Monday

How to Make Organic Soap Using Soapwort


There are a number of great concoctions for using soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), and you can find many recipes on the web. When I was in college, my Godmother shared her recipe with me. She lived in California and kept lots of herbs on her property. She used her soapwort liquid soap solution to clean her lace tablecloths and lace curtains, much the way her mother had done before her. Soapwort is also a very effective shampoo if you want something really gentle for problem hair.

She maintained her soapwort as far away from her koi pond as she could. Soapwort wreaks havoc with aquatic environments, so placing it away from your populated water feature is a good idea.

The two recipes I'm including here are very simple. You can embellish them as you see fit. I've added lavender to soapwort solution for washing fine handkerchiefs and included lemon juice to lighten stains on fabric. I've never had a problem, but to be safe, test an area of the material you plan on washing.

If you plan on using soapwort soap for general cleaning, you might consider buying a foamy pump sprayer. Some herb outlets carry them to help increase the foaming action and overall effectiveness of soapwort. To be honest, I just use a plain old economy sprayer, but with a couple of shakes, it creates a lather and works fine.

Soapwort Liquid Soap Recipe

  • 2 Cups of chopped soapwort leaves and stems (1 cup dried)
  • 1 Quart distilled water

Add soapwort leaves to boiling water and cover the pan.
  1. Continue simmering for fifteen minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat and cool.
  3. Strain through cheesecloth.
  4. Include any additives.
You can keep the liquid up to a week in the refrigerator.

Soapwort Shampoo

Soapwort shampoo is a little less concentrated than the all-purpose cleaner.

  • 3 Tablespoons fresh soapwort (1 tablespoon dried)
  • 1 Cup water (distilled)

Follow boiling directions above. You can easily make three or four batches at a time.

Notes

Soapwort is not for internal use: Not that you drink your soap, but if you're planning on shampooing your dog with soapwort - don’t. Any residue left on his fur would be lapped up the next time he grooms himself. There are online sites that recommend soapwort as a mild alternative to pet shampoo, but I never use it that way.

Distilled Water: You can substitute filtered water for the distilled water if you're using soapwort solution as a general cleanser. Distilling water removes any chemicals, like metals and bacteria. For a pure and wholesome cleaner, go the extra step and use the distilled stuff if you can (just my two cents worth). You can buy a half gallon cheap at most grocery stores.

For a facial and hand soap, use the weaker concentration. With regular use, it's supposed to help with itchy skin and mild acne.

Some neat soapwort additives: Lemon Juice (for mild bleaching), lavender water, lemon balm, peppermint oil, crushed rosemary leaves.

To grow soapwort in your garden, visit: Growing Soapwort.


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Photo1 - By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/Saponaria_officinalis_004.JPG

Photo2 - Lace Tablecloth, courtesy of Morguefile.com

Sunday

Growing Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)


Growing soapwort may be a very nice way for you to incorporate some eco-friendly cleaning practices into your household chores while inviting an attractive and low-maintenance plant into your herb patch. When you press this useful herb into service as a mild detergent to clean your lace tablecloths, wool and silk, it's an economical choice too.

Back before phosphates, people used this nifty little plant for washing. It contains saponins, which cause boiled solutions made with soapwort to lather up. It's like nature's little bar of soap.

Where the phosphates in modern detergents hold dirt and oil suspended in water long enough to rinse your clothes clean, soapwort does something similar, only gently and naturally. It makes an effective shampoo too. (I'm not sure about the pH, but I'll check the next time I use it.) Heirloom quilts and other textiles are sometimes cleaned with soapwort as a precautionary measure. It's that gentle. You can also use it as a facial cleanser, wood soap and all-purpose, light duty cleaner.

Growing Soapwort in the Garden


Although there's a soapwort ground cover that goes by the same common name, Saponaria officinalis is a perennial that grows to about three feet (U.S. hardiness zones 3-9). Unlike many herbs, it needs well composted soil. Give it excellent drainage and good but not burning sun. Some afternoon shade is a good idea too. If soapwort likes its surroundings, it can be invasive, so keep an eye on it.

Soapwort will require a sturdy support to stay upright and looking spritely as it grows. It typically blooms in late July and has a very nice berry/spicy scent.

Using Soapwort

Harvest the leaves, stems and roots of this perennial to make liquid soap. Soapwort is effective (it'll foam up) both fresh and dried. For some recipes, visit my post: How to Make Organic Soap Using Soapwort.

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Photo1 - By Karelj (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Saponaria_officinalis_Prague_2011_3.jpg

Photo2 - This very nice soapwort photo at the bottom of this blog was provided courtesy of: Steve Krahn. Visit this great pic and his other work at Flickr

Monday

Top 10 Most Overlooked Herbs


Chives
Chives
Every season I take an inventory of the herb plants I want to try cultivating. This usually involves a walk around the garden to see which plants managed to overwintered well, and also an inventory of indoor refugees from last year that managed to survive the change of venue over the winter months.

Again and again, some herbs seem worth the effort that don't get nearly enough praise or press . . . in my opinion, anyway. These 10 herbs are personal favorites. You might want to give them a try if you haven't already.

10.Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) - Perennial in Zones 9 and 10

This tall sage has light green leaves and red, trumpet shaped flowers that bees and butterflies love. It does smell like pineapple and makes a great ingredient in fruit salads and teas.

9.Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum) - Perennial in Zones 8 through 11 (Marginal to zone 6 in sheltered locations.)

Pineapple Sage
This little grey plant with yellow flowers smells like a curry blend. It doesn't need much water, so it's a good choice for xeriscaping.  Deers hate it, too.  In cooking, sprigs can be added to roasting meats for a mild flavor that's hard to describe. Its a cross between curry and something flowery or sweet - maple maybe. (Remove the sprigs before serving). It works well with chicken and can also compliment egg dishes when used in small quantities. Less is more with curry plant.  It can taste bitter.  FYI: This isn't an ingredient in traditional Indian curry.

8. Paprika (Capsicum annuum) - Annual

Paprika is most often used in the U.S. as a seasoning for cold dishes, like potato salad and deviled eggs. Its flavor really shines in hot dishes, though. Paprika is available in a number of varieties, from hot to sweet. Try a few in your garden and you'll be a paprika convert.

7. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) - Perennial in Zones 11 up

This little sweetener-that-could is tricky to start from seed, but easy to grow after that. Dried and powdered, it's an inexpensive low-cal sugar substitute that's always a conversation starter. The Japanese have been using it for decades.

6. Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana) - Perennial in Zones 7 and Up

This first cousin to oregano is milder and a little more delicate in the garden. It's a great all-purpose seasoning, though, that works with robust sauces and soups as well as all different varieties of meat, foul and fish.

5. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) - Perennial in Zones 3 to 9

Catnip
My chive patch comes back year after year, regardless of how brutally cold the winter months get. When green onions are too expensive (or a bacteria risk) I substitute chives. They work great in potatoes, as an egg garnish, and as a garden fresh accent on pizza.

4. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) - Perennial in Zones 3 to 9

Even if you don't have cats, you might want to give catnip a try this year. Catnip oil is kryptonite to termites, and if you have an ailing tree or decaying stump, a catnip plant nearby may prove to be good insurance policy.

3. Lemon Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora) - Perennial in Zones 9 and 10

Like lemon balm on steroids, lemon eucalyptus is very fragrant, and the dried leaves make an attractive and luscious addition to potpourri. The oil is a natural pest repellent and a luxurious base for your homemade cleaning products.

2.
Corsican Mint
Corsican Mint
(Mentha requienii) - Perennial in Zones 7 to 9

Near a downspout or faucet, Corsican mint is the delicate mint that smells like a spring morning. Overwinter it in a tabletop solarium.

1. Saffron (Crocus sativus) - Perennial in Zones 6 to 9
Saffron Crocus

The stigma of this late season crocus is the king of spices, and you might be able to grow it in your own backyard. Saffron crocus flowers in late summer or early fall instead of early spring. A patch of 20 to 30 bulbs could net you enough saffron for a season.


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Corsican mint photo - By David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA (Mentha requienii  Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMentha_requienii_(5596580103).jpg

Crocus Photo - By Photographer: User:Velela (File:Safrron stigmas crocus sativa.JPG) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons  

Tuesday

What Soil Do I Need for Herbs?

This is one question that comes up again and again with beginning herb gardeners. It's a good question, too. There's nothing like getting started on the right foot -- and with gardening, that means choosing the right soil amendments.

The great thing about most herbs is that they're tolerant of poor soils. That's no accident: If a plant was too persnickety, it might have been grown over at the manor house where it could get the special treatment it needed.  Plants that were hardy as well as useful were the ones that made it into cottage gardens and common, widespread use, though.  That includes most of the popular culinary herbs. They survive in inhospitable soils and usually need less TLC than other plants in the garden.

Think of herbs as the useful weeds past generations used as recipe ingredients, in remedies, to ward off the evil eye and to bring good luck. Folks decorated their homes with them, used them as deodorants, perfumes and room deodorizers.  They also employed them in pest control (think mosquitoes, ants and fleas). If you're a beginning gardener, want to introduce your children to gardening or just like the idea of  "setting by" a few homegrown ingredients for your own use, herbs are a great place to start.

Playing With Clay in the Garden


There are a couple of soil related issues that are important to consider when growing herbs, though. Drainage is certainly one. Plants require water in order to dissolve the minerals and nutrients they need and make them available to the roots of the plant. Too much water, and instead feasting on all that potential bounty, plant roots die and the plant starves to death.

Clay soils in particular are notorious for having a dense consistency that doesn't drain well after watering or a good rain. If you're dealing with clay in the garden, loosen it up with soil amendments like organic matter and sand that will help it drain better (and give your herbs a better start in life).

Looser soil will also encourage earthworms to come visit, those industrious little laborers that turn and enhance your soil without you having to lift a finger. Don't scoff at the potential benefit of earthworms. They're the unsung heroes of the soil.

Investing in better soil this season will also bear fruit (sometimes literally) next season and beyond. It's an investment in the future. In gardening, thinking about next season is one of the perks of the hobby.  You'll begin to see time -- and your efforts -- differently.  Instant gratification won't have the same appeal, somehow.  You can't buy the satisfaction of building a garden. It's like exercise.  Doing the hard work makes the reward -- when it comes -- so much sweeter.

Garden SoilFind The Right Spot


You also want to look for herb real estate that isn't already taken. That can be trickier than it sounds. An open area in your garden may have soil filled with roots from surrounding shrubs or trees. It's a little like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic: the business end of plants, shrubs and trees can be a surprisingly large underground network of roots. Some herbs are shallow rooted and my be able to live in harmony over deep rooted plants, but not all.

The best place for your herb garden is in an area where you can dig down six to eight inches or so and not hit an obstruction. If that's a problem, you can always install a raised garden bed using top soil, potting soil or even straw bales.

You can learn a little more about herb soil from my blog: Soil Considerations

Sunday

Using Herbs in Your Flower Arrangements


When you grow herbs, it's easy to find ways to use them around the house. Besides cooking, crafting and the occasional home remedy, herbs make great d├ęcor items.

One of my favorite ways to use and display herbs is in decorative vases with whatever flowers are growing in the garden. To make this easier, I grow lots of herbs and plant flower varieties that, with luck, will provide blooms three seasons of the year.

I'm not a dedicated flower person, but I do rely on roses, lilies, peonies, and azaleas, as well as brief favorites, like tulips and daffodils to serve up some color. The rest I try to do with herbs and decorative grasses.

Making an Herb and Flower Arrangement

I typically choose a strong stemmed herb, like rosemary or sage, and use it as a base. I place stems around the lip of my container on a diagonal. Using this method the stems on the bottom of the container will start to take on a teepee shape. This is good because they'll act as a support for the flowers and soft stemmed herbs, like thyme, oregano and mint, that I'll add later. Before I add each stem, I cut the bottom at a 45 degree angle to maximize water uptake.

I place the flowers in the container next, turning the vase as I go so the flowers are distributed evenly. I try for odd numbered flower quantities. When I use lots of herbs, I keep the flower part of the display pretty sedate, so I don't use lots of different colors. Tone on tone usually works pretty well for me, but I'm not a daredevil. (The photo is a more flamboyant example that might get your creative juices flowing.)

After I create something that looks good, I fill in the open spots with smaller or fine leafed herbs.

I try to make texture the most dramatic element of the display, but roses are hard to top in an arrangement. If I have lots of herbs to show off, I'll keep the flowers to a minimum.

Maintaining Herb Arrangements

I make sure to remove any herb leaves that are below the water line in the container. I also use tepid, not cold, water and replace the water daily. If I have distilled water, I'll use that instead. It's neutral and guaranteed bacteria free. Oh, I always sanitize my containers with bleach, white vinegar or salt water.

To feed the blooms, I add an aspirin, but I'm not above asking for additional flower packets when I do buy cut flowers. I hoard this cut flower food for my own arrangements.

Herb Arrangement Options I Enjoy

I use what I have, but some of my favorites are:

Sage, marigold and oregano

Roses, rosemary, thyme and lavender

Lavender, iris, mint and tansy

Lavender, woodruff and rosemary

I'm sure you get the idea. Experimenting is the best part. I usually get five days from a bouquet. The combined fragrances are very nice on a kitchen table, or better, next to an open, shady window. It makes me happy every time the wind blows.

Make Lavender Liquid Hand Soap

Lavender Soap Bubbles
This season I'd like to add occasional tips about using herbs to make common household chores and activities more pleasant, eco-friendly or inexpensive. Over the years, I've tried lots of ways to incorporate herbs into my daily life. Some have worked and some . . . well, not so much. One thing I have learned is that herbs can make me feel that I lead a more graceful existence, whether I'm using them to make something time intensive, like a candle, or something easy, like adding fragrance to soap. This last is my offering today. I use liquid soap around the house via dispensers that I refill with 64 oz. bulk liquid soap from the market.

After using generic liquid hand soap for a while, I decided that it was gloppy and smelled bland. To get more value for the purchase and give it an individual stamp, I add around 30 percent distilled water to the mixture. This makes the soap less viscous and gives me more volume. When I'm adding the water, I put in about 25 drops of lavender essential oil. The oil smells wonderful and has relaxing properties too. I buy scentless soap, but on occasion I've used antibacterial varieties. Antibacterial soap typically doesn't have a fragrance, but it's a lurid orange that's hard to love. I put a few sprigs of lavender in the dispensers to liven them up too.

If you'd like to give this method a try, you can find lavender essential oil, or another herb fragrance you enjoy, like rose or geranium, at any craft supply outlet.

This is admittedly a small change, but put a few of them together and you'll be filling your life with the fragrances and textures of herbs year round. You'll also be saving money and making some eco-friendly choices that will keep your family, property and planet safer.

Special Note: A container of distilled water will last for months, and you can easily use it for other herb related projects.

Thursday

How to Make a Rain Barrel for Your Herb Garden

Water DropsMaking a rain barrel can help you spare the environment and provide a refreshing drink for the plants in your herb garden without it costing you an arm and a leg. Harvesting rainwater is like getting free water. All you have to do is come up with a strategy that will let you get a good quantity of water, even in a light rain, and store it safely.

Happily, your home's roof is an ideal bit of real estate for harvesting rainwater, and the lowly downspout you've been ignoring all these years, is a perfect place to catch it all.

Here's How to Make a Rain Barrel

Downspout extenders divert water into a container. You can either buy a rain barrel kit that has an extender supplied with it, or build a rain barrel yourself and get an inexpensive extender at your local home supply store. Any container you choose should be made of a food-grade material, like plastic, if you plan on using the water for veggies or herbs. It should also have a tight fitting or sealed lid and be rust resistant. A 50 gallon food-grade container would be perfect.

To re-fit a container, you need to do four things:
  • Cut a hole in the top to let the water in. This should be covered with a screen to keep debris and bugs out.
  • Add a spigot at the bottom to harvest water through. You can get threaded spigot kits at your local plumbing or hardware store that are easy to install.
  • Cut an opening toward the top of the barrel and add a fitting that will allow you to attach a large diameter hose. This is for overflow when the barrel's full. Run the hose away from the foundation of your house.
  • Install a pad, or excavate a flat spot in your flowerbed next to the downspout for the barrel.
How to Install a Bucket of RainHomemade Rain Barrel

The steps are pretty simple.

Prepare a level spot for the barrel (once a barrel is full, it can weigh 300 pounds or more, so you don't want it falling over.

Modify the barrel or buy one ready-made.

Cut or replace your existing downspout and add an extender. (Segmented downspouts are the easiest to work with.)

Now you're ready for it to rain.

Rain Barrel Installation Tips and Tricks

Check your barrel often to make sure it isn't overflowing and dumping water next to your home's foundation. A steady rain on a 1,000 square foot roof can easily fill a 50 gallon barrel in minutes.

Watch the barrel for algae growth and mosquitoes.

If you want to buy a rain barrel kit, there are lots to choose from. Some of the bells and whistles are nifty too. From anti-bacterial lights to pumps that make it easier to water your flower beds via a hose setup, high tech has come to rain barrels. One of the best options, in my opinion, is a diverter that's keeps rain out of the barrel for the first few minutes of rainfall to allow the gunk in the air and dust on your roof to wash off first. It uses the weight of a volume of water to determine when it's okay to divert the flow into the barrel.

Be sure to empty your barrel if you experience hard freezes in winter.

If you want more water than a single barrel can supply, hook barrels together and have the overflow from the first barrel feed into the next and so on.

Check with your local water utility. There may be some cash incentives for installing a rain barrel on your property.

Just a Little Environmental Note Here

R
ain barrels are convenient and they can save you money. They're also an environmentally friendly choice. The water that washes into storm drains after a rain is often shunted directly into brooks and streams with its cargo of oils and chemicals, like antifreeze. When you use recycled water, you help to keep the water in surrounding ecosystems cleaner by using that rain in your garden where it will be filtered naturally through your soil and finally make its way to an aquifer near you, cleaner and more wholesome.

There's a neat YouTube video that will show you the basic steps: Building a Rain Barrel

Tuesday

Straw Bale Gardening With Herbs

Straw Bale Garden Photo
If you want a nice raised bed but don't have the time, resources or energy to invest in cultivating it, there may be a fast, fun solution that can help. If you're having back problems that are keeping you from enjoying your garden plot, then getting some easy elevation on the problem may be just what you need too.

Straw bale gardening is a version of hydroponic gardening for outdoors. It uses bales of mixed grasses, straw or hay as a growing medium. Add water and high nitrogen fertilizer to speed bale prep, and you've got a perfect spot for herbs, vegetables and annual flowers. Just choose low growing species to keep things from getting out of hand.

If you think the setup will look ugly, there are worse things to be cluttering up the garden. For a little camouflage, choose herb ground covers like thyme or woodruff, or annual flowers, and grow them up the sides of the bales.

You can grow two tomato or sage plants, or three cucumber, basil or squash plants per bale. You can even plant seeds directly into the bales.

How to Start a Straw Bale Herb Garden

Here's how it works:

Lay out bales in a geometric configuration that will allow you to move between them easily. Once in place, saturate the bales with water for a few days. A week isn't too long. Add a high nitrogen fertilizer in two applications over the next week, watering daily. As a general rule, use a half cup of ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, or organic fertilizer (yes, you can go organic) on a bale for the first application and a quarter cup for the second application. Oh, you can also use blood meal.

The bales will heat up, which is a good thing. The heat tells you the process is working. Once the temperature starts to drop, you know the bales are almost ready to go. The whole process will take 10 days to two weeks.

When the temperature drops to something close to the soil temperature, dress the bales with potting or tops soil to a depth of a couple of inches and you're ready to plant. Just rough up the tops of the bales, or make wells on the surface to give plant roots a jump-start.

Over the course of the season, worms will work the soil under the bales, making it a better growing medium next year. Your plants will have a relatively bacteria free and naturally elevated substrate to grow on. It's a tidy solution.

You can even place bales on top of concrete or brick. You lose the benefits of improving your soil, but if you've always wanted a garden instead of that concrete slab, it's an effective method that bypasses having to invest in innumerable small pots that need to be watered twice a day during hot weather.

Tips and Tricks for Herb Gardening with Straw Bales

Don't wet bales and then try to move them. They get heavy.

If you use hay, you'll have to invest some time in removing sprouting hay seeds. It's part of the process.

Make sure the temperature in the bale has dropped before you proceed with the planting process.

Because the plants get their nutrition from what you put in the bale and not the straw itself, keep the setup uniformly moist and fertilized throughout the season.

The conditions your herbs or vegetables like in dirt is what they'll want when they're planted in straw. If they like sun, then situate the bale in good light. If they like shade . . . likewise.

After a few seasons, the bales will break down naturally and become part of the garden.


Great Plants for a Straw Bale Garden:

Vegetables for a Straw Bale Garden:

Peppers
Tomatoes
Squash
Eggplant
Cucumber
Lettuce
Kale

Some Easy Herbs for a Straw Bale Garden:

Basil
Sage
Thyme
Lavender
Cilantro
Catnip
Marjoram
Oregano
Chives

Nice Herbs to Grow Along the Sides of a Straw Bale:

Mint
Creeping Thyme
Marigold
Sweet Woodruff

For more complete information about starting and maintaining a straw bale garden, I set up a blog to record my experiences.  I think you'll find it useful. Straw Bale Gardening

Photo courtesy of Make Me Smile. Visit her straw bale gardening and other projects at her flicker page.