Mother Earth Living

Your Natural Home

Creating a cozy hearth for the family

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“Where are the driveways?” asks one guest visiting Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BCE). “How strange, these houses don’t have any driveways!” Even the layout of the homes demonstrates that this is not a typical subdivision. But that's just the beginning.

My family recently purchased a high-performance house in BCE, a multigenerational community with 36 homes. Despite the cold winters here in Midcoast Maine, we have no furnace and no radiators. Our house is heated primarily from solar gains, its occupants, appliances, and modest use of baseboard electric heaters.

Solar Home
Photo by Jeffrey Mabee

“My feet, hands, and nose get cold really easily,” explains Penny West, a BCE member. “This house is so lovely because there are no drafts. I used to freeze while doing computer work in my last place. I bought boots, wore my hat, but here it is lovely.”

During our cold winters, BCE residents often comment on how comfortable the homes are. Even during windy subzero nights, there are no drafts when we are sitting in front of the triple-pane windows and doors. With highly insulated walls, ceilings, and foundations, all of the rooms are naturally the same temperature, and there are no cold rooms in the houses. Generous amounts of sunlight make supplemental light unnecessary until evening.

Despite their airtight construction, these energy-efficient homes have a constant stream of fresh air entering the bedrooms as the stale air is removed from the kitchens and bathrooms with a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system. This allows very high air quality in the winter, without the need to open any windows.

Our Zehnder HRV system is up to 90 percent efficient at capturing the heat from the exhaust air before it exits the home. Through the heat exchanger, incoming outside air is filtered and enters inside the building close to room temperature before being dispersed, unlike in typical construction, where incoming air is the same as the outside temperature. Because we don’t have an exhaust fan in the bathroom or a vented hood in the kitchen, we can boost the HRV system by a switch in the bathroom or kitchen to remove condensation, smoke, and fumes. Exhaust fans, in contrast, are not energy efficient and encourage drafts by venting warm air out of the home without capturing the heat and bring unheated outside air into the home.

Zehnder Heat Exchanger
HRV System; photo courtesy Zehnder

“I think the HRV is what revolutionized these houses,” says Brian Hughes, carpenter for GO Logic and a BCE member. “People have been building super tight insulated houses since the 50s. The problem was that the air quality wasn’t good and people didn’t try having a super tight building again until they realized that with the heat exchanger, you can use a tiny bit of electricity and have really high air quality.”

The homes are so energy efficient that a 4-kilowatt solar system can provide enough electricity annually to completely power our two-bedroom home with four occupants. All of our neighbors with solar systems have near net-zero homes; thus their solar panels produce all or a vast majority of their home electricity. The homes without solar systems still have modest electric bills, despite having electric heat, and this winter the homes used almost no supplemental heat until December, despite a frigid fall.

The secrets of a high-performance house in the Northeast include unobstructed solar exposure, triple-pane windows and doors, lots of large windows on the south side of the home, airtight construction, and generous amounts of insulation. The additional insulation and high-quality windows add thousands to the construction costs, while the electric heaters and HRV system combined cost less than a standard HVAC system in typical new construction.

A five-day power outage from an ice storm last December gave BCE’s houses the opportunity to perform. The outside temperatures were below freezing throughout the outage, with temperatures dipping below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. While neighboring houses (with typical construction) were approaching freezing temperatures indoors after just 24 hours without power, the BCE homes cooled by only 2 degrees daily. It was sunny only on the coldest day of the outage, and our house warmed up by 9 degrees throughout that day.

Certainly a lack of driveways are just one of the things that sets our new high-performance house apart from other homes. The very cold and long winter gave us an opportunity to see how our house performed. We sat and watched many snowstorms, while feeling cozy and warm inside. Now we are excited about gardening and preparing for spring.

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She recently relocated to BelfastCohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.


When you’re working from home, you absolutely need a designated office space. You may think that setting up a “work zone” at your kitchen table or at a desk in your bedroom will cut it, but unless you have a superhuman power of concentration, you’ll find yourself getting distracted and quickly lose your motivation to be productive. You may be working one minute but then suddenly find yourself doing multiple loads of laundry without knowing what’s just happened.

Your home office doesn’t have to be ornately decorated or expansive, but it does need to give you some separation from the rest of your home. In order to improve your productivity, you may also want to purchase certain office items like filing cabinets and bookshelves. Buying office supplies and new home office furniture can quickly add up, but luckily there are plenty of ways you can get the things you need at a discounted price. Here are a few tips to put together a great home office without taking a financial hit.

Home Office Furniture
Photo by Fotolia/Iriana Shiyan

Use partitions or bookshelves to create an office. If you don’t have an extra room to convert into a home office in your house or apartment, you don’t need to pay the cost of constructing a new room. Look for an unused space or nook and set up bookshelves or other partitions to create a sense of separation from the rest of the house.

Try shelves instead of a desk. If your budget for your home office is really tight or your space is limited, you might not want to invest in a full-sized desk. Instead, try installing sturdy shelves that can serve the same purpose as a desk.

Check thrift stores. Thrift stores, like Goodwill and Salvation Army, aren’t just for clothes—many of them have a good selection of lightly used furniture as well. You may need to check a few locations to find the right furniture for your space, but searching thrift stores can be a great way to furnish a home office on a very small budget. Remember, if you find something like a desk or bookshelf that doesn’t look great but is structurally sound, you can easily spruce it up with a new coat of paint.

Keep an eye on classified ads sites. While print newspaper ads have become less popular over the years, online classified ads have taken off, and sites like LocalMart’s local classifieds and Cort Clearance Furniture can help connect you to gently used furniture that’s selling for a fraction of the price you’d pay in a store. These sites are updated regularly, so if you find a good deal, act quickly before someone else does.

Thrift Store Desk
Photo by Fotolia/

If you live in a college town, pay attention when students move out. A lot of college students who move out at the end of the semester aren’t able to take furniture with them and don’t have the time to sell it, and in many college towns it’s a common practice for these students to leave items out on the curb so that anyone who wants them can claim them. This is another situation where you need to act fast, because free furniture goes fast. Consider grabbing a friend with a truck and driving around campus on move out day.

Pay attention when professional offices are renovating or moving. If you happen to hear that a friend or family member’s office is moving or undergoing major renovations, ask them if they’re getting rid of any furniture or office supplies. If they’re planning on upgrading, chances are they’ll be happy to get rid of some of their old items.

Repurpose items you already have. You might be surprised by how you can reuse items in your home if you think outside of the box. For example, if you have an old armoire with shelves at the right height, you may be able to turn it into a small desk that contains essentials like your computer, light, and important documents.

Putting together a great looking home office doesn’t require deep pockets or even extensive DIY experience. With a little ingenuity, you can put together a professional, organized space that will help you stay on task when you’ve got to buckle down and get work done at home.

Juliana Weiss RoesslerJuliana Weiss-Roessler is a freelance writer and mom who co-owns the business Weiss-Roessler Writing with her husband. She frequently writes about how to minimize your impact on the environment.



“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” —Kurt Vonnegut

A healthy home means living well both indoors and out, and taking the time to connect with nature. Learn how to create an environment that’s safe and nourishing for you and your family with our helpful tips.

Healthy Home Tips

Reduce Cancer Risk: Eliminate Chemical Carcinogens from Your Home: Reduce your family’s cancer risk by learning about—and eliminating—chemical carcinogens commonly found in our homes.

Spic and Span: Easy Homemade Cleaners: Make your home sparkle with easy homemade cleaners, and kick hazardous chemical cleaners to the curb.

13 Ways to Use Baking Soda Around the House: Use baking soda around the house to clean, deodorize, soothe and more.

Bug Out: Preventative Pest Control: Repel pests from your home by eliminating sources of food, water and shelter for them. Try these preventive pest control methods to keep your home bug-free!

Attract Beneficial Insects to Counter Garden Pest Problems: Attract beneficial insects to your yard to help counter garden pest problems and pest-proof your yard.


The deck. It’s a room with no wall, a space for family, friends, entertainment, food, and a place to kick back and enjoy the outdoors without leaving home. Like any space, when you decided to remodel, renovate, or build for the first time, you’re inevitably faced with a number of choices. With a deck, one of the most important decisions to make is the material. What do you want to make your new deck out of? With a number of choices to deal with knowing the primary differences, such as durability and cost, are important. You don’t want to invest thousands of dollars in a project only to later it’s not ideal for your needs—or alternatively—you don’t want to fall in love with a material only to find out it will completely break your budget or hurt the environment.

Deck Materials
Photo by Fotolia/Elenathewise

Major Types of Wood Decking

Wood is the most popular material for decks and for good reason. It’s durable, relatively inexpensive, and most importantly, it looks good, oh and it’s a renewable resource. There are a variety of wood products available, many fitting within any budget. The downside to any wood product is maintenance. If not regularly maintained the wood will deteriorate. It may splinter, fade in color, or rot and need replaced. Basic maintenance includes possible sanding and refinishing.

Pressure treated wood is designed to resist insects, rot, and general decay, than typical non-treated varieties. It’s also an affordable choice. The downside to treated wood is that compared to the other wood options, it tends to be the least attractive. That isn’t to say it can’t look good, but if aesthetics are your thing, you may need to look elsewhere. Keep in mind also that many pressure treated wood products are treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) and you may want to avoid these types of products due to concern of potential arsenic exposure.

Redwood is just plain gorgeous, but not super sustainable.

Redwood has a natural ability to resist insects and rot, however, if not properly treated or left to the elements—particularly moisture—it can degrade rapidly, specifically newer wood (sapwood or the outer layers of the trunk).

The Redwood National Park in California states that old growth coast redwood is cut for lumber every day, which is not a good thing considering there are only 38,982 acres of the old growth forests left! This number may seem like a lot to you, but it’s actually only 4.4% of its original 1,950,000 acres of old growth forest. To make matters worse, redwood doesn’t do too well in the farm setting because these trees prefer to reseed themselves naturally.

Tropical hardwood options might be even worse.

Ironwood (also known as ipe) is exceptionally sturdy, capable of lasting longer than pressure treated wood and redwood. Tropical hardwoods resist water beautifully, but given these advantages you’ve probably guessed the downside. That’s right—cost to the environment and your wallet. Tropical hardwood is expensive, and has a huge carbon footprint as it is shipped in from the tropical regions of the word. This is assuming it is licensed lumber approved by the Forest Stewardship Counsel (FSC).

Of course, there are several more types of wood that make great decks.

Cedar works great as an alternate to redwood and even possesses many of the characteristics of redwood. Yellow pine has a much different color than both cedar and redwood and also can resist insects and rotting. Finally, there’s mahogany. Cedar is less endangered than Redwood, and doesn’t need as many chemicals as Yellow Pine so it is my first choice for green-ness. FSC Mahogany is a good choice as well. Other species of mahogany are endangered and should not be used such as the Brazilian, Asian and African varieties.

Deck furniture and decor affects the environment almost as much as the wood you build with.

There are many things to keep in mind as you set about to use your deck such as buying durable furniture so you don’t have to replace it and protecting your deck with recyclable, non- vinyl covers like these eco-friendly firepit covers.

When purchasing wood, be sure it is sourced from sustainable sources. If it’s not, or you suspect that it isn’t, check and double check. If it’s not, it’s best just to move on and find a wood or material that is. Why? It’s simply responsible living!

Lisa HenfieldLisa Henfield is an exterior designer who spent a few years designing patio furniture covers for hotels in Las Vegas. She mostly writes about her design experiences, providing tips on exterior design and gardens. When she isn't practicing her sewing or writing about the right colors for the outdoor seasons, she usually works on her paintings.


Using reclaimed furniture to decorate your home is a great way to add a period feel to any room, and to add a touch of rustic beauty to a bland, modern design. Upcycling is quite fashionable at the moment, and it's easy to understand why. Visiting salvage yards and looking for battered antiques to restore is incredibly satisfying, and there's something special about lovingly sprucing up an old piece and making it your own.

Reclaimed Table
Photo courtesy Flickr

Take a look at some of the reasons why I would choose upcycling old furniture over buying new factory formed furniture any day.

1. Every Item Has a Story

Antique furniture is much more interesting than modern flatpack stuff. Even the most scuffed, tattered and damaged items are likely tougher and more hardwearing than the average item you can purchase from a catalogue today. Once you have reupholstered that chair, or sanded and repainted that cabinet, the quality of the materials and the calibre of the craftsmanship will show through. You'll also have a great story to tell about how you acquired the item, where it came from, and how much fun you had doing it up.

Restoring antique furniture can save you a lot of money, and it's good for the environment too. When you fix up a mahogany cabinet, you're extending the life of something that may have been built decades ago, and saving the planet by not wasting resources on purchasing some lower quality furniture which needs made, packaged and transported, wasting huge amounts of fuel and precious resources.

2. Expressing Your Style

One of the best things about reclaimed furniture is that older items are well made, hardwearing, and easier to customise. It's hard to change how modern furniture looks because instead of stained wood, many items are plywood with a cheap veneer over the top. You can't really sand and repaint or re-stain that kind of furniture. However, you can do a lot with high quality older items. With just some sandpaper and paint you could turn an ugly nightstand into a beautiful piece that would not look out of place in a modern bedroom or turn an old run down table into an eye catching statement feature.

Reclamation, DIY Style

If simply restoring old furniture is not enough for you, why not try your hand at making your own items out of salvaged wood? There is an entire community of people who like to make their own furniture from railway sleepers, reclaimed period doors, old trunks and other materials that have been deemed useless by their owners. It takes some patience and skill to do this, but it is worth the effort. The furniture you make will be truly unique, and you will be able to take pride in telling people that it is all hand made.

Dining Table
This upcycled door dining table is an example of what's possible if you have the time, resources and skills to make your own furniture. It's a beautiful piece, and would look great in any rustic patio or dining room. Photo courtesy The Welsh Home Improvement Blog.

Justine is an interior design and home décor enthusiast with a passion for mixing the old and the new seamlessly. She writes for Creatively Different Blinds UK.


It has been 30 years since The Herbal Husband and I started dating. Long before our first Valentine’s Day, the Victorians were way ahead of their time by expressing their emotions through flowers. In this digital age—when everyone is communicating through their phone—it might be nice to communicate through such old-fashioned methods.

Tussie Mussie Books
Two of my favorite books about the language of flowers and tussie-mussies! Photo by Nancy Heraud

For this Valentine’s Day, why not make a tussie-mussie and speak the language of flowers? Geri Adamich Laufer wrote one of my favorite books, “Tussie-Mussies,” with wonderful photographs of actual bouquets. She also wrote a comprehensive article for The Herb Companion (now Mother Earth Living) almost 20 years ago about Victorian tussie-mussies, which taught readers how to make them and speak the language of flowers. Newly retired herb shop owner Kathleen Gips also wrote two lexicons on the language of flowers that I rely on whenever I make my bouquets. My favorite is “Flora’s Dictionary.” Using these resources, I’ve made a number of tussie-mussies over the years for friends on different occasions (not just Valentine’s Day). This is the year I surprised The Herbal Husband by making one for him.

Because the weather has been so frigid, I could not rely on my herb garden for tussie-mussie materials. Instead, I went to my local florist, Z Florist, and found a selection of flowers. They had individual stems of flowers that were very reasonably priced.  

A red rose (“I love you”); carnation (pure and ardent love); daisy (“I will think of it”); baby’s breath (everlasting love); and some herbs from the indoor plants: peppermint scented geranium (cordial feelings), lemon verbena (“You have bewitched me”) and rosemary (for remembrance). I think it turned out very well and he was both pleased and surprised. I had to give it to him early so that this post could be posted before Valentine’s Day. It is always good to surprise them every once in a while. It keeps your relationship interesting and special.

Tussie Mussie
The Herbal Husband’s first tussie-mussie. Photo by Nancy Heraud

One of my favorite Facebook pages, Speak the Language of Flowers, has put together a special potpourri just for my post in time for Valentine’s Day.

Valentines Potpourri
A potpourri in the language of flowers.
Photo by Elizabeth Bergstrom Case

“You’re the Apple of My Eye” Potpourri

Potpourri recipe courtesy Elizabeth Bergstrom Case of Benevolent Botanical Greetings

A high-quality potpourri can be easy to make from dried herbs and blossoms. Try this blend for Valentine’s Day to send a message of love and festivity. Makes about 1 quart.

• 3 tablespoons whole cloves (warmth, festivity)
• 1 to 2 teaspoons apple spice fragrance oil or 1 teaspoon clove or cinnamon essential oil
• 1 1/2 cups red rose petals and buds (for love)
• 3/4 cup white globe amaranth (unfading love)
• 1 cup loosely packed catnip leaves (intoxicated with love)
• 1/2 cup cedar sprigs (“I live but for thee,” think of me)
• 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried apple slices (preference, apple of my eye)
• 18 to 20 1-inch cinnamon sticks (love, beauty, stirs passion)

1. Combine the whole cloves and the fragrance or essential oil in a small, air-tight container. Let the cloves absorb the oil for a minimum of 8 hours or up to 3 days. This step will help your potpourri retain its fragrance.

2. In a 2-quart air-tight container, combine the remaining herbs and blossoms. Add the cloves after they’ve absorbed the oil and gently blend together.

3. Let your potpourri age for at least 3 day and up to 3 weeks so the fragrance can permeate the entire blend. Occasionally, gently tilt and roll the container to blend the herbs and blossoms while it ages.

4. After your “Apple of My Eye” potpourri has matured, display it in a bowl or give it as a gift. See if you can identify the herb/flower and corresponding translation in your finished potpourri. Find more herbs/flowers and their translations at the Benevolent Botanical Greetings website. Join us on Facebook to Speak the Language of Flowers.

I hope I have inspired you to do something old-fashioned and unique to celebrate your love for Valentine’s Day.

NancAs always, if you have a comment or question about any of my posts, please write to me here or my email at and put in the subject line “Herb Comment or Question.” If you could also let me know where you live in the U.S. (or elsewhere), it will help me answer your herb question more precisely. And be sure to visit my blog Lemon Verbena Lady's Herb Garden. Talk to you soon.


Have you ever wanted to learn more about crystals, gems and rocks? I was recently given a beautiful piece of amethyst by my sister, which prompted me to want to learn more about crystals. According to some gem enthusiasts, amethyst can have many powerful properties, including its use to help as a dream stone for insomnia: put a small piece of amethyst under your pillow to help with insomnia.

Photo by Kristy Severin

While there is little to no scientific evidence for the healing powers of crystals, many people find them enchanting, mesmerizing, and truly an integral part of their life. Whether you want to delve deep into the powers of crystals or simply want to incorporate them into your life for the aesthetic qualities, you may find their energy and beauty to have a powerfully positive effect on your life and the people around you. To get started, you can find a book about gemstone healing from the library or bookstore, or read articles published online. You may also find people in your community that use crystals, and you can get started learning about them that way. My personal book of choice, Gemstone Enlightenment by Shelley Kaehr gave me a wonderful insight to some answers I was looking for, and I have slowly begun to incorporate gemstones into my life. The idea of using gemstones to heal and connect with different things in our lives is magical and very interesting, not to mention how truly beautiful something that comes strictly from nature can be. I have started placing gemstones in different places around my home and even just walking by a stone puts a smile on my face and positive thoughts into my head.

Do you use crystals in your home? Please feel free to share your stories and experiences with crystal healing, we would love to hear from you!

Kristy SeverinKristy Severin is a mother of two, a certified art instructor, photographer, painter, writer and cook. She earned her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda, East Africa. Inspired daily by her children and love of the earth, Kristy’s fine art and writings are at The Art of Green Living.

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