See questions asked by MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers answered, including advice on raising chickens in rural areas.
A Fowl Conundrum
I live in a small rural town where the city council plans to ban residents from keeping fowl within city limits. Do I have any rights concerning keeping my chickens in town? Who should I contact to protest the vote? Also, do you have an article featuring building plans for chicken shelters?
— Sandi Aboulized
Many readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS view a backyard poultry flock, with its fresh organic eggs and the contented sound of clucking, as exemplary of rural self-sufficiency. But for many established residents of small rural towns, a flock of scruffy, half-wild chickens running free in the yard may well epitomize rural poverty. Most of your neighbors are probably too young to have experienced Dust Bowl privation themselves, but they have surely heard stories of those desperately hard times from older generations. Also, there is often a community within small towns that yearns for economic growth and an urbane, bigger-city image. Livestock of any kind in town isn't consistent with the urban image they envision.
There may be no way you can successfully challenge small-town values or zoning restrictions, but you can try to win folks over by setting a good example. Make your yard a dust- and odor-free showplace, with frequently changed organic litter in the hen house and outside run to absorb odors and hold down dust. Donate eggs to local bakers for a fundraising cake sale volunteer a box of new chicks for show-and-tell, and invite children over for a tour of the chicken operation.
Finally, if you can, identify the prime movers behind the motion to outlaw poultry. You have a right to query the city council about reasons and individuals behind the anti-chicken ordinance in public meetings. Your best bet is to charm the anti-chicken interests with a basket of fresh eggs and your reasons for wanting the flock. Be sincere, and try to empathize with those for whom your chickens evoke bad memories.
We're sorry we can't offer you any up-to-date instructions for the construction of poultry housing, but we can recommend any of the poultry-raising books published by Storey Communications.
I would like to start a small plot of purple coneflower in my backyard, but I haven't found a good article on starting this seed. I have a small amount of wild seed available and prefer to stay away from domesticated stock if possible.
— Jerry J, Brookings, South Dakota
Coneflower plants, also known as echinacea, were used by Native-American healers to treat a wide variety of illnesses ranging from snakebite to rheumatism. Contemporary research has indicated that echinacea is effective in reducing inflammation, easing the course of viral illnesses, and increasing the blood's supply of disease-fighting white blood cells. Echinacea's increased popularity as an herbal remedy has resulted in the overharvesting of wild plants, so enthusiasts are encouraged to grow their own, as you plan to do.
Of the three most common North American species, Echinacea augustifolia is most common in your part of the country. E. augustifolia is the most difficult species of coneflower to start from seed, but it also produces the highest concentration of medical ingredients.
For propagation, it's best to replicate the conditions under which E. augustifolia evolved on the harsh Dakota prairie. The seed needs to experience day/night photo periods, seasonal temperatures and cold-water flushes. It's best to plant seed outdoors in a nursery bed in late fall to early winter, lightly covered with fine potting soil, and let nature do the conditioning.
Indoors, you'll need to give it a bit of attention. E. augustifolia seed needs a prolonged deep-chill period to germinate — 12 weeks minimum. To mimic winter temperature fluctuations, move it from fridge to freezer every few days, or leave your well-dried seed on a shady porch in a mouseproof jar.
Some experts recommend priming seed that has wintered indoors by treating it to several soak/rinse cycles as it would encounter outdoors. This removes natural germination inhibitors that keep seeds from sprouting prematurely. Start seeds in seedling cells covered by one and a half inches of well-draining planting mix, or on a sheet of moist blotter paper. Grow in open daylight, but not on a windowsill where they may become overheated. Keep seed at normal summer temperatures — about 70°F, plus or minus 5°F — and keep flats or blotter paper moist but not soggy.
E. augustifolia has a taproot that must not be blocked in development, so plant sprouted seed in six-inch-deep flats. Let the surface of medium dry between waterings or water minimally from the bottom. Fertilize sparingly. Plant seedlings outdoors in earliest spring to avoid transplant shock. For best drainage and easiest harvest, set into raised beds 24 to 36 inches apart; thin so the mature plant's leaves barely touch.
Let plants grow three or four years before harvest; younger plants contain too little of the active ingredients, and older roots get woody and pithy. For an annual harvest, you'll want three or four generations growing at all times. Expect yields in a good year to top out at about 1,200 pounds of dried root per acre. Currently, roots sell for about $150 a pound in the U.S. A few acres of coneflower could yield a profitable harvest.
Do you know where I can get porcini mushrooms? I've been told they taste meaty, and 1 would like to add them to my food garden.
— Bill Adams
Mushrooms are fungi; thus, they lack the chlorophyll that lets sun-loving plants convert elements of air and water into nourishment via photosynthesis. Truth is, mushrooms have little nutritive value, and might not be the best investment of your time or money in terms of food value.
Growing mushrooms has little potential to net you a profit; but it can make an interesting hobby, and they are tasty. Large, firm-fleshed and possessed of a pungent, meaty flavor, porcini-type mushrooms go well with roasts or in meat-flavored sauces, soups and stews. Chopped and sauted with garlic in fruity olive oil, they make a meatless spaghetti sauce to die for.
To our knowledge, porcini are not one of the wild mushrooms that have been brought under profitable cultivation. The fresh items can be found for about $5 a pound in most large supermarkets. To grow them at a profit, or even for personal consumption for less than they cost at the supermarket, you'd have to beat store prices, which is no mean feat.
The easiest way to grow mushrooms is with a kit. The kits contain a cube of growing medium mixed with minerals and nutrients, and inoculated with laboratory-cultured mycelium starter. Kits cost $25 to $40, and yield one to three harvests ranging from two to five pounds. At about six dollars a pound, this is slightly more than the store price for fresh mushrooms.
With some effort, you can get more basic. Several readily available books list ingredients for growing medium and offer instructions for inoculating it and nurturing it until you produce a crop. Or, you can build a minilab and try growing your own spawn. We haven't gone that far yet, though we have collected local bolete and morel mushrooms in their spore-producing phase, mixed them in a blender with warm buttermilk and tried impregnating the roots of a big oak. Buttermilk cocktails have worked well in transplanting mosses and the fronds of hardy bracken ferns, but we haven't had any luck with the mushrooms yet. It may just be a matter of patience, however. Even professionally cultured mycelium sometimes takes years to grow before it produces that first mushroom.
How do you clean build up of grease from old cast-iron pot?
— Gary, Dexter, Montana
Build a bonfire around and on top of it. An open wood fire won't get hot enough to phase cast iron, but it will burn the grease to char. After the fire dies down and the pot cools, scrape it out of the ashes and clean it. Use your electric drill with a wirebrush attachment, or simply some steel wool and elbow grease. Season it quickly, slathering it inside and out with fresh, unsalted animal fat and letting it sit in a 400°F oven for an hour or more. Let it cool gradually or it will rust in a day's time.