Preserving Herbs for Best Flavor


Preserving HerbsWhat’s the best way to preserve culinary herbs?
 

It’s best to dry herbs that have pronounced flavors and tough or needle-like leaves — such as rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, lavender, mint and bay. Freeze herbs with more subtle flavors and tender leaves — such as parsley, cilantro and chervil. Preserving basil is the exception: It dries well, but its flavor is brighter if frozen.

For best flavor, harvest herbs just before they bloom, which is when their essential oils are at the highest level. To dry, fasten together small bunches of stems with twine or a rubber band, and then hang them upside down in a warm, dry place. Tie the bundles tightly, because the stems will shrink as they dry. When the leaves become brittle, strip them from the stems and store them in jars. Label and date the jars.

Follow these steps to preserve basil and other herbs by freezing: Coarsely chop the leaves and then pack them loosely in ice cube trays. Add water and freeze. When the cubes have frozen, remove them from the trays and store them in plastic freezer bags for up to three months. Add the cubes to sauces or soups for summertime flavor. Or, gently purée the herbs along with a small amount of olive oil (one-quarter cup oil to 1 cup of leaves) and then freeze the paste in a plastic freezer bag. Cut off the amount of paste you need to flavor soups, sauces, dressings or marinades.

— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor 

Photo by Nate Skow 

Building Earthen Homes Using the Original DIY Material


Adobe, cob, compressed earth blocks and clay-straw building methods are labor-intensive but tremendously rewarding.

Building Earthen Homes

Dirt is the original DIY material. In cultures all over the world, people have used earth to fashion everything from bowls to buildings. We know this because so many earthen homes are still around, including buildings hundreds and even thousands of years old. In recent decades, interest in earth construction has risen. What follows are some of the pros and cons of the different types of earthen building, including adobe, cob, compressed earth blocks and clay-slip straw, and some practical tips on things you may want to try as well as those you’ll want to avoid.

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Earthen Home Basics

Some basic features and practices apply to most earthen building types. First, the old adage: Give your buildings a good pair of boots and a hat. That means lifting your earthen walls up away from water on a solid foundation and covering them with big overhangs.

I’m a fan of outdoor rooms, so I prefer large patio overhangs all around, except for the south side of the building if we need passive solar heat gain in the winter. To prevent water damage, keep earthen walls covered during construction. A sensible approach in wet climates is to build the roof first on a post-and-beam structure, and then infill with bricks, cob or clay-slip straw.

Second, dirt isn’t insulation. Light, fluffy and airtight assemblies prevent heat flow; massive, dense ones do not. Some people don’t get this. I think the confusion arises because of a unique feature of the most common earthen building climate: hot and arid. In such regions, exterior temperatures tend to fluctuate above and below desired interior temperatures (hot during the day, cold at night). Thick-mass walls can act as an effective form of dynamic insulation. In all other climates, in my view, earthen materials aren’t appropriate for exterior wall systems if your goal is to build the most energy-efficient building. They instead should be used inside the insulated envelope as interior walls, floors and plasters to add mass, soundproofing and beauty to the building.

Third, earthen building is not easy, simple or cheap. Dirt is heavy, and you need to move a lot of it around to build. That’s not easy. Anything heavy that has the potential of falling on your head needs to be taken seriously. As for cheap, a big plus of earthen building is definitely that much of the material can often be found on site and is ubiquitous and inexpensive. But earthen building is labor-intensive, so what you save in materials, you may pay back in hard work. Of course, much of it may be slave labor (i.e., you), but to make an apples-to-apples comparison with conventional approaches, you have to value that time. I could make a free building out of gold if the gold were salvaged and the labor were unpaid.

All About Growing Cabbage


Think cabbage is boring? Think again! Try growing cabbage in your garden to enjoy green, savoy and red cabbage year-round.

Dependable, nutritious, and delicious raw or cooked, both green and red cabbage are among the most productive cool-season crops. Gardeners growing cabbage in cool climates can grow huge, blue-ribbon heads. Where hot summers divide the cool seasons, fast-maturing varieties do well in spring and again in fall. All types of cabbage are at their best in late fall, after exposure to light frosts.

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Types of Cabbage

Green cabbage varieties vary in their earliness and mature size. Smaller varieties can be grown at close spacing.

Red cabbage provides higher levels of vitamins A and C than other types of cabbage do, and its bright color is always beautiful on the plate.

Savoy cabbage produces a crisp heart and crinkled, dark green outer leaves.

Pointed cabbage develops conical instead of rounded heads. Its upright growth habit and tight outer leaves protect pointed cabbage from insects and sun.

Napa cabbage (or Chinese cabbage) matures quickly and produces crisp, mild-flavored leaves. Learn more in Growing Asian Greens.

For more information about types of cabbage and our recommended varieties, see our Cabbage at a Glance chart. 

When to Plant Cabbage

In spring, start seeds indoors or in a cold frame eight to 10 weeks before your last spring frost, and set out hardened-off seedlings when they are about 6 weeks old. Seeds germinate best at 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

In summer, start seeds 12 to 14 weeks before your first fall frost, and transplant the seedlings to the garden when they are 4 to 6 weeks old. Plant early and late varieties to stretch your harvest season.

How to Plant Cabbage

Growing cabbage plants requires regular feeding and abundant sun. Choose a sunny, well-drained site with fertile soil that has a pH between 6.0 and 6.5.

Loosen the planting bed and mix in a 2-inch layer of compost along with a standard application of a balanced organic fertilizer or well-composted manure. Water the fertilized bed thoroughly before setting out seedlings. Allow 18 to 20 inches between plants for 4-pound varieties; larger varieties may need more room. Varieties that will produce heads that weigh less than 2 pounds (check your seed packet) can be spaced 12 inches apart.

Harvesting and Storage

Our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year: Living the Good Life Through Modern Homesteading


These seven families offer inspiring examples of modern homesteading, including a dedication to building self-reliant communities in both rural and urban settings.

Dirt Road

The word “homesteading” may conjure images of families lined up in front of a sod house, a mule hitched to a plow working the fields in the background. Such pioneers truly labored for their livelihood, sweating to construct homes, produce food, haul water and raise animals. Modern homesteading doesn’t fit that description, but those who choose it have the same can-do attitude and have found new ways of living the good life.

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Last fall, when MOTHER EARTH NEWS called for nominations for our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year contest, we never could’ve predicted the variety of do-it-yourselfers we’d hear about. From families on 100-plus acres in rural Canada to couples in tiny homes on one-third-acre plots in a bustling metropolis, all kinds of self-reliant folks from across North America were nominated.

The nominees have incredible green thumbs — growing large veggie gardens and tending orchards. For most, food preservation is a constant activity — freezing, dehydrating, canning and storing food in a root cellar. Many of these modern homesteaders supplement their gardens with local products and raise poultry and livestock for eggs, meat, dairy and manure.

A big part of self-reliance for many of the nominees involves energy efficiency. Remodels and upgrades to turn an old house into a more energy-efficient home were common, as were hand-built homes powered by renewable energy sources.

One of the most inspiring qualities of nearly all the nominees is their dedication to building more self-reliant communities. Many modern homesteaders share their passion with neighbors by teaching classes, volunteering, giving tours of their homes and gardens, or even just by living the good life their own way — setting an example for neighbors, friends and family.

Choosing only one Homesteader of the Year proved too daunting, so we chose three winners and four runners-up. Our overall favorites are showcased here, and you can find more modern homesteaders and their stories online in Star 2012 Modern Homesteaders. 

Living the Good Life With a Hand-Built Home

Our first family hails from Meco, N.Y., and was nominated by Dan Gibson, chief coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community, an online hub for information on reducing energy use. Throughout several years traveling the Northeast in this position, Gibson has visited many off-grid homes. Of the winning family, Gibson wrote, “I know of only one family that has been living off the grid for more than a decade and built their home from timbers harvested, milled and joined on their property (by themselves).” Jim Strickland, a carpenter, and Laurie Freeman, a biology teacher at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, first met in 1982. Laurie recalls that in their first conversation, the two discussed alternative building — you could say it was the “foundation” of their relationship. Even before Jim and Laurie moved into their current off-grid home, they lived in a hand-built barn that was also unconnected to the grid. In April 2000, the couple paid their last utility bill.

It’s Time to Ban Dangerous Neonicotinoid Pesticides


Research shows that potent neonicotinoid pesticides, used on many crops in the United States, pose serious threats to bees and potentially to humans.

Bee

Germany, France and Italy have banned a class of potent pesticides called “neonicotinoids.” This class of pesticides includes imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Evidence linking these neonicotinoid pesticides to the honeybee decline known as colony collapse disorder has been mounting. Now, new research suggests residues could be harmful to humans, yet these poisons are still in widespread use across the United States.

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Named for their chemical structure, which is similar to that of nicotine, neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, meaning they’re in every part of a plant. Generally, seeds are coated in the pesticide before they’re planted, and, as a plant develops, the chemicals move into the leaves, roots, pollen, nectar, and even the food products eventually made from the crop. If insects feed on any part of the plant — even water droplets released by plant leaves — the pesticide, a neurotoxin, kills them. In the case of honeybees, if the amount of pesticide ingested isn’t strong enough to kill them, it can still cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased life span, suppressed immunity and disruption of brood cycles.

Not only are neonicotinoid pesticides systemic, they’re also extraordinarily persistent. Research shows these pesticides can persist in the soil for more than a decade! Neonicotinoids are widely used on corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, wheat, ornamentals and more. Some sources note that it’s difficult for farmers to find corn seed that hasn’t been treated with one of these insecticides. As industrial farmers use these potent pesticides year after year on the same land, it’s creating an ever more toxic environment.

Neonicotinoid pesticides, produced by chemical giant Bayer, should have never been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the most commonly used neonicotinoids, clothianidin, went on the market in 2003 after being granted a “conditional registration” from the EPA. This is code for saying the EPA will allow the pesticide’s use even though there’s not enough evidence to show that it passes safety standards — a practice that, shockingly, occurs for about 70 percent of the active ingredients in pesticides that go through the review process. Leaked memos written by EPA scientists stated that what studies Bayer did submit were poorly run, and the scientists openly admitted that neonicotinoids pose harm to honeybees.

Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them


Garden writer Barbara Pleasant provides detailed instructions for food storage, including curing and storing onions, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, apples, squash and other produce that will last all winter.

Here in southwest Virginia, my partner and I take pride in growing and storing most of our fruits and vegetables. Knowing where our food comes from gives us confidence in its goodness, plus we save about $5,000 a year through our gardening and food storage efforts. There is another benefit, which is the utter convenience of having a self-provisioned home. In early winter when our stores are full, I feel like I’m living in a well-stocked organic grocery store.

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We bring many years of experience to this quest, and we’re still learning. Measured by weight, stored garden crops make up more than half of our overall harvest, with every onion and potato just about as fresh as it was the day it came from the garden. Our mix of storage vegetables and fruits varies from year to year and we’ve learned that putting by storage crops is something anyone can do — even if your produce comes from the farmers market. By making use of cold storage spots in your basement or garage, and perhaps adding a seasonal second refrigerator, you can use our charts to easily store 20 storage crops for winter eating using simple, time-tested methods.

Sleeping Quarters for Storage Crops

Success with storage crops hinges on finding methods that convince the crops that they are enjoying a natural period of dormancy in unusually comfortable conditions. This typically involves slowing physiology by controlling respiration (usually by lowering temperature) and/or providing moisture so crisp root vegetables sense they are still in the ground. Some staple storage crops, such as garlic, onions and shallots, need dry conditions to support prolonged dormancy.

Most storage crops need to be cured to enhance their storage potential. During the curing process, potatoes and sweet potatoes heal over small wounds to the skin, garlic and onions form a dry seal over the openings at their necks, and dry beans and grain corn let go of excess moisture that could otherwise cause them to rot. Harvesting, curing and storage requirements vary with each crop — see the charts in How to Harvest, Cure and Store 20 Storage Crops for full details. In my experience, harvesting and curing vegetables properly leads to much more flexibility when it comes to long-term storage conditions.

Storing Potatoes

Seeking out good food storage spots in your home or on your property can lead to interesting discoveries. Take storing potatoes, for example. When we asked the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Facebook community to share favorite ways for storing potatoes in winter, we received dozens of great ideas, including these:

Interactive Map Follows Timeline of U.S. Drought Conditions

Dead WheatHas your hometown or homestead been feeling unbearably hot and dry for the past few months? If so, you’re not alone — according to National Public Radio (NPR), about 55 percent of the United States is experiencing the worst drought conditions seen since 1956, and 1,297 counties have been declared natural disaster areas. These kinds of dry conditions can cause crops and economies to suffer, and lead a lot of eyes to look skyward and eagerly watch for any sign of rain.

To further portray the level of drought the United States is experiencing, NPR posted an interactive map that allows viewers to follow the drought’s parched path across the country, on a timeline that goes back to January 2011. The map shows drought categories ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” You can allow the map to play out for you or choose a particular date’s drought conditions to study — and, when you’re done, cross your fingers for the red areas to recede.

Ready for a rain dance, anyone?

Photo by Fotolia/Andrey Milkin 

This Land Is Your Land: Why National Parks Matter


Our national parks are public treasures that provide more than a window to our past or a means to preserve the natural bounty within them. They’re some of the most beautiful places on Earth, where you can rekindle your sense of awe and adventure.

Yellowstone National Park

Last week, I had to step off the trail I was on to let a band of bighorn sheep rams go by. It was a beautiful route. No matter which way it turned, it led through wildflowers that all but buried the mountainsides in avalanches of color. Golden eagles sailed among the summits. Patches of sun spotlighted waterfalls on the cliffs below. The world seemed in mint condition. I breathed it in deeply and felt recharged. Topped off with hope. Unbounded. And all I’d done was go for a walk in the park.

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Much of the pleasure of being there lay in knowing that everything within view belonged to me — because this was Glacier National Park, a U.S. national park. We the people essentially own 58 national parks. Gifts from previous generations, these special reserves of public land encompass nearly 52 million acres of the country’s most spectacular natural settings and intact wildlife communities. They will be one of the most valuable legacies we bequeath in turn to those who follow in an increasingly crowded world.

More Than Money Can Buy

People say that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. National parks are an exception. If you were the richest, most powerful person on Earth, nothing you could ever possess would outshine this treasury of permanently protected canyons, rivers, prairies, beaches, ancient forests and ice-sculpted summits that the most ordinary U.S. citizen inherits. There may be a more perfect expression of democracy. Offhand, I can’t think of what it would be.

When I stayed on Isle au Haut, part of Maine’s Acadia National Park, I liked to glide along the coast in a rowboat with only my thoughts and silent tendrils of fog for company. My favorite thing to do, though, was ramble the shores with my wife, showing our infant daughter the universe of creatures in a tide pool or eider ducks and gray seals out among the waves.

In Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, we explored orange sandstone mountains eroded into a maze of fins. Our daughter was leading the way now, with a younger brother in tow, scouting for crevices wide enough for us adults to squeeze through. At a visitor center, we found out that the crust atop the desert floor wasn’t formed by minerals but, instead, by a webwork of fungi, algae, bacteria and other microbes. What looked like dark varnish on sun-struck rocks turned out to be a product of bacterial colonies that concentrate manganese. The lesson? Even the barest-looking ground can be teeming with wildlife — it just happens to be mostly too small to see.

Home Canning: Putting Food By the Old-Fashioned Way


We looked to our readers to find out why home canning is experiencing a modern revival. Their answer: Canning produces flavorful, high-quality food that saves money, builds self-reliance and creates lifelong memories.

We’ve compiled everything you need to start canning, including a list of recommended how-to and recipe books, places to find your supplies, a list of our favorite canning products from Etsy, and even an app or two. Find it all in our Home Canning Guide. 

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It’s Saturday morning and you’ve just popped out your back door, your bare feet making an impression in warm dirt. You inhale the familiar scent of tomato foliage as you reach for the fattest, reddest tomato on your vines. It’s so ripe, it almost falls into your hand. This tomato was intended for the omelet pan that waits inside, but you have to have it here, now. You clutch it like a baseball and bite into it like an apple.

You can’t buy a tomato like this in any store. With a taste this rich and multidimensional, it can only be homegrown. Don’t you wish you could bottle up that taste and enjoy it all year long? There is in fact a way to capture that kind of flavor and pride: You can, if you can.

Even if you don’t have your own garden, you’ll enjoy safer, better-tasting food if you buy in bulk from a local producer and can it yourself. You can can almost anything — mint jelly, potato soup, barbecue sauce. With the proper equipment, the sky’s the limit. Laying by some or all of the food your household will require over the course of four seasons does require foresight and skill, but putting food by is also an art; a comfort that helps us feel secure.

Extending the shelf life of our foods dates back to early Mediterranean civilizations who dried figs in the sun and the ancient Egyptians who doused fresh herbs with olive oil. Home canning came along in France in the early 19th century, when Nicolas Appert invented a way to safely store food by vacuum-sealing it in jars. Whether to dry, freeze, ferment or can is a fundamental food preservation question, and canning is often the best answer.

More and more people are deciding to learn how to can food at home. The University of Missouri Extension, for example, has doubled its available food preservation classes. Fran Blank, a food preservation instructor with more than 40 years of experience, says she has been amazed in recent years by how popular her classes have become. Last year, Ball Canning reported a doubling in sales of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.

We asked our more than 85,000 Facebook fans what they thought of home canning and were overwhelmed by the hundreds of responses. They told us they enjoy the rows of colorful jars that sit on the pantry shelves like treasures. Canning food provides a deeper wealth than dollars and cents — and that’s only one among many reasons people have taken up the art.

Labeling Genetically Modified Foods: Our Right to Know


Labeling of genetically modified foods is required in about 50 countries, but not the United States. It is our right to know which foods are genetically modified so we can make more informed decisions about what we eat.

Genetically Modified Food

Polls have consistently shown that more than 90 percent of respondents want foods that contain genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such. Concern about the health and environmental effects of genetic manipulation continues to grow, but Monsanto and other biotech companies have blocked efforts to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled.

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In more than 40 other countries, labeling genetically modified foods is required. In the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration has refused to require labeling, and has even allowed manufacturers to market these foods as “natural” despite the fact that genetic engineering — splicing genes from one organism into another — seems pretty unnatural to most of us.

Criticism of agencies charged to assure our food is safe is growing.

• In 2011, we learned that most hamburger has been adulterated with chemically processed “pink slime,” with no indication on the label that the meat is anything other than plain ground beef. (For readers who are ready to start grinding their own burger, we plan to publish an article about meat grinders later this year.)

• Even when labeling is required, the government allows companies to mislead us. Much of the meat now sold in the United States is labeled as “enhanced with broth.” “Enhanced” means producers have injected a solution of water and salt (that would be the “broth”) into the meat. For every pound you buy, you are paying meat prices for brine — sometimes up to 40 percent! “Enhanced for profit” is what the label really means. Learn more in Shocking News About Meat.

• A new study found that banned antibiotics and arsenic-based medications are still being fed to poultry, indicating the FDA is failing to enforce its own rules. Read more in CLF Researchers Find Evidence of Banned Antibiotics in Poultry Products.