Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Use Fish for Natural Mosquito Control

fish pond pic

Your fish pond or container can be as elaborate or as simple as suits you. 

Many sources suggest combating mosquitoes that lay their eggs in ornamental ponds by introducing a few predator fish, usually gambusia. It certainly works, but around here we have taken this a step further. We set up an outdoor fish tank on purpose to attract mosquitoes, the eggs and larvae of which will serve as a feast for the fish. The local population of mosquitoes is thus reduced. 

Usually, it is recommended that pond water should be agitated, for example by means of a small waterfall, to discourage the mosquitoes, as they prefer still water for laying their eggs. In this case, however, we do exactly the opposite - the water is quite still, to lure as many mosquitoes as possible into our trap. Whenever the water level falls due to evaporation, we simply top the tank up using our garden hose.

It really works - our entire neighborhood is plagued by mosquitoes, but we hardly see any, even at the height of season, and hardly ever get bitten. And it's not as though we're immune - as soon as we step out of our little protected zone, we might suffer from some very nasty mosquito bites. 

It's possible to make your anti-mosquito fish domain very aesthetically pleasing, in the form of a natural-looking pond bordered by local rock, aquatic plants, etc., and it's something that's been on our to-do list for a while, but for the time being we make do with a simple old kiddie pool. It doesn't look a treat, and the water is green with algae, but it's doing its job. The fish sure don't seem to mind, and breed at an astonishing rate on no other food than the insects attracted to the water. 

We started with only a few gambusia fish, but very soon had ten times as many. These are live-bearing fish that breed prolifically - in fact, much faster in the simple outdoor fish tank than in the temperature controlled, carefully filtered and perfectly clean aquarium we have in the living room. Outside, we don't have to worry about feeding them or filtering the water. Whenever we have too many fish, we remove some with a net and give them away to other people. 

We have also added some guppies, and though they are less aggressive than gambusia fish, they love to eat mosquito larvae as well, and as long as there's enough food the two species get along just fine, contrary to what many articles claim. 

When winter approaches, it is time to get all the fish out of the tank and into the indoor aquarium. You will probably be shocked to see how many fish you have, compared with your starting number. It’s also possible, if you live in a temperate climate, to let the fish over-winter outside. Their population will be reduced over winter, though, because lack of insect prey will get the fish to resort to cannibalism.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.


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I Built My House for Extreme Weather

ICF walls and roof framing

I went to work in the family commercial construction company in the early 1980's and by the end of the decade had worked my way into the office as a project manager. Commercial construction is entirely different than residential construction. For one thing, everything is engineered - structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a part in the design of commercial buildings. It wasn't long before I discovered the term "100 year storm".

Many structural designs and mechanical designs were based on the 100 year storm (I'm over simplifying for the purpose of this article).  Things like concrete foundation design and building structures were based on the worst earthquakes and windstorms of the last 100 years or maybe storm systems/drains were sized according to the worst rainfalls of the past century. You get the idea.

Throughout the nineties I realized we were getting these "100 year storms" with more frequency. After the year 2000 these storms were setting all time records and the discussion heated up about warming trends and climate change. In 2010 Laurie and I decided to build a new off grid home and I included many design features to address the more severe weather conditions we were experiencing in our part of the world. The costs were minimal compared to (after storm) damage costs and we've never regretted our decision to spend a little more money up front.
These features were over and above current International Residential Building codes used by most jurisdictions at the time. Our design features addressed Earthquakes, Wind Storms, Snow Loads on the roof, and Wildfires. In order to keep this article brief I won't go into details on any of the design upgrades but just want to highlight some of the things we did.

Engineering - We hired a structural engineer for $1,000 to help us with code plus all of the following:

Earthquakes - Our house is an ICF house so that means we have 8" concrete walls. Instead of the typical post and beam wood foundation we decided to go with a slab on grade so now we had concrete walls and floors. The Engineer added more rebar to tie the walls and slab together so that it would act as one unit in case of an earthquake. Our roof is a hip roof and he also beefed up the "ties and hold downs" for the roof structure to the top of the concrete walls. Total cost was less than $1,200.
To see my related article on our ICF experience go to ICF Construction

Wind Storms - We chose to have a metal roof for a lot of reasons. Most roofs in this area are metal. That allows the snow to slide off easier than a BUR but more importantly it is non combustible. We had a wildfire here on the property our very first year! We decided to go with a standing seam metal roof, again for multiple reasons one of which is superior wind load. As near as I can tell from my research, our roof will withstand winds over 135 to 150 MPH. The cost was substantial - over $8,000 but keep in mind our roof covers not only the house but a huge attached garage, attached woodshed, attached carport and covered porch. The end result is a roof that is over twice the size of the house itself.

Snow Loads - We average over 60" a year in annual snowfall. No big deal typically, but we decided to address two additional things: A. Unexpected large snowfall of several feet or more or B. Heavy snowfall and then rain. Rain makes snow really heavy and if it is stuck good enough to the roof you can get into trouble. The Engineer simply required stronger trusses which equates to more materials at the truss company but labor doesn't really change. Cost was about $2,500. I also chose to use exterior plywood (no OSB on my house) with a thicker core than code required. Cost for materials was about $600.

Wildfires - We cleared the land around us of trees and I keep the surrounding grass mowed. Our roof is non combustible metal and our siding is Hardi Plank which is not completely non combustible but it is fire resistant. Under the siding our ICF form is 3-hour fire treated foam next to the concrete walls. The only added expense for fire resistance is the metal we used on the underside of the soffit and carport and covered porch ceilings. Most residential fires caused by wildfires occur when embers are sucked into the attic vent holes (bird blocking) and eventually set the roof structure on fire from inside. The total added cost to cover the exposed underside of the carport and covered porch and soffits was $2,100. For a full description on fire prevention measures we used click on this link: Wildfires

Ready to move in.

It's been pretty well established that building for the extremes in your area have been successful. In Florida they've added stricter measures for hurricanes that have proven to work. In our area storm detention systems are being upsized to hold more water. All along the west coast earthquake standards are enforced. I did a lot of insurance reparation work as a contractor, repairing wind damage, fire damage, and water damage. I believe you will spend a lot less money preventing damage than reacting to it. I went above and beyond "code" because I haven't seen any decrease in severe weather patterns. New "severe weather event" records are being set every year. You can't stop everything Mother Nature may throw at you but you can sure minimize it in most situations. Where you draw the line is up to you, just know there are preventative measures everyone can take to minimize severe weather storm damage.

Ed and Laurie Essex live in the Okanogan Highlands of Eastern Washington State where they operate their two websites: Good Ideas For Life and Off Grid Works.


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Green Bathroom Improvements for Your Home

bathtub in home 

Source: Pexels

How much time do you spend in your bathroom each day? An hour? Two hours? Bathrooms are a central part of our daily routine. Between quick trips to visit the toilet and long, hot showers, the time — and resources — add up. Given the amount of time we spend in our bathrooms each day, we should give more thought to their efficiency and design.

Here are some ways investing in eco-friendlier alternatives and changing your bathroom layout can save you money and improve your overall health.

Say Goodbye to Baths

While taking a long soak can be relaxing, it comes with environmental consequences. Taking a bath can use nearly twice as much water as a 10-minute shower. Consider removing your bathtub to create more space in your bathroom and avoid taking baths altogether. You’ll conserve water, which is beneficial for the environment, and you’ll reduce your water bill in the process.  

Isolate Your Toilet

Men and women have long debated bathroom etiquette, but as it turns out, women may be onto something. Putting down the toilet seat is better for your health. Each time you flush, fecal particles can intermingle with the air and travel far from their source. The best way to prevent these particles from contaminating your bathroom is to isolate your toilet, if possible, in a separate room. At the very least, put down the toilet seat when you flush to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Reuse Greywater

The water you use for taking a shower or washing your hands is called gray water. Rather than contaminate freshwater with each toilet use, consider rerouting your piping to flush your toilet with gray water. You can also reuse greywater in your garden to water plants. If you’re feeling extra eco-friendly, invest in a composting toilet, which turns waste into usable compost.  

shower head close up

Source: Pexels

Install Low-Flow Water Features

Low-flow water features can cut your water usage in half. Low-flow toilets have two separate buttons for different water volumes, depending on whether you have solid or liquid waste. Instruct guests, roommates or family members how to properly use the toilet to maximize its environmental benefits. If replacing your toilet doesn’t fall within your budget, try installing aerators in your shower heads and faucets to reduce water flow.  

Mitigate Mold Growth

Hot, humid bathrooms are the perfect environment for mold growth and unpleasant odors. Mold exposure can lead to skin, eye or throat irritation, as well as aggravate other respiratory ailments. Mitigate mold growth by installing a window or ventilation system to promote fresh air flow.

Another way to mitigate mold growth is to prevent it in the first place. Revamp your bathroom by installing mold-resistant materials such as cork flooring. Cork has natural mold inhibitors and can be laid over uneven surfaces, which reduces its installation costs. It’s also a natural insulator, which will help reduce your heating bill, and creates a comfortable walking surface.

Switch Your Water Heater

If the idea of lowering your shower temperature makes you cringe, switch to a tankless water heater instead. Water heaters with tanks heat a large volume of water every time, regardless of whether or not you use it. A tankless water heater will only heat the water you use for your shower. You’ll reduce your monthly energy bill and rest easy knowing you’re engaging in environmentally conscious practices.

Change Your Light Bulbs

While bright lights in the bathroom are a necessity for getting ready in the morning, the high price tag doesn’t have to be. Change from traditional bulbs to energy-efficient LEDs, and you’ll enjoy bright light at a fraction of the cost. You can make this quick, inexpensive change right now to reduce your energy bill and help Mother Nature.

Repair Leaky Pipes

Leaky pipes are expensive and wasteful. A single leaky faucet dripping at a rate of one drop per second can add up to more than 1,600 gallons of water per year. If you have more than one bathroom in your home or more problem areas, you’re sending more money and resources down the drain. Fix your plumbing problems as soon as they arise.

By implementing just a few of these improvements, you can turn your bathroom into an eco-friendly oasis.


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10 Beautiful and Useful Things You Can Create with Earth Plaster

My earth plaster.

People are often fascinated by the structure of my earth bag home, but in truth that was the easy part. It’s the plaster that is an art. And a science. At times I thought it might have even been witchcraft. Because it took me just 6 weeks to build my earth bag house, but almost 2 years to get my plaster sitting beautifully on my walls without cracks or bits of it falling off.

It doesn’t have to take that long to learn earth plaster though. I was sitting atop a remote hill in Turkey, and not receiving the correct information about how to deal with my soil and my climate. But once you learn the art of mud render, it opens up a whole world of possibilities. I think it’s one of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned.

Earth plaster (also known as clay plaster) is made from a mixture of earth, clay, straw and sand. The clay is the binding element, hence why it’s also called clay plaster. Sometimes other ingredients are added into the mixture for various reasons, perhaps to water proof the plaster or to help it adhere better, or to mitigate the damp. Each stage of plaster creation and application is crucial to success. You need to know how to mix it, test it, and apply it.

Here’s an incomplete list of just what you can do with earth plaster. The beauty of course is that it’s insanely inexpensive to make things out of mud. Most of the time it’s free. And if you’d like to know how to make it, I have a free PDF here.

1. Render

The most obvious use of earth plaster is as a natural render. Render is crucial for any house as it protects the main structure from weathering. What a lot of people don’t realise is just how many different surfaces you can successfully render with earth plaster; stone houses, straw bale homes, cob, earthbag, and even wood (wood requires some preparation, but can definitely work). Earth plaster doesn’t work well with mainstream building materials such as Portland cement and plastic though, as they are not breathable.

Earth plaster sculptures protect walls.

2. Wall Sculptures (Pargeting)

Pargeting is both decorative and known to form a stronger protection against weathering. One of the things I most enjoyed creating out of earth plaster were my wall sculptures. By slowly working the plaster with your hands and tools, you can form any shape you like.

3. Mosaic

Earth plaster works amazingly well with mosaic. You can inlay broken tiles or glass into the plaster, then buff it smooth with newspaper or a leather cloth to create beautiful and hard-wearing results. Mosaics on walls form an almost impenetrable surface which protects against rain.

Mosaic and earth plaster.

4. Bottle Walls

By using earth plaster as a natural cement, you can create gorgeous bottle walls. The bottles actually add structural strength to the wall, while the earth plaster grips them and holds them in place.

Bottle wall being made.

5. Alcoves and Nooks

Alcoves are perfect for holding candles and lighting. Book nooks are beautiful when crafted into an earthern wall. Alcoves can be created either by scooping out earth plaster from a rendered wall, or by slowly building up the plaster around a space. Or, as I did, you can use a combination of both techniques.

6. Shelving

Never again do you need to suffer (or cause others to suffer) a drill induced headache when putting up a shelf. Earth plaster shelves are so easy to make, and they never come loose. By building up the plaster layer by layer you can form incredibly sturdy spice racks, book shelves and more.

7. Inlay Mirrors and Other Decorative Features

Interior design is a whole new ball game when you use earth plaster. Mirrors and pictures don’t need to be hung, they can be incorporated into the wall for a clean, graceful look.

Mirrors can be inlaid.

8. Make a Cob Oven

Cob ovens are all the rage at the moment. The word cob comes from South West England, and was used to describe the shape of the balls of earth plaster people used to build their homes with. If you know how to render a wall with earth plaster, you can just as easily make a cob oven from the same mixture.

9. Use It as Mortar

People have been using earth plaster as a mortar for millennia. Most ancient stone houses are mortared with mud. Later in Europe, the Romans introduced lime and limecrete instead. But many old stone homes all over the world still have their original mud mortar. By changing the consistency of the plaster slightly (generally you use a softer, wetter version for render, and a dryer, firmer more clayey mix for mortar), you can use your earth plaster to cement rocks in stone walls and other structures.

10. Use It as a Daub on a Lath (wattle and daub)

Wattle and daub is another traditional building technique enjoying a bit of a revival. You can create houses by building a post and beam structure, and then fixing woven willow (or similar) laths where you want the walls. These laths are subsequently covered, layer by layer, with...you guessed it, earth plaster.

If you’d like the Perfect Earth Plaster PDF, or to take my FREE mini email course on how to make earth plaster, click here.

Atulya K Bingham is an author and natural builder. She lived semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house for five years, before recently having to leave. She is now on the road searching for a new space to build. Atulya is author of The Mud Home website (www.themudhome.com) which offers plenty of earthbag and natural building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, sustainable living tips, and much more. Read about Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular memoir of building her earthbag home.


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.

How to Handle Flooding on Your Homestead

 

Even if your house has been flooded, it might be salvageable. Natural disasters can happen anywhere, anytime. While we may get some warning that something bad is going to happen, the situation might turn out much worse than predicted, so we have to figure out how to deal with the aftermath.

Water damage can occur at your home in a variety of ways, including a broken water pipe, flooding or poor drainage on your roof. In fact, flooding is the No. 1 cause of property damage in the U.S. Flooding can damage your house and property, but the damage might not completely destroy your belongings. After a flooding event occurs, there are a few things you need to do to assess the damage and decide if your house and property can be repaired.

Ensure It Is Safe to Be on Your Property

Before entering your home or other parts of your homestead, make sure it is safe. Water can make structures weak and collapse easily, and you don’t want to be in your house if that happens. Water can also make your property muddy and slick, and you’ll need to be cautious so you don’t fall and injure yourself. It may have also shifted your equipment, placing it in a position where it could fall over on you. Be cautious so that doesn’t occur.

You’ll also want to make sure your electricity or generator is turned off. Even if the power is out, you don’t want it coming back on while there is still water in your house, so flip the switch on the main breaker to ensure your safety.

You should also assume that the water on your property is contaminated. You don’t want to go in it or take anything out of it without wearing protective gear — waders and rubber gloves should be sufficient. You’ll need to throw out any food that the water may have touched, in addition to boiling your water until you know for sure it’s safe to drink.

Photograph the Damage

After you’ve determined it’s safe to be on your property, you’ll want to document the damage with photographs. You can send these to your insurance agent so they figure out exactly how much damage was done and what your policy will cover. Keep copies for yourself so you can resend if you need to and so you have a record of the damage caused by the flooding.

Talk to Your Insurance Provider

Once you have the necessary information and photographs, call your insurance agent to get your claim in motion. If flooding occurred over a wide area, you may have to wait before your property can be assessed. Talking to your insurance agent will let you know how much of your property is covered and what can be done to help you mitigate the damage.

Get Rid of the Water

After you’ve received the go-ahead from your insurance agent, you can remove the water from your home. This can be done using a sump pump and/or a wet vac. You may also consider calling a company that specializes in water removal. However, remember that if a large group of people was affected by the flooding, you might be put on a wait list until they can make it to your home.

Floodwaters may permanently change the landscape, which can change how you use your land to grow food. Removing water from your property and fields might be more labor-intensive than sucking it out with a pump. In fact, it might be almost impossible to get rid of the water, although you could install pumps below ground level to get rid of the water.

However, you’ll have to be aware of any changes that may have occurred to the groundwater during flooding. If you can let nature take its course and dry your land out naturally, that might be the better option.

Dry Your House Out

Once you’ve removed the water from your home, you can work on drying your house. You may have to remove flooring, drywall and furniture to ensure there is no mold growth, which can be detrimental to your health. You’ll need to make sure framing boards are also dry to prevent mold and mildew growth.

Drying your home can be done by opening windows to let air move through or by using fans and dehumidifiers, assuming you have power. Again, if you’re unsure of the process, contact a professional to help you out.

Flooding can cause major damage to your home and property, but with a little luck, you’ll be able to mitigate those issues and get back to your life.

Bobbi Peterson is an environmental blogger who started the blog Living Life GreenFollow Bobbi on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook. Read all of Bobbi’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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All About Wood Bugs and Scribing Our First Logs

Our log pile ready for sanding

Just seeing the huge pile of debarked logs makes us proud, but also makes us question if and how we’re going to get all of them set up in time before winter comes? As we wanted to have nice smooth logs, we decided to sand them before setting and scribing.

Sanding...not as easy as it looks

Good we didn’t know that it would take about 7 hours just to sand down one log! And as Frank thought that trees with nice knots and curves would look really nice in a log home and he had picked a lot of those! This made the job a lot harder, not only sanding but scribing and cutting too and is definitely something we’d never do again — even the nice and strait ones without a lot of branches make really nice and easy to work with logs!

All about Bugs

But no matter whether curved or strait, a freshly sanded log is an invitation for “lunch” to all kinds of bugs.

Wood bug on freshly sanded log

The last thing you want is for them to get into your wood and although we soaked each log in a boracol solution twice, Frank spend hours at night picking them off the logs.

picking bugs at night

And you wouldn’t believe how many you can pick in 20 minutes.

Harvest after 20 min picking

Scribing Logs

But no matter what we had to keep on going and start setting the log first to measure distance.

First you check the distance before scribing

And then scribe lines.

then you scribe

And after that you take the log off again, take it over to the workstation and cut out between the scribed lines.

cut out the log

In the old days you did that by hand with an axe, but we just roughed it out with the chainsaw and then worked with a “Lancelot” and the “Woodcarver.”

Lancelot & Woodcarver

And if you’re really picky as Frank is, you chisel the edges one more time.

chiseling the edges

We then took the logs back over and set them to see how they fit or if there might be any hang ups at spots we didn’t cut out deeply enough. Then the log went back to the workstation and we put in the insulation.

insulating the log

Once that was done, we hooked it up to the crane again and back it went were we could finally set it and get ready for the next one.

second log row set

Considering all the work it takes us about 2 – 3 days to get one log set. So we really have to step it up a notch if we want this to work out before winter! But for right now we’re quite happy with what it’s starting to look like!

two row done, six more to go

Next time: Ups and downs while building our log home.

Manuela and Frank Mueller packed a container in 2016, grabbed their four-legged companion and not even 1 ½ years after leaving Nova Scotia, arrived at their new home: a wooded 50-acre lot with nothing on it but trees and 1.6-kilometer waterfront. They are building their DIY log home themselves and living off the grid. Follow Manuela and Frank on Restless Roots and Facebook.


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6 Tips for a Green Christmas

green Christmas 1

Have a green Christmas this holiday season with decorations and celebrations designed to reduce waste while still conveying the spirit of the season.

Skip the Wrapping Paper

Don’t wrap gifts in single-use paper — it’s one of the largest contributors to waste during the holidays. Turn old maps, magazines, and book pages into creative gift wrap. Make reusable wrapping bags out of fabric in a few different sizes or purchase sturdy gift bags that can be used several times before recycling. For gifts that need traditional wrapping paper, opt for gift wrap made with recycled content.

Save Gift Wrap Accessories

On Christmas morning when the kids are opening gifts, grab all the ribbons, bows, bags, boxes, and other reusable accessories as they fly past and stash them away to reuse next year. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I haven’t had to buy new ribbons or bows for four years.

green Christmas 2 

Recycle Your Christmas Cards

While sending electronic cards will save plenty of forests, you can’t control what people send you. Instead of throwing the cards in the recycle bin when the season is over, cut them into gift tags to use next year.

Add Natural Decor

Nature is beautiful, so put her to work as part of your Christmas decor. Go for a long walk in the woods with the family and see who can collect the most pinecones, then use them for centerpieces, or tie the pinecones with ribbon and hang them from the mantelpiece. Here are some tips for cleaning and preparing them.

green Christmas 3 

Invest in a Reusable or Re-plantable Tree

You can use artificial trees season after season, which cuts down on unnecessary waste. Many artificial trees look exactly like the real thing and save you time and money across the board. They’re easier to set up and decorate, and once you have one, you avoid the annual effort and energy expenditure of growing a tree and transporting it to your living room. Artificial trees are also great for small homes or apartments — you can choose a pre-lit tabletop version instead of a full-size tree.

If you still want a real tree in your home, supplement your artificial tree with a smaller potted tree or plant. Research trees that are native to your area. Choose one in an appropriate size and bring it home to decorate. When the season is over, plant it in your yard. Over the years, you can grow a mini-forest in your backyard that represents each Christmas you’ve celebrated in your home. This is a lovely way to cherish the memories of the season and remove carbon dioxide from the air.

If you do decide to decorate a traditional cut tree, make sure you know how to compost it after the holidays. Many towns have designated Christmas tree drop-off spots. Check with your local recycling center to find out where to leave your tree. If you have the equipment, you can also mulch and compost the tree yourself at home.

Treasure Your Ornaments

Invest in high-quality, shatterproof ornaments that will last many years. Use a specially designed ornament storage box to store them safely at the end of the season. You can also decorate your tree simply with just a few strings of lights. Choose lights with LED bulbs that have a timer switch or smart plug to ensure they are on only when you need them.

There are many ways to reduce your ecological footprint this holiday season. If you have more tips about how to cut down on waste during the holidays, please share them in the comments.

Jennifer Tuohy tries to find new ways to reduce her carbon footprint and writes about her experiences for The Home Depot. She provides tips and ideas on topics such as making the holidays more sustainable by using eco-friendly Christmas decorations.


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.