Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Cattails by Rachel

Cattails (Typha species) are a frequently occurring plant member along the edge of ponds, lakes, and ditches. They have such a classic look in these settings that they are included in most photographs of an aquatic setting and represented in art as well. Even my seven-year-old daughter automatically includes them in her drawings of a pond.

Cattails spreading seed.

They are a native plant and they provide some vertical display in a pond setting, but they grow fast and need to be managed. The brown seedpod at the top of the stalk is like a very compact dandelion, producing airborne seeds including a small tuft of material that keeps them floating indefinitely. I often joke with pond owners that one pod could repopulate all of Planet Earth with cattails, because there are approximately 250,000 seeds on a single cattail head.

In addition to multiplying rapidly from seed, cattails produce large rhizomes for new, rapidly progressing growth. As cattails grow in summer and die in fall, the dead leaves provide a lot of thatch material. As the thatch decays, it provides sludge that becomes an ideal growing medium for cattails the following year. In short, each year they make their own land to grow on the following season. They can even make floating islands.

Cattail roots support and spread

If you have cattails in the aquatic landscape, enjoy them, but don’t ignore them and your need to manage their growth.

Of course, there are EPA registered herbicides to control cattails, but strategic cutting and physical removal are viable options as well. Specifically for an ongoing management approach, try these three activities. After you have enjoyed seeing the cattail pods wave in the breeze in the summer, but before they burst into a gazillion airborne seeds, cut them off, and remove them. You may even enjoy using these for dried flower arrangements. Seed head cutting is helpful in a small stand and removes some of the potential for spread due to seed, even if you don’t get them all. The second approach is to remove the thatch after it dies in the fall, removing the medium for them to advance farther into your pond the following season. The third technique can be used anytime throughout the season, but is most effective in late spring. Cut cattail leaves off below the water line. This will kill approximately 50 percent of them, providing a way for you to thin or stop the yearly progress of cattails into your pond.

Enjoy your pond and the cattails. Just don’t let them creep up on you and the enjoyment of your pond.

Painting by Rachel.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


buried root cellar

I mentioned building a root cellar in my introductory post, but I thought readers of Mother Earth News would be interested in a more detailed description of making and using it. I based the design on this plan, which involves modifying an (unused!) precast septic tank. When I decided to join my brother Ed in growing all my own food for 2015, I knew I would need a better place to store our root vegetables than the old farmhouse basement, but using using cinder blocks or building forms to pour concrete in place seemed like a bigger job than I had time for. Using a precast 6-foot x 6-foot x 10-foot tank and some materials I had on hand made the job much easier than it would have been, and I ended up with a root cellar that has maintained a stable temperature and high humidity even in the worst of a harsh New York winter.

One of the biggest potential jobs required to put in a cellar, no matter the design, is digging the hole. Luckily, I already needed to rent an excavator for some other things around the farm, and it made what would have been days or weeks of work with a shovel a matter of a few hours. The location I chose is a bank off of the driveway. It’s south facing, which concerned me a little - I thought it might be prone to overheating - but it was the only suitable site within a reasonable distance of both the houses and the garden.

There were a few tense minutes when it looked like the truck that was delivering the septic tank would not have room to maneuver into position, but the driver finally managed to line it up. I’d been expecting a boom truck, which can drop a tank almost anywhere, but at the last minute I got a call from the concrete company saying the tank weighed so much that only their truck with a slide off of the back could handle it. It ended up working out, but it would have been less stressful if that miscommunication could have been avoided.

The tank already had flanges around the top, and these let me put in vent pipes without drilling new holes. I did need to rent a saw to cut the doorway, and there’s no way to overstate how noisy, messy, and tiring sawing through concrete and rebar is. But the most time consuming part of the project was the retaining walls coming out from the door, for which I used cinder blocks I’d stashed over the years. I did a double layer with mesh going back into the backfill to help hold them in place, and all the tamping and dirt moving seemed endless. Now that I’ve gone through most of a winter, I think that the extra labor was worth it. Having the front of the root cellar as buried as possible helps moderate the temperature, and in a cold winter that’s a must.

root cellar retaining walls

I store the vegetables in plastic file holders. I would like to use the six gallon milk crates, but they are much more expensive, and since the cellar fits 72 of them, the cost is considerable. Perhaps over the coming years I’ll find enough at yard sales to transition over to them. I didn’t weigh the total harvest, but it holds an incredible amount of carrots, turnips rutabagas, beets, and Jerusalem artichokes, as well as fresh cabbages and crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut. The rutabagas and turnips that didn’t fit into the crate went into feed bags in the corner of the cellar.

It was a fairly warm fall, so the cellar didn’t get down into the thirties for a while, but once it did it stayed there. The temperature held steady at around 35 until well into January, at which point the weather here, as on much of the east coast, turned arctic. With night routinely dropping to fifteen or twenty below, the temperature in the root cellar started creeping down, getting as low as 32.9 degrees. My wife Alanna put open buckets of water in the cellar moderate the temperature and keep the humidity up, and at the very coldest points of the year Ed shoveled snow against the door, since he figured that was where most of the temperature loss was occurring.

On the whole I’m happy with the performance of the root cellar. The veggies in it have held their quality, even as an extremely cold winter has limited how often I can keep the air vents cracked open. Going forward, it will be interesting to explore which varieties store best. Lutz winter keeper beets, which I grew for the first time, yielded well and taste wonderful, but they have not lived up to their name in storage, going soft earlier than three root grex. The potato crop was almost a complete failure, which I will write about in the future, so I need to work on the best timing for planting, harvesting, and storing them. I plan on trying endive next year, and in the summer when the root cellar warms up a little I’m going to experiment with using it as a cheese cave. I’m sure in the coming months I’ll think of plenty of other ways to use it to get the most out of my garden and homestead.

Garth and Edmund Brown also blog regularly on the Cairncrest Farm website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



We have a matriarchal chicken coop, which isn’t surprising since they are “layers” and obviously all females. When we had just four chickens, we named them and could tell them apart, but now with 26 of them it’s a little harder.

Recently though, I have named one of them “Maya” in honour of Maya Angelou. She is one of our senior citizen hens. She no longer lays eggs but she still has a place in the pecking order of our flock.

(I’ve never actually read any of Maya Angelou’s books but she seemed like an amazing woman whenever I saw her on Oprah. I remember her talking about toxic people speaking negatively in her house. She would just tell them to get out and take their negativity with them. She said that negativity just hangs around the walls and sticks to the furniture so she wanted nothing to do with it.)

Most farming operations that have layers are profit driven. Therefore when a chicken stops laying she is “dispatched.” So a large operation would send the older chickens to be rendered into fats and turned into pet food, for example. On a small farm they may just end up in the soup pot. When Michelle asked the hatchery how long our layers could be expected to live she was told that the recommend “replacing” them every year. Hmmm….

Since we eat a plant-based diet (and have done so for 25 years) the soup pot is not an option, although we certainly aren’t averse to ending the suffering of an ailing hen when and if necessary.

These ladies work very hard their whole lives producing wonderful eggs for us, so it seems disrespectful to end their lives just because they stop laying. Michelle looks at this from an ethical perspective, which I agree with. From a profit standpoint they do continue to consume feed but they consume much less than when they were laying.

My attitude is that if they are still eating feed they are producing manure, which is beneficial to our gardens so they are welcome to stay.


Maya has slowed down considerably in recent weeks, yet she continues to hang in during this bitterly cold Canadian winter. She seems to possess wisdom to rise above the flock that the other ladies lack. When I clean the coop twice a week I have to chase all of the chickens out of the coop or else it is just too chaotic to clean. Maya is generally hunkered down in the deep straw and so when I want to clean I pick her up and tuck her into one of the cozy nesting boxes out of the way of my rake and shovel. She seems quite content to just sit and watch the activity.

She has a bare patch on her back that the other ladies sometimes peck, so yes, she is “hen pecked.” Anytime I spot this behavior I let it be known that it is unacceptable. Maya seems to accept this treatment and not let it bother her, which is another reason that I consider her the “wise one.” She doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Today after I finished cleaning the coop most of the other hens were outside in the sun room. Maya had chosen to go outside to enjoy the warmth of the sun. I had a pot full of warm rice, which is a treat that the ladies love I sometimes think that they mistake the rice for insect larvae. They attack it with such enthusiasm! So before I dispensed the rice and experienced the resulting bedlam, I picked Maya up and took her into the now clean coop and gave her a spoonful of rice to eat unencumbered.

The savages outside went after the rice like a pride of lions after a fresh kill. Meanwhile Maya enjoyed her fine dining in peace, by herself, inside the coop.

I’m not sure what quality of life a senior chicken has but all of the ladies at Sunflower Farm live a pretty fine life. And the older ladies who have worked so hard providing us with wonderful brown eggs get to live out their golden years in the comfort and with the respect that they deserve.


One cold winter morning I expect to find that Maya has passed on during the night. Obviously the ground is frozen solid so I won’t be able to dig a grave for her and I will also want to make sure that Jasper the Wonder Dog doesn’t have the opportunity to develop a taste for fresh chicken.

So, I will hike into the woods and bury her in the snow. A fox or a coyote may eventually find her and I think she’d be okay with that. Seems like kind of a natural process. Heck, I’d do the same thing if I could, except there seems to be a lot of restrictions about disposing of human remains these days.

For more stories from Sunflower Farm please visit Cam Mather's website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



That dreaded event in a beekeeper's world when an entire colony of bees dies in the hive.

It was a very sad day in mid-December when we found one of the colonies had died out. Every few weeks through winter, a warm enough day (50 degrees F) rolls around and there is an opportunity to check the hives. Typically we add candy boards during these checks as a supplemental food supply. Two of the three colonies were thriving but the third contained only dead bees. A sad day indeed.

After taking a moment to apologize to the queen, feel sorry for ourselves and the bees, I decided to learn from this unfortunate experience.


What Happened?

It seems this is a winter malady. It can be related to the cold weather or evidence that the colony was weak. The best way to find out is to take the entire hive somewhere that you can do a thorough post mortem examination. Here are some things to look for:

Varroa Mites or Tracheal Mites

Look for bees with deformed wings. A "k" shaped wing deformity may indicate tracheal mites. Pick through the layers of debris on the bottom board and watch for signs of Varroa mites.

Hive Beetles and Wax Moths

Hive beetles are small black hard shelled beetles that take up residence in the crevices of the hive. Cottony oval shaped cocoons or oval shaped depressions on frames is a sign of wax moths. An abundance of either is evidence of a weak colony. Strong colonies of honeybees are very hygienic and will keep these pests in control.


As you examine the frames, note the position of the dead bees. Are they head first in cells? Is the cluster mainly located a frame or so away from a supply of honey? Both of these conditions indicate starvation. If it becomes too cold for the bees to reach their food supply or they did not have adequate stores to get through winter, they will starve. 

Other Causes

There are other potential causes for a dead out such as a weak queen, foulbrood or even a rodent infestation. Observe your dead colony for indicators of these conditions.

Now What?

After you have identified a potential cause for the loss of the colony, there is hope to save the rest of your apiary. If you have found an unacceptable mite load, plan for a spring treatment of the other colonies. Starvation can be counter-acted with supplemental feedings or leaving more honey stores in the fall. Small hive beetle traps are effective at reducing that population. The condition you find will steer you to the correct solution. As a precaution, particularly if you discover foulbrood, burn the dead bees and any equipment that can not be adequately cleaned.

I will not let a dead-out deter me from keeping honeybees. I will learn from this experience and strive to be a better beekeeper.

Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois where honeybees, gardening and of course cats reign supreme. Check out the farm website and while you're there, get a free ebook!

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Author Len McDougall, and his wife, Cheanne, snowshoed 1.5 miles on Whitefish Point, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, February 28.  Eighteen feet of snow has fallen so far this winter, and Len actually snowshoed this trail just before Christmas, although you'd never know that anyone had passed through.

This is the first day after a seven-week below-zero (Fahrenheit) cold spell.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation can be exasperating and very much a challenge. Our growing season is short and the best way to have a decent harvest is to start the seeds inside. In the 18 years we have lived at this higher elevation we have tried various methods of growing a garden and it has been 18 continuous years of trial and error. Mostly error but strides forward have been a slow progression for us by learning from our numerous errors. For example we have started seeds inside so that when the snow finally melts away and the ground thaws they can be transplanted outdoors in our entirely enclosed garden boxes. Those garden boxes are fully enclosed in 1/2-inch hardware screen to keep the rodents out and then they are also covered with a 50-percent sun screen to protect tender plants from the intense sunlight at this elevation (9,750 feet). In one garden box I plant spinach seeds in late fall and when the soil thaws out in the spring they will sprout and provide us a two week head start on our leaf vegetables. As I sit here and write that particular box is currently under 5 feet of snow so it will be a while this year before they begin to sprout.

Enclosing the garden boxes with hardware cloth on all six sides became necessary to keep rodents out of the interior area. We have voles, moles, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels and chipmunks - all of which have an uncanny ability to find their way into gardening containers at just the right time to consume our harvest. The boxes allow sunlight and rain to enter in order to nourish the plants but now keep rodents out. Once the plants are established we sometimes take the 50-percent sun screen off the hinged top portion to allow for more direct sunlight. Our optimum growing season is usually 60 days leaving the rest of the gardening season with cool nights and short days slowing growth. The garden boxes are varying heights and sizes to accommodate both small and large plants. Insects are not much of a problem at this altitude so by growing in a fully enclosed container the only real hazard is when we have an occasional hail storm. Hail has ruined vegetables a few times over the years which always presents the question as to whether risk a hail storm and remove the 50-percent sun screen or not. The sun screen protects against hail but limits the growth of the plants in our short growing season by limiting the sunlight.

A few times during the last 18 years we have had very mild winters and I was able to get plants safely transplanted into the garden boxes around the first week of April. Those are cherished years as it gives us a longer growing season which is very unusual for us. Up until two weeks ago I wrongly assumed that this was appearing to be one of those extended growing seasons and I could have a great harvest. The garden boxes were clearly visible from the snow which had been very moderate to date. I made the terrible mistake of thinking it would only be 4-6 weeks until I could start to work in the garden outside. I got my seed starter boxes out and filled them with sprouting soil and planted the seeds inside. As can be seen in the photo they are doing well and could be planted outside in the next few weeks. I seriously miscalculated because when I made this decision we were having days in the 50s but in the past two weeks we have had snow almost each day for a total accumulation during that period of 90 inches and very cold temperatures.

Fortunately I can save the seedlings this year by planting them in earth boxes and keeping them in the basement with a grow light. It is going to take several weeks for our current snow to melt away and hence planting the seedlings outside is no longer possible. Proper timing when attempting a garden at high elevation is always iffy at best but to make a serious mistake like this year can sometimes mean starting totally over again. Fortunately I did not plant more seeds than my earth boxes can accommodate. Even our earth boxes needed modification due to our rodents to keep vegetables out of their reach. Even though we keep the boxes on our deck which is elevated 10’ from the ground the ground squirrels climb onto the deck to get at them. To solve that problem I drilled holes in the edge of the earth boxes and fashioned wire loops over the boxes and covered the boxes in netting. Thus far that has worked.

We have tried solar boxes to start plants outside early but when left closed during the day they become too hot for tender seedlings and when we would prop them open in the daytime the ground squirrels and chipmunks, looking for food after coming out of hibernation, would devastate them before they got a good start. Prior to declaring full out war against rodents and just before digging a moat or laying a mine field around our garden I arrived at the idea of enclosed garden boxes which seems to have resolved the problem for now. I am glad that I chose to build the garden boxes strong because on one occasion we observed a bear standing on one box. The bear could not figure out how the hinged top lifted up so instead stood on the box which held up nicely. Swinging the lid up while you are standing on it is next to impossible which stymied the bear completely and it finally just gave up and left.

Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation is possible if you are persistent and adaptable. With a short growing season, rodents, harsh weather and the intense sun during the summer makes it necessary to sometimes grow a garden outside the more conventional method. Through trial and error we have found a way to grow and harvest vegetables but we still have to be flexible for changes like this year being fooled by mother nature and the influx of snow. For us it just boils down to old Irish stubbornness and persistence.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their high altitude living check out the McElmurray's Mountain Retreat.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Large Sow with Piglets 

What could be more fun and exciting then seeing a group of pasture-raised piglets run through the warm, green grass of summer? Not much in my opinion! But does the thought of cold weather care make you want to cringe? Actually the care of pastured pigs in winter doesn’t have to be that hard and shouldn’t make you reconsider your choices. We are most familiar with the ‘Idaho Pasture Pigs' and ‘Kunekune’ pigs, but a lot of what we will discuss will apply to other breeds of pasture pigs as well.

A-Frame Housing

Winter Pig Shelter

Probably the most important aspect for pigs wintering outside is that they have adequate shelter and protection from the weather and cold. We build A-frame houses made with two sheets of plywood on the sides and a triangle piece for the back. We use these same shelters in the summer months and with no floors the pigs are able to stay cool on the dry ground. In the colder months we fill the shelters full of straw or hay bedding to keep them warm. Five or six of our fully grown Idaho Pasture Pigs fit comfortably in the A-frame shelters and they stay very warm and toasty. Many mornings, they will get up when I come to feed them and steam will billow out along with them.

Many people think pigs won’t eat hay, but that is exactly what our pigs eat all winter. We feed a combination of alfalfa, clover, and grass hay. We put a big round bale or square bale into each pen and it gives them feed and entertainment for many weeks (and then we replace it with another one). Remember: Most pastured pigs like to graze and having the ability to do that all winter will keep them more content and happy. If you aren’t able to put in big bales, don’t worry— they will be happy with a couple leafs of hay each day from a small bale. This will still give them the ability to “graze” and give them the added feed they require. We do feed a commercial pig feed also to supplement the minerals that our ground is deficient in as well as provide the extra protein they require during the cold months.

Providing Water for Pigs During Winter

For most people the “scary” aspect of winter care is watering their pigs. How do they get water? Are they getting enough? How will they survive? These are all questions I hear on a regular basis. If you have electricity and can have heated dishes hooked up, then it isn’t a concern. But most of us do not have electricity to any or all of our pastures. We solved this problem by buying a rubber feed dish for each pen (we like the rubber feed dishes made for horses). Each day, I simply put water into each pen using these dishes. I have learned to take them out when they are done or they play with them and it is like a treasure hunt the next day to find it again! Pigs are also able to eat snow like many wild animals can and are able to get added hydration that way.

Warmth, Open Space and Adequate Water

The most important things to remember are:

• Pig shelters needs to be dry and warm, allowing pigs to get out of the wind and weather and stay cozy.
• Good roughage for pigs to eat throughout the day is preferred to ensure they get the adequate protein and minerals they need.
• Ensuring water is available during winter will keep pigs hydrated each day and will allow their digestive systems to function properly during dry winters.

Wintering pigs outside is both fun and rewarding, if you plan accordingly.  Enjoy the season and if you remember the important needs of your pasture pigs, they will too!

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