The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It

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This 2011 post has been edited on 7/8/14, also to include new tips and new pictures. Most important of these are directions on keeping the lotion fresh.

Confession: I can’t live without my homemade moisturizer.

This recipe appears in Making It as Olive Oil Whip. It’s my everyday body lotion/face cream and I figured it was about time to share it with you. It only has three ingredients. It’s safe and wholesome and very effective. It’s so basic and natural that you could eat it!

You might find it heavier than what you’re used to, because it doesn’t contain all the chemicals that the store-bought stuff employs to make it absorb fast into your skin (see the Skin Deep database for the scoop on what’s in your favorite moisturizer). But I promise you that if you use it for a couple of days you’ll get used to the difference–and then you’ll get hooked on the results. My skin has never been so happy as it has since I started using this stuff, and I’m saving tons of money. I will never go back. I don’t even like the way commercial moisturizers feel on my skin anymore.

The Whip

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil

2 tablespoons (.5 oz / 14 g)  of cosmetic grade beeswax, either in bead form or grated and packed into the spoons. (You can use vegan waxes instead)

1 cup (250 ml) of 90°F (32°C) water, distilled is best.

Essential oil of your choice for scent, about 10-20 drops, optional

(Notes on ingredients at the end)

Equipment:

You need a double boiler. An improvised double boiler would be a heatproof bowl balanced over a saucepan. I settle a Pyrex (i.e. heat proof) measuring cup in a small saucepan, which is more like a pseudo double boiler, but works for this. If you don’t have a Pyrex cup, you could also put a canning jar in the saucepan.

You will also need a stick blender. It is possible to do this with a countertop blender, but the stick blender works better and cleans up faster. And in case you’re wondering, no, you cannot make this recipe by stirring really fast. So when the zombies come and the power goes out, we’ll have to beat back our wrinkles with salves–most likely salves rendered from raccoon fat.

A kitchen thermometer. I did not use a thermometer when I started making this lotion, but I’ve been much more successful at it since I started using one regularly.

Very clean, preferably sterilized, jars to store your lotion in. This recipe makes anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 cups. I recommend storing your lotion in several small jars instead of one big one, and we’ll talk about that later on.

Note:

This recipe is verbose, but the actual making of the lotion takes all of 10 minutes. It’s really very simple once you have the details down: melt wax into oil, blend oil with water, pour into jars.

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The Procedure

I am going to describe my method for making this. It’s not the only way–you can tinker around to make it work for the equipment you have. I like to do everything in one vessel–in this case, a 2 cup, heat-proof liquid measuring cup.

Melt the wax:

Put all the olive oil into the 2 cup Pyrex (or in the top of your double boiler setup) and add the wax. Place the measuring cup in a small saucepan about half full of water. Heat over gently simmering water, stirring occasionally. until the wax melts and vanishes into the oil. Beeswax melts at about 160°F (71°C).

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Pay attention to temperature:

Temperature is very important for the success of this recipe: the temperature of the water, and the temperature of the oil and wax mixture. The wax melts into the oil at about 160°F, as I said. Anywhere between 160°F and 170°F is a good place to be before you go on to the next step.

If you don’t have a thermometer, you know that you’ve hit 160°F when the wax melts, so if you start blending as soon as that happens, you will be at the right temperature. Just don’t super-heat the mix, or let it cool.

Prepare the water:

While the wax is melting, get your water ready to go. I always put my 1 cup of water into a liquid measuring cup, for ease of pouring.

The water needs to be at about 90°F (32°C). I bring the water to this temperature by adding a splash of boiling water to most of a cup of room temperature water, then checking the temp, adding hot or cold water as necessary to get into the 90° range.  90°, 92°, 95° — somewhere in there. It doesn’t have to be exactly 90°

If you don’t have a thermometer, you will have to guess. The water should not feel warm, but it should not feel cold, either. You’re shooting for tepid. This is hard, because how “tepid” feels to you is going to have a lot to do with the temperature of the air, and how cold your hands are… I’ll just say a thermometer is a handy little piece of kitchen equipment.

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Get your other stuff together:

If you’re going to use essential oils to add scent to your lotion, make sure you’ve got them on hand in your work area.

Also put your clean jars in the work area.

Prepare the blender:

Get your stick blender ready to go. It helps clean-up if you preheat the head of the stick blender in a cup of hot water before you use it. If you use it cold, the wax in the oil mixture solidifies prematurely when the cold head touches it. It’s not a disaster, just a little harder to clean up.

If you are going to use a countertop blender, put a cup or two of very hot water in the blender as well, to preheat the jar and the blades so similar sticking doesn’t happen. In this case, it’s an essential step, because there’s so much cold surface area to the blender, you can end up with lots of little chunks of wax in your lotion.

The next steps happen quickly:

Add the essential oil to the wax/oil mix

Stir in your essential oil(s), if using, 10-20 drops or to taste.  Be quick about it.

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Add the water and whirl!

Still moving briskly, take the oil/wax mixture off the stove and move it to where you’re doing your blending. Don’t burn your hand on the Pyrex handle, if you’re using my method.

Put the head of your stick blender into the hot oil and start it whirrrrrring. Soon as its going, pour in all the water in a fast steady stream, and keep blending until the lotion comes together. If you’re using a counter top blender, pour out the preheating water, pour in the oil, start the motor and pour in the water.

You’ll see that lotion-like substance form almost instantly. It’s very thick and shiny, like marshmallow cream, so you’ll have to bounce the stick blender around a bit to make sure it’s all getting mixed. With a countertop blender you’ll have to start and stop it and poke at it with a rubber spatula.

The biggest trick with this stuff is getting the water mixed in. We are not using any chemical emulsifiers, which would bind the water and oil together. We’re sort of uniting them by force of will and our cock-eyed idealism. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Ideally you can get all of that 1 cup of water to incorporate in a few seconds. But sometimes it just doesn’t want to mix in. Don’t overmix the lotion trying to force the issue, or the texture will be off. This is a very fast process.

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If after a few seconds you see that you have a lot of stuff which looks like lotion in your jar, but that there’s also pockets of water in there, and the water doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, just pause and pour the excess water off. Give the lotion another short whirl to bring up any more water that might be lurking at the bottom and pour that off as well, then call it done.

Note: You certainly may make this recipe with 1/2 cup of water instead of 1 cup–intentionally. The result is a thicker, heavier cream which is really good for harsh weather and outdoor sports, or just those times when your skin is extra dry and itchy. It also makes a good make-up remover/cleansing cream. Basically, the more water, the lighter the moisturizer, the less, the heavier. It’s all good. If you use no water at all, you’ve made a salve–and that’s good too!

Scoop the cream into jars:

While the cream is hot, transfer it to your prepared jars.  Let the jars cool a bit, and then cap them.

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Clean-up:

I have two words for you: baking soda. It’s hard to get this stuff off your tools, and you don’t want wax down your pipes. Rub with lots of baking soda, which will pick up the grease, and dump the baking soda clumps in the trash. Lots of soap and boiling hot water rinses help with the rest of the residue.

I don’t know if this is TMI, but this is the first stage of my clean-up process: I always plan to shower right after I make this, so I can take my lotion-covered cups and spoons into the bathroom and scrape out every last bit of lotion and slather myself from head to toe. Waste not, want not!

A safety note:

This recipe contains no preservatives. Any time you mix oil and water together, you run the risk of bacteria moving in and setting up house. I make this moisturizer because I want a simple product with no fishy ingredients, so I don’t want to add preservatives. I’ve never had any problems at all after years of heavy use of this recipe, nor have my friends or teachers who use it, as well, but technically it’s “unsafe” because it does not have preservatives in it. But you know, driving a car is very unsafe, but I still do it.vWith the lotion, I’ve decided the risk is very low compared to the rewards.

This is my choice–your choice may be different. If you want to use preservatives, Google will lead you to preservatives sold for home crafters. Alternatively, you could look into making skin care products with no water in them, like body butters.

All that said, you can minimize risk through a few simple precautions:

First, prepare the lotion in a clean environment, with clean tools and clean hands. If you have a dishwasher, send all your jars and tools through the sterilize cycle. Wipe down your counter with the strongest disinfectant you are willing to use, be that bleach, alcohol or vinegar, before you start working.

Second, the best way to keep the moisturizer clean is to use it fast, to stay ahead of bacterial growth. I go through a batch a month or less, because I use it all over my body. Think of it as a perishable food product, like a tub of hummus. This might seem strange at first, because we’re used to cosmetics which seem to have an unlimited shelf life. Not so with this cream. Use it up or throw it out within a month.

Third, keep it clean. Each time you reach into your lotion jar, you leave some bacteria behind to breed. If you keep all of your lotion in one jar, all of your lotion is available for contamination. This is why I recommend splitting the batch into a few jars, and only using one a time, leaving the others pristine. And of course, wash your hands before you reach in there-or even use a little spoon if you want to get all Howard Hughes-y.

Fourth, those extra jars should be kept in the fridge until you need them. The cream doesn’t spread well when chilled, but will be fine again as soon as it warms up.

Finally, use common sense. It is not a sterile product. Don’t put it on sores or wounds.

Rosemary essential oil has good antibacterial properties, so if you like you can add some –it can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t rely on it alone, I’d still follow the above advice. Vitamin E oil is often mentioned as a preservative, but it is actually good for keeping oil from going rancid, not for inhibiting bacteria.

Note that changing this recipe so that you replace the water with novel liquids–such as green tea or aloe–will make a product spoil even more quickly. I do not recommend it. If you insist on trying this, use it fast–as in, over a home spa weekend–and keep it in the fridge.

Whenever you use a homemade product, use your nose and your other senses. If the cream goes off you might notice a change in odor, texture or color.

Problems:

As I’ve already mentioned, the water doesn’t always incorporate well. The very best batches absorb the full cup of water and come together nicely and stay together. What makes them work seems to be a magical combination of temperature, timing and the blessings of the lotion fairies.

You may find a little water sitting in the jar now and then. This is not unusual, certainly not a sign of failure. Just pour it off.

In the not so good batches the amount of water that appears is epic as it comes unbound from the oil day by day. Just pour it off. The texture will be off, but the stuff still works, and is fine to use. It’s just not as nice. Try again. You’ll get the hang of it.

Notes on ingredients:

Olive oil:  There’s a lot of debate about what kind of olive oil to use. Some people wouldn’t hear of using anything but the best organic extra virgin olive oil in any body product. I don’t think it’s all that bad to use a lesser olive oil. More processed olive oil doesn’t smell as much like olive oil, which has its advantages. It’s up to you, really.

What I do like to do is use olive oil which I’ve infused with herbs, especially Calendula, which helps heal the skin

Beeswax: I use the beeswax pastilles sold by Mountain Rose Herbs. Yes, it’s a pain to have to mail order them, but it’s so worth it.  A 1 lb bag will make 30 batches of lotion. I use it to make salves and lip balm, too. It’s very handy.

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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.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
Storage:
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”

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.