By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 1:16 p.m. ET
NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Robert Taylor may have the coolest job of any gardener on Earth. He's the resident greenhouse technician at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Taylor, 34, is green grocer and unofficial morale officer for the many scientific field teams conducting research as part of the National Science Foundation-run U.S. Antarctic Program.
McMurdo is the largest of three U.S. scientific stations operated on the continent year-round. Located on Ross Island, in the southern Ross Sea, it's the U.S. gateway to Antarctica as well as logistics hub for most of the research activity conducted there.
Taylor is responsible for providing the cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, limes and more through the short, frenetic summer as well as during the six months of deep Antarctic cold and darkness when resupply flights are impossible.
Hothouse crops supplement the standard frozen and dried fare and supply the only fresh greens available for the small cadre of isolated winter-overs.
What you will not see is a house plant, or even a flower that you can't shove in your mouth without suffering adverse reactions, Taylor said from the remote station via several e-mail exchanges. Everything grown (here) is for the purpose of eating.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest, highest, quietest, most remote and least understood continent on Earth, says Martin Glassner, in his book Political Geography.
The average annual temperature on the U.S.-Mexico-sized continent is 70 degrees below zero. The lowest surface temperature recorded anywhere is a minus 128.6 degrees at Russia's Vostok Station, in the continent's interior.
Temperatures at the bottom of the world run much colder than those in the Arctic -- an average 50 to 80 degrees colder.
Clearly, this is no banana belt, Taylor says, and there is no history of oxen tied to wooden plows turning over rich black soil.
Actually, on this side of the continent, there is no soil at all, only weathered volcanic rock and, of course, ice. There is nothing in the way of organic matter to speak of, and no recognizable terrestrial plants.
And yet, life blooms ... under thousands of watts of artificial light.
Taylor, from Missoula, Mont., has a cramped work area -- just 650 square feet of growing space -- but manages to coax the most from it. Using hydroponic techniques, he produces an annual harvest of about 3,600 pounds.
Not enough to register on the world's export market, but nothing to sneer at if you are one of the approximately 200 people who choose to winter here, Taylor says.
The greenhouse also serves as something of a warm, verdant escape for ice-bound scientists starved for the color green. Several hammocks occupy a corner of the lettuce room.
They are oft congested vehicles of napping and (for) those who wish to commune with arugula, Taylor says.
Not all of his horticultural challenges are climate-related.
There are some little things. Or perhaps it would be better to say that there aren't little things -- useful things called insects.
Insects are the primary pollinators for open-air growers and even for most hothouse growers, but it would run counter to the Antarctic Treaty to import them so Taylor makes do by hand pollinating.
Extra work aside, many plants do surprisingly well.
Lettuces grow like champs, he says. There are nearly 900 lettuce heads growing at any time on tiered growing systems.
Likewise, basil and parsley are herbs that need very little in the way of input. Pansies are the flowers of choice, and in addition to their retina burning colors, they taste great.
Gardening at McMurdo Station gives the work involved in raising something like iceberg lettuce an altogether new meaning.
It's strange that a horticulturist would come all the way to Antarctica to grow vegetables, but as far as challenges and thrills, what better place to confront the beauty of plants than in an environment so devoid of them?
Indeed, each tomato, each cucumber becomes a jewel, precious.