Cooke City School’s Closed Loop Food System

A Year-Round Greenhouse Garden in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains (7600 ft) 

Cooke City might be a town of only 140 residents, but there is nothing small about it. Located between Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Mountains in hardiness zone 4a, this quaint school is no stranger to big mountain weather. In fact, Cooke City has been referred to as the snowiest town in Montana, averaging 207 inches of snow per year. So you can imagine the disbelief had by many when Lara Belice, Cooke City school’s only teacher, poised the idea of year-round gardening. 

Overcoming Obstacles Growing Food in Plant Hardiness Zone 4a 

In 2019 Lara initiated the first step toward a closed-loop food system. A composting system, which in itself was a challenge considering the wildlife that roams the area. Particularly bears. To overcome this obstacle, they got a grant from a local wildlife association to install a Green Mountain Earth Cube. The Earth Cube is a completely enclosed composting system. No odor means no bears.

After the success of her first project, Lara got to work researching greenhouses and growing solutions for mountain regions, and that is how she found Growing Spaces. Lara had the chance to speak with the head gardener at Cloud City Conservation Center in Leadville, CO, where they garden at approximately 10,151 feet in a 42’ Growing Dome with a similar environment to Cooke City. 

constructing the 26′ Dome Greenhouse

“We live in the extremes, and the cheap stuff just doesn’t cut it. It was obvious that others in our situation had found success with the aid of a Growing Dome.” 

Building the Dome Greenhouse 

In May of 2021, the school got to work building a 26’ Growing Dome greenhouse with help from a Growing Spaces supervisor and the community, many of whom donated labor and supplies. Inspired by our raised bed photo gallery, they used leftover pine from the local mill to create gorgeous keyhole-style raised beds. The thing Lara is the proudest of, however, is the dirt. They collected compost in the Earth Cube for almost two years and were able to turn their local mountain dirt into healthy living soil to fill the raised beds. 

“I sent in the soil for a test, and the macronutrients were off the chart. Almost all of our waste goes back into the greenhouse to create food. It is good for the plants and helps our small community reduce the cost of hauling away waste.”

Advice for Fellow Dome Enthusiasts in Extreme Environments

Currently, Lara teaches 8 students k-7 at Cooke City School. Next year it will be k – 8. Produce from the Growing Dome feeds the students, their families, and staff members. The greenhouse has provided reliable protection from animals looking for much throughout the year. In the winter, they use a small electric heater via a long extension cord from the teacher’s housing facility as the Dome does not have electricity. They haven’t lost a plant even in the coldest, darkest months. 

Lara had some wonderful advice for fellow Dome Enthusiasts. “Growing Dome is the way to go if you are in a mountain town. Get as big of one as you can. The bigger it is, the more stable the temperature and the more room to produce food. Don’t be intimidated by year-round gardening. It is possible. You just need to embrace the plants that you can grow. Just go for it.” 

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy: Tropical Greenhouse in a Cold Environment, Isolated Montana Greenhouse, and School Garden Program In Connecticut.

You can find all of our Featured Growing Dome’s highlighted in our monthly newsletter “The Happy Grower,” on our social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram), and in our blog. At the end of the year, we create an annual calendar that includes every Dome of the Month. We send them to all Featured Dome participants, along with a gift of Growing Spaces gardening goodies! Apply here.

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