Antarctica’s Indoor Gardens

Did you know that they’ve got indoor gardens at the South Pole? If it weren’t for hydroponics, scientists could go a year without a fresh salad.

You might assume that food and supplies arrive regularly by air to the different stations Australia has established down south. Wrong. There is only one delivery a year, and it comes by ship. The station chef can’t pop up to the store to replenish resources. The food must last until the following summer.

Most of the food is tinned, dried, or frozen on arrival, though there will be ‘fresh’ fruits and vegetables on the ship. Salad ingredients, like lettuce, greens, and tomatoes, have already seen a few weeks of storage when the ship docks.

To offset this gastronomic imbalance and help stretch limited resources, each Antarctic station has its own hydroponic garden. It also provides a welcome recreational activity with a psychological boost. Being able to spend time in a warm, brightly lit room surrounded by plants during the long, dark, and bitterly cold winter down south does wonders for a person’s outlook.

The AAD Climate Room - Antarctic Indoor Garden at Mawson Station

© Justin Chambers / Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctic Gardening

Hydroponic Basil: Antarctic Hydroponics, Mawson Station

© Darron Lehmann / Australian Antarctic Division

The current head gardener at Mawson Station, Darron Lehmann, tells us that production is only limited by the size of the facility. While Darron volunteered for the role of managing the garden, he isn’t a seasoned grower. He’s never grown food before. Looks like he’s taken to gardening like a fish to water, judging by the shots of his grow he has shared with us. He planted his crops on 25th February, and as of early August has produced almost 85 kg of fresh fruits and vegetables. He wasn’t done picking and weighing his harvest for the year at the time of his email interview.

When asked what tomatoes Antarctic growers preferred, Lehmann says Rogue de Marmande and Roma are very popular, though the Romas take longer to produce ripe fruits. They are also growing cherry and Tommy Toe tomato varieties. While gardening at the pole is a pastime, they take the food growing part of it pretty seriously. You will notice that there are no LEDs or fluorescent grow lights in use. All the station gardens are running deep water culture systems under 400 watt HID lamps. Good eating depends on a successful grow.

It’s pretty amazing that there are hydroponic gardens providing a variety of fresh salad fixings, greens, tomatoes, herbs, and strawberries at the bottom of the world. The only time that the garden isn’t producing is for several weeks in summer prior to staff changeover. This allows the departing gardeners to do a thorough cleaning of the hydro facility and equipment to ensure that it is free of fungi, algae, and pests.

Indoor Garden Design: Antarctica Hydroponics, Australia's Mawson Station

© G Denyer / Australian Antarctic Division


[column size=one_quarter position=first ]
  • Lettuces = 45.31 kg
  • Pak Choi = 8.38 kg
  • Cucumbers = 7.20 kg
  • Tomatoes = 7.07 kg
[/column] [column size=one_quarter position=middle ]
  • Silverbeet = 5.34 kg
  • Radishes = 4.61 kg
  • Snow Peas = 2.48 kg
  • Mint = 1.67 kg
[/column] [column size=one_quarter position=middle ]
  • Basil = 1.19 kg
  • Dill = 0.42 kg
  • Parsley = 0.25 kg
  • Chilies = 0.21 kg
[/column] [column size=one_quarter position=last ]
  • Capsicum = 0.16 kg
  • Lemon Balm = 0.12 kg
  • Coriander = 0.11 kg
  • Spring Onions = 0.06 kg


Protecting the Eco System

They are very vigilant about this down south. There are no insects there. To make sure things stay this way, importing live plants and ordinary garden seed is taboo. All food is grown from sterilized seeds. Every precaution is taken to preserve the plants and other life forms that are native to the place, and protect them from being infected or altered by imported pests and disease.

It is interesting the length some aspects of this must go to ensure man doesn’t unwittingly pollute the pristine. For instance, no chicken or poultry is allowed on an expedition to prevent diseases these birds carry from spreading to Antarctic wildlife. Researchers on a trek are warned not to dispose of waste water outside at an outpost. It seems that native birds find this particular form of ice quite a feast.

There are also restrictions on the types of crops that can be grown in their indoor gardens. Any plant that isn’t grown for its fruit cannot be allowed to set seed. This is done to avoid importing alien plants accidentally. Macquarie Island has a subantarctic climate and a stricter crop selection in place. Here cabbage, kale, and other brassicas aren’t allowed. They also cannot grow mushrooms, many herbs, micro greens, or lettuce mixes in the garden. These plants could conceivably thrive in the wild on the island as unwelcome exotics, forever altering the natural environment of this warmer location.

About the Australian Antarctic Division

Mawson Station, Antarctica - Fresh Food Crops

© Justin Chambers / Australian Antarctic Division

The Australian Antarctic Division is part of the Australian Government, and is responsible for: ‘Advancement of Australia’s strategic, scientific, environmental, and economic interests in the Antarctic by protecting, administering, and researching the region.’

The Division maintains three research stations on the continent – Mawson, Davis, and Casey – and one station on subantarctic Macquarie Island. The AAD oversees a sophisticated science program investigating climate processes and change, terrestrial, nearshore and Southern Ocean ecosystems. Australia is active in the Antarctic Treaty System, the international collaboration to manage and protect the Antarctic environment.

About Mawson Station

The longest continuously operated station in Antarctica, Mawson was established in 1954. It was named after Australia’s most significant Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson. For more information – visit Living at Mawson on the AAD website.


[alert type=white ]This article written by Tammy Clayton was originally published in the 2nd issue of Garden Culture Magazine for Australia, under the title, “Eating Fresh in Antarctica”.

All copyrighted images of the indoor garden at Mawson Station were supplied by AAD with written permission to publish them together with this article. They may not be copied and used in any way without obtaining written authorization from the Australian Antarctic Division of the Australian Government.[/alert]

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.