From Iceland — The Islanders: Hæ Reykjavík, What’s Growing On?

The Islanders: Hæ Reykjavík, What’s Growing On?

Published June 20, 2023

The Islanders: Hæ Reykjavík, What’s Growing On?
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Heather and Matthew Haynsen, a writer and a geneticist, moved to Iceland from the USA. Now they feel at home at Seltjarnarnes, confidently making strides in learning Icelandic and jokingly refer to themselves as ‘radish connoisseurs.’ The Haynsens know first-hand that green beans won’t thrive in Iceland and advise against investing time and money growing broccoli. 

“Iceland’s not perfect. We say the weather sucks, and the food sucks more. But we’re working to make the food better.”

Heather and Matthew have been together for 13 years, almost five of which they’ve spent in Iceland. “When Matthew and I went on our first date, we both mentioned that we like to travel and were listing off places that we wanted to go,” shares Heather. “We only had one place in common out of all the places we listed, and it was Iceland.” The couple didn’t forget their dream destination and chose it for their honeymoon in 2017. Just a year later, Matthew landed a PhD position at Háskóli Íslands. “My PhD is in Genetics. I studied invasive plants, but I got a postdoc here to study cod fish,” he shares. “Part of his job offer was bringing me as well,” Heather adds.

Starting a garden in the north

While combining working and learning Icelandic, the couple has started a vegetable garden and the Instagram account @whatsgrowingon.rvk, where they share their experience of trying to grow vegetables despite the challenging Icelandic climate. “I always had a garden when we lived together in Baltimore,” shares Heather. “I was never good at it, but I did anyway because it was really fun.” Last year the Haynsens learned about Matjurtagarðar, a municipal programme that rents 600 garden plots for city residents to use. The couple was lucky enough to secure a spot on Þorragata in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood. “You simply rent them from the City of Reykjavík. It costs 5.500 ISK for 20 square metres, and you have it for a year. It’s really affordable,” Heather reveals. With the convenience of running water and a tool shed available at the site, it seems quite a steal. In 2023, the couple decided to expand the garden and applied for a second allotment, with plans to build their own compost factory.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“We love so much about living here in Iceland, but the food prices are just much higher here,” says Matthew. “Getting fresh produce is also more difficult and expensive.” The couple was a part of the Austurlands Food Coop until the subscription fees increased. “We’ve tried to grow some foods that we wouldn’t want to spend the money on, or we can’t afford at Netto or Haugkup, such as the peas,” he adds. “Oh my god, Matthew loves his peas,” Heather cuts in. “I don’t even get to eat them because I drive back to the house, and in five minutes, he’s shelled all the peas and eaten them. He loves them so much. I’m that way with the carrots.” Heather jokes that while carrots are already affordable in grocery stores, nothing compares to the sweetness and crispness of homegrown ones.  

Icelandic harvest

“The growing season here is pretty short because of the soil temperatures,” Heather explains. The season typically starts at the end of May or the beginning of June. With frosts in May not being uncommon in Iceland, one must be cautious because if you put plants in the ground during frost, they will die. Last year, the Haynsens began harvesting in the middle of July and continued until the end of September.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“What we grow here in Iceland in the summer is what most countries consider their winter gardens, which is just how cold Iceland is. It’s cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, lettuces,” shares Heather. She adds that not all vegetables can thrive in Iceland’s conditions. “One thing we miss eating here is green beans,” she says. “We tried growing them, and the plants grew, but they were never happy enough to flower.”

Despite the thrill of eating organic produce, growing your own vegetables is not always sustainable. “Last year we grew broccoli,” shares Heather. “From one broccoli plant, you just get one head of broccoli. It takes a lot of space, and after all these months, we just had one head of broccoli — it’s so much cheaper and easier to go to the store.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is that we’re willing to eat a far wider variety of vegetables if we grew them ourselves,” Heather adds. “I got Matthew eating kale for the first time because it’s from the garden. It’s somehow more exciting.”

Gardening 101

Heather and Matthew agree that you don’t need a garden to start growing – there are plenty of indoor plants you can experiment with. If you don’t have local friends to ask for advice, fellow gardeners from Facebook groups like “Gardening in Iceland” and “Plant Lovers in Iceland” can be of great help.

“There’s no garden police,” Heather laughs. “You don’t need to start from seeds or do anything one specific way. Just do what makes sense to you and run with it because if you find it rewarding, it’s awesome.”

One time the couple’s produce choice did raise eyebrows among Icelanders was when they decided to plant rhubarb. “‘Who in the right mind would buy rhubarb plants?” Matthew cracks up, recalling how Icelanders reacted. “You steal some from somebody else’s garden!” Heather is quick to add: “We’re not suggesting that you steal rhubarb. But there are many people who have rhubarb in their yards or their families’ yards that would give you a start.”

From Baltimore City to Smoky Bay

Despite the fact that Matthew’s contract at HÍ ended, the couple plans on staying in Iceland. “Politically, we like it better than the US,” says Matthew. “We used to live in a fairly dangerous city in the US. We love to feel safer here.”

“I wouldn’t go out by myself at night. Now, children go out at night. I love it here,” agrees Heather, adding, “Iceland’s not perfect. We say the weather sucks, and the food sucks more. But we’re working to make the food better.” 

Keep up with the entire Islanders series here.

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