DIY: Olive Oil Lamps

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Now why on earth would you make a homemade olive oil lamp, you ask? Because it is a surprisingly delightful and easy project that adds beauty to an otherwise normal and uneventful day.  At least that was my reason.

Several of us in my household are chemically sensitive to fragrance and perfume, but we love to light candles on our porch for special gatherings.  We made our own beeswax candles for fun last fall that turned out great and made lovely holiday gifts (still need to create that blog post!).

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So having another DIY option of creating a clean-burning, fire-lit glow to turn an otherwise seemingly normal hour into an enchanted occasion was appreciated by both me and my kids today.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been experimenting with projects from Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen.  Included in the book was a simple DIY olive oil lamp.  Before I outline the steps for how to make your own, let’s first look at how oil lamps historically came to be a vital addition to our ancestors’ daily lives.

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History of Oil Lamps: 

The first lamps used by early humans were made from shells, hollow rocks and other materials to hold mosses soaked in animal fat, which they would ignite.  This allowed them to extend and better control the length of time a fire burned.  Oil lamps later used in Egypt, Greece and Rome are considered some of the first mass produced manmade products in history.  Lamp fuel was created with olive oil, sesame oil, fish oil, whale oil and beeswax, and this design remained until the 18th century.  These basic lamps were used for practical purposes in the home, as well as for religious rituals and ceremonies. “Ancient Egyptians lit thousands of oil lamps in temples, their homes and public places during the ceremony called Liknokaia in honor of goddess Naiff. They used oil lamps to illuminate statues of the gods, as did the Greeks. Romans lit the oil lamps before prayers to symbolize Vesta, goddess of home. In Judaism, burning an oil lamp symbolized lighting the way for the righteous and the wise. In Christianity it symbolized eternal life and God himself. Lamps were lit when a church was constructed and, ideally, would burn from that moment forever. In Islam, the oil lamp was used as a parable for God. Hinduism also used oil lamps in rituals as methods of illumination and symbols.” [1]

Why does fire remain alluring to us today?

Today, despite electricity in every home, we continue to use fires with candles to make an occasion, meal or gathering feel sacred.  This is something that seems intuitive to all humans, whether we’ve consciously considered why or not.

Try this experiment. Without a word of explanation, add an oil lamp or candle to your next dinner.  Whether you are alone, joined by your children, friends or significant others, I predict there will be an unspoken understanding that you have created space for something special to take place within the time the candle burns until it is extinguished.  And that you and others will be a little less likely to check your phones during the meal.  I speculate that all of this will occur because of the simple act of lighting a match and keeping a flame present for a set length of time.

I have seen this happen in my own home.  My children are homeschooled, and each week on Tuesdays we hold our Poetry Tea Time.  The weekly hour consists of hot tea, snacks, reading poetry together, and always lighting a candle before we begin.  Poetry Tea Time, introduced to us by the brilliant Julie Bogart of the literary program Brave Writer, is hands down my kids’ favorite ritual that we honor each week.  It is the only scheduled activity that I have never heard a word of protest over (and we do a lot of cool stuff that does get protested from time to time).  I am guessing neither the poetry, nor the snacks, nor the tea are individually the reason why this time together is so mutually enjoyed. My hunch is that what we all enjoy is the fact that we have made this one hour feel important and exceptional, and that a large part of why we all understand and cherish it as honored time together is because of the very simple flame we include at the middle of our table.

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What you will need for your DIY Oil Lamp:

A Shallow Container: I used a small oven-safe dish, but others have used shells, jar lids, china saucers.

A Wick: I happened to have leftover candle wicks from our beeswax candle project, but you can use anything from twine to shoelaces to fabric from an old piece of clothing.

The Fuel: Authors Coyne and Knutzen recommend olive oil for the fuel, and that is what we used because we always have it on hand for soap-making.  It is a good choice because it burns slowly without smoke or odor.

Fill the dish and submerge your wick with a small 1/2 inch piece remaining above the oil.  A dish the size of mine at the top of this post can easily last through a meal – ours looked just as it had upon lighting it at the end of an hour.  You can always add oil to the container though if you notice it running low.

Light and enjoy.  (And of course use common fire safety sense.)

 

 

 

DIY: Tea Tree Oil Shower Spray

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I’m sharing a simple recipe today for a DIY tea tree oil household spray that I’ve been using the past week or so. It inhibits the growth of mildew and molds, so if you’re interested in learning simple ways to use fewer chemicals and still have good cleaning results, read on.

The recipe I’m using is from the book Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen, but there are variations of this spray easily found on Pinterest and other websites. I’m trying to focus on Coyne & Knutzen’s recipes as continuing education for our urban yardstead this month and hope to share the ones I like as I find time to try them in the weeks ahead.  So let’s jump in!

What is Tea Tree?

Tea tree, also called Melaleuca, has powerful antiseptic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory properties for both treating wounds and killing household grime like mold and mildew. It comes from Australia’s native plant Melaleuca alternifolia and has been used for at least 100 years for a variety of purposes documented in numerous studies to date.

While Tea Tree oil can be a useful addition to your first aid kit, I’m going to focus purely on its use as a household product ingredient today. The recipe below is for an easy mildew and mold prevention spray for bathroom shower walls, but hopefully later posts will give me the chance to check out some of its other uses, including an anti-microbial addition to homemade laundry detergent, homemade insect repellent, homemade natural deodorant, and face wash to help acne. *Note that nothing I’m listing is for internal use, as tea tree oil is toxic when ingested.

Recipe

The recipe the Coyne & Knutzen book offered is a bit different than what I ended up using with good results. The book suggests 1 tablespoon of tea tree oil for every cup of water you use. I used about 1 teaspoon for the whole bottle and chose to mix it with vinegar, mostly because I’m stingy and essential oils are expensive. Vinegar offers its own natural cleaning benefits as well.

If you already have mildew in your shower, you’ll need to use good old fashioned elbow grease with an abrasive agent to scrub it off prior to using this spray. After you’ve cleaned well, the spray should be helpful in preventing re-growth if you douse the shower walls with it regularly.  It’s become part of my routine to spray the walls and floor each day.

Materials you will need:

Tea Tree Oil (any brand is fine, but make sure the ingredients listed include only 100% Melaleuca alternifolia essential oil).

Tea tree ingredients
Simple spray bottle
White Vinegar
Warm Water

  • Fill your water bottle half way with water and the remaining half with white vinegar.
  • Add 1 tsp of tea tree oil

Shake before each use and spray generously on shower walls or anywhere prone to mildew or mold.

Pretty easy!

Let me know if you try it and what you think.

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My attempt at drawing the tea tree plant. They have fuzzy flowers and skinny leaves that remind me of Rosemary.

Springtime on the Urban Yardstead 🌱

 

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The most magical season for our yardstead is spring. Now that everything is in full bloom in Texas, and before the chiggers and mosquitos realize how nice and warm it’s getting, it’s time to get out in the yarden and plant all of those yummy veggies and fruits for harvesting this summer. What do you have growing or planned for your yarden this year?

Before we dig into what’s growing at my house, I want to start this post off with a disclaimer:

I am by no means an expert at growing my own food. I’m probably somewhere between a novice and intermediate level yardsteader at best (and that’s only because I lived next to my great-grandmother for three years in my twenties and got to take a lot of directions from her), and pretty much 50% of everything I plant myself still dies an untimely death that makes me feel really bad about myself for a short spell. So please keep in mind, if you’re debating whether or not your thumb is green enough for these activities, we are truly in this together. I just happen to document my efforts.

So how do we (you & I) grow from typical grocery-store-shopping-urban-home-dwellers to more self-sufficent-sustainable-satisfied-yardsteaders? How do we go from kind of sucking at all of this stuff to one day becoming sustainably self-sufficient on a .5 acre of land or less? Well for starters, we (you & I) don’t learn it all overnight. We will read a lot, and, most importantly, play at doing it badly, year after year, from which spot of the yard we choose to grow our yarden, what we plant, how we water, how we prepare what we cultivate, how we share what we create, etc… And each year, we will get a little bit better, and suck a little bit less, than the year before.  RESILIENCE at it’s finest!

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And what a great cause to practice failing at annually, right? Headlines every day remind us that it is more important than ever before to “know” our food and ensure that it’s not causing us to grow extra limbs and eyes or making us, our kids and future grandkids very sick. Headlines like the one I read yesterday morning for instance, informing me that a chemical and pharmaceutical giant now controls over 25% of the food system’s seed and pesticide market, make me happy I’m starting this learning process now instead of later.

The good news is that regardless of how proficient we end up, all of us urban dwellers can fairly easily become more self-sufficient when it comes to the food we eat, without a lot of extra expense, and with a considerable amount of satisfaction and fun to gain, from however much or little effort we can or want to offer. And we can opt out wherever possible of buying those foods we know have been compromised for profit at the cost of  collective health.

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With all that in the background of our minds, let’s hop into my family’s yardstead and see what’s growing in 2018:

We have our herb bed from last year that we created with cinder blocks and a squirrel cover (that was formerly our baby chick run last year – it’s always fun to see how things get repurposed on the yardstead with different projects that come up) where we are growing our favorites: basil, thyme, sage, oregano, lemon balm and rosemary.  You can see this picture from last year has a few other veggies in it, but it will give you the basic design idea.

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And for a new adventure, we started a self-watering 5-gallon bucket vegetable yarden that I am super excited about. My great uncle Roger used to grow tomatoes year round in 5 gallon buckets on his front porch, so this project called out to me for reasons of nostalgia and convenience!

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I won’t go into the creation process for the self-watering container, because it is already detailed very nicely here by Learn and Grow.  But do check it out and see if it would work well for your home space. And just to give a shout out to their work, something I love about this site is that they offer a free curriculum to go with this project for kids in grades K-12, which is music to this homeschooling mama’s ears!

The curriculum and site do a great job reminding us all that food security is our most valuable resource to protect – something that’s easy to forget with huge grocery stores in every neighborhood and grocery delivery services available in pretty much every urban area right now (Side note confession: Grocery delivery services are my favorite thing in the entire world right now, so I’m not knocking it, just acknowledging it).

With all the modern day conveniences, it’s easy to disconnect from our food quickly and forget how vulnerable we become as a species when we entrust those most interested in profit with our most important sources for survival – water and food. The 5 gallon bucket system makes it possible to grow your own food pretty much anywhere you can find 6 hours of sunlight, regardless of your home environment or size of yard.

Something I will note about the 5-gallon bucket garden is to be sure and find food grade buckets for this project. Even though plastic is a huge bummer for the environment, food grade will at least help you avoid some hormone disruptors like BPA being added to your yarden soil. It’s also a great opportunity for reuse, so the plastic that’s already been produced has a second life and purpose. Check out craigslist and restaurant suppliers in your area to find free ones. This blogger gives some good tips about how to do that: http://www.solarsurvivors.com/free-5-gallon-buckets-with-lids/

It’s easier than you might think to find buckets companies are tossing. My kids and I just picked up 12 free food grade buckets today from a local dressing and marinade business in town. From there, we drill weep and draining holes, add a small larger drain, a short piece of pvc, soil and plants, and voila! Our garden output just doubled in size.

My two kids and I had no problem putting this project together on our own, and it was a fun excuse for them to use power tools. We can’t wait to see what happens in the buckets with the tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, and cantaloupe (really curious about this one, as my six year old picked it out and I have no idea what I’m doing with it) as the season progresses.

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I am also really excited about the 5 gallon bucket design for Texas summers. In Central Texas, when there are usually long stretches of 100F+ temperatures, water is a valuable and expensive resource. Also, nobody likes standing in that heat to water their veggies each day by hand. In fact, it helps the water go much further with much less. One youtube demo for these buckets said that a single watering lasted his plants two weeks. And last, if the heat starts burning our veggies later in summer, the bucket containers will be easily moved to partial shade in other areas of the yard.

Something I did NOT do on my own was build my new raised bed in one of the few areas of our yard that doesn’t have tree cover and does have full sun exposure. My husband is super handy, and has a mind over matter ability to move really heavy things that are twice to thrice his size. For this project he moved about a million buckets of dirt from a former fountain / koi pond in our yard (next project!) and transferred it along with some old logs (*note that some tree species are not ideal for this for various reasons) to build a raised bed for me to plant additional veggies.

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Along with the bed, it was important that we have some kind of cover for any veggies or food planted. We have some tenacious squirrels in our yarden who never fail to uproot or rob anything I intentionally put in the ground or in a pot. I’ve tried stalking them round the clock with a foam dart nerf gun in year’s past (don’t worry, I’m not a good shot) to keep them out of my garden, and I have heard from more experienced gardeners that I should give up and just plant enough for the squirrels to enjoy too, but I have a hard time believing we’d have anything left with this strategy based on what I’ve seen to date. We have a small city of these dudes living amongst us. So, with that in mind we repurposed a pullet run that we (aka husband) built last year. It’s serving as a temporary cover to protect the plants, with the (my) goal of (my husband) making an enclosure for the raised bed in the coming weeks ahead.

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In the raised bed this year we have more cucumber, squash and tomatoes as well as butternut squash seeds. We’ll figure out some kind of a drip system for water that we don’t have in place yet, but in the meantime I’m watering daily with a can.

A quick word about seeds: When buying seeds for your yarden, we always go for non-GMO (who wants pesticide built into their food?), organic or heirloom varieties. These are usually easy to find at a local plant nursery. If you want to read more about why to purchase non GMO, heirloom, organic seeds, here’s a place you can begin.

In other news on the yardstead, the pecan trees have suddenly started showing some leaves, and this year ought to be a big one for them, since last year was a dormant year. They tend to produce every other year. We’ll see if we end up with upwards of 180 pounds again! They made great Christmas presents and inspired us to get a deep freeze off craigslist last year, which continues to prove very useful for other food storage as well.

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Our fig tree leaves look gorgeous and already have a lovely fruity smell. I’m excited to make preserves again early summer and also loquat preserves from our yard again in the next couple of months. We also have flowers on our dewberry bramble for the first time too!  We’ll probably just have a few berries to nibble this year, but hopefully dewberry jelly is on the horizon soon. We all have our eyes peeled for the mustang grapes to forage on hiking trails around us in the month ahead.

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Dewberry bramble starting to flower for the first time.

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Wild Mustang Grapes from last season.

And we are having fun trying to outsmart our first broody hen, who seems to think her life’s mission is to have baby chicks and guard the eggs and nesting box.  This involves moving her from her nesting box to her roost at night and doing crazy things we read on google (like swapping eggs for bags of ice) to help calm those maternal hormones.

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We are still watching our hawk family’s nest in the granddaddy pecan tree, and also happy to see a titmouse couple nesting in one of our bird houses.

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Let me know what you’ve got going in your yarden this spring! This time of year is so happy and hopeful and should be shared.

 

 

DIY: Two Homemade Soap Recipes

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Have you ever been curious about how the soap you lather up with each day is made?  While reading the Little House on the Prairie books with my girls last year, my mind kept spinning about various homestead (yardstead in our case) projects I’d like to try with them.  Lye soap was one of the first that came to mind.  I was finally motivated to research the materials after my 6 year old asked if we could make homemade soap out of the blue a few weeks ago.  We found a few youtube instructional videos, placed our order for materials we didn’t already have, made our soaps and had a great time!

So Why Make Soap?

As I’m typing this, I’m wondering why these homestead projects are so appealing to some of us – and especially why are they appealing to those of us in urban areas who have easy access to affordable supplies, no need to make our own, nor necessarily a ton of spare time.

I think the reason I personally am drawn to these sorts of activities goes beyond the curiosity of just wanting to know how something is made (although that is certainly a fun part of it).  For me, there is just something really gratifying about “making stuff”.

I think there must be some innate craving humans have to manipulate the environment and create. I know I feel a sense of peace, satisfaction and connection when I slow down enough to figure out how to do some of the things my great-grandparents did for daily living (granted with a little help from modern day conveniences like Amazon Prime and Immersion blenders!).  I love the way my projects often translate to building community with others, by fostering positive interactions and conversations when I share the process or the things I create.  My time and energy exploring these threads always seems to offer me positive memories, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from learning something new.

Alternatively, buying something like a bar of soap at the store offers me nothing remotely as fulfilling or complex in exchange for my time and effort.  In short, I find that when there is an absence of “projects” in my life, my day to day experiences are simply not as rich.

For me, living life without this kind of exploration and experimentation can be downright depressing, especially when I am bombarded with the abundance of doomsday events and acts of violence that seem to be the daily narratives of our time. And it obviously helps that I am not required to make soap if I ever get tired of doing it.  It’s purely for fun. So I guess I could say that, for me, this stuff is play.

A play theorist named Brian Sutton-Smith once said, “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” He spent his lifetime attempting to discover the cultural significance of play in human life, arguing that any useful definition of play must apply to both adults and children. D.W. Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst said, “It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

Indeed.  Yardsteading projects are my “me time”: a time to play, create, discover and light up the parts of my brain and personality that are often unexpressed and otherwise neglected.

Over the last decade, “making stuff” has become a large part of my parenting experience with my children. If I’m being honest though, while the kids helped me unearth this side of my personality by helping me see the world with more curious eyes, the desire to “make stuff” has always been in me, and I just used my kids as an excuse to indulge in the process more often.  This is always apparent during those times when my kids aren’t interested in the least in something that “we’re” doing, while I am buzzing around with excitement!  I try to include them as often as I can, but I also find it pretty heavenly to work alone, savoring the learning experience, any chance I can get.

But let’s get back to the soap.  Before we get started on the recipes, just for fun let’s take a quick peek at the history of the soap bar.  I always enjoy learning the stories of how things began and evolved, but if you’re not interested in this part, scroll on ahead to the recipe of your choice!

History of Soap

I came across a great timeline about the history of soap at this website that I’ll attempt to quickly summarize.  Apparently it’s believed that soap making began around 2800 B.C., and physical proof was found from 2200 B.C. on a Mesopotamian clay tablet with a soap recipe inscribed on it. (So cool!) The recipe described a mixture of potash, a powdery salt, and oils to form a cleaning agent.  Later in 1500 B.C., Egyptian manuscripts contained recipes combining animal fats and vegetable oils.  The first reference to soap-making in literature was by a famous Greek physician named Galen.  In 600 A.D., soap making “guilds” were formed and the modern formula for soap that we use today was created.  Between 1700 – 1800 A.D. soap made its production debut in factories (after previously being something in homes) and today and we interestingly have yet to improve upon that old recipe and process – other than by adding a lot of unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals in the last 50 years or so.

Soap making at home

I experimented with two methods for making soap at home.  One was easy and fast – it felt like a craft project – called the melt and pour method, and the other was the more complex method using lye, which takes 3 to 4 weeks to cure before it can be used.

I’m going to start with the lye version because it’s the one I most enjoyed, and I don’t want it to get lost at the bottom of this post.  If you’re wanting to make soap with kids or prefer a more instant gratification project, go ahead and jump down to the melt and pour version below.  The lye process is still fun for kids to watch and take part in some portions, but little ones can be much more more hands-on with the melt and pour version without risking chemical burns or inhaling anything harmful.

Homemade Lye Soap Bars

Materials:

Rubber Gloves / protective eyewear
Small Kitchen Scale
 ($10)

Candy Thermometer ($5)
Lye ($10-$14)
Turkey Baster
Distilled Water
Wooden or Batter Spoon
Olive Oil
Large Bowl (not aluminum)
Two Small Plastic containers (can be recycled)
A jug of white vinegar to wash with in case of burns

Other optional materials that I used:

Essential Oil (optional – I used lemon)
Soap Slicer (optional) ($7)
Silicone Mold (optional) ($4 per mold)
Cheap Immersion Blender (optional) ($18)
Drying rack or some kind of crate that breathes

I stumbled upon a youtube video by Becky’s Homestead that helped me think through the process – plus she’s this badass lady who left corporate America to become a homesteader, and I love that she’s putting videos out for others to learn from!  I recommend checking it out before you start.  I then compared her notes (using lard) to other recipes that only used olive oil and came up with this combination that worked great:

Recipe:

48 oz Olive Oil
15.5 oz Cold Water
6.1 oz of Lye

So, I am usually a “never measure and cut as many times as it takes” kind of girl when I do projects.  I eyeball just about everything, and I get hives when I see a level or ruler.  However, when making lye soap, it’s very important to put on your precision hat and think of this as a dangerous chemistry experiment – because it kind of is!  You have to account for the weight of your containers, and you can’t be off even a few tenths of an ounce and expect to get the same result.  Your turkey baster will help you add or remove small amounts to reach the precise measurements needed with the oil and water. 

The other thing to keep in mind with this is that when lye is added to water, it becomes a highly acidic and hot liquid.  Always wear protective eyewear and gloves, and keep kids and pets away from lye until the soap solidifies.  Keep vinegar nearby as a quick rinse in case you get lye on your skin.  I chose to work outside on my porch for the entire process.  And my last lye safety tip, after using kitchen bowls, mixers and utensils to make lye soap, make sure you keep them separate from your other kitchen supplies.  They are now your official soap supplies.

Step 1:  Measure your oil, water, lye, and “tare” your scale to account for the weight of the containers you’re using.  Heat your oil in a large pot until it’s approximately 130 degrees F.  Turn the heat off and let it cool down to 110 degrees F.

Step 2: SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY pour the lye pellets into your measured water.  NEVER pour water into a pile of dry lye because it can splash and cause burns.  This stuff is going to get crazy hot very quickly.  Let it finish reacting and dissolving until it cools to 110 degrees F.  I used a plastic pouring cup for this, others I saw used recycled food containers. *If you should happen to get lye on your skin, wash it off immediately with vinegar – NOT water.

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Step 3: Add the lye / water mixture carefully to the oil, stirring with a spoon (I used a wooden spoon).  After it’s mixed well, use the immersion blender in 20 second increments for 10 minutes while stirring continuously in between.  You can add essential oil and also any blended herbs, dried flowers or coloring now.  Mix until the batter begins to “trace” or leave tracks behind the mixer (see photo below).  The batter will be the consistency of pudding.

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Step 4: Pour the batter into your molds (or a shallow box lined with plastic).  Cover the box with a cardboard or some other form of lid, and wrap with towels to keep the batter warm in the molds.  It will need to sit like this and slowly cool down for 24 hours.

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Step 5: The fun part!  The next day, after 24 hours, you can pop out your soap.  If you used a large mold rather than individual bar molds, now is the time to slice it.  If you wait too long, the soap will be more likely to harden and crumble.  Stand the slices up on a breathable rack to allow as much air as possible to reach all sides of the soap bars.  Find a shelf to store it and allow to cure 3-4 weeks prior to using.

Give as gifts or enjoy having your own year’s supply of homemade soap stashed in your cabinet!

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This is a fun part for involving kiddos! ^^^  It’s like slicing butter 🙂

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Easy Melt and Pour Honey Lavender Soap Bars
(Kid Friendly):

We started with this easy melt and pour recipe in our soap adventure, and we learned it by watching a youtube video that I now cannot seem to find to offer credit!  I’ll update as soon as I can locate it.  We ordered any needed supplies off of Amazon, but we already had most of it on hand.

Goat Milk Bars ($15)
Silicone mold
Honey
Avocado Oil, Olive Oil or coconut oil
Vitamin E oil (I already had on hand from the Shea Butter recipe I did this year).
Essential oil (we used lavender)
Microwave Safe Bowl
Batter scraper

This one is so easy and fun – and you even get to eyeball amounts.  Just slice up the entire goat milk bar into cubes, and add them all to a microwave safe bowl.

Heat the goat milk cubes until it is smooth by microwaving 2-3 minutes at a time, stirring in between.

Once it is thoroughly melted, add (I just eyeballed) about 1/4 cup avocado oil, honey, 1-2 tsps of Vitamin E oil and any essential oil or coloring of your choosing.  We wanted to change the color on some of ours, so we added dried tumeric to give it an orange color.

Pour the batter into your silicone mold.  Let it sit for an hour.  Once it is cooled and firm, pop the soap out and wrap each soap individually in plastic and store in airtight container.  They will continue to harden as they dry.  Wait 24-48 hours before using.

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Let me know if you try either of these at home!  Tag me with your soap adventures @kt_thenaturewheel on Instagram or @thenaturewheel on Facebook and thanks for reading!

Easy Fig Preserves

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A tradition in my family growing up was making jelly with my great grandmother.  We would bring dewberries from Brenham and drive them to my great grandparents’ home in the Texas Hill Country.  The women in the family would keep a big pot of sticky sweet dark purple dewberries boiling between making meals, cleaning up, visiting, and playing Shoot the Moon or Kings in the Corner.  At times there were five generations of us in my great grandmother’s kitchen, all working together on the jelly, and maintaining the tradition that inspired an annual gathering of relatives.  Everyone left with jars for their own homes, and my grandmother had a stash in her pantry that would last her and my grandfather most of the year. 

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In my yard, I don’t have dewberries yet (I am actually waiting for a bramble to mature), but I do have delicious figs that arrive every year in June and July.  We had our first crop harvested two weeks ago, and I have started a new tradition of making a batch of fig preserves in honor of those days with my grandmother.

Our fig trees are well established, and apparently they grandfathered many of the other fig trees in the neighborhood after the former owner of our home would give away shoots.

Fun History Facts about Figs

Figs are a member of the mulberry family, and they are one of the oldest cultivated fruit crops.  They’re believed to have been a part of mankind’s diet from the start.  Figs came to California and Texas with settlers from Spain, and today they thrive in pretty much any part of Texas with proper care.  Figs produce with lots of water, sun and well drained soil.  Figs are technically not really fruit, but rather an enlarged part of a plant’s stem. [1]

Figs are referenced symbolically in most of the major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism, representing fertility, peace and prosperity. ❤ [2]

Nutrition

High in potassium, iron, fiber and calcium, figs are considered a “high-antioxidant food”.  They have polyphenols, which help combat oxidative stress.  In fact, a study by the Department of Natural Medicinal Chemistry at China Pharmaceutical University shows that some elements contained in figs are toxic to various human cancer cell lines.[3] Properties from figs show a lot of promise in helping develop treatments for digestive, endocrine, reproductive and respiratory systems. Figs also have antimicrobial properties. [4]  A review by the Drug and Herbal Research Centre at the Universiti Kebangsaan in Malaysia cited two studies that showed fig extract’s ability to combat a strand of oral bacteria, as well as various fungi and microbes. (5)

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Easy Fig Preserves

Ingredients: Sterilized Mason Jars and lids, Figs (3-4 cups at least), Sugar, Lemon, two large pots

  • Gently wash figs and cut the stem off the top of each
  • Slice half of a lemon into thin slices (including rind)
  • Place in a pot and just cover with filtered water.
  • Stir in desired amount of coconut sugar (or other sugar), depending on your “sweetness” preference.  I usually do a 1/2 cup coconut sugar per every 3-4 cups of figs
  • Bring to a boil and then lower heat to simmer for 40-45 minutes.  Stir occasionally to check consistency.
  • Drain excess liquid off and reserve it in a glass
  • Pulse the mixture in a food processor + a few TBSP of the reserved liquid.
  • Return the preserves to the pot and continue simmering until desired thickness is reached (add TBSP of reserved liquid as needed or desired).
  • Fill the other pot with water and bring it to a boil for sealing jars.

Fill the mason jars – I usually use 4 ounce or 8 ounce size and loosely tighten the lids.

Place the filled, loosely sealed mason jars standing upright into the boiling water bath (I use just enough water to reach the bottom of the mason jar lids).

Let the water gently boil for 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the jars from the bath and place them on a towel to dry and cool.  Tighten lids as they cool.

You will know the jar has sealed when you hear a “pop” and the lid of the jar flattens and no longer has an air pocket.  Your preserves should keep up to a year in the pantry if they properly seal.  If the do not properly seal, they will keep about 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Enjoy!

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A Love Letter: In the Valley

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“Rest beside the clear waters of my beloved creek in my green valley of long ago.  The sleeping hills are so quiet.  There is so much to hear, the wind in the trees, the songs of the birds, the humming of the honeybees, the lowing of the longhorn cattle, the clop clop of a horse hoof on the rock bottom crossing, a lone rider comes riding down my valley of my childhood of long ago.  All of these are melodies of my heart.” ~Clementine (Walden) Jackson

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We have the rare gift of not only living in a neighborhood with gorgeous natural scenery, but also living in a neighborhood where some individuals have stayed in their family homes for multiple decades – even multiple generations – and witnessed dramatic changes during their days here as children and later grandparents.

As a lover of “old stories” and most things relating to nature, I mentioned to a few neighbors that I would welcome hearing their memories of long ago, about their experiences in our area and at the creek that our family now holds so dear.

A lovely neighbor and I emailed back and forth about this idea, and she ultimately was kind enough to trust me with a bundle of treasures – words describing memories of our neighborhood and land surrounding us from the past.

She said that years ago she discovered the book at the local library.  It contained a copy of essays by a woman named Clementine (Walden) Jackson.  Born in 1890, she describes her life growing up in the early 1900s, on what is today my neighborhood’s acreage, and was then her family’s home. It was titled: The Walden Home, In the Valley.

Because Walden is my grandmother’s maiden name, I felt an instant zing of connection when I saw the xeroxed typewriter ink and handwritten notes on the pages she passed through my door frame with her car running in my driveway.

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As I read through her collection of memories, all about The Waldens, who lived on our neighborhood land and surrounding hills for over six generations (mid 1800s – 1960s roughly), I am frequently moved to tears by her sentiment for the land, for her family members, and for days of long ago.

She loved the creek, the valley, and the hills that now surround my own family, in a way that resonates deeply in my bones.

When I read her words, I see my own feet wading in the clear waters.  I imagine my children dipping their heads through the waterfalls in delight.  I see my daughter excitedly catching a green sun fish in her net. I feel my head tipped skyward at the blue heron and white egrets perched in trees, and downward toward a softshelled turtle scuttling across the rock bottom, blending almost completely from vision with the creek floor stones.  I see my husband leaning over to smell and then taste a small piece of a mint leaf growing on a small rocky island.  I see us all noticing black walnuts on our trek toward the water from our home, and crunching pecans under our feet in the fall.

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I wish I could tell Clementine how much my love for this land echoes the love she writes about forming during her childhood days and years on these hills.

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“There is a longing in my heart for the outdoors, to seek the depths of the deepest woods where I find in their solitude rest.  Just to sit and listen to the birds and to feel that you are giving your soul a chance to grow.  Just to climb up on a hill and sit by yourself and feel close to God.” 

Throughout the pages, she laments the “scarring” of the land, as she watches the area develop from the year 1900 into the more modern era of paved roads and vehicles of the 1960s.

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“The creek made music night and day and the waterfalls roared on.  Fern and mint at the spring, cattle grazing along on the hills and up and down the valley.  Sycamore, wild cherry trees, in my green valley of yesterday years.  The years have come and gone but the little creek struggles on.  It doesn’t rush and sing like it used to do, and all of the beautiful trees are gone.” 

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She writes her essays as a 71 year old woman.  She is eloquent, in a way that only someone remembering love can be. I imagine her typewriter keys clacking as her memories of the land flood behind her eyes and intertwine in a dance with moments that include her beloved father, her sister Hattie, her mother passing away when she was five, and later her kind stepmother and half siblings, whom she adored.  The land holds her stories of them all.

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“How I loved the valley and the lovely hills of my childhood, the noble trees, the songs of the birds, the rushing water of the many waterfalls.  In memory I see again as in childhood days gone by, the wonderful time we would have playing on the hill.  So in just memory I will be able to walk beside a clear rushing creek and talk with friends of yester-years, and feel the love of my friends of long ago. ” 

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“These are the things I love and will never forget.  A tree in which a wild bird sings, the hill, the little spring, sunsets behind the hill and a full moon coming up from behind the hill across the creek.  It is so refreshing to remember the days of our childhood.  The fun we had at grandmother’s old log house.  We didn’t mind the summer’s heat or the winter’s cold.  We were having too much fun.  Never thinking of growing old.”

If she could have known how much a family like ours would one day later love her family’s land, and how much I will treasure our “moment” here too, I wonder, would that bring her any comfort?

Perhaps not.

Maybe it is destined that our hearts will break when we each one day recall our special memories of “yester-years”.  Some of my own yester-years will share the backdrops of the hills, creek and bluffs that inhabited Clementine’s, though they have been altered with time and developmental scars.

There will undoubtedly be further changes ahead for our land, our earth, our families, that will alter our most treasured backdrops away from the familiar beauties we know and love today.

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“Oh spare that aged oak now towering toward the sky.  When but a little child I sought its grateful shade. In all their gushing joy.  Here too my sister Hattie played.  My grandmother kissed me here.  My father pressed my hand, forgave my foolish tear.  But let that oak stand; my memories around it cling close as the bark, old friend; here shall the wild birds sing.”

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I will take heart in knowing that although Clementine (“Clem” as her father called her) grieved that all of the trees of her childhood were no longer here – like the oak in her grandfather’s yard, the black walnut tree that was sold by her uncle in 1918 to make airplane propellers for the first World War, the struggling creek, the new vehicle roads – that even despite those losses, today part of what we love most about our neighborhood are the beautiful large trees that surround us, the majestic hills and the flowing creek. My children and I even found black walnuts on our path to the water this very week. Would this make Clementine smile to know they are still here? And, perhaps more importantly, that we are still noticing them, and calling them to mind when we think of home?

Much has changed in our neighborhood, our creek, and world, since Clementine’s youth, and will continue to change as I age. This may unavoidably feel like a form of personal suffering to us each individually.  I’m guessing that it probably will.

But my hope is that, like the black walnut and oak tree she lamented would never rise again, beauty will keep trying to regrow and remain in spite of us all.

And maybe if those of us who pause to notice the black walnuts today, the button bush flowers, the white egrets, the blue and green herons, the wood ducks, the mustang grapes, the mulberry, the persimmon, the loquat, the pecans and figs that are still here, will show them to others, then they (we) will survive beyond the timeline we think is in store for them (us?) all.

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It gives me goosebumps to know that our two hundred year old native Pecan tree was a mature shade tree when Clem, her cousins and friends ran through these hills. And he’s still here with us, offering us shade and beauty today.

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“To me, the hills and mountains are God’s handiwork.  I think of them as being wise and holding great secrets of things past and things to come.”

Clementine, sister of the past, what a precious gift we both were given, to do life in this valley, to call this place our own for however short of a spell. You wrote, “Love lingers in the shadows of the hills I loved.”  I believe this, for I have experienced that whispering love myself.  Thank you for writing your stories, and thank you for pausing to notice and adore your hills, your creek, your valley, your family, your home.

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“The humble hills of my home valley will live in my heart.  No one shall take those memories from me of my green valley of long ago.  In my valley were the cheerful songs of wild birds, the low laughter of leaves and the cheerful chuckle of my mountain stream.  In my green valley of long ago my ancestors lived, labored, loved, hoped, prayed and died.”

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 “Did you ever walk on an old, discarded road?  Well, I did today; I hadn’t walked that road in over fifty years.  The road was on Bull Creek – one we used to travel in a wagon or on horse back, on our way to see Grandmother Walden.  I walked it alone, and as I walked, I could almost feel my father’s presence… As I walked that old road along the creek I almost felt like I was in a spirit world.  I felt like I could almost hear my friends and kin laughing, especially my father.”

 

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My Childhood Memories of Bull Creek
~ By Clementine (Walden) Jackson

In playful moods its crystal water skips

Along through shallow channels wide

Til checked in midst of dashing quips

It flows with deeper, slower tide

Where hanging willows fringe its edge

It seems to pause a moment there

To let their roots reach out and dredge

Sweet morsels for their daily fare.  

Where widening banks are pushed apart

As if to lend a greater strength and ease

It leaps with noisy swirl and racing heart

Across a dam of rock and broken trees

A coverlet of dancing foam

Churned white by waterfalls

Roofs over pools where fishes roam

And hides them from the angler’s call

No music made by human mind can bring such calm and restful pose

When I beside it quiet find from heart and toil

I think it knows

That I have come to seek a peace 

Not found except where nature holds

Complete control, and lends sweet peace, rest

To tired minds and to its bust enfolds

So give me every idle hour beside this lulling stream alone

For here beneath the willows bower

Is just the spot to dream of home

DIY: Whipped Shea Butter with Lavender & Vitamin E

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I tend to have really dry hands due to spending all my waking hours with kids doing projects, washing dishes, and cleaning up messes.  At times my hands will even develop painful cracks!  Store bought lotions typically do not cut it for relieving and repairing the small cuts, and store bought lotions are also full of yucky chemicals that I try to avoid as much as I can.

Often I will use straight coconut oil on my hands when they get dry, but I’m not crazy about the greasy film that is left behind. I’ve seen recipes over the years for homemade whipped lotions and finally decided to order a few ingredients to create my own.

I made this recipe a few weeks ago and wanted to quickly document it here before any more time passes and I forget!  I started with getting a pound of unrefined organic shea butter and small mason jars off Amazon.  I also purchased some Jason’s brand Vitamin E oil from Whole Foods.  I intentionally chose not to add coconut oil to my recipe because I have seen others have the problem of shea butter lotions liquifying in warm temperatures.  I suspect those lotions may have had coconut oil in them… I may be wrong though and will update if mine (without coconut oil) ever melts the same way.

I started by putting the block of Shea Butter in an electric mixing bowl.  I tried to break it up and soften the mass as best I could with my hands to help the mixer out.  Then I added about three teaspoons of vitamin E oil and turned on the mixer to a relatively high speed.

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I turned it off and scraped everything down a few times and restarted the mixer.  Then, after everything was well-softened, I added about 25 drops of essential oil and started the mixer again until it was whipped to the consistency of cake icing.  I chose lavender to scent my batch of lotion, and was really happy with the way it turned out.

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HERE IS THE FINAL RECIPE I USED:

1 lb of organic, unrefined shea butter

3 teaspoons of Vitamin E oil

20-25 drops of your favorite essential oil

Whip ingredients in electric mixer until all is fluffy.  Fill jars and lightly press down the moisturizer as you go to fill any air pockets. I stored my moisturizer in 4oz glass mason jars.

Makes approximately 6-8 four ounce jars of moisturizer.

This is a great gift for friends!  Let me know if you try the recipe, or if you have your own recipe. The shea butter I used had an expiration date of about 12 months after the date of purchase, so that is the same expiration date I am assuming for my lotions to stay fresh.

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Enjoy!

Pest Control on the Yardstead

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If you’ve lived in Central Texas for any length of time and are fortunate enough to have access to nature here, you are probably well aware that we have some gorgeous scenery, plant life and animals surrounding us every springtime.

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My friends in the northern states and Canada often express envy when I post pictures of our family in February and early March wading in the creek, or sitting in our yard surrounded by greenery.  I always remind them that while yes, we enjoy our outdoor areas during the mild winters and springs, we will be soon enough be hibernating in 100+ degree weather in July and August!

Along with the breezy temperatures, Central Texas wildflowers and green grass comes a lot of beautiful plants, interesting animals, and…[wait for it]…BUGS.  

Lots, and lots of bugs. 

Big bugs, little bugs, flying bugs, crawling bugs, jumping bugs, glowing bugs, slithering bugs, biting bugs, stinging bugs, poisonous bugs, and even beautiful bugs… I could go on.

My girls love hunting for bugs, and we even consider them (some of them anyway) amongst our most interesting yard treasures.

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Cicada

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Cicada Killer

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Brown Butterfly I haven’t identified yet

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Dragon Fly Mating Party

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Haven’t identified this fuzzy fella yet.

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Swirly Snail climbing on my child

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Firefly

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I have no clue what this is.  Do you?

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Garden Spider

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Grub worm

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Queen Butterfly

However, my least favorite part about our Central Texas nature scene involves four bugs in particular, who resurface every spring:  fleas, ticks, chiggers and mosquitos.

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(My daughter drew this picture of a maniacal snail when she was 5 or 6 years old.  I don’t have anything against snails, but I do think this is how the chiggers, ticks, fleas and mosquitos really act when we’re not looking.)

And because we have dogs who enjoy time indoors and out, it’s very easy for Texans to end up with home infestations, particularly of the first two agitators listed.

About eight years ago, we had a flea outbreak in the home we had just moved into.  I can’t overstate this next sentence enough: It was a seriously stressful situation for me.

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Another of my daughter’s drawings, from age 7 this time, that perfectly captures the mood I experienced.

I had a baby crawling around the floor (the one who would later draw the pictures above), so I refused to poison the house, but was about to have a stroke when I found a flea on her forehead one morning in our kitchen.

To make matters worse, our vet informed us that fleas are now becoming resistant to popular topical prescription flea medications. We switched our dogs’ preventative medication and vacuumed diligently until we had eradicated the outbreak.  We also learned a lot about yard treatments that were less toxic to help stay ahead of future outbreaks. (We’ll get to that soon!)

I diagnosed myself with PTSD from that flea outbreak in 2009, so you can imagine my horror when last week I saw a flea on my dog.  Only to find another, and another, and another, as well as some on the our other dog, who sleeps with my child.

I went into warrior mode and gathered all of the dog bedding and human bedding, as well as vacuumed the floors and baseboards, purchased a flea comb, and bathed the dogs.  But my favorite helper of all from our last flea experience fortunately came to mind too: a white fluffy nontoxic powder called Diatomaceous Earth.

Diatomaceous Earth 

One of the most common uses for diatomaceous earth, and the way that we use it, is as a natural insecticide. Studies indicate this clay-like powder can kill the insects including, but not at all limited to, chiggers, fleas, ticks.  Hooray!

How Diatomaceous Works:

Diatomaceous earth is composed of the fossilized remains of microscopic plankton called diatoms that lived in the oceans and once covered the western part of the United States and other parts of the world. Deposits were left behind when the water receded that are now mined and have “several important uses in making paint, toothpaste, beer filtering and swimming pool filters. DE is approximately 86 percent silicon, 5 percent sodium, 2 percent iron and many other trace minerals such as titanium, boron, manganese, copper and zirconium (Dirt Doctor).

These plankton had hard casings around their bodies, and during the process of fossilization and erosion, the shells break into sharp, fragments that resemble microscopic shards of glass.  Insects that come into contact with diatomaceous earth are cut by the fragments. Once the exoskeleton has been damaged, an affected insect dies from dehydration. However, these shards do not injure larger animals enough to cause any ill effects, even if small amounts of diatomaceous earth are eaten. “It is common for diatomaceous earth to be mixed with grains during storage for this reason, as it prevents insects from consuming the grain but does not hurt the people or animals who eventually eat it. (Source).”

How to use it:

To reap the pest control benefits of diatomaceous earth, it is necessary to spread a light sprinkling of of the powder around your yard or yarden.  Some people may buy a fancy spreading device, others fill a sock with the powder and shake it around the yard as they walk.  I have wondered if a flour sifter would work well.  I typically just put a plastic glove on and sprinkle it everywhere with my fingers, and my technique so far has worked just fine for our purposes – although it may be that we are wasting a significant amount by spreading it this way, as a light dusting is all that is needed.  You do want to make sure that you don’t breathe the powder as you spread it, as DE is a lung irritant, so pay attention to wind direction or wear a mask.

We often wait until the yard is freshly mowed and no rain in the forecast for a few days before applying it.  It works on living insects within 2-3 days.  Then, after 7-10 days, we do it again.  The reason you must be diligent about reapplying is because DE does not kill flea eggs, and flea eggs hatch in 2 week cycles.  So, just when you think you’ve finished killing them all, a new generation has hatched and you’re back at square one.

What is “Food Grade” Diatomaceous Earth?

There are two kinds of DE available for purchase: “food grade” (often available at organic gardening centers and also on Amazon) and “pool grade” (easier to find but not what I want). Because we are raising a new generation of backyard chickens, we take particular care to purchase “food grade” diatomaceous earth.

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DE that is not food grade is often sold for swimming pool filters and is apparently ineffective for insect control because it has been heated and chemically treated (Dirt Doctor).  It also may have high levels of metals like arsenic and lead, whereas food grade must meet testing requirements for both.  Nobody needs heavy metals added to their yard, garden, or children’s hands.

One thing to keep in mind is that DE will kill beneficial insects too, so use it sparingly to kill problem infestations.  Texas’ beneficial insects are part of our area’s natural beauty, and they fulfill important roles in balancing our local ecosystem.

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We use DE only during flea or chigger outbreaks and peak tick larvae season times for this reason.

Mosquitos

Mosquitos just suck.  I hate them so very much.  I can usually find a food-chain benefit that makes me trust there’s at least one good reason every creature should be allowed to live.  But I am hard-pressed to offer that gesture toward mosquitos.  I’d be okay if they were wiped off the earth today.  I’d be really, really happy actually.

But, that being said, I don’t think it’s a good idea to fog or do a lot of spraying for mosquito control.  For one thing, it kills bees and other flying insects indiscriminately, and it’s pretty common knowledge that we’re all goners as soon as the bees are killed off.  We really need those guys to do their pollinator work and thrive on Earth if we expect to do the same.

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So far our favorite natural mosquito repellent for our yard are these granules by a product called Skeeter Screen.  It’s not perfect, but it smells nice, repells mosquitos and is not filled with toxic chemicals.  Unfortunately it does not last long term and has to be spread again often.  We tend to do it every 2 weeks during the peak of mosquito season.  We avoid spreading it in our chickens’ pecking area just to be safe.

Another option for Tick Control

We have probably all heard horror stories or know someone personally who suffers with Lyme disease. And we have probably all seen the scary data suggesting that this disease is on the rise in the US.  Beyond the overwhelmingly complicated and devastating health issues involved in Lyme and other tick born diseases, ticks just give off an aggressive vibe that is hard for me to forgive.  They are fast, they are relentless once they attach to their host, and they drop from trees like tiny ninjas onto their victims.

The area we live in now does have ticks, so we make sure that the flea preventative we use on our pets includes tick protection.  The DE is a nice helper in this area, as DE kills ticks, and we have also come to rely on a really random product called Tick Tubes.

Sometimes the simplest concepts work the best, and this method is no exception.  Basically, the Tick Tubes look like empty toilet paper rolls (biodegradable) that are filled with cotton balls soaked in Permethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid that kills tick larvae.  

Ticks rely on vectors like rats, mice, squirrels, and other mammals to host them and spread.  And, fortunately, all of those yard critters love to find fluffy materials outside with which they can create nests and bedding for babies.  So the medicated cotton balls essentially apply topical tick preventative meds to the many vectors of your yard.  If timed right (around peak tick larvae season: April – May and August – September according to the Tick Tubes company), this product claims it can significantly reduce ticks within a certain area range.  We have not seen a tick (knock on wood) since using this product over the last year during peak times, and we were impressed by the many positive reviews offered by others who said the same.

Fun Fact: Did you know possums, those horrible looking creatures with naked tails and scary faces, are awesome at ridding your yard of ticks?  Be nice to them if you see them lurking around your home (if you hate ticks as much as I do).

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What are your favorite pest control methods for your yardstead?

Yardsteading Fun: Canning Loquats

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Amongst other yard treasures, we were fortunate to inherit a beautiful loquat tree at the home we moved into a little over a year ago.  I have seen loquats growing around Texas throughout my life, but for whatever reason, I was never inspired to try the fruit.  Living along the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country as newlyweds years ago, my husband would often point them out to me growing along the river’s edge as we waded in the cold green water across white limestone rocks.  He had fond memories of growing up eating them in his grandparents’ yard in Houston.

Now that we have one growing in our yard, it was time for me to finally try one.  My first impression: surprisingly delicious!  And, like most things I avoid, I wondered why I didn’t think to try them sooner?  Loquats are tart and juicy. Their flavor and texture reminds me of a cross between a citrus fruit, a peach and a fig.  My littlest child loves to gather edibles outside, and as soon as we saw the bright orange fruits arrive, she insisted we bring a step ladder out and get to work.

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With our first collection, as we washed and de-seeded them all, we were excited to notice the unexpectedly large brown glossy seeds inside.

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We rinsed and dried the seeds, certain there was a cool craft or project we can eventually use them for, but alas, they lost their gloss and cracked once the moisture was gone.

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We took the rest of the fruit flesh and set to work canning some preserves (recipe below).

Loquat Fun Facts

Native to China, the loquat tree is an evergreen with large, stiff leaves,  Loquat trees are well-adapted to virtually all soils, and begin to bear fruit within 2 to 3 years, “with a well-developed older tree easily producing 100 pounds of fruit” (!).

Loquats have been cultivated in Japan for over 1,000 years, and are believed to have been brought to Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty.  It is also apparently believed that Chinese immigrants carried the loquat to Hawaii, which eventually allowed this tangy fruit to make its way and now thrive in the warmer states today, like Texas (woot!), Florida Hawaii, California, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Loquat flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe at any time from early spring to early summer.

Medicinal Uses

I love the idea of using food as medicine, and I was excited to learn in my research via a blog called Foraging Texas, that tea made from loquat leaves is used for medicinal purposes in Asia. “Besides containing large concentrations of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, loquat leaves also also contain amygdalin which is believed to help repair liver damage/increase liver functioning. For diabetics, loquats leaves contain triterpens (tormentic acid) and assorted polysaccharides, both of which may stimulate insulin production which is beneficial for diabetics. Leaves and creams made from the leaves were placed on skin cancers and loquat leaf tea was used to fight internal cancer.”  I also read that the leaves are used for soothing sore throats and inflamed skin, digestive and respiratory systems.  Very cool!

Nutrition

I dug up a bit of nutritional data about the fruits from this site:  Rich in insoluble dietary fiber, pectin, the loquat is low in saturated fat and sodium, and is also a good source of iron, copper, calcium, vitamin A, potassium, and manganese.  The body uses manganese as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Copper is essential in the production of red blood cells. Iron is required for as a cofactor in cellular oxidation as well in red blood cell formation.  Pectin holds back moisture inside the colon, and thus functions as bulk laxative.  Pectin helps protect the colon mucous membrane by decreasing exposure time to toxic substances as well as binding to cancer-causing chemicals in the colon.  Pectin has also been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels by lowering its reabsorption in the colon through binding bile acids, resulting in its excretion from the body. Vitamin-A helps maintain the integrity of mucosa and skin. Lab studies suggest that consumption of natural fruits rich in vitamin-A, and flavonoids may offer protection from lung and oral cavity cancers. Fresh loquat fruit is a good source of potassium and some B-complex vitamins such as folates, vitamin B-6 and niacin and contain small amounts of vitamin-C. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps to regulate heart rate and blood pressure.

Recipes

There are so many creative loquat recipes online.  I have only played with preserves right now (recipe at the bottom of this post), but I plan to check out some of the following ideas:

Pico de Gallo, cocktail syrup, loquat butter

Deserts, Savory dishes, canning ideas and ability to refine for dietary restrictions on this site

Loquat Chutney 

Loquat Deserts, Ice Cream and Wine

Loquat Salsa

 

Here is the recipe I created for my preserves:

On the first batch, I made the mistake of retaining too much of the boiling water, resulting in a very thin batch of preserves.  I also used more sugar on the first batch and cooked it longer, in an attempt to thicken it.  The second batch I made (which is the recipe I’m offering below), I strained most of the water and I used 1/2 as much sugar.  The consistency turned out much better on the second group, and I find that I prefer the more tart preserves over the sweeter one.

Ingredients:
-4-5 cups of de-seeded loquats
-1/2 cup organic cane sugar
-water to just cover the loquats
-juice of one lemon (sometimes I also put thin slices of the entire lemon, including the peel)

Discard seeds and cover loquats with boiling water for around 40 minutes.  Strain the water into a cup as a reserve.  Add a few tsps of the boiled water back to the pot for blending purposes.  Pulse in a food processor (I used Vitamix) until the preferred texture is reached.  Put back in hot pot and stir in 1/2 cup of sugar, lemon juice and mix well until the sugar is dissolved. If a thicker consistency is desired, allow it to simmer a little longer and test with a spoon periodically.  Fill sterilized jelly jars and cover.  Give jars a bath in boiling water for 10 minutes and tighten jar lids as they cool.  Make sure all of the lids no longer “pop” to ensure they properly seal.  I read that properly sealed jars should keep in the pantry for a year.

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They make such pretty little gifts!

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Have you made any loquat recipes at your house?  Please share and let me know your favorites so I can try some new ones!

Cooking with Fire

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In Michael Pollan’s recent book and Netflix documentary Cooked, we are invited to reflect upon and celebrate the influence of cooking on humanity.  I first stumbled onto the series last fall, and was delighted to see how Pollan incorporated all of the areas I care most about studying these days: tradition, ceremony, community, nature, ancestors, food.  Cooked offers an anthropological and evolutionary perspective on the way learning to cook our food changed us as a species and shaped human cultures around the world.

His first episode is focused exclusively on cooking with the element of fire.  Pollan visits with cultural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, author of The Raw and the Cooked, who explains that cooking with fire is what evolved habiline (an extinct species of humans dating back nearly 2 million years) to homo erectus, the relative that evolved into our current species of homo sapiens, or what we think of as today’s humans.

Strauss explained that the increased energy obtained from cooked food, which is easier to digest than raw, was an evolutionary game changer for humans, and fire is what gave the first cooks distinct biological advantages.  Changes were seen in the skull, teeth and abdominal cavities when cooking was introduced, and fossil evidence suggests that the cooked food transition provided pivotal momentum for these changes.

One of my favorite things about Michael Pollan’s work lies in his ability to see and surface the evolutionary value of tradition.  He reminds us that the traditions which manage to “stay” over time and across cultures are still around because they offer our species some distinct survival advantage.  They either kept people happier, healthier, or both. And, according to Pollan, if we as a species choose to ignore the ones that have survived, for example by say, outsourcing all of our food experiences to corporations and by teaching our children to become passive consumers who are disconnected from their food sources, we are losing something of value, and possibly something that is critically important to our identity and continued survival.

In his video, Pollan recalls common childhood memories of mothers and grandmothers around bubbling pots and pans, family meals, and stories of rites of passages around barbecue grills.  He ends each episode with the building of community through a shared meal with friends.

While watching his series, I started to wonder if my kids will have the same memories that I and generations before me share around food…  All of this wondering inspired me to create a little food gathering of my own.

I invited some open, curious, and kind friends – all women – who I knew would humor my interests and (hopefully) enjoy learning with me, to gather with the purpose of honoring tradition, ancestors, community and food by cooking together with fire.

I found myself worrying about the tiny detail that I didn’t actually know how to cook with fire.  Barbecue, the most well-known form of cooking with fire, traditionally was a role left to the men in my family, and it turns out, it was also the role of men in ancient cultures around the world.  The men were both the hunters and the cooks, and it was considered a great honor to be at the helm of the food they provided to their communities.

After making peace with the fact that I had no fire cooking skills or experience (and the reality that given my lack of experience, the food was highly likely to not taste very good), I put my faith solely in the value of the shared experience, and  I sent out my email invitations.

Resisting many urges between the invitation and the event to try out menus in advance to ensure our efforts were successful, I revealed to my friends upon their arrival that, for better or worse, we were going to figure this cooking with fire thing out together.

I had prepared by purchasing skewers, coal, a grill, a variety of raw vegetables, chicken, herbs, seasonings and sangria fixings, and everyone who attended brought a dish to share.

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In fact, one of the small grills I planned to use that day was still in the box when my friends arrived. (Thanks again for being such good sports, ladies!)  When we started looking through the manual to assemble the grill and became a bit discouraged by the extent of screws, washers, vents and handles not yet attached, it was tempting to pass the grill project on to my husband in the other room, which would allow us to relax and visit until he brought it back.

Luckily I was surrounded by intelligent, stubborn, resourceful and determined women, one in particular named Christine, who knew that was unnecessary and that handing this project over to a man would only occur over her dead body.

Christine built the secondary grill with the support of a few others, while I sliced the raw meat into skewer size pieces and chatted with my friend Margaret. Others sipped water and sangria and visited on our shaded porch.

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When the grill was lit, we let the coals smolder about thirty minutes.  And at the end of that I invited the women to build their own individual kebabs of meat and vegetables.

Everyone got as creative as they wanted – some put slices of lemon and lime on their skewer, others put mango and pineapples amongst mushrooms and brussels, and some added medjool dates as adventurous accessories to their chicken and onion along with a variety of seasonings, and avocado oil.  We each tried to make our kebabs look distinct from anyone else’s so they would be easily recognizable when they came off the grill.

We had vegetable and fruit kebabs going on one fire pit, and the raw meat kebabs on the small grill Christine had assembled, because we knew enough about cooking to realize the veggies would cook at a completely different rate than the meat.

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We chatted about the first episode of Cooked as we smelled the meat and veggies roasting.  We noticed a red-shouldered hawk above us, and later noticed the doves cooing around us.

When all was ready, we gathered around the table.

My friends Karen and Alisa saw that we would be sitting in full sun because of the hour of day, and they immediately took it upon themselves to move my porch table into a small section of shade. 

The eight of us managed to squeeze around the (now shaded) six-seater table, and we chatted about things ranging from the ethical decisions involved in raising and sourcing animals for food, to the different cultures and communities Pollan explored in his video, to our past jobs, to our kids, to random facts about health and nutrition, to silly stories about trying to outsmart squirrels who robbed bird feeders.  We shared our past experiences, and our excitement for upcoming adventures – one of our attendees was moving to another country that same week – and other moments of life, in the way women have done over meals for generations.

Thinking back to our visit, I now am struck by what should have been obvious all along: how completely natural it was for a group of friends to gather and work together in the creation of a shared meal.

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I was self-conscious as hostess, and worried about the stacks of clutter that surround my home, and wondered if I should be guiding the conversation to topics I had initially  wanted to discuss that we hadn’t gotten around to yet.  After time passed though, I realized how appropriate it was that we discussed the things our mothers and grandmothers had shared with women in their own kitchens: stories about our lives and families, laughter, community, and the future.  And all of the comments were acknowledged and supported with encouraging words and kind smiles.

There was nothing overly profound about any of our conversations, and some ended up sharing more than others.  We laughed – one laugh in particular was big enough for me to have tears in my eyes, and continue laughing for a few days each time I remembered the conversation.

When I host a gathering like this again, there are a few things I would change here and there that we learned together that day through trial and error. For example, the food was good, although a little too cold by the time we finally sat down. My friend Christine may be relieved to know that I’ll probably try build the grill in advance the next time too.

My favorites of the food that day included the grilled fruits: warm mango, dates, pineapple, paired with cold and creamy goat cheese.  I also really loved the sprouted quinoa salad my friend Alisa shared with us.

The meal wasn’t a culinary masterpiece of any sort.  But it was fun, and it was community.

And, maybe most importantly, it was ours.

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