Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.

How to clean a stained coffee cup

This is what it looked like fresh out the dishwasher. Ugh!

The sink post reminded me about this quick and easy tip. If you’ve got a stained coffee mug, baking soda will take that gunk right off.  Just sprinkle some baking soda in the mug, then wipe down the inside with a damp rag or sponge. The stain will give in on the first pass.

As I described in the sink post, the trick here is to keep the mug on the dry side, because baking soda scrubs best when only slightly damp. Your sponge or rag should be damp, but the mug shouldn’t have water in it.

Just a swipe with the magic powder does it.

I don’t like housework, but this sort of cleaning makes me happy.

Cleaning the Sink with Baking Soda and Lemons

  
Our sink, freshly cleaned and so darn photogenic!
This is because you can’t see all the clutter just out of view.
 

A little green cleaning review here. It is possible to keep a sink white and shiny without bleach or other toxic cleansers. I took pictures this week while I was cleaning to prove it.

Below is our grungy sink. A photo can’t quite capture that particularly scuzzy quality a dirty sink has, that gunky bacterial record of all the dishes and greasy pans that have sat in it over the week. In the lower right corner you can see my homemade scrubby–just a few of those red plastic net bags that fruits and veg are sometimes sold in, wadded up and tied into a yellow one.

The more usual state of our sink. That is, minus the piles of dishes.

Step one: baking soda scrub

A few quick things about baking soda:

  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an inexpensive, non-toxic, mild abrasive. You can use it safely on enamel, stainless and fiberglass sinks. 
  • While you can find baking soda in the baking aisle of most stores, search it out in bulk, both for savings and because you’ll go through quite a lot of it. We buy it in huge boxes or bags at our local restaurant supply chain. I expect it would also come in bulk at grocery warehouse stores.
  • Make a shaker for it out of a jar with holes punched in the lid,  repurpose some other shaker, or buy a sugar shaker from a restuarant supply place. I’d used an old jar for several years before seeing a metal sugar shaker at an Asian market for all of $1.99 and decided to splurge. You can see it in the windowsill of the top picture. You know, it was totally worth the $1.99.

Using baking soda:

  • The trick to using it effectively is to not use it in a very wet environment. Baking soda dissolves quickly in water, unlike some scouring cleansers. Don’t try to use it in standing water, or even with a very wet sponge.  For it to work well, it has to be on the dry side. If my sink is wet, I’ll run a towel over it to get most of the water out before scrubbing.
  • Use a generous amount of baking soda. 
  • See the lumps and clumps forming in front of my scrubby in the picture below? You can actually see the line between dirty and clean, and the lumps of barely damp baking soda that are picking up the dirt. In my experience, if you’re not producing these sort of lumps, deep cleaning isn’t going to happen. Look for these lumps. They only happen when a) you use enough baking soda, and b) when the cleaning surface is just damp. Not too wet, not bone dry.

These are the magic clumps. I like to imagine myself a snowplow.

Step two: bleaching

Baking soda is an abrasive–it has no bleaching properties. If your white sink remains yellowed or stained after the scrub, you can bleach it with lemon juice. I always set aside unused lemon halves or withered lemons from the back of the fridge for this purpose.

  •  Dry the sink. Again, the less water the better.
  • Cut the lemon into wedges. I find a half lemon will usually do the job on my single sink, but lemons vary.
  • Scrub the sink with the wedges, using both sides. Smear the insides around to spread pulp and juice evenly all over the sink. Use the skin sides to scrub problem areas. I find the wedges do a good job of cleaning around the edges of the drain. I also rub lemon all around the border of the sink and counter, in the tile grout there. It never fails to loosen hidden dirt.
  • By the way, lemon juice is very effective at removing rust stains. For serious stains, combine it with salt to make a paste.
  • Leave the lemon juice to do its work. Leave it sit until dry, at least a half hour. Overnight is fine.

The sink coated with lemon juice and pulp, the drain edge scrubbed.

When you come back to rinse I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how bright the sink is. As a bonus, the lemon rinds can go down the disposal to freshen it:

Look Ma! No toxins!

Yes, this requires a little elbow grease, and a little attention to detail, but the scrubbing with baking soda doesn’t take any longer than scrubbing with a toxic scouring powder, and you’re spared from breathing that junk in, getting it on your hands, and adding it to our water supply–not to mention the danger of having it around the house. The lemon bleaching is an extra step, but one I always enjoy. Maybe it’s the scent, or maybe because I like playing with my food.

Extra tough situations:

  • If the baking soda isn’t cutting it as a scrubber, try scrubbing with table salt or Borax, or a combo of baking soda and salt or Borax. 
  • Borax is a laundry additive, and sold in the laundry aisle. It isn’t as safe a baking soda. It will dry out your skin if you use it with bare hands, and you definitely don’t want to snort the stuff or feed it to your pets and babies, but it’s not bad for the water supply. I harshed on it a bit in our first book, but have softened my opinion about it of late. It has its uses. What’s interesting about Borax is that it releases hydrogen peroxide when mixed with warm water, so it not only is a sturdy scrubber, but also will have some bleaching properties if your sponge is moistened with warm to hot water. 
  • If I have a stain that lemon juice can’t address, I turn to the laundry room again. There I keep a little box of powdered oxygen bleach–Ecover’s, to give them a free plug. Others would work the same, I suspect. This is basically powdered hydrogen peroxide. I can either plug up the sink and soak it in a strong solution, or make a paste of the powder and leave it sit. 

Bathtubs/Showers:

I scrub our enamel clawfoot tub/shower with baking soda, too. The only difference is that tubs and showers accumulate soap scum, and I find you need soap to dissolve soap scum. So to clean the tub I’ll usually spritz it with diluted castile soap. (I keep a bottle of this around for general cleaning.) Then I’ll lay down the baking soda and scrub with a scrubby. The scum comes right off.

I think the persistence of soap scum has much to do with the kind of products you use in the shower. We use homemade soap, and very mild shampoo, and nothing else. These don’t form much scum, and it cuts easily with liquid castile soap and baking soda.

If you use more detergent based products, body washes and advanced hair products, and big brand drugstore soap, which has a very different formulation than homemade, you might have trouble dissolving the scum. I’d advise you cut around the problem by using simpler body products. But in the meanwhile, you might find Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, their detergent alternative, with cut through that scum better than castile soap.

Bringing Blossoms Inside

It’s such a simple thing to do, and so beautiful. If you’re trimming your fruit trees while they’re in bud, as they are now here in SoCal, keep all those twigs and bring them indoors. Stubby little ones can go in jam jars. Long thin whips in a vase make for instant elegance. They’ll keep blooming for a while. For me, no store-bought cut flower can compare.

Sun Bleaching Really, Really Works

Line drying in the sun is a time honored means of brightening whites. But I had never guessed how effective it can be.

I have a pair of white bath towels which developed mysterious, spreading yellow stains all over them, stains which I could not remove no matter what I tried (Borax, oxygen bleaches, stain removers), and which I may have actually worsened by a final, desperate flirtation with chlorine bleach a few years ago.

The towels were in good condition otherwise, but I wouldn’t hang them in the bathroom because– seriously–they made us look incontinent. I downgraded them to “slop towel” status, and didn’t think about them much again, until lately, when I was considering getting rid of them, to save room. But how to do that? I have too many rags, Goodwill wouldn’t want them, and throwing them in a landfill would be beyond the pale. I pondered composting them as an experiment, but figured they’d need to be shredded.

Finally, I decided to hang them off the side of our porch for a couple weeks (in good weather, of course!), just to see what happened. Day and night, I just left them there. Turned them whenever I thought about it, then forgot about them entirely.

Today I pulled them off the porch, and they look a whole lot better. I’m shocked they’re not counter-stained by diesel particulate. There are a few intractable stains from their days as slop towels, but 95% of that nasty yellow splotching is gone. They will be rotated back into bathroom use.

Mr. Sun, I’m impressed.

Max Liebermann, The Bleaching Ground, 1882, Wallraff-Richartz Museum

Sun was once the primary way women used to keep their whites white–urine and lye were other less pleasant alternatives, as well applying bluing to counteract yellow. All of these may have been combined with sun exposure. Villages had designated, communal areas for spreading out laundry. Do an image search for “bleaching ground” and you’ll find lots of old paintings on the subject. Linen manufacturers also used to bleach linen in the sun, so you might find pics of huge operations as well as ordinary laundresses.

• Some nice factoids on old fashioned laundry techniques can be found here, at Old and Interesting.

• I’ve read that to rid yourself of perspiration stains on white shirts you can mix lemon juice and water–maybe at a 50/50 ratio? Soak perspiration stains in that and then lay shirts out in the sun to bleach. I’ve not tried that myself, since Erik and I have totally given up on wearing white.

What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


On miso, caffeine and the search for a morning brew



Mrs. Homegrown here:

I am a caffeine addict. Erik is too, though he doesn’t admit it. Actually, he was only a casual user until he met me, and then became habituated to the morning brew, and eventually graduated into the 3pm pick-me-up brew. In general, I think mild caffeine addiction is not very worrisome, and pretty much built into the fiber of America. However, my own addiction has always been demanding. And recently I had to go straight (long story) — which resulted in a full week of headaches and misery. But now I’m clean, and living in a much slower, less productive, somewhat dream-like reality. Is the world supposed to be this way??? Really?

Anyway, I’ve decided two things. One, that it is impossible that I should never again ingest caffeine. No more Turkish coffee? No more Thai iced coffee? Never again a Mexican Coke? No English Breakfast teas on a cold afternoon? No crisp iced tea with a nice lunch? Riiiiighht. It will have to come back into my life in some sort of managed way. (How’s that for addict thinking?)

But before I slide back into my habits, I’ve decided to stay entirely clean for a month to see how my head reacts. See, I get a lot of headaches, so much so that I’m a connoisseur of headaches, and I’m wondering if the vascular expansion roller coaster of caffeine consumption might not be very good for me. We’ll see.

All this brings me to the point of this post. I’m looking for interesting suggestions for hot beverages that I can drink in the morning which will ease my longing for the ritualized caffeine consumption.

I do not approve of any of the myriad fruit-flavored or otherwise flavored “herb” teas in the marketplace. I have my own mint, nettles and other herbs to make tea of, but thin herb tea is just plain depressing first thing in the morning. In the morning I want something substantial. I’m not afraid of the the bitter, the strange and the strong.

Do any of you know anything about chicory or the various bitter root brews? Those old-timey, war ration, hillbilly sort of brews? This is what I’m interested in pursuing. Let me know if you have any ideas or favorites.

What’s working for me so far is miso soup. It’s an important component of the traditional Japanese breakfast, and I can see why. Miso soup is big and interesting and hearty–somehow on par in terms of body satisfaction with a nice cup of coffee with milk. Of course, it’s crazy high in sodium, but it is rich in trace minerals, and if you use real paste (not dried mix) and don’t overcook it, you also get a dose of beneficial micro-organisms, because miso is a fermented product. I throw in a few strips of nori to give me something to chew on as I drink.

A few hints re: miso:

• Buy the pure paste, not the soup mix. Buy the paste in big bags at an Asian-foods supermarket. It is much cheaper than the little tubs sold in health food stores. After I open a bag I transfer it to a plastic yogurt tub and put it in the fridge. It keeps forever. There are different types of miso (red, white, brown…) Don’t let this confuse you. All are good. Just start somewhere and you’ll sort it out. I’m fond the red.

• Proper miso soup is made with the classic Japanese soup stock, dashi. You can make it with any stock you like, or do as I do in the mornings and just use water. It’s important not to simmer miso, because heat kills the beneficial critters in it. If you’re making a pot of soup, add the miso at the end, after you pull it off the heat. If you’re making it with hot water, take the kettle off heat before the boil, or let the water sit and cool some before using.

• I use about one rounded teaspoon of paste per coffee cup of water. This makes pretty strong drink, but I like that.

Big hint: when mixing miso paste into liquid, always dissolve the miso in a tiny bit of liquid first, and then add that solution to the larger volume of liquid. Otherwise you’ll never get the lumps out. For instance, I put a spoonful of paste at the bottom of the coffee cup, add a splash of water, mix that up until the lumps are gone, then add the rest of the water.

• You can make your own miso! Sandor Katz has instructions in Wild Fermentation. It actually doesn’t sound hard to do at all. You just cook up some beans and inoculate them, then store them in a crock. I’ve always wanted to try it, but miso needs to ferment for a year in a reasonably cool place. Living in SoCal without a cellar, I just don’t think I can give it the conditions it requires.

• You can make pickles using miso paste. I’m experimenting with that right now, and will report back.

Taut-line knot

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Knot tying is a skill that’s long been on my to-acquire list. I’ve finally learned how to tie a fancy knot, and it’s pretty exciting. This won’t impress ex-Boy Scouts and hardcore knot wonks, but if your knot skills are pretty much limited to shoelaces (as mine were until today), you might enjoy learning this one.

The taut-line hitch is an adjustable knot. It slides to adjust tension, but stays where you put it. So cool! If you’ve ever struggled to tie a line between two objects–say a laundry line–only to have it sag morosely, you’ll get my excitement. It’s also a useful for staking out tents and tarps.

I’m not going to show you how to do it here, but I’m going to save you the trouble of squinting at lots of poorly drawn diagrams and unclear videos, by sharing the the video that did it for me, one offered by a joint called The Art of Manliness. Official disclaimer: I haven’t read that site, so I don’t know what their program is, but I must say, I do feel rather manly.

It’s actually a very easy knot, though until I found this set of instructions, the procedure baffled me. Apparently there’s a few variations of this knot, but this version does work.

ETA: One of our commenters brought up the advantages of variations of this knot. If you’re new to knots, as I am, I’d recommend you learn one variation of this knot, so you get the general gist of it planted in your brain, and then venture into the Wikipedia page on the Tautline Hitch to look at the variations. The one shown here is #1857. Also important, I learned from Wikipedia that these knots may not be secure when made with slippery synthetic rope.

Birds on a Wire

A neighbor told me this morning that when the house next door to him was for sale the owners asked him not to hang laundry on his clothesline because it would, “bring down their property value.” And, of course, many housing developments have the same anti-clothesline restriction. Is it some distant cultural memory of 19th century tenement buildings, an id-based Ralph Kramden, an intense fear of anything urban? Maybe this clever design by Fabian van Sprecklsen might tip the balance for the clotheslineophobes. The ends are shaped like telephone poles and the clothes pins are shaped like little birds. I’m tempted to pull out a saber saw and make a copy, but that would be stealing! Via Doornob, an inspiring design blog I highly recommend.