Thursday, April 30, 2009

Homemade Product Evangelizing

I am having an imaginary conversation in my head with a good friend of mine. I had just given her a jar of my homemade laundry soap and was telling her how to make more, if she likes it.

She said, "Grating that bar of soap sounds like a lot of work."

We couldn't finish our conversation because her kids were climbing on our heads, so I'll finish it now.

It takes about thirty seconds to grate a bar of soap. Compare that to hauling a huge box of laundry soap home at least once a month. What if you could buy a few simple, basic, safe, inexpensive ingredients once a year and have everything you need to clean your house?

Compare a few minutes of grating or mixing to hauling boxes of laundry soap, softener, dishwashing detergent, counter spray, oven cleaner, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner, shampoo, conditioner, bath soap, and deodorant?

What if you didn't have to haul all that stuff around in a grocery cart, wait in line to pay for it, load it in the car, haul it into the house and then find room to store it at your house? What if you didn't have to haul the empty boxes and bottles to the trash?

I know you're busy, my good friend, with kids and all. But this is easier, not harder. When have you ever known me not to take the easy way out when it comes to housework?

I'm just saying.

Best Homemade Shampoo and Conditioner

There are all sorts of recipes out there for all- natural, homemade shampoos and conditioners. I'd say, off-hand there are about eleventy million of them. I would hazard to say I've tried them all. Why, when so many commercial versions are available, in all price-points, from super-industrial better-living-through-chemistry types, to supposedly all-natural, are so many people interested in making their own? Before I hazard a guess, let me list the versions I've tried:

1. Skipping shampoo, also known as no-poo. Ha ha. Slightly funny name. Allegedly, after anywhere from six weeks to six months, hair and scalp readjust and find their natural equilibrium. Maybe that does happen. I don't know since I start looking more than a bit feral after about a week. And that's as long as I've made it. A less radical version is to use only conditioner. This makes sense because commercial conditioners contain a small amount of surfactant which allows them to rinse out. So using conditioner only is like using just a tiny bit of shampoo. Of course, whatever it is that people are trying to avoid in shampoo is still present in conditioner plus some other stuff we might want to avoid.

2. Wheatgrass juice -- Hair smells lovely and fairly clean, skin feels great. But a big pain to make a fresh batch each day (it doesn't store more than a day or so in the fridge), and unless you grow your own wheatgrass, it costs about $4/day. And how do you wash your hair when you travel?

3. Various fruit juices, like orange or grapefruit -- smells nice, but that's about it.

4. Soapwort -- I grew my own for awhile and it did make a nice shampoo but then a freeze killed it all off and it didn't come back. Plus, same problems as with all fresh concoctions. You must make a fresh batch every day and then what do you do when you travel?

5. Honey -- a terrible choice, that some people are curiously in love with. It does smell nice and feel nice. It rinses out fairly easily, but never seems to get my hair very clean. And honey is a humectant. It draws water to it. That's why it's a common ingredient in homemade skin products. The last thing we want is to for our hair to be waterlogged. That's called frizzy hair.

So why the search for homemade, natural shampoos? Because virtually all commercial shampoos contain skin irritants. Seriously. Even the so called natural ones. Even if they claim to be all vegetable derived. And because they really do strip hair of natural oils, so we have to replace them with bizarre lab-produced oils, including the most common and favored conditioning ingredient, silicone and silicone derivatives. Which are seriously hard to wash out of hair. So we use harsh shampoos. Which strips our hair. And so on.

I have two other reasons to want a homemade shampoo. I have the most sensitive scalp on earth. So does Widget Man and so does Widget Man's mom. Anything with sodium laurel sulfate or its vicious relatives immediately makes our scalps break out. Even the most "natural" shampoos eventually get us.

Reason number two is I hate throwing away shampoo bottles. What good is clean hair if I also create a filthy earth?

So here's the recipe. It's so simple I'm embarrassed it took me so long to try it. I've been testing it for a month because I didn't believe anything so simple (and inexpensive) could really work.

In a bottle, mix about 1 part baking soda to 5 parts water. You want a thin slurry.

In another bottle, mix about 1 part vinegar to 1 part water.

In the shower, shake baking soda and water to remix. Squirt a generous amount onto scalp. Wait a bit, then rinse.

Now squirt vinegar over scalp and through hair. Rinse. That's it.

The baking soda removes dirt and excess oil, without stripping. And the vinegar restores the hair's acid balance. You may want a little coconut oil on the ends of hair if you have long or dry hair.

Some recipes call for a thick paste of baking soda and scrubbing it into the scalp. Personally, I think that's too abrasive and not necessary.

A Perpetual Greens Bed

This is a dedicated raw greens bed -- every few weeks I sprinkle some kind of seed that grows edible greens -- various kinds of red and green leaf lettuces, mache, Chinese greens, herbs like cilantro, dill, and basil.  As we get into hotter weather, hardier greens like collards and New Zealand spinach will start sprouting.

I treat all these greens as cut-and-come-again plants, always cutting from the outer leaves and leaving the growing centers intact.

We have lots of volunteers too.

I can't think of anything more useful for a home garden, except maybe tomatoes.  There's just no comparison between the weeks-old bagged lettuce mixes and the minutes-old lettuces from a garden.  It's so easy and we have plenty of greens for huge salads with every single dinner, sandwich fillings, and green smoothies.

Ruby Chard

Chard is one of those great cut-and-come-again greens.  Remove outer leaves, avoiding the growing center, and the plant seems to last forever.

This is the first time I've planted it so I don't know when it will bolt, or die, or be attacked by summer bugs.

I read in another gardening blog that in their mild-ish, northern-ish climate, chard just goes on and on.  We'll see what it does here.

Why Is This Spinach Still Alive?

Now this is strange.  Should I still be eating lots and lots of tender young spinach at the end of April?  Shouldn't it have turned stringy and tough by now?  Bolted and gone to seed?  Been shredded by some insect?  Fried in the afternoon sun?

And yet, here it is.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Bluebonnets have been a bit sparse this year.  I guess the rains came too late.

Still, lovely.

At Last, an Artichoke!

I planted this artichoke last summer.  What a huge, gorgeous, spiky plant.  Really, if you have a sunny ornamental bed, this is the perfect plant to begin integrating edibles with.  

So far, it's been a tough plant too -- living in heavy clay, highly alkaline soil, surviving a drought, freezes, and a hail storm.

And now, at last, a delicious, edible flower is forming.

First Fruits

After an odd April which has been both perilous (two late season freezes and a freak hail storm) and luscious (several rains in the midst of a long drought) the tomatoes are looking great.  There's fruit on about half the plants and four or five blooms on all of them.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009

This is what the new garden space looked like last week, before I tilled. That's two foot tall native grass, that I suspect has never been cultivated. Ever.

I rented a tiller and Widget Man and I took turns going over and over and over this bit of land. We followed the suggestions in Gardening When It Counts for breaking up deep sod: First mow, then 1) run the tiller down the middle of the patch of land, 2) scoot the tiller over about 1 inch, so that it tilts slightly and can dig in a bit deeper, 3) walk the tiller down this new path, one inch over from the old one, 4) move the tiller over an inch, again, 5) repeat, repeat, repeat until you've covered the entire section you plan to plant, one inch at a time, 6) start the whole process over again, this time crossways from the direction you started, 7) re-till the whole area, in one inch wide sections, 8)repeat as necessary

I am not sure if I am able to convey just how slow, noisy, and bone-rattling a process this is. Unbroken sod is tough stuff. I rented the heaviest duty tiller I could find, but our sod was its master. Really, for this tough, grass-matted, deep rooted sod, I needed a team of good strong oxen. About four hours later, we'd managed to break up the sod and dig in four or so inches deep. Our wrists were buzzing with some weird electrical impulse apparently set off by the vibrations of the tiller. Our elbows and shoulders throbbed.

A lot of work, but the soil looked pretty good, and is surprisingly deep for this area. It's a little bit heavy, but compost will help with that. Like most people I know who garden, I usually follow some version of a no-till, square foot, or mulch layer system, in order to avoid disturbing the soil's capillary system, the happy micro-bugs inside the soil, earth worms, and what have you. That is, rather than dig deep into the soil, we just add new nutrients, like compost and mulch, to the top, or dig in shallowly.

So I hope never, ever, to till this plot again. I hope, seriously and prayerfully, that in the future, I'll just be able to add compost, composted manure, and mulch, and dig it in by hand.

After we finished tilling, I built these berms, about four feet wide, by hand, with a shovel. It took the better part of a day to do the whole thing.

This is the first time I've tried gardening directly in the ground in this area. What a pleasure it is to be able to easily kneel right next to the bed, instead of trying to stretch over the bed walls.

With the berms, I've got about two feet of nice, rich, soft soil. Time will tell how well this system works.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Texas Wants to Kill You

I looking for some tape to wrap a package for the mail. I found it in my desk drawer. I also found this innocuous looking spider stuck to the tape.

"Look," I said to Widget Man, "What a terrible way for this poor spider to die."

He looked at the spider. He looked more closely.

"Put it down. Now, " he said.

He seemed alarmed so I did. I put it right on down, fast. I've grown up in Texas. I am familiar with the traditional farewell of Texas mothers as their children go outside to play: You kids watch out for snakes.

And the traditional greeting when they return from play: You kids go check for ticks.

And the traditional beginning ritual for swimming in rivers: You kids stay out of those rapids.

I've been bitten by scorpions, several times. My Dad regularly killed rattlesnakes with a garden shovel or hoe. My Mom was chased by some semi-feral hogs when she was pregnant with my little sister.

I lived for twenty years in a city, where I pretty much stopped worrying about scorpions, rattlesnakes, feral hogs, and river rapids. So it was good to know my instincts were still functioning enough to know that when someone says, "Put it down. Now," in an ominous voice, I put it down. Now.

Because the next thing Widget Man said was, "It's a Brown Recluse. And it's still alive."

Brown Recluse spiders are second only to Black Widow spiders in their reputation for pain-inflicting, dangerous venom. My little sister survived an in-utero pig attack only to be bitten by a Brown Recluse some nine years later and have a golf ball-sized divot of flesh removed as a result.

Funny, I had just finished nudging it with my little finger to see if I could release it from the tape, and it hadn't moved. I must have awakened it, because as soon as I put it down, it started wiggling like crazy. It was, indeed, still alive.

Aw, a happy ending.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Slow Compost

My approach to making compost is pretty relaxed:

1) Find a corner of the garden where I intend to make a new bed.

2) Start piling leaves, grass, coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps on that corner.

3) When I'm ready to make that new bed, move the top layer, which is still undecomposed, to a new spot, and start a new pile.

It always used to frustrate me that the spot where I was making compost was the most fertile place in the garden. With this method, I take advantage of that great fertility.

But gardening books act like compost making is some complicated science, involving turning, watering, layering green and brown, measuring the temperature of the compost. Maybe it is. My current favorite gardening book, Gardening When It Counts, claims that homemade compost, made carelessly, is often pretty nutrient poor.

Very discouraging.

But, I finally found someone, an experienced gardener, to support my relaxed attitude towards compost. Felder Rushing, the host of The Gestalt Gardener, is very, very relaxed about gardening and all its aspects, including making compost. He makes piles of stuff and lets nature take its course. He scorns overcomplicated, instant gratification approaches to gardening. Finally, someone to take on Type A gardening taskmasters!

The article is a great read. So read it, here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Cilantro That Ate My Garden

This cool spring we've been having has resulted in cilantro that wants to conquer the world. Or at least a few corners of my garden.

This crazy cilantro hive is about 4X5 and was at least 3&1/2 feet tall before I hacked it back. (Note to self: Wouldn't it be nice to own a machete?)

Currently, 12 trays of cilantro are drying in the dehydrator, and when I get around to it, I'll make some cilantro pesto to freeze. (Note to self: get around to it soon.)

There's another patch, in another bed, that's threatening to take over as well.

This time last year, the cilantro had already grown wan and tired in the heat, and had used its last bit of energy to bolt and go to seed. What's up, Mother Nature? A cool spring in Central Texas?

Going Halfsies

Last night, in the throes of insomnia, I watched a Suzie Orman special. She was talking to some people who had lost jobs, their savings, and were about to lose their houses. It was heartbreaking. These were not exceptionally careless people. Many of them had substantial savings, and some even had reasonable mortgages and credit card bills. But they'd been hit by a perfect storm.

One piece of advice she had for people not yet in a crisis but worried about the future was to cut expenses to half of income. You should have seen these folks' expressions: fear, terror, and disbelief.

I get it. A few months ago, I'd never have imagined that it was possible to cut expenses back that hard without experiencing immense suffering. And surely there are many people for whom this is just not possible -- those already struggling on minimum wage jobs, for example.

But here's the surprising thing. I just recently was filling out some forms in which I had to estimate monthly expenses. I almost fell over when I realized how much our expenses had dropped since I started to get serious about this homesteading/huswifery thing -- almost, but not quite, by half.

And expenses dropped without immense suffering. Without any suffering at all. In fact, this has really been a joyfilled experiment.

Like so many things in my life, this lowering of expenses has been more or less accidental. It is a pleasant side of the pleasure of growing and making things myself. I wonder what could happen if I cut expenses on purpose?

Fifteen Year Old Leeks

I was at my Dad's, helping him in his garden, and looked across at an ajoining field. I noticed a strange patch of bright green among the winter grasses -- about three feet wide and 20 feet long.

"What's that green patch?" I asked Dad.

"Oh, I planted those leeks about fifteen years ago. I was going to expand the garden but never got around to it."

How many leeks had he planted fifteen years ago? Oh, he answered, about five or six.

Now this is an uncultivated field in central Texas -- hard packed caliche, scrubby mesquite, subject to frequent droughts, floods, fire ants, and all manner of things that want to kill you. If it were good soil, believe me, someone would have already cultivated it.

But apparently, leeks are like multiplier onions, if left in the ground, at least in our climate. And apparently, they can grow in cement-like caliche, without water or fertilizer. And, this is the most amazing thing of all -- deer don't like them. Seriously, this is astonishing, since this summer some deer started snacking on the needle-like tips of my varigated agave. This is the same plant that native peoples used to make needles that could pierce leather. And deer think this is a snack.

So, yes, I'd say leeks are pretty hardy.

I dug up a dozen or so, planted them in my garden, and hope to have a perennial leek patch of my own.

Eggs Poached in Chili, with Greens

I started making this dish a couple of years ago and we have it almost every week. It's based on Spanish and Mexican cooking, but I can't remember where I first tried it.

There's no recipe -- just something more like steps, or guidelines. Suggestions, really.

Start with a bunch of greens. Make it a lot. More than you think you need. Chop, then saute them with or without onions, tomatoes, or other chopped veggies.

Meanwhile, in a blender, add rehydrated chilis. Use mild chilis like poblano or ancho. Add something hotter, like chipotle (which is dried jalepeno) according to taste. Alternatively, you can use dried chili powders instead of rehydrated, whole dried chilis.

Add a little bit of tomato from some source (dried and rehydrated, canned, or fresh) to make a sauce. Don't add too much -- this is a chili based sauce and the tomato should not predominate.

Add broth, if it's handy.

Season to taste with salt and lots of comino (also known as cumin).

Blend until smooth.

Add sauce to pan and simmer until greens are tender.

Make several little wells in the greens and drop in raw eggs. Put lid on pan and poach the eggs until they're done enough for you. Obviously you need enough sauce in the pan for the eggs to slightly float. So thin the sauce with water or broth, if necessary.

Top with grated cheese, chopped herbs, and corn tortillas, if you like.

This is our emergency, fast food dish -- when we're tired, forgot to take something out of the freezer, want something warm and comforting, didn't plan ahead. It takes about ten minutes, total.

Texas Orchid Tree

This gorgeous thing, the Texas Orchid Tree, grows snugged right up under a cedar tree at the edge of a perenial native garden I planted a few years ago. It blooms like its life depends on it every year and needs almost no care.

So beautiful.

Zombie Kale, Part II

Here's how the kale harvest went:

It was a bumper crop, sure. Four plants, from which I mercilessly harvested leaves all winter long, still yielded a laundry basket full of greens. The stems were about three inches in diameter. A couple of the plants were situated right up against the irrigation system Widget Man built for me, so I just cut them off right at the soil.

Then I turned my back for about five minutes. This is what happened.

Kale rose from the dead.

Zombie Kale, Part I

Gardening When It Counts likes the thought experiment. You know, the author likes to ask questions like, "What if I no longer was able to irrigate my garden? What could I grow in my climate?"

Or: "What if had to create a garden with no outside input? If I had no access to any kind of garden nutrients created outside of my own homestead? What could I grow?"

Or: "What if I had one season to grow all the food my family was going to eat that year, and was starting a garden from scratch? What should I grow?"

The answer to the first two questions is probably, 1) cacti and stinging nettle, and 2) for just about everyone, not really possible long term, although we can greatly reduce our outside input.

I need do no further research to answer the third question. Kale will just not stop growing. It doesn't care about the weather; it thrives with only the tiniest sips of water; it's not picky about soil.
We had mountains of kale all winter long, cooked in every concievable way.

I heard on the Natural Gardener that you should clear out all cruciferous veggies by March 1, or various kinds of cruciferous-loving bugs will overrun the garden. So I did.

Here's my harvest.

I blanched and froze I-don't-know-how-many bags of kale.

By the way, look closely and you can see a small cabbage peeking out from underneath the kale -- the last one of the season.

But the kale wasn't finished with me yet. Oh, no. See Part II for Son of Kale.