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

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3/5/2014

I’ve heard there’s a link between catching colds and flying. Am I more likely to get sick if I travel on a plane?

Yes! According to a 2004 study Catching Colds and Flying on Planespublished in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, plane travelers are up to 113 times more likely to catch a virus than their ground-bound counterparts.

Why is this? The study put forth a series of potential culprits: fatigue, low outside air replacement, dry cabin air, and proximity of people to one another in a small space. While all of these may play a part, the researchers found that an airplane cabin’s low humidity — which weakens humans’ defenses against infection — is likely the greatest factor in passengers’ heightened susceptibility to infection.

Use these preventive tactics to keep from catching a cold the next time you catch a flight: Get plenty of sleep before your trip, stay well-hydrated, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your face or mouth. Boost your immunity pre-flight by supplementing your diet with medicinal herbs, such as astragalus, garlic, ginger and ginseng, and medicinal mushrooms, such as maitake, reishi and shiitake.

For even more helpful information on staving off infection, check out our comprehensive article 19 Ways to Prevent and Treat Colds and Flu.

Photo by Fotolia/Subbotina Anna: Preventive tactics such as getting plenty of sleep and staying hydrated can help prevent sickness when flying.



2/26/2014

Can you recommend some tomato varieties that will continue to produce fruit when temperatures are high?

Faced with long bouts of daytime temperatures higheHeat-Tolerant Tomato Varietiesr than 85 degrees Fahrenheit and nights above 72 degrees, tomatoes may fail to set fruit. The plants may look dark green and vigorous — evidence that all other growing conditions are favorable — but have blossoms that dry up and fall off.

If the heat spell lasts no more than a week, the tomato plants will quickly recover. During long stretches of warm nighttime temperatures, however, the plants will stop setting, causing a subsequent gap in tomato production.

In recent years, a flood of new varieties has been bred for greater heat tolerance. Known as “heat-set” tomatoes, or “hot-set” tomatoes, some commonly grown hybrids are ‘BHN 216,’ ‘Florasette,’ ‘Florida 91,’ ‘Heatwave II,’ ‘Solar Fire,’ ‘Summer Set,’ ‘Sunchaser,’ ‘Sun Leaper,’ ‘Sunmaster,’ ‘Sun Pride’ and ‘Talladega.’ According to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, many heat-set varieties also perform well in cool, rainy weather.

Some heirloom tomato varieties are heat-tolerant as well, and these include ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ ‘Eva Purple Ball,’ ‘Hazelfield Farm,’ ‘Homestead 24,’ ‘Illinois Beauty,’ ‘Neptune,’ ‘Ozark Pink’ and ‘Tropic.’ Additionally, some “cold-set” varieties, such as ‘Stupice,’ are all-weather standouts because they’re able to function in hot weather, too. A handful of cherry tomato varieties, such as ‘Lollipop’ and ‘Yellow Pear,’ also do well in prolonged stints of heat.

Tomato growers in the South often choose heat-tolerant tomato varieties for summer and fall production — a strategy growers farther north may want to emulate now that climate change is causing hotter summers in most regions. When growing tomatoes in hot temperatures, you can boost your success rate by planting deeper (where the soil temperatures are lower), providing afternoon shade, watering in the morning and using thick organic mulch to keep soil cool.

Learn more about heat-tolerant tomato varieties in the Alabama extension publication Blossom Drop in Tomatoes and the Louisiana extension publication Performance of Hot-Set Tomato Varieties in Louisiana. To find sources for some of the heat-set tomato varieties mentioned here, use our Seed and Plant Finder.

Photo by Tomato Growers Supply Company: 'Stupice' tomatoes thrive in cold weather and can also handle heat.



2/19/2014

Do wild animals that are trapped and released in new locations manage to survive?

Though critters roaming your yard can be a nuisance, controlling wild animals by live-trapping and releasing them is not recommended by most wildlife biologists. An animal’s odds for survival Relocating Wild Animalsin a new location aren’t very good, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“While releasing wildlife in a new location is an option often preferred by well-meaning people opposed to killing animals, this may be at the expense of the released animal or the animals at the release site,” says wildlife biologist Russell Link in the WDFW publication Trapping Wildlife.

Many animals cannot survive the stress and trauma of being trapped and then moved to an unfamiliar location. A relocated wild animal might become involved in a territorial dispute, especially if its species’ local population is already at or beyond its limit. If the animal does survive, it may try to return to its original home and be killed en route.

If you’re considering trying this approach to wild animal control, be particularly careful to avoid two circumstances. First, never relocate an animal when weather is severe. The animal could expend so much energy simply finding shelter that it dies soon afterward. Second, never move an animal that’s caring for young — relocating a nursing mother will almost certainly cause her offspring to die. (How do you know a nursing mother? The trapped animal will have enlarged teats with relatively little hair on them.) Wait until the young have left their nest, generally 8 to 10 weeks after birth, and plan to set multiple traps.

Many states (and some municipalities) have strict regulations about trapping, transporting and releasing certain animal species, which sometimes even apply to mice, rabbits and squirrels. Check with your nearest wildlife office to find out whether you need a permit or must follow certain trap-and-release procedures for relocating wild animals.

Photo by Dreamstime/Charles Brutlag: With wild animal control, what seems like a humane option may actually be a harmful one.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



2/14/2014

What does Certified Organic mean on food labels?

The “Certified Organic” label is, at its core, a consumer protection law. It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) assurance that you’re buying food that has been produced and processed according to its National Organic Program (NOP) standards: Certified Organic LabelVegetables and fruits have not been produced using irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); livestock have been fed 100 percent organic feed without antibiotics or growth hormones, and were raised with at least some access to the outdoors; and multi-ingredient processed foods must contain at least 95 percent Certified Organic ingredients.

The Certified Organic label is backed by regulations developed by the USDA and the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory committee of consumers, environmentalists, farmers and scientists. Part of the board’s job is to advise the USDA regarding the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.” But it aims to be more than an organic referee that rules a farming substance or practice either “fair” or “foul play.” The board also makes recommendations about sustainable agricultural practices, and if its recommendations are approved by the USDA, the law requires farmers who seek organic certification to demonstrate that they follow such methods.

To obtain organic certification, applicants must have their operations reviewed by a third-party certifying agent. The review process includes annual inspections, and inspectors can request samples of soil, water, and plant and animal tissue to test for chemical residues. Producers must also pay certification fees that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. For some growers, the financial cost and the rigorous path to gain a Certified Organic label are daunting. The law thus makes allowances for small operations. Producers who market less than $5,000 of organic products annually may call their products organic (but not Certified Organic) without going through the certification process, provided they comply with other regulations. (For more information on certification requirements, go to the USDA’s National Organic Program FAQ). Labeling a product Certified Organic without receiving USDA authorization is illegal and can result in prosecution and a fine.

Although some of the USDA’s decisions have been criticized by organic watchdog groups (such as The Cornucopia Institute), we’ve come a long way in organic food labeling. Before the national organic standards went into effect in April 2001, consumers had no way of knowing whether food labeled as organic was in fact produced using sustainable, environmentally sound practices. Today, we can know that farmers have produced food without using toxic pesticides, harsh fertilizers, and unsustainable — and sometimes inhumane — systems. Year-over-year increases in sales show that more and more consumers prefer to eat Certified Organic products.

Photo by SuperStock/Universal Images Group: Organic standards guide consumers who want to choose sustainably produced food.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



12/11/2013

Can you tell me the best way to store late-harvested crops?

Most crops can be canned, frozen, dried or pickled, but the best way to store many root crops and winter squash is to make use of cold storage areas in your home, such as in an unheated closet or bedroom, or in your basement or garage. You can even keep potatoes and carrots in an outdoor pit. If you don’t have a big garden, stock up on root crops at your local farmers market, and keep them edible well into winter with the tips in the following articles, which detail a number of simple cold-storage techniques.

Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them is complete with detailed charts that outline instructions for storing easy-to-keep crops, including apples, beans, cabbage, garlic, onions, potatoes and squash. Most storage crops should be cured before storage to heal small wounds and allow for the release of excess moisture that could otherwise cause them to rot. For five low-tech ways to store root crops outdoors, see Outdoor Root Cellars.

For a guide to grow, stow and cook crops that are productive, nutrient-dense, and easy to store or preserve, go to our Food Self-Sufficiency page.

To find more articles and tips on preserving food, peruse our Collection of Food Preservation Techniques.

Photo By Simon McBride: Cure fall crops and keep them cool to eat well, even out of season.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



12/4/2013

Can you suggest an effective indoor mouse deterrent that won’t endanger children or pets? What about “ultrasonic” devices?

Of all the rodents that can invade your home in winter, the house mouse is by far the most destructive: It can contaminate food, damage structures and spread disease. Don’t waste your money on “ultrasonic” rodent repellents for house mouse control, however. “There are a lot of electronic gizmos you can buy, but no sound or electronic field will reliably repel rodents from a structure,” says Robert Timm, center director and extension wildlife specialist at the University of California’s Research & Extension Center in Hopland.

Luckily, the old-fashioned mousetrap (also known as the “snap trap”) is a very effective way to control mice indoors, Timm says. While the prospect of removing a dead rodent from the House Mouse Controltrap may be unappealing, trapping works, and it lets you monitor your house mouse control efforts. It also avoids the use of potentially hazardous chemical rodenticides and the decomposing-animal odor associated with using such products. Recent and pending legislation is aiming to make rodenticides less dangerous — but even when prepackaged in bait stations, these mouse poisons could be toxic to children and pets who ingest them, as well as to pets or wildlife that might eat the poisoned mice. Other kinds of rodent traps (such as glue, electrocution and live-capture traps) are available, but they have drawbacks. So, snap traps are your best bet for house mouse control.

Position snap traps no farther than 10 feet apart along walls where you have seen evidence of mouse activity, such as droppings, tracks or gnawed areas. “Mice travel along walls,” Timm says. “Point the trigger at the wall. That way, the mouse will cross the trigger when it comes from either direction.” Peanut butter is a good mouse bait, but according to Timm, some pest control operators don’t use bait, because positioning the traps properly will work on its own.

Wear gloves whenever you remove a mouse or any droppings, and then clean the area with a disinfectant. Seal the dead mouse in a plastic bag and dispose of it with your trash.

Be sure to take steps to prevent new infestations: Secure all possible points of entry by closing any openings larger than a quarter-inch with metal or cement (mice can chew through foam insulation, plastic and wood). Filling openings with a stainless-steel scouring pad can be effective, too. Keep counters, cabinets and floors clean and free of food crumbs. A patrolling house cat can provide additional insurance against future mouse invasions.

Photo By Fotolia/Zerbor: For effective house mouse control. place snap traps along walls, where mice like to travel.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



11/20/2013

Some of my laying hens seem to be slowing down. How do I know when to butcher them?

If you choose to keep your hens beyond their first two years of laying, their production will gradually fall to the point that you’re paying more to feed and maintain them than what they’re returning in egg value — usually, that’s well before the end of their natural lives (5 to 10 years old).

Butchering the least-productive laying hens just before the onset of winter often makes the most sense, because egg production declines even further as the days grow shorter. After you butcher hens, be prepared to cook them differently than you would young meat birds. The older the bird, the tougher its meat is likely to be. According to Harvey Ussery, author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, the trick to preparing an old hen (or a culled mature cock) is long, slow, moist-heat cooking. “The best choice of all is to use the bird to make fabulous broth, which will be far better than broth from a younger bird,” Ussery says. After making broth, you can still use the meat that has been stripped off the bones in casseroles, stir-fries and other dishes.

Unless you want to keep your hens as pets, start by culling the least-productive ones first — but how do you know which are still going strong and which aren’t?

Ussery looks for these signs of a productive bird: 1) The vent is large, oval, soft and moist; 2) the abdomen, between the tip of the breastbone and the tips of the pubic bones, is large and soft; and 3) the pubic bones are wider apart than those on a non-laying chicken. Often the comb of a high-producing bird is larger, brighter and more flexible, too. Some people get a few new hens annually, choosing a different breed each year. That way, they can keep track of the age of each breed and retire them after about two to four years of production.

“Many people who produce eggs for market practice ‘two seasons and out,’” Ussery says. This strategy keeps egg production at its peak, but it also requires the effort and expense of starting new stock more frequently, so be sure to factor in those costs when you’re considering at what point to butcher hens.

To learn about raising chickens to eat rather than for egg production, see How to Raise Chickens for Meat.

Photo By Dreamstime/Christian Draghici: Take your hens from farm-fresh eggs to chicken legs.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.









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