Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Shiitake mushrooms are an easy to grow, delicious mushroom for beginners to learn to cultivate. Shitakes have a satisfying meaty texture when sautéed, broiled or baked, and they have a distinctive 'unami' flavor that makes them popular in Asia.


Our Appalachian homestead has given us lots of opportunities to experiment with homesteading skills like using a wood-fired earth oven, making vermicompost with worms, washing with soap nuts and building rabbit lawn mowers, so it seemed a natural next step for us to start experimenting with cultivating our own mushrooms. We learned a lot from this project that I am sharing with you in article. Think of it as a starting point in your own journey of learning the art of shiitake cultivation from spore to fruit.

Mushroom Logs

Mushroom spawn requires hardwood logs that are well shaded and protected from severe winds. Red Oak and White Oak is the preferred wood type for shiitake cultivation. Trees used for mushroom logs should be felled in mid to late winter to be inoculated in early spring. Let logs age for two weeks before inoculating them. Only use logs with intact bark because gaps in bark can allow other types of fungi to get in and contaminate your spores.

Prepare logs that are between 3-8 inches in diameter and in lengths between 3-4 feet. Too long logs become cumbersome to work with; too short ones dry out quickly. Properly managed small diameter logs can produce more mushrooms though the logs will decay quickly. That's not a problem though, because 'spent' logs can be ground up and used as compost.

mushroom farmer

Choosing Spawn

Shiitake mushroom spawn comes in two types: Plug spawn and sawdust spawn.

Plug spawn is mycelium grown into hardwood. It's easy to use because it requires no special tools and is extremely durable. It takes longer to grow and is more expensive than sawdust spawn, but it is a smart choice for beginner growers.

Sawdust spawn is the preferred spawn for shiitakes. This spawn type grows faster than plug spawn but is more sensitive to drying out. Consisting of mycelium grown into hardwood sawdust, inoculation is complex unless the process is mechanized with specialized equipment.


The Inoculation Process

Shiitake mushroom inoculation works best when it happens as early in the spring as possible, or when daylight highs are above 40 degrees f. A high speed drill should be used to make 5/16 sized holes 1 inch deep, spaced 6 inches apart, in staggered rows. This will create a diamond pattern.

Fill the holes with spawn as quickly as possible to avoid an opportunity for contamination. Specialized spawn tools like a thumb style brass inoculator can be used. Next, cover the loose sawdust spawn immediately with hot wax, usually cheese wax. Get the wax as close to 450 degrees Fahrenheit without burning it as you can to ensure a good seal.


Spawn Run

Shiitakes take between 6 months to a year after being inoculated before the mycelium grow through the log in a thread-like network. This is called the "spawn run".

During the spawn run, stack your mushroom logs loosely to create airflow. The best log stacking techniques vary on climate zone, wind levels, average rainfall and your ability to protect the logs from wind and sun. The optimal production for shiitakes happens when they are kept at 35-45 percent moisture content. Keep your log ends off the ground or on weed-barrier fabric to prevent contamination from wild strains of fungi.


Fruiting the Crop

Shiitakes inoculated with sawdust usually fruit the fall after they are inoculated. Logs can be “forced” to fruit by being submerged in cool water for 24 hours and then stacked upright to increase the airspace for mushroom formation. Upright stacking also causes logs to recover more quickly by stimulating wood decay and fruiting behaviors.

Beware of pests around your logs. Mice like to chew on mushroom caps, but they rarely cause any damage. During prolonged humid weather slugs and snails can sometimes harm shiitakes grown close to the ground.

Harvesting Your Mushrooms

Mushrooms fruit to full size over several days. Shiitakes are ready to be harvested when their caps are 70 to 90 percent open. When they begin fruiting make sure to check our mushrooms every day. Mushroom development speeds up in hot weather and caps can quickly expand beyond prime condition on hot nights.

To harvest, twist and pull the stem off. Never cut mushroom stems because this shortens their shelf life significantly by drying them out. Mushrooms can be stored in any container that is well-ventilated. After your logs have produced a crop, let them rest for 2-3 months to give the mycelium a chance to regain the energy needed for fruiting. A healthy, well taken care of shiitake log can fruit for 2-8 years.  njoy cultivating this delicious fungus! The healthy results are well worth the wait.

Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with their ever expanding collection of animals and are caretakers of a historic Appalachian homestead that resides on a 500-acre land trust. They also help to run a mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


The previous articles in this series have shown how plants build soil by converting atmospheric carbon into sugars which then become humus, nature’s precious topsoil. We’ve seen that cover crops, compost and compost tea all complement this system.

In this post, we’ll look at the essential role that grazing animals have in this system, and how to successfully manage our ruminants in a sustainable manner.

Dutch Belted cows on pasture

Sustainable (Planned) Grazing

What is sustainable grazing?: By definition, sustainable grazing allows nature to keep our pastures, soil and animals healthy long-term with minimal inputs. Although ruminants have been blamed for depleting forage and contributing to climate change, mimicking nature allows us to graze our animals sustainably.

How Can We Imitate Nature When Grazing Animals?

To see how nature has kept the planet healthy for thousands of years while providing food for indigenous people, we only need to think of buffalo herds on North American prairies or antelope grazing the Serengeti plains or caribou herds roaming the arctic tundra.

There are two characteristics of their grazing pattern that prevented forage from being depleted and kept the planet healthy.

First, these animals all had predators that kept them “bunched” in tight herds for protection.

Second, because they had to keep moving away from their dung and urine in order to graze, these tightly bunched animals kept moving. We can imitate this “bunching and moving” with our own herds with rotational grazing through paddocks. This “planned grazing” is also called “holistic management.”

What Are the Benefits of Planned Grazing?

When doing things nature’s way by “bunching and rotating” our animals, we’ll be able to:

• Prevent “cherry-picking” and destruction of the most nutritious forage.

• Allow sufficient recovery time for forage to both grow tall and roots to grow deep which can then absorb and retain rain.

• Break up the soil’s crust to better absorb rain.

• Fertilize plants and soil with dung and urine.

• Allow the densely spaced hoofs to work some plants into the soil for additional fertilizer.

• Build humus rapidly, at four to six inches a year, from atmospheric carbon.

• Ameliorate climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil.

How We are Converting our Homestead to Sustainable Grazing

Fifteen years ago when we bought our little farm, it had an undivided, ten-acre meadow. We purchased two pregnant cows and grazed them on the entire pasture throughout Ohio’s grazing season, just as generations before us had done.

Although this method constantly depleted the most nutritious plants, we usually had adequate forage because Ohio gets moisture from rain or snow pretty much year-round. As Allan Savory says, year-round humidity allows pasture to recover, even when being constantly cherry-picked. However, it only took the drought of 2012 for us to realize that our pasture needed more resiliency.

We knew the easy part of establishing rotational grazing would be dividing the meadow into smaller paddocks with electrical fencing. But each smaller pasture, or paddock, requires water and shade. Each original paddock was therefore fenced to include mature trees. Since then we have also purchased a portable shed to provide shade.

We then had a well dug in the meadow to provide water to each paddock. A windmill was built and water lines buried to each paddock. Additionally, we are gradually improving the forage by frost-seeding a variety of legumes and grasses each March.

So far, we can now rotate our animals through seven separate paddocks, all with shade, water and improved forage. With only nine cows, we certainly haven’t yet achieved “bunched” or “mob” grazing. However, being able to rotate the cows to keep forage from getting shorter than eight inches has prevented the many bare spaces that previously existed between plants.

Windmill and portable shelter

What is 'Mob Grazing' and When is it Essential?

Mob grazing refers to having a great density of animals moved through each paddock — as many as 800 cows per acre. (The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson, chapter 4). As Allan Savory says in his TED talk and satellite photos demonstrate, mob grazing is necessary in most of North America — from about Indiana’s eastern border westward.

However, the more extreme weather of climate change may require all of us to graze our animals more densely. For those of us who don’t want to increase our herd size, Joel Salatin tells us how to mob graze a single cow.

Finally, we probably all know well-meaning people who think grazing animals are bad for the planet. Here is how you can help educate them.

Ruminants Don’t Contribute to Climate Change or Desertification

Grazing animals have been maligned for accelerating climate change because of the large amount of methane released from their rumens. But when livestock graze, the soil is enriched, plants thrive and bacteria in the soil called “methanotrophs” absorb all the methane emitted from the cows’ rumens.

When humans survived as hunters and gatherers, our planet thrived with larger herds of animals than are grazing today. Nature’s complex and inter-related systems always keeps things in balance — if humans don’t interfere.

When herds are allowed to “cherry pick” an entire pasture year-round, the good forage does not have time to recover, large bare spots appear and the quality of the soil and plants decreases. Remember that the current deserts in North America’s southwest were lush prairies when nature kept large herds of animals bunched and moving. Grazers don’t cause deserts; the people who manage the animals do.

This is the last article on working with nature. I hope the series helps you work better with nature to build healthy soil, plants and food while also helping our planet.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Our lake free of ice.

Ice out! The lake is finally ice free — it's time to put the boat in the water, dust off the fishing rods and stalk the creatures of the deep!

In a previous post, Off Grid and Free:The Dangers of a Slush-Covered Lake, I had voiced my concerns about slush on the top of the ice surface and how those conditions complicate float plane travel. But once the lake is well on its way to melting, travel by float plane is no longer an option. The planes cannot land safely on a lake surface of rotting ice. At this time of the year, any float plane that was on skis is now being converted over to pontoons for open water. During this period of spring break up, we are truly on our own and an expensive helicopter is the only means of transportation available to us.

Thoughts on Lake Ice

"Spring break" up is one of the most exciting times of the year for us. Not only have we survived the long winter, but animals are more active and migratory birds and waterfowl have come home. We eagerly watch the lake as it slowly releases its icy shackles with the anticipation of open water, fishing and boating to come. The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

“Lake ice doesn’t melt like a big ice cube. As it melts, the ice starts to honeycomb and melt water trickles down through small, nearly invisible fractures. It is through these cracks and small air bubbles, which were frozen in time during freeze-up, that melt water flows, eroding the ice as it permeates the layer. The lake goes through stages of melt, with the color of the ice changing from white to gray, to dark gray, to finally black, as the thickness of the ice decreases.

When the ice turns dark, we know we are getting close to ice out. By the time the remaining ice is 6 inches thick, we are able to pick up chunks that shatter into dozens of smaller fragments, as though they were sheets of glass that had been dropped.

Wind plays a big role in how fast the ice melts. Think of it as a big fan blowing air across the surface of the ice. Once the ice sheet has melted along all of the shoreline, it becomes a free-floating mass, able to be pushed around by the wind. Holes further out will start to open as wind keeps working their edges. If the ice is weak enough around its edges, we will hear a tinkling sound as the wave and wind action loosens small shards of ice. Bays are the first to shed their icy shackles, the water no longer confined by a frozen layer. Soon thereafter, smaller ice sheets break away from the main body and are driven by the wind currents on to land or into each other. More and more chunks break off, and soon there are wide open expanses of water, not only along the shoreline but further out. The direction ice sheets move is, of course, determined by the wind. It is both fascinating and scary to see a sheet of ice maybe 3⁄4 mile long being pushed down the lake, towards our shoreline. Once the sheet has momentum, it’s hard to stop and it will start piling up on shore as the ice keeps advancing, pushed by the wind.”

Moving Ice Is Powerful

A moving sheet of ice has enormous power. We all know the effect glaciers have had on the earth's surface, but each year, we witness a mini version of the force of an ice sheet on the move. If we are at the beach at just the right time, we can watch as it piles up on shore, chunks of ice folding upon themselves accordion style as the wind driven ice continues its push forward. Anything in its way is subject to those forces.

In particular, our dock. Despite our best efforts to protect it, the sheet of ice took our dock and deposited it onto the shore. I now have a day's work ahead of me to rebuild sections and get it back in position where it belongs so we have a place to park the boat. Fortunately, this doesn't happen every year. If we are lucky the wind will blow it away from our beach, but no such luck this year.

Dock and Piled Ice.

While the “pool” is open for water play, I think we'll wait until the water warms up before we take our first swim. Believe it or not, a dunk in 35- to 40-degree water doesn't have much appeal!

Thanks for reading and I'll be back again shortly. Please stop in for my next post. It will be about a subject that is dear to my heart. I will tell you how we survived direct hits by two different forest fires.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Developing A Pond A Long Term Plan worth A Look

Obtaining water off the grid is one of the most valuable activities on any self-sustainable homestead. The value of water is so important that without it, self-sustainability can be severely hindered. From watering our gardens, our livestock, and ourselves, to washing clothes, doing dishes, and taking showers, water is a staple of life. As Americans turn on their facets and take their long showers, wash their cars, and frolic in their swimming pools without a thought, many of us living off-grid shriek!

If you are new to off-grid living and just starting your quest,you will appreciate the focus of this article. For many newbies, habituation to their old lifestyle can be difficult to break away from.

Thus, when planning for your homesteading needs, when it comes to water, a whole new set of skills, thinking, and habits need to be formed. Here are some simple tips to get you on your way to getting off grid water right!

Mental Preparedness: Breaking the Habit

Mental preparedness? Sounds a lot like some psychological mumbo-jumbo, right? Not really. Going off-grid, even on a modern homestead, does require a different set of mental skills and thinking.

If this lifestyle is new to you, one of the biggest water obstacles may be your habits! It's easy to become habituated to easy water access. But the reality is that off-grid homesteading dictates that water can easily become scarce and can affect your daily life when it's difficult to obtain or becomes unavailable.

Here's reality for us in our region: We have forest fires and very dry hot summers. Last year, the temperature rose well past 100 degrees for weeks on end. Along with the forest fires, wells were drying up and springs were down to a dribble.

Talk about water being liquid gold! There was no filling up kiddie pools for frolicking or water for the decorative fountains in the flower garden! Gardens were dying off and literally abandoned.

Learning to rethink water consumption starts with basic changes: Take shorter showers, turn off the water when brushing your teeth or washing hands, do dishes once a day, and get your car washed when you go to town. Longer-term planning should address giving up a big lawn and choosing a garden method that doesn't require watering everyday.

Every facet of water planning needs to start with changing the mental habits we have created over time.

Above ground tanks a viable option for water preperartion

Water Preparedness: Backup Water Systems

Depending on the region of the country you are located, water may be readily available and a back up system isn't needed. When we lived in Wisconsin, we had water everywhere. But not all regions are this blessed. If you are in a dry area where water is such a commodity, let's consider some practical preparation for preservation. and storage.

Aboveground tanks. Aboveground tanks are a very viable solution and are widely used for the collection and storage of rainwater, backup water use, and fire-protection reserves. These tanks are easy to handle and can be filled using your own well water, spring water, or by hauling water from a municipal source or a lake or river.

Sizes range from anywhere to 20 gallons up to thousands of gallons! Keep in mind that water tanks on a homestead should be used as a sensible backup. They can be used for drinking water, but on most homesteads, these are utilized for garden, livestock, laundry, showering, etc., during dry times.

Truck tanks (portable water tanks). These tanks are manufactured in one piece with seamless construction and are designed to fit both full-sized, American-made and "mini" pickup trucks.

Many homesteaders that do not have abundant water at their fingertips will haul water from another source. Your municipality is a option, but even the local river, creek and lake (which is free) and more readily available is a great off-grid source.

Getting a 12-volt pump or a sump pump connected to an inverter is a solid backup plan for pumping the water into your truck tank.
Rain Catchment a option with limitations

Rain catchment. Rain catchment can be a cheap and easy way to harvest free water. Any roof can be turned into a rain-harvesting system with few pieces of gutter strung together, and your set.

Even roofs such as on the chicken coop, the tool shed, and the woodshed can be used. All can provide you with downspout ability. In addition, the more barrels you have to catch the rain, the more gallons you will have for off-grid use. Scour Craigslist for free or very economically  priced barrels.

You don't have to create a elaborate rain-catchment system. Keep it simple — when it rains, it will pour for you!

Developing water (seeps, spring and ponds). Don't overlook the very doable possibility of developing a seep spring or even a pond. If you have any of these options on your off-grid property, this can be a very valuable investment for your water preparation needs.

We know many people off-grid who have actually spent the money to just rent a excavator and dig a pond. Our property was owned by a fellow who had the very same idea and, lucky for us, had already began developing the pond. Now we reap the benefits as our underground water tank overflow spills into the pond and keeps it well feed — a brilliant idea that gives us water year round!

Be creative. Springs don't need to be elaborate, either. Our neighbor has a spring high above his off-grid cabin. He simply placed a black water line hose at the source with some screen and used gravity to pipe the water down to his cabin — more than 450 feet of line!

It is amazing what one can achieve for backup water preps. The bottom line is that off-grid water is indeed a precious commodity. Turning those preconditioned habits from our old water-wasting lifestyle into a greener, more conservative attitude will increase your future success on your first off grid homestead.

Starry Hilder and her husband, Mark, live off-grid on a 13-acre self-sustaining homestead in the stunning mountains of Northern Idaho. Unique in their approach to homesteading, they rely on working with nature and utilizing their skills and knowledge with a back-to-basic outlook. From hunting and fishing, to gardening, composting, canning, and trail running, paddling, and hiking, there is never a dull moment on their property. Starry enjoys sharing her journey and all their life skills on their YouTube channel. Read all of Starrys' MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


I gave you five things you should consider when building your chicken coop in the first part of this series. Here are the remaining few points that you should take into consideration when building your fluffy chicken friends their perfect home.

The Ladies Need a Place to Lay

Hens need a place to lay their eggs, and you want them to have a place. Nothing is harder than when you have hens laying everywhere. Every day is like a scavenger hunt trying to locate where that day’s eggs are. It gets interesting---and old. The rule of thumb is you need one nesting box for every 4 to 5 hens. I recommend sticking to the rule just for egg production reasons. In reality, though, all of your hens are going to try and lay in the same nesting box. It is just what they do.

The nesting boxes should be around 12 inches square (like this one from Amazon) and lower than the roosting bar. Keeping the nesting boxes lower than the roosting bar is supposed to discourage the hens from roosting in them. Our chickens have ample of roosting space, and yet some will still always roost in the nesting boxes at night. They are much lower than the roosts as well. If you chickens do this, don’t be alarmed. Just know that you’ve done everything you can to discourage this habit. Some chickens just have a mind of their own.

ADT for Chickens: Think Like a Toddler

Chickens don’t literally have alarm systems. I’m not sure if they’d be glad to have them or fall over of a heart attack. Either way, chickens need security. They are a heavily preyed upon animal. If one of their predators finds a way in the coop, then your whole flock is gone.

Be sure to use mesh wire or chicken wire over all of the windows, doors, and any opening that is larger than a half inch wide. If you choose to keep a dirt floor in your coop, it is wise to have chicken wire buried under the perimeter of your coop. This way, if any predator tries to dig in they will be met with chicken wire that will cut their paws and deter them from digging any deeper into your coop.

Raccoons are a huge predator of chickens. These little boogers are smart! Anything a toddler can open, a raccoon can. It is important to use latches that pull apart to open instead of latches than can be turned. Raccoons can open anything that twists or turns without a problem. When purchasing latches, try to think like a toddler. If you have a toddler, you can take them shopping with you — even better.

What Are You Going to Do with Your Chickens?

Some chicken keepers allow their chickens to free range. Others allow their chickens to roam inside a fenced area. Some chicken keepers keep their chickens cooped.

There are benefits and downfalls to each choice. However, it is something that should be decided upon before building your coop. If your chickens are going to be free ranged, you can get away with a coop that is half the size of a coop for the bird that will live in it at all times. The downside is that, if your birds free range, they are much more susceptible to predators.

If you keep your birds cooped all of the time, they are much more protected. However, you need a much larger coop. It would also be wise to give your chickens a run if they are cooped all of the time. This gives them an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and outdoors with a lot of protection.

We actually choose the “in-between” method: Our birds have a chicken yard attached to their coop. They are double-fenced as we have a fenced-in yard, and then our chickens’ yard is fenced within it. I highly recommend this option. It gives the chickens freedom, protection, and it also keeps them from digging in your flowers.

Chickens Need a Floor

What? Flooring for chickens? Yes, your chickens need a floor. You can choose to leave your floors dirt. The chickens won’t mind. However, it does leave them more susceptible to predators. Predators can dig through those as we discussed earlier.

I also gave you a solution to deter them. So dirt floors are still a good option for your chicken coop. Some people choose to go with concrete, because no predator is going to get through that bad boy. However, a concrete floor can be costly. Another great option for a chicken floor is to lay plywood over the dirt and then lay linoleum. It is easy to clean and is predator-proof without the added costs.

You can also choose to lay river rock on the floor of your chicken coop. This option is easy to maintain, isn’t easy for a predator to dig through, and is easy on the chickens’ feet since the rocks are smooth.

Fire the Maintenance Man

This is another huge point to consider when building your chicken coop: Is it easy to maintain? You don’t want a coop that is going to be difficult to clean. You will have to go in about once a week and clean the roosts, nesting boxes, and floors.

You have to. Cleaning is what keeps your birds healthy and their eggs flowing. If your birds feel cramped, are living in unclean quarters, or are not satisfied with the cleanliness of their nesting materials you’ll know right away because the eggs will stop.

Choose wisely as you build your chickens’ new home. Be sure it will suit all of their needs; be a place that they will enjoy, and also be a structure that you will be proud of and happy to maintain.

Now that you’ve read all of my tips on things to consider when building your chicken coop, check out this collection of 34 chicken coop plans for some ideas that will meet the needs of you and your chickens.

Top photo by Morguefile/TheBrassGlass; Bottom photo by Jennifer Poindexter

Jennifer Poindexter and her husband raise most of their food and a variety of animals in the foothills of North Carolina, where they built a small homestead on very little money. She writes about all of her adventures at Morning Chores, where she shares the knowledge she has gained with others that might want to take the full plunge into homesteading. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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



Some kind of food storage space is as important to the self reliant gardener as a hoe and shovel. But food storage is also where many people have trouble.  While it’s true that millions of homes across the continent include a small cold room off the basement for storing food, most of these cold rooms don’t actually work – at least not without the upgrades I’ll tell you about here.

The kind of cold rooms I’m talking about extend underneath the concrete front steps of homes. There are other styles of root cellar storage, but this blog is all about making under-the-steps basement cold rooms work. What is the usual problem with these things? Too cold in winter and too warm in summer, cold rooms fail for one main reason: they don’t have enough soil cover to function as the miniature root cellar they claim to be.

Why Some Cold Rooms Don't Work

If you’ve got an under-the-front porch cold room at your place, you probably know all too well what the major problems are. It’s not unusual for frost to penetrate the top 25 percent of the structure during winter. On its own, frost on walls might not seem like the end of the world, but when it melts and runs onto the floor, it comes close. Besides soaking the floor, the added moisture boosts airborne humidity high enough to promote mold and mildew. You might even get significant amounts of water pooling on the floor of your cold room because of melted frost. Not good.

Poor warm weather performance usually goes hand-in-hand with a cold room that’s bad in winter, too. Without the moderating effects of enough soil around the structure, cold room temperatures are likely to get way too high in summer for effective root cellaring.

Water leakage into under-the-steps cold rooms is the third most common cold room headache, and it has several sources. Liquid water can seep in through the walls of the structure, or down from the top, through or around the precast steps. Despite its solid appearance, ordinary concrete blocks and poured concrete aren’t fully waterproof. Many times they’re not even close.

How to Make Your Cold Room Work

The good news is that there are three specific things you can do to make your cold room a pretty decent food storage zone. It won’t be as good as a full-blown root cellar, but it will work way better than it does now.

Boosting your cold room is all about stabilizing temperatures within the space. You need temperatures to stay just above freezing in winter, and to be as cool as possible during summer. So how do you make this happen? After waterproofing the cold room so it doesn’t leak water, there are three key steps:

Step 1: Bank as much soil as you can around the sides of the cold room. Soil is your friend when it comes to food storage. It works to keep things above freezing during winter, and as cool as possible during hot weather.

Step 2: Install vapor-proof insulation on the cellar ceiling and partway down the walls. It’s very important that this insulation prevent the movement of air through it.

Step 3: Install a door capable of keeping heated basement air out of the cold room space. An exterior insulated door meant for houses is perfect as a cold room door. Anything less and all the rest of your modifications won’t make a difference.

After banking as much soil as possible around the walls of your cold room, fasten 2-inch thick sheets of extruded polystyrene foam to the ceiling of your cold room using construction adhesive, then part way down the walls.

How far down? A foot or so lower than the outside level of the soil. Extruded polystyrene is smooth textured and typically blue or pink in color. Don’t use the white, beady expanded polystyrene foam. It’s cheaper than extruded, but air can pass through it, leading to condensation forming behind the foam during cold weather. 

You’ll need to cover your foam to keep it in good condition and meet building code requirements. Cement board is an excellent option for this.

Need more help? Download free cold room renovation plans at It shows you everything you need to do so your cold room actually works as your own miniature food self reliance zone.

Steve Maxwell, “Canada’s Handiest Man”, is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. For more than two decades he’s been helping people renovate, repair, build and maintain their homes. Find him online at Maxwell's House blog and read all of Steve's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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


Heart Nest with Hands

Spring is one of my favorite seasons. The flowers are blooming, birds are singing lullabies to their nestlings, and the consistent rainfall leaves everything feeling new, fresh, and clean.

As an amateur birder, my favorite part of spring is the return of the robins, red winged blackbirds, and sparrows, as well as the more elusive kingfishers, egrets, and other waterfowl that comes to visit our lake home to nest.

Just the other day, my son came running home with a robin egg that he had found in a neighbor's backyard. It seems like everyone stumbles across some found eggs at some point in time, and leaving them where they are feels like a death sentence.

So what do you do- what can you do?

Removing a Wild Bird Egg is Illegal

Sorry, Folks. If you heard it here first, then I hate to be the harbinger of bad news.  

In the US, according to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to "pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry, or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this Convention . . . for the protection of migratory birds . . . or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird." (16 U.S.C. 703)

Long story short, it is illegal to remove a nest or egg from a migratory species, punishable by a fine (up to $15,000), jail time (up to 6 months), or a combination of the two. Fortunately, this law is really in place to help protect migratory species from being mass harvested and exported to other countries, impacting our migratory bird population. It was enacted to combat a growing problem at the turn of the century, and has been effective in reducing that risk.

So while this does impact your ability to hatch a wild egg, the reason that you aren't supposed to collect those abandoned eggs is actually intended to protect and preserve our wild bird population.

So What Can I Do?

While obeying the law should be your main priority, there are things that you can do to help ensure that the egg or nest that you have found is given the best chance at survival.

I Found An Entire Bird Nest That Looks Abandoned

Kill Deer Ground Nest

Sometimes, you will find what appears to be an entire abandoned nest. Disturbing an entire nest is often a bad idea for a number of reasons:

The Nest may not be abandoned. Some birds actually nest on the ground, and lay their eggs there, such as the Killdeer pictured above. They have done this intentionally, and disrupting their nest can make the parent abandon their nest completely.

Many birds will lay only one egg a day, and will continue to lay eggs until they have a full clutch. This means that while the nest may appear unattended, it may simply be that the mother is not yet ready to start incubating her eggs. They will often stay away from the nest until they are ready to sit, because they don't want to give away their nest location to potential predators.

Now, if you find what you are able to clearly identify as a tree nesting bird nest, such as a robins nest, lying on the ground under a tree, then the best course of action would be to replace the nest in the tree. The nest may have simply been knocked out of the tree due to high winds or other weather.

Fortunately, if a mother loses a nest or a clutch, they will most likely try again in a more secure location.

I Found A Bird Egg Not In A Nest

If you have found an abandoned egg, there is most likely a reason it has been abandoned. Chances are, the mother chose to reject the egg because it was infertile or unlikely to hatch, or it could have been dropped by a predator that originally stole it from it's nest. 

Either way, there is a very slim chance that the egg is viable, and it most likely will not hatch, regardless of the steps you take.

However, there are some things you can do to help give the egg a better chance at survival:

Look for a nearby nest. Just as the apple doesn't fall from the tree, the egg typically doesn't fall far from the nest. If you can find a nest that has the same type eggs, and are pretty confident that it came from that nest, then go ahead and put it back there. Don't go looking for a nest if you can't find one in the immediate location, as you don't want to risk overcrowding another bird's nest, or abandonment of that nest by the mother.

Reach out to a local wildlife rehabilitator who is licensed to care for injured and orphaned wild animals. Do not collect the egg to take to them, but be prepared to show them where the egg is located. Note that they many only be interested in the egg if it is of an endangered species.

But I Really Want To Hatch The Egg Myself!

lady sitting on nest

If you are a hardcore, law-breaking rebel who simply can't resist the urge to incubate the wild bird egg, then this is best done in a standard egg incubator with an egg turner.

Wild birds are tricky to incubate, especially if you are not quite sure what breed it is, as different birds require different incubation periods. For example, pigeons incubate for a period of 17 days, while finches and doves are a period of 14 days.

If you choose to hatch the wild bird egg yourself, then do your best to identify the type of bird egg before you begin, and do your research! You will need to fully understand what incubation parameters, such as duration, turning intervals, humidity, and temperature, you will need for hatching, and how to care for the bird after hatch.

Most bird eggs require 100 degrees F temperature for incubation, and humidity of about 50% during incubation, 60% during the last three days for hatching. This may differ slightly for different egg types, so familiarizing yourself with the bird that you are attempting to hatch is crucial in any situation!

What Do I Do With The Bird Once It Hatches?

If you have thrown caution to the wind, and successfully hatched the egg, then congratulations! You are now officially a Mama Bird. And let me tell you, a Mama bird's job ain't easy. Now that it has hatched, you have to actually keep it alive, which is a whole 'nother thing altogether.

Baby birds can have a varied diet based on their breed, usually worms or a variety of insects, but that doesn't change the fact that they will need to be fed about every 5-15 minutes during all daylight hours for the first 2 weeks of life.

So while you are a Mama Bird, that is pretty much the only thing you will have time to be.  

So What Are You Trying to Say?

Basically, if you find a wild bird egg, leave it alone. Egg abandonment is extremely common, and the Mama bird is the best judge of which eggs will have the best chances of survival. Trust her judgement. The mother has moved on, and so should you.

Not only is it illegal to collect the egg, it is difficult to incubate, almost impossible to care for after hatching, and the chances of survival are extremely slim. 

If you feel that something needs to be done, contact a professional. They can make the decision if the egg is viable, and worth collecting and incubating.

However, if you have a great desire to incubate and raise birds, then there are lots of domestic bird breeds that will not only be easier to hatch, keep, and care for, but can provide you with a source of fresh eggs, meat, and endless hours of entertainment.

If you really want to make an impact or difference on a bird species, choose a heritage chicken or heritage duck breed to start your flock.

Whatever you decide, good luck and happy hatching!

Emily Baker launched the website in 2010 with her husband, Christopher. The site offers a complete incubation and poultry supply business. Emily has personally assisted thousands of hobbyists and breeders in selecting appropriate incubation equipment and supplies, proper use of that equipment, and providing general incubation support. She has also had multiple articles published regarding incubator selection and technique. Read all of Emily's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

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