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


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.

4 Excellent Food Science Books

I want to expand my cooking expertise. Can you suggest your preferred food science books?

If you want to whip up a meringue that doesn’t shrink, have wondered why your homemade yogurt is grainy, or are eager to fix a mayonnaise that’s “broken,” it’s time for you to delve into the chemistry of cooking. Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher are authors of some of the most trusted cooking reference guides, which we recommend for your kitchen library.

On Food and Cooking 

In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, McGee, known internationally as a food chemist, blends history with useful explanations of why foods react the way they do when cooked. The 2004 revision features an additional nutrition-focused passage in several chapters.

In his newest book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes, McGee covers everything from pantry management and essential kitchen tools to specific food groups, such as eggs, vegetables and oils.

Corriher, an acclaimed culinary problem-solver, offers more than 230 recipes in CookWise — many of which are accompanied by a “what this recipe shows” headnote that reveals the chemistry behind the recipe, to further your learning. For example, she explains the use of different kinds of fats for frying, and suggests possible ingredient replacements for a diverse array of dishes.

Cookwise 

In her second book, BakeWise, Corriher moves on to offer illuminating answers to the mysteries of baking, and examines all things oven-made, from the drying properties of egg whites to the perks of adding cheddar cheese to pie crust. One slice of valuable information, to get a taste: Corriher details why you may not like the results if you reduce or eliminate the sugar in a cake recipe, so you can make such adjustments intelligently.

Any of these four food science books will teach you how to swap ingredients successfully and will make you a more knowledgeable and adaptable cook.

(Top) Cover courtesy Scribner: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee covers everything from Adzuki beans to Zebu milk.

(Bottom) Cover courtesy Morrow Cookbooks: CookWise by Shirley O. Corriher is one of our go-to resources on the chemistry of cooking.


Robin Mather is a former senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

Can Petroleum Jelly Protect Chicken Combs from Frostbite?

I’ve heard that petroleum jelly (Vaseline) will protect chickens’ combs from frostbite. Should I grab the grease and gather my birds?

Probably not. Winter cold snaps sometimes damage the tips of birds’ combs, and black spots can form where tissue has frozen. Applying petroleum jelly to combs will prevent chapping, as it would if you applied such a product to your lips. However, Dr. Scott Beyer, a poultry nutrition and management specialist at Kansas State University, confirms that petroleum jelly has no insulating properties, despite long-standing claims to the contrary from some poultry enthusiasts.

Breed selection is a wiser way to combat chicken frostbite. If you live in a place where winters are severe, choose breeds that have small “walnut” or “rose” combs and small wattles, such as Chantecler or Buckeye, as such features are less prone to frostbite. Provide your flock with a draft-proof coop that will keep your birds dry. If the forecast calls for severe cold, consider putting a heat lamp inside the coop to offer extra protection against low temperatures.

Photo by Fotolia/alkerk


Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one of North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.

Best Options for Homemade Syrups and Natural Sweeteners

Homemade Sweetener

What are the best options for homemade syrups and natural sweeteners from plants I can grow or process myself?

Depending on your region, your choices for homemade syrups and sweeteners may include tree syrup, sorghum syrup (molasses), sugar beet syrup or paste, stevia, and sugar cane.

Two popular homegrown sweeteners are tree syrups and sorghum molasses. Syrup-seekers living in cold climates often opt for sugar maple or black maple trees because they yield a high volume and concentration of sap that’s about 2 percent sugar. Making 1 gallon of maple syrup requires boiling down 40 to 50 gallons of sugar or black maple sap. Because red and silver maples produce a more watery sap, syrup-makers must collect and boil more of it to produce the same amount of syrup.

Other tap-ready trees include boxelder (a maple relative), birch, walnut, hickory and sycamore, but the cost and time commitment of making syrups from these trees can be prohibitive. Birch syrup necessitates twice as much sap as maple syrup does — up to 100 gallons of birch sap to yield 1 gallon of a more savory-tasting syrup.

In warmer climates, sorghum syrup is most common. Making sorghum syrup requires an upfront cost for a press to crush the sorghum canes and extract the juice, but it can yield a sweet payoff — 1 gallon of sorghum syrup requires boiling down only 10 gallons of juice. You can go in on the price of the press with your neighbors as a way of cutting costs and achieving community self-sufficiency. Dig into more info on maple sugaring and tree tapping at Farming Syrup Trees: Maple Sugaring and More, and in Farming the Woods by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel.


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

When to Vent Cold Frames

How should I monitor my garden cold frame on warm days to ensure I’m not frying my plants? Do I need to check the temperature every hour?

No, not every hour, but you’re right to err on the side of vigilance anytime the sun is out — even if the temperature isn’t particularly high.

During spring and fall, when temperatures range widely, check your weather report early in the morning. If the day will be sunny with temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold frame’s internal temperature will rise too high for your plants, so you should crack the lids open to allow excess heat to escape. Close your units up at twilight if the forecast predicts nighttime temperatures below your plants’ cold-tolerance level.

Photo courtesy Cedar Cold Frames: Even when snow surrounds your cold frame, the plants inside may need a breath of fresh air.


is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like.

Improve Soil with Cereal Rye, a Fall Cover Crop

Winter Rye

I want to plant a cover crop in my garden beds this fall. Which cold-hardy crop do you recommend?

One of your best bets is winter rye (Secale cereale), the grain used to make rye flour (not ryegrass, which is a different plant). Winter rye loves cold weather, and it’s widely adapted, inexpensive and easy to sow. According to Managing Cover Crops Profitably, published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, rye will even germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and will grow through winter wherever temperatures stay above about 38 degrees. It will suppress winter weeds, improve your soil’s texture, add organic matter, prevent erosion, and attract beneficial insects when it flowers the following spring. It also makes a terrific winter pasture for poultry — or, you can cut the greens periodically to feed to your flock.

Ordering cover crop seeds by mail can be a bit pricey, but saving your own rye seed is easy. Order seed by mail if you can’t find a local supplier, and then sow it in fall. Allow it to grow through the following spring until June, when it will produce seed heads. Snip off the seed heads and then, without threshing the seeds out of the heads, simply plant the heads in fall (see photo above, left). The mature rye plants will be easy to kill after you’ve harvested their seed heads. Cut the stems at soil level with a serrated harvest sickle or large knife, and then use the straw as mulch or compost. (If you don’t own a sickle, Earth Tools offers a nice Italian-made model for only $23; look under the “SHW” category.)

Growing cover crops in unused beds is one of the best things you can do to improve your soil. To learn more about sowing rye and many other kinds of cover crops, I highly recommend the SARE book mentioned earlier; it’s free online.

Photo by Cheryl Long: Winter rye seed heads sown directly into soil in fall will grow to maturity the following spring.


Cheryl Long is the editor in chief of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and a leading advocate for more sustainable lifestyles. She leads a team of editors which produces high quality content that has resulted in MOTHER EARTH NEWS being rated as one of North America’s favorite magazines. Long lives on an 8-acre homestead near Topeka, Kan., powered in part by solar panels, where she manages a large organic garden and a small flock of heritage chickens. Prior to taking the helm at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, she was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine for 10 years.

Do I Have to Soak Beans Before Cooking?

Beans 

Do I have to soak beans before using them in a dish?

You don’t have to soak beans before preparing them in a dish, although soaking beans will enable them to cook about 25 percent faster.

A widespread culinary conviction asserts that soaking beans will make them more digestible by breaking down complex carbohydrates in the bean to form more readily digestible carbohydrates — thus reducing flatulence. According to food scientist Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, this commonly used method does cut back on the gas — but it also leaches out some of the beans’ flavor and nutritional benefits, such as vitamins and antioxidants.

So, instead of pre-soaking, if you have the time, avoid throwing the nutrients out with the bean water by simply cooking dry legumes a little longer. Doing so will help break down the complex sugars while retaining the nutrients, flavor, color and antioxidants to boot. Cover the beans with just enough water — about 3 parts water to 1 part legumes — for the beans to soak up as they cook; any more and the extra water will still wash away some nutritional perks.

Always cook beans, especially kidney beans, until they’re fully tender; undercooked beans can cause illness. To avoid that danger, pre-cook beans before adding them to dishes that will simmer in low-temperature slow cookers. Learn more about safely cooking beans at Be Careful With Red Kidney Beans in the Slow Cooker.

Photo by Fotolia/Svilen Georgiev: Beans, beans, the magical fruit — what’s the best way to reduce the “toot”?






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