Monday Recap: Finally Spring

Despite the calendar which says spring arrived much earlier, I’m saying it really arrived here last week. Other local folks are welcome to chime in and agree, or not, as they see fit. Trees are blooming, birds are chirping, and neighbors are mowing the grass for the first time. All that sure sounds like spring to me!

flowering pear trees in bloom

flowering pear trees in bloom

One thing is missing from the picture though: there’s no sign of asparagus yet. At least there’s no sign of it here. In 2012 spring was running about a month ahead of schedule, and we got our first spear on 3/16. Last year we had our first harvest on 4/10, which was later than usual. This year is obviously going to be later still. The dried brown stalks you see in the below photo are all that’s left of the ferns from last year. We are mulching in the row with shredded paper, and using cardboard between the rows. The cardboard will be covered with straw as soon as I go pick some up. It isn’t real pretty to look at right now but it is weed free. At least we are still enjoying some frozen asparagus from last year’s crop.

asparagus mulched with shredded paper and cardboard

asparagus mulched with shredded paper and cardboard

The bluebirds are running a few days ahead of last year though. Mama laid her 5th egg last Friday. Five eggs is pretty normal here, though later clutches may only have four. I have seen six eggs in a nest one time, many years ago, but only five of those hatched. The eggs of the Eastern Bluebird typically hatch in 12-14 days.

bluebird nest with 5 eggs

bluebird nest with 5 eggs

I was finally able to get onions and potatoes planted here last week. Sowing carrot seed is next on my to do list. After planting I mulched the onions with some aged straw. I also planted a couple dozen of them close together to pull as scallions.

onions after planting and mulching

onions after planting and mulching

I’ve gotten a few harvests lately, mostly spinach. We are enjoying it whenever we can as it will be bolting all too soon. That in the below photo is the heirloom Amsterdam Prickly Seeded, which was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and by European growers even before that. The thick, dark green leaves had a great flavor when cooked. I also froze a bag of it for later use.

Amsterdam Prickly Seeded spinach

Amsterdam Prickly Seeded spinach

I did cut some baby salad greens the other day. It was a mix of lettuces, tatsoi, komatsuna and mizuna I cut from seedlings I had growing in the greenhouse. These are extras that I didn’t need  for planting, but kept growing for this very reason.

mizuna seedlings before harvest

mizuna seedlings before harvest

I usually cut the leaves with scissors just above the growing point, then leave the plants to regrow another ‘crop’. I should get one more cutting if I keep the plants watered and fertilized with a bit of fish emulsion.

harvest of baby mizuna leaves

harvest of baby mizuna leaves

The bowl of organic greens yielded enough for several lovely salads, and they were a welcome treat in a year when spring is late to arrive and many things got frozen out over the winter.

harvest of baby salad greens

harvest of baby salad greens

Lately I’ve been working on a recipe for dark rye rolls and buns. I think I’ve just about got it worked out, but I want to make it again before I share it here. Of course we have been enjoying the taste testing. And amazingly, unlike Subway breads, there’s no yoga-mat ingredients in it! For that matter, none of our bread recipes include the chemical azodicarbonamide, which is banned in Europe and Australia but FDA-approved in the U.S. That is one of many reasons why I am glad we bake our own breads – we know exactly what does and doesn’t go into them. I have been experimenting with rye breads for about a year now, and this is the latest creation. The dark color is a result of molasses and cocoa powder.

dark rye buns

dark rye buns

We also found time last week to make two batches of soap. One was another batch of our Tea Tree French Green Clay soap we first made late last year. The other was a new one for us, a Bastille soap made with 70% olive oil. It is supposed to be good for babies and those with sensitive skin, which means we mainly made it for me! It will need to cure for at least five or six weeks before use. I’ll let you know how it turned out.

cutting bastille soap into bars

cutting bastille soap into bars

That’s a look at a few things that are going on here. To see what other gardeners are harvesting, cooking or planting, visit Daphne’s Dandelions where Daphne graciously hosts Harvest Mondays.

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After The Deluge

Last week a stormy weather system moved through our area and brought us rain of epic proportions. And unlike a Hollywood production, this event was very real and not computer generated! Here at HA we got 6.26 inches of rain in a little over 24 hours. Thankfully our house sits high and drains well, though much of the water runs off towards the main garden area. However, the garden itself is on a gentle slope and most of the water keeps on going to a drainage ditch at the back of the property. It all makes for wet conditions down there for sure, and we affectionately refer to the back part of our property as The Swamp.

This is my fourth year of recording precipitation for the CoCoRaHS organization. And this was by far the largest amount I have ever recorded from a single rain or snow event. We got even more rain yesterday on top of the rain from last week. I had left a Tubtrug out in the kitchen garden area with a few weeds in the bottom. They were destined for the compost pile but didn’t quite make it that far. Now I have a bucket of rain water! We have already received more than 7 inches of rain in April, and this is only the 8th day.

Tubtrug full of rain water

Tubtrug full of rain water

After all that rain, the soil in the raised bed where I plan on growing onions this year does not appear to be completely waterlogged. I decided to scoop up a handful this morning to test it, and after forming it into a ball it easily crumbled in my hand. That’s what Jim Crockett called the ‘chocolate cake’ test: if the soil stays in a ball it’s too wet to work but if the soil crumbles like cake it’s ready. Mine is more like a moist cake still, but I think later this week I can turn it over with a fork and add some fertilizer and it will be good to go.

testing the soil for wetness

testing the soil for wetness

According to the calender it’s time to plant onions and potatoes here, though not all have arrived yet. I don’t have a good local source for onions any more, after my favorite garden center (Robin’s Nest in Boonville) decided to stop carrying them. The ones in the big box stores are usually all dried up and sorry looking, and the varieties aren’t what I want to grow. I can get decent seed potatoes locally, but usually those selections are limited to old standbys like Kennebec, Red Norland and Yukon Gold. All three generally do well in our area but I am hoping to grow other types too, like fingerlings for instance.

French Fingerling potatoes from 2013

French Fingerling potatoes from 2013

I’ve had good luck with fingerling potatoes in the past, and this year I’m growing French Fingerling, Red Thumb and Russian Banana. I also want to try a couple of blue/purple potatoes, Adirondack Blue and Purple Majesty. They are supposed to be improvements over All Blue. Both these potatoes have a purple skin and flesh, and are loaded with anthocyanins. The Adirondack Blue is here and the rest I have ordered should be here later this week.

Adirondack Blue seed potatoes

Adirondack Blue seed potatoes

And speaking of purple, this year Norma Chang (Garden to Wok blog) was kind enough to send me a purple sweet potato she thought I might like to try. It does well for her in the Hudson Valley area of NY, where sweet potatoes are challenging to grow, so it should perform well here with our longer and hotter growing season. I am looking forward to growing it this year.

Norma's purple sweet potato rooting

Norma’s purple sweet potato rooting

I’m also growing a purple sweet potato given to me last year by our friend Carla. It did great in its first showing, and will be back again this year. I’ve got both the purple sweet potatoes rooting in water to make slips. I stick toothpicks in the potatoes to suspend them in a jar of water. They have rooted, and are starting to sprout already. They should be ready in plenty of time for a late May/early June planting. I am so happy that people are willing to share their precious planting materials with me, and it’s always fun to try new varieties.

overwintered spinach

overwintered spinach

At least the rain has made things grow. The cold frame spinach in the above photo is giving us enough for salads, while we have cooked some of that growing in the greenhouse. We’re still waiting on the first spears of asparagus, and with warmer temperatures predicted for later in the week they just might magically appear. That will be a treat for sure.

bluebird eggs

bluebird eggs

I’ll close on a bit of good news. The deluge may have slowed down the planting a bit, but as of today we have two bluebird eggs in the nest! It will be great to have bluebirds here again this year, and I feel blessed they have again chosen Happy Acres for their home.

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Maple Pumpkin Custard

Pumpkin pie has always been one of my favorite treats at Thanksgiving time, or any other time for that matter. I don’t know if it’s the spices I like most, or the smooth consistency of the filling, or maybe the aroma that fills the house when it’s baking – I just know that I like it! So it’s only natural that I would love this pumpkin custard too, because it has all the flavors of pumpkin pie, but without the crust. And without the crust, pumpkin custard has less calories than pumpkin pie, so I can eat it more often without feeling too guilty!

pumpkin custard

Maple Pumpkin Custard

If you have your own homegrown pumpkin puree, this is a great way to use it. Butternut squash puree works well too. Lately I have been fascinated with growing all kinds of winter squashes, so we usually have an assortment of squash/pumpkin puree in the freezer. They all work in this custard. So does canned pumpkin puree, if you don’t happen to have any homegrown.

pumpkin custard baking in the oven

pumpkin custard baking in the oven

I use almond milk in this recipe, but soy or cows milk would work just as well. I can’t think of a good substitute for the maple syrup though. You certainly don’t have to use the most expensive type here. I usually cook with a Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup, which has lots of flavor and isn’t quite as expensive as the lighter grades. But please use real maple syrup, the kind that comes from the cooked-down sap of a maple tree, and not some artificially flavored high-fructose corn syrup. Your taste buds will thank you, and so will the maple syrup farmers and producers.

Maple Pumpkin Custard topped with whipped cream

Maple Pumpkin Custard topped with whipped cream

Maple Pumpkin Custard Print This Recipe Print This Recipe
adapted from an Eating Well recipe

1 1/4 cups unsweetened almond milk
4 large eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup unseasoned pumpkin puree
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp  ground ginger
dash ground nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Put a kettle of water on to heat for the water bath. Place six 6-ounce (3/4-cup) custard cups in roasting pan.
2. Heat milk over low heat in a small saucepan until steaming but not boiling, or use microwave to warm.
3. Whisk eggs and syrup in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Gently whisk in the warm milk (a little bit at a time so the eggs don’t cook). Add pumpkin puree, cinnamon, ginger. nutmeg, vanilla and salt; stir until well-combined.
4. Pour the mixture evenly among custard cups in roasting pan. Pour enough boiling water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the custard cups.
5. Bake uncovered until custards are just set but still quiver in the center when shaken, 45 to 50 minutes. Custard should register at least 160°F in the center.
6. Carefully transfer custards to a wire rack and let cool for 30-45 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until chilled.

Servings: 6

Nutrition Facts
Nutrition (per serving): 142 calories, 36 calories from fat, 4g total fat, 141mg cholesterol, 277.9mg sodium, 194.6mg potassium, 22.1g carbohydrates, 1.5g fiber, 16.3g sugar, 4.9g protein, 144.9mg calcium, 1.1g saturated fat.

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Holding Pattern

April has arrived, and with it we finally have a break in the weather. Old man winter wasn’t quite ready to leave us last week as we got a quick dusting of snow. Thankfully it didn’t last long.

late March snow coming down

late March snow coming down

This week we have daffodils blooming.

April daffodils

April daffodils

And we have bluebirds nesting. Our friend Carla reports hers have 5 eggs already. Ours haven’t laid any eggs yet, but the nest is ready.

bluebird nest is ready for eggs

bluebird nest is ready for eggs

I took advantage of nice weather yesterday to plant kohlrabi and lettuce in one of the cold frame beds. The green pellets in the below photo are Sluggo Plus, which I spread to help control the slugs.

cold frame with lettuce and kohlrabi

cold frame with lettuce and kohlrabi

These plants were started back in February. The kohlrabi variety is Kossak, and it makes nice large edible stems about 90 days after setting out plants. It’s a good keeper too. I did a Saturday Spotlight on it last year, and you can read it here. I spaced these about 10 inches apart to let them get nice and large. I alternated the Kossak between the lettuce plants (Oakleaf, Radichetta and Simpson Elite). I also set out plants for Kolibri and Winner kohlrabi in another bed, which should be ready in about 60 days.

young kohlrabi plant

young kohlrabi plant

Inside the greenhouse, I planted some Asian greens in one of the beds. That’s mizuna in the below photo, and I also set out komatsuna and Yukina Savoy (a tatsoi relative). These quick growers should be ready to start eating in a few weeks.

young Kyoto mizuna plant

young Kyoto mizuna plant

The rest of my planting activities are in a holding pattern, as I wait for the weather and soil temperatures to warm. I have beds prepared for potatoes, cabbage and broccoli, but the soil is still a bit too cold. It was about 45°F yesterday, which is just warm enough to plant potatoes. However I’m still waiting on the arrival of the potatoes I ordered. Last year I planted potatoes on April 6th, so we are not really running behind schedule this year.

soil temperature

soil temperature

The soil needs to be at least 50°F before I set out the broccoli and cabbage, so those plants are hanging out in the greenhouse. Once the soil warms up they will be ready to go in the ground. I rely on soil temperature as well as the calendar when I decide on planting times. Much of the growing activity is going on underground, so it makes sense to keep an eye on the temperature there. You can read more about my planting schedule here.

flat of broccoli plants in greenhouse

flat of broccoli plants in greenhouse

The plants for peppers, tomatoes and eggplant are still inside under fluorescent lights. It will be another month before it’s time to set out any of them. I think they are best left inside for the time being, until they are a bit bigger. I do have a few early types that are sizing up nicely already. I’ll pot them up in larger containers soon, so they can get a nice root system before setting out.

early tomatoes

early tomatoes

That’s a look at what’s happening in the gardening world here at Happy Acres. I hope you enjoyed the update!

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Saturday Spotlight: Kumi Kumi Squash

Lately I have become fascinated with heirloom vegetables, especially the winter squashes. There is such diversity in sizes, shapes and colors, and I find myself wanting to grow them all. These long-keeping vegetables are a mainstay of our winter diet here at HA, in part because many of them keep so well and also because they are so versatile in the kitchen. It doesn’t hurt that they are nutritious and tasty too.

Kumi Kumi squash from August 2013

Kumi Kumi squash from August 2013

Today’s Spotlight is on a Cucurbita pepo squash called Kumi Kumi (or Kamo Kamo by some). This variety is an heirloom Maori pumpkin and is reported to be quite popular in New Zealand. I grew Kumi Kumi for the first time last year. Before that I was not familiar with it. The fast-growing vines rambled all over the metal fence around our vegetable garden. The fencing did a good job of supporting the heavy fruits, as you can see in the above photo, and I plan on growing them the same way this year.

young Kumi Kumi squash hanging out with 7 pound mature one

young Kumi Kumi squash hanging out with 7 pound mature one

Kumi Kumi is somewhat unusual because it can be used at both the green and mature stages. When young, it can be used like a summer squash. It has a mild flavor and texture like zucchini, though I think it has a sweeter taste and a bit drier flesh. I love it sliced fairly thin and then grilled, brushed with a little olive oil and simply seasoned with some salt and pepper. Grilling seems to bring out the sweetness, and the firm flesh holds up well this way. The round shape also makes it a good candidate for stuffing, though I haven’t yet tried them prepared that way. According to the Baker Creek catalog ‘the young fruit can be boiled, fried or baked’.

young Kumi Kumi squash

young Kumi Kumi squash

As they mature, the outside starts turning orange, usually with a few streaks of green remaining. The ridged rind is hard and tough, and can be a bit difficult to pierce with a knife. The thick flesh inside has a rich flavor when baked, but it is a bit stringy when compared to other popular winter squashes like the butternut. The texture is quite smooth when pureed though, so it does well for soups, breads and other similar uses. They are also quite decorative at this stage, though the hard rind would be difficult to carve into a jack-o’-lantern unless you have a power carving tool. The tough exterior makes it a good keeper, and after 6 months in storage ours are all still doing fine, and we haven’t lost one yet.

mature Kumi Kumi has a tough rind

mature Kumi Kumi has a tough rind

After baking I usually use an immersion blender to puree the flesh after scooping it out of the shell. A food processor can also be used. I like to freeze the puree in pint size containers for later use. The puree then finds its way into cakes, muffins, pumpkin bread and soups throughout the year. One of my new favorite things to make is Maple Pumpkin Custard. I’ll try and share that recipe here soon. Of course we also use it to make my wife’s Whiskey Pumpkin Pie, which features a little Kentucky bourbon for extra flavor.

thick orange flesh of Kumi Kumi

thick orange flesh of Kumi Kumi

In the U.S., seeds for Kumi Kumi are available from Nichols Garden Nursery and Baker Creek heirloom seeds (where it is listed as Kamo Kamo). I have not saved seeds from mine because we grow so many other squashes that cross-pollination is almost a certainty.

pureed Kumi Kumi squash

pureed Kumi Kumi squash

I hope you have enjoyed today’s Spotlight on a lovely heirloom squash variety. I’ll be back soon with more adventures.

To see my other Saturday Spotlights, visit the Variety Spotlights page. 

 

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Monday Recap: Hooray For Spinach!

After a dry spell that lasted a couple of months, we are harvesting here again. Spinach from the cold frame made its way into our salad bowls this week. There will be more to come, and from the greenhouse as well. I love fresh spinach, what more can I say! It’s mostly the Giant Winter variety in the below photo, which is one of our reliable and tasty favorites.

March spinach harvest

March spinach harvest

Some of the spinach also found its way onto a pita pizza, along with some arugula. We used some of our roasted Roma tomatoes (from the freezer) on one pizza for a chunky sauce, while the other one had some garlic and herb infused olive oil for a base. We used our Whole Grain Spelt Pita Bread for the crust.

pizza with arugula and spinach on Spelt pita bread

pizza with arugula and spinach on Spelt pita bread

There’s no sign of asparagus yet, but we have plenty left in the freezer from 2013 that needs to be eaten. I made a frittata with some of it, adding some dehydrated tomatoes after soaking them in water to rehydrate. I thawed the asparagus first, and then added it and the tomatoes to the pan with onions and mushrooms and cooked for a bit before before adding the eggs and a little Parmesan cheese. It will likely be a couple of weeks before the first spears of 2014 make their way up from the ground, and that will be cause for celebration here too.

frittata with frozen asparagus

frittata with frozen asparagus

I also grilled some sweet potatoes for dinner one night. Grilling is one of my favorite ways to prepare sweet potatoes, and the mix of purple and orange made for a tasty and colorful treat. I tossed them with a little olive oil and ground cumin before cooking.

grilled sweet potatoes

grilled sweet potatoes

I cooked up some of last year’s Rattlesnake beans, and then refried them to go with a meal of turkey tacos. The beans were great tasting fixed this way. Rattlesnake is a dual-purpose pole bean that is good as both a snap bean and a dry bean. It’s also known for doing well in areas with hot and humid summers, which pretty well describes the southern Ohio Valley that we live in. I did a Saturday Spotlight on it last year which has more photos and information.

Rattlesnake beans after soaking

Rattlesnake beans after soaking

We’re getting ready for the return of bees here at HA. We have a nuc ordered, which we should be able to pickup sometime next month. Bees are in short supply this year, due to high losses last winter, so we were lucky to locate some. My wife has lent her artistic talents to the hive painting. I think it looks great, and with those pastel colors it’s already decorated for Easter! We will start with only one of the deep boxes (blue), and add the others as the colony grows. It will be nice to have honeybees around again, and I am excited about my wife getting into beekeeping along with me.

my wife showing off the new beehive

my wife showing off the new beehive

I found time to do some transplanting in the last few days. Saturday I worked on petunias and peppers. The Wave petunias were started about 3 weeks ago, and they have made great progress in that time. Starting them yourself is an economical way to get lots of them, and not all that difficult. I wrote a piece called Do The Wave back in 2010 that outlines how I grow them from seed. The red petunias are a hummingbird magnet, and I always plant some in the Wild Garden for that very reason. The Wild Garden is an area where we plant things of interest to bees and pollinators, butterflies, hummingbirds and other birds.

petunia seedlings ready for transplanting

petunia seedlings ready for transplanting

My little widger comes in handy at transplanting time. I use it to prick out the seedlings and put them in their new quarters. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply also calls them a nitpicker, but whatever you call it, I use mine all the time, especially this time of year. These little petunias will take off now that they have a little more room. In a couple of weeks I will pot them up one more time into individual 3.5″ or 4″ pots.

using widger to transplant petunias

using widger to transplant petunias

That’s a recap of what’s happening here, and a look at what we are doing with some of our harvests both new and old. To see what others are harvesting or cooking up, visit Daphne’s Dandelions where Daphne hosts the Harvest Monday series.

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Deep Purple Lavender Goat’s Milk Soap

If there’s one thing I have learned about making soap, it’s that things don’t always turn out according to plan. Lately we’ve been experimenting with using natural colorants for our soaps, and I am doing the R&D work, with a little help from my wife. I have been infusing olive oil with natural ingredients like annatto seed (orange), madder root (pink/red) and alkanet root (pinkish red to purple). After infusing, we use the oil to replace some or all of the olive oil in our soap recipe. This soap uses the alkanet infused olive oil for color.

Deep Purple Lavender Goat's Milk Soap

Deep Purple Lavender Goat’s Milk Soap

Alkanet powder is made from the roots of the Alkanna tinctoria plant, and has been used as a dye since ancient times. To infuse the oil, I mixed two tablespoons of alkanet root powder into one cup of olive oil. I did this in a pint size glass jar, which I then put in a crock pot half-filled with water. I turned the slow cooker on low and let the jars sit for about eight hours. Then I strained the oil through a paper coffee filter. The oil wound up the color of blackberry juice, or a merlot wine.

infusing oils using crock-pot

infusing oils using crock-pot

After gleaning what information I could from my favorite online soap making resources, I decided we would use the alkanet infused oil to replace 15% of the total oil weight of the recipe. Since our recipe called for 450 grams of oils, that meant about 67 grams of the alkanet infused olive oil. So far, so good, right?

madder root(L) and Deep Purple Lavender(R) soaps

madder root(L) and Deep Purple Lavender(R) soaps

We used a base recipe we had used before, so the only real unknown in the soap was using the alkanet for coloring. I was aiming for a light to moderate shade of purple, not that it really mattered. That same day we also made a soap colored with madder root. Both were poured into our PVC molds that we lined with freezer paper. In the above photo you can see how the two soaps looked right after pouring.

uncut logs of Deep Purple Lavender(L) and madder root(R) colored soaps

uncut logs of Deep Purple Lavender(L) and madder root(R) colored soaps

After two days, we got the soaps out of the mold and cut them into slices. At this point, the alkanet soap was what I would call a medium shade of purple, as you can see in the above photo. We let the slices dry and cure for about four weeks before using. I was anxious to try them out, and waiting was not easy. During the curing, the alkanet soap kept getting darker and darker until finally it was almost black. So much for a light to medium colored soap!

Deep Purple Lavender Goat's Milk Soap

Deep Purple Lavender Goat’s Milk Soap after curing

I was initially concerned that the color would bleed out and stain the washcloth, or make purple lather. I am happy to report that neither happened. The soap lathers up nicely, with fluffy and creamy white lather. So even though this soap didn’t turn out exactly as we planned, it is still a great smelling and looking soap. For the next batch I think we will cut the amount of alkanet infused oil to perhaps 5% of the total oil weight, or about 22.5 grams. In the meantime we have other soap projects in the works involving naturals colors, so stay tuned.

testing the lather

testing the lather

This soap features a blend of olive, coconut, palm, and castor oil, with cocoa butter and avocado oil added for their skin nourishing qualities. Goat’s milk is used for its moisturizing and emollient properties as well as for the smooth and creamy lather. The primary scent comes from lavender essential oil, with base notes from patchouli. Tea tree essential oil is added for its beneficial properties.

Please refer to the cold process instructions here if you are new to making soap. Always take the proper safety precautions (we wear rubber gloves and goggles when mixing and making the soap).

Deep Purple Lavender Goat’s Milk Soap Print This Recipe Print This Recipe
(A Happy Acres original)

Olive Oil – 135 grams (30%) including 67 grams of alkanet infused oil and 68 grams of plain olive oil

Coconut Oil – 112.5 grams (25%)

Palm Oil – 121.5 grams (27%)

Cocoa Butter – 45 grams (10%)

Castor Oil – 22.5 grams (5%)

Avocado Oil – 13.5 grams (3%)

Frozen Goat’s Milk – 171 grams

Lye – 62 grams  (7% superfat)

Added at light trace:

1 tsp finely ground lavender buds

2 tsp lavender essential oil

1 tsp patchouli essential oil

1 tsp tea tree essential oil

This recipe is for a 1 lb/450g batch (oil weight) of soap. We ran this recipe through a soap/lye calculator, and you should always run your recipes too before making them. This one at SoapCalc is our favorite.

NOTE: This soap is superfatted/discounted at 7%

For more recipes and soap information, check out my wife’s Soap Recipe page. I’ll be back soon with more adventures. Until then, Happy Growing (and soaping) from Happy Acres!

 

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