Readers’ tips about how to build a solar powered food dryer, a straw bale garden, how to deter unwanted garden critters, repurposing and upcycling projects, and more!
I finally found a way to thwart squirrels from stripping peaches from our peach tree. Placing netting over the tree didn’t work because the squirrels simply made a hole in the netting and took all the peaches before they even ripened. To keep the squirrels at bay, I needed a different approach.
First, I removed any branches that were low enough for squirrels to jump onto from the ground as well as any nearby objects that squirrels could jump from onto the tree. Then, I purchased a piece of sheet metal that was slightly wider than the circumference of the tree trunk, shortened its length from the ground to the lowest branch, and wrapped it around the trunk to make a metal baffle.
After installing the baffle, I watched squirrels on the ground circle the peach tree and stop periodically to assess how to get into the tree. They were positively baffled — pun intended. Squirrels still wreak havoc with our garden’s tomatoes, squash, and watermelons, but not with our peaches.
Does it really take a green thumb to be able to grow plants? No! It just requires knowing what the plants need. If plants are given a simulation of their natural habitat, they’ll adapt more easily and do what comes naturally.
If an indoor plant wants mostly shade, don’t place it in a south or west window. If an outdoor plant wants good drainage, it doesn’t want to be where a water sprinkler or rain will leave it sitting in a low puddle. Marigolds are good outdoor plants for those who don’t care to be working on them frequently. Their seeds can be harvested each autumn to be planted again the following spring. After peony bulbs are planted, they take care of themselves. They like lots of sunshine and will tolerate any level of moisture. As bushlike plants, they look lovely as a border and have a delightful fragrance. They’ll bloom yearly without any special care. Irises also take care of themselves. The bulbs will multiply and may enjoy being moved to other yards, so they’re a good bulb to exchange with friends to obtain a diversity of color.
A variety of plants can provide greenery indoors all year long. Christmas cacti like to be root-bound, prefer living in a sunny spot, and don’t require much to drink. They want their soil to be somewhat sandy, of course, because their ancestors lived in the desert. Grape ivy is queen of the house and shows her beauty in a royal setting with no other plants around her. She doesn’t need to climb but likes enough space to spread out and show her lovely “gown.” Most plants don’t want to be overfed, but a treat in early spring and again in midsummer will keep them happy and healthy.
I’ve been raising chickens and turkeys for several years now, and I’ve developed several tips for successful care. Feeding mint to chicks offers at least two benefits. The aroma of the mint leaves helps keep general odors at bay in the chick area. The mint also keeps the chicks occupied as they forage for the leaves. In addition to mint, I hang feather dusters to mimic a mom for the baby turkeys to sleep under. This reduces my losses from piling because the insulation from the feathers encourages them to sleep next to each other instead of piling on top of one another.
Though I love deer dearly, I don’t love deer in my garden. Over the years, I’ve tried everything to keep them away from my hostas, lilies, and phlox. Sprays were expensive and washed away with rain. I’ve finally come up with something that actually works: using a paper clip to attach a folded dryer sheet to the back of one leaf on every hosta, lily, and phlox clump. No more deer snacks here.
Ballston Spa, New York
I first came across straw bale gardening a few years ago in an issue of Mother Earth News. The concept intrigued me, and, with my husband’s help, I was able to try it. We’d like to share a few tips from our experience.
Give the straw bales time to cook and decompose a bit. When we set them up in autumn, drenched with water, and leave them alone over winter, the bales provide us with a nice crop the following spring. If we set the bales up in spring, they need more work, such as a black plastic cover to stimulate a humid environment, in which they can properly decompose and get ready for planting the same year.
Regarding fertilizer, we have comfrey growing in abundance in and around our garden. After trying to fight it off as a weed, we found that by soaking its leaves in water for a few weeks, it would produce a potent nitrogen fertilizer. Now, we not only water our other plants with comfrey tea, but we condition the straw bales with it as well. The squash and broccoli that we plant on our bales seem to like the whole arrangement.
Also, a small tip regarding the positioning of the straw bales: They should be placed with the cut ends up. We place our straw bales in a row in between two poles to keep them in position. We also place cardboard underneath so that when the straw bales eventually fall apart, we can make them into raised lasagna beds.
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
I have a deck with southern exposure, and the temperature easily reaches more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit during summer. As an avid gardener, I wanted to utilize the summer heat. I settled on creating a solar food dryer.
The one drawback is that my carpentry skills are lacking, and I needed a way to get air circulation around the food while also keeping bugs away. I was putting tomato cages around my tomato plants when I had an idea. I turned a heavy-duty tomato cage upside down and bent the pointy bottoms toward each other before twisting them together. Then, I cut circles of plastic window netting and sewed them on each level in the tomato cage using a needle and fishing line.
I then wrapped a large piece around the outside of the cage, overlapping the two ends. I cut it to size and stitched it to the cage all around. The overlapping ends allow me to reach in and place my herbs, fruits, or vegetables on the different levels of the dryer while keeping the bugs out. I gathered the top of the screen together and then wrapped the string around the screen and wire legs to secure it. Herbs dry in a few hours, and sun-dried tomatoes are ready in one day! It works great, was cheap, and only took about an hour to make.
We love watching wildlife in our backyard, and a generous neighbor allows us to scan his field for corncobs after the picker has gone through. We usually find enough to feed the squirrels during winter.
My husband devised a feeder by pounding four nails through a foot-long board, which he attached to the top railing of our deck with the nails facing upward. He then carefully forced a cob onto each nail. It didn’t take long for the first guests to arrive. We had expected the squirrels, but we also enjoyed a raccoon, birds, and even deer that came to the feast. Our homemade feeder was a huge success.
My husband and I came up with an idea for a durable fence around our garden to keep out the animals that like to feed on our garden plants. We embedded fence posts in the ground and fastened old metal corncrib panels to them with wire. We then took chicken wire, placed it around the bottom, and wired it to the corncrib panels.
We installed some old metal gates on either side of the garden to get in and out and to access the garden shed. We placed two cattle panels on the east end of the garden so they could be removed in spring for tilling with our small garden tractor and tiller. The cattle panels are easy to replace and are wired to the corncrib panels.
My husband made birdhouses for wrens and put them around the garden to help take care of insects. And no more jumping rabbits or deer are getting into the garden.
To provide your birds a winter treat, all you’ll need is some unflavored gelatin and any number of bird-friendly foods to pour it over. I purchase my gelatin from the Amish store, but you can use commercial packets.
In 1 cup cold water, add 1 tablespoon of gelatin. Let stand 1 minute, and then add 1 cup boiling water. Next, pour the gelatin mixture over your ingredients. You can add any food that’s good for birds, including blueberries, oatmeal, peanuts, peanut butter, cranberries, raisins, or sunflower seeds. When I can, I like to include scratch grains and frozen mealworms, which I order from a grower. If preferred, you can use hot bacon grease, beef tallow, lard or another fat instead of gelatin and make super-high-energy suet.
Spread the mixture of gelatin (or fat), grains, nuts, and berries on a pan and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. Pull it out when firm. Each 2-cup mixture produces enough for 2 treat cakes. I’ve also used a bundt pan and made a huge cake to hang in the chicken run. When the chickens are cooped up during winter, they love the treat.
If you have a problem with rabbits eating your young spring vegetables, try loosely covering the young seedlings with pine boughs. You can push the cut ends of the boughs into the soil so they won’t blow away and to keep them high enough that they won’t injure your plants. Branches saved from your Christmas decorations or Christmas tree will work really well. Rabbits used to go into my garden and eat entire rows of peas as they sprouted, but since I’ve been covering the seedlings with pine boughs, the rabbits have left them alone. This also works great for cabbage, broccoli, and kohlrabi transplants.
Instead of throwing out leftover paint cans after a house-painting job, I decided to turn them into flowerpots. I carefully cleaned and rinsed all the paint out of the cans and drilled holes in the bottoms for drainage. I painted the cans different bright colors for visual effect. I planted milkweed in each can, so the cans have multiple benefits for the environment. Not only does this project upcycle paint cans, it also helps nourish monarch butterfly populations.
My friend treated me to a subscription to your magazine as we try to get our little homestead up and running, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love! After reading the Country Lore tip “Upcycling Old Fence Boards” in the October/November 2017 issue, I knew I had to share my project with Mother Earth News and my fellow readers!
My mom has raised finches for years, and when my husband and I bought our house together, I found myself wanting their little chirps. I knew I wouldn’t be happy buying a new cage, so I just waited until I found the right starting piece. I found an old gun rack cabinet on the side of the road with a “free” sign propped against it, and I was off to the races.
I had to cut holes in the sides, which forced me to learn how to use a new tool, one of the greatest benefits of DIY projects. I sanded the cabinet and added trim to the side holes. Because the gun rack had been glued onto the backboards, I had to cut the back section out, which, of course, left a gaping hole. I raided our pile of old fence pieces and designed this herringbone pattern for the back. After a good sand and whitewash, I glued the pieces in, finished staining and sealing, and added the wire mesh to create window frames.
I’m so in love with the finished product, and because I used so many resources I had lying around (including trim, stain, and sealant from a previous project), I only had to buy the wire mesh, which made the total cost of this bird cage about $13. I was able to reuse junk and make something beautiful, which is so much more satisfying than buying new.
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