Mother Earth Living

Your Natural Home

Creating a cozy hearth for the family

Add to My MSN


You want to be ecological responsible. You want to minimize your impact on the environment. And you want to expand your living space into the outdoors or you want to replace an old, run-down deck or patio. How can you find the balance, create an awesome outdoor space where you can hang out with friends, grill up some kabobs or burgers, and do it with materials that reflect environmental mindfulness? 

It’s tougher than you think, but it’s totally doable.

Deck Underside
Photo via Flickr

Finding the Best Green Building Materials

Much of the process in creating an environmentally friendly deck comes from asking questions. Asking things like:

• Where does the material come from?

• Is it sustainable?

• Is it harvested/manufactured in a responsible manner?

The more questions you can get answered, the better. Of course, determining who to ask can be a challenge in and of itself. Do you ask a retail store clerk or lumber yard specialist? It can’t hurt and it’s always a good place to start. They may, in the very least, point you in the right direction. Or they might have the exact information you need.

Many companies involved in the harvesting and logging business tend to claim their products are sustainable. They claim to practice responsible harvesting and manufacturing.  But “sustainable” is a broad term, so claims shouldn’t always be taken at face value. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t, but when broad claims are made with any “green” product, a healthy dose of skepticism is good to have.

Let’s look at the available materials you might consider in your quest to build a green deck. When looking for products designed with sustainability in mind, wood is generally a great choice. I say generally because there are plenty of wood products out there that are not planted or harvested in a sustainable manner and only sold for pure, immediate profit by unsavory individuals or corporations both domestic and abroad. 

Typically, imported wood materials can be more challenging for the general consumer to get a hold of, since there are import restrictions in place on wood. This does not mean all imported wood should be avoided in favor of domestic woods. Just bear in mind there a several countries (such as China and Brazil) that employ very unfavorable harvesting techniques that are not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly (clear-cutting, for instance).

Redwood Deck
Photo via Flickr

So, what types of wood should you consider? Well, your average lumber retailer usually has a limited selection of wood decking to begin with, so what you consider isn’t likely to be much. A typical selection might look like:

• cedar

• redwood

• southern yellow pine

Additionally, there may be a pressure treated option to increase their resistance decay.  Keep in mind 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.

Since these three woods originate in the US or Canada, their harvest conforms to fairly strict regulations and the must be sustainably harvested (again, broad term. Historically, this was very much not the case).  And be aware of the maintenance a wood deck requires. It will need to be treated and stained in order to hold up to all outdoor conditions. That means you’ll need to be aware of what stains and other chemicals you’re using in order to determine whether or not their safe for you and the environment in the vicinity of your deck.  Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. But the end result often makes it worth it.

What if you aren’t interested in a wood deck? There are plenty of other options, but they vary widely in terms of their environmental friendliness.

Composite materials fall right under wood in terms of decking. Except the resins and plastics used in the composites (which incorporate wood particles) aren’t biodegradable, meaning after years of use, once they’re worn out and need to be replaced, you’ll have very few options. In most, if not all cases, manufacturers will advertise composite decking as “environmentally friendly” since they are made from recycled materials (wood, plastics) and while true, they cannot be recycled. Also, composites don’t last any longer than a well-maintained wood deck (which can be upward of 20 years). However, over the life of the deck, one built with composite materials requires less maintenance.

Composite Material Deck
Photo via Flickr

Plastic and vinyl options are a little different in their eco-friendliness. While many plastic products still come from non-sustainable sources, and therefore aren’t recommended, you may be able to find plastic decking made from recycled materials and material that may be recycled in the future. Be sure to check what percentage of the material is actually recycled. Each of these factors vary from product to product, so if you’re considering plastic, you may need to do more intensive research, but for those wanting to be environmentally responsible, it may be best to skip this option.

When it comes down to it, wood is the best green building material you can choose for your deck. Again, you’ll want to do more research before committing to your material to be sure where the wood is sourced, how it’s sourced, and how it’s replenished (See also The Low-Down on Sustainable Decking Materials). Plus, out of the decking materials, woods, composites, and plastics, wood is regarded as the most visually appealing. So, get out there and find what works for you and start building!

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.


This year has flown by—Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all just around the corner! Where did the time go? Seeing as how we don’t have much time, allow me to offer up some inspiration with some of my favorite herbal crafts for the holidays.

DIY Miniature Wreaths

In 2011, I wrote about my favorite Christmas book Christmas Thyme at Oak Hill Farm by Marge Clark ("My Favorite Christmas Thyme Book and Dried Herb Wreaths: Part 1"). I love making Marge's miniature potpourri and spice wreaths. If you have leftover potpourri or spices, you will want to try your hand at making these simple wreaths. While Marge’s original directions call for a donut pan, I ended up using an individual Jello mold. (I have a lot of those.) If you can find a donut pan you can make a lot of these wreaths at one time, and they will be smaller and more manageable. Make these with your kids—they will make a great holiday gift for teachers.

Click here for DIY instructions for miniature potpourri wreaths.

Click here for DIY instructions for miniature spice wreaths.

Potpourri Molds
I bet you will have some leftover potpourri to make these.

Spice Wreath
These spice wreaths smell amazing when they are finished.

DIY Pomanders

My other favorite Christmas craft is curing pomanders with fruit, whole cloves and spices. Some years I get started earlier than others. I have pomanders that are years old, and they still have a scent. You can find the pomander recipe I use from Adelma Simmons in my blog post from 2008 ("Herbal Christmas Decorations: Pomanders"). You don’t have to use oranges. Clementines actually work very well, as do kumquats. They are both small and thin-skinned. You can also visit this link to a Good Housekeeping article about clove-studded clementines

Click here for DIY instructions for holiday pomanders.

Orange Studde 
I studded this orange with aromatic cloves.

Pomander Spice Mix
The spice mixture infuses easily and shrinks the fruit to preserve it.

DIY Potpourri

I also enjoy decadent Christmas potpourri and recently found a blend that I really like in the book Malcolm Hillier’s Christmas (see below). I don’t always have every listed potpourri ingredient available to me, but I usually have a a good majority. For me, a potpourri recipe is like a culinary recipe, so make it your own if necessary. In this recipe I mixed the dry spices and the essential oil with a fixative to enhance the scent.

See below for DIY instructions for woody scented Christmas potpourri.

Potpourri Mix
Ground cinnamon, cloves, cinnamon essential oil and crushed corn cob scent my potpourri.

Woody Seed Mix (Dry Method)

• 10 cups mixture of small pine cones, fragrant pine sprigs, star anise, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, dried oak leaves, dried rosehips and love-in-a-mist seedheads
• 2 tablespoons tonka beans (If you can’t find tonka beans, you may use vetiver, ground orris root, crushed corn cob, gum benzoin or frankincense in place of the fixative.)
• 2 tablespoons ground cloves
• 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
• 4 drops cedarwood essential oil or another Christmas scent (I use cinnamon.)

1. Mix all of the ingredients except for the tonka beans, cloves, cinnamon and oil. In a separate container (preferably glass), mix the tonka beans (or other fixative), remaining dry spices and oil.

2. Next, combine the wet mixture with the dry mixture. (You may even want to let the fixative and oil marry for a couple of days to let it mature, then mix it into the dried mixture.)

3. Seal your mixture in a jar and shake every day for 8 weeks to blend the fragrances. I used crushed corn cob for my fixative rather than tanka beans so that the potpourri would be less dusty. I usually use ground orris root as my go-to fixative, but people can often have allergic reactions to it.

Dry Potpourri mix
The dry ingredients before adding the scent.
All Photos by Nancy C. Heraud

I will update this potpourri on the Mother Earth Living Facebook page when I get it in its jar for blending the fragrances. You will have enough time to get it packaged in cellophane bags for Christmas gifts. This potpourri would be a wonderful hostess gift when you attend holiday parties. If you are making it for yourself, just place it in a bowl so it will perfume the air with holiday smells.

I hope you enjoy making all of these simple holiday crafts!

Nancy HeraudAs always, if you have a comment or question about any of my posts, please write to me here or my e-mail at and put in the subject line “Herb Comment or Question.” And be sure to visit my blog Lemon Verbena Lady's Herb Garden. Talk to you soon.


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).  

Subscribe today and save 58%

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living!

Welcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $14.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $19.95.