Dear MOTHER April/May 2018

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Starting some seeds in my greenhouse during winter always makes me feel like spring is on its way. I bought a heat mat last year and can’t believe the difference it makes in my germination success rate! It was a great garden investment. Lisa Farrell Glencoe, California
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After completing her Adirondack chairs, Suzy relaxes as she soaks up some sun.
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Cheryl’s timid ducks gather near their pool.
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Adrienne’s completed storage bin awaits the addition of wheels in her home.
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Fresh cherry tomatoes in the midst of autumn weather.
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This was the reader's first experience with hugelkultur. He considered it such a success, that he plans on duplicating the process around the entire perimeter of his homestead.

Ever-Changing Garden Practices

Several years ago, I transplanted myself from snowy New York to a 1-acre homestead in humid, subtropical Florida. To be successful, I had to adapt my gardening practices quite a bit. Here are a few suggestions for gardeners who share a similar problem of having to buffer temperatures from both extremes.

Greenhouses are great for keeping plants warm when the cold weather hits. Having a greenhouse, even in Florida, allows me to kick-start my warm crops for an early March planting. In fall, I extend the season for warm-weather crops planted in the ground, such as peppers and tomatoes. I may cover them with a blanket, add mulch, or wrap lights around hardy stems to provide an overnight heat source. Homemade cold frames are another option.

To shield my cold-weather crops from the hot temperatures that cause them to bolt, I mulch them heavily with a dark mulch to absorb as much heat from the sun as possible. I also mist regularly to keep the plants’ environment cool.

I’ve been experimenting with regulating sun exposure over the years. An ideal situation for keeping your plants cool is to place them where they’ll receive morning and early afternoon sun, and late afternoon shade. If you don’t have that on your homestead, you can install shade cloth on the west side of your plot. A high hoop house covered in plastic but with ends and lower sides that are open can also keep plants cool.

Finally, choose the right species and cultivars for your area. I stick with what my Floridian neighbors and their ancestors have grown for years. Because of nematodes, we can’t grow those softball-sized tomatoes that northerners pick by the bushel. Instead, we grow drought- and heat-tolerant tomato cultivars.

Kenny Coogan
Tampa, Florida

Hugelkultur Gardening

I’ve recently moved to a new area, and in the process, purchased some rural acreage to begin my small home-based permaculture business, which I’m calling Orchard Heights Homestead and Permaculture. As a new subscriber to Mother Earth News, I wanted to share my successful homestead discovery.

I decided to plant a dwarf fruit tree orchard at the bottom of a knoll on my property. My soil is comprised largely of rock and clay, so I chose an old German permaculture technique for planting called “hugelkultur.”

Using the neighbor’s backhoe, I dug a 20-foot-long, 2-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep trench. After gathering fallen rotted trees and early-spring pruning branches, I threw them into the trench. On top of the debris, I backfilled a layer of straw, compost, mulch, and straw again until the trench was a 3-foot-high mound. I let it sit for a month, and then planted my fruit trees atop the hugelkultur mound in early summer. I watered the trees with vermicompost tea all summer long, which kept the mound damp. The trees took, the reed grass stayed away, and the moisture retention was perfect for saplings. By the end of summer, deer dined happily on the mushrooms sprouting in the mulch, while leaving my trees alone.

Jon Hanzen
Martin City, Montana

Finding Your Homestead

I want to thank everyone involved in this magazine. I’ve been reading Mother Earth News for a year now, and I’ve been inspired to start my own homestead. I’m a 29-year-old U.S. Army veteran with problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder. I think this lifestyle change will help me cope with my problems and grow into a better man. I’ll be moving to Ohio in a few months, and I’d like to know whether there are any schools that teach homesteading skills, such as organic gardening, food preservation and cooking, raising livestock, herbal medicine, woodworking, and blacksmithing. I’d like to learn all I can in order to decide what kind of homestead to build in the future.

Derek Williams
Shell Knob, Missouri


If you’re looking for a homesteading resource hub near you, visit for our multistate directory.

Springtime Herbs

I want to thank Maria Noël Groves for her wonderful and memorable description of the human cardiovascular system in “Herbal Heart Tonics” in the October/November 2017 issue. Prior to reading this article, I didn’t know the role herbs can play in improving and healing our cardiovascular system, including reducing inflammation, blood pressure, and cholesterol. They can be easily incorporated into daily routines to promote physical and mental well-being. For now, I’ve decided on a hibiscus and hawthorn blend for my nighttime routine. In the future, I hope to utilize the herbal concoction outlined in Groves’ Red Heart Tea recipe when I can afford to buy the herbs in bulk or find an alternative supply.

Jack Nieman
New York City, New York

Lumber Dreams and Designs

After Hurricane Irma, I have a lot of downed cedars littered throughout my 10 acres of woods that I’d love to mill, but I have no clue where to start. How do I find someone to mill my lumber? I’d like to learn to harvest and mill my own lumber eventually as well. Any suggestions? Every time I see a portable mill advertisement or article in Mother Earth News, I think to myself, “I really want to try that!”

I’ve successfully completed a few building projects, including a side table, chicken tractor, brooding box, chicken coop, and two Adirondack chairs. Now, I want to build a small and quiet personal space to expand our “tiny home” lifestyle.

Our tiny home was even featured in Lloyd Kahn’s Small Homes: The Right Size. I found out about this author and his work with tiny homes through Mother Earth News and decided to write him about ours. I was so surprised and honored when he told me our home would be featured in his book.

I find essential information and inspiration for projects like these every time I pick up a new issue of Mother Earth News. Your magazines are always filled with practical and self-sufficient skills that I enjoy learning, and it’s a comfort to know I’m in good company.

Suzy Krone
Madison, Georgia

Hey Suzy,

There are lots of routes you can take to have lumber milled from your trees. If you have a large enough chainsaw already, you can purchase a chainsaw-mill attachment to attach to the saw, and a ripping chain as well, and you can mill all day long. I have one of these mills — an Alaskan millmade by Granberg. Prices for the chainsaw mill package start at about $241, and increase depending on corresponding chainsaw size. If you don’t have a chainsaw, you can purchase one, or perhaps you have a friend who does and you could buy the mill, they could provide the saw, and you could split the lumber. Alternatively, you can check Craigslist and Facebook’s marketplace for local folks with portable bandsaw mills who could come to your place and mill for a fee or a share. The Alaskan mill can be carried to the logs, but with the bandsaw mill you’d need to bring the logs to the mill. And finally, several bandsaw mill manufacturers will give you the names of nearby folks who’ve purchased mills and are interested in milling logs for hire. Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.

— Hank Will, Editorial Director

Ducks in a Row

I just finished reading “Reasons to Raise Ducks” in the February/March 2018 issue. We’ve been homesteading for 19 years, and we’ve had ducks for about six of those years. There were two things in the article that caught my attention as being potentially troublesome for new duck owners, so, I’d like to offer some tips of my own.

First, the author says that an inflatable pool would be suitable for providing bathing space for ducks. While this may work for some, we’d suggest using a hard plastic baby pool for this purpose. We’ve used hard plastic pools for years with great results! In general, the pools must be replaced every year or so because they tend to get a hole or crack by the second year, but an inflatable pool might not even last a day. Ducks have very sharp claws at the ends of their webbed feet, and in no time at all, ducks would probably poke a hole in the side of an inflatable pool as they climbed in and out. Also, anyone providing a small pool for ducks will need to dump out and change their pool water daily because it gets muddy fairly quickly. If you have a concrete, stone, or wood platform to place the pool on, you might be able to get away with changing the water only every two or three days because the platform will protect the immediate area from gathering mud.

The 2-foot pallet fence mentioned in the article will work for some breeds of ducks, but not all. We had Khaki Campbells for a couple of years, and they flew over our 3-foot fence almost daily. We never saw them do it, but there’d be two or three ducks out every day, and we’d have to chase them back into their building. I finally added another 2 feet of chicken wire to the 3-foot fence. Over time, predators got to the escapees before we did, and we lost our flock entirely. Khaki Campbells are a very lightweight duck. If you have heavier ducks, a 3-foot fence probably won’t be a problem.

Lastly, the eggs are wonderful, but ducks are notorious for laying eggs wherever they happen to be standing when the time comes. Be prepared to find eggs anywhere they have access, as well as in a nest. We’ve even found them in the pool water!

Ducks are beautiful and a lot of fun to watch, and like the author says, they aren’t bothered by the cold much.

Cheryl Zacek
Odell, Illinois

DIY Success

As I was reading through the instructions and materials list for “DIY Produce Storage Bins” (August/September 2014), a bolt of inspiration struck me. I had a stack of 24-inch boards from a dilapidated deck rail I’d dismantled the year before, and no idea how to use them.

Although my materials didn’t exactly match those of author Steve Maxwell, I followed his guidance and made a few adjustments to construct a four-tier set of stackable bins. I used 36 reclaimed boards, plus scrap lumber that I cut into corner posts (because I didn’t have any square stock). Before assembling, I sanded loose paint from all the boards, giving an attractive distressed look to the final product. My only purchase was less than $8 for screws, reluctantly made after I’d determined that I didn’t have enough suitable hardware.

The first use of these bins will be to store the organic heirloom apples I purchased from a local grower for $1 per pound and some hand-harvested black walnuts that need to cure before shelling. I don’t doubt that this sturdy, versatile set of bins will be useful for years to come. I may eventually attach casters, as suggested in the article. I appreciate projects that don’t require special tools or particularly special skills and that are doable by even a novice carpenter like me.

Adrienne Corticelli
Ellijay, Georgia

Trials of a Gardener

I always feel depressed as the gardening season comes to a close and I can no longer pick fresh, homegrown, and healthy produce. I freeze lots of fruits, veggies, and herbs for offseason meals, but it’s definitely not the same.

I extend the growing season in my small way as the season of abundant tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and radishes ends by transplanting herb plants to my indoor garden. Sweet basil, oregano, parsley, sage, thyme, and garlic sit on a table in front of my windows facing southwest.

Not long after moving these herbs indoors last fall, though, I noticed a few little flies around the pots. Panic set in. After all, bugs belong outdoors! So, I mixed up my spray solution that works fine for cucumber and potato bugs and lightly misted twice, and the bugs disappeared.

Here’s how I make my favorite solution. In a 1-quart spray bottle, I add 1 cup of white vinegar to 3 cups water and shake gently to combine. To apply, spray plants lightly as insects appear.

If you intend to use this spray outdoors, here are some recommendations on the application. In the morning, before sunshine wakes the garden, lightly spray the plants that have attracted hungry insects. I sometimes spray my entire raised bed with no damaging effects to any plants. Bees continue to visit and pollinate, and the outcome leaves me with a smile.

Nancy Bisnette
Palmer, Massachusetts

Leafy Green Experiments

I run a community-supported agriculture program (CSA), and my members give me a lot of great ideas for how to use the produce I grow. As a result, I stopped worrying about basil mildew and freezing summer basil stashes and started making radish leaf pesto a few years ago.

Radishes can be grown year-round, including under cover in winter. This past spring, I had a ton of parsley and fennel, and a member suggested I try using those as well. The results have been fabulous!

Jodi Kushins
Columbus, Ohio