Natural Colorants in Soap

I was inspired by my quasi-successful rebatch this week and decided to try making some more cold process soap. I had planned to do an olive oil and coconut oil soap, but we were low on the olive oil so I opted for a lard and coconut oil soap instead. I decided to follow a premade recipe, since my last attempt at making my own recipe was a disaster, and found one here. I want to use both coconut oil and lard because coconut oil is a bit of a harsh cleaner but it also makes nice bubbles, while lard is a gentler cleaner that doesn’t make much bubbles at all. Most good soaps are made with multiple oils, and often more than two. Some people make 100% coconut oil soaps and then superfat them to make up for the harsh cleaning, but I think it would be better to try to make a soap that doesn’t strip away that base layer of natural oils in the first place, rather than one that strips them off and then replaces them with coconut oil.

Anyway I’m also really interested in finding natural ways to color my soap. It’s considered tricky unless you count lab-made mica as natural. Many plants don’t stay the same color after reacting with lye, and while you can find huge lists of natural soap colorants online, it’s pretty doubtful that their authors have actually made all these soaps to verify that their methods will work. Even if you can find tutorials with photos, they’re typically photos of freshly-made soap so it’s hard to say what it will actually look like once the soap is cured. A lot of soapmakers are pretty poo-poo on using natural colorants in their soap, many because they’ve been burned in the past by a bad experience. Coffee soap, though, is a tried and tested recipe, and I happened to have everything I needed to make coffee soap, so I decided to start there.

I’m not going to write a full tutorial on how to make cold process soap, because smarter people than me have already done such a good job, and also if I explain it wrong there’s a chance someone could hurt themselves. Soapmaking isn’t dangerous as long as you’re careful with your lye and your measuring, but you do need to know what you’re doing and use a bit of caution. The first time I made soap I was following this recipe but I ended up not liking the soap, so maybe that’s not the tutorial you want to follow. This book is $3 and I think it’s quite good.

To make simple coffee soap, all you have to do is take any cold process soap recipe and replace the lye water with double-strength coffee. Brewing it double-strength should help to get a more intense color. It can be old coffee and can be brewed with old grounds or coffee that you don’t like the smell/flavor of. None of that matters because none of the smell will make it into the final result, only the color. If you want your coffee soap to smell like coffee, you probably have to use a coffee-scented fragrance oil, preferably one designed for soap. I didn’t have that and I’m not really sure I want my soap to smell like coffee anyway, so I used some plum fragrance oil as well as a lavender+citrus+rosemary essential oil that I already had.

If I had one of those big slab molds, I probably would have made two batches of soap at the same time, one with coffee and one with plain water, which allows you to make some nifty designs. Alas I have no such mold, and barely enough to mold up the 2lb of soap that a single batch of this recipe would make, so I didn’t. (Halving/doubling recipes can be problematic in soapmaking so I’d rather just not go there right now.)

Soap rebatch, and why the heck?

Not entirely wrong.

This week I rebatched the first batch of soap I ever made, which was a 100% Castile soap recipe. I haven’t done much soapmaking and this had been my most successful batch yet, but it went completely unused and unloved because:

  • The soap was a bit rough on the hands. I don’t think it was technically lye-heavy, but it wasn’t superfatted at all and it made my hands feel itchy and dry after I used it.
  • It didn’t bubble. I didn’t understand what I was signing up for by making 100% olive oil soap. Castile soap doesn’t really bubble without extra additives, it just feels slimy.
  • I had added fragrance oil when I made it, but it had burned off during saponification, so there was no fragrance in the finished bars.
  • I had poured the original soap into some silicone candy molds, which were pretty but only served to accentuate the hard edges of my hard soap. Ouch.

So I grated it back down and rebatched it, which involved melting it in the slow cooker and adding heavy cream, coconut oil, and more fragrance oil. Rebatching is a way to fix many different problems with soap, but it never really ends up looking as smooth as the original soap. In my case I don’t mind, since this soap is for me, partially as a learning exercise and partially for home use, and I certainly want a soap that feels nice on the skin over a soap that looks good.

Why even make my own soap at all? In my area, even the “locally-made artisan soap” contains palm oil, which involves supporting slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropics, and I’m just not down with that. Nearly every brightly-colored soap also contains mica, which poses its own set of health and environmental concerns. I’m sure there are some issues with my soap as well, but at least I have a path forward to eliminate those issues as I find them. My next batch will likely be an OO+coconut oil soap, but eventually I’d like to find a recipe that works with more local ingredients. Coconuts don’t really grow here and olives are a bit of a stretch, although there is at least one grove in the Gulf Islands. Switching to local ingredients would likely mean switching to a recipe that uses more animal fats, possibly rendered pig lard, which I am OK with as long as the pig was raised and slaughtered in humane conditions. Lard is also supposed to make pretty good soap.

Another alternative in the PNW, especially for household cleaning, is the soapberry bush. I’d like one of these eventually but it’s probably a bit much to try to replace all my soap needs with it.

Anyway, I unmolded the first bar last night and I thought it was pretty funny because, as a rough rebatch soap, it didn’t fill the mold completely, so rather than being stamped with the words “100% HAND MADE” it says, “100% HAND MAD”, which isn’t an entirely-inaccurate way to describe some of my DIY motivations.

PS — tested out the soap. It feels good and it’ll clean ya!

April 2018 Garden Tour

The main gate onto our property, with a couple small garden beds I added. The fence needs painting but neither of us have signed up for that yet.
Most of the front yard is an ornamental garden, but there are a few fruit plants. The bed on the right here has blueberries and the corner bed will have raspberries once I pull out the dead tree and finish building the bed.
Dwarf nectarine and dwarf peach in pots, with a couple mints and a makeshift cold frame in the background. Trees were a gift from my partner’s dad. ❤
Backyard veggie bed. The fencing is vestigial from when the backyard didn’t have a full deer fence.
In the left bed I have a few types of onions, including potato and walking onions, as well as purple broccoli and lettuce (lettuce not pictured).
Middle bed has asparagus, rainbow chard, a single squash and a few other things that haven’t quite come up yet. The asparagus will likely be here long after the structure around it has come down.
Woodshed is low, but we have a bit more wood elsewhere on the property. Hopefully we won’t need much more this spring since it’s nearly May!
Mini-hugelkultur bed has tamped down a lot from rain and possibly a bit of decay. The wildflower seeds are starting to germinate.
Perennial stand of nettles has potential but I need to pick them soon if I want to do something with them this year besides chop and drop.
There are a few mature deciduous trees on the property. Not sure what this is but it’s flowering.
The water barrel that came with the property. We got a second that needs to be hooked up to the front and I want to eventually get a few more.
Gate into the back. It needed to be wide enough to fit large machinery due to the septic. Our friend who built it says the “MM” was coincidence.
Not sure what these are either but they don’t mind fending for themselves and they’re very cheery.

Weeds, volunteers, mistakes and surprises

I was weeding the lettuce patch after a rain today and saw a few very odd-looking weeds that were really taking off. They didn’t look like the geraniums or wild lettuce or thistles or anything else I usually get in the veggie beds,  but there were several of them all in the same area. Imagine my surprise when I pulled them up!

I don’t believe we ever planted these, and the previous owner put their potatoes in a different bed, so I guess this happened somehow when I was building up the beds and shifting some dirt around. Sometimes mistakes can be OK.

volunteer potato in an ad-hoc bed
Not going to tower these because I have no idea if they’re indeterminate, but hopefully they like it here okay.

Living in Compost Anarchy

Here on Pender Island, many people are looking to reduce the amount of garbage they produce, partially because many of us love nature and partially because we have no municipal garbage collection service. In our house it’s a bit of both. We have always composted and recycled where we could, but now that we have no garbage collection and plenty of space for compost bins, I’m turning it into an extreme sport. My primary motivations are to minimize the amount of waste that ends up in the trash and maximize the amount of fertility I return to the soil.

With conventional composting guidelines, you are not even allowed to put veggie scraps in your compost if they have been “contaminated” by contact with meat or cheese. The primary purpose of avoiding meat and cheese in your bin is to deter rats. Rats also enjoy veggies, “contaminated” or not. If you have rats in your bin, it’s most likely that their food source is the veggie scraps in the bin — or the tender young veggies in the garden itself.

The typical composting advice that comes with your typical suburban black bin or urban green bin comes with a very restrictive list of rules about what can go into the bin and why. This may make sense if you are in an apartment and your compost is going to be collected by city workers who aren’t equipped to handle the gross stuff. If you are a suburban gardener who is looking for fast and easy compost, then keeping things like meat scraps out will help you avoid dealing with rats, and turning your compost regularly does tend to help it decompose faster.

However, like most types of systems, there are really very few hard-and-fast rules to setting up a compost system.  If you’re aging your own compost, these guidelines make sense if your goal is to produce a moderate amount of compost quickly for a small garden. That’s not my goal, so (spoiler) I’m not following them.

There is a small but growing movement of people who are starting to experiment with alternate methods of composting and pushing the limits on what can be composted in the systems that we already have. Some of these folks have always been around, but with the recent resurgence of interest in self-sufficiency, more people are starting to give it a try, if for no other reason than to give their garden a much-needed boost.

Bruce Darrell of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Tipperary is the producer of the RED Gardens series, in which he grows several different types of food garden (such as the no-dig and intensive methods) to try to compare their relative yields as well as the number of hours required to maintain them. One of his other experiments, the “No Rules Compost“, is how he manages to generate enough compost to maintain the half-dozen or so gardens that he manages. The “No Rules Compost” actually has one rule: if it was recently alive, it can go in the bin, and “recent” is relative (as things like paper are OK). He has been using this method for several growing seasons now and has reported no issue with crop failure or disease, only an issue with rats, and he makes a strong case for why those rats would be more difficult to deal with if they were not attracted to his compost, since they’re attracted to his garden regardless and he can rig up his bin to serve as a massive rat trap. At this point, his pest management strategy actively relies on attracting rats to the bin.

Bruce is not alone in this “anything goes” composting strategy; Extreme Composting by permaculturist David the Good offers a similar perspective on what can be composted, along with detailed tips and ideas on how to avoid some of the work and the “ick” factor. For example, if you can’t deal with the idea of pests getting into your old meat scraps, you can always just dig a hole and bury it. If buried correctly this will mask the smell from both you and the rats, so they don’t even know it’s there. Maybe this won’t work if you live in an area with other pests, or a much worse rat problem (as rats can dig a bit), but it works for David the Good and it also works for me — though with my shallow Gulf Island soil, I can never dig as deep as I’d like and top off each hole with a piece of old board and a couple rocks to weigh it down. The beautiful thing about composting is that it’s actually very simple and versatile, so if this doesn’t work for you, there’s always something else you can try.

Vermiculture (or worm binning) is another form of composting where you’re repeatedly told not to put meat in the bin, but again, if you have a large and healthy worm bin, there is no issue in feeding them meat scraps in moderation. They will clean the bones off for you, at which point you can dry them and grind them up for bone meal in the garden. Free bone meal sounds like a good deal to me.

It’s easy to tell how a leach field is laid out underground, because the plants near the tank and pipes are so much happier.

Humanure is another intriguing development in the world of extreme composting and while I’m not sure I’m quite ready to take that leap myself, I can’t deny that every septic field I’ve looked at in the middle of a dry BC summer has been yellow-brown with bright green grass where the septic is laid.

So… for the past year, my partner and I have been going the “compost (almost) everything” route. When we moved in around this time last year, there was 1 black bin with a small amount of uncomposted material on the bottom. A year later we had two entirely filled black bins plus an overflow compost pile in the back yard. Surprisingly to me, despite following none of the rules, the bottom two feet of bin 1 was filled with rich, black, nearly-finished compost. The only uncomposted material in the bottom of this bin were some cedar roots, so in the future my “anything goes” composting will be an “anything goes but the cedar” bin.

Artist’s representation of a hugelkultur bed over time.

This past week, rather than build or buy more bins to contain more compost, I sorted out our yard waste “burn pile” (which we have never burned) into cedar branches and everything else, which included a bunch of weeds, a couple small pine trees, and woody clippings from a variety of different bushes and trees. I dug a shallow trench in the backyard and layered the big pieces first, then the little pieces, then the compost, so that the new layers would fall and fill down into the gaps of the previous layers. Then I covered the whole mess with a layer of topsoil and seeded it with a bee and butterfly wildflower mix. The end result is a mini-hugelkultur bed that will hide our unsightly decomposables while they work, and hopefully attract pollinators into our garden. The wildflower roots should help prevent the pile from eroding away down the slope of our backyard.

And of course, we get to use our compost bins again!

On the uses and acceptability of tinkering

One of the things I love about our Pender house is that the previous owners left so much stuff behind, giving us ample opportunity to experiment with all sorts of DIY skills without fear. Every new skill teaches you a new facet of how the little bits and pieces of our world are assembled. It is incredible, to me, to be able to look at a thing and begin to understand how it was put together, why it was put together that way, and what that may say about its creators.

Ask ten different people to create an herb garden, with no further instructions, and you’ll get 10 wildly different results, all of which will be interesting for what they imply about the person who made it. The beautifully-finished cedar staircase planter filled with multiple copies of the same four basic herbs could be the work of someone who enjoys the aesthetics or the carpentry more than the gardening and cooking, while the rough pallet-hack planter filled with rare plants might indicate a gardener or a chef who’s either impatient or a carpentry novice.

A collage depicting three wooden planters of wildly different styles.
All three of these are approximately the same item — a wooden planter. None of these implementations are wrong, but they reflect the different priorities of their creators.

It can be difficult to tell, sometimes, whether an aspect of the piece is rough because the creator was inexperienced or they simply didn’t care, unless you yourself are an expert in that field. This is true for nearly any skill, I think.

Some skills are great for random tinkering and that should be encouraged. Other skills shouldn’t be practiced “live” except by those who are already trained up to a certain level of competence, because a wrong step could cause great harm to yourself or others. There is a reason that dog grooming classes don’t practice on dummy dogs with nylon hair, that hair salon schools allow students to (eventually) cut hair in class, and that surgeons are only permitted to cut into a live patient after extensive training.

I have more thoughts about this but it’s late and I’m still percolating.

Long time no see…

I can’t believe it’s been over 16 months since the last post… it’s been a very busy year and a half. Some updates based on my current About (which is soon to change):

  • My name is still Meg!
  • I am now 28!
  • I have moved from Vancouver, BC to beautiful Pender Island, BC.
  • I have pivoted from the 3D pipeline and game industries back into my original love, web development. But I do still dabble in Unity now and then.
  • Partially as a result of moving to Pender, I now have a much more extensive and successful garden than I used to. But there is always room for another project!
  • I got back into Facebook, used it for awhile, remembered why I didn’t like Facebook, and finally deleted it permanently.
  • Our beautiful old man cat, Heathcliff, passed away a few months after our move. We buried him in the back yard, in the kind of grassy, shady spot that he loved to laze in back when he was still an outdoor cat (before my time!).
  • We welcomed several new arrivals into our home, all rescues. Our dog, Charles, was adopted through the Burnaby SPCA and our three kittens were adopted through my partner’s dad, who was chosen by a pregnant cat to be her new human. We offered to take any of the “leftovers” and are now the proud roommates of three black beauties, all slightly different in looks and very different in personality.

I hope to post more soon. I like to share things about my life and what I’m working on sometimes, but the current state of social media makes me uneasy, so resurrecting the blog seems like the thing to do. I am thinking of adding a wider mix of topics since my interests have expanded so much since the last time I ran this blog, as well as some shorter posts just to keep in the habit of writing.


Gone, but not forgotten.