Mother Earth Living

Your Natural Home

Creating a cozy hearth for the family

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As the American economy recovers, the average new home size has reached an all-time high of 2,300 square feet. This is part of a cultural shift where many Americans are shying away from children sharing bedrooms, and bathrooms are becoming more plentiful and sophisticated. Homes have more than doubled in size since the 1950s, meanwhile vegetable gardens and close relationships with neighbors have declined.

I’ve noticed friends and family raise an eyebrow when I announce that my family of four (with a boy and a girl) is purchasing a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot home next month in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BC&E)—a multi-generational community in Midcoast Maine, located just 2½ miles from the center of town and the Penobscot Bay. We are drawn in large part to the simplicity of a small home, shared resources and social activities with the other 35 households.

Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage kids
Sarah Lozanova's kids play with a toy borrowed from Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E and a mother of two. Photo By Jeffrey Mabee.

Cohousing is a collaborative neighborhood where residents actively participate in the design and operation. BC&E will soon be a 36-unit community with private kitchens and bathrooms on 42 acres. More than half of the homes are complete and inhabited, some are still under construction, and just three remain unsold. We are also breaking ground on an approximately 4,000-square-foot common house with a shared dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedroom, playroom, offices and root cellar.

“The idea is that everyone’s home is just small enough that they will make use of the common house,” says BC&E cofounder Sanna McKim. “If the homes were too large, nobody would make use of our wonderful shared spaces.”

By design, cohousing helps encourage both modest homes and a high standard of living, while dedicating fewer resources and time for each household to maintain them. Social gatherings and impromptu interactions reduce the need to drive and make carpooling simple. The common house will help offset having a smaller home by providing a setting for activities such as entertaining large groups, teaching a yoga class, hosting overnight guests, and storing canned foods.

Living small inside will not cause us to do the same outside. Garden space is plentiful and there are plans to create a rustic playground. My husband is building a low hoop house for fall and winter greens, and we’re planting fruit trees soon. Harvesting fresh produce as needed will help offset the need for large home food storage spaces.

The houses are all located in 2, 3, and 4-unit buildings, reducing the heating load and keeping the footprint smaller. The shared land has clustered homes, plenty of open space, limited automobile access, individual gardens, and a small CSA farm. Residents have access to many acres, yet are only responsible for maintaining a small yard and optional nearby garden space. A few acres is currently dedicated to Little River Community Farm, a worker share CSA that many community members participate in. A weekly harvest brings neighbors together to share the bounty and learn from each other.

This layout stands in contrast to most new neighborhoods in the U.S. that are largely automobile-centered, thus significantly reducing contact with neighbors. “I know a lot of people who live in houses with attached garages and they have never even seen their neighbors,” says Dan Capwell, a member of BC&E. “All they see is a car enter the garage in the evening and a car leave in the morning.”

Limiting automobile access does have its advantage and drawbacks. I’ll certainly feel safer when my children are playing outside, but unloading groceries will take longer, especially with a toddler.

Living in cohousing can reduce resource consumption and save money. Toys, children’s clothes, furniture and books are commonly passed from member to member. A least a dozen people met us to help unload our moving truck when we arrived from Wisconsin and the opportunities to share belongings are plentiful.

“We have thought about the fact that not everyone would have to own their own rototiller, hoe or snow plow,” says Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E and a mother of two. “We also have just one car and we’ve thought of car sharing in the future. There are all kinds of ways we can share resources and time and it is all so convenient.”

Despite plentiful shared spaces and resources, living in a 900-square-foot home will require us to keep clutter to a minimum and make good use of our space. We’re purchasing a combo washer and dryer (all in the same unit), so we have room for a small chest freezer. We’re buying a dishdrawer (instead of a full dishwasher) and bunk beds for the kids. We’ve already downsized our toy collection. When I’ve done that in the past, my children invent new games with found objects, such as pinecones and bark. It’s a good reminder to take pleasure in simple joys.

Sarah Lozanova is a mother of two, a holistic parenting coach, and a freelance environmental writer. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has an MBA in sustainable development. View her natural parenting blog at 


The last few years have seen many in both domestic and industrial sectors “deviate” to green practices. Thanks to better financing strategies, green homes are now cost-effective, leading to a surge in affordable, sustainable homes. There’s a possibility that the sustainable model of living can be considered as a standard in the coming decade or so. At least, there’s a decent trend to show from social and economic impact of green homes.

Opting for green practices in your home can serve as an initial step toward a cost-effective transformation. Recent surveys of some California residences indicate that green homes can cut down energy costs by a remarkable 40 to 50 percent. Even some Colorado residents have fused design and eco-friendliness in their homes.

Following are some basic tips for achieving the goal of a greener, cleaner home:

Maximizing use of space

The idea of space utilization is directly linked with green practices in the sense that it’s possible to minimize the items in your home. You may be piling up items that may not have any active part of your lives, but are kept for the sake of memorabilia or nostalgia. This can then be used constructively to save energy consumption in your residence.

solar panels
Photo By SolarShop Australia/Flickr

Green energy practices

One of the most important agendas on the green living list is the notion of green energy. While solar panels are still not within the reach of general population, it’s possible to consume less energy. On one hand, you would be reducing the load on the environment while on the other, your bills would go down. For example, you can live without having a long bath or occasionally washing your car.

Your appliances consume a lot of energy as well. It’s possible to replace all your bulbs with energy-efficient ones that provide better light and are affordable as well. It is also a viable strategy to consult your electricity provider and see if they have green packages on offer. This includes energy made from renewable sources.

The government is offering the energy companies tax benefits for making energy from renewable sources. They are also selling this for a cheaper rate, which you can check. Also, if it is within your economic reach, don’t hesitate to get a solar panel via your energy provider. While the initial cost may be on the higher side, the end results are way more favorable.

eco home
Photo By Andrew Zo/Flickr

Using green materials

Whatever you use in your daily routine has an impact on the environment that you may be ignoring. The paint that you use in your home may be made from toxic materials. The same case applies for cleaning agents. Plastic, consumed in a large amount, is non-biodegradable and a burden on the environment. It is possible for you to opt for bio-based solutions instead, which are not only available at cost-friendly prices, but are less damaging to the environment.

The way things have evolved, green living is no more a novelty. Green is the way to go, and it’s a necessity that is being backed with cost-effective solutions and products that can be used by most.

Rachel MatthewsRachel is a freelance writer and a self-taught home improvement enthusiast. She always tries to make every project as eco-friendly as possible, by using sites like to compare rates and types of energy. She likes to garden and hike trails in her free time when she's not blogging or building.


Scent your home with natural fragrances using a homemade reed diffuser. It is simple to make your own reed diffuser. Plus, they look attractive in any home. But most importantly, this fun DIY project keeps homes smelling clean and fresh without the use of possibly harmful chemicals. Store-bought air fresheners contain an alarming amount of phtahalates, VOCs and hazardous air pollutants, and many use overpowering synthetic fragrances, which can lead to painful headaches. But homemade reed diffuser oil uses natural plant oils, including essential oils.

While essential oils can be a bit pricey, they last a really long time and have countless uses. Peppermint essential oil is a popular healing oil among aromatherapists, as there are many uses for it. This potent oil makes a great addition to foot scrubs, helps ease headaches, can relieve nausea, and is an excellent choice for homemade reed diffusers.

In this video, Mother Earth Living Assistant Editor Gina DeBacker shows you how to make your own reed diffuser oil. Here's what you'll need to get started: a small glass bottle (the smaller the neck of the bottle, the slower your liquid will evaporate, and the longer your room will smell great), 1/2 cup carrier oil (try grape seed, safflower or sweet almond oil, available at your local grocery store.), 5 to 10 drops peppermint essential oil (essential oils are highly concentrated, so you don’t need a lot to make your home smell great), bamboo skewers (these should be about twice as tall as your glass bottle) and a funnel (to help you pour without spilling).

For even more uses for peppermint essential oil, check out the article 15 Uses for Mint.

Gina DeBacker HeadshotGina DeBacker is the assistant editor at Mother Earth Living. She enjoys testing new DIY projects at home.


Have you seen our new selection of apps? Mother Earth Living now offers a FREE Wiser Living library app filled with great resources that readers will love having right at their fingertips, including recipes for homemade cleaners, tips on herbal remedies and specialized digital issues of the magazine. To get our collection of reader resources saved to your phone, simply download our Mother Earth Living Wiser Living library app from the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store. After downloading the app, you can browse through our resources and download those that most interest you. Best of all, as we continue to create new guides and resources the library app will automatically update you with new content.

Guide to Homemade Household Cleaners

Homemade Household CleanersMost household products contain dozens of harmful chemicals that might have serious side effects on your family’s health, from mild respiratory irritation to liver and kidney damage. Some chemicals commonly found in household cleaners can even contribute to the development of some cancers.

Our guide to homemade household cleaners gives you a foolproof way to know exactly what’s in your cleaning products—by making them yourself using 25 simple, inexpensive recipes. Choose the type of cleaner you want to make by room—kitchen, bathroom, living room, laundry room—or purpose, and our Homemade Household Cleaners resource will give you the simple steps to create your own cleaning products arsenal using natural, easy-to-find ingredients, such as baking soda, vinegar and essential oils.

To start making your own household cleaners, download the FREE Mother Earth Living library app from iTunes App Store or Google Play Store right now.

Don’t forget to visit the Mother Earth Living Wiser Living apps page for information about all of our app offerings.


On most evenings, architect and land planner Helena van Vliet carries her canvas tote to Kimberton Whole Foods just a block from her home and packs it with ingredients for the night’s meal. She prefers buying fresh food daily, never filling her compact, under-the-counter refrigerator.

The convenience of living next door to a natural foods marketplace is only one reason van Vliet bought her home in Kimberton Village, Pennsylvania. Raised in a small town in Germany, van Vliet’s 100-plus-year-old home reminds her of the simple existence of her European youth.

biophilic home exterior
Photo By Barry Halkin

“Living in the village offers me an integrated lifestyle in a community,” van Vliet says. “I can walk everywhere I need to go. Connecting these local conveniences with high-tech information services and systems necessary to run a business makes for a less stressful, more productive life with a much lower carbon footprint to boot.”

While the village life may not be an option for many of us, “integration” and “connection” are key words van Vliet uses to describe her design principles and lifestyle choices. Biophilic design, her blueprint approach to architecture, is a process that integrates elements of the natural world into built environments, thereby connecting people to nature. The concept is known to promote wellness and physiological restoration.

Helena van Vliet home exterior
Photo By Barry Halkin

Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist and author who has spent most of his life writing about biophilic design and studying the human-nature connection, explains that people “learn better, work more comfortably, and recuperate more successfully in buildings that echo the environment in which the human species evolved.”

It was Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson who popularized the biophilia concept in 1984 with his memoir, Biophilia, but it could be argued that it wasn’t until the publishing of The Biophilia Hypothesis, a book Wilson co-edited with Kellert in 1995, that the biophilia theory became widely accepted and influential in building design.

biophilic bedroom
Photo By Barry Halkin

You can see many biophilic features at work in van Vliet’s home, which she transformed years ago from a two-story store/café into a three-bedroom residence. She rebuilt with nature in mind, using the textures, sounds, patterns and colors found in the landscape.

“I consider the experience of space in a larger context,” says van Vliet. “I look at the settings and how buildings and spaces relate to one another. What surrounds the building? What do I see when I am inside looking out? How can I the improve flow and energy in the building to enhance the psychological health benefits for those visiting the space?”

biophilic home curved walls
Photo By Barry Halkin

The house, once tall and dark with a box-shaped façade, is now a gleam of open spaces topped off with an arching tower graceful enough to house Rapunzel. Inside, more curved walls painted in calm, earthy hues add shape and texture to areas that unfold and guide visitors naturally from room to room, or in the case of the tower, from the driveway to her front door.

The tower, actually, serves many functions. As an overlook, it provides a view of the village to the west, and a glimpse of the courtyard to the south. It also offers visual and acoustical privacy, separating the public areas from the private ones while buffering noise from passing cars and pedestrians.

biophilic home porch
Photo By Barry Halkin

Still, in the late afternoon the tower becomes an awning to shade the graveled terrace when the sun beams down. Even the bottom level of the column serves a purpose as van Vliet’s home office, which is conveniently street level, giving her clients easy access.

“When designing the three-story tower addition and outbuildings, my intent was to accentuate the natural elevations of the site while integrating the buildings with the landscape,” van Vliet says.

Photo By Helena van Vliet

She took advantage of the original structure nestled into the hillside facing south, making the home ideally situated for natural insulation. Since natural ventilation was equally important to van Vliet, she abandoned the air conditioning units, and chose instead to use ceiling fans to pull the colder air up from the bottom level. In closing her home during the heat of the day, the rooms remain cool, so by the time she opens the skylights up in the evening, any warm air releases into the night’s breeze.

In addition, van Vliet replaced the hot air systems with radiant heat throughout the home, adding energy efficiency to the cozy environment. Ultimately, van Vliet’s home is directly connected to its surroundings where details include scale, shape and placement.

gravel pathway
Photo By Barry Halkin

“Before I purchased the house I considered its setting and orientation to the sun,” van Vliet says. “It was an ideal spot for a home, sitting on the east/west axis in the long direction, gaining the southwest cooling breezes.”

Following the sun, van Vliet’s new spaces placed the living area on the south side where floor-to-ceiling French doors allow sunlight to flood the room in the wintertime. The southern exposure is ideal for her plantings in the courtyard garden, an outdoor space she visits often in the summertime to cook, relax and dine alfresco.

Her decorating style is influenced by her love of the southwest where she says “buildings disappear into the landscape.”

Elements of Biophilic Design

• Connecting living spaces/walls, plant life and sensory gardens

• Incorporating natural light, fresh air and moving water

• Integrating the outer with the inner by considering views

• Ensuring natural ventilation and open flow spaces

• Including natural forms, textures and sound

• Engaging a sense of discovery

• Combining local, repurposed and non-toxic materials

Margaret GilmourMargaret Gilmour is a freelance writer who loves the outdoors and knows everything is better if it’s just-picked and all-natural. You can find her at (where she plans to spend more time).  


The Flower Recipe BookFrom alliums to zinnias, The Flower Recipe Book (Artisan Books, 2013) by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo acts as a floral encyclopedia, with complete intros to 50 blooms—from the correct pronunciation of flower names to the spectrum of colors they come in, to what’s in season, when, and details specific to each varietal. The Flower Recipe Book provides information on how to arrange flowers with arrangements that run the gamut of styles and techniques, from elegant and structured to wild and lovely, for occasions big and small. Check out the following excerpt for instructions on how to arrange a hydrangea bouquet.

Hydrangea Bouquet

DIY hydrangea bouquet 


• 1 stem of hydrangea
• 5 branches of blackberries
• 9 wired and skewered succulents*
• 8 stems of flowering oregano


• 3-foot length of 1-inch ribbon

* How to skewer succulents: Wooden cooking skewers can be used to give heavy-headed succulents longer stems. The simplest method is to cut a succulent from its roots, leaving as long a stem nub as possible, and push a skewer into the bottom of the succulent through the nub, taking care not to push it all the way through the top. To create a more durable “stem,” push floral wire halfway through the stem, just below where the leaves start. Wrap the ends of the wire around the stem and down the length of the skewer. Wrap with floral tape to finish.

1. Hold the stem of hydrangea at the base just below the leaves.

2. Add the branches of blackberry to the grouping in hand, feeding them through the florets of the hydrangea so that the berries sit just above the bottom.

3. Feed the succulents into hydrangea so that the bottoms of the succulents are resting on the florets, clustering them more densely on the left side.

4. Add one stem of flowering oregano to the back left so that it arcs to the left and slightly above the other elements. Scatter the remaining stems of oregano throughout. Then tape the base of the bouquet under the leaves of the hydrangea with floral tape. Finish by trimming the stems and wrapping and tying the ribbon around the base to cover the floral tape.

Excerpted from The Flower Recipe Book by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Paige Green.


The Flower Recipe BookFrom alliums to zinnias, The Flower Recipe Book (Artisan Books, 2013) by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo acts as a floral encyclopedia, with complete intros to 50 blooms—from the correct pronunciation of flower names to the spectrum of colors they come in, to what’s in season, when, and details specific to each varietal. The Flower Recipe Book provides information on how to arrange flowers with arrangements that run the gamut of styles and techniques, from elegant and structured to wild and lovely, for occasions big and small. Check out the following excerpt for instructions on how to arrange zinnias.

Zinnia Bouquet

hanging zinnia bouquet


• 20 zinnias
• 4 stems of amaranthus
• 2 stems of lupine
• 4 stems of veronica


• Hanging basket

1. Using a hanging basket provides the opportunity to bring an arrangement into an area that may not be suited for a traditional tabletop piece.

2. Trim all the zinnias and fill the basket so that the lower leaves rest at the rim.

3. Trim and add the amaranthus to the front and left side of the basket, allowing the blooms to hang over the rim.

4. Trim and add the stems of lupine to the back right side of the basket so that the spires sit several inches above the zinnias. Finish by trimming the stems of veronica to a similar height and adding two stems to the center and two stems to the back left side.

Excerpted from The Flower Recipe Book by Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Paige Green.

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