Yes, we are here!

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we have been educating folks about the benefits of self-reliance for 50 years. That includes researching and sourcing the best books and products to help individuals master the skills they need in times like these and beyond. Our online store is open and we are here to answer any questions you might have. Our customer service staff is available Monday through Friday from 8a.m.-5p.m. CDT. We can be reached at 1-800-234-3368 or by email. Stay safe!


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


Reader Roundup: DIY Composting Toilets

You don’t need to purchase a commercial composting toilet to safely recycle human waste. A simple setup of a bucket, seat and sawdust — giving these toilets the name “sawdust potties” — will do. We asked members of our Facebook community about their experiences with DIY toilet setups, as well as any building or sanitation codes they had to follow. Their consensus? This natural method is unexpectedly inoffensive, and it saves water to boot. — MOTHER

I’ve lived with a DIY composting toilet for 13 years. I’ve used just about everything as a composting medium, including pine shavings, coco peat, peat moss and sawdust. Sawdust is by far the best. I found that mice loved the coco peat, and I had problems with flies until I started using sawdust. I’ve discovered it’s best to keep as much liquid as possible out of the bucket, so I have a separate urinal. We have no code outside of the city limits here, so we didn’t encounter an inspection problem. — Michael Bandeko

We add a few scoops of coffee grounds to our coir shavings and lime. Flies hate it, and it adds an earthy smell. — Beverly Jones Miller

We use a composting toilet at home as a backup for bad weather. We’re planning on using it exclusively soon, as well as installing a greywater recycling system. Water conservation is a priority, and our city charges way too much for sewage. We also have a composting toilet in our RV to save water. — James Bill Riley

My mother wanted to use a piece of land that she purchased decades ago as a weekend and vacation destination. However, the newer codes in western Pennsylvania prohibited the installation of a composting toilet. The only “sewerage” system allowed was a mounded setup that would have easily cost $20,000. She ended up selling the land because the cost of the system was prohibitive, and the land wasn’t worth keeping without a sewage-disposal setup. — Sarah Menchini Anstey

My husband and I once neglected to empty our composting toilet bucket before we left for two weeks in the middle of summer. Much to our surprise, there was zero smell when we returned. We’ve found that the bucket toilet works great and plan to use one in the off-grid cabin we’re currently building. There are no codes where we are, so we’d rather go this route than shell out thousands to install and maintain a septic field. — Bee Kielb

I loved my DIY composting toilet and can’t wait to have another when we settle into our new home. I thought the smell might be a problem, but it wasn’t with mine. I oiled my wooden toilet with homemade rose oil and was rewarded with no offense to even the most delicate of noses. — Martha Hill

Photo by David Omick

Why and How to Test Soil in Your Garden

Agrlife Extension

Do I need to test my soil before growing a garden? What’s the process?

If your garden has grown productively in the past, you’ll probably have no problem proceeding without testing your soil. But if your plants are struggling, or if you’re starting a new garden, knowing how to test soil may be useful in determining which fertilizers and amendments your plot will require to cultivate healthy crops. By having statistics about your mineral nutrition on hand, you won’t apply too much or too little fertilizer.

A soil test will tell you the soil pH of your garden — that is, the numerical rating of its acidity or alkalinity — which is an important measure of your soil’s makeup. According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, if your test shows a pH level outside a particular plant’s preferred range, you’ll know to expect slowed growth or ill health unless you amend the soil to accommodate the plant. (Learn more about soil pH and testing in Your Garden’s Soil pH Matters.)

A soil test will also clue you in to the levels of available essential nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, manganese, copper and zinc. Depending on where you live, a basic soil evaluation from a state soil-testing lab can cost about $25 — though in some cases it may be free. Check with your local extension service to see whether it offers a soil-testing kit with instructions for taking and submitting a sample. Results from soil-testing laboratories will be more accurate than those from home kits, but if you’re determined to go the DIY route, Missouri extension experts have singled out the $20 LaMotte home soil-testing kit as a trustworthy choice with a high accuracy rating.

Photo courtesy Water and Forage Testing Laboratory/Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service: Contact your local extension office about how to send in a soil sample for pH and nutrient testing before you plant this season.


Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

Tomato Taste Test: Reviewing ‘Indigo Rose’ Tomato Flavor

Tomato Taste

We heard through the tomato vine that ‘Indigo Rose’ tomato flavor was lacking. This newly developed variety is known for its dramatic purple hue and its antioxidant content, especially anthocyanins. Concerned that seed companies may be hyping the flavor, describing the variety as “delectable” and “sparkling,” we asked members of our Facebook community to report their experiences with growing this purple tomato variety. The reviews from this informal tomato taste test were mixed; here’s a sampling.—MOTHER

I grew ‘Indigo Rose’ this year. The fruits are stunning on the plant and vine, but lack the great flavor I was really expecting and looking forward to. — Pilar V. Hari, Washington

I grew them last year. You have to let them really ripen on the vine, until they’re soft to the touch, to get the best taste. Underripe equals less flavor. They get orange on the bottom instead of green, and the purple tops get almost blackish-brown. They worked best in a mixed tomato salad, as the flavor didn’t stand on its own. — Donald J. Shurtleff, Rhode Island

I grew this tomato for two years. I love the taste, which I describe as flowery. It doesn’t taste like most tomatoes; it has its own unique flavor. I liked to eat it right off the vine. I’m not growing it this year because it wasn’t as productive for me as other tomato varieties. If I had more garden space, I would grow several plants. — Frida Morpha, Oregon

I’ve trialed and grown ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes in my home garden. The plant is a fantastic producer in the heat — a big benefit to us Texas gardeners. It continues to set fruit through July and August, which is unheard of here. The fruits are beautiful, and the plants are compact, so they make great edible ornamentals for your foodscape garden. You have to let the fruits ripen on the vine for a long time — but luckily, the fruits hold on long enough to get really ripe without dropping. Is ‘Indigo Rose’ the sweetest tomato? No, it isn’t. But is the flavor good? Yes, and the variety offers a good balance of benefits. — Leslie Halleck, Texas

It’s beautiful on the vine, but its skin is incredibly thick and tannic, lending bitterness to its underwhelming flavor. This isn’t an eat-off-the-vine, stand-alone tomato, but the plants are vigorous and withstand both incredibly dry and wet seasons. — Susan Noblet, Ohio

I was initially intrigued by this little tomato, but, sadly, I’m not impressed. The color of ‘Indigo Rose’ is gorgeous, and it blends nicely in a tomato salad, but the taste is lacking, and the plant isn’t prolific. I’d rather have a ‘Cherokee Purple’ or ‘San Marzano.’ I’ll save seed from my strongest plant in hopes of better luck next year. — Amy Havens Kelly, Illinois

Photo by Shelley Stonebrook

Signs of Spoiled Meat


Photo by Fotolia/grinchh

Is smell a reliable way to know whether the meat in my refrigerator is rotten meat? What other signs of spoiled meat should I look for, and what role does ensuring the proper cooking temperature play in killing meat spoilage bacteria?

While a change in odor may be one symptom of spoiled meat, it’s not the only sign you should rely on. If your meat smells unpleasantly pungent, you’re right to toss it, but even if its scent is normal, the meat could still be spoiled. With proper cooking, however, some “rotten” meat may not make you sick — but whether you should eat it is another question.

Meat is a veritable playground for bacteria and fungi and can pose a food safety concern if not properly handled. According to Marianne Gravely at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two different types of bacteria affect meat: pathogenic bacteria, the kind that can cause food poisoning, and spoilage bacteria, the kind that can grow even at cold temperatures, and cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes and textures. If spoilage bacteria contaminates your meat, your nose will likely know — and you’ll probably prefer not to eat the meat. Pathogenic bacteria, however, can grow rapidly in the “danger zone” — the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit — and your senses won’t be able to detect their presence, Gravely says. If you’re concerned your meat may pose a food safety concern, you must weigh several other factors in determining whether to eat it, and you must properly handle and cook it.

First, consider how long the meat has been in your fridge, noting that temperatures below 40 degrees slow bacterial growth, but don’t halt it completely. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fully thawed, raw meat will remain safe to eat when stored in the refrigerator for the following time limits: Raw ground meats, poultry and seafood will keep for one to two days; raw roasts, steaks and chops will store for three to five days; and cooked meat, poultry and seafood will be good for three to four days. All meat will remain safe almost indefinitely and retain its flavor up to a year if in the freezer. Meat you have ground fresh at the butcher or that you grind yourself from whole cuts will be less likely to be contaminated with E. coli than vacuum-packed meats shipped to a grocery store from a large packer who combines scraps from many animal carcasses.

Even if the meat is safely within those storage limits, you must thaw, handle and cook it properly to eliminate the risk of food poisoning. Improper handling can significantly increase bacteria populations and the rate at which meat becomes unsafe to eat. Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat. Never thaw meat at room temperature — use a refrigerator or microwave to avoid the danger zone, in which bacteria thrive and quickly multiply. If you have properly stored and thawed your meat to avoid bacterial contamination, cook it to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill most harmful microbes. Use a meat thermometer to monitor the temperature, and keep the food piping hot prior to serving and storing it. (You can find cooking temperatures for meat on the Federal Food Safety's website.)

Harold McGee, author of Keys to Good Cooking, notes that microbes aren’t normally present in a piece of meat’s interior, but may exist if the meat has been cut into and will certainly be present in ground meat. So, you can prepare steaks and other whole cuts “rare,” as long as you sear the surface, without worrying about harmful bacteria. Shellfish can contain dangerous viruses that cooking can’t kill, so you should follow proper thawing and cooking instructions carefully. Eat any thawed or fresh shellfish promptly to minimize the risk.

If the meat you’re hoping to devour at dinner has surpassed reasonable storage limits, inspect its color. Discoloration could signal spoilage, though a fading or darkening doesn’t indicate danger. The appearance of green in particular is not good. Surface slime or skin that feels tacky to the touch are also signs of a rotting product. If your meat displays these warning signs, spoilage bacteria could have taken the meat past its prime, meaning you may taste the decay even after thorough cooking.


Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

Is Sprouting Grains and Seeds for Chickens Worthwhile?

Sprouts

Are sprouted grains and seeds a more nutritious feed for my poultry?

The best fare for your fowl includes age-appropriate feed and, if possible, the forage they’ll find by free-ranging or dining on pasture in a movable pen. Countless studies have confirmed that eggs from birds raised on pasture are richer in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E. Seeking better poultry nutrition, some poultry enthusiasts are sprouting grains and seed for chickens, especially when green pasture is scarce. But the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) researched the potential benefits and concluded that sprouting does not significantly enhance the grains’ nutrient levels. A review published by Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition agrees, pointing out that studies have failed to find a substantive nutrient gain when feeding birds sprouted rather than ungerminated grains. Washington State University’s Vegetable Research and Extension Program has published similar findings, saying, “Many farmers soak grain [for sprouting] prior to feeding it to livestock, particularly poultry. There is little science-based information regarding this practice.”

Chickens generally relish sprouts, and offering them as a treat is fine (unless the sprouts have begun to mold). However, an article from the University of California explains why feeding sprouted grains (aka “hydroponic fodder”) on a larger scale isn’t cost-effective: “... seeds utilize the starch stored in the seeds during the first week or so of growth, before photosynthesis and root uptake of minerals kick in …”. This results in the sprouts containing 25 to 30 percent less dry matter compared with the whole grains. In most cases, this means that feeding sprouted grains would be considerably more expensive (and more labor-intensive) than feeding unsprouted grains.

Despite marketing claims that sprouted grains are a superior feed, University of Maryland extension specialist Susan Schoenian reports that, after many trials with many species in many countries, no consistent advantage has been proven. For a detailed discussion from the University of California, see Does Hydroponic Forage Production Make Sense?  Learn more about feed options and find a map of organic poultry-feed suppliers at Organic Poultry Feed Suppliers Directory.

Photo by Superstock/Biosphoto


Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

Can Dogs and Chickens Coexist?

 

How can you protect your chickens from dogs, or raise the two kinds of animals together harmoniously? We turned to our Facebook community for ideas on keeping Fido from frightening the flock.

I have a pit bull, Boston Terriers and a Chihuahua. When I got our first chicks, I kept them indoors in a wire crate under a heat lamp. Whenever the dogs came up to the crate, I would say, “Easy,” and gently put their paws into the cage and let the chicks nibble on them. As the dogs got used to the chicks, they would lie near the cage, and I would take the chicks into my hand, cover their bodies, and let the dogs sniff and lick them. By the time the chicks could go outside and free-range, the dogs knew they were part of our family, and either played with them or paid them no attention at all. (The Chihuahua had even killed two chickens before he came to live with me!) — Jodi Skoien-Tucker

One quick zap was all it took! When we built a chicken tractor, we put a low-voltage wire at ground level around the outer edge of the tractor and turned it on at night to deter raccoons, opossums and other pests. At first, our dogs behaved poorly. When we turned it on during the day, the dogs ran into it nose-first — once. A few weeks later, we let the birds out of the tractor. Initially, the dogs kept their distance, as though the birds had zapped their noses. Two years later, we have the best protector anyone could ask for in our mixed-breed bulldog, Butler. Whenever our ducks waddle to the frog pond, Butler follows close behind, waits, and then walks them back to the duck pen. — Judith Legare

Our cattle dogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel are especially gentle and protective of our birds. When the chickens were first introduced, we carefully observed the dogs and immediately corrected aggressive behavior. Since Duchess (our Australian Cattle Dog/Australian Shepherd mix) has started spending all of her time outdoors with the chickens during the day, we haven’t lost any birds to predators. Set limits, praise good behavior, and let your dogs know those birds belong to you. — Tom and Laurie Bartlett

Choose pups from gentle parents and breeds, and keep dogs with a high prey drive separated from your birds. Don’t be angry at a dog that instinctively responds to fluttering or running chickens. — Linda Hindman

I have Akitas and an Afghan Hound. They have a strong prey drive and would love a chicken snack, no matter how much training they receive. Our chicken pen is attached to our yard with a 6-foot chain-link fence, and I’ve added hardware cloth around the bottom. I also made sure to get chicken breeds that aren’t flyers. The dogs got used to the chickens and will occasionally run along the fence, but, so far, I’ve not lost a chicken to a dog. — Jennifer Kassay Phelps


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.

Natural Burial Options

I want to extend my conscientious lifestyle into my post-mortem arrangements. Can you recommend any eco-friendly forms of natural burial?

If you’re looking for a way to stay green in the grave, consider building your own casket out of harvested materials, or choose a biodegradable coffin or urn. Making such a decision can sidestep the high costs and unsustainable makeup of chemical embalming and a conventional casket.

Biodegradable coffin and urn options range from the Ecopod, a vessel made of recycled newspaper and mulberry pulp, to hand-built caskets crafted out of native, sustainably harvested wood. Simple kits, such as that used to build this Wisconsin pine model from Northwoods Casket Co., will accommodate almost any budget or level of carpentry expertise.

The Somerset Willow Company in England employs traditional techniques to weave locally grown willow into handsome, customizable caskets for burial or cremation. These willow coffins are lined with natural cotton, and can accommodate an oak nameplate. They ship to North America.

The Bios Urn company aims to convert cemeteries into forests with its biodegradable urns, which are made of coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose, and are designed to support the early growth of a tree. Bios Urn’s “life after life” model, available for both humans and pets, is compatible with nearly any kind of seed.

Many other routes exist to honor the Earth as well as the life you lived on it. The Green Burial Council certifies products, practices and places of rest. Whatever you decide, be sure to let your loved ones know of your decision, and define your wishes in your will. For more information on biodegradable coffins, DIY casket instructions, and planning natural burials, read Natural Burial: Build an Eco-friendly Coffin and Plan a Green Funeral.

Photo by Julie Zahn: Simple kits, such as that used to build this Wisconsin pine model from Northwoods Casket Company, will accommodate almost any budget or level of carpentry expertise.


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.







Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters


click me