It’s said that here in northern Minnesota there are two seasons, winter and getting ready for winter. Boy is that true! Like you’ve seen, we’ve been getting ready for next winter from late last winter, when David was hauling firewood home from clear cuts nearby. With the price of heating fuel climbing steadily, I know we HAVE to get another wood stove in the house. There’s really no way to do that with the house as it was, as there is simply no room for one. So we’re adding on.

When we get done, we’ll have a living room, WITH a wood stove and I can move the dining room table into the small room that serves as the living room now. Wow! What an improvement! My kitchen is kind of small, and with two stoves in it (wood and gas), along with a dining room table, it’s really crowded.

This addition is kind of big, being not only a living room, but entryway and small laundry room, too! I’ll actually have a closet for hanging coats in the winter, mittens, gloves and muddy boots, BEFORE they end up in the house. Track, track, track!

Like all our projects, this one is coming together, slowly, but surely. Today we got the rafters up on the main part, with the living room still undone. It’s kind of complicated because it’s an octagonal shape with multiple angles to the walls and roof lines. But it’s going to be SO nice when it gets done.

My sweetie, Will, volunteered to do a rock wall behind the new wood stove, as he likes working with stone. We have lots of homegrown rock around here. Not only will that look great, but it’ll add a lot of thermal mass to hold heat. And we have lots of windows in the new addition, to soak up the sun during the winter. I sit in that new room at night and look up at the stars. It’s too bad I can’t have a glass dome for a roof! We have GREAT night skies up here.

Readers’ Questions:

Getting rid of voles

We moved to an “end of the road” property (which we love) in January, and once the snow finished in April, got the garden plowed and fenced for deer and rabbit. I succeeded in getting the garden up and growing, despite the 15 degree below normal temperatures one week, and the over 100 degree the next. But now there’s a problem that I can’t find the answer for. We now have voles, who love to eat the radishes and squash plants especially. The voles are much more destruction than moles or gophers, and the only thing that has stopped them at all was the bobcat, but he also succeeded in destroying portions of the garden. I don’t want to use poison in the garden, so what can I do to stop them?

Chris Cunningham
Falls City, Oregon

Beating voles is not easy, but it can be done; I’ve done it on two different homesteads. First of all, be sure your perimeter of the garden is bare or tightly mowed grass for some distance away. Voles tunnel through tall grass to access your garden. They are naturally afraid of predators and don’t like to cross wide open spaces. This also makes it easier for predators, including your cat (you have one, don’t you…if not, consider one; cats are great vole hunters) to catch them. As voles reproduce abundantly, it does take some time to get rid of them. Don’t expect miracles. You can also help by trapping them in old fashioned mouse traps, set under board tipis so your cat doesn’t get in them. Bait with grain or peanut butter. Then “run your trapline” twice a day to reset traps as needed. Keep any garden residue cleaned up. This means spent bean plants, old cauliflower leaves, etc. Do what you can do to keep down weeds. All of these harbor and encourage voles. Anytime you plant new trees, be sure you protect the bottom three feet with aluminum window screen. In the winter, voles will tunnel under the snow and dead grass to your baby trees and completely strip the tender bark from the trunk. This kills the trees. You don’t see any evidence until spring; then it’s too late. — Jackie

Eating cattails

I have heard that you can eat every part of the cat-tail, the marsh weed. Can you expound? The idea appeals to me.

John Coble
Jacksonville, Arkansas

Yes, you can eat just about every part of the cattail. And it’s good, too. The tender white part of the new shoots are flavored like cucumbers. I like them salted or with just a little vinegar, sliced or nibbled whole. The roots are tuberous and when dug out of the mud, can be washed well and roasted whole like baked potatoes. They are starchy and taste great with broiled fish or venison. The pollen (the yellowish stuff on top of the beginning brown fluffy seed head) can be gathered and used as a flour substitute in breads or even pancakes. To gather this, bend the stalk over and whack the pollen off with a short stick into a tight basket or bowl. You can substitute 1/3 cattail pollen for flour in your recipe.

Do use caution when you use the roots or shoots; know how clean the water is where you are harvesting it. Cattails will grow in all water, from pristine to very foul. You don’t want to harvest from polluted waters! Enjoy your new vegetable and grain! — Jackie

Canning steak

Thanks to you my wife and I have boldly canned where none of our ancestors have canned before, that is, stews, chili, meatloaf, chicken, etc. I hear you mention canning steaks and would like a clarification: can I take a rib-eye steak off the BBQ and cut it to fit a jar, then process it as any other meat in a pressure canner but without adding liquid?

Dan Norgard
Prescott Valley, Arizona

You sure can, Dan. But I’d add a broth to it, as I’ve found that meat canned without liquid tends to be dry and stringy instead of moist and tender. I think you’ll like the result much better that way. By the way, I’m really, really glad to hear you’re canning up a storm! What used to be a nearly lost art has experienced a huge revival lately, and I’m oh so glad to be a part of it. — Jackie

Japanese beetles

My raspberry bushes were very bothered by Japanese beetles this year and last. I picked off hundreds of them and was wondering if you have this same problem. Is there another way to treat the problem without using chemicals. I had so few good berries for all the bushes and the amount of space they took up in my garden. Do you fence your berries? I am thinking of moving mine to a field where there is heavy deer infestation and was wondering if the deer would feast on the berries. What variety of berries do you grow?

Deborah Motylinski
Brecksville, Ohio

I’m sorry to hear your trouble with Japanese beetles. They can sure be a pest. About like Colorado potato bugs! You might like some of the natural biologic remedies in the Gardens Alive! catalog ( There are several products available that are quite effective on them. No, I haven’t had trouble with them. And sorry, but deer really like tame raspberries; they ate mine down to the ground before I fenced the garden. Although our homestead is young; we’ve been here only four years, I’ve got Bristol black raspberries, blackberries, two varieties of red raspberries (Heritage and Latham), Kiwi Gold yellow raspberries, plus tall bush blueberries (Patriot and Northsky), currents and gooseberries. We love our berries! I hope yours do better soon! — Jackie

Laying hens and cover crops

First I want to say thank you for sharing all your knowledge. I live on what is gradually becoming a working homestead and your advice has been greatly appreciated. I have three questions. 1) We have 9 pullets that should start laying at the end of September. We also have 3 others that I know are old enough to lay because when we brought them home I got 2 eggs the first two days. I am feeding the pullets a grower starter feed (they all get kitchen leftovers). Can the 3 new hens just continue to eat this till I change the feed to a laying feed for the other 9 or what should I do? 2) We have a small orchard started, 3 apples, 2 cherries, a pear, and a peach. Right now what is growing in the orchard is brome grass. Is there a more beneficial cover crop I can grow there? 3) I will have my raised beds finished and ready for next year’s gardens. I want to grow something in between the beds that I won’t have to mow (maybe clover?). At some point in the future I would like to get some goats for milk. Is there something that I can grow that will be beneficial for them and still work for in between the beds? Again thank you for your time and advice.

Kristi Ewing
Mondamin, Iowa

You can just feed all your chickens the grower feed until you switch them to laying mash. I also feed my chickens plain old scratch feed; it’s cheaper and with what all else I give them (extra goat milk, garden and kitchen scraps), plus being on free range, they do very well, indeed. Alfalfa (annual works great if you can work your soil in the orchard every spring a bit) or one of the lower growing clovers (alsike or medium red) work well in an orchard as they put nitrogen into the soil and help keep the soil from compacting. Of course, they also help keep down the weed population. Don’t plant right up to the trees; keep a good mulch on the trees out to the drip line (but pulled away from the trunk a few inches to discourage voles and insect/fungus infestations). When the legumes are planted right up to the trees, they tend to compete with the tree for nutrients, like they were weeds. Some people like planting white Dutch clover between their beds, but I’ve had trouble with it becoming invasive because of its deep roots. Personally, I prefer a wood chip mulch. You don’t have to mow it, it holds moisture, looks neat and is easy to walk on. I cut my goats armfuls of our oats/clover mix from our orchard twice a day. They love it and they’re oh so fat and shiny from eating it. We recently got two new goats that were a little thin. On this diet, they have both put on weight and their hair is now shining…not to mention doubling on milk production! And our seed cost less than $5! — Jackie

Using gray water for plants

I remember reading an article somewhere about using soapy water to water plants. We have been saving soapy shower and washing machine water for some time. We have used it for our plants but not garden. What are your thoughts. We were in Wolf Spring, Montana a year ago June. We were headed south and stopped for snacks at small store just off interstate. At the time we didn’t know you were living in area or we’d have stopped by for lunch. Hah!

Maxine & Bill Page
Brevard, North Carolina

Yes, you can use your gray water (waste water, other than water that’s been through your toilet) to water your garden plants, provided that you don’t use heavy cleaning chemicals in this water. Don’t use this water on vegetables you will be directly eating; i.e. lettuce, carrots, beets, potatoes. It’s fine for fruit trees, shrubs, flowers, corn, tomatoes (if you water just the roots, don’t pour ON the tomatoes themselves), peppers, berry bushes, etc. We moved from our homestead in the Wolf Creek, Montana area four and a half years ago. We would have been happy to have had you stop up for a visit! The store you stopped at was one we frequented quite a bit (if it was Wolf CREEK, not Wolf Spring, which it probably was). As you went north, when you got to the tiny town, Craig, we lived to the east, 7 miles up in those big mountains across the Missouri River. — Jackie

Water bath canner

My question is: can a pressure canner pot and lid double as a boiling-water canner? If you fill the pressure canner pot with water at least one inch above the jars and place the lid on, but not lock it, will it work? Logically it seems like it would, but I don’t really want to risk spoilage or waste with the high-acid fruits I want to can.

Sarah Eygabroat
Olympia , Washington

Sure, you can use ANY large pot for a water bath canner, providing the water will cover the jars by at least an inch before it is at a good boil. Just set your lid on the canner and don’t latch it tight. I’ve canned a pint or two in a large sauce pot. Just don’t put any jar in such a container without having something under the jar so it isn’t on direct heat or the bottom will break out of the jar. Even a folded kitchen towel under the jars will work. I’ve cut a round wire grill top so it fits in some of my stock pots for this purpose. I got one from the dump, the other wire grill top from the dollar store. They’re cheap retrofits for my smaller stock pot/water bath canners! — Jackie

Moving home-canned goods to a higher altitude

I was wondering about transporting home canned foods. We will be vacationing in Montana and I want to take some of our home canned foods with us. Here’s my concern: I live and can at my home in Alabama at about 500 feet above sea level. I will be taking this home canned food to Montana to an elevation of 6200-6400 ft. Will the change in elevation cause the seals to fail? I have noticed pringles cans in Montana have bulging paper seals and figured the regular home canned foods would have similar reactions to changes in altitude. Should I do anything special as I transport these foods for our vacation?

Lyn Ankelman
Thorsby, Alabama

Good news! You won’t have a bit of trouble with your home canned foods on your trip. We’ve moved from different altitudes, and have never had the slightest bit of trouble. Yes, we noticed about the chips, too. When we lived at 7,400 feet in Montana, we’d buy potato chips in town, which was 3,000 feet lower than we were. When they got home, the bags would look like balloons! Very interesting. My son, David, used to have fun with those bags when they’d blow off the snowmobile and he’d have to run over the snowdrifts to chase them down! — Jackie


  1. Lyn,

    Would you please send your questions via the Ask Jackie part of the blog? I’m not supposed to answer them here and would like to help you out.


  2. Jackie that IS good news about the home canned foods!! Especially now that the vacation will eventually turn into a homestead! We just bought some raw land at 6400 feet in the Garnet Mtns. We plan to spend a couple summers out there building our homestead before we move out there full time. I’d like to begin planting fruit trees and berries so they will be producing well by the time we make the big move. Any suggestions about what and how to plant. We are fortunate – we have a west facing slope and a few nice springs that were still bubbling in August of this year.
    What are your thoughts on free range cattle, deer and bear in the area munching on the new plants? We can fence the area like we have the areas where the sprins are bubbling. Do you think it’s be much of a deterrent?
    Also, I read that you have a regular propane and a wood stove. We are concerned about using our wood stove in MT in the summer because of the risk if a spark causing a fire. How did/ do you handle your cooking? The mountain folks we’ve met don’t start a fire at all until the snow flies. Sounds reasonable, but the small fire on the cookstove making coffe in the morning would warm a chilly cabin….Is there an option they have missed? Thanks again for all you do!

  3. Wow, the new addition looks great. I think it’s funny that we moved last year from 900 square feet to 2100 square feet and I’m already out of room. I’m curious though, about building permits? What do they run where you live and how hard are they to get?

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