Dear MOTHER: Life in a Little House

Letters from our readers about growing with MOTHER, dehydrating food with a woodstove, and more.

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Promoting Pollinators and Healthy Food

For the past few years, each spring I do a mini-fundraiser and sell veggie starts to promote growing your own food. This year, I donated the money to Open Table, which helps feed those in need. The year before, I donated the money to the animal shelter from which we rescued one of our dogs. It’s nothing big, but every little thing counts. In my town, I work to promote growing your own food to be more self-sufficient and sustainable. I also advocate for bees and other pollinators. I photograph bees and other pollinators in my garden, and I have a little collection going. Some of my photos hung in a local coffee shop for a month with facts about bees, including their decline and how we can help them. I also left free seeds for people to plant.

I really enjoy your magazine.

Kelly Patterson

Life in a Little House

I was recently given an old family photo. When one of your subscribers saw it, she said it looked like a magazine cover. I don’t know about that, but I decided to let you know what a big part your magazine played in my family’s life.

My mother had been planting a garden for a few years before we moved from Southern California to Kansas in 1974. She subscribed to your magazine, and she also read The Foxfire Book (edited by Eliot Wigginton) and How to Prepare for the Coming Crash by Robert L. Preston. She even wrote to her grandmother to ask what her life had been like caring for a family of 13 people on an Oklahoma farm in 1920.

In 1976, My brother and I helped our parents build a small house on 10 acres, because the local bank wouldn’t loan money to build the geodesic dome my parents wanted. A friend finished the roof, but we did everything else. Our house had skylights, a woodburning stove for heat, a homemade front door, a lagoon, and an outhouse. Several months after we moved in, the outhouse was replaced by an Ecolet. (This meant that during cold weather, we no longer had to bundle up to use the facilities. It also meant that 13-year-old me was ready to invite friends over!)

Mom had a job outside the home, but her days started and often ended in her garden. Many of the articles in your magazine guided my parents through projects and the lifestyle they were living. Sometimes, we had bees and chickens, and a small greenhouse, and always hard but rewarding work to keep us busy. Mom learned to can fruits and vegetables, and made the best whole-wheat sunflower bread in tin coffee cans. She taught me to sew on an antique Singer treadle sewing machine, and I used MOTHER EARTH NEWS as a resource for the report I wrote about geothermal heating in eighth grade. I was so excited about the idea of not hauling wood for the stove.

Modern conveniences made their way to the house where Mom spent her last days. I’d love to share that family photo, but I’m not able to send it in. The lady in that photo used what she learned from your magazine to teach us how to live in that little house. Thank you for that!

Lorri Caldwell
Via email

Growing with MOTHER

I grew up as a third-generation product of what MOTHER EARTH NEWS taught to all who would listen. I grew up on a small farm. We raised all our meat, vegetables, fruit, and dairy, and we sold produce at our farmstand. We raised seed for seed companies, and sold vegetable plants locally in spring. My dad logged with horses and did custom sawing at his small sawmill. My siblings developed small cottage businesses from the skills we acquired.

Growing up as I did with the values I embraced, I knew how I wanted to live, but I had a challenge finding someone compatible who shared these values. I began a basket business in 2007, making and selling baskets, and then teaching classes in Tennessee and Mississippi. In 2014, I met Khoke Livingston in Iowa, who lived off-grid and farmed with horses. We dated, and then married in 2016. We live in a 11⁄2-story, eight-sided cob house in southern Iowa. Our home is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, with 18-inch-thick walls. We live off-grid, and raise our own fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, and grain. We keep bees, and cook maple syrup. We also raise Jacob sheep, and I’ve learned to spin and knit my own yarn.

We live and learn more all the time, putting building blocks on the foundations our parents built for us. There’s more to learn, and we have our whole life to do it. MOTHER EARTH NEWS was there at the beginning of it all, and it will see us to the end.

Ida Livingston
Mia Livingston, Iowa

Back to Gardening

unplanted garden with dirt tilled next to a field

garden with corn and squash plants growing next to a field

I grew this garden six years ago on a corner of my in-laws’ small farm. Although I grew up with a garden in the backyard as a kid, as an adult it was MOTHER EARTH NEWS that inspired me to get back into it. These are the before and after images.

John Kirkland

Woodstove Dehydrator

an iron woodstove with metal trays sitting on top with vegetables dehydrating

My sister gave me a MOTHER EARTH NEWS subscription a few years ago for my birthday, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Thank you for the work that you do. Here’s my tip on how I dehydrate with my woodstove. The picture shows celery and tomato pulp and skins drying, and the way I elevate the pans above the stove.

I find dehydrating is a good way to preserve my garden bounty, because it doesn’t take up as much space as canning, or need continuous electricity like freezing. I’ve even discovered a way to dehydrate without using electricity, by using my woodstove. I use cookie sheets and silicone mats as dehydrator trays. I usually put a baking rack between the two to create an air layer that helps keep the food from accidentally burning if I forget about it. I put the trays on metal trivets or empty soup cans to elevate the pans above the woodstove. If the fire is roaring, I put the pans toward the back of the stove, where it’s cooler. When the fire dies down, I move them toward the front. I’ve found that as long as a fire is lit in the morning and evening, that’s enough to dry the food, even if the fire goes out in between. Most foods are done in a day or two, depending on how moist they were to begin with. It takes a bit more attention than using an electric dehydrator, but I enjoy saving money and knowing that my woodstove is useful for more than just warming me up.

Emily Hill

Searching for Solitary Bees

I was wondering if MOTHER EARTH NEWS has ever done a story on solitary bees? I first became interested in mason bees, and I didn’t know that they’re better pollinators than honeybees. Come to find out, there are thousands of different solitary bees in North America. I drilled different-sized holes in wood blocks, and I was surprised how quickly the bees started filling them up.

Thanks, and keep up the good work y’all do.

Jim Chalkley
Via email

Jim, for more information on solitary bees, check out our article “How to Attract Native Bees to Your Garden” in the August/September 2013 issue. (Get the full archive at our store.) You can also search for “solitary bees” on this site to find a couple of online-only articles related to solitary bees. Happy reading! –MOTHER

Family Chickens

boy in green shirt holding a black and white chicken in front of a chicken coop

This photo is of my grandson. He, along with his dad and his sister, took on the project of raising chicks and building a chicken coop. The chickens freely roam the yard and lay the most wonderful eggs. The chickens have been part of their family for more than four years, and are part of their urban garden. This photo melted our hearts, and we thought we would share it!

Margaret and Steve Maiefski
Via email

Thoughtful Decluttering

I read “Lightening the Load” (News from MOTHER, December 2020/January 2021), and wanted to share with you that our household has also been trying to clear the clutter lately. So many things get set aside for “later,” and I guess later has arrived.

I’ve joined our local “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook. We have quite a bit of stuff that others can likely find useful, including electronics, clothing, and furniture. Nonprofits in our area have stopped taking many of these items right now, so if they can be passed on to someone who will use them, we’re much ahead. I also use our local community Facebook page to give away usable items. We also have a local furniture bank that takes furniture donations and provides the items for free to anyone in need. These few decluttering methods take very little effort, and they do much to keep things circulating and out of the trash.

Janet Buechler

More Meat Rabbits

Your magazine talks a lot about meat animals, but rarely mentions rabbits. Rabbits are the perfect homestead animal — they turn hay and weeds into meat!  They’re happy living largely on dandelions, roots, grasses and other greens, regular feedings of hay, and a few table scraps for treats — especially banana peels, pineapple cores and skins, and apples. We raise Continental Giant rabbits in our backyard in a 4-by-10-foot moveable run with a hutch, with wire on the bottom to prevent them from escaping and to keep predators from getting in. They’re not noisy, they don’t stink, and their manure doesn’t need to be composted to use as fertilizer. They grow fast, are easy to butcher, have very little fat, and taste like chicken. What’s not to love?

Alice Cain
Via email

Recycled-Window Greenhouse

inside of a greenhouse with glass walls and ceiling with a ladder inside

We replaced the old-style dormer windows on our 1800s house, and then used them to construct a greenhouse off of our garage. Our neighbor cut and milled some pine trees from our yard, and we used that lumber for the framing. We used scrap standing seam for the roofing, which is easily removed, making it ready for snow! We used old garage door panels that we found at the end of a driveway around the bottom of the greenhouse, and, on the ends, other old windows that we’ve collected.

Helen and Alan Casey

Home-Kilned Firewood

After several years of research and planning, we installed a soapstone masonry heater in our home. We love it! It looks good, and the gentle warming throughout the day is pleasant on those cold mountain days. The built-in oven is great for slow cooking, baking bread, and making pizzas.

I wish we’d researched our sources of firewood as much as we researched the heater and its builder! Finding a consistent source of wood in western North Carolina that’s dry enough to burn in our heater has been a challenge, to say the least. Wood with a higher moisture content can make for a smelly mess in a masonry heater.

After two years of buying and paying extra for kiln-dried wood only to have to dry it further myself, I built a solar wood kiln loosely based on plans I found on the Virginia Cooperative Extension website. I adjusted the size to fit my wood loads, and managed to build it with about 90 percent reclaimed lumber from our home renovation.

In our solar kiln, we can dry about a cord of wood each load. This past year, the split wood I dried from early August to late September achieved moisture content percentages well under 10 percent. I’m hoping we can achieve at least that during the winter months, but only time will tell.

My advice is this: If a masonry heater is in your future, find a good source of dry wood or build a solar kiln before you install the heater. You’ll be happy that you did!

T.R. Hoffman
North Carolina

Do-Good Gardener

I’m a longtime subscriber to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and each month I enjoy reading Hank’s column, News from MOTHER. I also enjoyed reading about heating with wood in a recent issue. Since our downsized retirement home in town doesn’t have a chimney, I can no longer heat with wood as I did for many years on our small farm here in Bedford, Virginia. I do continue to get my firewood fix by helping to cut, split, and deliver free firewood to those in need as a volunteer with the Bedford Wood Ministry. I’m also actively involved in raising organic vegetables for two area food pantries, and I’ve put to use many of the helpful hints and articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Thanks for the wealth of useful information in each issue!

Roger H. Henderson

Snake-Safe Plant Guards

In the Dear MOTHER department of the December 2020/January 2021 issue, a reader described a great way to keep birds from eating their blueberries by using PVC piping draped with deer netting and then secured to the ground. While this is a creative way to keep blueberries safe, I fear it could do great harm to one of our most valuable animals: the black rat snake, otherwise known by most as the “farmer’s friend.” Although unfortunately maligned by some people, merely for being snakes, they provide a great service by keeping the rodent population down. My husband has on many occasions held a flashlight between his teeth, bugs flying all around his face, while restraining a 5-foot-long black rate snake as I delicately cut it out of deer netting that had been secured directly to the ground. The snakes try to crawl through the tiny openings in the netting, but, because of their scales, they’re unable to back out. They can get badly wrapped up, and, without rescue, die a horrible death. If we farmers and gardeners can keep the netting up off the ground by at least 4 to 6 inches, these good creatures can be spared to hunt another day, and the opening so close to the ground is not a problem for the exclusion of birds.

JoAnne Lightner

Taken with Trapping

Thank you for R.D. Copeland’s “Trap Wild Pigs for the Table” in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. It was my favorite article in the whole magazine! More content like this, please.

Stephen Gamber

Ready for More Recycling

I read “Righteous Recycling” in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. It was good to see an article about the truths of recycling. I would like to see more on this subject, and others, such as the science behind recycling and composting. I’d also like to see more about recycling applications and uses, including where to purchase recycling end products to help the cause.

R. Rodman
New York

Ask Our Experts Correction

In the Ask Our Experts department of our December 2020/January 2021 issue, we mistakenly left out a byline for the author of “Is This Breed a Livestock Guardian Dog?” The author is Jan Dohner. We apologize for this error.

Send Us Your Photos!

Thanks for celebrating the magazine’s 50th anniversary with us in 2020. Our anniversary year may be over, but we still want to read your stories and see photos of your efforts to live simply. Started in 1970 to raise awareness of environmental concerns and to provide information and support for a simpler lifestyle, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has made it this far because of continuous interest from you, the readers. Your dedication to living more sustainable lives has kept this magazine afloat through five decades and an increasingly digital world. Send photos of your farm, your garden, and any projects you’ve undertaken over the past five decades to