Peat-free Planting Mix Recipe With Coconut Coir

Nancy’s coconut coir-based planting mix. Here she’s doing the squeeze test, which we talk about below.

From an environmental perspective peat moss is a nightmare. Mining of this material is unsustainable, contributes to global warming and destroys habitat for many plants and animals. But, for starting seeds, we’ve used it for years. Our friend Nancy Klehm taught us recently how to make a seed starting mix with coconut coir instead of peat moss. Thanks, Nancy! Here’s how to make it:

Ingredients

Watering the coir brick to break it up. Once saturated, this brick will expand to fill the tub.

COIR:  A fibrous material made from coconut husks. It is sold in compressed bricks which expand greatly when wet. It is pH neutral and has no nutrients. Its role in planting mix is to hold moisture. Coir is the environmentally correct alternative to peat. Peat is mined out of peat bogs, which is a disruption of an ecosystem. Coir, meanwhile, is a by-product of the coconut industry. Of course, it has to be shipped in from the tropics, so is not particularly sustainable in that way. Nothing is perfect. So, if you have peat on hand or prefer peat you may use it in this recipe instead of coir, just substitute it, 1:1.

PERLITE: Perlite is a volcanic glass which, upon being subjected to extremely high temperatures (850C +), puffs–sort of like popcorn, or a Pop Rock. Obviously, though its origins are natural, it is an industrial product, but it is very useful for making soil fluffy and light. You will recognize it as the “white stuff” that you see in the soil of nursery plants. As it is essentially a rock, it is a neutral player in the mix. It simply keeps things light.

Note: you should avoid breathing perlite dust when working with it.

Store-bought worm castings. Homegrown, of course, are the preferred alternative!

WORM CASTINGS: Castings bring healthy microbial activity to the mix, as well as balanced nutrients and trace minerals. In addition, they hold moisture well. They are invaluable players in this mix. You can buy worm castings at the nursery, or you can keep a worm bin and harvest your own. Store bought and homegrown castings have very different textures–the store bought tends to be very fine, almost a black powder, whereas castings fresh out of the worm bin have more of a open, grainy, soil like texture– and this effects the recipe.  

For the purposes of this recipe, we will assume you are using fine-grained, store bought castings. If you have your own castings, congratulations! But you will have to play with this recipe a little bit. You will use a little less coir, because your castings (probably) have loft or springiness of their own. We can’t tell you exactly how much less coir, because castings vary.  Start, say, with half the recommended quantity of coir in the recipe below, and then test the mix, and add more coir as necessary. The proof will come in the squeezing. Do the hand test described in the instructions below. If the mix won’t hold form when you squeeze it, you have too much coir, if the clump you make doesn’t break easily, there isn’t enough. Again, see below.

Quantity

This recipe makes about 4 gallons of planting mix. To make more or less, just use the same ratios. 

Equipment

We like to mix ours up in 5 gallon bucket, but you can do this on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow or whatever you like.

You will also need something big, like a cement mixing tray or tub to soak the coir brick in. Remember, one brick swells into to a big bag’s worth of wet coir. If you don’t use all the coir, you can store it in a plastic bag. If it dries out, it can be re-hydrated.

You will also need a measuring tool. For this 4 gallon recipe you will need a quart measure to scoop the materials out of the bags–like a big yogurt/cottage cheese container, or something with same volume. Again, you can make as little or as much as you want using the same proportions, so your measure could be a 1 cup scoop or a 3 gallon bucket.

Prep

Prepare to make the mix by soaking the coir in a large tub of water for maybe a half hour or so. Break it up as it expands. It will drink up a lot of water and grow proportionately huge. Add water if necessary so that it all gets evenly moistened. When finished, it should be wet but springy, like a wrung-out sponge.

Put it together

3 quarts/parts worm castings (store bought, see notes above for homegrown)
8 quarts/parts coir
4 quarts/ parts perlite

Measure out the worm castings and coir into a five gallon bucket and toss them together with your hands until they are evenly and thoroughly mixed. This mix should be moist and dark, again with a nice “wrung-out” sponge level of dampness.

Only when those two are mixed should you add the perlite. It’s easier to mix the perlite in last–trust us. Mix the perlite into the coir/casting blend until it is also evenly distributed–the mix should be absolutely consistent–no patches or clumps should be visible. You might find it helpful to dump the mix back and forth between two five gallon buckets to speed mixing.

After it is mixed, pause to analyze the texture. Gather up a fistful, squeeze it hard and open your hand. The mix will form a ball in your fist, but if you turn your hand over and drop the ball a few inches, it will break easily. Overall the mix should be moist, light and springy. We can’t emphasize that enough. Moist, but not soggy. Springy, not heavy.

If the mix seems a little clumpy/dense/heavy don’t be afraid to add another part of perlite. It is better to err on the side of too much perlite than too little. Lightness is everything.

Measuring into the buckets with a quart-sized yogurt container. If you have two buckets, you can pour the ingredients back and forth between them to speed mixing. Otherwise, just toss the ingredients with your hands in one bucket.

Notes on growing

The seedling feeds itself from its seed body up through the formation of the first set of leaves, the cotyledons. After that, it is dependent on the nutrients in the soil. Your seedlings will be fine in this planting mix until around the time of the full unfurling of their first true leaves (the ones that come after the cotyledons). At this time–or no later than the opening of the second set of true leaves–you will want to feed your seedlings by watering them with some kind of diluted organic fertilizer of your choice. Do this maybe once a week until you transplant them.

Feeding accelerates root growth which is even more important to plant health than leaf growth. It prepares the plants to thrive after transplanting.

For most seedlings this means the first feeding would occur about 3-4 weeks after planting. The seedlings should be transplanted by 6 weeks of age–either into the garden or into bigger pots with real soil.

Recycling

You can re-use this mix to plant more seedlings, but you’ll want to recharge it by adding in more worm castings. Just dump out your seed starting trays, mix it all up and let it air a bit. Also, the coir breaks down over time, so you find you need to add more of that as well. And if you add enough castings and coir, you’ll probably want to add more perlite to balance it. There’s no recipe–you’ll have to use your intuition to create a consistency that resembles the original mix.

Or you could compost it and start fresh. It’s safe to compost perlite, as long as you don’t mind having little white perlite bits all over your yard!

This is the surface of the finished mix. It’s so light and moist that it has holes in the surface. Note the even integration of the three ingredient: no lumps or patches left unmixed.

Options
 
Another planting mix option is part coir and part compost. This is provided your compost is of the best quality–bagged compost from the nursery is not good enough. This is a hard area to generalize about because compost varies wildly in both quality and consistency, but you’d want to use lovely, lively, springy, sweet smelling compost.

Gardening guru John Jeavons starts his seeds in mix which is 1 part compost and 1 part garden soil–soil dug from the same beds the seedlings will be going into. This way the seedlings are already accustomed to the local soil and don’t go through so much shock upon transplanting. It also makes his garden a “closed loop,” meaning he doesn’t have to buy anything or bring any materials in from the outside. This saves money, keeps things local and prevents the accidental importing of diseases.

Using compost and soil works for him because he’s got top-notch compost and rich, fluffy soil–the kind of soil you can plunge you hand into up to the wrist without meeting resistance. This should be a goal for all of us to work toward, but in the meanwhile, while we’re developing that soil in our own yards, we’ve got perlite, worm castings and coir!

Cheap and Natural Handsoap–and a rant

This is just a quick tip. If your family prefers liquid soap to bar soap, one easy way to avoid all the creepy, expensive, colored, perfumed, anti-bacterial liquid soaps on the market  (and all the plastic they come in) is to just use liquid castile soap to wash your hands.  Ah, but yes–liquid castile soap is runny. Indeed. I can hear the complaints already. 
The way around that problem is to use one of them fancy-schmancy foaming soap pumps. You can buy them at specialty retailers, but it’s probably cheaper to buy one at the supermarket, use up the soap and then start refilling with liquid castile soap. The one in our bathroom is an old Method pump and is still working fine after three years.
The secret of the soap formula used in foaming pumps is that it’s super-diluted. It has to to diluted because full strength soap clogs the pump.  It’s kind of a scam, when you think about it, that when you buy a foaming pump you pay as much or more for diluted soap than regular liquid soap. However, the dilution factor works perfectly with castile soap. As Dr. Bronner says:  Dilute! Dilute! Dilute!
Dilute your castile soap quite a bit for use in a foam pump. Start by filling the dispenser no more than 1/4 full of soap and then filling it the rest of the way with water. See how that works for you. You may prefer it a little stronger or a little weaker. 
In any case, you’ll pay less for each full dispenser of soap, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing your soap is all-natural, safe and free of additives.
***
Rant Warning:
Speaking of which, I saw the most appalling thing in the grocery store today and I had to rant about it: The Lysol® Healthy Touch® No-Touch Hand Soap System.
This is a twelve dollar, battery operated (4 AA) soap pump fitted with an electric eye, so it spits out soap when you pass your hand under the nozzle. It dispenses Lysol anti-bacterial soap, which comes packed into special cartridges–meaning you can’t fill the dispenser with whatever soap you like. The tagline for this product is, “Never touch a germy soap pump again!” 
I love the double-speak of Healthy Touch/No-Touch. Is the underlying logic that no touch is healthy? Time to evacuate to our plastic bubbles!
Three cranky thoughts on this product:
1) First, the obvious. When you touch a soap dispenser, you are about to wash your hands. When you wash you hands, you kill all the germs. It doesn’t matter how “germy” the dispenser is–unless you plan to suck on it. This device is about as needful as evening wear for hogs.
2) In 2002, at the urging of the AMA, the FDA evaluated anti-bacterial soaps. The AMA was concerned that these anti-bacterial soaps (i.e. Triclosan-based products*) may be breeding super-bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. The FDA’s findings were, as reported at American Medical News:
“Soaps and lotions that include antibacterial agents have no benefit over ordinary soap and water, but more research is needed to allay or substantiate concern that these substances may be leading to increased rates of antibiotic resistance.”
So anti-bacterial soaps are proven to be no better than regular soap and water and maybe, just maybe–there’s still research to be done–they could be disastrously worse. Why roll the dice on this one? It just doesn’t make any sense. For me, this makes anti-bacterial soaps about as needful as evening wear for hogs accessorized with a doomsday device.
3) And finally, the wastefulness of it all makes me cry. Note the the cheap plastic shell and electronic innards assembled in Chinese factories–not to mention the big-ass clamshell package it all comes in. How long will the average unit be employed? A year? If does last more than a year, how long will Lysol keep making those plastic cartridges?  Oh, and joy! We’ll have more toxic batteries to figure out how to dispose of–all so we can wash our hands.
Arggghhhh! I’ve got to go visit the chickens or something. My knickers are all in a twist.
Thanks for listening.
*I know I have alcohol gel fans in the readership and I don’t believe those were part of the AMA’s concerns. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

How to Make a Mosaic Stepping Stone

Not liking the pre-fab stepping stone options out there, I decided to take matters into my own hands and make one with glass mosaic tile. It’s easy to do using what’s called the “indirect method” in which you press the tiles onto a piece of contact paper. You then use that sheet of tile to cast your new, custom stepping stone.

The first step is to come up with a design, either hand drawn or printed out from the computer. Since you’ll be working in reverse, you flip your design left-right. I chose the mercury, the symbol of transformation (it seemed like a good metaphor for a garden). No need to flip this particular image, of course. When sizing the design I like to keep in mind the size of the tiles I’ll be using so that any lines are about one tile wide.

I transferred the design to a piece of clear contact paper. Next, I taped the contact paper, with the sticky side up. to a piece of melamine coated fiberboard. Melamine is a good material to use because it helps it has a very smooth, even surface and is unlikely to warp. In addition, using melamine for the sides of the mold helps it release more easily. I built this mold out a piece of a discarded Ikea bookshelf.

While I was cutting the bottom piece, I cut four additional small pieces of the bookshelf to form the sides of the mold.The dimensions of these pieces determine the size of your stepping stone. I made a simple box by joining the pieces with screws at the corners. If you wish, you can spray the sides of the mold with WD-40 to help release the mold later. I forgot to do this, but it released fine anyway

For the mosaic itself, I used glass mosaic tile leftover from an old project. The glass picks up reflections and shimmers on a sunny day. The drawback is that it’s pretty expensive. The brand we’ve used in the past is Bisazza. You can also, of course, use broken plates, pebbles, pieces of metal or tile left over from other jobs.

To cut glass tile I use a pair of tile nippers. I like to break the square tiles into four small pieces to simulate the irregular look of ancient mosaics. I wear a pair of safety glasses and do the cutting in a box to keep shards of glass from flying around. I also do this outside or in the garage so little shards of glass don’t end up in our house. Once cut, I press the little tile pieces against the sticky side of the contact paper–face down, or “good side” down.  The sticky paper holds them in place.

When you’re finished sticking all the tiles down, it’s time to mix up some concrete. I used one part Portland cement to three parts builder’s sand. I poured my concrete into the mold and used some chicken wire as reinforcement. I just cut the wire into a rough square that would fit in the mold, poured half the concrete, placed the wire in the mold, then finished the pour. 

Once cast, I put the stepping stone in a garbage bag to slow down the curing process. After a couple of days I carefully removed the mold. One advantage of this technique is that it’s “self-grouting”: the concrete should flow between the tiles during the pour. It worked well, but I will have to do a small amount of grouting to fix a few spots the concrete did not reach.  

You could also use this same reverse method to make designs that could be pressed into a mortar bed when tiling, say, a kitchen or bathroom.

For more garden mosaic ideas see a previous post we did on the subject that includes a link to the stunning pebble mosaic work of Jeffery Bale.

Clean your bathroom without resorting to Poison

We talk about non-toxic housecleaning in almost every lecture we do, and we cover it in both books, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked about cleaning the bathroom on this blog. We did cover how to clean kitchen sink fairly recently, but I’m not sure what else we’ve done.  Of course, I know my regular Root Simple readers are so hardcore they could give me tips in this area, but I thought it would be good to cover non-toxic cleaning for new readers and folks crawling the interwebs for information.

It’s a really, really important topic. There’s no simpler way to remove toxins from your immediate environment than switching out your cleaning supplies. We call this “low hanging fruit.” There’s lots of things in this world that you may not like, but which you can’t control. Housecleaning, however, is totally within your power to change. Cleaning this way also saves you money and cabinet space, reduces plastic waste and not least of all, protects our waters from chemical contamination.

Just say no to chemical warfare in your home.

It all starts with the Holy Trinity of Non Toxic Household Cleaning:

  1. White vinegar*
  2. Baking soda (sodium carbonate)
  3. Liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s

Get yourself these things, some empty spray bottles and rags, and you’re in business. You don’t need anything else.

Prep:

Fill one spray bottle halfway full of white vinegar. Fill it the rest of the way with water. This is your all purpose wipe down spray, aka the 50/50 spray

Take another empty spray bottle and pour about a tablespoon of liquid soap into the bottom. Fill it up with water. This is called “soapy water.”

Yep. This is why we make the big bucks.

That’s it. You’ll find other recipes which are more involved. Some people like to put a squirt of soap in their vinegar water. Sure, why not? Other people make rather elaborate concoctions of a little of this and a little of that. I’ve found that simple is best, because 1) I can’t be bothered to do more and 2) I’m not sure any more elaboration is necessary.

Cleaning ain’t rocket science, and it’s not like I’m prepping my bathroom for surgery. Stuff just needs to be wiped down to remove dust and other surface dirt. Whatever I clean, however I clean it, will get dirty the next time it’s used, so why all the struggle and germ phobia?

All cheap white vinegar is the same, but I like El Pato brand because of the duck on the label. Why doesn’t El Pato make t-shirts?

The vinegar spray is great because it doesn’t leave any residue behind (which soap does), shines up things fairly well, disinfects to some extent because it is an acid, and deodorizes as well. Yes, it smells like vinegar, but you get used to that. You begin to associate that smell with the idea of clean. The scent goes away when it dries, and it takes any lingering odors with it.

The bathroom sink

Work the right side, the left side is yet to be done. See the hard water deposits forming around the base of the faucet? That’s on its way out.

The bathroom sink doesn’t get nearly as dirty as the kitchen sink, at least not in our house. See my post on the kitchen sink* if you have a really grotty sink that needs bleaching. In the bathroom, all I do is spray down the sink with the vinegar/water spray. Generously. Regular use of it will help prevent hard water deposits from forming around the faucets. Spray and wipe. I find using a clean, dry rag gives the best polish to the sink.

If you already have hard water deposits around your faucets or elsewhere, apply full strength vinegar to that area. If it runs off (depends on how your sink is shaped) try soaking rags or paper towels with vinegar and lay those over the deposits. Let the vinegar work its magic for a half hour or so and come back. You should be able to scrub off the deposits now. If you still have trouble, trying applying the vinegar hot.

To clean scummy build-up out of the sink, follow your vinegar wipe-down with a generous sprinkle of baking soda. Scrub with a damp cloth or a nylon sponge. Rinse.

Bathtub/Shower

The advancing line of clean

Here I prefer to use soapy water spray instead of the vinegar spray, though you could try the vinegar. I find that soapy water cuts through soap-scum build up quite well, perhaps because like dissolves like?
To clean our clawfoot tub, what I always do first is spray the whole interior with soapy water, then sprinkle over that a generous coating of baking soda, focusing on the spots that look grungy. I scrub these areas first, using an old nylon net bath puff, which is my favorite tub cleaning tool. A nylon sponge or a rag would work fine, too, though. The secret here is to use not so much soapy water–just enough to wet the surface, not enough to puddle. The baking soda should be just damp when you’re scrubbing with it. If it’s too wet, it’s not effective.

After I scrub the scummy parts, I wipe down the whole tub and rinse.

Note: I have no proof, but I do believe that big brand soaps (and their knockoffs) make more soap scum than natural soaps, and that scum is harder to remove than what’s left behind by natural soaps. They are definitely not good for your skin. When you switch your cleaning products over, switch over your bar soap to a nice, natural soap. Maybe something from the farmers’ market, or maybe even something you make yourself. Or yes, the ubiquitous Dr. Bronner’s is fine, too.

Toilet

Plunging the bowl to reduce water level. Cat heads are not recommended for plunging, as they are not bristly enough.

First thing I do is start scrubbing the bowl with the toilet brush, just using the bowl water. It’s amazing how much plain water and a scrub brush can do. I plunge as I scrub, with the goal of lowering the level of the water in the bowl down to a minimum. If you can’t make this happen by scrubbing & plunging, then pour a bucket of water in the bowl–that will lower the water level, too.

That first scrub takes care of a lot of the basic build up. Next, soak the bottom of the bowl in straight vinegar to remove stains and the-lord-knows-what that collects down there. Take that big cheap gallon jug of vinegar and refill the bowl to the usual water line with a couple of cups of vinegar. I like to pour the vinegar all around the sides of bowl to give those surfaces a good antiseptic dousing. Then let the vinegar sit at the bottom of the bowl for about a half hour. When you come back, give a final swish and flush.

While the vinegar is doing its work in the bowl, spray the entire toilet from top to bottom–back, lid, seat, base– with the 50/50 vinegar water, and then wipe it down with a rag. This is plenty sufficient to clean those parts, and if you have a seat/lid that shows water spots (like ours, because it’s black) just be sure to wipe those parts dry and you’ll have no spots.

If you have rust stains under the rim, pure vinegar (how did you guess I’d say that?) will help. Soak paper towels or rags in vinegar and plaster them under the rim and leave them as long as you can. When you come back, you should be able to scrub those stains away. Lemon juice would also work well.

Vinegar soaked rags under the rim, working on the rust stains. Apologies for the terrible picture!

Mirror

Because I’m way too lazy to make up a different formula or even pick up a different spray bottle, I use the 50/50 vinegar spray on the bathroom mirror. Spray on, buff off with a dry cloth. Works fine. Same goes for our mystery metal Ikea garbage can.

(Amendment as per Donna’s comment below: I should say that you can clean your mirrors with water alone. Donna also recommends newspaper for polishing, which is a fine technique. All in all, you just need to get windows or mirrors slightly wet, then polish them with whatever you have on hand that is clean and dry. I use the vinegar spray because it is a handy moisture delivery device.)

Floor

Again, all you need is vinegar–about a half cup in a bucket of hot water, or more like a full cup for a big bucket or a dirtier job. Mop. No rinsing required. I use this on tile, linoleum, vinyl flooring and even, with a barely damp mop, wood floors.

If I’m in an expansive mood I’ll add a few drops of essential oil to the bucket so I can Sniff n’ Mop.

* Warning Regarding Vinegar: Vinegar is apparently not recommended for use on stone surfaces–like granite counter tops or stone composite floors. I don’t have any personal experience with these surfaces, but I’ve read that this is so. Vinegar is a mild acid (5%), and acid can etch stone. It’s hard to imagine vinegar etching stone, especially when diluted, but it’s best to be cautious. The effects might build up over time. As always, ask the manufacturer of the stone surface, if you can.

Also, if you leave full strength vinegar on a finished metal surface for long enough, you might end up dulling it. I’ve never had a problem wiping down my fixtures and appliances with 50/50 blend, but once I soaked a sink head in a bag of hot vinegar overnight. My goal was to remove mineral deposits in the faucet. It worked, but it also dulled the head of the faucet. You can always rinse your faucets off after cleaning with vinegar, just to be sure. Rinse with water and then dry with a cloth and you’ll have no spots. Until someone uses the sink.

* I just realized that I posted that “how to clean your sink” post exactly one year ago to the day. Something about Feb. 13th makes me think about cleaning, apparently. Must be my romantic nature.

Phoebe, the implacable bathroom supervisor, says “Scrub, you lazy swab! Damn your eyes!” 

Make a Brigid’s Cross

A little cross hanging on our chicken coop

Spring is here. In LA, it’s definitely in full swing, but I suspect even in more northerly places folks may notice a slight change in the air, or find early flowers like snowdrops or crocuses pushing their way through the snow. Spring is stirring.

To celebrate spring this year, I made a few Brigid’s crosses to hang in the house and out on the chicken coop. They’re protective symbols, intended to ward off both evil and fire. Who doesn’t need that, I ask you? And it’s fun to put some fresh decorations up to counterbalance the post-holiday doldrums.

These symbols can be interpreted as Christian crosses, but they also have a definite pagan sun-wheel feel to them (energy circling around and around). Brigid herself did double-duty as a pagan goddess of smiths, poets and healers and later as a patron saint of…smiths, poets and healers.

Wikipedia says the symbol was unrecorded before the 17th century, so who really knows where it came from. (Shades of Spinal Tap!: No one knew who they were or what they were doing…)

But what the hay. St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, and the cross-quarter holiday of Imbolc, which marks the coming of spring, is celebrated around the 2nd. I think this weekend would be excellent time to make a few Brigid’s crosses for fun and luck.

A proper reed cross

They’re super-easy to make. Just go the Fish Eaters site for very clear weaving directions. Traditionally they are made out of reeds or long pieces of straw. I had neither, so I used some broom corn*, which didn’t result in a symmetrical effect that reeds give, but is sort of cute in its own way.  (FYI for you southerners: I tried palm fronds first, but they were too slippery. And seeing me trying to weave with them gave Erik flashbacks to Sunday school!)

*No, I haven’t made my broom yet! I’m hung-up on getting some nylon cordage in a decent color. For some reason our hardware store only stocks it in florescent shades.

How to Plan a Vegetable Garden

Today I did the unthinkable and made good on one of my many New Years resolutions: I planned our 128 square foot vegetable garden a year in advance. Here’s how I did it:

Identifying Seasons
Using an Ecology Action pamphlet as my guide, Learning to Grow All Your Own Food: A One-Bed Model For Compost, Diet and Income Crops, I divided the year into three seasons. Most of you reading this blog probably have two: a cool season and a warm season. Here in Los Angeles we have:

  • warm: April-July
  • hot and dry: July-October
  • cool: October-March

Picking Planting Dates
Using the handy Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule I chose planting dates (in April, mid-summer and Septmber/October) for each season and marked them down on my Stella Natura calendar. I identified the vegetables I’d like to grow choosing only those veggies that have done well in the past and that we like to eat.

A planning form from Ecology Action

Deciding How Much to Plant
To decide how much to plant I rely on the charts in John Jeavons’ book  How to Grow More Vegetables. I took his three day Biointensive gardening class early last year and recommend it highly, especially for learning how to use the, at first, intimidating charts in the book. Jeavons handed out a handy planning form during the class that works with the tables in the book to help organize your garden. With experience, I also now have an idea about how many square feet of, say, lettuce it takes to keep me and Kelly in salad for a season. While not everyone likes Jeavons, I can say that my best years in our vegetable garden have been when I follow his methods (minus frequent double digging).

Planting Compost Crops
Jeavons stresses the importance of learning how to grow your own compost and fertilizer. I adapted the food/compost ratios suggested in the Ecology Action pamphlet to match our climate. Instead of growing a big winter compost crop (Ecology Action is in cooler Northern California) I decided to treat the late summer/early fall as our “winter”. Growing vegetables in the hot, dry late summer here in Southern California is, frankly, a pain in the ass and water intensive. It’s a time when I’d rather just take a break from vegetable gardening and just grow a bunch of drought tolerant sunflowers, amaranth, cowpeas etc. On the other hand, winter here is the best time to grow all those cool season crops like lettuce and arugula. Using Ecology Action’s suggestions I came up with a compost/food growing ratio:

  • spring/summer – 33.3% food, 66.7% compost
  • summer/fall 100% compost
  • fall/winter 66.7% food, 33.3% compost

The compost crops will reduce my gardening workload, build fertility and assure that there’s always something growing and no sun-baked bare soil.

Apologies for a Southern Californiacentric post, but you can use the same process to identify dates and how much seed you need for any climate. In fact, if you know of a good vegetable planting schedule for your climate please leave a link in the comments.

Update: Scott left a link for readers in Texas. The Texas A&M Extension Service has a vegetable planting guide here.

And meansoybean left a link for vegetable gardeners in Montreal which you can see here.  

Thanks to Hak, here’s Southern Nevada

Kristen sent one for all of the US based on your USDA zone here.

How to Keep that Christmas Tree Fresh

Photo from WSU

 
Washington State horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott, has a podcast “Last minute advice about Christmas trees and other fun stuff” that details more than you’ll ever want to know about how to keep a Christmas tree fresh in the house. And, yes, it’s been studied. Apparently WSU has a Christmas Tree expert: Dr. Gary Chastagner, seen above counting dry needles.

How to Memorize Numbers

Giordano Bruno’s insanely elaborate memory system.

Yesterday we introduced an ancient memory system that can be handy for learning all those new urban homesteading skills. Today I’ll briefly discuss a way to use a related mnemonic called the Major System for committing strings of numbers to memory.

To use the Major System you first memorize a set of consonants that represent 0 through 9. From Wikipedia, here’s a table of the Major System consonants and a set of mnemonics with which to remember them:

Numeral Associated Consonants Mnemonic
0 s, z, soft c “z” is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.
1 d, t d & t have one downstroke and sound similar (some variant systems include “th”)
2 n n has two downstrokes
3 m M has three downstrokes and looks like a “3” on its side
4 r last letter of four, also 4 and R are almost mirror images of each other
5 l L is the Roman Numeral for 50
6 j, sh, soft “ch”, dg, zh, soft “g” a script j has a lower loop / g is almost a 6 flipped over
7 k, hard c, hard g, hard “ch”, q, qu capital K “contains” two sevens
8 f, v script f resembles a figure-8. V sounds similar. (some variant systems include th)
9 b, p p is a mirror-image 9. b sounds similar and resembles a 9 rolled around
Unassigned Vowel sounds, w,h,y These can be used anywhere without changing a word’s number value

So, for example, to memorize the number “1795” you start with the first two numbers “17”. Let’s say 1 = “d” and 7=”g”. Next add a vowel of your choice, say “o” to make “dog“. “17” now is a dog.  For the 95 let’s say 9 = “b” and 5 = “l” to make “ball”. You now have a dog playing with a ball that you can put into a room in your memory palace. For a longer strings of numbers it’s best to “chunk” them into groups of four to make them more manageable.

This is beyond the amount of time I’m willing to put into this, but you can also commit to memory 100 images to represent double digit numbers between 00 and 99 to be able to memorize longer numbers faster.

Iron Sulfate as a Concrete Stain

My concrete Platonic solids stained with iron sulfate.

I’m not a big fan of concrete in the garden. It raises soil alkalinity (a problem for us, here in the Southwestern US) and it prevents rain from infiltrating into the ground. That being said, concrete is occasionally useful and/or unavoidable.

But I also don’t like the color of bare concrete, nor can I afford the high price of concrete stains. Thankfully there’s a cheap way to stain concrete with iron sulfate, a mineral supplement you can get at nurseries in the Western US (it can be harder to find elsewhere, but Amazon caries it).

Iron Sulfate gives concrete a pleasing, rust colored stain. I recently ended up with a bunch of patio pavers that I stained with iron sulfate in a concrete mixing tray using about a quarter cup per gallon of water. You can also mop it on. Varying the strength of the iron sulfate/water solution you use will increase or decrease the intensity of the stain. Remember that there’s no going back, though. Once stained you can’t get it out.

For more info about iron sulfate as a concrete stain see How I Stained my Concrete Floor.

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 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!