Dear MOTHER: Spring Chickens

Letters from our readers about beekeeping, upgrading a chicken coop, restoration projects, sustainability efforts, and more.

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by Mary Martin
This summer door cools down Mary’s chickens.

Spring Chickens

I discovered MOTHER EARTH NEWS last year when I borrowed an issue from our town library. Informative, interesting, and entertaining, your magazine should be read by all those who are concerned and care about the environment, their health, and the Earth.

I grew up on a farm, and I remember that the fried chicken my mother served was crisp and tasty. The size of the spring chicken, at 2-1/2 pounds, was just right for us seven hungry children.

I’m interested in ordering a shipment of two spring chickens on a trial basis, to be repeated if everything is satisfactory.

Lita Ferrer
Wethersfield, Connecticut

Thanks for the mouthwatering memories, Lita! You can locate local farmers who sell spring chickens like the ones you remember by searching online at Local Harvest and Eatwild. Another good option is to ask around at your area farmers market. –MOTHER


Sage Safety Advice

I read Joel Salatin’s article on safety (“Homestead Safety,” The Pitchfork Pulpit, December 2018/January 2019) to my husband, who’s legally blind. He has always been very safety conscious, which serves him well now. He has given away his large chainsaws, but he still uses, among other power tools, a small chainsaw.

I now consider myself our house­hold’s safety officer. However, if it weren’t for my husband’s years of safety awareness, he wouldn’t be able to con­tinue doing the things he loves.

We were fortunate to have Mr. Salatin speak in our small Southern California community a few years ago. We appre­ciated that he traveled to speak to us, especially since it involved 40 miles of mountain driving.

Celia De Frank
Big Bear City, California


Seize the Swarms

Readers, we received quite a response to Editorial Director Hank Will’s “Obvious Solutions” in the August/September 2018 issue. Hank wrote about building swarm traps to capture wild honeybees on his farm. Here are our favorite letters from you. –MOTHER

Hard to Bee-lieve

I really like the idea of catching swarms, and will have to try baiting them with semi­permeable vials of lemongrass, as Hank suggested. My wife uses essential oils, so I’m sure I can find what I need.

I went into winter with six hives. On a warm day in February, I checked and found two hives with activity in them. By spring, I was down to a single hive. I’m more of a bee purchaser than a beekeeper, as I seem to have bad luck with overwintering them. I’ve tried to keep them alive with sugar boards, by wrapping the hives in tar paper, and by adding pillow boxes to the top, but nothing has seemed to really help.

This spring, I was busy with all the other things going on in life and barely had time to prepare two of the hives in my modest bee yard for a pair of nucs I’d reluctantly decided to buy. In my haste, I left three other hives set up with drawn-out frames, and I even left a few frames of honey out in the field.

I finally went back in early July, expecting to find no bees, and to my surprise, there were four hives! The hives had split, as hives do (especially with no extra honey supers added). One of the split hives had just taken up residence next door. I was amazed. I went back again to put honey supers on a couple of the hives and found that instead of four hives I now had five. I’m currently in the garage cleaning up another honey super for my newest residents.

Before I left the bee yard, I opened up the last of the empty hives. I’ll report back if the bee yard is full the next time I get out there. I wouldn’t recommend this approach as the “right way” to keep bees, but if you have empty hives, leaving them in the yard might be surprisingly rewarding.

Kyle Clinton
Cedar Falls, Iowa

West Virginia, Take Me Home

I especially enjoyed “Obvious Solutions,” in which Hank wrote about luring “wild” honeybees to his seven hives with lemongrass oil. I’m interested in trying that technique. We have half a dozen hives. We bought nucs of bees to inhabit them. They multiplied like crazy and took off for parts unknown in a northeasterly direction, leaving just a few to winter here. I happened to be in the yard when one hive decided to depart, and I stood there watching them circle counterclockwise. Fifty thousand bees is a lot of bees, but they were interested in their queen, not me. An early warm spell tempted them into activity, but when it turned cold again, they expired. Maybe na­tive bees would fare better for us.

So, Hank, thanks for the editorial. I also appreciated Leo Sharashkin’s article “Sweet Savings” (August/September 2018). But his article about hive building didn’t include instructions on making the frames to hold honey.

Charles Gallimore
Alderson, West Virginia

Charles, you can find free instructions for building honey frames on Leo’s website, Horizontal Hive. Click on “Plans” and look for frame plans. –MOTHER

Buried Treasure

As I read the last paragraph of Hank’s “Obvious Solutions” editorial, I knew instantly an epiphany to share with you.

I’m a retired appraiser living in Mississippi. I’ve traveled across the entire state for my job and seen various housing structures. As you may know, it’s hot and humid here in summer. Well, a few summers ago, when it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside, I was inspecting a house that had been closed up for several months. Despite the weather, when I entered the house, it felt as though the air conditioner had been on, even though I knew the power had been cut off. In that moment, I had my epiphany.

This house was an underground house. Later, I sat down and started to figure up the potential savings of an underground dwelling: ultra-low utilities, virtually no maintenance costs, lower insurance costs, and so on. What I found was staggering: The amount of money saved on a 30-year mortgage could amount to hundreds of thousands of dol­lars (if you believe that time has intrinsic value). My gosh, I thought, this type of construction needs to be mainstream! It’s extremely quiet, and the entire house serves as a shelter during tornado season.

If this type of construction were developed and implemented na­tionwide, we could save a tremendous amount of money and cut down on the amount of greenhouse gases produced, assuming we could develop a substitute for concrete.

Camille Wright
Brandon, Mississippi

Hank’s Hives

Hank’s editorial about trap hives for honeybees made me wonder about the conformation and placement of his trap hives.

Thanks for publishing MOTHER EARTH NEWS all these years, with its countless helpful hints, directions, and messages.

David Miller
Kalama, Washington

David, I strapped my trap hives to hedge trees located just out­side my woodlots and hedgerows, about 12 feet off the ground. You can find layout information at Horizontal Hive; just click on “Plans” and scroll down to “Layens Swarm Trap.” –Hank Will, Editorial Director


From Coop to Castle

The chicken coop I built six years ago was small and stuffy, so on sum­mer nights, I left the door open to let in a cool breeze. This worked well until my guard dog died. A raccoon walked right into the coop and killed three hens. After that, I faithfully closed the coop every night.

This spring, I went out at dusk one evening to find my hens scattered and squawking. A shrewd skunk had walked right into the coop just minutes ahead of me. He sprayed the place and caused quite a ruckus.

I decided it was time for a new coop. Since both wild animals had gained entry by walking in, I decided the door for the hens would be 2 feet off the ground. The hens have to fly up to get in. Chickens are smart, and mine quickly learned how to access ­ the new entrance. There’s a sturdy door to close in winter. For a summer door, I constructed a screened frame from two racks of an old oven (jail bars to keep the bandits out at night). This screen sits on an inside ledge, so I can easily remove it each morning and install it each evening. I made a drop-down plastic curtain that covers three-quarters of the window to keep some moisture out, but it also gives the hens the freedom to come and go.

There’s a tarp on the floor. I sprinkle a little sawdust under the roost each morning. To clean the coop, I just pull the tarp to the garden and dump it.

Mary Martin
Rexburg, Idaho


Restored Cider Mill

About 40 years ago, an old friend came to my home with a rusty heap of cast iron and steel he’d found in his barn. Attached to the iron were two small pieces of rotten and termite-eaten wood. He told me he might want to restore it. It was an old cider mill and press.

red and brown wooden cider mill in a garage

I threw it in my barn loft, where it resided for 40 years. This past fall, my wife suggested that I attempt to restore the old mill.

All the bearing surfaces were so worn they weren’t functional, and the rest were rusted so badly they couldn’t move. By brushing the cast-iron surfaces, I could read the manufacturer’s marks:

Name: P.P. Mast & Co. Springfield, Ohio
Patented: May 29, 1855
Feb. 6, 1864
Nov. 21, 1865
Reissued: Aug. 22, 1888

I had no idea what the original frame would’ve looked like. The internet was absolutely no help. So, I went to a festival where there were three old mills. I took some pictures and started sketching what I thought this mill might’ve looked like.

Then, I built a frame that would be functional and might be close to the original. Afterward, I disassembled the mill. The bearing bores were worn badly. I re-bored them and installed sleeves on all the shaft bearing seats and machined them. All the gears were frozen on the shafts. With the help of an acetylene torch and gear pullers, I finally got them off. I sandblasted and painted most of the parts, and made the new basket with oak slats and steel strapping.

Erman Hurst
Borden, Indiana


Aquaponics Questions

Let me start off by saying how much I enjoy your magazine. I relish every page and look forward to trying out some of the wonderful and informative ideas described in the magazine.

It was with great interest that I read “Aquaponics in a Natural Pond” (June/ July 2018) by Robert Pavlis. We live on a small creek that eventually opens up to Lake Nipissing. I would love to set up my own aquaponics system, but have a few questions.

I’m interested in trying the raft system, putting a raft directly in the creek, but I have concerns about algae blooms that occurred downstream from us at a cove area on the lake last year. There’s a lot of deteriorating organic matter in the water, which I read would be good for the plants. I also read that plants would help reduce the levels of nitrates, which in turn would help reduce algae.

I wonder if any bacteria would be absorbed by the plants, lettuce, and (most of all) Swiss chard, and possibly make us sick when we eat the harvest. I’ve seen warnings to not let dogs drink out of the water during an algae bloom. Would this also be a concern for humans consuming the harvested plants?

I really love this idea, but want to make sure it’s safe for my family.

Carole Chenard
Callander, Ontario

Carole, thanks for your kind comments about my aquaponics article. You shouldn’t be concerned, because plants don’t normally absorb bacteria. Regarding the algae blooms, most algae blooms aren’t toxic. If they’re toxic, the culprit isn’t the algae but instead the chemicals algae produces, and it’s unlikely plants would absorb these chemicals. –Robert Pavlis


Soap-Making Tips

I enjoyed “Make Your Own Soap” (February/March 2019), and had a few things to add to the author’s advice. I like to use the smooth side of freezer paper to line my soap molds. I put the paper in the mold and tape it over the edges. You can use the edges of the paper to pull the bar out of the mold after it has set up. I then use cookie-cooling racks for curing, with brown paper above and below the cut bars.

Also, I use an old stand mixer to make my soap. I cover the beater bowl with a piece of coated cardboard that has a slit for the beaters. Works great and no mess!

Deb Berning
Jenera, Ohio


Save with Sustainability

I started reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 1996. I saw an ad for a way to con­vert a gas car into an electric car. That inspired me to convert my 1995 Geo Metro to electric in 2008. It still runs well after about 41,000 electric miles!

a blue car parked on grass with elektra on the hood and side with a solar panel on top

Then, in 2013, I installed a 5.1-kilowatt grid-tied solar array on my house. Next, I installed a solar hot water heater that I found on Craigslist for $500. I also found an old solar hot water heater with many leaks that I repurposed into a solar hot air heater that heats my sunroom, and, on good days, my entire house! Last year, I found 14 cracked 310-watt solar panels free on Craigslist! I installed them on my garage roof. They produce about half the power that’s needed, but they still give me about 10 kilowatt-hours per day, and 30 kWh from my house system. With all the money I saved with no electric bill and no gas or maintenance for my car, I was able to buy my 2018 Tesla Model 3 that I love! I named it Eagle, because it’s American-made and flies like an eagle. Mostly, what I learned from reading your magazine is that we only have one Earth, so we need to take care of her. Thank you for the wealth of information.

Pete Lang
Butner, North Carolina


Upcycle, Meet Freecycle

I just finished reading “Build an Upcycled Greenhouse” (February/March 2019). An additional source for free items in our area is Freecycle. It works much like Craigslist, but every item is free. I used it to pass along an old hot tub we didn’t need or want to repair.

I’ve been a subscriber for several years and share issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS with my daughter. She recently purchased some land and wants to be as self-sustain­ing as possible. Keep publishing useful information.

Alan Smith
Wichita, Kansas


Growing Pains

I was raised on fresh garden vegetables, so it was only natural to want to provide the same fresh flavors and nutrition for my family. After I married, I was blessed to live on an old riverbed, which provided good drainage and a foot of topsoil. I continually amended the soil with leaves and manure to produce bountiful harvests.

Then, I moved to Idaho, which is potato country, not tomato country. My plants looked great going into the ground, and then, about a month later, random plants would die. I found out there’s a disease in the soil in this area.

I came across a catalog called Totally Tomatoes, which I studied carefully. I looked for the cultivars that were the most disease resistant. After several years of growing differ­ent cultivars, I discovered ‘Fletcher’ tomatoes, which have been consistently productive. Now, using that knowledge, I’ll look for other varieties that are resistant to diseases.

We’re in Zones 3 to 4, so I’m excited to have successfully grown ‘Faerie’ watermelon this year. It has a yellow rind and a short growing season.

Cabbage has always been a staple in my garden, but it took me 45 years to figure out that if I leave the bottom two layers of leaves and the root when I cut the first head off, I’ll get an additional three or four small heads as I go into fall. These small second-crop heads are my favorite size for salads and homemade cabbage rolls.

I’m always grateful for what I learn from MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Happy harvesting!

Mary Martin
Rexburg, Idaho


Perturbed by Palm Oil

I’ve been making soap for 10 years and found “Make Your Own Soap” (February/ March 2019) to be accurate. However, I do think it’s important to mention that palm oil production is a big contributor to deforesta­tion and climate change. For a higher price, you can purchase palm oil that’s been har­vested sustainably. If you choose to sell your soap, be aware that many customers know about the negative impacts of palm oil, so you may want to use other oils.

Holly Wolfe
Duluth, Minnesota


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 Letters@MotherEarthNews.com.