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

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I’ve heard that petroleum jelly (Vaseline) will protect chickens’ combs from frostbite. Should I grab the grease and gather my birds?

Probably not. Winter cold snaps sometimes damage the tips of birds’ combs, and black spots can form where tissue has frozen. Applying petroleum jelly to combs will prevent chapping, as it would if you applied such a product to your lips. However, Dr. Scott Beyer, a poultry nutrition and management specialist at Kansas State University, confirms that petroleum jelly has no insulating properties, despite long-standing claims to the contrary from some poultry enthusiasts.

Breed selection is a wiser way to combat chicken frostbite. If you live in a place where winters are severe, choose breeds that have small “walnut” or “rose” combs and small wattles, such as Chantecler or Buckeye, as such features are less prone to frostbite. Provide your flock with a draft-proof coop that will keep your birds dry. If the forecast calls for severe cold, consider putting a heat lamp inside the coop to offer extra protection against low temperatures.

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.


Homemade Sweetener

What are the best options for homemade syrups and natural sweeteners from plants I can grow or process myself?

Depending on your region, your choices for homemade syrups and sweeteners may include tree syrup, sorghum syrup (molasses), sugar beet syrup or paste, stevia, and sugar cane.

Two popular homegrown sweeteners are tree syrups and sorghum molasses. Syrup-seekers living in cold climates often opt for sugar maple or black maple trees because they yield a high volume and concentration of sap that’s about 2 percent sugar. Making 1 gallon of maple syrup requires boiling down 40 to 50 gallons of sugar or black maple sap. Because red and silver maples produce a more watery sap, syrup-makers must collect and boil more of it to produce the same amount of syrup.

Other tap-ready trees include boxelder (a maple relative), birch, walnut, hickory and sycamore, but the cost and time commitment of making syrups from these trees can be prohibitive. Birch syrup necessitates twice as much sap as maple syrup does — up to 100 gallons of birch sap to yield 1 gallon of a more savory-tasting syrup.

In warmer climates, sorghum syrup is most common. Making sorghum syrup requires an upfront cost for a press to crush the sorghum canes and extract the juice, but it can yield a sweet payoff — 1 gallon of sorghum syrup requires boiling down only 10 gallons of juice. You can go in on the price of the press with your neighbors as a way of cutting costs and achieving community self-sufficiency. Dig into more info on maple sugaring and tree tapping at Farming Syrup Trees: Maple Sugaring and More, and in Farming the Woods by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel.

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


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.

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