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Answers to your questions about gardening, energy, homesteading and other sustainable living topics.

How to Provide Dog Allergy Relief and Soothe Dry Skin

Ask Our Experts

Recently, my dog’s nighttime scratching has been keeping both of us awake. Her fur seems dry, and she also seems to be shedding more than usual. What can I do to help her?

Dogs itch for many reasons, and sometimes for no reason. But when a dog is incessantly licking, scratching, biting, and chewing to the point of wounding itself, then scratching can be a symptom of an underlying pathology.

Dog Pruritus

The medical term for scratching related to excessive itching is “pruritus.” This is the second most common reason people take their dogs to the vet (gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, top the list). The causes of pruritus can be quite complex, but dogs itch for two main reasons. The first has to do with the condition of the skin itself: Is it infected? Is it too oily? Is it too dry? Of these three, dry skin is a frequent occurrence. The second major cause of pruritus is allergies.

If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize. When you part your dog’s hair, you’ll see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough. The slightest stimulation of the skin — your gentlest touch — can provoke your dog to scratch violently.

Dry skin can be influenced not only by environmental factors, but also by diet. Some commercial pet foods process out the good oils that contribute to healthy skin and a lustrous haircoat. Dry dog foods have an even more dehydrating effect, and they also increase thirst — but increased water intake only partially compensates for the drying nature of these diets. If you must feed dry dog food, consider adding digestive enzymes to your dog’s meals because enzymes improve the release of nutrients. Beneficial probiotic bacteria also assist in the digestive process. A healthy digestive system absorbs fluids more readily from food, thus improving hydration and increasing the moisture levels of the skin and haircoat.

Dog Allergies

If your dog is suffering from allergies, its skin may be dry and greasy, and you’ll notice frequent scratching, licking, or chewing. Veterinarians are seeing significantly more cases of allergic dogs than they have in the past; many veterinarians believe that we’re experiencing an allergy epidemic. While the reasons for this epidemic are uncertain, some of the causes put forth include aggressive vaccination protocols, poor breeding practices, and the feeding of processed pet foods.

Whatever the cause, providing your dog allergy relief may prove difficult. In the worst cases, afflicted dogs require strong pharmaceuticals just to get some relief. Though allergies are rarely cured, early identification and intervention can keep them under control, and in some cases, can substantially diminish them.

Clinical research has shown that one important way to reduce the likelihood that dogs will develop allergies is to give them high-potency cultures of beneficial probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus, when they’re very young. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive, absolutely safe to use, and can save both dog and owner tons of grief — and visits to the vet — later in life.

Regardless of age, many dogs’ allergies are controlled by improving the quality of their diet, such as giving them high-potency acidophilus cultures, high doses of fish oils, and freshly milled flax seed. In some cases, you may want to give them antihistamines, too. It can take up to three months for this regimen to take effect.

Soothing Your Dog’s Dry Skin

Here are various ways to help improve your dog’s dry skin:

• When your dog needs a bath, try using plain water and a good, non-drying solvent. If you must use shampoo, use a moisturizing type with humectants, and follow up with a moisturizing conditioner. Avoid blow dryers.

• If you have your dog groomed, ask the groomer to turn down the blow dryer’s heat.

• Feed moist dog food.

• Add digestive enzymes to every meal (probiotic bacteria, 2 to 10 billion CFUs per day).

• Provide fresh, filtered drinking water.

• Add fresh oils and other supplements to meals: Flax seed oil (1⁄2 teaspoon of oil per 15 pounds of body weight, twice daily) or freshly milled flax seeds (11⁄2 teaspoons per 15 pounds of weight, twice daily); EPA/DHA from fish oil or algae (5 to 20 milligrams of EPA per pound of body weight, once daily); lecithin granules (1⁄4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon per meal); nutritional yeast (1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon per meal) or hypoallergenic B complex (10 to 50 milligrams, twice daily); kelp powder (1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon with each meal); spirulina (500 to 1,000 milligrams, twice daily with meals); alfalfa, nettles, or horsetail (dried or powdered, 1⁄4 to 1 teaspoon of individual herb or a mixture).

Amount of Salt to Use for Fermentation

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I want to start fermenting my harvests. How much salt should I use to make sure my fermented vegetables are safe to eat? And what’s the best container to use for fermentation projects?

Traditionally, vegetables have been fermented with lots of salt. In addition to pulling water from vegetables, salt hardens pectins in vegetables, both rendering them crunchier and discouraging the growth of bacteria other than lactobacilli. By inhibiting competing bacteria, salt enables the vegetables to ferment and keep for longer periods of time. Because preservation has historically been one of the important motivations for fermentation, ferments have tended to be quite salty. But for health-conscious people interested primarily in flavor and nutrition, less salt can be better. Salt lightly, to taste. Adding salt is easier than taking it away, but if you oversalt, you can dilute by adding water or more vegetables. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of vegetables. More salt will slow the fermentation process; less (or none) will speed it up. Ferments with less salt may be more prone to surface molds. You can leave out the salt or use various mineral-rich substitutes, such as celery juice (my favorite salt-free variation) or seaweed. Just be sure the vegetables are submerged in the liquid.

Some people promote the idea that salt-free sauerkrauts contain more beneficial organisms than salted krauts. I don’t believe that. The most specific beneficial bacteria we’re after, lactobacilli, are salt-tolerant and abundantly present even in salty krauts. Arguably, salt-free ferments are more biodiverse, but this diversity often results in mushy textures. Though fermenting vegetables without salt is possible, a little salt results in far superior flavor and texture — and just as much beneficial bacteria.

Heavy ceramic cylindrical crocks are the ideal fermentation vessels, though they can be expensive and hard to find. Glass containers work well, especially those with a cylindrical shape or a wide mouth. Crockpots with ceramic interiors make effective fermentation vessels, and you can often find them in thrift stores. In a pinch, you can use plastic, but even food-grade plastics leach toxic chemicals.

The reason a cylindrical shape is desirable is for ease of weighting down the fermenting vegetables to keep them submerged rather than floating to the top. I generally use a plate that just fits inside the vessel, weighed down by a full jug of water, and I drape a cloth over the top of the vessel to keep flies out. I call this the “open-crock” method. Containers in other shapes can work with improvisation, or you can manually press the vegetables to submerge them in the liquid.

Whatever type of vessel you use, pack the vegetables into it with some force (unless they’re whole) to break down cell walls and release juices. I use a blunt wooden tamping tool. You can improvise with a piece of wood or your fist, or you can manually massage and squeeze the vegetables. After the vegetables are weighted down, the salt will continue to pull moisture from the vegetables for many hours. If, by the following day, the vegetables aren’t submerged, add a little water.

“Ferment until ripe,” many recipes advise, but ultimately you’ll have to decide when your fermented vegetables are ripe. Sour flavor — from lactic acid — develops over time. Longer fermentation translates to tangier flavor. This happens more quickly in warm temperatures than in cool ones. If you start your ferment at harvest time, in autumn, as temperatures are dropping, it can ferment for six months or longer. This is one way people survived before refrigeration. Many people, however, prefer the flavor of a mild ferment to that of a strongly acidic one. When you’re first experimenting, taste your ferments early and often. Serve some after three days, then three days later, and again three days after that. Familiarize yourself with the spectrum of flavors that fermentation can create and see what you like.


Adapted from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved; printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Timber Framing Tools: Learn to Use a Chainsaw Mill (Video)

timber framing with chainsaw

I want to try timber framing with logs I mill from my property. Which timber framing tools should I use, and where should I begin?

One of your most affordable options is a chainsaw mill, or a set of rails that attach to a chainsaw bar to help guide it through wood. Chainsaw mills aren’t the most efficient way to mill lumber, but they are portable, reasonably priced, and require only a chainsaw, which you may already own.

To mill timber, begin by felling a tree, preferably one with few branches or defects, measuring at least 16 inches in diameter. Next, remove the limbs with either an axe or a chainsaw, depending on the limbs’ dimensions. Then, cut — or “buck” — the log 6 inches longer than your desired finished length. Because windblown sand and debris collect in bark and can be exceedingly abrasive on a saw blade, consider first de-barking the log with a bark spud.

Careful bucking is key to creating a precise final product. Use a straightedge to ensure your cuts are uniform. If your mill doesn’t come with a straightedge, you can line a ladder up to the log and secure it with screws by drilling holes into every third rung. (Be sure the screws don’t extend too deep, or the chainsaw’s teeth will hit them.) Use a ripping chain on your mill if possible, as it leaves a smoother finish than a standard chain. Adjust the depth, begin cutting, and you’ll soon have usable lumber. Finally, you’ll want to dry the lumber, though the length of drying time will vary depending on its size and the time of year.

When it’s time to frame, create pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. Because this method of joining logs together doesn’t require glue or nails, be precise when measuring and cutting; the more precise the removal of the wood, the snugger the fit. Mark the timbers with a large “X” where you’ll create the holes and shape the tongues. Using either a circular saw or handsaw, cut into the line on the mortises, but leave the lines visible on the tenons. Chip away unwanted wood with a mallet and chisel. On the mortises, you can use a drill bit to speed up the process of removing excess wood. (You can do it all by hand with chisels, but it’s very laborious.) Because all timbers are different, test mortise-and-tenon pairs as you work, or your final project won’t fit together. When you’re ready to assemble, fit the parts together, bore through the joint, and pin it with a hand-hewn dowel. I use ratchet straps to help position and hold large projects, such as cabins, together. Finally, remember: The sharper your tools, the easier your job.

This article and its accompanying videos are presented by the Wranglerstars, who live on the Wranglerstar Homestead and run a YouTube channel about modern homesteading, and who recently authored Modern Homesteading: Rediscovering the American Dream.

Cody, aka Mr. Wranglerstar, uses a metal detector to double-check for nails before cutting wood with a chainsaw. Photo courtesy The Wranglerstars.

State Laws on Pesticide Application Notifications

notice of pesticides

I’d like notifications about when and where pesticides and herbicides have been sprayed in my area. Is there a place where I can look for pesticide warnings or pesticide application signs?

Over the past decade, public concern about the potential hazards associated with chemical lawn care products and services has steadily increased. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 176 million pounds of pesticides are applied on non-agricultural lands per year. Of that, at least 70 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns, including residential lawns, golf courses, and parks. As a result, there is widespread public exposure to pesticides in towns, cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

Notification. Pesticide application notifications allow people to take precautions to avoid direct exposure to hazardous pesticides. Twenty-three states, plus Washington D.C., have adopted laws requiring hired applicators to warn people about lawn, turf, and ornamental pesticide applications by giving prior notification to the owners of abutting properties, posting pesticide application signs, or establishing registries. Because not all U.S. households hire a lawn professional, some states also require homeowners to notify neighboring properties.

State notification laws usually require the listing of which pesticide has been applied, the location of application, and the applicant. Prior notification, if required, generally must be given 24 to 48 hours in advance.

Posting. In the states that require commercial applicators to post notification signs when they apply a pesticide to a lawn, they usually must put the pesticide application sign in a conspicuous point of access to the treated property and leave it in place for 24 hours. Warning signs vary in language but typically state something like, “Lawn Care Application: Keep off the Grass.”

In Connecticut, homeowners and commercial applicators must post notification signs if applications are made within 100 yards of any property line. Wisconsin pesticide retail stores are required to provide warning signs to homeowners when they purchase pesticides.

Registries. In 16 states, a state agency or, in some cases, individual companies, have to establish a pesticide registry where people can sign up for prior notification when a commercial applicator treats a property with a pesticide. In some of those states — including Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania — individuals requesting notification must provide documentation and certification of a physician-diagnosed sensitivity to pesticides. Because these registries only provide prior notice to those who make a request to be notified, the general public is left unaware.

Under the New York state lawn pesticide notification law, counties can adopt specific provisions that require commercial applicators to provide 48 hours prior notice to all neighbors if treatment occurs within 150 feet of abutting property and require homeowners to post notification signs of lawn application.

Learn what your state’s notification regulations are by looking up or contacting your state’s pesticide regulatory agency. For more information on turf and lawn pesticide applications, see Beyond Pesticides’ Lawns and Landscapes page.

Photo by Shutterstock/Suzanne Tucker.

Reader Roundup: DIY Composting Toilets

You don’t need to purchase a commercial composting toilet to safely recycle human waste. A simple setup of a bucket, seat and sawdust — giving these toilets the name “sawdust potties” — will do. We asked members of our Facebook community about their experiences with DIY toilet setups, as well as any building or sanitation codes they had to follow. Their consensus? This natural method is unexpectedly inoffensive, and it saves water to boot. — MOTHER

I’ve lived with a DIY composting toilet for 13 years. I’ve used just about everything as a composting medium, including pine shavings, coco peat, peat moss and sawdust. Sawdust is by far the best. I found that mice loved the coco peat, and I had problems with flies until I started using sawdust. I’ve discovered it’s best to keep as much liquid as possible out of the bucket, so I have a separate urinal. We have no code outside of the city limits here, so we didn’t encounter an inspection problem. — Michael Bandeko

We add a few scoops of coffee grounds to our coir shavings and lime. Flies hate it, and it adds an earthy smell. — Beverly Jones Miller

We use a composting toilet at home as a backup for bad weather. We’re planning on using it exclusively soon, as well as installing a greywater recycling system. Water conservation is a priority, and our city charges way too much for sewage. We also have a composting toilet in our RV to save water. — James Bill Riley

My mother wanted to use a piece of land that she purchased decades ago as a weekend and vacation destination. However, the newer codes in western Pennsylvania prohibited the installation of a composting toilet. The only “sewerage” system allowed was a mounded setup that would have easily cost $20,000. She ended up selling the land because the cost of the system was prohibitive, and the land wasn’t worth keeping without a sewage-disposal setup. — Sarah Menchini Anstey

My husband and I once neglected to empty our composting toilet bucket before we left for two weeks in the middle of summer. Much to our surprise, there was zero smell when we returned. We’ve found that the bucket toilet works great and plan to use one in the off-grid cabin we’re currently building. There are no codes where we are, so we’d rather go this route than shell out thousands to install and maintain a septic field. — Bee Kielb

I loved my DIY composting toilet and can’t wait to have another when we settle into our new home. I thought the smell might be a problem, but it wasn’t with mine. I oiled my wooden toilet with homemade rose oil and was rewarded with no offense to even the most delicate of noses. — Martha Hill

Photo by David Omick

Why and How to Test Soil in Your Garden

Agrlife Extension

Do I need to test my soil before growing a garden? What’s the process?

If your garden has grown productively in the past, you’ll probably have no problem proceeding without testing your soil. But if your plants are struggling, or if you’re starting a new garden, knowing how to test soil may be useful in determining which fertilizers and amendments your plot will require to cultivate healthy crops. By having statistics about your mineral nutrition on hand, you won’t apply too much or too little fertilizer.

A soil test will tell you the soil pH of your garden — that is, the numerical rating of its acidity or alkalinity — which is an important measure of your soil’s makeup. According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, if your test shows a pH level outside a particular plant’s preferred range, you’ll know to expect slowed growth or ill health unless you amend the soil to accommodate the plant. (Learn more about soil pH and testing in Your Garden’s Soil pH Matters.)

A soil test will also clue you in to the levels of available essential nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, manganese, copper and zinc. Depending on where you live, a basic soil evaluation from a state soil-testing lab can cost about $25 — though in some cases it may be free. Check with your local extension service to see whether it offers a soil-testing kit with instructions for taking and submitting a sample. Results from soil-testing laboratories will be more accurate than those from home kits, but if you’re determined to go the DIY route, Missouri extension experts have singled out the $20 LaMotte home soil-testing kit as a trustworthy choice with a high accuracy rating.

Photo courtesy Water and Forage Testing Laboratory/Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service: Contact your local extension office about how to send in a soil sample for pH and nutrient testing before you plant this season.


Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

Tomato Taste Test: Reviewing ‘Indigo Rose’ Tomato Flavor

Tomato Taste

We heard through the tomato vine that ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato flavor was lacking. This newly developed variety is known for its dramatic purple hue and its antioxidant content, especially anthocyanins. Concerned that seed companies may be hyping the flavor, describing the variety as “delectable” and “sparkling,” we asked members of our Facebook community to report their experiences with growing this purple tomato variety. The reviews from this informal tomato taste test were mixed; here’s a sampling.—MOTHER

I grew ‘Indigo Rose’ this year. The fruits are stunning on the plant and vine, but lack the great flavor I was really expecting and looking forward to. — Pilar V. Hari, Washington

I grew them last year. You have to let them really ripen on the vine, until they’re soft to the touch, to get the best taste. Underripe equals less flavor. They get orange on the bottom instead of green, and the purple tops get almost blackish-brown. They worked best in a mixed tomato salad, as the flavor didn’t stand on its own. — Donald J. Shurtleff, Rhode Island

I grew this tomato for two years. I love the taste, which I describe as flowery. It doesn’t taste like most tomatoes; it has its own unique flavor. I liked to eat it right off the vine. I’m not growing it this year because it wasn’t as productive for me as other tomato varieties. If I had more garden space, I would grow several plants. — Frida Morpha, Oregon

I’ve trialed and grown ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes in my home garden. The plant is a fantastic producer in the heat — a big benefit to us Texas gardeners. It continues to set fruit through July and August, which is unheard of here. The fruits are beautiful, and the plants are compact, so they make great edible ornamentals for your foodscape garden. You have to let the fruits ripen on the vine for a long time — but luckily, the fruits hold on long enough to get really ripe without dropping. Is ‘Indigo Rose’ the sweetest tomato? No, it isn’t. But is the flavor good? Yes, and the variety offers a good balance of benefits. — Leslie Halleck, Texas

It’s beautiful on the vine, but its skin is incredibly thick and tannic, lending bitterness to its underwhelming flavor. This isn’t an eat-off-the-vine, stand-alone tomato, but the plants are vigorous and withstand both incredibly dry and wet seasons. — Susan Noblet, Ohio

I was initially intrigued by this little tomato, but, sadly, I’m not impressed. The color of ‘Indigo Rose’ is gorgeous, and it blends nicely in a tomato salad, but the taste is lacking, and the plant isn’t prolific. I’d rather have a ‘Cherokee Purple’ or ‘San Marzano.’ I’ll save seed from my strongest plant in hopes of better luck next year. — Amy Havens Kelly, Illinois

Photo by Shelley Stonebrook