May 12, 2021

DIY Laboratory: Apple Research under the Dome

Written by: Alex Bleasdale

If there is one thing I have learned in the last year, it’s that working from home is not ideal for plant research. Living at home, close to my university had its benefits, but the climate at Lancaster and the wet and windy weather in my back garden is not the greatest location for growing apple trees. Being in the north-west on the other side of the country to major growing regions in the south meant regular field trips were also not an option. Fortunately, in November of last year an opportunity became available. Behind Lancaster University lies Hazelrigg Field with an abundance of land, but the exposed hill in view of the coast would not be pleasant for me nor my apples. However, also located at Hazelrigg are a set of Solar Domes, large dome-shaped greenhouses with electricity and irrigation that were in need of some TLC. It was almost as if these resources had been forgotten, full of weeds and moss and windows caked in pollen and other less pleasant droppings. With the help of a power washer, window cleaner and the thrill of leaving the house, I spent the last couple of months of 2020 making these domes as good as new.

Original State of the Domes






Originally intended for ozone experiments, the Solar Domes were ideal location for research, tall enough to accommodate numerous trees, and isolated enough that I could work up there free from restrictions. Inside the domes is well ventilated and wherever the sun is in the sky, it shines straight through the glass rather than hitting it at an angle and being reflected off, and well ventilated thereby creating an authentic atmosphere. Whilst the temperature reflect seasonal and diurnal temperature patterns better than indoor greenhouses, they receive as much sunlight as is physically possible in Lancaster and temperatures regularly reach above 30°C (even in March) though fortunately my trees are tolerant to these higher temperatures as long as they receive regular watering.

Autumn, Winter and Spring at the Domes


My project intends to detect disease in apples, specifically apple scab. To do this effectively would require me to produce healthy apples in which I can isolate scab on leaves, reducing the risk of stress from weather, pests or other diseases. The solar domes protect the trees from frost, wind, heavy rains, external diseases and the closed environment makes spraying pesticides safe for pollinators so I can make the trees as healthy as I possibly can. Currently there are 6 young apple trees: 4 Gala, 1 Braeburn, and 1 Cox and over 50 seedlings that I plan to experiment on.  Apple seeds, and seedlings are not freely available to buy, but with the help of YouTube gardeners I developed a successful method of growing these from the seeds of apples I bought in the supermarket. My project is using remote sensors for the presymptomatic detection of disease in apples. I am currently developing a low-cost prototype for acquiring multispectral, thermal and 3D images of trees in the hope that I can detect symptoms of apple scab several days before they become visible. At this stage it is trial-and-error to develop a set of protocols that would allow me to quickly and efficiently image a large number of plants daily to prove the concept, before scaling these up to field environments next season.

Apple Trees and Seedlings Growing in the Domes







The Solar Domes have been a great benefit to both my research and general wellbeing, having the opportunity to get out to do some practical work after a year of working from my laptop has made all the difference to the future prospects of my research. It is a shame to think these domes were left unused for a couple of years before I arrived, but I consider myself very lucky to have a DIY laboratory with amazing views, holiday temperatures and the freedom to work how I want to work.

Sunset at Hazelrigg