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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+.



11/13/2013

I’m looking to put in new flooring and want an eco-friendly option. What do you suggest?

Cork HarvestingBamboo, sustainably harvested wood, and linoleum made from recycled content are all eco-friendly flooring options. Also available at most major home improvement stores, cork flooring is competitively priced with other kinds of sustainable flooring, and cork is a beautiful, eco-friendly material.

Cork products are made from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber). Much of the world’s cork comes from forests in Portugal, where the trees’ drought resistance allows them to flourish. Harvesters cut and strip the bark during early summer, a process that removes only the dead outer bark layers while leaving the living cambium intact. The cork trees continue to grow unharmed for about nine years before the bark gets harvested again.

Most of the Portuguese cork oak forests are owned by individual families who — when they’re not harvesting the oak trees’ bark — grow medicinal herbs, produce honey, gather pine nuts, graze cattle, and raise prized Black Spanish pigs on cork oak acorns in the forests.

Sustainable cork flooring is made by mixing an adhesiveCork Paneling with “waste” cork granules from bottle-stopper production. It’s available in a range of finishes, from wood tones to tile look-alikes, and its natural propensity to repel water and provide acoustic insulation are bonus qualities. Keep your eyes peeled for other sustainable cork products as well, including wall insulation that’s growing in popularity in Europe because of its natural fire resistance and sound-proofing ability. If you’d like to learn about and support sustainable cork harvesting, go to Amorim Cork, and choose wine with stoppers made of real cork. Cheers!

(Top) Photo By Patrick Spencer: Cork is hand-harvested about every nine years in a way that allows the cork trees to continue to grow unharmed.

(Bottom) Photo By iStockphoto/katylh: Cork is hand-harvested to be made into a variety of products, including sustainable cork flooring and wine stoppers.


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or .



10/17/2013
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What do I need to do to my garden tools before I store them away for the upcoming winter?Garden Tools

Clean garden tools by first hosing off any dirt clinging to the tines or blades, and then dry the tools completely. Remove any rust with steel wool. Use a sharpening file to hone the tool’s working edges. If wood handles are rough, sand them, then rub them with paste wax. 

To prevent rust, coat metal parts with lubricating oil, or store the working ends of hand tools in a large bucket of sand mixed with a little canola oil. When the weather gets warmer, your garden tools will be ready to go.

Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Clean your tools before storing them for winter, and you’ll be able to grab and go come spring.

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 .



10/2/2013

Is it possible to propagate pine trees from seed?

Yes — trees can be propagated from seed and cuttings, or by grafting, budding or layering. Fruit and nut trees are usually grafted or budded, which assures high-quality fruit, helps trees mature faster, and allows the rootstock to control tree size and add disease resistance. According to horticulturist Alan Toogood in the American Horticultural Society’s book Plant Propagation, many named ornamental varieties are grown from cuttings because they rarely come in true to type if grown from seed. But for certain tree species, starting from seed allows you to produce lots of trees very economically. Pine Cones

To start growing pine trees from seed, gather large brown (or slightly green) cones in fall. The cones should be closed; if open, they probably have already released their seeds. Toogood says trees that have a lot of cones are more likely to have viable seeds. Lay the cones in an open box at room temperature. When dry, the cones will open and release their seeds. If they don’t open, place the box in a hot spot (104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit) until they do. Use tweezers to remove any remaining seeds inside the cones.

To improve odds of germination, stratify the seeds: Mix them with moist peat or sand, place them in a clear plastic bag, and refrigerate them for three to seven weeks. (If the seeds germinate in the refrigerator, sow them immediately.) Sow the seeds in 3-inch pots, and provide bottom heat of about 60 degrees. Seedlings can be transplanted outdoors into larger pots in spring, when they’re about 2 inches tall (six to eight weeks after they germinate).

Photo By Fotolia/Gabriele Maltinti: Gather closed, large brown (or slightly green) cones in fall to gather viable seeds.


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 .



9/25/2013

How can I make a worn wood floor look new again? Can I avoid heavy sanding and starting from scratch?

Sunlight, dents and foot traffic can all take their toll on a wood floor, causing it to appear worn and resulting in reduced stain color. But with a few key supplies, you can revive worn wood flooring without heavy-duty sanding.Wood Stain (See below for an instructional video on how to refinish a worn wood floor.)

How to Refinish Wood Floors

Start refurbishing your floor by finding a wood stain that matches the color of your existing floor. If you can’t find an exact match, choose a color that’s slightly darker. Experiment with the stain by rubbing it into a 1- or 2-square-foot area to see how it looks. The best wood stain I’ve found for this job, Minwax PolyShades, is actually a stain and sealer combination.

Stained floors need some kind of protective coating over the stain. The easiest coating to apply is oil-based urethane with a satin sheen, but — just as you did with the stain — you’ll have to experiment with the product before coating the entire floor. You don’t want to find out later that your urethane is incompatible with your stain, which would cause it to peel and pucker. Apply two coats of urethane over the 1- or 2-square-foot section of floor you stained, and then live with it for a week.

If both the wood stain and the coating are compatible with the wood, you can tackle the whole floor. Start by giving the wood a light sanding with 120- or 180-grit sandpaper in a 1/4-sheet finishing sander to roughen any remaining urethane slightly, then vacuum every last bit of dust and dirt off of the floor before rubbing in stain. Wearing rubber gloves, rub the stain everywhere, giving special attention to dented, scratched and worn areas. Let the stain dry for a day, and then apply two coats of the protective urethane (apply the second coat after the first coat dries). If all goes well, you’ll end up with a distressed but elegant floor that looks even better than a freshly sanded floor.

Photo By Fotolia/Razmarinkas: A few supplies and some simple steps will help you make your worn wood floor look beautiful again.


Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on . 



9/18/2013

What’s the best way to use leaves in the garden?

Leaves are one of the main ingredients of the dark, rich humus that covers the forest floor — nature’s compost. A gardener can replicate that humus by mixing carbon-rich leaves with nitrogen-rich manure or grass clippings to make compost.Garden Leaves

Maintaining an active compost pile in winter can be a challenge, however. An easier alternative is to use leaves in the garden in fall, says Abigail Maynard, associate agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who has studied the use of leaves as a garden soil amendment for more than 10 years. 

If possible, shred your leaves first with a chipper-shredder or mower; the smaller pieces will break down faster. Spread the chopped leaf mulch over your garden soil, then incorporate it with a tiller or spade. “By spring, almost all of the chopped leaves will be completely decomposed,” Maynard says.

Maynard’s research has shown that amending soil with maple or oak leaves alone probably won’t boost yields the way adding finished compost does, but she says using leaves in the garden does add organic matter to the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure, holds nutrients and moisture that are released slowly to plants, and provides food for beneficial soil organisms.

Maynard suggests adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as aged manure, in spring. (Nitrogen added in fall could leach away by spring.)

Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Boost your soil’s organic matter by using leaves in the garden.


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 .



7/5/2013

I’d like to buy a live Christmas tree this year to plant after the holidays. Any tips?Christmas Tree

Visit your local garden center in fall while the selection is still good, and choose a potted or balled-and-burlapped (B&B) tree suited to your growing conditions. Many retailers will let you buy a live Christmas tree in fall and pick it up later, closer to the holiday season. When choosing a potted tree, lift the root ball out of the pot to examine the roots — they should be developed enough to hold the soil together without being pot-bound.

Choose a planting site that has good drainage and is far enough away from buildings and other trees to allow for future growth. Dig the planting hole before the soil is expected to freeze. In some areas, that will be before the holidays. Make the hole about the same depth but twice the width of the root ball. Until planting time, store the soil from the hole in a location where it won’t freeze, and fill the hole with straw.

Keep the tree in a protected transitional location, such as on a porch or in an unheated garage, until you’re ready to bring the tree indoors. Keep the root ball moist but not soggy. Plan to keep your potted tree indoors for no more than five to seven days. Warm, dry household conditions will stress it, and could even cause premature bud break, so choose a cool location away from heat vents. Decorate it with natural ornaments that won’t weigh down the branches — garlands of popcorn and cranberries, dried red pepper pods, or small bunches of dried flowers and herbs are ideal. Use small LED lights, which produce less heat and won’t burn the tree’s boughs.

After the holidays, move your potted tree back to its transitional location on the porch or in the garage for a few days before planting. When you’re ready to plant, remove the tree from its pot or loosen (but don’t remove) the burlap bag. Remove any plastic wraps or liners. Gently set the tree in its pre-dug hole. If it’s a B&B tree, fold back the top of the burlap to the bottom of the root ball. Fill the hole with a portion of the dirt that you removed, and use the remaining soil to shape a small mound around the edge of the hole. Cover the soil around the tree with up to 4 inches of mulch, but leave about 3 inches of space between the mulch and the trunk. Finish by thoroughly watering the tree inside the “moat.” Read more about caring for a live Christmas tree at Have a Green Christmas: Live Christmas Trees.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: If you want a live Christmas tree, plan ahead and take steps to help it prosper.

Photo By Fotolia/Maria Kutrakova


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 .









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