Ask Our Experts

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


We’ve accumulated a lot of wood ash over the winter. Can we add it to our garden soil or compost pile? wood ash in the garden 

Whether using wood ash in the garden is a good idea depends on your garden soil’s pH and fertility levels. If a soil test has shown your garden soil’s pH to be below 6.0 (meaning it’s moderately acidic), adding wood ash could be beneficial, says Garn Wallace, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is general manager of Wallace Laboratories in El Segundo, Calif.

In acidic soils, wood ash can increase soil fertility by increasing the availability of phosphorus and potassium as well as some micronutrients — although wood ashes won’t supply any nitrogen. Also rich in calcium, wood ashes are effective for raising soil pH — a potential benefit in places where pH is below the ideal level for most vegetables (6.0 to 7.0).

“Moderation is the key,” Wallace says. “People tend to over-apply nutrients. And after you add something to the soil, you can’t take it away without replacing the soil. If you apply wood ashes without a soil test, it is possible to ruin soil in just one year.”

If, after testing your soil pH, you decide to add wood ash, start with a thin dusting across the soil surface, then work the ashes deeply into the topsoil, because most nutrients won’t move much in the soil. A Purdue Extension publication suggests that gardeners whose soils are below a pH of 6.5 can safely apply 20 pounds of wood ashes per 100 square feet if the ash is worked into the soil about 6 inches.

The following year, test the soil pH and nutrients again. If the pH is still low, work in another thin layer as you did the previous year. When your soil pH has reached 6.5 to 7.0, stop adding wood ash. If you add too much wood ash, you risk raising the pH over the neutral 7.0 to 7.2 range, which can tie up essential nutrients in the soil. Continue to test the soil every two to three years, and adjust soil amendments according to the test results.

As for composting the wood ash, it depends on what stage your compost pile has reached. Adding small amounts of ashes to a new compost pile is probably OK. If the compost is at or near maturity, however, adding wood ash would raise the pH and could increase the availability of heavy metals to harmful levels. “You want these minerals in minute amounts — too much of them is never a good thing,” Wallace says.

One last caution: Never use ashes from treated wood in your garden. Treated wood contains copper, arsenic, chromium and sometimes boron, and ashes that contain these heavy metals could harm soil, plants and animals.

Wallace Laboratories tests soil, water and plant tissue. For more information, email

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: Moderation is key when using wood ash. 

Photo Courtesy Spectrum Photofile/James Jeffreys

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 .


I’d like to let my hens range freely this year, but how do I get them to return to the coop each evening? Chickens Roost

After chickens have become accustomed to roosting in their coop, they will naturally return to their roosts at dusk. But if you want your free-range chickens to return to the coop whenever you want to close them in, use a bit of scratch grain or kitchen scraps to teach them to follow you to the coop as you call them. When they’ve returned to the coop, toss the treats inside as a reward, then secure the door. In no time at all, your hens will respond whenever you call them, whether it’s midday or dusk.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Above: After ranging freely all day, chickens will naturally return to their roost at dusk. 

Photo Courtesy Look Graphics

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 .


I’m confused by the descriptions I see on oil labels cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, extra virgin, etc. What do these terms mean, and which terms indicate quality? Cooking Oil Labels

Your confusion is understandable. Oil labeling is complex, with a few terms that have legal meaning, many terms that are mere marketing hype, and some terms that are downright misleading. Like most foods, oils are most flavorful and nutritious when they are fresh and minimally processed. But manufacturers are always looking for ways to do things faster and cheaper and make foods last longer on the shelf.

Four processes are used to extract oils from nuts and seeds: grinding, pressing, heating, and applying chemical solvents. Corn, soy and canola oils are typically processed using the chemical solvent hexane. Olive, avocado, walnut, peanut and most other oils are usually expeller-pressed.

Here’s how Spectrum, a leading producer of high-quality oils, explains expeller-pressed vs. cold-pressed:

“Expeller pressing is a chemical-free, mechanical process that extracts oil from seeds and nuts. This method of oil extraction is an alternative to the hexane-extraction method used for many conventional oils. The temperature reached during pressing depends on the hardness of the nut or seed. The harder the nut or seed, the more pressure required to extract the oil, which in turn creates more friction and higher heat. There is no external heat applied during the expeller pressing. Delicate oils, or those in which flavor nuances are a key component, need to be treated with greater care in controlling processing factors. Oils that are cold-pressed are also expeller-pressed, but in a heat-controlled environment to keep temperatures below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.”

According to Spectrum, Europe has rigorous standards in place for the terminology of cold-pressing (“fully unrefined oil extracted at temperatures below 122 degrees”), but the phrase “cold-pressed” has been used erroneously in the United States for a number of years, often employed as a marketing technique for oils that have been expeller-pressed or even refined (which exposes the oil to temperatures of up to 470 degrees).

The term “extra virgin” is also not regulated in the United States. A 2012 University of California, Davis study discovered that 86 percent of imported olive oils labeled “extra virgin” actually weren’t, failing the criteria because of oxidation, adulteration or poor manufacturing methods. Nine out of 10 California olive oil samples, on the other hand, were properly labeled.

Unfortunately, because most terms to describe oil processing are not defined by law or enforced, consumers just have to find brands they can trust. The UC Davis study includes charts indicating which brands were properly labeled “extra virgin.” California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive, Kirkland Organic and McEvoy Ranch were among the brands that sell legitimately labeled olive oil. 

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 .


How can I build a small solar power system for backup power during emergencies? 

Putting together a system that provides enough solar power to run a few key appliances during a power outage is certainly possible — and it’s also a fun and educational project.

Small backup solar power systems consist of a photovoltaic (PV) panel or two to generate the electricity, a battery to store the energy, a charge controller to keep the PV panel from overcharging the battery, and an inverter that converts the battery voltage into regular 120-volt alternating-current (AC) house power. All of these parts are easy to find, and connecting them is simple and safe as long as you follow the instructions. (You can also tap into easy, DIY solar-powered lighting — read more at Easy DIY Solar Lighting.)

Many variations of DIY solar power systems are possible, but the table below will give you a starting point. The equipment brands I chose are just examples. The batteries in these systems are oversized to allow for poor sun conditions, and you should only drain the batteries to their minimum capacity if you are confident that power will be restored promptly. Some off-grid folks who are careful about power consumption live year-round on systems no larger than the “Larger system” outlined below.

One good way to find a set of components is to search online for RV or cabin PV systems. Many suppliers sell kits of compatible components in various sizes.

You should keep the system’s batteries fully charged at all times, both to keep the batteries healthy and to have as much stored power as possible at the start of an outage. You can also find packaged systems that come assembled and wired except for the battery, which you can buy locally. This saves you the job of putting the system together yourself, but the price can be quite steep. And be careful — these systems are often advertised by the size of the inverter they use. Knowing the size of the PV panel and battery is much more important, as these determine what you can power and for how long, so be sure to look at the actual size of the PV panel and battery storage that any system supports.

These systems all use 12-volt lead-acid batteries, which store a great deal of energy that a short circuit can release very rapidly. This rapid release can cause injuries, damage to the system’s parts, and fires, so use the same kind of precautions you would use if you were working around a car battery. Batteries give off hydrogen gas while charging and should thus be charged in an area with decent ventilation. Always read the manuals for the parts before putting together the system.

DIY Solar Power System Options

  Total Cost  What Will It Power?  Recommended Components 
Minimum system (16 hours to fully recharge; provides 800 watt-hours) About $250

A 7-watt LED light for 114 hours; a 20-watt LCD TV for 40 hours; or both for 30 hours


• Generic 60-watt. 12-volt PV panel

• 5-amp Morningstar SunGuard charge controller

• 12-volt, 80-amp-hour Interstate SRM-24 deep-cycle battery

• 150-watt modified sine wave Tripp Lite PV150 inverter

Larger system (7 hours to fully recharge; provides 2,200 watt-hours) About $965

A 7-watt LED light for 314 hours; a 20-watt LCD TV for 110 hours; a 50-watt fridge for 44 hours; or all three for 29 hours


• 430-watt DMSolar 145 PV panel (three 12-volt panels, 145 watts each)

• 30-amp Morningstar SunGuard charge controller

• Two 6-volt, 225-amp-hour Trojan T-105 golf cart batteries

• 1,000-watt modified sine wave Tripp Lite PV100 inverter


— Gary Reysa 


How can I keep kitchen scraps indoors for a few days without odor or fruit flies developing? kitchen composting in a sealable bag 

You don’t need a fancy compost pail with a filter to keep your kitchen compost odor- and fly-free. One easy option for kitchen composting is to put food waste into a large, sealable plastic bag. To save space and speed decomposition, you can chop up the larger pieces of waste before adding them to the bag. Keep the bagged scraps refrigerated until you’re ready to add them to your outdoor compost pile.

Another option is a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid. Line the bottom with a few sheets of newspaper, then fill a separate container with carbonaceous materials, such as sawdust, leaves, shredded newspaper or garden soil. Keep both containers in the garage or just outside your back door. Dump food waste in the large plastic bucket, then top it with a thin layer of the carbonaceous material, which will control odors and fruit flies and will balance the high-nitrogen materials. Stir occasionally, keeping the bucket tightly closed the rest of the time. When the container is full, add the contents to your outdoor compost pile.

You could also consider vermicomposting (worm composting), which you can do indoors. Read more about it in How to Set Up a Simple, Homemade Vermicomposting Bin.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor

Above: Collecting kitchen scraps in a plastic bag will help keep rotten odors and fruit flies at bay. 

Photo Courtesy 

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 .


How can I prevent a late spring frost from damaging our fruit crop? frosty apple tree 

You can take several fairly simple steps to reduce the risk of frost damage to buds, blossoms and fruit without using heaters, commercial wind machines or overhead sprinklers, according to the University of California, Davis’ article Principles of Frost Protection. First, before planting fruit trees of any kind, choose the location carefully. Avoid planting at the bottom of a slope — where frost accumulates — or on cold hilltops. If possible, plant on a north-facing slope to help delay blooming and thus avoid frost damage. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) suggests checking seed catalog descriptions and choosing fruit varieties less susceptible to frost damage in order to find varieties that bud and bloom later, when frost is less likely to occur.

For existing fruit trees, ACES recommends putting off pruning until late winter to early spring to stall budding and blooming. If frost is in the forecast when trees are in bloom and the soil has been dry, water the soil a day or two beforehand to a depth of 1 foot (wet soils radiate more heat than dry soils do). To trap extra warmth, the UC Davis article says to cover the wet soil around the bases of the trees with clear plastic until the danger of frost has passed. If you’re using a cover crop, mow it and remove vegetative mulch (at least temporarily). Bare soil — or soil covered with clear plastic — stores and radiates more warmth.

ACES also notes that frost blankets can provide frost protection for fruit trees and small fruits. When you place frost blankets around tree trunks, be sure to anchor them on the ground to trap the soil’s radiant heat.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

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 .


What’s the difference between hybrids and genetically modified (GM) vegetable varieties? plants in a laboratory 

The term “hybrid,” which you’ll often see in seed catalogs, refers to a plant variety developed through a specific, controlled cross of two parent plants. Usually, the parents are naturally compatible varieties within the same species. This hybridization, or the crossing of compatible varieties, happens naturally in the wild; plant breeders basically just steer the process to control the outcome. In contrast, GM varieties (sometimes called “genetically modified organisms,” or “GMOs”) are a whole different animal, as we’ll explain in a bit. First, some background on plant hybridization.

Humans have been cultivating new plant varieties since the beginning of agricultural development, but until fairly recently, the process required patience. Developing a non-hybrid, open-pollinated (OP) variety using classic plant-breeding methods takes six to 10 generations, says John Navazio, a plant breeder and senior scientist for the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend, Wash. (Most heirloom varieties are open-pollinated.)

Modern hybridization speeds up that process considerably. Using a method of controlled crossing devised by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century, plant breeders can now produce seed that combines the desired traits of two pure parent lines in the first generation. This creates a new variety known as an “F1 hybrid.” To create F1 seed, seed companies grow two parent lines in the field each year, designate the male and female parents, carry out pollination under controlled conditions — such as hand-pollination under row cover — and then harvest seed from the females.
“Plant breeders like F1 seed because it’s faster and easier than breeding new open-pollinated varieties,” Navazio says. “You can cull the bad traits from the parents while stacking their good traits in the F1 offspring.” For gardeners, hybrids sometimes provide advantages compared with OP varieties, such as better disease resistance. Big seed companies also like F1 hybrids because the process gives them proprietary ownership of each new variety. And because seed from F1 plants won’t produce uniform offspring, gardeners must buy new seeds each year.

Unlike hybrids, which are developed in the field using natural, low-tech methods, GM varieties are created in a lab using highly complex technology, such as gene splicing. These high-tech GM varieties can include genes from several species — a phenomenon that almost never occurs in nature. “With GM varieties, genes are transferred from one kingdom to another, such as bacteria to plants,” Navazio says. A corn variety developed by Monsanto, for instance, includes genetic material from the bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills European corn borers. So far, only commodity crops with GM traits — such as corn, soy, alfalfa and sugar beets — have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for use, primarily in processed foods and animal feeds. The exception is GM sweet corn, which is now available at your grocery store. (For more on foods in your grocery store that contain GM ingredients, see How to Avoid Genetically Modified Food.)

The trouble is that nobody knows how these unnatural new organisms will behave over time. The seed companies that develop these varieties claim intellectual property rights so that only they can create and sell the variety. In some cases, companies — such as Monsanto — even refuse to allow scientists to obtain and study their GM seeds. For some crops, such as corn, wind can carry the pollen from GM varieties and contaminate non-GM varieties. And there is no mandatory labeling of GM content in seed, says Kristina Hubbard, advocacy and communications director for the Organic Seed Alliance. (To read about other issues surrounding GM crops, see The Threats From Genetically Modified Foods.)

Though few vegetable seeds are GM now, they may be soon. One way to avoid GM seeds is to buy certified organic seed, which, according to the National Organic Program, must not be genetically modified. If a seed catalog doesn’t say a seed has been tested, ask the supplier.

In a nutshell: Hybrids are the product of guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are the result of unnatural, high-tech methods used to create untested organisms that would never emerge in nature.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor

Above: Many processed foods contain GM ingredients, even though the long-term effects of GMOs are unknown. 

Photo Courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service 

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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