Monday, 3 December 2012

Making a herb 'shampoo'

I'm not a 'girlie' girl. I don't buy cosmetics or beauty products beyond what I need - shampoo, soap, toothpaste - and I try to avoid anything containing parabens or sodium laureth sulphate, choosing organic products which haven't been tested on animals.

Knowing this, my sister bought me a couple of books full of recipes for making natural beauty products at home. I got really excited about the possibilities. What if I could not only make my own shampoo from herbs, but grow the herbs for it myself? And what about toothpaste or moisturiser?

Some of the recipes involved buying a natural shampoo base and scenting it with essential oils, but the ones that interested me most showed how to make a 'shampoo' entirely from plants. For my first attempt one of the ingredients I used was dried irish moss (as per the recipe) which produces a gelatinous base when re-hydrated, but found the texture and stickiness of the shampoo unpleasant, so I changed the recipe and used an alternative.

The herbs I used were:

2 parts dried marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) instead of the irish moss
2 parts dried soapwort root
1 part mixed dried herbs according to hair type (I used chamomile, lemon zest and rosemary)

I got my herbs from an online retailer called Luminescents.

The marshmallow gives the mixture a glutinous (but not sticky) base and the soapwort root contains saponins which produce a very gentle foam when rubbed in water. Chamomile and lemon zest are good herbs to use with fair hair (as mine is), and I added rosemary as I've read that it is also good for hair.

I mixed a small quantity of the dried herbs together (enough for one wash - probably about 50g total) and added enough hot water to cover them. I gave it all a stir and left it to cool, stirring again occasionally.

I then pushed the mixture against a fine sieve with the back of a spoon, giving me a small amount of yellowy-brown gloop (with most of the herb material left in the sieve).

The resulting 'shampoo' didn't smell too appealing, certainly not by conventional shampoo standards. It was just rather earthy and green smelling. When I washed my hair with it, I concentrated on rubbing it into my scalp, including the rest of my hair (which is long) as best I could. I then rinsed it out and finished with a rinse of cold water. I let my hair dry naturally as I usually do.

I used the herb shampoo for three days in a row. Normally I shampoo my hair every other day, but the look and feel of my hair while using the herbs made me want to wash it more often. I would say the results were mixed.

Immediately after washing I found it much easier to comb out my hair after using the herb shampoo. My hair was largely free from tangles and felt quite smooth. Once dried, my hair felt very soft and was very manageable - I could have styled it very easily had I felt the need to. However, being used to the feel of my hair after using shampoo (even a natural one without harsh chemicals), I felt as though my hair was a bit on the greasy side and didn't feel that confident with it, although it didn't feel as greasy as it would have done if I hadn't washed it at all. The main problem was the inconvenience of having to soak and then sieve the herbs in advance of washing my hair, but I could probably do a batch at a time to last the week to make things easier.

I've read a few articles recently about going shampoo free and letting my scalp's oils regain their balance for ultimately better hair. I'm certainly tempted to try it. A herb shampoo like this one could be a good way to wean myself off bought shampoo, especially combined with some other home-made hair care products. There are some lovely recipes in the books for conditioners and also hair rinses using cider vinegar and herbs.

In the spring I'm planning to start growing some soapwort and marshmallow, plus some other hair herbs, and hopefully I'll be able to use them to make my own herbal hair-wash. In the meantime I'll keep using the herbs I've got and maybe try going shampoo-free. The experiment continues!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Processing my Quinoa Harvest

In mid-October I harvested the seed heads of my quinoa crop and laid them out on newspaper in a couple of crates, turning them every so often so the air could circulate around them, drying them out in preparation for separating the grain.

Because of the wet weather this year, and because I've never grown quinoa before, I was unsure whether I would get a reasonable amount of grain or not. By rubbing some of the seed heads between my fingers I knew that some seed had formed, but today I decided to start processing the grain to find out how much was there. The stems had dried out reasonably well, but some were starting to show mould so I didn't want to wait any longer.

The seeds are held inside the spent flower buds, so all I had to do was rub the seed heads between my hands, releasing the seeds and other dried bits from the stems. I did this as thoroughly as possible to ensure that I got as much grain as I could, so it took a bit of time. I collected the seeds, leaves and bits of flower bud in newspaper in a crate.

The next step was to sieve the material to remove the larger pieces of chaff, but I kept these for further drying and will re-sieve them in a few days to see if any more seed is present.

I was left with a reasonable amount of grain (it shows up yellow in the photograph below), mixed with smaller pieces of chaff.

The next step will be to winnow out the remaining chaff, which will involve pouring the seed and chaff from one bucket into another in a breeze, so that the seed falls into the bucket and the chaff blows away  (according to instructions from The Real Seed Catalogue). I will blog about it once I've done it!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

An edible hanging basket for the winter

I enjoy experimenting with growing edible plants in different situations, and the hanging baskets which held my tumbling tomato plants this summer were more than ready for refreshing(!), so I decided to plant up a hanging basket using some edible (or otherwise useful) plants for the winter. Hopefully it will look good throughout the winter, and especially at Christmas hung in front of the house. With Christmas in mind I kept to red, white and green when choosing plants.

I used:
2 Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) 'The Pearl'
1 Gaultheria procumbens
6 white viola bedding plants
2 small variegated ivy plants (not edible!)

and potted with ericaceous compost because of the Lingonberries and the Gaultheria.

Lingonberries can be made into a delicious raw jam (see my previous post on jam-making in Sweden), and the plants are evergreen. They have delicate white flowers and the red berries look lovely as they ripen.

Gaultheria procumbens is also known as wintergreen. It is hardy, evergreen, and produces red berries, which can be eaten, with a slightly minty taste. The leaves have a characteristic 'wintergreen' flavour, and can be made into a tea or chewed (but not swallowed) to release their oils. The whole plant contains aspirin-like compounds.

Violas produce edible flowers.

Ivy is not edible, but it has medicinal and cosmetic uses - the leaves can be made into a hair rinse for example.

Other potential plants which could be used in a winter hanging basket include:

Pansies - edible flowers

Calluna vulgaris (heather) - flowers and shoots used in tea or to flavour beer

Any hardy salad greens such as Winter purslane (Claytonia), Lambs lettuce, Salad burnet and        winter lettuces.

Evergreen herbs such as Rosemary (prostrate forms would be good), winter savoury and Lavender (although these would need some protection in a severe winter).

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A November Harvest - Picking and Storing Apples

On a blue-sky day in November...

I went to pick some apples.

Then checked them over and wrapped them carefully for storage in the shed,

putting away lots of small presents for my future self.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Using the Tomatillos!

During the summer it became almost impossible to get into my greenhouse. Despite being planted in pots that were comparatively rather small, my tomato and tomatillo plants managed to grow to fill the majority of the volume of the structure, and having outgrown my somewhat inadequate bamboo-cane supports, proceeded to enmesh their branches together as they billowed ever upwards. It was as much as I could do to get in through the doorway far enough to water and feed them, so that was about all the attention they got.

Before we went away on holiday in September I decided the time had come to gather in the harvest, ripe or not (mostly not, no sun this year, grumble) because no one would be around to water the greenhouse. The tomatoes went into trays to ripen on a windowsill while we were away (which they did), but I ran out of room so left the tomatillos (still in their husks) in a crate in the greenhouse, hoping they would ripen too.

More than a month later I was beginning to despair that the tomatillos would never ripen. Some had turned purple, which I assumed was ripe, but most of them were still green or partly green. As a last resort to find a way to use them I did an internet search for what to do with unripe tomatillos, and as it turns out they are at their best when unripe! Immediately I set about preparing them lest they ripen any further!

First I removed the husks and washed the tomatillos to remove the sticky residue left on the skin. I had noticed this stickiness before and thought it odd, but as I discovered from my googling this is a normal feature of the tomatillo. I then tasted the fruit raw, one green and one purple. The green fruit was acidic and pleasantly sour without causing me to pull a face. The purple fruit was still sour enough to be tangy but with a more rounded flavour. Not really like a tomato but reminiscent of something similar.

As I had quite a few tomatillos I decided to make a salsa verde. I roasted the fruits first, then whizzed them up in a blender with chopped onion, lime juice, coriander leaves and seasoning. We ate some with roasted belly pork instead of apple sauce and the combination was delicious.

Chopped tomatillos ready for roasting

Monday, 29 October 2012

Propagating Jostaberries

Last week I bought a large, sturdy jostaberry plant as a birthday present for my Dad. The jostaberry is a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant and this parentage is reflected in the flavour of the berries. Jostaberry bushes grow quite large and have no spines. They are vigorous and productive once established and are resistant to several diseases which affect gooseberries and blackcurrants. They flower early in the year so there can be a risk of damage to the flowers from late frosts, but I've not grown them for fruit before so I don't know how much this is likely to be a problem in the south west of the UK.

From previous experience (at work) I know that hardwood cuttings taken from jostaberries at this time of year are easy to take and root readily, so before I gave the plant to my Dad I took the opportunity to propagate a few free plants for myself for next year!

Using a sharp, clean pair of secateurs I took a cutting around 12 inches long from each of the main branches, making my cut just above an outward-facing bud on the parent plant. I then trimmed up the bottom of each cutting, making a horizontal cut just below a bud, and snipped off the tip of each cutting by making a sloping cut just above a bud. This left me with seven cuttings of around 9 inches in length, each slightly thicker than a pencil.

Bottom of the cutting

Top of the cutting

I pushed the cuttings into a large pot of compost (mixed with grit or perlite for drainage), watered them in and placed the pot in my greenhouse, which will remain unheated through the winter. A cold frame would also be fine. Now I just have to wait until autumn next year when they should have rooted well enough for me to separate them and pot them up individually or plant them out.

The parent plant left tidy and ready for planting.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Potting up strawberry runners

Strawberries always seem to me to be such generous plants. They produce some of the most satisfying and delicious soft fruits and they also readily propagate themselves, spreading by runners which form chains of young plants all linked to the parent.

My container-grown strawberry plants have been putting out plenty of runners over the last few months, which I've allowed to root down into the layer of composted bark which the strawberry pots sit on. This time of year is ideal for separating those runners from the parent plants and potting up the rooted plantlets as individuals ready to grow on for planting out next year, so I spent this morning doing just that.

All I had to do was cut the runner where it grew from the main plant and gently pull so that all of the roots of the strawberry plantlets came away from the bark chips (if the runners had rooted into the ground it would have been simple enough to lift them out of the soil using a trowel). I then cut the runner into separate plantlets and removed any excess bits of runner or any damaged and yellowing leaves, leaving three leaves on each plantlet.

Removing some leaves helps to minimise water loss from the young plant while its root system is still small (the more leaves the plant has the more water it will lose by transpiration). I did my potting on a damp, overcast day which helps to prevent the roots from drying out while they are exposed to the air. Sometimes there is some transplant shock if the roots do dry out and the plantlets may look wilted for a few days, but they will soon recover.

I potted up the plantlets into compost in small pots, firming the compost around the roots and watering in well.

I've laid out the potted plantlets in trays in my greenhouse to give them some protection while they root out and they'll stay in there through the winter before I harden them off in spring for planting out. As I'm growing four varieties of strawberry I've also labelled them so I can easily tell which is which.

This year I grew Honeoye, Red Gauntlet, Mara des Bois and Sophie varieties in large plastic pots on the sunniest side of my patio. I chose these varieties to give me strawberries to pick throughout the season, from early to late. Despite the difficult weather and hordes of munching slugs I did get some strawberries, although not as many as I'd hoped, and the plants were quite high-maintenance, requiring lots of watering (when it wasn't raining!) and I fed them with seaweed-based liquid feed weekly.

Honeoye was certainly the earliest to crop and the berries were quite large and fairly sweet, with good colour and classic strawberry shine and shape. Red Gauntlet cropped very disappointingly - most of the berries produced turned brown before they ripened so I only ate a few. They didn't ripen very well and weren't very tasty. I assume this is due to the weather and maybe Red Gauntlet simply needs more sun.

Mara des Bois was undoubtedly the star variety for me. Not massively productive but delicious - juicy with great flavour, and being a perpetual variety it carried on fruiting throughout the season. I even picked some in September! Sophie was the late season variety I chose and the plants put on lots of leaf growth through the first part of the season, looking very lush and healthy with huge, dark green leaves. They did produce some berries, although not many, which were large, juicy, sweet and had very red flesh.

Now that I have some more space on my allotment, I intend to grow strawberries in the ground next year rather than in containers. Hopefully by potting up the runners from this year I will have plenty of new plants for my planned strawberry bed, for only the cost of the compost I've potted them in.