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

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How should I monitor my garden cold frame on warm days to ensure I’m not frying my plants? Do I need to check the temperature every hour?

No, not every hour, but you’re right to err on the side of vigilance anytime the sun is out — even if the temperature isn’t particularly high.

During spring and fall, when temperatures range widely, check your weather report early in the morning. If the day will be sunny with temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold frame’s internal temperature will rise too high for your plants, so you should crack the lids open to allow excess heat to escape. Close your units up at twilight if the forecast predicts nighttime temperatures below your plants’ cold-tolerance level.

Photo courtesy Cedar Cold Frames: Even when snow surrounds your cold frame, the plants inside may need a breath of fresh air.

is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like.


Winter Rye

I want to plant a cover crop in my garden beds this fall. Which cold-hardy crop do you recommend?

One of your best bets is winter rye (Secale cereale), the grain used to make rye flour (not ryegrass, which is a different plant). Winter rye loves cold weather, and it’s widely adapted, inexpensive and easy to sow. According to Managing Cover Crops Profitably, published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, rye will even germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and will grow through winter wherever temperatures stay above about 38 degrees. It will suppress winter weeds, improve your soil’s texture, add organic matter, prevent erosion, and attract beneficial insects when it flowers the following spring. It also makes a terrific winter pasture for poultry — or, you can cut the greens periodically to feed to your flock.

Ordering cover crop seeds by mail can be a bit pricey, but saving your own rye seed is easy. Order seed by mail if you can’t find a local supplier, and then sow it in fall. Allow it to grow through the following spring until June, when it will produce seed heads. Snip off the seed heads and then, without threshing the seeds out of the heads, simply plant the heads in fall (see photo above, left). The mature rye plants will be easy to kill after you’ve harvested their seed heads. Cut the stems at soil level with a serrated harvest sickle or large knife, and then use the straw as mulch or compost. (If you don’t own a sickle, Earth Tools offers a nice Italian-made model for only $23; look under the “SHW” category.)

Growing cover crops in unused beds is one of the best things you can do to improve your soil. To learn more about sowing rye and many other kinds of cover crops, I highly recommend the SARE book mentioned earlier; it’s free online.

Photo by Cheryl Long: Winter rye seed heads sown directly into soil in fall will grow to maturity the following spring.

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.



Do I have to soak beans before using them in a dish?

You don’t have to soak beans before preparing them in a dish, although soaking beans will enable them to cook about 25 percent faster.

A widespread culinary conviction asserts that soaking beans will make them more digestible by breaking down complex carbohydrates in the bean to form more readily digestible carbohydrates — thus reducing flatulence. According to food scientist Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, this commonly used method does cut back on the gas — but it also leaches out some of the beans’ flavor and nutritional benefits, such as vitamins and antioxidants.

So, instead of pre-soaking, if you have the time, avoid throwing the nutrients out with the bean water by simply cooking dry legumes a little longer. Doing so will help break down the complex sugars while retaining the nutrients, flavor, color and antioxidants to boot. Cover the beans with just enough water — about 3 parts water to 1 part legumes — for the beans to soak up as they cook; any more and the extra water will still wash away some nutritional perks.

Always cook beans, especially kidney beans, until they’re fully tender; undercooked beans can cause illness. To avoid that danger, pre-cook beans before adding them to dishes that will simmer in low-temperature slow cookers. Learn more about safely cooking beans at Be Careful With Red Kidney Beans in the Slow Cooker.

Photo by Fotolia/Svilen Georgiev: Beans, beans, the magical fruit — what’s the best way to reduce the “toot”?


Bamboo Flooring 

I’m considering installing bamboo flooring, but I’m finding conflicting claims about it. Is this type of flooring truly a sustainable selection?

Bamboo flooring is often sold as a “green” flooring option, but the truth of this claim depends on which criteria you consider.

Processing raw bamboo into flooring involves kiln drying, boiling (sometimes twice) and often steaming. All of these processes are energy-intensive. Reliable embodied energy data for bamboo flooring is lacking, making it difficult to accurately compare bamboo to alternatives. But given the need for two to four high-heat processes, the production of bamboo flooring likely uses more energy than that of wood floors. Shipping bamboo materials from Asia can add to bamboo’s total energy footprint, sometimes significantly.

Bamboo flooring is made from laminated strips of bamboo bonded with chemical glues. Surface finishes are also chemical composites. Depending on the type of binders and finishes used, some bamboo flooring can emit high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxins.

Most bamboo flooring companies claim their flooring is much harder and therefore more durable than hardwood, such as oak. Some bamboo flooring does score high on the Janka hardness test. However, the Janka test protocol doesn’t necessarily predict actual wear and tear on a floor, and experience has shown that bamboo floors have real-life wear characteristics that are so similar to hardwood that bamboo can’t prove a true durability advantage.

Proponents of bamboo flooring say it has a minimal environmental impact, pointing to the crop’s fast growing cycle and rhizomatous root system that doesn’t require replanting and helps control soil erosion after harvesting. Bamboo fans also claim that growing bamboo doesn’t require chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Not all bamboo made into flooring can lay claim to those attributes, however. Increased demand for the flooring material has resulted in a rapid movement away from mixed forests of naturally occurring bamboo to large monoculture plantations. Plantations prompt concern over significant soil erosion, and, in reality, do often require fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to sustain the monoculture in the absence of natural ecosystem controls. In addition, forests are being clear-cut to make way for bamboo, which results in habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity.

Chances are, the cheapest bamboo flooring is cheap for a reason: It’s more expensive to harvest, process and finish a material to high environmental standards. But you can find truly green bamboo flooring if you search for it.

Choosing bamboo flooring that meets the FloorScore standard — developed by Scientific Certification Systems and the Resilient Floor Covering Institute — will help ensure your choice is healthy in terms of indoor air quality. Buying bamboo certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) will also help you know you’re purchasing responsibly. Keep in mind, however, that FSC certifies some monoculture plantations — and in those cases, even if the plantations use sound practices, much of the environmental damage would have already occurred. Ask questions and research options to find out whether the bamboo you’re considering came from a monoculture operation or a more diverse, sustainable forest.

The Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network are both working to develop standards that will address issues with bamboo production, and, after they go into effect, these certifications will help consumers determine whether a particular brand of bamboo flooring is really green.

Photo by Flickr/Designbuildinhabit: Bamboo flooring may not always be as eco-friendly as dealers claim.


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!

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