unheated and the seedlings don’t require any covering.   By the time she goes to plant her greenhouse proper in late May, she has a crop of baby spinach to harvest.

Continue reading “Early Leafy Greens in a Cold April Greenhouse?”

Seedy Saturdays and Birch Syrup workshops in Dawson

Next weekend, Dawsonites will have a chance to participate in two amazing workshops!
Seedy Saturdays will be held on Saturday March 25th at the Recreation Centre, and it will include presentations by Karen Digby and Grant Dowdell about northern gardening and by Scott Henderson about mushroom cultivation.
The following day on Sunday the 26th, there will be a Birch Syrup workshop in which participants will meet at the Rec Centre and then go hunting for Birch sap.

There are limited spaces on both, so make sure you sign up soon!

Peanuts and Ground Cherries Growing in the North!

Ground cherries in their husk - wikimedia commons
Ground cherries in their husk – ph. Wikimedia commons

If there is something exotic you wish to grow in the North, ask Louise Piché of Rock Creek, Dawson City, Yukon.  Louise is a well known gardener in Dawson and a frequent ribbon winner at Dawson’s annual Discovery Days Horticultural Fair.  She loves experimenting with new and colorful varieties.  She has successfully grown peanuts and ground cherries (aka golden berries) as well as asparagus, giant pumpkins and buckwheat.

Louise has generously shared her ‘tried and true’ cultivars that grow well in Rock Creek, which you can view on our seed page.   This year she is experimenting with ginger, turmeric, artichokes and pink potatoes.

We will keep you posted!

Continue reading “Peanuts and Ground Cherries Growing in the North!”

Local Fertilizer in Arviat, Nunavut


When you live in a fly-in community in the North, shipping by plane can be very expensive, especially for heavy items such as soil and fertilizer.

The people behind the community greenhouse  in Arviat, Nunavut, have taken on the very important issue of food security by devising a strategy to grow their own produce.

And one of the biggest obstacles they have found is that the local soil lacks nutrients. Commercial soil works fine, but it is costly and it needs to be flown in, which impacts the sustainability of the project.

Arviat's Greenhouse, Photo by Arviat Goes Green
Arviat’s Greenhouse, Photo by Arviat Goes Green

Continue reading “Local Fertilizer in Arviat, Nunavut”

Arviat Goes Green

Many northern Canadian communities do not have the luxury of the rich soil found in southern Yukon.  This is the case for the fly-in community of Arviat, (population 2,800) – the second largest community in  Nunavut.

Arviat Map, Nunavut, Canada
Arviat Map, Nunavut, Canada

In 2014 Arviat built a greenhouse beside the school to see if they could grow their own vegetables with local soil and local fertilizer. And they have been very successful!

Continue reading “Arviat Goes Green”