Dear MOTHER: Short Growing Season Solutions

Letters from our readers about overcoming climate and terrain obstacles to cultivate personal best growing practices, using coconut oil for canine hot spots, and more.

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Cultivating Crops in Colorado

I read Editorial Director Hank Will’s “Obvious Solutions” (August/September 2018), and I want to share some solutions I’ve discovered.

I live in Black Forest, Colorado, up on the Palmer Divide in the forest. The soil here is sandy loam with pockets of clay and rock. Most people here have raised beds. I have them too because of the soil, and also because of my bad knees. But I’ve learned a lot in the years I’ve lived here. We’re in Zone 4, so our growing season isn’t long. We can’t put anything in the dirt until the last chance of frost has passed (generally the last week of May or first week of June). The only exception is garlic, which I plant in October and dig up the next July.

I’m always trying new ideas. I’ve learned that my garlic does best if it’s a cultivar that can handle the cold, such as ‘Romanian Red,’ ‘Estonian Red,’ and ‘German White.’ I also found out, after years of unsuccessfully growing onions, that I need to plant my crops only 1⁄2 to 1 inch in the ground. The soil has to warm them up, and it can’t if they’re too deep. So I never follow the seed packet instructions.

A local friend who consistently has a beautiful squash and pumpkin crop told me how to avoid fungus. He uses drip lines to water them, and puts old straw on top of the soil to keep it moist. As the plants grow, he adds more straw until it’s finally about 1⁄2 foot deep over the entire bed. I tried his approach, along with a shade cloth on hot days. His method works! I now have squash all over the place, and pumpkins. I planted too many squash plants, and now they’ve run amok. I learned to plant cosmos in the middle of the bed to draw the bees to the center, and, as a result, more of my squash are pollinated.

A year ago in January, I put some potatoes in the garage and noticed they’d started growing. So I ordered seed potatoes and got some cloth growing bags. I put a little dirt in the bags, followed by the potatoes, and lightly covered them with more soil. I left them alone, without water or light. They started growing like crazy. By the time June came around, I had a head start on growing. I put them in a galvanized water tank and covered them with more dirt. I watered when needed to keep the dirt moist, and had my best potato crop yet.

Every year, I’m learning how to do things better, and which cultivars work best at my altitude. My tomatoes grow great here too. If more people share what works for them in their areas, we’ll all be successful growers!

Black Forest, Colorado

Editors’ Pick: MOTHER as Muse

We began our journey with MOTHER EARTH NEWS in the mid-1970s. MOTHER’s most significant impact came when we built our house in 1979. Through the magazine, we learned of the potential for energy savings and alternative energy generation systems before many options were commercially available. Accordingly, we built our home in a sunny location with roof pitches, directional orientation, and an architectural design suited to adapting to various technologies that weren’t yet affordable. Over the years, we’ve easily converted to passive solar heating, solar hot water, and electrical generation through solar panels, as those technologies became viable. In addition to these alterations, we’ve also tried to improve our home’s efficiency by upgrading our windows and insulation, as well as installing a geothermal heating and cooling system. Because of these changes, our annual utility costs are less than 20 percent of the utility costs of comparable residences in our area.

Dennis Rader
Green Bay, Wisconsin 

Continuous Growth

Editorial Director Hank Will’s reflection on adapting to different kinds of gardening inspired me to share my story (“Memories, Realities, and Adaptation,” October/November 2018). I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spent my 20s in Texas in the Houston suburbs, and have lived the past five years or so about 20 miles northeast of Denver, on the High Plains at about 5,000 feet. Do I ever hear you about adjusting.

I grew up gardening. We had a big family and a small income, so my mom was constantly stretching the dollar. We composted long before it was trendy (thank goodness we didn’t have a homeowners association), and grew wonderful vegetables most years. We never sprayed or fertilized. Instead, we spent fall and winter piling up leaves and food scraps, worked the decomposed pile into the soil in spring, and had a great garden. And I’ve still never seen worms as large as those in our compost.

Then, I moved to the Houston area for work. I didn’t garden for a few years, other than one or two potted plants on a balcony apartment. Even when we bought a house, I didn’t get around to it right away. After my brother died, I felt like getting back into gardening, and I figured it’d be easy because Houston is hot all the time. Boy, was I wrong! The planting schedules were totally different. In Chicago, everyone put out tomatoes around Memorial Day. Since tomatoes don’t root in temperatures above about 95 degrees Fahrenheit (as I found out the hard way), that meant I had to plant them around Valentine’s Day in Houston. And it was like that for everything; I had to completely relearn how to garden. Howard Garrett’s Texas Gardening the Natural Way became my go-to guide, and within a few years, I was the lady in the neighborhood everyone came to with their gardening questions.

As soon as I became skilled at Gulf Coast gardening, my husband at the time took a job in Colorado. We bought a house in the country, and I finally had a large garden. My husband later left, but my love of gardening didn’t. I realized once again that I needed to make a major paradigm shift. In Texas, I had to learn a new planting schedule, but gardening on the High Plains requires an entirely different philosophy. Weather here is inconsistent, and crops fail every single year. For example, May snowstorms are the norm here. However, we didn’t get any that year. At first, it seemed like a godsend, until we realized how many bugs these storms usually wipe out. For the first year ever, I didn’t get a single pumpkin or squash because of stink bugs. But it was a bumper year for tomatoes, potatoes, jalapeños, and cucumbers.

That’s just how it is here. You’ve got to take care of the soil as best you can, and then hope you have enough of a window between snowstorms and hailstorms and strong winds to harvest something. But it did take me a while to become more comfortable with the inevitable yearly failures. Getting to know other farmers in the area was invaluable. Hopefully hearing about my failures will encourage some other frustrated gardeners too!

Joanna Silosky
Brighton, Colorado

The Modern Farmer

My father grew up on a hog farm during the 1930s. He said that there are only two ways to make a decent living as a farmer in today’s world and economy. The first way is to own 1,000 acres. The second way is to grow or raise something truly unique.

My father has since passed. In keeping with his advice, I’m thinking of raising some bamboo, beneficial insects, or remedial herbs on my 3 acres.

Troy Willenburg
Fulton, Missouri

A Momentous Move

You asked us to tell our stories of discovering MOTHER EARTH NEWS (“50 Years and Counting,” April/May 2019).

Back in the 1960s, our family gardened and raised rabbits in our St. Louis backyard. This was while we were raising three boys and I was working as the No. 2 administrator at Deaconess Hospital. Both gardening and rabbits were inherited loves from my childhood, and I intended to pass them on to our children. Subscribing to MOTHER EARTH NEWS fit our life well. We subscribed early on in its history, and we’ve cherished and saved every issue, starting with the very first.

A year or so after MOTHER EARTH NEWS began, we decided, along with two other families, to acquire a farm 20 miles away in Illinois. We all went way back: The men were clergy in the United Church of Christ; two of us had been associates in the early days of the modern civil rights movement at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi; two of the wives had been college roommates; and two of us were working in hospital administration. Because of these connections, a 120-acre farm with two old farmhouses seemed like a good move. We moved there, built another house for the younger couple, and started an adventure that’s lasted 47 years now. We started with 13 people, and 13 still live on the farm, with five original settlers remaining. Four generations of our family live on Old Enterprise Farms.

So much of this has been inspired by your magazine!

Richard Ellerbrake
Lebanon, Illinois

A Memorable Gift

I read Editorial Director Hank Will’s column on getting his first issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS (“50 Years and Counting,” April/May 2019). I’m 94 years old, and I still subscribe to the magazine. John Shuttleworth handed me my inaugural issue when he started the magazine here in Ohio. I made several trips down to the old Eco-Village near Hendersonville, North Carolina. I still plant a garden and some raised beds. I also still keep a flock of chickens.

Art Scott
Caldwell, Ohio

Coconut Oil for Canines

I read “Home Treatment for Dog Hot Spots” in your February/March 2019 issue. Our customers all use coconut oil for their dogs’ hot spots, with great results. I just wanted to share this with you and other readers. You have a wonderful magazine!

Sandra Fenton
Butler, Missouri

Community-Centered Approach

I’m looking forward to the new community-centered approach described by Editorial Director Hank Will in “Community and Belonging” (February/March 2019). I think building up communities is critical for solving the problems we’re currently facing. I’m interested in what co-ops and partnerships can do to provide needed goods and services, as well as support community and teamwork. Thank you for helping to support communities.

Stan Bies

Begone, Beetles!

I read “Bugs on the Move” by Benedict Vanheems (April/May 2019). I do quite a bit to manage Japanese beetles on my 2-acre organic blackberry farm. First, I do several things to concentrate the beetles away from my blackberry plants. I let a few young elm tree spurts grow near my blackberry plants. Japanese beetles prefer new elm leaves over my berries. By planting these elms, the beetles are concentrated in one area, making them easier to handpick. A well-placed pheromone trap in a parking lot half a mile away also helps to draw beetles away from my field. (I get access to the parking lot in exchange for some berries.) I check and empty the trap regularly.

I also make an effort to use these protein-rich beetles. My chickens are invited into the field for a few supervised visits in early spring. (My birds are banished from the field as soon as leaves emerge on the canes.) During these visits, they feast on Japanese beetle and raspberry crown borer grubs as they emerge from the ground. The beetles that are handpicked go into a bucket of water.

However, instead of using soap, I add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil to the water. The vegetable oil drowns the beetles quicker than the soap, and also adds more protein for my chickens. Here’s my Japanese beetle recipe: 1⁄3 bucket of water, 3 or 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and 6 to 8 cups of Japanese beetles. Place this mixture in a blender (marked NOT TO BE USED FOR HUMAN FOOD) and mix briefly. Feed the mixture to your chickens. This “chicken soup” recipe can be thinned by adding more water. To make a noxious spray to discourage beetles, as well as deer, from feeding on your berries, add some finely ground pepper and red pepper to the mixture. Apply this spray to the base of the plants, but not directly on the canes. I refrain from applying this spray to a few plants on the edges of my field. These canes are available for the coyotes to snack on. The coyotes love berries, and their presence deters deer, mice, voles, and rabbits from nosing around too much.

Thank you for your marvelous, practical, inspiring, and inviting magazine!

Jenny Gresko Schevers
Wayne, Illinois

Native Planting

This past summer, I revamped my front yard landscaping. I accomplished this by transplanting plants native to New England, such as a New England aster, cornflowers, and a fern. For less than $30, I was able to make my wife very happy; beautify my neighborhood; enjoy the outdoors; and help native pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. (Butterflies in particular tend to prefer to lay eggs and gather nectar from native plants.) Consider purchasing native plants at a local organic nursery or a Wild Ones plant sale, if you have a local chapter. Happy planting!

Josh Gross
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

An Old Oasis

Oz Farm has thrived in Point Arena, California, since the late 1960s. Like the fishing boats, Oz Farm is buoyed by Arena Cove. We founded Oz Farm after seeking connection to the land and people, along with the sense of safety that comes with it. Alone, we’re a feral bunch of aspirational dirt worshippers; together, we’re a nourishing local community with youthful exuberance. In a different part of the world, we would be outsiders, weirdos even. However, in a small counterculture town that has its roots in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, we’re following through on a dream that originated half a century ago.

In a time when we’re forced to reinvent what community and culture mean, Oz Farm is a glowing example of human potential. How do we progress in the modern world with one foot in the past and the other in the present? The days of hunter-gatherer communities are logistically a thing of the past, but a modern community with a reverence for the past has the potential to create ties that can weather the test of time. Our connection to eternal truths drives us to live as an example of an alternative way of life. A group of people intentionally living harmoniously with nature provides a real community in today’s world.

Since the 1970s, Oz Farm has attracted like-minded folks seeking this version of a way forward. In this small but mighty coastal community, we’ve found our bliss. Thanks for all the news over the years!

Dean Fernandez
Point Arena, California

Community Potlucks

When I picked up my copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS and read Editorial Director Hank Will’s column “Common Ground” (April/May 2018), I at first felt his despair. Then, I remembered my neighbors, Jesse and Athena, and how our Thursday night community potlucks are about to resume this spring.

This young couple provides homegrown food for locals by participating in a community-supported agriculture program. More importantly, as former Peace Corps volunteers, they know how to generate community. Last year’s “Neighbors’ Night” suppers included people from multiple generations, people with various religious and political backgrounds, and people with various ideas about food and agriculture. But for one night every week in spring, summer, and fall, we come together, face-to-face, and share a meal. For that one night, we set aside our differences, and we gather with smiles, hugs, and open hearts. Sometimes it’s easier to hear one another when nobody’s preaching.

Betty Taylor
Williamsport, Tennessee

Color Me Terrified

Every year, I like to decorate my backyard with a scarecrow. This year, I decided to spruce up my scarecrow with whatever was laying around my property. After hunting around, I found old clothes, a paint can, and some paint. Using these supplies, my usual scarecrow transformed into a painter. My new scarecrow presents a unique spectacle for birds and people alike.

Irene Baren
Paris, Illinois

Pass It On

My family loves to repurpose as much as possible. My mother gave me dozens of old issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for a Christmas present last year. She’d saved up her issues over the years, and didn’t want them to go to waste. It was my favorite gift! Because I’d never read these issues myself, all the information was new to me. In one gift, I received years’ worth of homesteading hacks that I can apply to my home the same way my parents did years ago. I think the greatest gift you can give someone is to share something you love with them.

I know most homesteaders love to stockpile resources of great value, so if you have a magazine collection that you’ve saved for a while, I urge you to pass it on! Someone will treasure it, as it is truly the gift that keeps on giving!

Deborah Calderwood
Prattsburgh, New York

Send Us Your Photos!

We’re celebrating the magazine’s 50th anniversary in 2020. To mark this long journey, we’re asking for photos of your efforts to live simply. Started in 1970 to raise awareness of mounting environmental concerns and to provide information and support for a simpler lifestyle, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has made it this long 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 homestead, your garden, and any projects you’ve undertaken over the past five decades to