Viability of all-season Greenhouses for Interior Alaska Using Geodesic Domes and Vertical Hydroponics

Progress report for FW23-432

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G248-23-W9982
Grant Recipient: The Magic Gardenbus LLC
Region: Western
State: Alaska
Principal Investigator:
Michael Harrington
The Magic Gardenbus LLC
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Project Information


Interior Alaskan winters are known to be some of the harshest conditions in the world for cultivating produce: dry, dark, incredibly long, and freezing cold. The summer growing season is only feasible for roughly four months, and artificial methods to extend the growing season provide various levels of success. There are currently no sustainable, renewable, and cost-effective four-season greenhouse designs for Interior Alaska.

We propose an elegant solution: Geodesic Greenhouses using vertical hydroponics and renewable energy. They will be designed to cultivate produce year-round by utilizing a combination of the greenhouse effect, renewable energy/hydroponics, and supplemental winter heating/lighting.

Geodomes offer many benefits for lightweight, strong, and low-cost arctic greenhouses. Triangles - the strongest shape known to man - arranged in a hemisphere provide unmatched tensile strength. The spherical shape of the dome facilitates light penetration, while polycarbonate panels refract sunlight toward the center of the structure. Coupled with northside radiant barriers and water-based thermal masses, geodomes effectively regulate their own microclimate with minimal human intervention. Leveraging vertical hydroponics will exponentiate production by maximizing available area for growth with minimal water loss (~95% recycled) when compared to soil.

Control groups will be outdoor gardens and indoor raised-beds, equal in square-footage to the hydroponic test group. The following data will be gathered for each group weekly: materials/energy consumed, labor/maintenance hours, plant health/growth, nutrient content/quality, effective growth season, and total production/revenue per square-foot. Final data will be cross-referenced and analyzed to identify the optimum cultivation method, and to further refine our process/design.

Our goal is to verify that 4-season cultivation for Interior Alaska is possible, by using environmentally-friendly technologies at low-cost to the producer. We intend to use our operation to support the local community, by providing a novel method for Alaskans to become self-reliant and economically producing their own food year-round.

Project Objectives:
  1. Develop, construct, and maintain a 4-season greenhouse system for use in Interior Alaska, utilizing vertical hydroponic techniques for crop cultivation.
  2. Decrease overall energy and material waste by utilizing smart space-saving growing techniques, as well as renewable energy sources.
  3. Provide the State of Alaska with year-round fresh produce grown and cultivated in the local community.
  4. Provide the State of Alaska with a novel, cheap, and effective crop production method for home and business use case purposes.
  5. Promote the adoption of personal and local crop production to decrease reliance on products shipped from the Lower-48, and strengthen the local Economy by adopting this practice.

Both Michael Harrington (PI, Farmer/Rancher) and Hudson Buldoc (Technical Advisor) will be collaborating on ALL sections below:



Phase 1 - Prep/Spring
April/May 2023


Acquire funding; Purchase greenhouse and hydroponic materials; Clear and landscape leased land for business use (foundation, gardenbeds, fencing, etc); Establish network of educational/research advisors to fine-tune research plan

Complete land clearing and landscaping
Complete Geodome construction
Complete hydroponic tower mass-production


Phase 2 - Summer
June - August 2023


Begin mass crop cultivation during "Summer Season," will be used as a control season for the winter study; Refine processes and procedures for hydroponic production; Rain catchment system design; Sell produce and lock in local customers to purchase agreements

Greenhouse at 100% capacity
Consistent revenue stream; Farmers Market
Rain catchment system implemented

Phase 3 - Fall
September - November 2023

Prepare greenhouse for winter; Rotate crops between cultivation mediums; Retire outdoor garden; Work with UAF Botanical/Agriculture to develop effective winter cultivation plan

Supplemental heating unit installed
Supplemental lighting installed
Winter plan completed


Phase 4 - Winter
November - March 2024

Develop system for maintaining/changing/automating temperature/humidity/lighting/irrigation patterns; Develop remote monitoring dashboard for greenhouse observation; Test multiple crops and identify successful/unsuccessful winter crops; Begin deep-analysis of study data

Automation/Monitoring system completed
Identify a "gold standard" group of winter crops
Provide stakeholders/researchers with data

Phase 5 - Spring/Summer
April - August 2024

Build second production greenhouse and/or experiment minidome; High-volume crop production; Experimental/exotic crops testing (botanical, arboreal, microgreens, tropical, GMO's); Geothermal heating and/or solar installation; Livestock; Create CSA for customer/crop subscriptions Build 1 of 2 new greenhouses
Consistent customer CSA subscriptions
Install 1 of 2 renewable systems
Identify group of exotics to begin volume prod.
Phase 6 - Winter/Project Wrap
August - December 2024

Confirm winter findings from FY23; Expand business by hiring employees; Prepare greenhouses for high-volume winter production; Winter exotics testing

Complete business plan to purchase new property for FY25 expansion and growth
Present final data and plans to an audience
Research Paper Completed/Published


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  • Hudson Bolduc - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

PROJECT LOCATION: The project site will be located on the owner's property behind the household. The Magic Gardenbus (hereforth referred to as "TMG") will be leasing a minimum of 2,000sqft of the owner's 0.93 acre lot. All business and research activities will be conducted on this leased portion.

Basic dome specs are below:

  • Roughly 1500sqft floorplan (22'r, 25'h @ center)
  • Foamboard insulated along base (3' below dome cross-section)
  • Foamboard insulated floor, plywood cover
  • Thermally insulated north wall, closed-cell foam under radiant barrier
  • 100-200gal water tank for thermal mass and irrigation along north wall

RESEARCH GROUPS: Our research process will be relatively simple. We have 3 evaluation groups - two control and one experimental - each with a square footage allotment @ 500sqft:

  • Outdoor Garden: Outdoor garden will be quality pressed topsoil in a small raised bed to simulate ground growth. Manual watering and rainwater will be used, along with fertilizer. This control group will be used to compare the production difference between indoor and outdoor cultivation.
  • Indoor Garden Beds: Half of the geodome will be constructed with (movable) raised beds. Raised beds will be filled with quality pressed topsoil. This control will compare the production difference between indoor/outdoor and indoor/hydroponic. 
  • Indoor Hydroponic Towers: Hydroponic towers are the experimental group for this study. We will be closely monitoring hydroponic plant growth compared to the two control groups. The hydrotowers use small waterpumps in the bottom catchbasin to "shower" the plantroots draping inside the tower walls. The water is checked weekly for nutrient levels.

RESEARCH DESIGN & DATA COLLECTION: Our research will be divided into subcatagories based on croptype. Crops will be planted simultaneously in each growth medium. Below is a rough schedule for our first research round. All data will be placed into a Google Sheet for later extrapolation. Each schedule will be completed during each season, described in the proposal's "Timeline" section. All data gathered will be metric.

  • Germination: Seeds will be germinated under grow lights upon an infrared heating mat.
    • Germination time will be recorded before transplanting
    • Outdoor/indoor soil plants will be germinated in soil pods
    • Hydroponic plants will be germinated in coco coir pods
  • Transplantation: Once the majority of the seeds have sprouted, they will be labeled a unique ID and moved to a growth location.
    • Each plant will also be randomly paired to a "plant set" for future data analysis (covered in the Data Scoring section).
    • Outdoor Soil - Outdoor bed will be divided into grids. Grid size will be respective to the type of crop being planted. Each specimen will be provided a unique grid location and planted in soil.
    • Indoor Soil - Same as Outdoor, but entire beds will be designated to each plant type
    • Hydroponic Tower: Each hydroponic tower will be given a letter identifier, and each pod slot on that tower assigned a number. Plants will be assigned to a tower identifier (i/e: G45) and placed into that pod. Towers are isolated by plant type to control the exact nutrient content required for that plant
  • Vegetation: Every week until harvesting, crops will be fully audited for:
    • Overall visual plant health (if bad/dead, pull and record)
    • Plant height, stem girth, growth radius
    • Existence of fruit (count fruits & rate visual health)
    • Hydro/soil nutrient levels (consumption)
    • Fertilizers/water/nutrients added (and amount added)
    • Inspection for pests and damage
  • Harvesting: Upon the harvesting for each crop subcategory, final data points will be recorded:
    • Overall visual plant health
    • Final height, final girth, final radius
    • Final plant weight
    • Produce: count per plant, average weight per plant, average/mean/median diameter of specimens
    • Final seed count per plant
    • Randomized samples will be lab tested for nutrient levels, disease, or genetic anomalies

DATA SCORING: After harvesting, plant material will be mulched and added to a compost tumbler. Each plant will be assigned to a "pair set" at the transplantation step: one plant from each croptype/cultivation style will be randomly paired into groups of three (outdoor soil, indoor soil, hydroponic). Each plant will be analyzed and given a rating (0-100) on each metric below. The analysis will be a blind study, where growth source of the plant will not be revealed until scoring is completed:

  • Visual Health: Overall visual quality of the plant based on size, color, fruits, and aesthetics. Any dead plants will be given a ZERO for all metrics below.
  • Plant Weight: Individual will be scored by comparing each plant to the average weight of its subgroup (set to 50)
  • Plant Size: Same as plant weight, but size
  • Produce Weight: Will be scored against the average produce weight of its subgroup (set to 50)
  • Produce Size: Same as produce weight, but size
  • Produce per Plant: Will be scored against the average produce count of its subgroup (set to 50)
  • Nutritional Value: Results from lab testing will be used for this score. The average lab test value will be the control

ANALYSIS/CONCLUSION: After all plants have been scored in the blind trial, plant identifiers will be used to compile the average scores for each by cultivation type by metric. Once average data for each cultivation type is completed, we will compare the scored metrics for each cultivation type against each other and provide a statistical analysis on the benefits of each method. Comparisons are below:

  • Outdoor vs. Indoor Soil: We identify the benefits of Indoor Soil cultivation by comparison to Outdoor Soil. Standard deviation of each Indoor metric against Outdoor baseline will be calculated/observed.
  • Indoor Soil vs. Hydroponic: We identify the benefits of Hydroponic cultivation by comparison to Indoor Soil. Standard deviation of each Hydroponic metric against Indoor baseline will be calculated/observed.
  • Outdoor Soil vs. Hydroponic: We identify the benefits of Hydroponic cultivation by comparison to Outdoor Soil. Standard deviation of each Hydroponic metric against Outdoor baseline will be calculated/observed. We will heavily focus on produce size, weight, and nutritional quality.
Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:

In our first year of cultivation, we encountered various issues related to shipping and receiving, equipment/materials availability, and construction timelines. This led to issues receiving the hydroponic towers in a timely manner (mid-July), and an inability to purchase a greenhouse kit (shipment would arrive after winter began). This required us to pivot and construct a temporary hoophouse prior to the winter season for initial testing. However, regardless of these setbacks, we were able to successfully complete two growing cycles within our first attempt.

Due the the issues outlined above, we recommend the following for rural communities (SPECIFICALLY Alaskans) who would like to follow our project methods:

  • Self-Constructed Greenhouse and Towers: Due to the numerous issues we encountered working with vendors to ship equipment to our location, we recommend future growers design, construct, and install their own equipment instead of purchasing through a supplier. Plans for hydroponic towers and geodesic greenhouses are available online for free (or a charge), and can be done locally by the grower themselves. This will prevent long lead times and shipment frustrations, and allows the farmer full control and customization over their own unique growing methods.
  • Nutrient Control: In hydroponic systems, nutrients are delivered directly to the plant's roots, allowing for precise control over the plant's nutrient intake. This can result in faster growth rates and higher yields, however can also lead to nutrient burn and premature plant death. We recommend tightly monitoring and controlling the nutrient delivery, and regularly testing pH/TDS (total dissolved solids) levels. Temperature is also an important factor to monitor.
  • Water Recycling: During each water flush and replacement, we used a small portion of the wastewater (30%) to feed our soil-based crops in raised beds. The remaining wastewater was then fed into a reverse osmosis water filter and replenished back into the storage tank for the next batch. This SIGNIFICANTLY reduced our water usage and prevented higher resource usage. For water-limited locations, or for those who intend to create a closed self-sustaining ecosystem, adding this process is cheap and simple to integrate. We will continue to use this process in the upcoming year, and plan to expand upon it by introducing water delivery automation.
  • Seed Purchasing: We purchased seeds both online and locally. However, we noticed the locally grown seeds performed much better than seeds purchased online. We attributed this to the specific varieties bred to deal with the Alaskan climate; however we intend to verify this theory this year in our continued testing.
  • Data Logging: Log and retain all your data as much as possible. Find new ways to gather data (temperature, pH, nutrient ppm, humidity, plant yield, plant weight, plant health, seed/transplant/harvest date). Any additional datastreams you can introduce will further increase visibility into your research initiative. We recommend using digital sensors (we are using ESP32's with various sensors attached) to gather our data autonomously, and use Home Assistant for data visibility and long-term logging.

However, we do HIGHLY RECOMMEND utilizing hydroponic growing methods over soil-based growing methods for small-scale high-volume crop production. We found the process to be easy to learn, efficient, and the barrier of accessibility was far lower than traditional soil-based methods. We back up our claims due to the following observed reasons:

  • Higher Yields: Hydroponics usually produces higher yields per square foot compared to traditional soil-based farming. This is because the controlled environment allows for optimal growing conditions, and the absence of soil allows for more efficient nutrient uptake by the plants. We specifically noticed a significant plant yield increased in our hydroponic towers compared to our raised bed plant varieties.
  • Space Efficiency: Hydroponic systems can be set up in small spaces, allowing for farming in urban areas where land is limited or space is a factor. This makes it possible to grow fresh produce closer to where it is consumed, reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions. This fact allows anyone to grow their own food regardless of their location, while saving space and maximizing output.
  • Year-Round Production: These systems are able be set up indoors, allowing for year-round production regardless of weather conditions. This can help to stabilize food supply and reduce the impact of seasonal fluctuations on prices.
  • Sustainable Farming: Hydroponic systems can be designed to be highly energy-efficient, using renewable energy sources such as solar power. Additionally, the absence of soil reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, making hydroponic farming a more environmentally friendly option.
  • Lack of Pest and Disease Control Requirements: By choosing to use a hydroponic system inside of an enclosed greenhouse, our system greatly decreases pest introduction and establishment compared to traditional soil farming practices. The absence of soil with hydroponics reduces the opportunity for pests and diseases to form a habitat within the ecosystem, due to the controlled environment of the greenhouse. Hydroponics also allows for better monitoring of crop production and management, due to the crops being at eye-level rather than ground-level. 
2 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

12 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 On-farm demonstrations
1 Online trainings
2 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
4 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Due to the unexpected shipping and equipment availability issues, our primary goal for this grow year pivoted primarily to education and outreach initiatives during the Winter season. We have been actively speaking and working with various Alaska Native Corporations, local village stakeholders, and nonprofit organization Native Movement.

In November of 2023, The University of Wyoming Horticulture Department reached out to us directly to discuss ideas for their own geodesic agriculture project. We took an active role with them for the last 4 months, providing advice and sharing ideas with each other. This initial outreach allowed us to foster a working relationship with another research institution, and provided us with educational knowledge (related to geodesic domes) that we were previously unaware of. We have decided to implement these design ideas in our geodesic build this upcoming summer.

Additionally, we decided to take our project idea "to the streets" by talking directly with Alaska Native stakeholders in our community, in order to gauge interest levels and potential cooperation this upcoming growing season. We are pleased to announce that we experienced extremely high levels of interest in our project, and cultivated some leads for a full partnership this summer (specifically, the village Galena and IDEA Homeschool, as well as the city of Nenana).

Education and outreach results:

This past summer, we also focused on community engagement and successfully collaborated with the Nanook Grown program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As part of this collaboration, we led two workshops teaching students and community members how to build raised garden beds, and introducing them to our hydroponic tower system. These workshops were well-received and attended by a diverse group of individuals interested in sustainable gardening practices. We provided hands-on instruction, materials, and resources to participants, empowering them to create their own raised garden beds. The impact of these workshops has been significant with the community building 6 raised garden beds to add to the Nanook Grown compound and one raised garden bed for the Honors college house. We have strengthened our presence within the community, establishing ourselves as a valuable resource for sustainable gardening education. Our collaboration with the Nanook Grown program has also opened up new opportunities for future partnerships and initiatives.

Our primary lead for working with Alaska Native stakeholders is currently the organization Interior Regional Housing Authority, which connects Alaska Natives to affordable and sustainable housing for the Alaskan Interior. We pitched our agriculture plans to them, and they are excited to sit down with us this spring to potentially form a partnership with our technology on their residential sites. Talks are currently ongoing and we will have updates on this partnership soon.

In regards to the University of Wyoming, due to our shared collaboration over the last few months, we have both agreed to form an educational/research partnership with that team this upcoming season. This will allow us to continue sharing ideas, techniques, and methods while strengthening our outreach capabilities. They have expressed interest in traveling to Alaska to view our operation, and we are excited to also arrange travel down to their site for a survey.

Finally, we also signed on a Business Adviser to our organization, Dr. Joshua Lupinek. Dr. Lupinek is a professor of Business Management at Montclair State University, and provides a demonstrated history working with remote Alaskan communities, as well as business consulting and strategy formation. We are excited to bring him on to our team.

1 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

We gathered a vast amount of experience while working with local community stakeholders over the last year. This allowed us to introduce ourselves to the local community, strengthen our ties with those stakeholders, and broaden our expertise across various domains. Specifically, we recommend future agriculture professionals to do the following:

  • Don't Stop when the Plants Stop Growing: Although the growing season is short in Alaska, we did not stop innovating, researching, and networking with local farmers and other community members. Keep the conversation going after the season ends, in order to continue interest in your project, and encourage community members to learn sustainable agriculture methods. This tactic specifically allowed us to develop future partnership opportunities, and we highly recommend this option.
  • Educational Workshops and Seminars: Host workshops and seminars to educate farmers, students, and the general public about the benefits and techniques of hydroponic farming. Cover topics such as system design, nutrient management, and crop selection.
  • Demonstration Gardens and Farmer's Market Presence: Set up a demonstration hydroponic garden in public spaces, schools, or community centers. This will allow people to see the process in action and learn about the benefits firsthand and ask questions for how to get started using a similar system. Notably, we had significant interest at our local Farmer's Market. Not many agriculture producers in Alaska are utilizing Geodesic Domes and Vertical Hydroponics, so our unique system garnered significant interest from the public.
  • Online Resources: Create an online platform with resources such as videos, articles, and downloadable guides on hydroponic farming. Make sure to include information on how to set up a hydroponic system, maintain it, and troubleshoot common issues. We are developing an open-source framework for all of our production methods and structural designs, which we will provide to the public for free. Free information is the best information.
  • Partnerships with Schools: Partner with schools, higher education, or 4H programs to integrate hydroponic farming into their curriculum. This could involve setting up hydroponic systems in classrooms, teaching students about plant biology and sustainable agriculture, or working with local researchers to develop new processes and procedures related to sustainable farming.
  • Research and Development: Invest in research and development to improve your farming techniques and develop new technologies. Share the findings with the public and encourage innovation in the field.
20 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Non-producer stakeholders reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
60 General public
15 Students
7 Ag Service Providers
Key changes:
  • Hydroponic farming methods - types of hydroponic options, nutrient management, pest control, water/wastewater management, yield increases, and data collection

  • Unique and effective alternative greenhouse designs - geodesic domes

  • Alternative Cultivation Methods - hydroponics over traditional farming benefits

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.