A strong and affordable backyard greenhouse

In the rainy fall weather of the Canadian Pacific southwest, plants like tomatoes and cucumbers can easily develop blights and mildews before the fruit is ripe. If you wander the back alleys of the once-Italian neighbourhood of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, you will see many elderly gardeners shelter their tomatoes with overhangs of plastic sheeting.

But we wanted a full greenhouse to start seedlings in and to hold lettuce through the winter in addition to providing the shelter for heat-loving crops like melon and tomato. I built this greenhouse for under CA$500, and it has withstood many fierce coastal windstorms with ease.

We had made small shelters with PVC pipe, and found the plastic pipe was too brittle. An all-wood frame seemed too finicky and would require extensive joinery or a profusion of gussets. So I decided to frame the house with Electrical Metallic Tubing—EMT—or, plain electrical conduit.

I chose a “house” shape as being an easy shape to make out of conduit—unlike arches with long and consistent curves, the pipes have a simple 45° bend. The peak roof also sheds what little snow we get here on the coast, and has adequate headspace for growing vine crops. I also designed this with an eye to using fairly simple techniques so those with a smaller workshop than I have could still create a sturdy and effective greenhouse.

Our greenhouse is 20′ long, and about 7’4″ wide. We wanted to cover two of our garden rows with a walkway up the middle, but the size is somewhat flexible if your rows are wider or narrower. At this width, our house is almost exactly 9′ high at the peak.

The idea of the greenhouse needing to match the garden row widths could also be seen as an expression of one of my charming manias—sometimes I get an idea in my head and I can’t get it out. In this case, I was interested in Eliot Coleman’s idea of moveable greenhouses, and so I built this so four average people could pick this greenhouse up and carry it to a different spot in the garden.

  • 16 pieces of ¾” EMT, standard 10′ lengths
  • 8 ¾” 90°EMT elbows
  • 15 feet of ⅝” square steel rod
  • 4 lengths of 10′ 2×8
  • 40′ of 1×8 in whatever lengths you like.
  • plywood scraps
  • 50 ¼” x 3″ galvanized carriage bolts, with 50 washers and nuts
  • 3 ten foot long pieces of ½” rebar, cut into thirds.

You will also need 2 10′ 2×6, and eight to ten 8′ 2x6s.

I have used fir to make many outdoor things—rabbit runs, pea trellises, tomato stakes, and this greenhouse. I find that as long as the wood is not buried I get good life without needing expensive cedar or chemical-soaked pressure-treated wood.

I bought plastic greenhouse sheet at our local agricultural supply, but I am sure you can order it online as well. UV in sunlight degrades plastic and reduces the amount of light that passes through the sheeting dramatically. Common hardware store plastic should be replaced after two years, while greenhouse cover will last five.

For tools I used a handsome measuring tape, an impact driver, a circular saw, a speed square, a staple gun and a hand or bench grinder. You also need a drill and a drill press if you have one. Also very nice to have are a chop saw, table saw, and a pneumatic stapler. Almost mandatory to have is a suitably sized EMT bender; I found one for ¾” tubing on Craigslist for $30. You might be able to borrow one, or rent one. You can also find solid curves out in the world—I have bent steel around parking bollards and concrete barriers…but that is definitely slower and more prone to kinking the tubing.

Before we begin, here is one more picture that contributes nothing to this instructional, but shows off how pretty Swedish Red Peas are—with the greenhouse in the background.

Let us begin…

As much as possible, I try to use what I call “reality-based carpentry”—rather than measuring a piece of wood and then using a tape measure to transfer that measurement to another piece of wood, whenever possible just lay the first piece on top of the second piece. This greatly reduces the opportunities to screw up numbers or read things backwards.

Another key concept is the registration face—always measure from the same end. If you measure down one side and back up the other side your errors will compound and you will likely build a trapezoid instead of a rectangle. So pick an end and always measure from that end. For this greenhouse you want to build two mirrored sides—so mirror the damn sides. Lay the 10′ 2x8s down together and mark them Left and Right. Mark the top or the bottoms. If needed, you could lay out your measurements on both boards at the same time, measured from the same end (this is not needed for this project).

Now, rather than trying to measure the diameter of one piece of conduit, lay eight pieces side by side and measure all eight. Subtract that number from 20′, and then divide it by the seven spaces you will have between your eight EMT ribs. You should end up with something like 34″.

34″ felt like a nice space to me. I could have gone with tighter spacing, at the cost of two more lengths of EMT and one more EMT elbow, but this felt fine. I would never go for wider spacing, and if I was in an area that gets heavy snow I would cut that down to 18″ or 24″ between ribs. Check out other greenhouses that have survived good snowfalls in your area.

Cut 14 pieces of 1×8 to that length. These boards are going to be the primary way to make your greenhouse plumb, so make some effort to cut the ends square. A chop saw with a stop block is the ideal tool to make multiple identical pieces, but a carefully wielded speed square will be good enough.

Now start working with one of your 10′ 2x8s. Using one of the ¾” EMT elbows as a spacer, start from your registration end and give one EMT width, then nail or screw one of your 14 1×8 pieces on to the 2×8, aligning them to the top edge. Move your EMT elbow to the end of that piece and butt another piece of 1×8 onto it. Repeat.

Because I have seven spaces between eight ribs, the join between my two 10′ 2x8s falls in the middle of a space. This is great, because a 1×8 piece will span the joint. So, space with your EMT elbow, butt up the 1×8, and screw the first half on. Then slide your next 2×8 underneath and line it up. Make an effort to get a straight top edge along the length of the new 20′ board. You could even stretch a string or a chalkline to ensure your eyes do not deceive you.

Keep screwing or nailing 1×8 pieces on, always spaced with a real piece of EMT, not a tape measure. When you get to the last piece, make sure your last piece of EMT will line up with the end of your 2×8. If it hangs over, trim your 1×8 a little. If against all odds it is too short, then trim your 2×8 a smidgen.

Now you have two long and heavy pieces of wood joined together by short and thin piece of 1×8, which is suboptimal. Gently roll it over and tack on another piece of wood. 1×8 would be okay, but I would suggest you use a scrap of plywood about 7″ by 30 inches and ⅝” or ¾” thick.

Now drill eight ¼”+ holes through the whole sandwich, four on each side of the join. Stay 3″ back from the ends of the wood to avoid splitting. Putting the domed head of carriage bolts on the outside (the 1×8 side), wrench them up tight.

This photo shows one of the notches that will hold an EMT rib.

You should now have a good, strong 20′ long base for one side of your greenhouse. Repeat for the other side, starting from the registration face.

Tangent: As you can sort of see in the pictures, I did this in a slightly different way. I started with 2 12′ and 2 10′ 2x8s and cut a long lap joint. This allowed me to geek out a bit, and also avoid having the plywood scab on the inside. You can see the lap cutting technique between 3:30 and 4:40 in this video.

Leaving these aside, it is time to make the EMT ribs.

I chose to use one 10′ length of EMT for each wall, joined at the peak by a 90° elbow. Elbows are expensive, so I could have chosen to bend the peak myself, but I knew it would be hard to get consistently matching parts when I had to make three bends in one piece of tube. By using the prefabricated elbow, I only need to put one bend in each wall tube. Besides, the elbows are sexy.

You might want to buy yourself an extra piece of EMT for practicing bends. And on that note…I called around and got a shocking range of prices, from about $10 per length of EMT at Home Depot to $3 at an electrical wholesaler. Surprisingly, even at wholesalers there was a range from $3 to $6—twice the price. . I ended up going to two wholesalers to get the best price on elbows at one place and lengths at another.

Now you need to figure out where to bend your walls into the roof. I started this process on graph paper, but then again moved to a full-scale layout. Lay lengths of tube down on the ground. Position your elbow at the peak. Move things back and forth until it seems like things are about right, and don’t rush.

I didn’t want to cut my 10′ lengths—for no other reason than laziness and an aversion to adding another opportunity to make things different lengths. This worked out great with the added length from the elbow and the two-row width we were after. This put the centre of my 45° bend, where the wall becomes the roof, at about 66″.

All of my wall tubes, with the longer wall leg to the right and the roof leg to the left.

Now, I say the centre of the bend, and I am afraid I have bad news.

When you bend metal, it does not turn a 90° corner making a perfect right angle. As the metal bends, it is offset by an amount that relates to the bending tool and also the thickness of the material. This is the bend allowance, the K Factor, or the “takeup”.

So… Have fun!

As I said, go ahead and splurge on an extra length of tubing and practice bending it. Make a mark, line up your bender on the mark, and see what happens. Where does the bend start and where does it end? How much length is taken up in the bend?

Lay your sample back down on your full-scale mock up of pipes and string and whatever, and see how things look.

Once you are happy enough, mark and bend all the tubes. Did I mention reference faces?

You can bend tubing around other things. You would need something about one foot in diameter and very solid. Maybe a tree trunk? But a conduit bender will make it easier to get matching bends and greatly reduces the risk of kinking, so I am going to assume you have begged, borrowed or stolen one.

Now here is a cute trick. My bend was at about 66″ or maybe a little more—so after the bend I had a long leg and a short leg. I laid the long leg on a table with the short leg hanging off, and let gravity plumb my pieces. Now lay your next piece beside it and you will be able to easily see how closely the angle matches.

Reference faces! Pick a tube and make it the master pattern. Adjust all the others to match the master.

Now, while you have all your tubes lying on the table with the short leg hanging off the edge and gravity pulling them all plumb, we will mark drill holes so you can bolt the tubes onto the base boards you made. You don’t want those holes going all willy-nilly.

First measure up from the end of the long leg—I am saying long leg, but that is just for my geometry. What I mean is the end of the tubing that will be touching the ground. Make a mark across each tube at 1 ¼” and 6 ¼” so the holes will land nicely within your 2×8.

With the short leg hanging off the edge, the high point of tubing on the long leg is the centre. Turn your two marks into crosses at the high point. These are your drill spots.

Once I had the spots marked I actually used the same cute trick on my drill press. I set up a support a few feet away so the long leg would be level, and the short leg would hang straight down. This made my drill holes go straight across the centre of the tubing.

If you don’t have a drill press, use a centre-punch to help your bit start, drill a small pilot hole and work your way up to slightly oversized hole for your ¼” bolts. Drill two holes in each rib.

Okay, this next part was my least favourite.

EMT is normally connected with an external clamp the tubing slides inside, tightened with screws. But using these would be bulky and would create unacceptable wear points for the plastic covering. So I researched the inside diameter of the EMT tubing, and found the diagonal measurement of the ⅝” square rod is about the same.

My idea was that I would just grind off a smidgen of the corners and hammer lengths of the rod inside the EMT. This way there would be no clamps but the joint would be reinforced with a long piece of rod.

Great in theory. It turned out that I had to grind a lot, which I tried to compensate for by brute force hammering. Once I finished, I was very pleased with the result, but I was very sweaty and unhappy in the process.

So at least you know that is coming. Take a bit of EMT to your metal supplier and see if you can find something closer in size than I found. This problem is created because the EMT is plus or minus the nominal size, as is the square rod. Perhaps I ended up with EMT on the small side and rod on the large side so the tolerances compounded unpleasantly.

There is also quite a difference in shape between hot-rolled steel and cold-rolled, so check out different materials—I wish you best of luck with that.

Once you have picked your materials, I think it would be a good idea to grind the corners off while the rod is full-length, or maybe cut in half. That just makes it easier to clamp down for safe grinding.

Then use a zip blade in your hand grinder and cut the ⅝” square rod into 16 pieces; they should be around 7″ long.

Using various hammers and rubber or wooden mallets, bash the rod into the EMT wall pieces, and then into an elbow for the peak. For me, I ended up with noodley ribs that are now shaped like a peak house. Keep going until you have ground all the rod and bashed all the ribs together.

I came up with this method to avoid abrading the plastic, but this is by far the worst part of building the greenhouse. If anybody else has found a better approach, I would love to hear it.

Okay. Set one of your base boards roughly where you want it. Slot one of your ribs into the EMT-width space in the board, eyeball it square, and clamp it in place—don’t start with the end ribs. Drill holes through the wood and run carriage bolts through, again with the domed side out where the plastic will lie. A helper to hold the noodley ribs would be quite nice at this stage.

Bring your other base board into roughly the correct position, clamp on the EMT, drill and bolt. Don’t worry about wrenching them too tight at this point. Continue to fit all the ribs.

Adjust the spacing between the base boards so the walls are vertical and cut two 2x4s to that length. Use long screws and toenail these boards across the ends, aligned with the bottom of the 2x8s. This makes a small sill you have to step/trip over, but it is not too bad.

You now have a base wooden rectangle with eight metal ribs—it should look something kind of like a greenhouse. Congratulations! Square it up.

At this stage the ribs were still kind of noodley, as the rods could twist inside the elbows and the wall pieces; so let’s take that noodle out.

I used six 8′ 2×2 to make braces/spaces/hanging poles for the plants. Lay one of your brace boards down on your base board and mark where the ribs actually are. This is important because the ribs can be quite noodley up in the air thanks to the top elbow joints. When you mark the where your ribs are at the bottom you ensure they will stay at the spacing at the top.

Again, we will mirror them, so clamp two braces together, and use a 1″ hole saw or spade bit to drill both pieces at the same time. When you unclamp, you have a half-hole that nicely fits over a rib.

Important! The end rib is going to be infilled with 2×2! You want your brace to be 1 ½” shorter than your base board on each end, so it will butt into the end wall.

Use 1 ½” self-tapping screws to attach the brace to the ribs. If you use six brace pieces as I did, attach one at each end, then span the gap in the middle with the third. Or use two 10′ pieces and scab them together with plywood. I attached my braces so they would be aligned with the centre of my beds. Eyeball the spot, then measure or snap a chalkline to keep it consistent.

In a snowy climate, a ridge pole would be a real good idea. I didn’t think it was necessary for the coast where our snow usually comes in liquid form.

After the top braces are on to space out the ribs, wrench up the bolts at the bottom. Check your base rectangle for square again, then attach diagonal braces to the walls to buttress against the wind. I did not cut notches in the wood for these, just countersunk deep enough to give my self-tapping screws enough length to bite into the conduit and screwed them on.

Now figure out the end walls. Attach 2×2 to the EMT with self-tapping screws. Custom fit in whatever way makes sense, remembering you need a door at one end and an opening window at the other. I think my window should be larger, as it really gets hot in this house.

As you are going, glue and staple ⅜”-ish plywood gussets on to attach all the 2x2s together, to the baseboard, to the 2x4s on the end, and to the top braces. I bought a narrow crown stapler at a price that almost makes it disposable, and I am very pleased that I did. Staples are fantastic for attaching gussets like this, or for building things with chipboard or plywood. You could use screws to hold the gussets until the glue sets, but I would try to borrow or rent a stapler if you can’t find a cheap one.

It is time for a final positioning and squaring to get your greenhouse right where you want it. Then, pound in four pieces of rebar inside each baseboard. I drove them in at opposing 30° angles—the idea is to make it hard for the wind to pick up your greenhouse and blow it away. Pound three 3″ framing nails beside the rod and bend the last bit of the nail over the rebar so the greenhouse is well pinned to the ground.

And when that is all done, you can stretch the plastic—this step really calls for an assistant or two. The professionals use a cool system called wiggle wire that locks the plastic in a channel. It is removable and adjustable and even lets you attach shade cloth as needed, but it is quite pricey. I simply stapled the plastic taut onto a ½” thick lathe and rolled the wood up inside the film a couple of turns, then screwed through the whole thing to attach to the base boards. Make sure you roll to the inside so all the rain sheeting down your greenhouse does not end up rotting your lathe prematurely.

Before you stretch the top cover over onto the end walls, sheet the end walls. I ripped long lathes about 3/16″ thick and stapled through them to hold the plastic sheeting on. Then do the same for one end of the top cover, and, pulling tight!, the other end. This is thirsty work.

Futz around with doors, windows and automatic openers, and you have yourself a fine little greenhouse.

{ 2 comments }

A simple DIY bottle washer

Each year we glean unwanted apples from backyards nearby and crush them into juice with our homemade cider press. This juice is mostly fermented into hard cider—gallons and gallons of hard cider.

When you are drinking 60 to 90 gallons of cider, there are a lot of bottles to rinse so the yeast and other bits don’t dry inside the bottle.

You can buy bottle washers, but they typically are made to screw on to a hose fitting. Indoors, that means a laundry tub, and we don’t have a laundry tub. If you want to attach a bottle washer to your kitchen faucet, you need an adapter and a great deal of patience to not cross the extremely fine threads on the faucet.

This does just not fit in my dishwashing reality.

For years I have dreamed of a built-in bottle washer. I imagine it as a slender tube, kind of like a filtered water tap, but spraying up into the bottle instead of down into the cup.

So far this has stayed in dreamland, but I did make a prototype out of a rubber dishwasher drain fitting, a brass compression fitting, a bit of bent chrome plumbing tube, a bicycle light mounting clamp and a few inches of wire. I crushed the end of the tube into a sort of fan nozzle.

It worked very well to clean bottles, but I never got around to figuring out some sort of cam that would allow me to clamp it onto the faucet so it had a tendency to blow off and spray water for several feet around.

Then, in a late night google-athon I found the missing part for the Mark II Bottle Washer, a very simple and effective design built for less than $10.

The Tapi, a silicone doohickey turns your tap into a drinking fountain. Slide it onto your faucet, pinch the bottom, and water bubbles up for your pleasure.



Or, if you jam a length of 3/8″ chrome toilet supply tube into the upper hole, the water bubbles into your bottle.

I had to do some thinking about nozzles. An actual nozzle, for agriculture or paint or foaming milk would be nice, but how would it attach to the tube?

So I used a triangular file as a mandrel and gently hammered the tubing to that shape, inserting the file further as possible.

I found a scrap of 1/4″ aluminum rod would almost fit inside the triangular tip, so I filed three chamfers on the tip, and cut off a little less than an inch. I gently tapped the aluminum plug into the tubing—tap too far and the plug will fall out the bottom.

So far the plug is staying in place, but I could probably affix it with a bit of silicone or epoxy if I need.

I tried forming the tip of a tube into a square for another jet of water, but aluminum rod I had on hand was too small. If you have a lathe and can mill your rod to a specific diameter that would be fun to try.

{ 2 comments }

The Life and Death of Bun-bun.

There has been some heartfelt times around the urban homestead recently. Our doe rabbit Apple had stopped producing reliable litters of kits, and so for the first time we put one of our breeding rabbits on the dinner table.

I have some precedents in my childhood, particularly when Abby the Goat finally got too old. Abby was a great goat, a good mother, a productive milker, and a lovely person to be around. She was so old, by the time my family killed her, that she was sure to be tough as an old boot, and so we turned every bit of her into Ground Goat. Many the dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce came with a fond remembrance of Abby and a story of living with her.

So, I have some precedent, but I had never killed one of my own breeding animals.

Killing Apple was hard.

We tried a new kill method and that was excellent so Apple truly died as peacefully as you could imagine, literally with a mouthful of clover.

To fill Apple’s spot we bought Lucia, a piebald doe—what the rabbit breeders call a broken colouration.

Lucia came bred, which is maybe good or maybe bad because we still don’t know if our buck Apollo is part of the problem. Lucia is not so used to human contact and charges quite a bit. But she has quickly learned that the green deliciousness we bring is not to be feared.

And then Lucia kindled—a litter of one small kit.

So it begins.

I guess someone who “produces” rabbits would have other litters they could introduce little Bun-bun to, so it would be warmed by the cuddle puddle of cuteness.

Or perhaps someone who produces rabbits would have just snapped Bun-bun’s neck and tossed it on the shit that accumulates under the cages in a production barn.

Carmen brought Bun-bun in at night, and tucked it in a nest of Lucia’s belly hair and straw, so it would survive the chill. In the morning, she took it outside to nurse.

I say it because after several days of this, Bun-bun died, and we never sexed it to know if it was male or female.

We tried to keep it alive, knowing a single kit would usually die. Next time we will try something else.

 

Bun-bun’s death occasions a lot of thought.

There was only one end for Bun-bun, and that was an untimely demise—though untimely is difficult to define, since in the wild Bun-bun may have died at birth or within days. Rabbits have many kits for a reason. If Bun-bun matured enough to venture outside the den there are eagles and hawks, dogs and cats. Foxes? Weasels? Mink? I don’t know. But like I say, rabbits have many kits for a reason.

On our homestead, Bun-bun would have spent four months being moved to fresh grass every day. It would have snacked on blackberry canes and carrot tops, as well as any dandelions we pulled from the garden. Bun-bun would have torn around on those powerful and delicious hind legs, frolicking in sunshine and reclining in rain—droplets beading on its fur.

Would it grow to be piebald like Lucia?

Anyhow. Four months, and then we would have put Bun-bun in our stew pot, probably in the Portuguese style. We would have scraped Bun-bun’s hide and tanned it to gift, or to work into something lovely.

Should I be sad? I am. As Stephen Jenkinson says, “You don’t have to like death, but you do have to befriend it.” I never like it, and I am tearing up and congesting as I read over these words.

Bun-bun would die regardless—by hypothermia or predator or the stew pot or just old age. But I am sad that Bun-bun never knew the taste of fresh clover, or the warmth of sunshine or the joy of leaping.

So, Bun-bun got a tiny shroud of organic cotton. I dug Bun-bun a grave many times deeper than its little body, and laid it carefully on soft sand. Carmen poured it a final meal of milk and sang laments in her ancestor’s language for its short life. I filled the grave in, taking care to pack the soil so Bun-bun would not be dishonoured with soil sinking in an unseemly way. And then we laid rocks in a careful pattern, with big rocks at the cardinal directions and one particular rock in the middle which was just about the same size as Bun-bun itself, though much heavier than that poor, cold little body.

black and white threshold edited

Addendum:

I wrote this post a few months ago, and in our rabbitry some things have changed and some have remained the same.

After Bun-bun died we mated Lucia and Apollo and Lucia bore a litter of six lovely kits. These kits are practically a high-school genetics class, showing the combinations of their black father and piebald mother—one black, one white, three piebald…and one very beautiful light silver.

A couple of weeks after their birth, I found this gorgeous silver bunny dead and stiff out in the run.

So a little more about rabbits…

A few weeks after breeding, we give our doe a nest box and a pile of straw. As she gets close to kindling she begins tearing around with mouthfuls of straw, like a comical moustache. She builds a straw burrow in the box, and as she gets very close to kindling, she pulls the softest hairs from her belly to line the nest. Born blind and hairless but for a light down, this nest keeps the litter warm until they can walk.

The doe will jump into the nest box once or twice a day to nurse the kits. Unfortunately, sometimes a kit will stay latched on the doe’s nipple when she jumps out. Rabbits do not have the instinct to pick the kit up and put it back, so if the kit is too young to find its own way back, it will likely die.

As did this fine silver kit, carried away from the warmth of its litter mates.

As fate would have it, I found it after the Trick or Treaters had all gone home on Hallowe’en.

We were tired, but it was obvious to me that there was no better time to return this little kit to the soil than when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. So I dug another deep grave near the ash Carmen calls her Grandmother Tree. We wrapped the kit in a clean square of organic cotton from an old sheet that has now provided the shroud for several animals. We sang and drank whiskey.

And then, out of the darkness—Christmas Carols.

I guess a group of people had costumed themselves as carollers, and were singing for their candy. It was eerie and wonderful and hair-raising; I feel quite sure that little silver one was carried safely across.

So, there has been more tears than tastiness in our back yard, but that is how it sometimes must be. I have written a bit about this before, and I frequently struggle to put my feelings into words.

I think if we would like to be “sustainable”, if we would like to find our harmonious place in the order of things, we need to spend a lot more time intimate with the life and death of our kin, both human, and more than human. Raising rabbits is not our dominant source of protein, and it likely costs more in feed than it contributes to the grocery budget. But it very much makes me human.

 

 

{ 10 comments }

“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

{ 31 comments }

sauerkrautMaking ‘kraut is incredibly easy to do, and you will be richly rewarded for your few minutes of work. If you have never made sauerkraut before, feel free to skip down to the instructions. This super easy method requires almost no equipment, and eliminates the need for anything expensive like fancy crocks or airlock lids. In fact, you can find the inexpensive jars you need at hardware stores, kitchen shops and thrift stores.

But if you have made sauerkraut before, you—like me—have probably been doing it wrong. I am going to tell you of my journey on the sauerkraut road, complete with all the links you need to truly suck the oxygen out of a dinner party.  Or, you can just trust me and skip to the instructions too. Really, there are 2,500 words between you and the instructions, so feel free to skip. You can always come back later when you want to geek out.

black and white threshold edited

I was not raised with sauerkraut, but I was raised with my mother’s admiration for strong Eastern European women who came to the Okanagan via the prairies. My mother swears that out of the few things these women could bring from the Old Country, they packed their sauerkraut stones. These were stones that were smooth and flattish and round—sized just to fit in a crock to hold the vegetables under the brine.

When I am learning new skills I like to think about how to use less energy, so a big crock of sauerkraut that preserves fall vegetables without boiling water canning or freezing is very attractive. But, not being raised with sauerkraut means I don’t easily incorporate it into my diet. I don’t eat it straight from the jar. Though it is delicious, I seldom make sauerkraut soup.

And so I have always ended up with a lot of ‘kraut that is getting less appetizing—soft and funky smelling. I have canned sauerkraut, but that kills the living probiotics that so many people need.  Indeed, trying to get some probiotic-rich food into Carmen’s digestive tract was part of the motivation to make ‘kraut in the first place.

Making ‘kraut in a crock is also a big hassle, unlike the method I am going to share with you. With a crock, you must keep up with a daily schedule of skimming scum and occasional bits of floating cabbage of the top of your brine. If you go away for a couple of days you can easily return to a thick mat of blue mould, which despite what Sandor Katz says, I find discomfiting.

Fermenting in a crock adds to the burdens of the Small and Delicious Life. I often feel like I have a thousand tiny tasks—jobs that only need a little time, but at the right time—feeding the rabbits, watering the garden, feeding the sourdough starter, skimming the sauerkraut, doing one of the many steps of making a loaf of bread, shepherding some step of cider or beer fermentation, turning the wheels of Brie that are moulding in the cellar. All these little tasks can leave me feeling kind of panicked that I might forget something important.

So finding a new technique that totally eliminates a small, daily task is pretty freaking fantastic. In fact, I honestly think this method is truly transformative. It may not be the Gutenberg printing press, but it is right up there—but I am not quite ready to give you the instructions just yet. First I am going to tell you about an internet wormhole I fell down.

When I say internet wormhole, I usually picture the sort of 1980s computer graphics used to represent black holes—a sort of funnel through the space/time continuum. This wormhole was not at all like that. The sauerkraut wormhole was much more like a hole made by earthworms, sort of damp, dark, twisty, and narrow. And long. I think I crawled through that hole for well over a year, trying to grasp what was being revealed to me.

The first clue was this page on Open and Closed Ferments. This article has everything I love in my gurus: a bit of a mind-boggle, a no-bullshit tone, an attempt to present the full picture, and an honest wish for success regardless of whether you buy their product.

But I got stuck on this article for quite a while. I had no idea there were open or closed ferments. When I first read this I don’t think I had ever made alcohol. I certainly had not looked up the definition of fermentation.

Fermentation in food processing is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desirable. The science of fermentation is also known as zymology or zymurgy.

So fermentation converts sugars to acid or alcohol and gas under anaerobic conditions. There are many strains of bacteria and yeast that create different combinations of acid, alcohol or gas under different conditions, which is how we get the large variety of fermented food and drink.

  • Fermentation converts the carbs in wheat to acid and gas, which gives you the sour in sourdough and the bubbles that leaven the bread. Predigesting the carbs is why many gluten-sensitive people can eat sourdough.
  • Fermentation makes the alcohol and bubbles in our beer and cider. Both beer and cider are flat, not fizzy, after fermentation. Just like wine all the gas escaped through the airlock of the fermenter. To get the bubbles in beer, cider and champagne, a small amount of sugar is added before the bottle is sealed. The yeast eats that sugar and produces a small amount more alcohol and the gas that is now trapped in our carbonated drink.
  • Fermentation makes the acid that turns milk into yogourt.
  • Fermentation helps keep cured sausages safe to eat. When you make salami, you add a bacterial culture and a bit of sugar. The bacteria eat the sugar and produce acid, which drops the pH of the meat below the level needed for pathogenic bacteria to reproduce. So, it is creepy to make cured salami because you have links of raw meat hanging in your kitchen at room temperature for several days, but that creates the acid needed to keep the meat safe over its long curing time.
  • And fermentation makes our pickled cabbage and other vegetables safe to eat. The bacteria present on the foods digest the sugars stored as carbohydrates in the cabbage and convert it to acid and gas. This is the vinegar tang of pickled foods.

So, understanding that would have made my wormhole a lot shorter. It is still interesting to see the definition says fermentation happens under anaerobic conditions—without oxygen. How does that fit with “Open fermenting (where the surface of the fermenting liquid is exposed to the air) is the traditional means of fermenting kraut, pickles, wild yeast, and many other pickled or cured items.”

Well, the traditional method may not be the “best” method, if by best you mean consistent or safe, to reduce food waste and maximize storage. It may be the best method if by best you mean interesting flavours, such as are created in sour beers that are fermented in systems that deliberately maximize the amount of wild yeasts that get blown into the the open vat.

For me, I am interested in consistent and safe. I don’t want to waste hard-grown food, and I don’t want to make my family sick. And, it is a real bonus to reduce the workload.

The next turn in the wormhole was The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation, on Lea Harris’ Nourishing Treasures site. That website is far longer and more informative than this Gilgamesh I am writing, but I still couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what it was telling me. If you have gotten this far, you might enjoy reading it, too.

Fortunately, somewhere in this wormhole I accumulated enough experience making fermented foods that I started to grasp the theory, even without knowing the definition of fermentation. But as is often the way, it wasn’t accumulated knowledge that changed behaviour. It was that I was dissatisfied with the big crock of mouldering old ‘kraut, and with canning ‘kraut and killing its probiotics. I finally had the brain flash that I could eat local food all year ‘round, preserve using no energy, and make small enough batches of ‘kraut that none would go to waste.

I just went to my farmer’s market and bought six cabbages, five of which I put in the root cellar. The sixth I made into ‘kraut, using the method I am going to teach you. A month later, I did another cabbage, and so on. Cabbage keeps very well, and this method worked out just swimmingly.

Did you miss that? I think it is earth-shaking. Unless your family eats great volumes of sauerkraut, stop making big crocks of it. You can store the cabbage in your cellar and always have fresh ‘kraut ready for you.

So, I had my conversion experience but had not yet experienced the miracles. I did not trust Lea, despite her extensive and literally microscopic experiment with different fermentation containers.

So, first I did the lowest-rent version, a mason jar ferment. I made ‘kraut as per usual, and crammed it into a jar, with some sort of weight on top. Every day or so I would slowly loosen the jar ring and vent a little gas out so the jar did not explode.

That worked just fine. Venting the jar was easier than skimming scum, and the ‘kraut was good. But venting the jar was still a thing I had to remember to do, and the consequences of forgetting could be very messy.

Next I drilled a hole in the lid of a mason jar and stuck an airlock from our cider-making into it. Also good ‘kraut, though the airlock is tall, and my homemade lid was sub-par. This is basically what many of the commercial sauerkraut airlock systems are—just a two dollar airlock in a hole drilled in the lid of a jar.

Then I happened to find a thin sheet of silicone rubber at the Japanese Dollar Store; I think it was intended to be a baking mat. I cut a silicone disc slightly smaller than the jar ring, and punched a small hole in the centre of my jar lid with a nail. Then I stuffed the jar full of salted cabbage, weighted it down, screwed the lid and ring on, and simply set my silicone disc on top. Again, great ‘kraut.

Parallel to these various experiments were experiments in weighting the ‘kraut. In my crock I used a glass disc—a microwave turntable platter I found at the thrift shop. In the jars I settled on a leaf of cabbage to hold the shredded ‘kraut down, itself held down by a jam jar, or a half-size jam jar, that was pushed down by the lid of the jar.

I also thought I may have invented a new thing—I tried a ziploc baggie of glass marbles.  You can stuff them into any size or shape of jar. But, I try to avoid plastic near my food, and I could never figure out how to make this awesome. Still, a handful of large marbles, what we called Cobs when I was a kid, might work.

These weights and airlocks were a lot of fiddling. And all this time the solution had been on Lea’s page. So here it is. Here is the secret.

Ferment in Fido Jar.

That is all, you are done, no fiddling. The internet hive mind says you should stick with European quality when you buy jars, no cheap mass-market crap. Even at Euro pricing, a two-litre Fido jar is only ten dollars at my local hardware store, and I regularly see Le Parfait jars in the thrift shop for a couple of bucks. The gasket seal allows gas to vent before the jar breaks.

Furthermore, Lea theorizes the gasket makes life easy in other ways. An airlock keeps the jar at atmospheric pressure. When the pressure inside the jar is greater than the pressure of the atmosphere, it bubbles out and everything is equalized. However, the Fido jar is a little pressurized, which assures oxygen stays out of the jar—really preserving the anaerobic environment.

This means you don’t even need a weight for your ‘kraut—it doesn’t matter if cabbage floats or sticks up out of the brine. Could it get any easier? When using the last of my root-cellared cabbage, which has lost moisture over the winter, I have added brine to make sure there was enough liquid, but even that may have been unnecessary.

sauerkraut scales

Lea’s article on the science behind sauerkraut brings out a very important point: Sauerkraut is fermented by a succession of bacteria. There are three main bacteria that thrive in different conditions over the course of the fermentation. Off the top of my head, those conditions would be acidity, salt concentration, and temperature.

The acid we want to pickle our vegetables is a waste product for the bacteria, they eat the sugars in the vegetables and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide as waste. The first generation of bacteria barely acidify the brine before they are poisoned by their own wastes. The second generation takes over and does the bulk of the acidifying before they too are poisoned by increasing acidity. The third generation finishes the job up by bringing the sauerkraut up to a safe level of about 2.5% acidity.

Accuracy matters because the salt concentration is an important part of making sauerkraut. Too little salt and you may allow spoilage bacteria to proliferate, too much salt and you won’t allow the sauerkraut bacteria to proliferate. If you don’t mix the salt in thoroughly, you can get pink yeast, which while it won’t hurt you, is considered a flaw. Do not used iodized salt, as it can make your brine cloudy. Use pure canning salt or kosher salt.

I am always weighing small amounts of things—hops, priming sugar, pink salt—so I bought a digital scale that is allegedly accurate to one-tenth of a gram. I say allegedly because how would I know? Even the global standard kilogram, which is kept in a triple vacuum, is losing weight.

Plus, this scale only costs seven dollars on eBay. To make myself feel better, I also bought a calibration weight on eBay. Using a scale is important because the grain size and grain shape of salt can really change how much a teaspoon of each brand of salt weighs. So, spend ten bucks and get a scale and weight.

But, for you Canadians who want to use a measuring spoon, one level teaspoon of Windsor Coarse Salt for Canning and Pickling weighs 5.5 grams. One level teaspoon of Diamond Crystal Pure and Natural Kosher Salt weighs 3.1 grams. The difference in weight between those two teaspoons of salt is why you should buy a scale.

So here we go.

black and white threshold edited

How to make sauerkraut the easiest and cheapest way possible.

sauerkraut prep

I use the two litre Fido jar. This costs about ten dollars new.

I find that a medium cabbage, about 7” in diameter, weighs about one kilogram and nicely fills a two litre jar.

Weigh your cabbage, on your kitchen scale or at the store when you buy it.

Now weigh out 2.5% of the cabbage weight in salt. So, if your cabbage is one kilogram, you need 25 grams of salt.

Cut the cabbage in half, then into quarters. Please be very careful about this. The worst knife injury I have ever seen was a chef slicing a giant block of cheese. His hand slid down the back of the knife and over the point of the blade, cutting him very, very badly.

Cut the core out of each quarter. You can grate this and add it to the ‘kraut.

Slice one quarter of the cabbage into long ribbons. I use an OXO Mandoline I got on Craigslist for $20, set for ⅛” thick. Traditional cabbage slicers are big wooden affairs with huge blades. Different people like different thicknesses.

In a large bowl, sprinkle one quarter of your salt on the sliced quarter cabbage. Toss the cabbage and make some effort to get the salt evenly distributed in order to avoid the pink yeast. Massage the salted cabbage enthusiastically to begin bringing the juice out.

Stuff the salted cabbage in the Fido jar and tamp it down. I use a wooden stomper from my food mill. You could use a rolling pin, or a potato masher, or your fists. You want it to be very, very tightly packed. This helps all the cabbage get in the jar and starts releasing juices from cabbage.

A delicious option is to thinly slice one garlic clove and scatter it over the surface of the cabbage.

Repeat with the other three quarters—slice, toss with one-quarter of the salt, pack tightly in the jar and sprinkle with a clove of garlic or other spices.

This should take you twenty minutes or so. Then you just close the lid on the Fido jar and clean your knife.

Now, theoretically, you do not need to open the jar for the next six to eight weeks. However, over the next 24 hours I tamp the cabbage a few more times to help it release juices. If the brine has not covered the cabbage by the next day, mix a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water until dissolved and add enough to get an inch or so over your cabbage.

Put the jar in a cupboard in your kitchen so light does not degrade the nutrients. Do not put your ‘kraut in a cool place, the succession of bacteria need to be warm. In the first week the gas being generated from fermentation will vent out the Fido gasket and can bring some brine with it. I put my jar in a dish to catch any overflow.

Now wait for four to eight weeks. In our mild climate, we like about six weeks. Once you have opened your jar of delicious sauerkraut, store it in the refrigerator.

I am sure your first bites will thoroughly convert you to this easy and effective method. Go ahead and buy another jar or two, and check out the Fido Fermentation facebook page for more ideas. Remember, Fido jars hold more pressure than airlock fermenting systems, so steer clear of those unless you want to fiddle with weights to hold your vegetables under the brine. Masontops has a kickstarter up for a one-piece vented silicone lid for canning jars. They say, like Fido jars, the Pickle Pipe holds some pressure, so I will be watching this with great interest.

Kimchi anyone? Sauerruben?

{ 11 comments }