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Steam Canning

Last year, I used a steam canner for preserving produce. I’ve heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t consider steam canners safe, however — is that true?

An atmospheric steam canner is a two-part pot with an inner rack for holding jars and a tall cover that allows a steady stream of steam to flow around the jars. It requires only about 2 quarts of water to process seven 1-quart jars of high-acid foods, whereas a water bath canner requires about 2-1/2 gallons of boiling water to do the same job. A steam canner saves significant time and energy, doesn’t emit as much heat, and requires less heavy lifting compared with using a water bath canner.

For more than a decade, information on the safety of steam canning has remained incomplete. But researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, funded by a grant from the USDA and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), have now concluded that steam canners can be as safe and effective as water bath canners when properly used to preserve acidified or naturally acidic foods. They released the following guidelines for safely operating a steam canner for home food preservation:

1. Only steam can foods high in acid, with a pH of 4.6 or below.

2. Always use a research-tested recipe developed for a water bath canner. Acquire recipes from university extension programs or from the NCHFP ( The booklets that accompany steam canners usually don’t provide safe instructions.

3. Heat jars prior to filling them with food, and minimize the amount of cooling time that passes prior to processing. You can use half-pint, pint or quart jars.

4. Process jars only after the temperature reaches pure steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Wait to start the processing time until the canner has vented and a full, steady column of steam appears. Monitor the temperature with a thermometer.

5. Modify processing time for elevation — in general, add 5 minutes for each 1,000 feet you’re above sea level in elevation.

6. Only use recipes that require 45 minutes of processing time or less, as the amount of water in the canner may not last any longer. Don’t open the canner to refill the water while processing foods.

7. Cool the jars in still, ambient air. Cool jars on a rack or towel away from drafts. Don’t place them in the refrigerator to hasten the process.

Steam canners usually have ribbed bottoms, so they shouldn’t be used on glass-topped stoves. Also, don’t use steam canners in place of pressure canners, which seal in pressurized steam to achieve the high temperatures needed to safely can low-acid vegetables and meats.

Photo by Blackberry Blossom Farm: Follow these guidelines to let off some steam while preserving your bounty.

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website.


I sometimes have trouble sleeping. What herbs would you recommend?

If you struggle with insomnia or just have occasional trouble drifting off, consider trying one of the following herbal sleep aids. (You can also find potent tinctures made from these herbs, and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for consumption.) Some natural sedatives may work better for you than others, so be patient if you don’t feel the effects of the first one you try.

Chamomile. A cup of chamomile tea before bed will help you unwind and fall asleep faster. Steep a heaping tablespoon of the dried flowers in boiling water.

Hops. Although this natural sleep aid is a component of beer, tossing back a glass of beer before bed won’t have the same effect as drinking a tea made from 1 to 2 teaspoons of hops flowers (known as “strobophiles”), which will often ease you into a deep, restful sleep. The scent is soothing, too. Hops work well on their own, but paired with chamomile and lavender, they make a particularly slumber-inducing herbal sachet to tuck into your pillow.

Valerian. This plant is a well-researched sedative. In a Swedish study of valerian’s tranquilizing effects on those with insomnia, almost 90 percent of participants said this herb helped them fall asleep. Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried valerian root to make a tea.

California poppy. Preliminary studies confirm that the California poppy has mild sedative and anti-anxiety effects, making it a good slumber-inducer. Although it is a relative of the opium poppy, the California poppy doesn’t contain opiates, so using it won’t cause dependence problems. Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried aerial parts of the plant in boiling water to make a relaxing tea.


Backyard Chickens

Does your city have a ban on keeping backyard chickens? We asked our Facebook community for tips on how to approach a city council to revise chicken ordinances. Here’s how some of them took their towns to task.

We changed the chicken ordinance in my city by starting a petition and getting thousands of signatures, and then presenting the petition along with our request to our city council at a regular meeting. We then met with each council member individually and worked with the city to develop the ordinances for keeping hens and bees. — Jennifer Alley Gron

Does your municipality have an Environmental Advisory Council (EAC)? If not, consider starting one, have it propose an update to your ordinances to allow chickens, and then present your proposal to the city council. I’m on my city’s EAC, and we recently completed that process. Our council voted on our proposal and it passed unanimously, so we’re now able to keep backyard chickens. — Jim Keller

Our county seat just went through this. Several interested families put together a petition and took it to events — such as the county fair and poultry shows — to begin drumming up support. The group then approached one of the city council members — one who they thought would be helpful in the matter — and got guidance. Eventually, the topic was included on the agenda for a city council meeting, and the group presented the petition and other information on the benefits of keeping backyard chickens. Unfortunately, the city council voted against the revision, but the amount of support the petition received shows that at least some community members are interested in change. Do any other communities in your area allow chickens? See whether you can glean any information from them. Good luck! — Ann Marie Fantz

The best thing to do when working with any city board on any subject is to come forward with as much information as possible. The less work they have to do to follow up when writing the revised ordinance, the more likely they will be to move forward with it. — Shana Donner

It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. As long as your neighbors don’t complain, live your life! — Redbeard Welder

We strongly believe that cities should permit residents to keep a few hens within city limits, and we understand that many of you are working to change local laws so you can keep chickens legally. We’ve developed a statement in support of changing chicken ordinances. Feel free to use or adapt this statement if you’re working to get an ordinance passed to allow chickens in your city. Please keep us posted on how your efforts turn out. You can find our contact information in the box above. May the flock be with you! — MOTHER

Photo by Williams-Sonoma: Forbidden flocks? If local laws deny your right to keep backyard chickens, work to change them!


What are the different methods and impacts of pruning tomato plants?

Side shoots, or “suckers,” are additional fruiting stems that emerge on tomato plants at the junctions of the main stems and leaf stems. Some folks recommend that gardeners prune tomato plants by removing all tomato suckers; I disagree. Contrary to what many think, suckers don’t sap energy from the main tomato plant, and allowing them to develop will not delay fruiting or ripening of any tomatoes from the main stem. Judicious removal of some suckers, however, will lead to more controlled growth and make supporting the plant easier, especially with an indeterminate variety.

Tomato Growing in a Jar 

Essentially, suckers are the tomato plant’s way of passing on its genetic heritage by producing as many seeds as possible: More branching leads to more flowers, which lead to more tomatoes, which lead to more seeds, which, to a plant, mean survival.

Removal of suckers could have implications for overall yields. Each sucker allowed to grow will provide additional flower clusters, and hence create additional chances for fruit set. Sometimes during the season, the majority of the flower clusters on a tomato plant’s main stem will open when the temperature or humidity isn’t suitable for pollination, which can result in blossom drop. If you’ve pruned tomato plants by removing all suckers, then the plant will bear only a handful of fruit, with no method available for the plant to produce additional flowers after the hot weather has passed. If suckers would’ve been maintained, the number of flower clusters would’ve increased, and flowers on those additional growing shoots likely would’ve opened later under more suitable conditions, thus increasing the yield of the plant.

Tomato suckers that are allowed to grow will also furnish additional foliage cover. In climates where searing sun regularly beats down on exposed, developing tomatoes, sunscald poses a definite concern. Because direct sun isn’t needed to promote ripening, the shade cover provided by the suckers’ foliage is beneficial.

Tomato Plants 

Ideal management of suckers is somewhat dependent on the type of tomato. Determinate tomato varieties grow to a genetically predetermined height and width, and then produce flowers at the ends of their branches. In a sense, they are “self-pruning,” and any removal of suckers would reduce the potential yield of the plant. An indeterminate tomato plant, however, extends its main growing stem indefinitely and will generate suckers at each point of a leaf stem attachment. Indeterminate tomato plants can quickly grow out of control because the suckers themselves go on to produce suckers, so a plant can become dense and complex by midseason.

Skillful “topping” of fruiting tomato branches and stems at particular heights is a way of controlling growth. Because more flowers form than will pollinate and ripen before the end of the season, topping will also ensure that a plant doesn’t put energy into developing tomatoes that will never get a chance to ripen properly. Removing the top of the plant is also an excellent way to prevent plants from becoming so top-heavy that they topple in storms or develop kinks in their branches.

An easy way for gardeners with long seasons to extend the harvest even further and put removed suckers to good use is to cut and root some of the suckers. Suckers root easily and can be planted in early summer. They will yield tomatoes that are clones of those of the plants they were taken from.

To do this, cut a 6-inch-long sucker from one of your healthy plants and put it in a glass of water. After it has a nice set of new roots, pot it up in fresh potting mix and allow it to adjust in a shaded location for a few weeks before setting it into its final digs. Some gardeners have found that suckers will root directly in the garden if placed in a shaded area. Keeping the rooting suckers out of direct sun is important. Typically, a tomato sucker will root and begin to show renewed growth in a few weeks at most. Often, a sucker planted in damp soil will wilt just a bit until new roots begin to grow.

Adapted from Epic Tomatoes, Storey Publishing, 2014.

(Top) Photo by Stephen L. Garrett: Put tomato shoots to good use by growing them into more plants.

(Bottom) Photo by Stephen L. Garrett: Suckers left alone won’t sap life from tomato plants, so you don't have to remove them all.



I’d like to start making my own simple insecticides. Which types of homemade garden sprays are actually effective?

Before taking the time to make an insecticide, step back and ask yourself the following questions.

Have you correctly identified the problem? Gardeners can easily mistake injury caused by disease or extreme weather for pest damage. The choice of insecticide, if one is needed, depends on confirming the damage was indeed caused by a pest, and then identifying the pestilent perpetrator.

Are you sure the problem is getting worse? Existing damage won’t disappear, but if new leaves are unafflicted, you likely don’t need to spray. Similarly, if the plant is still growing and producing despite cosmetic blemishes, then taking steps to boost plant growth is a better option than attacking pests.

Do you know which beneficial insects to expect and how to identify them? These advantageous insects are usually present but difficult to see; eggs and larvae are tiny and don’t look anything like adult insects. You want to ensure that, if you do spray, you won’t harm beneficials’ populations. Also, the beneficials may handle the pests for you if given the opportunity and time.

Will other pest control methods work? It depends on the pest, but barriers, traps and other non-pesticidal methods can often perform better than sprays.

If your crops do indeed require an insecticide, the two homemade sprays I recommend are plain water and diluted soap. Strong sprays of water will control aphids, pear and rose sawflies, spider mites, and thrips. For aphids, spray at least twice, waiting two to three days between each spraying. Learn how to create a custom watering wand for this method of organic pest control.

Soap sprays are effective on leaf-eating insects, sucking insects and mites, but only if the spray comes in direct contact with the pests. Use only pure soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, and not laundry or dish “soaps,” which are actually detergents that contain perfumes and other ingredients that can damage plants. Soap solutions can burn or even kill plants if they aren’t sufficiently diluted. Include a maximum of 3 tablespoons of soap per gallon of water. You can also purchase a product that’s specifically formulated to kill bugs without burning plants, such as Safer’s Insecticidal Soap concentrate.

Homemade garden sprays that contain hot peppers or aromatic herbs are gratifying to concoct, but they’ll most likely have little effect on insects — it’s the soap typically added to these mixtures that actually works.

No matter which spray you make or choose, bear in mind that if it’s effective on pests, it will also kill beneficial insects and other non-target organisms.


Chicken Watering Nipples 

I’m trying to figure out how to keep my chickens’ water clean. What’s a simple, inexpensive solution?

Consider using watering nipples. These nifty little devices screw into holes drilled into 5-gallon buckets or other plastic containers or pipes.

The nipples release droplets of water when the birds peck at them. The vertical version must be installed into the base of a bucket or pipe, and the bucket must be hung so that the birds can reach the nipples. Horizontal side-mount nipples, on the other hand, can be mounted onto the side of a bucket, and thus reportedly waste less water than the vertical style.

Either of these low-cost gadgets ($8.99 for five horizontal nipples on Amazon) will keep your birds’ water much cleaner than conventional watering systems.

Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one of North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years. Connect with her on .



I’m trying to garden organically, but I’m concerned about pesticide drift. How can I tell whether drift is affecting my property, and what can I do about it?

Pesticides do indeed “drift” and damage plants growing in neighboring areas. If the drifting chemical is an herbicide, then you may notice damage to plants. Loss of
foliage, yellowing vegetation at the wrong time of year, or damage occurring only on certain portions of plant leaves may indicate herbicide drift. Other symptoms of injury may include twisted leaves or downward-cupped leaves. However, drift from other types of pesticides may be difficult to detect. In some states, the department of agriculture will test crops for drift damage. Laboratory analysis can be costly, and it will not reveal who’s responsible for the drift.

Pesticide drift also poses a threat to human health. Symptoms of acute exposure range from headaches to difficulty breathing to skin irritation. Exposure to some pesticides is also associated with long-term negative effects.

If you know you’ve been exposed to pesticide drift and are concerned about your health, you may want to seek medical advice. Document the problem, if possible. Then, file a report with both the National Pesticide Information Center and the lead pesticide or public health agency in your state, and press for an immediate investigation, including sampling for residues.

Pesticide drift is illegal in most states, but proving who broke the law can be difficult. To inquire about what pesticide was sprayed — and by whom — contact your state pesticide regulatory agency. Join or start a community group (formal or informal) to address pesticide drift. (Get started by networking with people in your area on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS state-specific Facebook pages — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)

Scientists with the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) have been working with communities across the country to implement an easy-to-use, scientifically rigorous tool called the “Drift Catcher” for monitoring airborne pesticides. Contact PAN to learn more about this community air-monitoring device. The Drift Catcher is modeled after technology used by the California Air Resources Board to monitor the air for pesticides. Farmers, teachers and homeowners have used the Drift Catcher to document the presence of pesticides near their farms, schools and homes, and have then wielded the data to demand policy changes.

PAN is part of an international network working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives. For more about drift and how to detect it, go to the Pesticide Action Network’s website.

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