Broom Corn–or is it Broomcorn?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This summer I suggested we plant broom corn for no other good reason than I saw the seed pack at the nursery and thought it would be fun to make a broom. (This sort of temporary insanity often overtakes me in the seed aisle.) So without knowing anything at all about broom corn or broom making we planted a block of the stuff. Maybe I should have done a little research into broom making before planting, but I let it slide ’til harvest time. It’s not a disaster–I’m still going to try to make a broom. But now I know more and would do things a little differently if I was serious about the broom biz.

I’m going to share with you what I know about growing and harvesting broom corn to make brooms. Making the broom will have to be another post.

What is broom corn?

It’s a member of the very useful sorghum family: Sorghum vulgare var. technicum.  It’s a tall plant that closely resembles sweet corn, especially when young. However, when it matures it sports big, seedy tassel heads instead of corn cobs. 

As its name implies, it is an excellent material for broom manufacture. It really has no other purpose, except maybe in floral arrangements or as not-so-great animal fodder. As my favorite source, Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908) says:

Like cork, Broom-corn is one of those natural products that are so perfectly adapted for the uses to which they are put, that no substitute has been, or is likely to be, found for it. In toughness, elasticity, sufficient, but not too great rigidity, lightness, and ease with which it is manufactured, it excels all other materials used for brooms.

The first recorded mention of it comes out of Italy in the 1500′s. Ben Franklin is credited with introducing the seeds to this country. But really, what innovation is that man not credited with?

Broom corn and broom manufacture was a big in the States, once upon a time. In the early 1900′s the US was the only country in the world exporting brooms. Of course that’s no longer the case–I assume our brooms come from China now–and most broom corn you buy probably comes from Mexico.

It was also not uncommon for folks with a bit of land to grow a stand of broom corn to keep them in brooms. Again, from the 1908 book:

…it is often cheaper to raise a patch of broom corn and have the boys make it up on rainy days, than to buy the brooms ready made. While home-made brooms may not be as handsome as the “boughten” ones, they will do quite as good work–provided the right person is at the other end of the handle.

 I think this says a lot about our general resourcefulness in past years–as well as something about the relative price of brooms.

Broom corn or Broomcorn?

I have no idea! My 1908 manual calls it Broom-corn. I tend trust the grammatical chops of people working a century ago for print. Broomcorn is just plain strange looking. But I’m sticking with broom corn as sort of a compromise, knowing that if anyone was searching the topic they’d probably use that form. And thus I contribute to the decline of literacy via the expediencies of the Internet.

ETA: It is broom corn, according to the OED.  You see broomcorn a lot though.

Can I grow it myself?

Yes. Apparently it can be grown almost anywhere. Certainly, if you can grow sweet corn you can grow it, but it’s less fussy than sweet corn, being tolerant of both drought and poor soil. However, the best broom material comes from big healthy plants raised on good soil with plenty of water and sunshine. The midwest used to be broom country.

You definitely want to plant your broom corn in blocks instead of long rows, so you get good pollination rates.

It’s really tall stuff (up to 15 feet), and needs some support if you let it ripen, because the heads get heavy.

Where do I get the seeds?

A quick search will give you several options. Mine were from Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a variegated color variety. The picture on the seed pack promised a huge variation in color. For the longest time I thought I’d been ripped off, because the tassels came out uniformly green and stayed that way til they ripened. Then they started to turn a uniform reddish-orange color. Only at the very end of the growing season did a bit of color variation begin to be evident–ranging from light orange to rust to red to burgundy, as you can see in the first picture. Very pretty stuff, but subtle. I think the seed packet illustration included the most extreme variations they could find, plus some unripe stalks for the lighter colors.

How much do I plant?

I finally found some good instructions on broom making (links later), long after planting, and those said that you need 45 nice big heads to make a standard flat broom. Each plant yields one head. My harvest was 50 heads total, including scrawny ones. This means I won’t be making a standard broom.

Keep that number–45–in mind, and then pad it to make allowance for small or malformed heads and your own mistakes while crafting. So I dunno how much exactly…lots? 60 or so plants per big broom?

Here’s something else you need to know: you have to use long heads to make full-sized brooms. The ideal tassel, or head, measures a cubit, which is the length from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. That’s the tassel alone, not the stalk to which is attached. None of my heads got that long. I’m not sure if this is because of our cultivation, or the variety, or what. From what I can glean, substandard sized heads are the part of every harvest–these were set aside for making whisk brooms. I will be making a whisk broom.

My harvest fit in a 5 gallon bucket. This is almost enough material to make a regular flat broom.

When do you harvest?

While waiting to see if the tassels would ever turn out to be variegated in color, I let my broom corn get completely ripe. The seeds are fully formed and heavy. This makes for pretty autumn bouquets, but is not ideal for broom manufacture. My 1908 manual says that the finest broom material is green and young. I don’t think I’m totally sunk, because those 1908 folks had very high standards re: brooms. Higher than mine, I don’t doubt.

Anyway, this is what they say about harvesting for brooms. This is the only info on this topic that I have been able to find:

Most successful growers say that the cutting should commence as soon as the “blossoms” begin to fall. After the flowers have been fertilized and the seed “set,” the antlers, or male organs and male flowers, fall away, and this is called the dropping of the “blossom.” At this time the seed has just begun to form and it is in a merely rudimentary condition, and the brush at this period is not only the best color, but it is heavier…and more durable.

How do you harvest?

For broom material, cut the stalks 6 to 8 inches beneath the base of the heads. If you want the heads for floral arrangements, the length is up to you. After cutting go ahead and peel away any leaves. The old manual has much advice as to how to do this systematically in the field–for instance, this charming illustration:

But alone in your backyard, and sadly lacking the dapper headwear, you will probably just have to wrestle with the tall stocks as you think best, bringing them down so you can lop of their heads. This will leave you with a ton of compost material–or useful compostable biomass in Jeavons-speak.

Her you can kind of see how the strands that form the heads come together at the stalk. You cut 6-8 inches below that point.

Curing the material

The heads have to be dried after harvest. No one is saying how long–’til dry, I assume. The stalks should be dried indoors or at least under cover, and they should be laid out flat, so they’ll dry straight. If I kept the stalks in the bucket, for instance, they’d dry with a definite curve to them. Not good.

The problem with taking on agricultural crafts in the city is the distinct lack of agricultural facilities, such as drying sheds. (A tobacco shed, apparently, would be perfect.) Not to mention a lack of space in the house. My broom corn is currently on the kitchen table, where it will be a nuisance for a week or two.

The cats were thrilled by the corn in the bucket, but as compelling as it was as a cat toy, I had to take it away from them and lay the heads out flat to dry.

Removing the seeds

Yep, the heads have to be stripped down so you have nice clean broom straw to work with. I haven’t done this yet, so will have to include what I learn in the next post where I tell you of my zany broom making adventures. But it sounds like you have to comb them off. For small batches, the 1908 book suggests either a long toothed curry comb (’cause we all have those around!) or sawing teeth into the end of a board to make a comb, and then fixing that board to something stable, so you can really tug the heads through. Go read the manual if you want more deets. I might just try a regular comb. You can also thresh it. If you have any idea how to begin threshing–which I don’t.

One last thing to think about:

If you want to make a broom with a long handle, you can use a dowel, or a re-purposed handle, or a hardwood branch. If you like the rustic branch look, keep in mind that the branch must be aged and dry. So if you’re planning on growing some corn to make brooms next summer, now would be a good time to gather your branches. Put them somewhere dry and let them cure for a year.




Resources

Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908)  I love this little book for its illustrations and wonderful fuddy-duddy prose. I read it out loud until Erik begged me to stop. Its instructions on making brooms are hard to follow and mostly unillustrated, but the cultivation info is invaluable. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can download a pdf.

How to Make a Broom, by Little John Holzwart. This is a Mother Earth News article, and the best instructions I’ve found. He doesn’t talk about growing or harvesting at all, though. Be sure to look at the photo gallery. Pictures help a whole lot. Little John sells brooms at Moonwise Herbs.

There are a surprising number of broom handcrafters on the Internets. Seems they’ve been given a big boost by Harry Potter in general and specifically by Quidditch teams needing funky brooms. Seriously. So poke around and see what these things look like.

I like seeing all the forms laid out in one place here at Granville Island Broom Company. I’m tempted to make a turkey wing whisk, a cobwebber or a scrubber. A scrubber suits my skill level.


Loofah Sponges

We talk about the joy of loofah–or luffa– (Luffa aegyptiaca) all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve every blogged about it here. I was reminded of it when we received a letter from Candace, who heard us on a podcast talking about how much fun it was to grow loofah sponges. She said:

I wanted to thank you for that part of the interview in particular.  I decided to grow some this summer and it has been a great joy.  It is a beautiful vine, and the flowers are always loaded with bees, bumble and honey and all kinds of other insects. By the way, luffa are delicious.  Mine has been eatable at a diameter of 1 to 1.5 in and a foot long with no problem.  There are several recipes on line for them as well. They are a definite interesting grabbing item to share at get togethers, pulling the skin off and shaking out the seeds.  I’ve gotten several people interested in growing them that have never grown anything before by showing them the luffa.

Thanks for the feedback, Candace! And thanks for reminding us about this great plant. It’s just fantastic to be able to grow your own cleaning tools. They’re expensive in stores–too expensive to consider using on dishes and such–and just try to find one that’s organic and locally harvested!

Most people think loofah sponges come from the sea, but they are actually members of the cucumber family and grow on vines. With their skins on, they look like zucchini sized cukes. They’re quite attractive and fast growing. The vines can reach 20 feet if they’re happy, and the fruits form on big yellow flowers. They are so prolific and easy to grow (given the right conditions) that you only need a crop every few years to keep you in sponges.

We’ve never tried to eat loofah, mostly because we’ve been too greedy for sponges. But we’re going to chill on that next time around and eat a few. 

The only catch with loofah is that they need a long growing season: 4 months from sprouting to get a sponge, 3 months from spouting to harvest the fruits to eat. This does limit its cultivation to more southern latitudes, unless you can maybe get a jump start by sprouting indoors. 

Some tips:

  • The seeds need warmth to sprout–sort of like tomato seeds. They won’t start in cold soil. Start them indoors over heat if you have to. 
  • Basic growing requirements are lots of sun, lots of water, warm weather and time. Again, three months for food, for months for sponges.
  • Here in SoCal March is a good month to plant the seeds directly in the ground.
  • Provide support for the vine: it’s a climber. The vines are long and the fruit big.
  • Some people harvest for sponges after the skins turn brown. I find that if you wait that long the sponge itself can be blotchy/discolored. This is purely an aesthetic problem. Many people bleach their sponges in a mild bleach solution, so this doesn’t matter. I don’t bleach mine, so I like to harvest while they’re still green–though I think they might be a little harder to peel at that point.
  • It might help if you throw your harvest in a trash can full of water and let it sit overnight before you peel. Then you can peel in the can, in water, because it’s a messy business. Or do it however you want. You can’t really screw this up. Don’t worry too  much about how or when you peel them. You’ll get a sponge.
  • The seeds float out under water, or can be shaken out. The later is an excellent task for pesky children.
  • Each mature loofah yields tons of seeds, but be sure to save plenty because the germination rates aren’t high. Save seeds from the best specimens.

ETA: More info here: http://www.luffa.info/

    Noodler’s Ink Reusable Fountain Pen


    Julia just wrote a post on Ramshackle Solid about our newest solution to the frustration of disposable pens: Noodler’s Ink and fountain pens.
    From the Noodler’s website:
    Why Noodler’s?
    “Noodler’s Ink” has the lowest cost per volume in stores that carry it and it’s 100% made in the USA from cap to glass to ink. The ink with the catfish on the label symbolizes a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play — and thus a fair price.
    Besides being made in the USA “from cap to glass to ink” Noodler’s appears to be especially focused on delivering value (all ink bottles are filled right to the brim) and something I had never previously thought about: ink security.
    EVERY bottle has slightly different ink component proportions. This is done by hand (one of the major reasons for Noodler’s constantly being in short supply). This production method security feature enables most of our inks to be unique in a forensics lab on a per bottle basis.
    Our experience is that the roller ball pen performs as well as much more expensive fountain pens, holds a lot of ink and doesn’t leak (at least ours haven’t even over multiple flights on our recent vacation). Best of all they aren’t disposable.
    If you need more convincing, Lyanda Haupt has a nice post about fountain pens and Noodler’s on her blog “The Tangled Nest”: Fountain Pens for Everyday

    Homemade cat scratcher

    I feel like I should apologize to non-cat people for all the cat-related content we’ve been generating of late. This should be the last cat post for a while. (At least until the widdle snugum wuggums does something adorable!)

    We picked up this cat scratcher idea from Modern Cat. That version is much more polished than ours, in fact, it’s downright cute. Ours is also too small–we need to add to it a bit. But you can see how it’s made: strips of cardboard coiled up like a a cinnamon roll, duct tape at the breaks. If you go to the original, you’ll see how they finish the edges.

    Easy. Kitty likes it.

    Making Salves, Lip Balms & etc.: Close of the Calendula Series

    My calendula after-bath salve. The camera refuses to capture the deep butter yellow color

    On Saturday, as a part of this long series on Calendula (here, here and here), I posted about infusing oil with herbs.

    If you’ve got some herb infused oil, you can make that into a medicinal salve or balm. Salve is nothing but oil thickened by the addition of wax. I prefer beeswax salves, though there are vegan alternatives, like candelilla wax. They are used similarly.

    Of course, you don’t have to make salves with infused oils. Plain olive oil and beeswax are a powerful healing combination on their own, great for a no-nonsense lip balm or hand treatment. You can also use essential oils to bring herbal essences into a plain salve. 

    Once you know how to make salve, you can not only make skin salves, you can make lip balm and headache balm and stick deodorant and homemade cosmetics. It’s a simple technique, but it opens a lot of possibilities.

    My favorite herbal salve is made out of a mix of equal parts Calendula (pot marigold), chickweed (Stellaria media) and plantain (Plantago major) oils. These three work together to make an all purpose salve that is as good for gardener’s hands as it is for diaper rash or skin scrapes or bug bites or dry cuticles or badly chapped lips or mild sunburn or whatever. I always have a jar on hand and I give jars to friends and family.

    Yesterday I made a batch of pure Calendula salve, a big jar of after-bath moisturizer. Like body oil, salve works best as a moisturizer if applied to wet skin. Calendula extracts are found in a lot of high end cosmetics because it’s a mild but effective skin herb. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, soothing, and helps skin regenerate. I love smoothing it from my cat-scratched ankles and my mosquito-bit knees up to my sun-baked face and arms.

    How-to after the jump.

    The Secret of Salve

    The only secret to salve is that it is so darned easy to make.

    The only equipment you need is some kind of double boiler situation: a true double boiler, a heat proof bowl balanced over a sauce pan, etc. What I usually do is put a Pyrex liquid measuring cup into a small pan of water. I set the burner on to medium heat and bring the water to a very gentle simmer. Thus the oil heats without overheating or burning.

    To the oil I add a little bit of organic beeswax, and continue to heat and stir until the beeswax dissolves. That’s all there is to it, really, but I’ll explain the details.

    First, let’s take a moment to talk about beeswax:

    Where do you get the beeswax?  You can order it online, just search “organic beeswax”. I wouldn’t buy it in craft or hardware stores unless it’s marked as organic. Beeswax holds on to chemicals, so if the bees were working fields which were sprayed, traces of those chemicals could end up in your balm. Same goes for cannibalizing beeswax candles. I hope to get some nice clean wax from our hive soon, but in the meanwhile I buy my wax from Mountain Rose Herbs. It comes in both pellets and blocks. Pellets are a lot easier to work with.

    Good organic beeswax smells heavenly, by the way, and that scent carries into the finished salve.

    How much beeswax do you use?  Making salves is all about simple proportions–the ratio of oil to wax. 4 parts oil to 1 part wax yields a firm salve. You’d want this sort of proportion for roll up lip balm tubes or roll up deodorants, cases where firmness is a virtue.

    If you don’t necessarily need a firm salve, you have a lot more latitude. 6 parts oil to 1 part wax makes a soft salve, better for scooping up with the fingers.

    To tell the truth, even small amounts of wax wax will firm oil up to a sort of loose ointment consistency. For this Calendula bath salve I just made, I didn’t bother to  measure. I just added a heaping teaspoon of wax to my oil. The ratio must have been 10 or 12 to 1. I wanted something very soft.

    So does this make sense? For instance, say I want to fill a particular tin with my skin healing salve. I measure the volume of the tin first, by spooning water into it. Say it holds six tablespoons. The easy math on this one would be to warm 5 tablespoons of oil plus 1 tablespoon of wax (5:1). That would work without resorting to teaspoons and fractions, but if I wanted a looser salve, I might short the wax measure.

    Keep in mind it’s very easy to repair a too-hard or too-soft salve. Just reheat it and add more wax or more oil as needed. You can get some sense of how a salve is going to harden up by dropping the hot liquid onto a cold plate–just like jam.

    Measuring beeswax: Because salve measurements don’t have to be precise, there’s a few ways to measure out wax. Measuring by the spoonful is easiest–spoonful of oil to spoonful of wax. If you have wax in the pellet form, just measure the pellets by the spoonful. If you have a block of wax, shave the wax and press the gratings into a spoon.

    Alternatively, you could measure wax by displacement: pour oils into a measuring cup, then drop in pieces of wax until the liquid level meets the desired measure. For example, for a 6:1 ratio, fill a clear measuring cup to 6 oz. and then add wax chunks until the volume rises to 7 oz.  That equals 6 oz. of oil and 1 oz. wax.

    Back to the melting:

    Okay, so you’re warming your combined oil and beeswax in a double boiler-type situation, as described above. Once the wax has warmed enough in to dissolve and vanish into the oil, take the oil off the heat.When using herb infused oils, you want to treat them gently and heat them as little as possible.

    Add essential oils:

    If you want to add any scent, or if you’re into the healing properties of essential oils, this is the time to stir them in–right after you take the mix off the heat, but before you pour it.

    For lip balms, I’ll add a few drops of peppermint essential oil. Do be careful with peppermint oil, though–too much will make your lips burn. Think something along the lines of 2 drops of of peppermint essential oil per small tin of lip balm. It’s easy to warm it again and add more if you want it stronger. Same goes for scents. Use a light hand. A few drops will do it in most cases.
     
    Also, I should add that you can infuse oils with scented herbs, like dried lavender buds or rose geranium leaves or chamomile flowers. They’re not as strong as essential oils, but very nice in salves. And a lot cheaper. 

    Here’s a hint regarding essential oils: For inspiration regarding what kind of essential oils might go into different types of salves, check out the product line at Badger Balm.

    Pour into jars:

    Once you’ve stirred in the essential oils, pour the liquid salve into clean, dry jars or tins. Make sure your containers are dry and clean. Dirt or water could lead to contamination and mold.

    Pour it fast, before the mix starts to cool. I find that the lip of a liquid measuring cup gives enough control to fill even those fiddly little plastic lip balm tubes.

    Let the containers sit, open, until they are completely cool. Then lid them and label them.

    Clean up:

    The best way I’ve found to deal with the waxy grease residue (since I stopped using paper towels) is to shake a generous amount of baking soda into the dish and then rub it around. The soda lifts and traps the grease. It works like a charm.

    Shelf life:

    To be honest, I’m not sure what the expiry date is on these things. I’ve never had a salve go bad, but they do lose potency and scent. Also, a salve or lip balm that’s being used is exposed to a lot more bacteria than one which is unopened. I’d say the unopened ones could last 6 months to a year, but once you open a tin or jar and start sticking your fingers in it, you should use it up in a few months.

     Self promotional note: We cover all this stuff in much more detail in Making It: salves, lip balm, deodorant, etc. –with proper measurements and everything!

    How to make a Calendula oil infusion

    Love that golden orange color. It’s prettier in real life.
    So finally I get around to finishing off this mini series on Calendula (pot marigold). This post will be on infusing oil, and next week we’ll have the one on salves.
    We’ve already covered the growing and drying Calendula:
    Oil infusion is as simple as can be.  Oil infusion is soaking. Think of it like making sun tea. You take a nice clean jar with a good lid, and fill that about half way full of dried herb, top it off with oil, and let that sit in the sun.
    The resulting oil is medicinal. It can be used straight on the skin, or fashioned into salves and balms. I’m particularly fond of Calendula. As a skin treatment it displays regenerative properties, making it really helpful for healing dry, scraped up, or otherwise damaged skin.
     But lets step backwards a bit and talk about materials. 


    Materials

    Your herb–Calendula or anything else– should be dry when you start this. It should crumble between your fingers. If there’s any flexibility to leaf or flower, that means there’s still water in there.  The reason you don’t want water in there is that spoilage in oil infusions usually comes about because of the presence of water in the plant material. Spoilage can result in anything from off smells to mold to–worst case scenario–botulinum toxin in the oil. 
    Now, to be sure, I know folks who infuse fresh herbs in oil, and they’re not all dropping dead. This is like the prohibition against infusing oil with fresh garlic cloves. Garlic oil tastes really good, and lots of people have done it for a very long time, but, theoretically, bad things can happen because of the water in the garlic (i.e. botulism), so it’s not recommended by the Powers that Be. So it’s up to you–I’m just not going to encourage it.
    Regarding Calendula specifically, you can soak either the petals alone, or the whole flower heads. Either way is fine. Just make sure the green part of the heads is truly dry.
    Your oil doesn’t have to be super high grade. I use un-virgin olive oil–not the lowest, motor-oil sort of grade–just something a little more experienced than extra virgin. This is also a matter of preference. You can use organic, cold pressed, locally sourced extra, extra virgin oil, for sure. It’s just an expensive proposition. Since I make these oils in quantity, I use the less expensive oil and save the good oil for salads. 
    It doesn’t have to be olive oil, either, but it should be something good for the skin, like jojoba oil or grapeseed oil. I don’t recommend common cooking oils, like corn or canola. Some people infuse into petroleum jelly (making insta-balm), but that makes me shudder. I’ve not tried infusing coconut oil, but I imagine it would work great. 
    The Soaking
    All you have to do is fill a very clean jar with a good lid about half way full of dried herb,  then top it off with oil.

    If the herb you’re using is very fluffy, and as a result has a lot of air around it–imagine a jar of dry chamomile buds, for instance–you can fill the jar almost to the top with dried matter.

    This not an exact science, so don’t get worked up about exact quantities. The only thing you should keep in mind in terms of measurement is that you’ll get less oil out than you put in. The herbs soak up a good bit of the oil, and don’t give it all back. Also keep in mind that you don’t need to make a ton of this stuff unless you’re planning on selling it, or doing a big Christmas project. Salve stretches a long way. A jam jar–the kind that holds 1 cup–is not too small for an experimental go at this.

    Now wait
    Cap the jar tight and let the plant matter infuse in oil for about a month. The best place is in a sunny window, where it gets some heat and light. Very gentle warming is the idea. You can take your jars outside when the weather is good. When the sun is hiding, I’ll put my jars on the stove top, where there’s constant warmth from the pilot light. 
    Give the jar a shake every now and then.
    There are other ways to do this. Some people simmer on the herbs and oil on the stove top. I avoid this because plant essences are so delicate and heat sensitive. A crock pot is more controlled, but I don’t have one of those. In Making It I wrote about a technique involving alcohol, the blender, and the stove. It’s tricky, but it will yield finished oil fast. But here at home, I like the simplicity of the long soak. It doesn’t take any energy, and hardly any attention.  
    Harvest
    Above I said about a month–that’s loose, because again, it’s an inexact science. I’m sure you’d have something useable in a couple of weeks, and I will confess I’ve often forgotten about my oils and left them more than a month with no ill effects. 3 to 4 weeks is ballpark. 
    Strain the oil from the dried matter. I used to do this very, very carefully with a tea strainer or with a muslin bag. Now I have the blessed canning funnel.  I line that with various strainers, depending on how clean I want the oil. I have a fairly loose strainer that’s good for big stuff, like Calendula blossoms. Tea baskets fit in there as well. And for very fine straining I can line the strainer with cheese cloth or muslin.
    Strain the oil into a fresh, clean jar. Pour off the oil first, then press the dried matter to squeeze out the remaining oil as best you can. You’ll never get it all back.
    Label it 
    Make sure you label it with the type of oil and the date it was made. Believe me, even if you only make one jar, you’ll forget what it is and when you made it, and a year later you’ll be standing at your cupboard, puzzling over it.

    Store

    Store the oil in a dark place. Use it up within a year, the sooner the better, to take advantage of the Magick Herb Power.

    Of course you should not use oil that smells rancid or looks funny. Smell your herbs and oils as you’re working with them! If you’re familiar with them, you’ll know easily that they’ve gone off.

    Don’t throw away old or even rancid oil, by the way. Burn it in oil lamps. That’s a whole ‘nother project that we should cover here. It’s the first project in Making It.

    Quick and Easy Fire Starters

    I came across these fire starters this week while sorting out our camping gear, and thought I should blog about them. Then I realized we already have–long, long ago: way back in 2006, when we were all young and innocent.

    These little babies are made out of paper egg cartons, dryer lint and old candle stubs. Once lit, they burn long and mightily. I always keep one down at the bottom of my backpack, along with the first aid kit. They’re really handy for starting fires, especially for the fire-challenged, or to give you extra security when you’re working in difficult conditions. Best of all, they cost nothing, and take only a few minutes to make.

    Read our original post for the how-to’s.

    Stinging Nettles and Cat Allergies

    Facebookers have already seen these pics. Kitty, being a fast moving black hole, is very hard to photograph.

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    Sorry this is sort of rambling, but context is everything.

    Our friend Anne, of the pea-eating-Chihuahua fame, and the chicken-sitting-on-kitten fame, and various other fames, is a frequent animal rescuer. She came over to our house maybe 2 weeks ago with a pet carrier. She said, “Someone dropped this off at my house at 1:00 AM last night, but I have to go to work. Can you take care of it?” Inside the carrier was a tiny black scrap of fur, a three week old kitten.

    Thus she launched her evil plan. We took care of the creature on work days, until she came to pick it up, until we got so used to it that we missed it when it wasn’t around. You see, she knew that no one could bottle feed a creature like that (teeny wittle paws!) and not go soft in the head and want to keep it forever and always.


    So it looks like we’ve got ourselves a cat, maybe. We’d planned on getting a dog ever since our beloved dobie passed on, but the universe works in strange ways, and it sent us a cat.

    However, there’s a fly in the ointment. I’m allergic to cats. I grew up with a cat, but developed this allergy later, which always seemed stupid and unreasonable. So I’ve decided to ignore it.

    There’s precedent for this. I also grew up with dogs, and yet later developed an allergy to them, too. I ignored this for our dog Spike, because I wanted a dog more than anything else in the world. At first, I broke out in hives every time he licked me, but it went away. I’m trusting the same thing is going to happen here with the kitten.

    I mean, come on! Were we going to put this on Craig’s List?

    I know it might sound nuts, but it’s going pretty well. The allergies seem to have peaked and declined. I had a couple of bad days, with a constantly running nose and weals all over my chest from the kitty’s claws, but that’s over. Now I sneeze once in a while. I have one weal on my chest. It’s been ten days of close co-habitation with the kitten. I’m its primary caretaker, and it likes to sleep under my chin.

    One thing that may be helping is that I’m drinking lots of extra strong nettle tea, sometimes adding licorice to the brew. Both herbs are supposed to be good for allergies. Andrew Weil recommends taking capsules of freeze dried nettle extract instead of antihistamines for seasonal allergies (See his Natural Health, Natural Medicine. Here’s a Google Books link.)

    Do nettles really work for allergies? I don’t know. It may be all in my head–but you know what? I’m all for the placebo effect. That’s not a negative term in my book at all. Self-healing is the best healing.

    Nettles are also really good for you, being full of minerals and green goodness–so there’s no reason not to try. They’re also free for the gathering in most places.

    I make nettle tea the Susun Weed way. We cover this in Making It, actually:

    • Put one ounce of dried herb in a quart jar. That’s a lot, really, about a cup.
    • If you have fresh nettles, just stuff a jar full (the stingers will vanish in the hot water)
    • If you have it, you can add a piece of licorice root or a bit of ground root. This sweetens the tea, albeit in a weird, licorice sort of way, and the licorice itself may help
    • Fill the jar with boiling water
    • Let it sit 4-8 hours to get incredibly strong
    • Strain to a new jar
    • Drink it iced, room temp or gently reheated. Try to drink that quart over the course of the day.
    • Don’t keep it around, because it will lose its potency after a day. Pour it on your plants and make a fresh batch.

    Kitten facts for those interested:

    Kitten is genderless for now. We took he/she to the vet, and the vet was genuinely puzzled. Tricky kitty! We have to wait for more certainty.

    Kitten is about 5 weeks old. He/she was more in the 3 week old range when we took the above pics.

    Kitten’s name might be Nyx. Or Woad. Or Woadnyx.

    Kitten came off the street but miraculously arrived with no fleas, eye or ear infections, nothing. He/she is healthy and well adjusted, and likes all people.

    Kitten is entirely black, and of solid alley cat stock. The eyes have faded to grey from blue this week, but there’s no telling final color. I suspect he/she is always going to look like a scruffy Halloween cat.

    Kitten was half blind and sleepy at the start of this, but now is gaining mad skilz by the day and is a holy terror, but still pretty darn cute. He/she has been threatening this post as I write, showing a cat’s instinctive affinity for computer keyboards.

    The cute thing is all an act. Hail to our feline overlord! Photo credit: Anne Hars