Making Herbal Infused Oils

I use my herbal infused oils for soap making more than anything else. We do use them some in cooking but tend to prefer the fresh herbs for that purpose. A week prior to your planned soap making day, you can make your own herb infused oil.

Right now I want to make oil infused with oregano and thyme for their antibiotic and antiseptic properties. Many people have raved about this herbal soap and how it has cured their acne and other skin problems. I think it is the natural antibiotic properties of the thyme and oregano.

First a trip to the herb garden. Needless to say, if you plan to make soap in the middle of winter and want to use herbal oil you had best make the oil now and freeze it for winter use. You can also grow your own herbs in a pot on the windowsill through the winter.

I am clipping some oregano and some thyme, a mason jar full.

I will rinse the leaves then crush them in the jar. You could probably speed this process by blending them in a food processor before putting them in a jar. Mine are crushed then covered with oil. Because my house is cold at night and this has made the oil cold, I will warm the jar, without the lid, in the microwave for about 30 seconds, just until the oil is slightly warm. The lid is put on and I will shake the jar several times a day whenever I pass by for about a week or until I am ready to make soap.

I let the herbal oils intended for soap use sit out at room temperature. If I were going to take them internally or use in cooking, I would keep them in the refrigerator and discard after a few days. It is not safe to use herbal infused oils kept at room temperature for any internal use without heating them to pasteurize them or sealing them in a pressure canner.

This herb infused oil has more uses than just soapmaking. If you keep it in the fridge you can add it to your cooking. You can do this with garlic cloves too, not the soap part, just the cooking, but don't keep it indefinitely in the fridge, as there can be the possibility of bacteria growing in there. , garlic is good for you. I wonder how garlic soap would be if made with garlic infused oil. It may be something to try in the future. I hear it is suppose to help restore circulation. I do remember a very elderly gentleman asking me if I made garlic soap, as he was diabetic and wanted to try it. This was many years ago and I had not heard of it before. An interesting idea...

Spring Seeding

Spring is not here yet, however I can get a head start on it by planting some seeds indoors. Actually, I started seed about two months ago, during the Christmas holidays. These were canna seeds that I got in a trade. I planted about 40 seeds early because I thought they would take a couple of months to germinate. I was wrong. After treatment and planting they all sprouted in less than two weeks and are about 2" high now in the seed window. I planted every single seed because they are all hydrids and cross pollinated. I want a few special cannas with coloured and striped leaves and various flowers. Most will be the standard green leaves with red flowers which I will probably give away, but I will keep any special ones.

I know these will do well indoors until they can go into the cold frame as I have a couple that I have grown indoors in pots since I dug them up in the fall. These are doing very well.

If you want more information about starting cannas from seed, you can find it in my previous post on spring seeding.

These are ground cherries sprouted in the seed window.

In the past month I have planted many of my vegetable and flower seeds and have them growing under lights in the south seed window. I can start tomatoes and peppers this early because I have lights in the window to supplement the day light and I have a cold frame to move them into mid April. The window lights are only on for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening, giving them a longer day. I am looking for a more permanent indoor lighting set up at the moment.

These are garlic chives, just barely poking their heads above the ground.

Peppers are not up yet. They take longer to germinate.

I have planted so far this year: chives, garlic chives, ground cherries, rupine brussel sprouts, chichiquelites, several types of tomatoes, several types of peppers, cannas, bird of paradise, heuchera black magic, white and lilac datura, allium blue drumstick, dianthus siberian blue, canpanula cup and saucer, sea holly and gaillardia. Some are up and some are not.I have also potted up some tender bulbs. I noticed that my best dahlias were drying up in the basement, so I potted them. I also potted special cannas, callas, elephant ears, other dahlias. I bought some edoes at the grocery store and potted those too.

I grew two dahlias in pots over the winter and they have done well, so far. As they get leggy I just cut them off and root the cuttings.

I recently acquired a couple of aquariums. This very large one will make a great little greenhouse for the peppers this spring!

I have many, many more seeds to plant indoors soon, which is one reason I wanted to start so early. It is probably going to take me that long to get them all planted!

We will still have vegetables that go directly into the garden, i.e. peas, beans, corn, cucumbers, potatoes and squash. I have a few new varieties of squash, Hopi black and Hopi pale gray, that I will be starting early indoors, as well.

All in all, I have been pleased with the results so far. The seeds are growing in the spare room at the top of the stairs, over the wood stove, so it is one of the warmest rooms in the house. It is also my studio, craft, storage and work room, so I am in there quite a bit. I love working in the "jungle"!

Jam & Pie Garden

Last fall I started a garden mainly for pie and wine berries and fruits. Knowing that most berry bushes take about three years before they start to produce, I looked around for something faster. I found the chichiquelites (garden huckleberries) and ground cherries (cape gooseberries). These are quick growing annuals, going from seed to berry in one season. These were great this year and we had a bumper crop. 

This summer I began collecting other types of fruits and berries for later production.

Also fast producers are strawberries and rhubarb. Both are "next year" producers. We like plain rhubarb pie, but strawberry rhubarb is good too. Strawberry freezer jam is fabulous!

If you plant some strawberry babies now you'll get a few berries in the spring. You will also get all the plants you could possibly want in the form of runners by fall for producing berries the following year! They reproduce at an astounding rate! If you want the large berries like the ones you buy, plant June bearing. The ever-bearing ones produce here and there and smaller.

I planted three 20' rows of strawberry babies this past spring. I had the plants, so I put them all in. Some I got in a trade and the rest I got from cleaning out my MIL's garden. I'm overwhelmed at the invasively growing strawberry bed now! It's taking over the entire garden and the runners are so thick, I'm going to have to clean them out next week! I'm turning them back as they try to grow out into the field and lawn. I don't know how we are going to pick berries in that next year!

If you plant some rhubarb now, you'll get some big enough for small cuttings next year. I got several pies from just two large plants this year, so I planted an entire 20' row of rhubarb roots in July. It's growing well and I might get a small cutting from them before the frost takes it all. It's a lot of rhubarb, I know, but I had the roots from cleaning out my MIL's, so I planted them. I can always sell the extra stalks and give some to the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen in town.

I think, sometimes, I tend to overwhelm the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen with produce. I don't know what they did with the boxes of zucchini I gave them this year. I think I'll plant less next year, but I always say that...

This is the row of rhubarb that I planted this summer. It's planted right against the green onions at the other end and the basil at this end, since both of those will be gone next year. It goes all the way down behind the onion row.

One of the most interesting berries I planted this year is the 'Haskap' honeyberry "Borealis'. They were recently developed by the Univ of Saskatchewan. Here is information about them. My Haskap berry bush baby was a gift from Mike and Joyce, followers and friends who lives sort of nearby. They came for a visit one day and brought it with them. (Thank you Mike and Joyce!) I only have the one of that variety so it gets special attention!

You need two different varieties of Haskap honeyberries to get the large berries which are very similar to blueberries, or so I have read. I have since received some honeyberry seeds for 'Borealis' and 'Bluebell' varieties in a trade from a freind, Evelyn in Alberta (who also sent the Saskatoon berry bush mentioned below. Thank you Evelyn!). I have the honeyberry seeds sprouted and growing in the kitchen. The seedlings are tiny now and I think I will keep them indoors under lights for the winter this year. I don't know if that's a good idea or not. Perhaps I will plant a few of them in the garden and keep a few indoors, just to be safe.
I realize that they are hybrids and probably won't all breed true to the parents. It's ok. I like experimental gardening!

I also received three salal bushes a short time ago from Michelle in BC at "My Green Thumb" (Thank you Michelle!) who also sent me some delicious salal jelly she made and loganberry seeds, which are now planted indoors but not up yet. I may need to winter sow those. The salal jelly tastes surprisingly like grape, with lots of flavour!

The salal bushes arrived green and in good shape, all the way from the west coast! They died back some after planting but are still green at the base, so hopefully they will come back next spring and grow. They came in the mail all the way from BC, so they can't be blamed for dying back a bit.

Another unusual bush I received, from Eveylyn (above), is a Saskatoon bush (also called serviceberry) which is doing very well and has grown some throughout the summer. It is even spreading! These berries have all the antioxidant properties of blueberries. Here's the info about them. Scroll down to the "Nutrient and Potential Health Benefits" section. I only have the one bush, so I'm paying close attention to it, too and it's spreading!!

Another berry with good health benefits is the goji berry! Goji berry bushes are slow growers at first but are suppose to do well in drought conditions. With the berry garden in my thoughts, I planted some goji berry seeds awhile back.

I don't use goji berries to make pies but they are a good addition to the berry garden, anyway. I freeze and dry berries I don't use right away for teas and juices, as well as pies and jam. My goji berry bushes are fairly small due to a poor start. In addition to being slow starters, mine were left in the tiny pots most of the summer that year, not having started the berry bed yet, and were transplanted a few times, walked on and generally neglected. They'll get a chicken manure boost this fall and will, hopefully, get much bigger next year!

Two years ago I planted three little red raspberry runners that were very big this year. We had a lot of raspberries and I made some raspberry jam that went over well. I got another runner in a trade this year and added it to the ones I have. I am also getting some runners now from my big ones that I will dig out and transplant. I am working on making a 20' row of raspberries too. My garden is 20' long. 

I did some trading with friends and acquired a couple of gooseberry bushes and one giant gooseberry bush. (Real gooseberries, the green kind, not "cape gooseberries", which is another name for ground cherries). This is not a picture of my gooseberries. I haven't gotten any berries from mine yet, but this is what they look like when I do get them.

This is the giant gooseberry bush. It is covered by the ground cherries, poor thing! I`ve had to fight them off and protect it all summer! We are all drowning in ground cherries!

I found four more gooseberry bushes growing wild on the property and moved them to the berry garden to live with their relatives. I want a large amount of gooseberries 
next year!

This is an old farm where we live, so I could find just about anything growing here! I'd love to find a buried leather bag full of old coins! Maybe I should get a metal detector! ...Maybe not. I'd get tired of digging up machinery parts. I know the previous owners planted machinery parts all over the place and I just don't understand why. Were they hoping to grow a good crop of tractors? I have large barrel garbage cans near the gardens that are just full of small, odd bits of machinery.

Along with these wild gooseberry bushes, I also found a lot of wild blackberry bushes in that back corner while fencing. These are the first ones I've seen here. I know they are blackberries because they had very large and delicious fruit on them in late August, when I discovered them. I am going to make a row of blackberries in the pie garden too! They fruit later than most other berries, in late August, so this will be a good thing.

On a side note...I have come to hate fencing! It has consumed my entire summer, so I am glad to say that some good did come from it. I found some blackberries! It's not over either! I've still more to do. Buck got out again today. That dog is worse than a goat!! He is too big and heavy to jump high and he doesn't seem to climb, but he digs with huge, flat feet that make great shovels! He can find a way out in the most strongly fenced area. I have seen him systematically checking the fence for a way out. Any tiny little weakness in the fence is taken advantage of. I am starting to think that there is no such thing as Buck proof fencing! He also digs big holes all over the place, but we are, so far, ok with that. We've have stoicallly accepted it as part of his charm. He falls into them a lot more often than we do. lol. Silly boy!

In addition to the above mentioned berry bushes, I have also received six black mulberry babies (four of which are still growing), two black elderberry babies and two current babies in trades this spring. All are doing well except for two mulberry bushes, one elderberry bush and the currents. They seem to have disappeared, but I am hoping they will come back next year. I can't blame them for hiding after the giant puppy walked on them! They were doing ok in spite of that, then one day they were just gone. I am hoping they will come up again in 
the spring.

This is the largest of my black mulberry bushes. They get huge and I have them growing only about 2' apart. They are getting big now, so I will move them in the spring while they are still dormant.

Ditto for the elderbery bush. This is an elderberry bush (right), but it`s not MY elderberry bush.

Mine is just 1`tall, but it will grow!

I, myself, bought and planted a lavender in the pie, juice and jam garden, not so much for pies but for jelly, juice and drying for sachets/pomanders. Its just one little plant but I have rooted others by laying down the branches and covering them with dirt. They grew roots and I will separate them into their own spots in the spring. I will do the same thing in the spring when they all begin to grow. I am hoping to acquire a 20' row of lavender in the pie garden too.

My berry garden is a "lasagna" garden that is a couple of years old. Every spring I add chicken manure to it and as much mulch as I can come up with. Grass clippings are my main source through the summer, then it gets a generous helping of leaves in the fall. I have also added shredded paper this year, since I had it anyway and Buck found the stash of bags of shredded paper. That was great fun!

I used to keep bags of shredded computer paper for chicken litter and I had quite a few bags left. They make good mulch but it looks odd since it's so unnaturally white. If it works well, I will continue to add it as mulch to the garden. Being made from wood pulp, the paper will need to be supplemented with manure. Wood uses up the nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes, so it's not that good for the garden without the chicken manure.

All in all, I think I have accumulated a good assortment of berries for my pie garden! I am excited about what it will produce next year! I can't read about or hear about an edible berry without trying to find someone to trade for one and trying to grow it in my garden! 
I am obsessed!!

Soap Making

Well, autumn is on its way. The nights are cooler, the geese are flying and the acorns are falling off the trees in the back yard. The squash is almost ready to pick and the apples are getting red.

Its time to start thinking about making soap for Christmas.
This post is designed to help those who are interested in making their own soap from scratch. I am not going to cover making "melt and pour" soap. You can buy big blocks of commercially made soap for melting down, colouring, scenting and molding. It is called "melt and pour", but you are not really making soap. "Melt and Pour" is commercial soap to which you add your own extras. You can find commercial soap that is unscented at the dollar store and melt it down, too. You can also melt down the tiny pieces of soap left after using up many bars in your own home and make new bars from those. None of this makes "handmade" soap. Its all still commercial soap made by someone else. How do you know it is made from organic products? Does it contain chemical latherers, hardeners, color or scent that dries the skin? Has the natural glycerin been removed? These are all questions that should be researched before using a brand of "melt and pour" soap.

Real handmade soap is so moisturizing and luxuriant because of the large amount of glycerin present as a by-product of saponification (making fat and lye into soap) and the lack of chemicals usually added to commercial soap to make it harder, lather more, colour it and scent it. Glycerin is removed from commercial soap and sold separately. It is used in the manufacture of weapons and is worth more than the soap.

Saponification is a chemical process that changes the fat and all the lye into something completely different - soap. After saponification is complete, there is no more lye. Saponification takes place when specific weights of organic fat and lye are added together under controlled circumstances and temperatures. Petroleum products will not make soap. You cannot use Vaseline, motor oil or any other petroleum products to make soap. The fat must be organic from a vegetable or animal source.

I make sure I have collected everything I need before the soap making day comes. I buy the goats milk at the grocery store or trade for it at a nearby goat farm. Country folk are usually happy to trade extras for handmade, chemical free, goats milk soap. I make sure I have enough lye. Yes, lye is necessary to make soap from scratch. No lye - no soap. Its that simple. Lye is sodium hydroxide, so when the soap label says "sodium" they are referring to the lye used. You will need distilled water or rainwater to mix with the lye flakes or crystals. Hard water will not measure correctly. 

There are some new things called "soap nuts" on the market that say they can be used to make soap just by mixing with water, but it isn't the same thing. There are some plants that grow wild here, too, that are high in sapons and will make a lather when run through the blender with water. They are members of the saponaria family, like the bouncing bet saponaria that grows wild along the roadsides. Again, its not the same thing as soap. Does it clean as well? Don't know, try it and see.

One of the main ingredients that I have to locate is hard fat, preferably beef. Hard fat, as opposed to oil, makes harder soap that lasts a lot longer and does not dissolve if you leave it sitting in water. (This is important.) I have feelers out to friends who buy beef in bulk and know people with farms where beef are raised and sold. I hope to have some beef fat scraps and suet to render soon. Its not easy to find a lot of beef fat in one place anymore. Most people don't butcher their own cows but take them to a processing plant for that purpose.

Rendering is melting the fat and meat scraps until the fat is all liquid and the meat is cooked. This releases the fat in the meat as well. To do this, I put it all in a huge pot with a little water and slowly bring to a boil. Once it has boiled for just a few minutes and the fat is all liquified, it has to cool. I just leave it in the pot outside on the front porch, with a lid on and a weight on the lid to keep out critters. A bungee cord over the lid works for this, as well. In the morning it will have separated with the fat on top and the cooked meet and gelled juices on the bottom. I scrape off the fat layer and dispose of the rest. The chickens like the cooked beef and juices. Its all unseasoned and organic. (It is important for the chickens to get the protein and calcium they need to make hard shells. )

I will then go through the process again with the layer of fat, just to make sure it is pure. I put the pure, rendered, clean, white beef fat in bags and put it into the freezer until I am ready to make soap.

The day before I am planning to make soap I will take the rendered beef fat out to thaw. Sometimes I make vegan soap and use shortening or palm oil instead, but I only make a small amount. It is very expensive and not as hard a soap as what I make with the beef fat.

One of the soaps that I produce is a natural herbal anticeptic and antibiotic soap, made with herb
infused oil that I make myself from the thyme and oregano grown organically in my garden. I prepare this a few weeks prior to the soap making day by putting an organic oil into a container with washed and crushed thyme and oregano leaves. I let this sit at room tempurature for a couple of weeks, shaking it a few times a day whenever I think of it or pass by. I don't measure it, I just fill the container with the crushed leaves and cover it with oil. I will measure out the strained oil to make soap. This oil is not fit to eat after a few days since it is not refrigerated, but it is great in soap. Thyme and oregano are natural antibiotics and antiseptics. Thymol is the active ingredient in thyme. Research was being done in the area of using thymol to mass produce an antibiotic, until penicillin came along. You can still buy oil of thyme or oil of oregano at health food stores for medicinal use.

Other ingredients are used in minimal amounts for various reasons. Coconut oil makes a thicker, richer lather. Sugar also makes more lather. Salt makes the soap harder and castor oil is added as a stabilizer.
Colour that will last is difficult to obtain organically. Soap, with natural additions such as oatmeal or herbal teas and oils, does not usually need extra colour. If you use milk, instead of water, the finished soap will be a natural shade or tan. Unfortunately, food colouring will not last. You can can purchase soap and candle colouring at craft stores but it is not necessarily going to be organic. e careful using candle colour as it is not made for use on the skin. Colour can be added at any time during the process. You can also make a marble soap by just swirling it into the liquid soap in the mold, using a knife or spatula.

As with colour, scents can come from anywhere. There are some great ones in the kitchen. You can buy essential oils and fragrance oils at craft stores. Perfume and body oils will not work. These will make the soap smell great – for the first day, then the scent will disappear. Essential oils will last for awile but not as long as synthetic fragrance oils. Again, fragrance oils are not specifically "organic". Essentail oils will give the soap the health properties of the oils, as well as the scent.

Along with the ingredients, I make sure I have the utensils I am going to need before I start.

Lye and raw soap, not yet aged, are both high in alkyline and will eat any plastic or wood containers or utensils that you use. (This is why you should be wearing rubber gloves.) Use stainless steel or glass for everything. Stirring the fat with plastic is acceptable as it is just fat, but once you mix it with the lye you will have to switch to a steel spoon.

You will need a very large stainless pot in which to melt the fat and a glass or steel bowl for mixing the lye with water. A hand blender is used to "stir" the mixture until saponification takes place. Women used to stand over a large pot with a big wooden paddle for hours and hours, stirring. Using a blender this way, the soap usually takes less than an hour to saponify. You will need a glass, candy thermometer and a digital weigh scale. A digital scale is the only method of measuring that is exact enough for making good soap that has no lye remaining.

After all of the ingredients and utensils have been collected, it is time to start making 
the soap.

I am hoping that this blog will be a help and encouragement to those of you who wish to make their own soap and simply don't know where to start. 

It is very rewarding and a lot of fun!