Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Garbage greenhouse: Framing and raising the walls

Toe plate, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik: Toe plates for stud walls are anchored to the concrete foundation with lag screws, lag shields, and washers.  A strip of tar paper separates the toe plate from the concrete pad.

A couple of weeks ago, I described the planning and design (scroll way down if you want to get right to the 3D rendering) process behind the garbage greenhouse composed of repurposed materials.  In the last few posts, I've been pretty verbose in supplying justification for my work on the greenhouse and garden in terms of energy conservation and food security.  This week, I'll simply share how the greenhouse has moved forward since its last mention here.

If you're new here, I'll very briefly outline some key features of the greenhouse.
  • Pressure treated 2"x4" pine frame
  • Repurposed windows on east, south, and 3/4 of west walls
  • Repurposed glass bottles embedded in concrete on north and 1/4 of west walls
  • Repurposed solid wooden door
  • Repurposed windows on south roof face
  • Repurposed material, still unknown and unobtained, on north roof face
Since my last post, I've had a few offers of material for the northern roof face.  I have a roll of donated tar paper (thanks, Dave) that will cover the required area (~72 sq. ft.), an offer of asphalt roll roofing (thanks, Blair) that I've yet to collect, and an offer of asphalt shingles (thanks, Mary Sue) that I've yet to collect.  As I'd done with the windows, I'll simply keep collecting material and make a decision once I've got it all in front of me.  In any event, any or all of the mentioned materials would be applied over OSB or plywood nailed to the roof rafters.

As far as actual progress that required the use of hands, I spent about three days last week nailing the wooden frame together for the south, east, and west walls.  For the time being, there is no frame to speak of for the north wall, which I'll address further down.  Last Saturday, with the help of some friends, we raised the walls into position, anchored them to the existing concrete pad foundation, and nailed them to each other.  For those attempting a similar project, I'll provide some process detail.

Framing 1, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik: Using a tape, framing square, and pencil to mark stud locations on the toe plate
Framing 2, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik: Using cordless, compressorless framing nailer to assemble frame.  Cinderblocks present for support
First, the south wall was placed on the foundation and measured to ensure it was parallel with the foundation's edge.  Using a hammer drill, 5/8-inch holes were bored in the bottom plate and roughly 3 inches into the concrete pad, spaced roughly every 27 inches (give or take a few inches to accommodate irregularities in the concrete surface).  The wall was then temporarily moved to insert lead lag shields into the concrete.  A strip of tar paper was then placed over the holes, the wall placed back over the tar paper, and lag screws with washers were tightened down to anchor the wall.

The process was repeated with both the east and west walls.  We took advantage of a carpenter's trick, the 3-4-5 right triangle, to square up the walls before anchoring them to the concrete.  Briefly, here's how you do it.
  1. Bring your walls together and measure 3 feet from the intersection along one wall and mark it with a pencil.
  2. Measure 4 feet from the intersection along the other wall and mark it with a pencil.
  3. Measure between your two pencil marks.  If the walls are square, the measurement will equal 5 feet.  If the measurement doesn't equal 5 feet, pivot the unanchored wall until the marks are 5 feet apart.
  4. Note that this works with multiples of 3-4-5, like 6-8-10.
Once the walls were square, we drilled our holes, inserted the lag shields, and anchored with lag screws.  Then, the end studs of the two intersecting walls were nailed together, and nails were driven down through the overlapping top plates.

I'm sure an experienced carpenter could have done the job in an hour alone or with a pair of helping hands.  All told, we took about 2 1/2 hours with 8 novice hands.

Greenhouse wall frame, SW corner, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik: East, south, and west walls framed and erected.  Note overlapping top plates in the corner, and bracing added on south wall.
Thus, the east, south and west walls were framed and anchored.  The only wooden component of the north wall will eventually be a double top plate supported by the glass bottle and concrete wall, with the top plate overlapping those of the east and west walls for additional stability.  The north top plate will be laid once the bottle wall is complete.

That brings me to a frustrating grind to a halt in the construction process.  It's not recommended by the manufacturers to work with concrete in sub-freezing temperatures.  Sure, our daytime highs have been warm enough, but our nights are still plunging into low 30s and high 20s.  Even above 50°F, the curing time is up to 7 days.  That said, I'll be waiting at least a week before I can move forward on the bottle wall.  Further, the roofing needs to rest on the north wall, and I'd prefer to have the roof frame in place before applying the window skin to the east, south, and west walls.  Consequently, I'd rather not move forward attaching windows to the anchored walls.  Anxious to do something, I added some additional studs in the corners where the walls intersect, and some braces between studs on the south wall, as the frame was just a bit wiggly for my taste if I'd left it as designed.

Despite the fact that this project is framed and unlikely to deviate from the plan at this point, I'm always interested to see how other people do it.  It was encouraging when a friend dropped by to see what I've been doing and say, "I hadn't thought of that."  If you've got a greenhouse and you're in the Keweenaw, even if you're not, I'd love to see it and kibitz about the design and function.  Drop me a comment or a link in the comments or by email, if you like.  As always, thanks for reading.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Garden planning and preparation

Redfield beauty, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik

I'd like to start this week's post by offering my sincerest gratitude to Mollie Ruth of Students for Environmental Sustainability of Michigan Tech, her friend Abe, and my housemate Ray for the help in raising the greenhouse walls on Saturday.  Mollie snapped a few photos, and I'd be happy to post them here in a later post if I may.  Further, many thanks to my good friend Blair Nelson, without whose framing nailer the greenhouse would most likely still be in pieces on my deck, my fingers would be battered and bruised, and my joints would be far sorer for all the hammer swinging.  Blair does some gorgeous remodeling work in the Keweenaw, and I'm constantly impressed with his vast array of pro tools.  Email me if you're looking to have some remodeling done, and I'd be happy to send Blair some work.

Some friends from over at Facebook have been requesting pictures of the greenhouse's progress (hi Leta), and they're forthcoming in the next post.  I'll ask, dear reader, that you bear with me as progress moves a bit ahead of my weekly-or-so posting here.

Last week, I talked a bit about peak oil, the value in repurposed materials, and detailed my planning process for the garbage greenhouse.  This week, I'd like to briefly look at an issue closely related to peak oil, that of food security, and move on to discuss the preparations I'm making for the backyard garden, including an approximate timeline for various jobs to be done before the seeds and seedlings go into the ground.  For the experienced green thumb, I invite you to share your successes and pro-tips in the comments.  If you're a gardening novice, a category in which I squarely find myself, maybe there's something to learn here.

The veggies at the grocer sure look secure to me

Our universe is both dynamic and interconnected, at both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.  The global economy, with its complex webs of supply chains and resource flows, is no exception.  We've all witnessed what happens to the price of a gallon of milk when corn, which is unfortunately used as cattle feed in industrial agriculture, is diverted into the raw material for liquid transport fuel.  The age of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy for transportation is coming to an end.  As such, we would do well to rethink where everything we consume originates.  When oil tops $150 per barrel, good luck affording a Costa Rican banana at either the chain or local grocer in the Keweenaw.  Of course, even the market price of a banana shipped 45 degrees in latitude fails to account for the true cost in terms of pollution and carbon emissions generated in producing and shipping the banana, but I digress.

Beyond energy shortages, there are other reasons for individuals and communities to grow their food locally.  Every year, you don't have to look far for a food recall due to contamination of one sort or another.  In recent memory, spinach, peanut butter, ground turkey, mad cows, and eggs have been recalled.  Invariably, the culprit in such recalls is the centralized food production and distribution system, whereby a contaminant in one slaughterhouse or farm potentially impacts the food supply nationally and beyond.  In 1920, roughly 30 percent of Americans were farmers.  As of 2007, the USDA reports that number at less than 1 percent.  The centralization and industrialization of food production was, of course, aided by the petroleum boom of the post-war era.  Regardless, as a matter of safety and health, the current setup is a poor model for feeding a nation.

This discussion could go on to talk about the damage we're doing in this country to our soil with the prevalence of monoculture farms, application of petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, but I'll wrap it up with a final reason to grow your own food.  Frankly, it feels good.  Jeffrey Andreoni wrote the following for an Adbusters piece in April 2010.
The brain is also programmed to derive a deep sense of satisfaction and pleasure if physical effort produces something tangible, visible and necessary for survival . . . Apparently the key factor in the effort-driven-rewards scenario is the use of the hands. Our hands are so important that moving them activates larger areas of the brain’s cortex than moving much larger parts of our bodies, like our back or legs.
We're wired to feel good when we work with our hands on something that helps us live.  In addition to the material explanations for the warm fuzzies associated with gardening, I'm interested in the more spiritual relationship between myself and the planet that provides for my needs.  Not only do I receive the bounty of wholesome, healthy food as a reward for my hard work, I instill in myself a sense of kinship with and stewardship for the ground beneath my feet.  I know I've got to feed the soil good food in the form of decaying plant matter if I'm going to expect to continue to reap that yummy food.  I tie myself to the cycles of the world, and in so doing, can't help but be grateful for them.  In my book, grateful's not a bad way to live.

So, what's going in the garden this year?

2012 garden plan (each grid square represents 1 sq. ft.)
Without further ado, I'll get into what I plan to grow this year, and give a rough outline of the timing for all the plants.  First, let's have a look at the 2D plan (right) for the 13'x20' plot.  I'll note here that this plot has been tilled and had roots and rocks removed down to about 18 inches in past years.  I've been reading up a bit on no-till gardening, and would like to follow that method this year by adding compost and mulch to begin building up my soil for long-term soil health and decreased back-breaking labor.  However, currently there are a fair number of weeds, so I'll have to spade, rake, and pull weeds before planting this year.  Further, I only began saving compostables in earnest at the end of last summer, and don't have enough finished compost to begin to cover the area I've got.  However, I expect to have enough by the end of summer to cover the surface over winter.

You'll note that instead of simple rows of each variety of plants, I've got certain plants clustered together.  Companion planting has a number of benefits.  First, it helps maximize space versus planting in rows.  Basically, I can get more bang per square foot.  Second, plants like beans fix nitrogen in the soil that can be made available to other plants, like the dill and cilantro, that make use of it.  Third, some plants actually impart better flavor to companion plants around them.  Finally, some companions ward off insects, or in the case of basil, may attract pollinators like bees to pollinate nearby peppers and tomatoes.

I'll note here the software I used to layout the garden.  As with the greenhouse, I prefer to be able to make quick changes without erasing or scrapping paper plans.  Inkscape is an open source vector graphics package, similar to Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw.  I'd originally downloaded it for designing t-shirts, as screen printers and distributors of plastisol transfers generally require vector graphic files, which can be resized up or down without loss of resolution, versus raster graphics like jpg, png, or gif.  For a simple garden plan, it's like using CAD to design a dog house, but I've grown accustomed to the interface.  As another example, this blog's header was designed in Inkscape.  Anywho, from the seed packets, I determined the minimum distance between plants, and made a circle with that radius for each plant.  It was simple to copy/paste to create multiple plants, and drag them around and plop them where I wanted them.

Now, a bit about my timetable for plants moving forward.  Some of this is already underway.  I'll proceed from here chronologically, then circle back to discuss special care I'm taking or plan to take with particular plants.  In planning, I'm assuming a last frost on about June 7 (maybe optimistic), and have planned backward from that date with recommendations from both the seed packets and The New Northern Gardener by Jennifer Bennett, available at Portage Lake District Library, or any library within the MELCAT network.
  • Perennials already in the ground
    • Lavender, oregano, chives, sage, and horseradish
  • March 14
    • Planted 4 seeds each:  chocolate beauty pepper, marconi red pepper, and jalapeno pepper in individual 6" pots (peppers do not like transplanting)
    • Planted 8 seeds each:  large red cherry tomato, redfield beauty tomato, roma tomato in individual, reused 16 oz. plastic cups
    • Planted 4 chocolate beauty pepper seeds in 2' pot, to be thinned to 2 plants and transferred to greenhouse
    • Planted 2 marconi red pepper seeds in 1' pot, to be thinned to 1 plant and transferred to greenhouse
    • Planted 3 chocolate beauty pepper seeds in 18" pot, to be thinned to 1 plant and transferred to greenhouse
  • March 21
    • Planted 15 yellow onion seeds in 1" starter trays
  • April 1
    • Planted ~40 spinach seeds in garden and 2' square pot outdoors, to be thinned to ~12 plants; possibly premature; spinach likes cold, but it may be too cold
  • April 28
    • Transplant onions to garden
  • May 7
    • Plant ~70 basil seeds indoors in sour cream tubs, small pots, starter trays, whatever containers are available
    • Plant ~25 carrot seeds in garden
  • May 21
    • Plant ~18 lettuce seeds in garden, to be thinned to ~6 plants
  • June 7
    • Transplant to garden:  3 of each pepper, 4 redfield beauty tomatoes, 4 cherry tomatoes, 30 basil
    • Plant seeds in garden:  pole beans, yellow summer squash, zucchini, pickling cucumbers, cilantro, dill
I'll note here that any plants started indoors to be transplanted to the garden (onions, tomatoes, peppers, basil) will be hardened off, starting about 7 days before transplanting.  Briefly, over the course of a week, the plants will be taken outside in their pots and placed in a sheltered spot, beginning with about 2-3 hours of sun.  I'll be careful to keep them out of strong wind and low night-time temperatures (>40°F for onions; >60°F for tomatoes, peppers, basil).  Over the week, they'll gradually be exposed to longer periods of sun and the elements (~2 hours more per day).

In addition to what's been accounted for in the garden, any remaining pepper and tomato plants will be transferred to the greenhouse as soon as the overnight temperature within remains above 60°F.  In addition to peppers and tomatoes, any and all available containers will be filled with basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley and grown in the greenhouse until I run out of space.

Lessons learned & special care

I've had that horseradish plant in a pot for about 2 years, then in the ground for another 2 before ever attempting to harvest it.  Then, last spring, we tilled the garden with a rototiller.  A funny thing happened then.  Smaller horseradish plants began popping up several feet from the large, central plant.  In reading Bennett's book over this winter, I discovered that any chopped up piece of horseradish root left in the soil will sprout a new plant.  In short, if you're not careful, horseradish will take over!  This spring as I was turning over dirt around the plant, I found myself digging 2 feet deep to remove every trace of horseradish root more than 2 feet from the center of the plant.  My gut tells me I'll be fighting it for years, now.  I plan to harvest every last bit of it this fall and never plant it anywhere near the main garden in the future.  It may find a home 1/4 mile away in the woods next year.

Also in Bennett's book, I learned that there's a difference between determinate and indeterminate tomato cultivars.  In a nutshell, determinate cultivars (Roma) are bushy, require little support, and no pruning.  Indeterminate cultivars (Redfield beauty and cherry) are viny, require a trellis or cage, and significant pruning.  Thus, all of the Redfield beauty and cherry tomatoes in the garden and greenhouse will be caged, and all of the Romas will go in the greenhouse in pots or upside-down planters, which may figure into a post of their own.

Further, I learned that I can keep my squash, zucchini, and cukes from sprawling all over the garden by training them to climb trellises.  To the east of my property lies a hunk of Houghton High School property, then beyond that the Tech Trails, which are full of downed limbs that could easily be lashed together to form trellises.  I plan to make a few pyramid trellises out of downed limbs, twine, and an old, disassembled, woven leather belt.  I'll detail that project in a later post.

Mini-greenhouses, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik
I want to give my peppers and tomatoes the most TLC, as they're very tender with regard to frost resistance, and need all the help they can get.  This week, I raided the recycling bins on Michigan Tech's campus and came home with a garbage bag full of 20 oz. plastic beverage bottles.  I've removed the labels, cut out the bottoms, rinsed the bottles, and created mini-greenhouses for the tomatoes and peppers already started.  Within days, the tomato plants grew so quickly that they outgrew their bottles.  Also, the tomatoes had all grown at least one set of true leaves, and were getting a bit leggy, so I transplanted them into cups identical to those in which I'd started their seeds, but buried their stems deeper up to about 1/4" below the seed leaves.  The stem will put out new roots up to the soil line.  Finally, when the peppers, tomatoes, and basil are planted in the garden, I'll give them a good start with some polyethylene row covers, another project I'll detail in a future post.

Roma before transplant, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik
Roma after transplant, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik

So, that's the plan for now.  I've got some desire to grow some potatoes in a barrel, but may not get to it this season.  All in all, it's going to be a busy season, right up to pickling and preserving, also to be detailed in future posts.

What about you?  What are your thoughts on food security?  Why do you grow your own food?  What are you planning to plant this year?  Even some fresh herbs in pots would be a great addition to your summertime meals.  Do you have any favorite garden fresh recipes?  Maybe you like planting a decorative flower garden.  Maybe you've got a spot in a community garden.  Tell me all about it in the comments!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Garbage greenhouse: What's the plan, Stan?

Why a greenhouse?

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been making plans and gathering materials for the last six months with the goal of building a greenhouse out of mostly repurposed materials.  The project was motivated primarily by poor yields of ripe tomatoes and peppers, given the short growing season in the Keweenaw.  Granted, my green tomatoes were edible, and found their way into pasta sauces, salsas, and the like.  However, there was something incredibly gratifying about pulling off the few juicy, red tomatoes off the vine.

Why garbage?

Now, about repurposing.  While in my life I've gotten to the point where I feel it needs neither explanation nor justification, that wasn't always the case.  I recognize that transition is a process, not an event, and there are those are yet struggling to free themselves of old ways of thinking that encourage scrapping the old and buying brand new.  If you, dear reader, embrace frugal and freegan practices, bear with me while I develop this point a bit, or just skip down to the planning phase.  In my lifetime . . . I'm 33 now . . . I expect energy shortages to be a pressing challenge.  We're currently riding the jagged plateau of peak oil, with no end of increasing energy demand in sight as the planet's population rises along with standards of living in developing nations.  While solar and wind are making headway in providing electricity, alternative transportation fuels are proving to be a tougher nut to crack.  Corn ethanol's a demonstrated loser.  Algal biodiesel holds promise, in that it makes use of non-arable land, but continues to be found lacking with regard to viability as a net energy positive resource (see here and here).  That is, more energy is currently required to produce algal biodiesel than can be produced by its burning.

To me, the question is whether or not advancing technology will bring us the solution to fossil fuel shortages before fossil fuel shortages begin wreaking havoc on the gears the global economic and political systems.  Honestly, I'm hopeful, but not optimistic about that prospect.  Tavis Smiley distinguished the two during a panel discussion I caught a while back on PBS.
Optimism suggests there's a set of facts or circumstances or conditions, something you can see, feel or touch, that gives you reason to feel good about the future. Hope is a different thing. It's having faith in the substance of your future even when there's no evidence that it will be better. Even if you don't have reason to be optimistic, you can always be hopeful.
Granted, Smiley was discussing the plight of the poor in our current economic crisis, but I think we can apply the thinking to any crisis of the times, including the impending energy crisis.  So, what's one to do in the face of ominous facts on the ground?  Well, one can hope that academia, the market, the state, in other words, someone that is not me, will come up with a solution to the energy problem.  That's an attractive mode of thinking in that it doesn't require me to alter my lifestyle by, for instance, driving less, wearing my clothes until they are worn, growing my own food, shopping second-hand, reusing garbage as a construction material, etc.  Someone-else-will-solve-it-ism requires no exertion of personal responsibility for either the energy problem or its solution.  Next, we have the despair so prevalent in Mayan calendar and other prophetic end of the world scenarios.  While I'd agree that the world as we know it will look drastically different in another decade or century, I think we're going to make it as a species.  Yes, the economy will have to contract.  Yes, people will have to learn to live with fewer of the luxuries to which we've grown accustomed in the developed world.  There will probably have to be fewer of us.  However, people will live.  That leads me to what I'd consider the healthiest and most meaningful response to peak oil and the end of abundant energy.  We alter our lifestyles.  We use less.  We waste less.  We produce more.  We reuse materials.  We make them last.  We mend and repair.  This isn't news.  Our ancestors did it as a matter of necessity.  I think our descendants shall, as well.

Getting back to the greenhouse, it takes more energy to make a new window than to pick one up out of a friend's basement or garage.  It takes less energy to put that window to use growing food than it does to put it in a diesel-burning garbage truck and ship it to the dump.  It takes less energy to pick a tomato out of my greenhouse or garden than it does to have one shipped to the Keweenaw from Mexico.  I've focused primarily on energy in this discussion thus far.  I'll save the food security issues for another post.  Of course, it's all related.

Let's get down to brass tacks, here

I hadn't intended to spend that many words on the rationale, but so it goes.  Let's jump into the design phase of the greenhouse, some of the challenges faced, and how I met those challenges.  First, I'll note that this post is not going to leave you with a cookie cutter recipe for your own garbage greenhouse.  On this project, the nature of using repurposed materials places constraints on the design.  Specifically, the design came to meet the requirements laid out by the dimensions of windows available in Keweenaw basements and garages, as opposed to buying the proper materials to fit a preconceived design.  However, following a similar patient planning process, which in my case took about six months at a leisurely pace, you should be able to apply the principles to your own project.

Greenhouse foundation, 2011, Jeremy Sandrik
First, I should mention that I've already got a 12'x12' concrete pad foundation that's already plumbed.  A former homeowner here had a sauna out back.  In fact, a neighbor to one side erected a privacy fence to block the view of all the naked people running between the sauna and the house.  True story!  Unfortunately, it was torn down long before I bought the place, but the plumbing remains and in good condition.  In the picture at right, you're looking at the west side of the foundation.  In the center sits a fiberglass shell of an outdoor fireplace I picked up at Goodwill.  It's going to have to move.  Also, you'll notice some small trees on the southeast corner, which would effectively block quite a bit of light from entering any finished greenhouse.  Fortunately, my neighbor on that side plows the snow from his driveway into the space behind the foundation, and was happy help (do the bulk of the work) remove it.  Win, win.

Inspiration, collaboration & collection

Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel.  My search for inspiration began on Youtube, checking out greenhouses other people have built (here, here, and here).  I'd tinkered with the idea of making walls out of plastic two liter bottles, but Michigan's carbonated beverage bottle recycling program means I'd likely have to buy them off people at 10 cents a piece.  Some rough calculations told me I'd need thousands of bottles, or hundreds of dollars worth.  Nuts to that.  I reasoned that if I had 2-3 windows in the basement, I'd be able to gather a boat load for free pretty quickly.  Further, I'd save myself the labor of rinsing, removing labels, cutting, and gluing those thousands of bottles together.  Wanting a fairly well insulated north-facing wall, I decided on a glass bottle wall, held together with concrete, mortar, or some other binding material.  I didn't worry too much about it being sturdy enough to withstand our winters, as the Kaleva Bottle House was built near Manistee, MI in 1941 using similar methods, and still stands.

It was at this time that I brought some more brains into the mix, for a number of reasons.  First, I knew I'd need help actually assembling the greenhouse.  Second, I know that more brains working on a problem, especially in the planning stages, would help generate ideas I wouldn't find alone.  Third, I want this project to be both a learning and teaching experience.  I want to set an example.  Finally, talking about your project to people outside of your immediate social circle is a way to commit to it.  They'll ask about your progress and keep you motivated.  To these ends, I contacted Michigan Tech's Students for Environmental Sustainability (SfES), and shortly thereafter presented my plans, limited as they were at the time.  Our shared enthusiasm about the project was enough to light a fire under my ass and start collecting materials.

The Keweenaw Freecycle Network, and its members, have been invaluable in rounding up windows and bottles for the sunny and shady walls, respectively.  Two ads netted about 55 windows (about 350 sq. ft.) and about 300 glass bottles in under a week.  I'd already been saving all my glass for about 2 years, so at that point, I had enough materials to plan around.


I've never taken a drafting course, architectural or otherwise.  When I was a kid, I'd look through the Sunday paper each week and look at the featured floor plan.  I'd play a bit, designing fantastical houses that made no practical sense.  Nobody would have wanted to plumb my designs.

SW corner

Fast forward to fall 2011.  In this day and age, I wanted to be able to work the design up with inexpensive digital tools (CAD's out of my price range), rotate around the structure, zoom, and alter it without erasing or scrapping sketches.  While it may be rudimentary for the professional architect or engineer, Google SketchUp is a dream come true for the DIY tinkerer.  The price is right (free), there's a wealth of training tutorials, and an online 3D Warehouse where you can download models of everything from stud walls to skyscrapers.  I downloaded an outdoor water spigot to match the one on my existing foundation.  If you want to share your creations with the world, you can upload your SketchUp creations to Google Earth.  All around, it's a cool tool.

SE corner

As mentioned above, the design has to fit the windows I've got on hand, and the foundation that exists on the ground.  So, I started by measuring and rendering the foundation.  I measured the outer dimensions and rendered each window.  I have a door in the garage that'll work, and I rendered that.  I'll note here that the foundation doesn't sit square with the cardinal directions, so understand that when I refer to the east wall, it's actually facing somewhat south of due east.  Anywho, it then became a 3D jigsaw puzzle.  I started by piecing together the skin of windows, then rendered a 2x4 lumber frame to support the skin.  The final pieces to be added were the bottles, sheets of plywood to cover some of the triangular gaps in the gables, and some corrugated roofing material on the north-facing roof.  I assumed a 4 inch diameter bottle (many I've got are larger) in the model, which allowed a liberal estimate for the number of required bottles.

NE corner

Along the way, I discovered there were things I didn't know how to do, like frame a door, attach a wood frame to a cured concrete foundation, frame and attach a gabled roof, etc.  Houghton's Goodwill store happened to have a copy of Carpentry and Building Construction by Feirer and Hutchings (1981), which is a 1000 page tome that runs the gamut from reading blueprints to painting, and has been and will be quite useful for the self-taught builder.  I'm sure it's no substitute for a proper apprenticeship, but it's helped me solve a few problems.  Beyond that, the interwebs are crawling with tips and forums, particularly if you're looking for very specific information, like anchoring the frame to a concrete foundation, which will be accomplished in my case with lag shields, lag screws, and washers.

NW corner

For the sake of brevity (clearly a high priority), I've just included isometric views of the complete model and the frame without windows or bottles.  I'll admit I'm a novice builder.  I don't have 16" studs, mostly because I'm not living in the thing and I'll save a few bucks.  The studs are spaced to fit the window frames, 27 1/2" on center.  I'm counting on the window frames screwed to the studs adding some rigidity to the walls.  That said, if you see something that leads you to believe this thing will fall down in 6 months, please speak up in the comments.  Unclear from the sketches is that the roof rafters will rest on the double top plate of the walls with a bird's mouth joint.

SW corner
SE corner
NE corner
NW corner

With a fairly detailed design in hand, I was off the the library to see what tips and tricks I could pick up.  I read through their copy of Building Your Own Greenhouse by Mark Freeman (1997), which was useful.  He spends the first few chapters describing framing, glazing, and ventilation generally; then goes on to detail several DIY greenhouses belonging to friends and acquaintances.  I learned within those pages that I should provide a waterproof barrier between the foundation and the bottom plate of my frame, I should ventilate the greenhouse in some manner, and put some aluminum flashing or other waterproof material over the roof ridge to keep water from collecting.  The web's wonderful if you know exactly what you're looking for, but I find I still love a book when I want a broader knowledge base on a topic.

From the completed design, I was able to make some estimates for the number of bottles , and quantity of binding material to fill the bottle walls.  I assumed a 6" depth of concrete, calculated the volume of the rectangular wall at that depth, and subtracted the volume of the bottles in the wall, again assuming a 4" diameter bottle.  I ended up with a requirement of 12 cubic feet of binder, and picked up 20, 80-pound bags of concrete.  Further, I was able to use the framing plan to carefully estimate the lumber requirements, always rounding up for each board to give me some wiggle room.  All told, I picked up 10, 8-foot 2x4s; 20, 10-foot 2x4s; and 1, 10-foot 2x6 for the roof ridge; all pressure-treated lumber as this is an outside job.  The top plate of the bottle wall (north) will be anchored into the concrete binder with "L" concrete bolts, nuts, and washers.

Unsolved mysteries

I've still got a number of concerns that I haven't quite addressed to my satisfaction.  If you've got tips or suggestions, do tell.  Primary among those concerns is whether or not the south-facing roof face, composed mostly of glass, will support the snow loads common to Keweenaw winters.  As drawn, the south face makes a roughly 50 degree angle with the horizontal.  My hope is that's a steep enough pitch that the snow will slide off, but there's a hitch.  The windows are wood framed, and the panes are recessed in those frames by about 1/2", which could prevent the snow from sliding smoothly off.  I'm also worried about damage during freeze/thaw cycles in spring and fall resulting from ice and water that collect in the same recesses.  Further, rainwater will collect there and rot the wood frames quicker than I'd like.  For the time being, the best solution I've read (in Freeman's book) is to cover the entire southern roof face with 7 mil plastic, creating a smooth plane over the windows for snow and rain to slide off.  I've also considered removing the glass roof altogether in the winter months, in which case I won't be growing or overwintering anything during that time.  I'm hopeful that diligent use of the roof rake will alleviate these concerns, but I'm not so sure.  Ultimately, I'm an experimentalist, not a theorist, and will simply replace any broken windows next spring with acrylic or corrugated polycarbonate sheets.

Also, my design shows corrugated roof panels on the north-facing roof face, but I don't have them yet.  Freecycle's come up empty on that request.  Ed's Iron Salvage is just down the street from me, and I thought I'd give them a whirl if I don't come up with any better options.  A good friend gave me a roll of tar paper, which I'll be using as a barrier between the foundation and frame, and may also find a use over some sheets of plywood on the roof.  For the time being, I'm moving forward and counting on scrounging or buying what I need for the roof when the time comes to install it.

Ventilation is also going to be key, and I don't have a good answer for that, yet.  Examples in Freeman's book employed solutions as simple as screen-covered holes in the gables on opposing ends to allow a cross breeze, and as complicated as a thermostat-controlled exhaust fan .  I read on a discussion forum that I should plan to be able to exchange the entire volume (roughly 600 cubic ft.) of the greenhouse in a minute if I expect interior temperatures over 90 degrees F.  If I truly need an exhaust fan to avoid burning up my precious tomatoes, I've got another challenge in that I'll need to run power underground to the foundation, which sits about 30 feet from my house.  More than likely, I'd want it on its own circuit, and I'll be back to the books to bone up on electrical work.  I think this year I'll cut holes that will accommodate a fan, but just screen them for now and monitor the temperature inside.  If I find it getting much above 90 degrees F, I may just prop open the door, or I'll install the fan and appropriate wiring.

Closing some loops

Now, I recognize there are some components of this project that aren't entirely sustainable.  As of 2009, it was generally held that 5% of the global carbon footprint resulted from the concrete industry.  Had I spent more time in the research phase on this component, I might have purchased a green concrete mix, composed of 50% recycled material, including fly ash, which would have reduced my greenhouse's carbon footprint.  Whether it's carried by the local building supply stores is a moot point now.  Further, I might have harvested readily abundant stamp sand, an ugly remnant of the mining industry in the Keweenaw, if I had a pickup truck or could borrow one.  I'll own up to my shortcuts, though, and hope that the carbon expenditure in the concrete is balanced by the carbon savings in growing my own food vs. having it shipped from the tropics.

Another concern is the use of pressure-treated lumber for the frame.  There are a number of human and environmental health concerns associated with its use, primarily regarding leaching of arsenic either directly from the structure to soil, air, etc. while the structure stands, but particularly when the lumber is discarded.  The previous link provides a green alternative treated lumber, in Denver.  Again, I'm not terribly excited about having lumber shipped halfway across the country.  There's the option of reused or locally harvested lumber, specifically cedar, which is naturally rot resistant.  I'll be frank that I simply went to the lumber yard and paid for convenience.  I'm also not exactly wealthy, and cedar's a bit pricey compared to pressure-treated pine.  Again, now that I have the material, I'm doing the research for better options.  On my next project, I'll be making greater efforts to find more local and ecologically sustainable lumber and concrete options.

What's the score here?  What's next?

It's now time for action.  It seems we've seen the last of the cold weather, though I should know better than to say that out loud or put it in writing.  Regardless, the forecast calls for 50s this week, and it's time to start cutting and hammering a frame together.  As the construction begins and progresses, look for posts (shorter ones, I promise) detailing the steps along the way in words and photos.  A good buddy's got a framing nailer that will save me a lot of work and time.  Once I've got the walls framed, I'll be inviting SfES out to the house to anchor the walls, attach windows, and start laying in the bottle walls.

My next post will be more about the garden itself.  I've learned quite a bit in the last 2 years of planting, and I'll be sharing a diagram of the garden plan, along with an approximate timeline for indoor planting, transplanting outside, and planting from seed outside.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The beginning is the end is the beginning

Lily leaves, 2012, Jeremy Sandrik

Transition is the modus operandi of a dynamic universe.  The snow has melted after what's been a mild winter in U.P. reckoning.  Lilies, daffodils, irises, chives, sage, oregano, and lavender are all putting out their spring vegetation in my little corner of the universe.  The lilacs are budding.  And I, I am writing again.

This particular blog has two primary foci for the immediate term:  the veggie/herb garden and her companion, the DIY garbage greenhouse.  A little under a year ago, I sat down with Ric Loduha and Barbara Hardy at the Sustainable Keweenaw Resource Center, and had a chat about sustainability generally, and about the SKRC's role specifically.  I'd intended on writing up a piece to spotlight their work and how it connects with circles upon circles in the local and global community for a blog that never got off the ground.  In thinking about framing the piece, it occurred to me that my relationship to SKRC and sustainability was that of an admiring spectator.  I felt at the time, and still do, that I wanted to do something first, put my money where my mouth was, so to speak.  One doesn't simply write about sustainability and think he's contributing something worthwhile.  One does sustainability and shares the results.  I wanted a project.

I'd already been gardening my small plot, but was a bit disappointed when roughly 95% of my tomatoes were green, and peppers were few and far between at the end of the 2011 season.  Thus, the desire for a greenhouse to extend the season was born.  The blogosphere is rife with examples of greenhouses made entirely or primarily of repurposed materials.  In subsequent posts here, I'll share some examples that inspired me, and some of the tools and resources I've used to inform my design.  As an educator, I'm convinced that nothing I know or do really matters until I've passed on that knowledge.

As I said, I'll also be sharing about the garden itself:  my timeline for planting (already underway), intended layout, maintenance, harvest, preservation, etc.  Make no mistake; I am not a master gardener, by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't pretend to be so.  There's a lifetime's worth of learning ahead of me, but I can still teach what I've learned along the way.

In addition to the what and how of these two particular projects (the nuts and bolts), I want to dedicate some effort to providing a why, the motivation for a simpler, dirtier, more productive, less consuming lifestyle.  The garden and greenhouse don't exist in a vacuum.  They're situated in a local community, and embedded in a larger national and global political, economic, and ecological superorganism.  Our species, and others, face unprecedented challenges moving forward.  However, our species is uniquely gifted (or cursed) to impact the world well beyond the seventh generation.  I firmly believe the decisions I make in my own backyard not only radiate outward to impact others in my lifetime, but forward to impact others I'll never meet.  In talking about the more big picture stuff, I'd like to share inspiration I've received from people in and around town, as well as writers, thinkers, and doers all over the globe that I feel are working toward common goals.

I'll admit that I'm a bit scattered.  I like to shoot photos, and I make a little money as a chemistry tutor.  Occasionally, I make t-shirts with silly or inspiring phrases.  While I want to keep this blog fairly focused on thoughts and projects closely related to gardening, I'll be using it as a hub for various activities and interests, with spokes radiating outward to other web presences.  As of now, everything's under construction, but keep an eye out.

Also, while much of what I write about is widely applicable, there's going to be some local flavor here.  For instance, when referencing books, I'm going to provide a link to its record at Portage Lake District Library where possible, as opposed to Amazon's sales page.

I'll close this with an anecdote and challenge from a talk I attended this week.  On Monday of this week, Alexa Bradley of On the Commons led a discussion, hosted by Michigan Tech's Students for Environmental Sustainability, focused on the Great Lakes Watershed and the application of commons principles to the sustainable management of this most precious resource in our backyard.  She issued a challenge to all in attendance with the question, "How will you activate a sense of commons?"  I'd extend that question a bit.  How will you activate a sense of communion with and stewardship of this sacred planet, the only one we have?  For my part, the contents of this blog will be an attempt to answer that question for myself, and an invitation to you to explore these ideas together in the comments and elsewhere.  Thanks for reading.