Sailor's at-sea garden a source of strength for crew during long deployment

·3 min read
Petty Officer 2nd Class John Reid McDougall started a garden in the flight deck control room of HMCS Halifax earlier this spring. (Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood - image credit)
Petty Officer 2nd Class John Reid McDougall started a garden in the flight deck control room of HMCS Halifax earlier this spring. (Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood - image credit)

Somewhere off the coast of Norway, a tiny garden is thriving on a huge navy frigate thanks to the tender care of one green-thumbed sailor.

Petty Officer 2nd Class John Reid McDougall is growing everything from spider plants to apple seedlings and garlic in three homemade plexiglass planters he set up in his office on HMCS Halifax.

What started as a way to pass the time at sea has grown into a source of strength and comfort for McDougall and the crew when they aren't able to venture from the ship due to COVID-19 protocols.

The navy vessel is nearing the end of a six-month mission in Europe as part of Operation Reassurance.

"I had to find a way to keep myself grounded, keep myself sane, keep myself in a space where I can continue on doing my job for seven months and still maintain my sanity, and I found it through gardening," McDougall told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Wednesday during an interview from aboard the ship.

His navy nursery was small at first with just a couple succulents he brought with him when the mission began in January. But soon, his ambitions grew.

Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood
Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood

McDougall decided to collect seeds from fruit in the ship's kitchen, including apples, tangerines, mangoes and avocados. He wrapped the seeds in paper towel and put them in his desk so they could germinate.

It's McDougall's job to oversee helicopter operations and fire safety systems on the ship, which means his office overlooks the flight deck. There are three large windows with lots of space and light — the "perfect growing conditions for plants," he said.

With seeds and sunlight taken care of, McDougall's final hurdle was getting his hands on some soil. He asked the liaison team that delivers groceries and other essentials to the vessel to pick up soil, and to his surprise they agreed.

Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood
Sailor 1st Class Bryan Underwood

He said he's "very confident this is the first" time they've had such a request.

The planting season began in March and the garden is now teeming with germinating avocado and apple seedlings, garlic, peas and wildflowers.

"To have that in the middle of the ocean when you look out and you see nothing but water, but you're looking through plants, it's a pretty spectacular feeling," McDougall said.

He said crew members on foreign helicopters have even remarked on his garden when they land just outside his office.

'Isn't this cool?'

His crew mates are also enjoying the benefits of a little greenery at sea.

"People will come up on a daily basis to take photos, send them back to their families, show their kids that, hey, look somebody is growing a garden on the boat. Isn't this cool?" he said.

But there's a bitter side to his sweet pastime. McDougall won't be able to bring his seaworthy garden back home to Halifax when the ship returns in about two weeks.

Sailor First Class Bryan Underwood
Sailor First Class Bryan Underwood

Because the seeds and soil were picked up at international ports, they're not allowed back in Canada, he said.

But McDougall isn't giving up on gardening at sea.

"I'm going to take what I learned about the plants and about growing them and what they mean and carry that through with the rest of my job," he said. "And I know for my next deployment to bring my dirt from Canada so I can keep my plants."

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