How to Build a Greenhouse

December 19, 2011 at 7:09 am (DIY, Gardening, permaculture) (, )

A unique thing about our property is that the original owner, Frank–the man who first moved into this house in the late 1940’s–resided here up until just three years ago.  He spent over sixty years in this house, living and working and cultivating this garden that I love but is no more mine than a mountain.  It’s obvious he put a lot of love and effort into making this his home–unique little details and customizations that are hard to find in Vancouver’s newly renovated rental properties, which is to say, practically all of them.

The old greenhouse that Frank built. Check out the custom gutter!

One of the things Frank customized was a small greenhouse in the garden in the back.  It obviously wasn’t a professional job, but it seems Frank had a good head for fixing and putting things together.  He fashioned the greenhouse out of 2’x4’s and irregular sizes of glass, some of it framed out like windows, some of it loose.  The footprint of the whole structure measured 5.5′ x6.5′ and we built the new greenhouse the same, but we’re told by a neighbor who knew Frank that he originally built it at least twice that long so that it extended the length of the adjoining neighbor’s garage.

By the time of our inheriting this structure, it was most decidedly decrepit.  The sheets of glass making up the roof were hanging dangerously off the edge and I actually didn’t feel safe entering the greenhouse as it stood then.  I desperately wanted to have the greenhouse, but it seemed beyond rescue; rebuilding it was really the only option.  So, for five weekends last May, I totally played the pregnancy card and got my video-gaming hubbie outside and wielding a hammer.  I must say, building a greenhouse was a truly daunting task at first, but I couldn’t believe how easily it proceeded once we got started.  Here’s how.

Once we tore out the old structure, we realized there was a lot of rot at the base of the back wall, which is just the south-facing exterior wall of the neighbor’s garage.  Soil and debris from the greenhouse was actually mud-sliding into the garage.  Our quick fix: a retaining wall, so to speak, of 1960’s orange shag carpet (pulled out of the house basement during the home improvement blitz of the previous months).  Really, we nailed a length of carpet to the garage wall and dug the soil out several feet and replaced it on top the carpet layer.  Will it hold forever?  No, but seeing as this property is due to be redeveloped in the near future, this is impermanent permaculture.

For those who have no building experience whatsoever you cannot simply build a cube of 2’x4’s; it will not stand straight.  Any structure will be more sturdy with some cross bracing (like when you put those two metal rods on the back of an IKEA shelf).  Sounds obvious, but we were surprised by how strong our structure felt after adding a few angled pieces of wood here and there.  Also, using screws would probably be the strongest, but we went for the ease of hammer and nails.  The glass pieces were framed in with narrow pieces of wood on the outside and finishing nails inside.  The door was made from a frame found under the back porch stairs (stashed there years ago by Frank, I presume) and an old plastic shower curtain.  The cherry on top: on the final day of building, while I took a break with Eleanor at the park, Stephen laid a beautiful stone path, put in the retaining boards and back-filled with soil so that it was all done when I returned!

Besides a lot of hard work, this greenhouse cost us next to nothing.  Mostly we were able to just use materials we found on site: glass, wood, door frame, shower curtain, stone pavers, blue paint, and corrugated plastic (for a ceiling vent that can be raised and lowered).  The only items we purchased were three  12 ft. long 2″x4″s, a bag of nails, and hinges for the door.  After the $30 Rona gift card from my mom and step-dad, we spent a grand total of $3.37 on this greenhouse!

The greenhouse after rebuilding.

In its first year, our greenhouse housed a load of basil, four eggplants, four pepper plants, and two incredibly prolific heritage tomatoes.  We tried growing Maw-Maw’s okra, but after seeming to transplant okay, all the plants just failed to thrive.  They hung on and on and slowly lost leaves despite regular waterings.  I think we got a single 2″ okra pod!  Oh well!  Building the greenhouse was well worth it just for the experience of figuring it out as we went along.


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Permaculture Diploma Class Winter Solstice Meeting

December 18, 2011 at 12:41 am (goings-on, permaculture) (, , , , , , , )

I know, the actual solstice hasn’t occurred yet, but the group only meets once a season and we try to do it as close to the solstices and equinoxes as possible.  Last weekend’s meet-up took place in the city, for a change.  Previously, we’ve met up at Rolling Earth Farm and the Heart Gardens in Roberts Creek and Elphinstone Provincial Park–all on the beautiful Sunshine Coast.  I didn’t make it to the second class because the June 26th meeting was too close to Henry’s due date and I sure as heck didn’t want to be in labor on the ferry back to Vancouver.  I did, however, take two-month-old Henry to the third meet-up, which was also on the Sunshine Coast.  I couldn’t leave him for a whole day because he was exclusively breastfeeding at the time and wouldn’t take a bottle, even if I had been able to pump enough milk for the day.  He was a dream–he slept every time we got in the car to caravan to the next location; he slept snuggled up to me in the wrap as we tromped through the forest; he nursed discreetly in the sling while I hiked down a cliff; and he was very pleasant for the short time that he was awake when we stopped at Delvin’s to view a permaculture video.  I never thought taking a baby on a trek like that would go so smoothly!

Anyway, last weekend’s meet-up took place in Vancouver.  First on the agenda, we met at Strathcona Community Garden, which is one of the oldest in the city.  It is quite large, sprawling in a delightfully ad-hoc manner, and boasts a mature espaliered apple orchard consisting of several dozen dwarf heritage varieties.  While there, a couple of us shared with the group on the progress of our mapping projects.  Mine were very well-received.  I think my architectural background shows in the readability and quality of detail of my base map and sector diagrams.  The mapping component of this course is an exercise to get the designer thinking about the different properties of a landscape–sun and shade; wind and water flow; circulation of people and animals in the space; and, in the case of an ultra-urban environment like mine, sources of noise, litter, and pollution.  Understanding how these affect the landscape helps the designer know how to mitigate negative effects and use available energy and resources wisely.

Our next stop was the Purple Thistle Center in East Van.  They’re a non-profit, youth-run center for arts and activism.  After checking out their guerrilla garden across the street, we went inside to get warm, had some snacks, and did a design exercise focusing on the suburban environment that most North Americans have inherited.  Environmentalists like to blame the suburbs and the extensive sprawling network of roads they necessitate for the twin  problems of traffic and greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention millions of collective man-hours wasted every year by people sitting in traffic).  It’s been said that the suburbs kill culture and art and community… But, maybe it’s time for a re-visioning.  Maybe the suburbs aren’t so bad in themselves, if people would or could stick around during the day and create a community, by bringing in businesses and shops, by encouraging home business and start-ups–ways of working that don’t entail an hour drive into the city.

One thing suburbs have going for them is lots of fairly cheap land that could be used for food production.  Let’s face it: farming isn’t exactly a lucrative enterprise and land for urban farms and community gardens is constantly under pressure from the urban real estate market and property development.  Until society chooses to value wholesome agriculture and uphold its place in our communities, farming will by and large continue to be relegated to the cheapest, most marginal lands further and further out from the center of human culture… as if agriculture can be divorced from culture.  Besides encouraging the conversion of every lawn to food-producing gardens, other ideas we came up with for “greening” the suburbs included: creating pocket markets for the swapping of goods, crafts, or produce between neighbors; weekly or monthly street closures for music and arts festivals to bring people out into the streets; creating community kitchens; using permeable surfaces for parking to increase rainwater absorption and mitigate flooding by run-off; using old rail-road rights-of-way for walking and biking paths; adding bike racks; getting schools involved in gardening; planting fruit and nut trees in the boulevards; reforesting vacant land; painting traffic-calming street mandalas a la Portland; creating space in local strip malls for a local-only store, micro-loan credit union, and co-operative where residents can rent space.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but you can see from this list alone how many low-hanging fruits there are to start greening the suburban landscape.

While the class went back to Cottonwood Community Garden to compare it’s permaculturally master-planned lay-out with the more organic (no pun intended) flow of Strathcona Garden, I had to rush home to nurse Henry down for a nap.  I got back just in time to caravan to the next location, SOLEfood Farm on the Downtown Eastside where our lovely hostess, Sara Dent, runs an urban PDC course.  A group affiliated with the organization United We Can started this inner-city farm in 2009 on property leased from the Astoria Hotel next door.  It consists of dozens of long and narrow raised beds on an old parking lot. 

Despite consulting a landscape architect on the lay-out, they have significant drainage problems–proof that even the pros are sometimes still learning as they go.  The gardens looked somewhat dreary on a cold almost-winter day; everything was covered in plastic hoop houses, so not a lot of color until you peek underneath and see beautiful stands of collards and rainbow chard.

The greenhouses they use for growing tomatoes in the summer were chock full of seedling trays yielding an abundance of salad greens.  Throughout the fall and winter, they’re still seeding something every single week!  What a goal to set in my own garden!

Once the sun set, it started getting really cold, so we wrapped up the day with a tea and snack at Organic Lives, a vegan raw-food cafe and store at Quebec and 2nd Ave.  The food looked great, if a bit pricey.  But, hey, you get what you pay for, right?  It’s not easy finding places to dine out that are in keeping with the ethics of permaculture.  Two thumbs up!

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Ethical Oil?

December 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm (Other) (, , )

I just listened to an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current and I can’t resist putting my two cents in. Host Anna Maria Tremonti was speaking with Katherine Marshall, the new spokeswoman for the Ethical Oil Institute (what appears to be nothing more than a greenwash machine for Canada’s highly controversial oil sands).

The issue is that oil extraction from the tar sands is detrimental to the environment of northern Alberta, polluting drinking water and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, not to mention the destruction inherent in any pipeline project to get the oil to refineries in the US. The same can be said for oil extraction no matter where it occurs around the globe.

Marshall’s point in calling Canada’s oil “ethical” is that, unlike Canada, most other oil-exporting countries are not liberal democracies and do not have legal rights and protections for women and children or occupational safety standards for workers. Marshall’s position, and that of the “Ethical Oil” campaign, is that when we buy oil from conflict areas like Nigeria and the Middle East we are, in effect, condoning human rights abuses around the world–therefore we should only buy Canadian oil because, clearly, human rights trump the environment.

The point that host Anna Maria Tremonti kept trying to get at and which Katherine Marshall kept adroitly dodging is that we do not buy oil just from countries but from companies, most of which are Western-owned and operate in Canada and the US as well as conflict zones around the world. So, what’s the difference when you buy Shell oil if it comes from Nigeria or from Alberta? Marshall contends that if companies are responsible for environmental destruction, low wages, and occupational hazards then it is the fault of the countries in which they operate for not having stricter legal controls. (Nevermind that most developing nations cannot enforce strict controls or tax polluters and abusers due to the straitjacket of structural adjustment reforms imposed on them by the World Bank and IMF; that’s a discussion for another time.)

In order to avoid tacitly supporting human rights abuses, Tremonti asked if Marshall and the Ethical Oil Institute think people should boycott the oil companies that work in conflict zones. No, she said, the “Ethical Oil” campaign was merely about opening people’s eyes and getting them “interested” in the issue of where our oil comes from and how it is obtained. “Interested”? What, I ask, is the point in getting people interested if not to affect some kind of change? And, if change is to be had, why not boycott those responsible? Marshall argued in the interview that it is up to the countries, not the companies, to impose tighter controls, as if oil companies are champing at the bit for a chance to live up to higher ideals of worker and consumer safety and it is government regulations that prevent them from doing better. I say it is clear that oil companies only act on environmental and worker health and safety regulations when they absolutely have to (i.e. when they operate in developed nations with higher standards). Perhaps, developed nations should be able to impose their higher standards on Western-owned companies no matter where they work.

Rant over! I couldn’t help myself; this Marshall woman was so illogical and no seems to want to state the obvious: that true leadership doesn’t just decide who or where to buy oil from, a true leader wouldn’t be afraid to tell his people that some serious belt-tightening and a drastic re-evaluation of the level of material comfort we expect out of life is necessary now and in the future.

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Our Thanksgiving

December 5, 2011 at 5:21 am (food) (, , )

One of the best things about being American in Canada is having two Thanksgivings!  (I’ll admit, before moving here six years ago, I didn’t even know Canada had its own Thanksgiving Day.)  So, having gotten the taste for too much turkey and stuffing out of systems in early October, we decided to make a truly personal harvest celebration out of the American holiday.  Besides, my very unfussy in-laws were staying with us and it was nice to share with them the fruits of our labor.

The feature of this year’s big American Thanksgiving Day meal was spaghetti bolognese, made with our own oven-roasted heirloom tomato sauce and seasoned with dried and fresh herbs from the garden.  Just minutes before dinner, I picked a salad of crisp romaine and arugula (both of which are quite cold tolerant and still hanging in there despite a few mild frosts to date).  For dessert, a classic pumpkin pie, made from scratch using the Maw-Maw pumpkin that we grew.  I don’t know what variety it was; Maw-Maw gave me the seeds and said they’d grow a good eatin’ pumpkin–and they did!

That our Thanksgiving meal contained so many ingredients from our own garden made it feel like a true harvest celebration!  Oh, and, I gave thanks for my family, especially the newest member’s trouble-free beginning.

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Canning Experiments 2011

December 4, 2011 at 5:48 am (DIY, food, Gardening) (, , , )

Home preservation of food was beginning to look like a lost art… until the recent upsurge in homesteading and DIY skill sets.  I’m certainly not immune to the trend, but home canning also holds a uniquely fond place in my heart.  Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has grown and canned all her own tomatoes, green beans, and fruits for making jams (in addition to all the veggies for fresh eating and for freezing).  As a kid, I sometimes got to help her snap beans or shuck corn or mash strawberries.  What I didn’t know was that those were already foreign experiences to most of my peers (80’s kids).

When I grew up and moved to another state for university, I had to face life without Maw-Maw jelly for the first time.  Having tried store-bought, I gave up on PB&J’s for a long time because nothing quite compared.  I know the difference isn’t just that Maw-Maw picked her berries at their ripest and used only natural ingredients in her jams; it’s also the memory of picking and cooking with her and the very familiarity to me of her land.  Now, I’m continuing the tradition in my own home… and my family’s loving the results!

Last year (2010) I found a hot water bath canning set at The Salvation Army on 12th (I love their bargain basement!) and got started canning right away.  My first attempts at jam included a tart tayberry delight that spread beautifully over Sunday morning french toast and a thick blueberry-rhubarb jam we like to call “bluebarb.”  The rhubarb came from the front yard and the berries came from a U-Pick in Richmond, so not only was everything local and fresh, but we had a great time picking at the farm!  On our way back from the U-Pick, we stopped and bought about twenty pounds of dill cukes and I made so many jars of delightfully garlicky dill pickles that I’ve still got several quarts a year and a half later.  Also, I made a mango chutney when organic mangoes were cheap at the supermarket.  At least they were in season!

This year I’ve discovered that Canadian Tire sells everything you need for home-canning, so I finally picked up the accessories I had to do without last year–jar tongs (very helpful!), wide-mouth funnel, and a magnetic wand for lifting rings and lids out of hot hot water.  I attended a salsa-canning workshop this summer to learn more and ask some questions, like “Why did two of my jars bust when processing my tomatoes?”  Answer: imperfections in new glass, chips in old glass, cold contents were added to hot jars, hot contents were added to cold jars, jars touched while in the bath, or some combination of these factors.  The class was very informal, hosted by a foodie neighbor and really just a great time gabbing with some friendly ladies.  I left with a recipe for canning peaches that sounds amazing; I can’t wait to try it next year!

This year, despite being hugely pregnant then having a newborn strapped to my chest five or six hours a day, I managed to prep and process the following:

  • 8 1/2 pint jars tayberry jam (U-pick berries)
  • 8 1/2 pint jars bluebarb jam (U-pick berries and garden rhubarb)
  • 7 pints peaches in light syrup (Farmer’s Market peaches)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars grape jelly (our neighbors have a grape vine)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars plum preserves (plum trees in our backyard)
  • 5 jars of various sizes diced German Red Strawberries (our favorite heirloom tomato)
  • 3 quart jars oven-roasted tomato sauce (from homegrown German Red Strawberries)
  • 10 pints applesauce (from fruit scavenged along 17th Ave. at Clark Dr.)
  • 5 1/2 pint jars roasted green tomato salsa (the last tomatoes from our garden)

Wow!  Looking at that list, I’m rather impressed with my efforts this year.  Of course, nothing quite compares to the sense of satisfaction seeing those colorful jars lined up on my kitchen shelves.  And, every time I open a new jar of jam or cook with my home-canned tomato sauce, I’m pleasantly reminded of Vancouver’s gorgeous but too-short summer.

For pictures of this year’s canning successes (and one failure), click here.

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