The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star was underway off Antarctica this January when 100 unexpectedly lush, green dinner salads showed up in the galley.
“It was the freshest produce I’ve eaten on a Coast Guard cutter,” said Cmdr. Tom Przybyla, executive officer on the 399-foot heavy icebreaker. “And it was even more of a treat to have it 30 days out from our most recent port call.”
This farm-to-table feat was possible because the lettuce was grown on the ship. For the past four months, researchers aboard the Polar Star have been experimenting with a vertical, hydroponic garden that has yielded at least three harvests so far.
Both the Navy and the International Space Station have piloted indoor farms in recent years to help provide fresh produce for crews during long deployments where opportunities to resupply are limited. Coast Guard researchers have been intrigued, says Shalane Regan, who is overseeing the project for the Research and Development Center (RDC), but the idea of putting one on a cutter only took root last winter. That was after a last-minute change in port calls left the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star - and Regan - deployed in the Arctic without any fresh vegetables for weeks on end. “It just seemed (a) pretty fitting place to start," Regan said.
The garden, a three-paneled frame that looks like an oversized vanity with mirror lighting, was designed by RDC researchers in New London, Conn., before it was installed on the Polar Star. The garden was ready as the ship got underway for Operation Deep Freeze, its annual resupply mission to Antarctica.
A hydroponic garden anchors plants to a frame to grow without soil. Instead, they rely on water, nutrients, and a light source to develop. Researchers on the Polar Star planted the first seedlings for the lettuce on Nov. 30, 2021, after the ship left Hawaii. These thrived in the heat as the cutter traveled across the equator. On Dec. 19, 2021, they were transplanted from seed boxes to the garden system while the Polar Star transited the islands of New Zealand. Temperatures ranged from 60 to 80 degrees, Regan said, so the plants had a good start before heading into the cold.
The garden structure is eight feet tall, which limits where it could be put on the ship. Eventually, it was installed in the hangar, a heavily trafficked, multi-purpose space. It has its own lighting system that requires one 120 volt plug to operate and is on 14 hours a day.
Initially, people were curious about the garden because they didn’t know what it was. But now Regan says crew members regularly comment on the growth of the lettuce and want to know when it will be ready to eat. A few even do their workouts where they can view the growing plants.
Others have gotten involved with the planting and maintenance.
For Lt. Lydia Ames, watching something fresh and green thrive in a normally an austere environment has been a treat. “It was also a refreshing way to shake up some of the inherent monotony of life at sea,” said Ames, an officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps assigned to Polar Star. “Plus, I got to work with people that I don’t usually work with and grow some delicious fresh veggies for the crew!”
During the first harvest, volunteers took only the outer leaves and left the rest in place to continue to grow. Salads were served the week of Jan. 17 at 2 meals. “The timing was perfect because we were essentially out of fresh vegetables,” Regan said. More salads from subsequent harvests came at the end of January and in February. The structure was completely cleaned after the second harvest, before new seedlings were attached.
“I was super excited to hear about the vertical garden project,” said Fireman Leah Maholmes. “ “It was a one-of-a-kind experience and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it. Watching the seedlings grow was equally as good as finally enjoying a salad grown on the Polar Star.”
The current garden setup will stay on the Polar Star. That’s a good thing since they will go nine weeks before restocking on this deployment. The Polar Star crew is also interested in expanding the garden in future deployments.
While no one expects vertical gardening to grow enough volume to meet a crew’s produce needs, its ability to augment onboard nutrition sources and role as a morale booster can’t be overlooked.
Ensign Mikael Axelsson described the entire undertaking as a bonding experience.
“The camaraderie was irreplaceable,” he said. “Everyone involved provided unique solutions to the problems they encountered. Between the lettuce and the crew members, there was a lot of growth.”