Ask Our Experts

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

Add to My MSN

5/13/2015

Homemade Insecticides 

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.



4/8/2015

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 .



4/1/2015

Drift Catcher 

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.



3/25/2015

I’ve read that most people don’t get enough vitamin D. How much do we really need, and what are the best sources of vitamin D?

A 2009 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 75 percent of adolescents and adults in the United States have insufficient levels of “the sunshine vitamin” in their blood. Our bodies convert the sun’s ultraviolet rays to vitamin D, but because many of us work mostly indoors — and often apply sunscreen when we do spend prolonged time outside — our exposure to vitamin D-producing rays is low.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine increased its official recommended daily dietary allowance for vitamin D from 200 international units (IU) to 600 IU. Some experts, however, think our daily intake should be much higher. The Vitamin D Council recommends 5,000 IU per day for adults — more than eight times higher than the official recommended daily allowance.

So why do we need this nutrient? Vitamin D is commonly associated with bone health because it helps the gut absorb calcium, which is the building block for strong bones. Vitamin D also activates genes that regulate the immune system, and a growing body of research suggests this important nutrient plays a role in the prevention of colon, prostate and breast cancers; high blood pressure; and diabetes. Seasonal Affective Disorder — which often strikes during winter, the darkest time of the year — has also been linked to low levels of vitamin D.

Most people are able to meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight. The amount of time needed in the sun varies greatly from person to person, and the variables include skin type, the amount of skin exposed, your age, the time of day and the season. Aim to find a balance between soaking up vitamin D-rich rays and protecting your skin from sun damage.

Stacked up against the sun’s rays, most foods aren’t rich sources of vitamin D — but mushrooms are an exception. When exposed to sunlight for a day or two (but no longer), their vitamin D levels soar from about 100 IU per 100 grams up to an incredible 46,000 IU per 100 grams! So, before you cook your mushrooms, give them their day in the sun. You can also take a cue from the mushroom experts at Fungi Perfecti and make a mushroom-based “sunshine” pill at home.

If you can’t spend time outside and don’t eat mushrooms, consider a vitamin D supplement. Two types of vitamin D supplements are available over the counter: D3 and D2. The D3 supplements are superior, because our bodies naturally produce D3 and are more receptive to absorbing and retaining it.


Hannah Kincaid is an Assistant Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She is an enthusiastic student of herbal medicine, organic gardening and yoga. You can find Hannah on .



3/18/2015

Grass Clippings Compost 

I’ve heard that compost accelerators speed up composting and result in better compost. Are these claims true?

Most independent studies have concluded that those products aren’t worth the expense. The three types of commercially marketed compost “accelerators” and “activators” are based on microorganisms, nitrogen, or herbs prescribed for biodynamic composting, and you can easily add any of those substances to your compost without spending money on a store-bought product. Dead plants, weeds, kitchen scraps and the other biodegradable wastes that go into home compost introduce all the microorganisms needed for composting to proceed. If you like the idea of adding extra microbes to keep things moving swiftly, simply add a few shovelfuls of mature compost each time you start a new heap or batch.

When a gardener adds nitrogen to a lazy compost pile, the microbes take off, and their resulting population boom produces heat, which can help an almost-finished batch to finish faster. Free or cheap nitrogen sources, such as grass clippings, poultry manure or alfalfa meal, will push a slow heap into high gear as effectively as products sold as compost activators would—and will be much less expensive, to boot.

As for herbal additions, some gardeners grow comfrey or stinging nettle to feed to their compost as “activators.”


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 or finding her on .



3/11/2015

garden planning 

Why should I rotate my garden crops? If I do, what’s the best way to record what I’ve planted year after year?

Rotating your annual crops—even in a small-scale home garden—can help thwart potential gardening woes. If you plant the same crop in the same spot every year, overwintered pests, disease spores and nematodes can build up in that bed’s soil. A lack of rotation also means that the main nutrients a crop pulls from the soil will become depleted in that spot over time.

The first step to establishing successful rotation practices is to get to know the crop families. Plants should be rotated based on family, because crops in the same family generally have similar nutrient requirements, and they also attract many of the same pests and diseases. (You can print out a chart of common garden crops, grouped by family.)

A good rule of thumb is to avoid planting crops that are in the same family in the same spot in your garden more often than once every three to four years. If this is tricky because of limited space or the diversity of the crops you grow, don’t stress; it’s merely a good ideal to shoot for. Even a two-year rotation is better than nothing.

To start keeping simple crop-rotation records, draw out your garden beds on graph paper or in a gardening notebook or journal, and fill in what you’re planting where that season. You can use colored pencils to shade in planting areas based on which crop family is planted where — such as shading all tomato-family crops in red and all cabbage-family crops in green. Then, before you put any seeds or transplants in the ground the following season, sketch out a new planting arrangement for the year. Reference the previous year’s arrangement, and don’t put any related crops in the same location.

Another record-keeping option is to plan your garden with MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Vegetable Garden Planner, which can track your crop rotation for you. When you draw out your garden beds on what is essentially digital graph paper, the Planner will automatically color-code your crops by family. Then, when you map out your planting arrangement the next year, the Planner will alert you if you’re planning to put a crop in a place where you recently planted a crop from within the same family. If you’d prefer to plan your plot on a mobile device, try the Grow Planner for iPhone or iPad.


Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and taking care of our environment. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and .



2/11/2015

DIY Solar Heated Stock Tank

Wetting one’s whistle can be difficult in winter! We asked our Facebook fans how to keep livestock water from freezing when the weather gets cold. Here are some of their super-cool techniques.

We always “bank” the tank with wet manure and cover it all with black plastic. We leave a hole for one-at-a-time drinking. The manure’s heat keeps the water from freezing too hard, even in our frigid Minnesota winters. — Barb Voth


We used to use electric water heaters. I have since built the solar stock tank from plans in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, which works amazingly, and I now save about $300 per month on electricity. (To read about the DIY solar stock tank Tina mentions, read Build a Solar Stock Tank. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS) Last winter here in the East was a true test, but we never had more than a skim of ice on the water in the morning thanks to our solar-heated unit. — Tina Durborow


My uncle built a motion-activated livestock waterer. When the cattle come for a drink, the motion sensor triggers the setup to pump water from way down in the ground. The water swirls around the bowl (which he made out of a tire), the cattle drink, and then the water drains back down. We live in Manitoba, where winter temperatures normally average minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. — Carla Marsh


For our chickens, we set a regular incandescent light bulb inside a cinder block, put a metal water pan on top, and turn on the bulb (at least 60 watts). Presto! No ice. — Kate Hughes Brown


We use a submersible heater on a thermostat. When we get a week or two at minus 22 degrees, the heater will come on every hour. Our winter is seven months long, with temperatures mostly sitting at 15 to minus 6 degrees. Heaters make my life easier. — Andrea Procee


Most of my pastures have fresh spring water, but I have arranged mirrors in tandem to catch the midday sun and focus the sunlight on the water in our animals’ stock tank. — Joe Richardson


We mix molasses with warm water and then pour it into the water trough. The sugars in the molasses act as a natural antifreeze. The water will get slushy but typically won’t freeze, and the molasses encourages our horses to drink. — Peter Later

Photo by Gary Reysa: Reader Tina Durborow reports that this DIY solar-heated stock tank design works amazingly.









Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.