Long ago and far away when we lived in Alaska, there was a commercial greenhouse in town. This was the tiny city of McGrath, way off the grid, an outpost accessible only by dogsled or plane. The Native Corporation, flush with funds from the sale of oil and gas rights, decided to build the greenhouse in town to provide people with fresh veggies and of course, to make money. Here you can see the greenhouse in back of the local tavern, which was ever the bigger money maker. See the moose antlers over the door?
The greenhouse was built on 18 inches of gravel to protect it from permafrost. It was heated by waste heat from the nearby FAA facility. What a wonderful, sustainable idea. Or so it seemed. I was hired as a helper there. That summer we grew cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries, most of which no one in town would buy. Who ate fruits or vegetables, especially when they weren't wrapped? Most of the tomatoes our landlady fed to her turkeys.
Within a couple of months the advanced, expensive system of hydroponics got clogged on the peat moss inside. There was a proliferation of spider mites on the strawberry plants that quickly attacked the rest of the crops. Operations were closed for awhile in the fall while prodigious pesticides were applied to the whole space. And that winter people found they couldn't grow anything. Surprise! There wasn't a reliable source of light.
The weight of the first big snow brought the structure down and that was the end of the McGrath greenhouse.
What does this have to do with gardening in malls? Today's New York Times ran a piece on empty shopping malls being used as indoor gardens. It reminded me of our greenhouse which, incidentally, was staffed with a professional horticulturist brought down from Fairbanks.
What can be the fate of a mall garden? Where will the expertise come to run it? How can it provide the kind of light needed for growing plants? One of the people they interviewed for the article found that aphids spread fast indoors. The solution? A container of ladybugs! Do we really buy the idea that this would cover the whole interior of a mall? What about heating the mall? Maintaining it? Keeping it safe? Does anyone think the kale they grow inside will cover the enormous costs of running thousands of square feet of former retail space? The concept that mall spaces, overbuilt in the first place, could provide conditions for indoor growing at a commercial scale seems to me outrageous and as poorly thought out as the malls themselves.
Maybe you think otherwise, I'd love to hear! Meanwhile here's a picture of our little log cabin in McGrath, Alaska, where we lived during 1981-1982.