Even though I was only able to translate a little French, I had penpals in Norway and Korea as well. Although I couldn't read their letters, the enclosed photos and souvenirs proved a picture really is worth a thousand words. Come with me on a journey to the top of the world and see what it's like to garden in a land of midnight sun.
It might not be what you think
For one thing, it isn't always cold and it certainly isn't barren. From the fjords to the breathtaking aurora borealis and magical glow of the sun at midnight, there are many natural wonders in Iceland. Some people might consider gardening one of them. After all, how do you grow anything in such a seemingly formidable climate? Let's find out.
(NASA photo of a stunning rising phoenix aurora borealis over Iceland)
A friend in Iceland
I became friends with Rannveig Guðleifsdóttir, a pharmacist, member of the Icelandic Gardening Society, and the photographer of many of the photos in this article, through a forum on Dave's Garden. We've never met in person, but we share a kindred spirit all gardeners seem to possess. As is true for many of us, her garden is a work in progress.
Subpolar oceanic climate
The climate of Iceland is subpolar oceanic (Köppen classification: Cfc) near the southern coastal area and tundra inland in the highlands. The island lies in the path of the North Atlantic Current, which makes its climate more temperate than would be expected for a latitude just south of the Arctic Circle. This effect is enhanced by the Irminger Current, which also helps moderate temperatures.
The weather in Iceland is notoriously variable and subject to quick changes. In Cfc climates, the coldest summer weather averages above 0 °C (32 °F) (or −3 °C (27 °F) with 1–3 months averaging above 10 °C (50 °F). The country receives at least three times as much precipitation in the wettest winter month as the driest summer month, which is less than 1.2 inches.
(Gulfoss waterfall, the meltwater from Langjökull glacier; photo by Laurent Deschodt / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/))
Iceland is so far north the climate should be tundra. But due to the surrounding ocean, it's a taiga zone. Fairly recently, Iceland was covered by glaciers during the Little Ice Age. As a result, there are only approximately 465 species of flowering plants and ferns, including several alien species, found there. Some Icelandic plants, such as sea campion (Silene uniflora), are common in North America.
The taiga, or boreal forest, is the world's largest land biome (an area of the planet that can be classified according to the plants and animals living there). It covers most of inland Canada, Alaska, and parts of the northern contiguous United States. In Eurasia, it covers most of Sweden, Finland, much of Norway and Estonia, some of the Scottish Highlands, some lowland/coastal areas of Iceland, much of Russia (including much of Siberia), and areas of northern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia, and northern Japan.
(Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Iceland; Lepretre Pierre/Getty Images)
The main tree species, length of the growing season, and summer temperatures vary in each location. For example, the taiga of North America consists mostly of spruces; Scandinavian and Finnish taiga consists of a mix of spruce, pines and birch; Russian taiga has spruces, pines and larches, while the Eastern Siberian taiga is a vast larch forest.
What do Icelandic gardeners grow?
For one thing, they grow lots of lupines. No other plant in Iceland is as controversial as this iconic flower. Native to North America, the perennial lupine was introduced in Iceland in 1945 to help combat topsoil erosion.
The holtasóley (Dryas octopetala, mountain avens) is Iceland’s national flower. This Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit winner is found in all areas of the country. It grows primarily on gravelly mountain slopes and moorland. Also known as ptarmigans leaf because the popular bird likes to eat the leathery leaves during the winter, it has been used for medicinal purposes and as a tea and tobacco substitute.
Iceland is notorious for its weather which is subject to rapid changes any time of the year. There's a wide variation in temperature and precipitation. The winters are long and dark; the summers short and cool with endless daylight from the midnight sun. These short, cool summers are more of a limiting factor for plant variety than is the winter cold. The growing season is too short and lacks the heat necessary for many winter-hardy plants to thrive.
Wind: the greatest limiting factor
Before being colonized by the Vikings, Iceland was lush with forests. Within a century of their arrival, these fierce warriors had razed 97% of the original trees to serve as building material for houses and create grazing pastures.
The constant wind requires planting a wind buffer in order to establish a garden. Without that, only the hardiest plants will survive. Tough, fast-growing trees like birch, spruce, aspen, and cottonwood are used to create these windbreaks.
(Above: Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson (R), and Hreinn Oskarsson working on a reforestation project; Icelandic Forest Service photo)
In many towns, trees planted over the years now provide the necessary shelter for plants once thought too tender to grow. The Reykjavík area is the largest forested region in the country. As a result of neighborhood development and mature vegetation, numerous sheltered microclimates exist there that limit the force of the wind and significantly increase temperatures.
A garden in Iceland
What do gardeners grow in Iceland? Take a look at the photos below. They grow all this and more.
Heating greenhouses using geothermal energy began in Iceland in 1924. Geothermal energy is heat derived from within the subsurface of the earth. Water or steam carries the energy to the surface where, depending on its characteristics, it can be used for heating and cooling or be harnessed to generate clean electricity.
Greenhouse production in Iceland is divided between different types of vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, sweet peppers) and flowers for the domestic market. Usually, half the space is used for growing vegetables and strawberries, about 25% for cut flowers and potted plants, and another 25% for bedding and forest plants.
Iceland is a pioneer in the use of geothermal energy for space heating. Geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country's total electricity production, which has increased significantly in recent years. Over 85% of all houses in Iceland are heated with renewable energy sources; 66% are geothermal.
The photo below needs no explanation. What gardener doesn't enjoy relaxing in the garden at the end of the day?