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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!


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.

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