How to Make All-Natural Insect Repellant

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Summer is in full-swing and the bugs are out in full force! Some of my readers have requested a recipe for an all-natural insect repellant, so I developed formula made with essential oils that works well and smells good, too!

Different essential oils repel different insects, so I used a blend of different oils to cover a wide spectrum of pests. For my recipe, I used cedar, citronella, clove, lavender, peppermint and rosemary with castor oil (which repels mosquitoes) in a witch hazel base.

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces distilled water
  • 3 ounces witch hazel
  • 3.5 teaspoons of essential oils
  • 1 teaspoon glycerine (optional)

Combine well and pour into clean spray bottles.

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Shake well before each use as the water and oils will separate. Spray onto your skin or clothing, avoiding your eye area, covering as much area as possible. Wash with soap and warm water to remove once you are back indoors. Store in a cool, dark place.

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You can vary the recipe by using different essential oils, as long you keep the ratio of no more than 1 part essential oils to 10-20 parts carrier. Here are some of the best essential oils for repelling insects, along with the insects they repel:

  • cedar oil (fleas)
  • cinnamon oil (mosquitoes)
  • citronella oil (mosquitoes and biting flies)
  • clove oil (mosquitoes)
  • eucalyptus oil (mosquitoes, ticks, and lice)
  • geranium oil (ticks and lice)
  • lavender oil (ticks)
  • lemongrass oil (ticks)
  • orange oil (fleas)
  • peppermint oil (fleas)
  • rosemary oil (mosquitoes)

You can use any combination of the above listed essential oils. And instead of witch hazel and water, you can use olive oil, vodka or straight witch hazel without water.

NOTE: If you are pregnant or nursing, do not apply an insect repellent, natural or otherwise, without consulting your physician

IMG_6725This little nymph recently hitched a ride home on my leg from a hike in the woods. If only I had some of my homemade bug repellant with me, he wouldn’t have had a chance!

NOTE: If you are looking for all-natural pesticide recipes, this post on housekeeping.org has a comprehensive collection, including our neem-based recipe.

How to Make Violet Cordial

It’s that wonderful time of the year when violets make their brief appearance, and my yard is filled with the beautiful little deep-purple flowers. A few years ago, I posted a tutorial on how to make violet syrup, and I thought it would be fun to revive that recipe with a twist. I made the same basic syrup, but added some vodka to the mixture to make a lovely violet cordial that can be sipped by itself or added to other beverages to make a light floral cocktail. The variety of violets I have in my yard are only slightly fragrant, so the cordial has a mild floral flavor. Different varieties will yield different tastes.

violetsyrup02I began by gathering 2 cups of violets, making sure to choose only those blooms that were open and free of bites and blemishes. When you are harvesting edible wild flowers, make sure that you are picking them from locations that are free from pesticide or other chemical applications.

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I placed the violets into a colander and rinsed them thoroughly.

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Then placed them in a Mason jar and covered them with 2 cups of boiling water. The water almost immediately began to turn a gorgeous sapphire blue! I let the violet infusion cool, then placed it in the refrigerator and let it steep for 24 hours.

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After 24 hours, I strained out the violet blossoms, squeezing them to get out all the gorgeous purple hue. I placed some in a bowl so that I could show you what a brilliant color it made.violetsyrup07

I placed the strained liquid into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

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Then added 2 cups of organic cane sugar and let this mixture come to a boil.

violetsyrup11I then turned down the heat to medium and let it cook at a low boil for about 10 minutes, stirring often.

violetsyrup10I removed the syrup from the heat, then added the strained juice of half a lemon. The acid from the lemon made the syrup go from deep violet to a beautiful magenta color.violetsyrup09

I then mixed the syrup, 50/50, with organic vodka and bottled it in sterilized capped glass jars, which I bought at the Container Store.

violetsyrup12After letting it sit for 2 weeks, it was ready to decant. It is very sweet by itself, but makes a lovely addition to champagne or sparkling water. Enjoy!

Cool Glass Straws and Hot Simple Syrup!

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A couple of weeks ago, I struck up an Instagram friendship with the good folks over at fellow Green America certified sustainable business Glass Dharma, makers of the original glass straw. In talking to them, I mentioned that I would love a straw, so they sent me one!

It was beautiful and sturdy, and when I tested it out, I was struck by the fact that it doesn’t affect the taste of beverages the way plastic and paper straws do. It was also just fun to use! So the beautiful glass straw inspired me to try some new drink recipes.

I had recently bought a bottle of habanero lime syrup, and thought it would make an excellent sipping beverage. However, the habanero flavor was muted and tasted more like black pepper. So, I decided to try making my own.

In researching habanero simple syrup recipes, I came across Tipple Sheet’s habanero syrup recipe, which I adapted to make my own habanero lime drink.

Simple syrup ingredients:

  • 2 habanero peppers
  • 1 cup organic cane sugar
  • 1 cup water

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I found these gorgeous habanero peppers at my local hispanic market.

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Trim off the stem , and slice the peppers in half. I wanted to have the flavor and some of the heat, but not have it overwhelmingly hot, so I removed the seeds and the white membrane. If you want maximum heat, leave the seeds and membrane intact!

Many instructions I read recommended the use of rubber gloves in handling habaneros. I chose instead to just be careful not to touch the cut edges of the peppers. If you do this, please be careful. And don’t touch your eyes or your family members until you have thoroughly washed your hands after handling these hot peppers!

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In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 1 cup of water and 1 cup of organic cane sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the mixture turns clear, add the habanero peppers.

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Allow the mixture to come to full boil, then turn the heat down and allow it to simmer for 10 minutes

Remove from heat and allow the syrup to cool. Strain into a clean glass jar. The syrup will keep for about 2 weeks if kept refrigerated.

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To make the Habanero Lime Drink, add 1 teaspoon of the habanero simple syrup to 8oz of still water or sparkling water. Add the juice of one half lime and some sugar to taste. This makes a refreshing, yet spicy, drink. Enjoy!

How to Make a Solar-Powered Battery Charger

The storms that blew through the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic on June 29 left us, along with millions of other people and all of the businesses in my town, without power for several days. I was incredibly grateful for a handcrank/solar-powered radio that I’ve had for years. It keep me abreast of the news, and provided some musical entertainment. It also inspired me to figure out how to make some solar appliances for future power outages. I heard stories on the radio of  people buying up batteries, and it occurred to me that I would prefer not to have to rely on them.

So, I headed to a library a couple of towns away (the closest one that was open) and did some research. I decided to start with a solar-powered battery charger since it was an easy first project. It required knowledge of how to use a soldering iron, but I had learned this as a child, having put together many Radio Shack kits with my father. The charger would be a low-cost-of-entry project, and if it turned out okay, I would go on to bigger and better things!

In addition to a 25-watt soldering iron ($8.99) and some solder ($5.49), which I can use for numerous future projects, I found that all I needed was the following items:

1) A solar panel. You need to have a total of 9V to have enough energy to charge your batteries. I purchased a 1W 9V ($16.99), but some articles I read used anywhere from 2V to 4.5V and connected them. You can even salvage some from inexpensive solar garden lights for less than that.

2) A rechargeable battery holder. I chose an enclosed one that can hold four AA’s ($2.29), but they come in a variety of configurations for different types of batteries.

3) A few things I read said that I needed to have a “blocking diode” to make sure that once the batteries are charged, and the light source is taken away (i.e., the sun goes down), that the power doesn’t flow back from the batteries into the solar cell and damage it. However, at one of the Radio Shacks I visited (I ended up going to a total of 3), the guy helping me said it wasn’t necessary, and since I didn’t know the exact number/name of the diode that I needed, I decided to forgo it and do some more reading.

Apparently, there is some debate over the necessity of blocking diodes for such a small project. However, I came across an article by someone who had actually measured the amount of energy flowing in and out, and he concluded it was necessary even for a project of this size. So, after some more reading, I decided to purchase a 2-pack of 1N4001 micro 1A diodes ($1.29).

Once I had gathered all of my materials, the actual putting together of the battery charger was very simple.

1) I soldered the negative (black) wire from the solar panel to the negative (black) wire from the battery holder.

2) Then I soldered one end of the diode to the positive (red) wire from the solar panel, and the other end of the diode to the positive (red) wire of the battery holder. I then trimmed the excess wire.

NOTE: It is important that you attach the diode in the proper direction to make sure that the energy is flowing TO the batteries and is blocked from returning to the solar panel, so it is important to read the diagram on the diode packaging to see which way it should be facing. Diodes have colored (or in my case grayed) bands indicating which end is which.

3) This part is not necessary, but since you have to leave your charger in the sunlight for several hours, it is nice to have some sort of weather protection. So I taped the solar panel to the inside of the lid of a takeout container. You can use anything with a clear top.

4) Once it was assembled, I just inserted four AA NiMh rechargeable batteries and let it sit for a total of 15 hours in the sunlight (I read that it takes anywhere from 10 to 15 hours for the batteries to fully charge).

Once the charging period was over, I transferred the batteries into this little flashlight. It worked like a charm! It was very satisfying to know that I had harnessed the sun’s power for this simple task, and it gave me the confidence to move onto bigger things.

My next project will be a solar USB charger so that I won’t have to worry about running out of juice in my phone during the next extended power outage!

[UPDATE: I came across some new instructions for a solar-powered battery charger in which the author recommended the use of a 1N914 Diode. I don't know enough about the differences between the 1N914 and 1N4001 to say which is more appropriate. If there are any experts out there who can shed some light on this, I would greatly appreciate it!].

How to Make Almond Milk

My daughter has been a vegetarian since age 5. More recently, she has become a vegan. Luckily, she is a wonderful cook, so never lacks for delicious, healthy, balanced meals. And almonds are one of her main sources of protein and omega-3, and she has found almond milk to be her preferred dairy substitute. Finding that she wasn’t satisfied with store-bought almond milk, she learned how to make her own, then passed that knowledge on to me. It is surprisingly easy to make, and far more delicious than any pre-made almond milk you can buy. The following recipe makes about 1 quart of almond milk.

You start by soaking 1 cup of raw organic almonds in filtered water for at least 4 hours (I soak them overnight) to soften them. I buy them in bulk from Whole Foods or other natural foods stores.

You then drain the almonds and place them in a blender with 4 cups of water (you can adjust the water to make a thicker or thinner milk).

Blend the almonds and water on high speed for until very well blend. I used the Liquefy setting.

Pour the blended almond milk mixture through a very fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth and allow to drain. You can press on the mixture with a spoon to help the liquid come through the strainer. You may need to do several batches depending on the size of your strainer. You can either compost the pulp or save it for use in a recipe (see below).

Ta dah!

Your almond milk needs to be stored in the refrigerator, and should stay fresh for about 4-7 day (although I have found that it doesn’t usually last that long in my house!)

I was wondering what to do with the leftover almond pulp, so I did a Google search. And thanks to the wonders of the Interwebs, I found filled with great almond pulp recipes a site devoted solely to almond pulp recipes! I plan to make yummy-sounding savory almond pulp crackers using fresh herbs from my garden.

How to Make Lavender Wands

On a tour of Cherry Hill Farm, a historic Victorian homestead in Falls Church, the docent showed us, among other things, a lavender wand. She explained that Victorian ladies kept them close at hand to mask unpleasant odors (which were apparently fairly abundant in the Victorian days) by daintily waving the wands under their noses. She let us smell the wand mentioning that it was already a year old. The scent was still strong and pleasant. She said by rolling the bulbous part of the wand between your fingers, you can revive the scent for quite a while.

I recalled that one of my herbal books had instructions for making these wands, and since my lavender plant has just started to bloom, I figured I should give this antique craft a try.

The instructions in my book were very hard to follow, especially since they did not have accompanying images, but I managed to figure it out through trial and error. I have laid out the steps, with photographs, to help make this an easy and pleasant experience if you decide to give this craft a try.

1) Cut several lavender stems, making sure they aren’t damp, choosing those with buds that are not fully opened yet. You will want to leave quite a bit of stem to allow yourself to complete the following steps.

2) To make a single wand, select a bunch of stems that have similarly-sized bud clusters. You will need an odd number of stems in order to be able to do the weaving. I like to use anywhere between 9 and 13 stems.

 3) Carefully strip or trim the leaves and stray buds from the stems.

4) Tie your selected stems tightly with a 1/4″ ribbon, right below the lowest buds, but don’t cut the ribbon from the spool at this point. Also, be sure to leave enough ribbon on the loose end to be able to tie a bow once the weaving is complete (I just leave a piece that is about the same length as the stems).

NOTE: If you can, it is best to let the stems sit for 24 hours at this point to allow them to get soft. This will prevent them from breaking when you follow the next step.

5) Bend the stems back over the ribbon and buds, so that it looks something like a closed umbrella without any fabric (and with a bunch of lavender buds underneath it).

6) Now start the weaving process by working the ribbon under and over the stems, gently pulling on the ribbon to make sure the weave is tight.

NOTE: It can be tricky getting the first two rows of weaving started – I often get mixed up regarding which ones go on top and which ones go under. You just need a bit of patience since, once you get to the third row, it gets very easy. I found that the process of making my first wand was really awkward, but after that, it was much easier!

7) Continue weaving until all of the flower buds are covered.

8) Wrap the ribbon around the stems a couple of times and tie into a know.

9) Trim the ribbon, then then the stems, to your desired length.

These wands smell wonderful and make lovely decorations or drawer sachets. Enjoy!

The Story of the Stinkhorn and the Four Thieves

My husband found something very strange growing in our yard, and asked me to come outside to look at it. Elongated, pinkish with a red tip, it looked like some magical sea creature that nature had guerilla crocheted on our lawn. It was bouncy and spongy to the touch. We had no idea what it was, other than some type of fungus, and I have seen enough Sci-Fi flicks to know that I needed to keep an eye on it…

To try and unravel the mystery of this fungus, I turned to my Facebook network of friends. I posted the above photo and within minutes our friend JT, who is knowledgeable on a surprisingly wide array of topics, responded, “Looks like a stinkhorn. Didn’t know we had any around here. Live & learn.” So, I Googled “Stinkhorn” and found on MushroomExpert.com that they are “notorious for popping up suddenly and unexpectedly in urban settings.” They are member of the aptly-named Phallaceae family of fungi and they are called stinkhorns because of the distinctively stinky slime they use to entice bugs to come pick up their spores and spread them around. Ours being newly formed had not developed the slime, so did not have a scent.

I planned to leave it in the yard to see how it would develop, but the next morning when I went to check on it, it was gone, along with a patch of grass around where it had been. Some critter had gotten to it! However, I found another one near where it had been that was fatter and slimier looking than the first. Not long afterward, my friend Andi warned me with some information she had found on eHow.com’s Facts on the Stinkhorn Fungus, “Whatever you do, don’t uproot it. they’ll just propagate.” On the other hand, she noted that “Because of their suggestive shapes, the Phallus and Dictyophora stinkhorns are sold as aphrodisiacs in China,” so I could start a new business! Andi also found that the “eggs” from which certain stinkhorn varieties emerge are “edible and taste like radishes.”

Intrigued by the possible utility of this newly discovered wild plant in my yard, I did some further research. Perhaps I had discovered some new gourmet edible. I found an article by Wildman Steve Brill, who has tried stinkhorns in a couple of different forms, and came to the conclusion that they are flavorless with a weird slimy texture like “mock squid.” I decided I needed to eliminate the second stinkhorn before they took over my lawn.

In the meantime, Andi had found this method for eliminating them:

1) Locate the fungus.

2) Make a mixture of boiling hot water and bleach.

3) Plug your nose with free hand or with the help of a neighbor.

4) Pour the mixture (still hot) onto the fungus. (Add to sneaker tips too for an extra brightening effect.)

5) Repeat steps once a day until the fungus is gone

I had recently bottled a batch of Four Thieves vinegar, so I chose to start with a natural solution, following the above directions but substituting the Fourt Thieves for the bleach. It has been over a week now, and my lawn remains stinkhorn-free.

As a bonus for those of you who have read this far, here are some images from the Stinkhorn Hall of Fame

How to Make Four Thieves Vinegar

Legend has it that during the Great Plague of the Middle Ages, grave robbers would wash their hands in a solution called “Four Thieves Vinegar,” which was very effective in staving off infection. The concoction was made by infusing vinegar with wormwood, rue, mint, sage, lavender, and rosemary. Because these constituents all have known antibacterial and antiviral properties, it seems like a feasible tale. I was fascinated by the idea and since I grow most of these herbs in my garden, I decided to try brewing up a batch.

I looked at various recipes, and decided to go with the basic set of ingredients, plus some lemongrass for its mild insect-repelling and good antimicrobial properties. The finished product can be used externally, and safely, for a variety of purposes: as a surface disinfectant, a hair rinse, a skin cleanser, to treat insect bites, as a hand-sanitizer, just to name a few. While the ingredients are very effective, it is gentle enough to use on pets and kids, just dilute it one part Four Thieves to three parts purified water.

Here is what you need to make your own:

  • 2 tablespoons of Rosemary
  • 2 tablespoons of Sage
  • 2 tablespoons of Lavender
  • 2 tablespoons of Wormwood
  • 2 tablespoons of Rue
  • 2 tablespoons of Peppermint
  • Apple cider vinegar (enough to cover the herbs completely)

You can also throw in cloves, cinnamon and/or garlic for extra potency.

Fill a pint-sized jar with the herbs. For best results, cut the herbs into small pieces, and packed the jar with the herbs, leaving as little space as possible. Susun Weed recommends using a jar with a plastic lid since vinegar can erode metal over time. If you use a metal jar, place a piece of waxed paper between the rim and lid to form a barrier, or use a cork.

Pour room-temperature apple cider vinegar into the jar until it is full, then tightly cap the jar. Label the jar with “Four Thieves” and the date. Place the jar away from direct sunlight, like a kitchen cupboard, or some other place where you will remember to shake it every day or so. After six weeks of steeping, strain the mixture through cheesecloth and place in a clean jar or spray bottle. It will last at least 18 months (some articles I read say up to 30) if you store it in a cool, dry, dark place.

Let me know what you think. Or if you have your own recipe for Four Thieves, I would love to hear about it!

How to Make Kale Chips

I have always loved greens, and so was thrilled when I discovered a bag of kale chips at my local natural food store. The thrill was short-lived, though. The chips were coated in a thick, super-salty, sesame coating, and the prickly stems felt as if they were leaving splinters in my tongue! However, inspired by the concept of kale chips, I set out to make my own.

Here is my list of ingredients:
1 bunch of organic kale
1-1/2 tablespoons organic olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

I thoroughly washed and rinsed the kale, then cut the leaves into 3-inch wide sections. I cut off the tough stems, setting them aside for my bunny to snack upon.

I tossed all of the ingredients together in a large bowl until the kale had a nice, even coating of the olive oil and seasonings (feel free to adjust the seasonings to your taste, or play around with different herbs and spices, like curry or chili powder). Then I spread the kale out on a single layer on a baking sheet, and baked them at 350° F for about 15-20 minutes until they were crispy. They aren’t the prettiest things, but if you like kale, you will love these.

Kale is an excellent source of vitamins K and A, as well as calcium, vitamin C and fiber. For more kale recipes (some vegetarian, some not), I recommend you check out Epicurious and Food Network (my two favorite online recipe sources).

How to Make Organic Bunny Treats

I recently discovered a new blog, Winding Road Farm, written by a woman who, along with her fiancée, is working to build a 10-acre farm in Georgia. She posted an article on the care and feeding of bunnies, along with a recipe for bunny food. This reminded me of some homemade bunny treats I purchased at the BUST Holiday Craftacular back in December. Amy Sedaris was there autographing her latest crafty book, and selling people’s homemade crafts. When I mentioned that I had a rabbit (Sedaris is a big rabbit fan), she pointed out a little bag of of “Elliot’s Cilantro Treats,” which she highly recommended.

Even though my rabbit adores these snacks, I still have quite a few left (because they are treats, you can only give one or two to your rabbit per day). But I wanted to try making my own version, just for the fun of it. While doing an internet search on homemade rabbit treats, I came across a recipe posted on Live Journal by Katie, who apparently is the very same person who made the snacks I bought (Katie, it turns out, is also the author of the Amy Sedaris Rocks website).

In the intro to her recipe, Katie explains “It’s a bit time-consuming and makes a big mess, but it’s worth it because it’s so much healthier than treats sold in stores…” I’ve developed a short-cut version that is pretty quick and not very messy. I may try them again in the future with cilantro or parsley.

Here’s what I used:

* 1 cup organic rolled oats, finely ground
* 1/2 cup organic dried alfalfa powder (I bought this from Mountain Rose Herbs)
* 4 ounce jar of baby food organic carrots
* 4 ounce jar of baby food organic banana (I used a banana-apple blend)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Grind the oats in a coffee or spice grinder to make a powder. Place the powdered oats in a bowl, then stir in the alfalfa, carrots and bananas until well-blended. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes to allow the dry ingredients to absorb the liquid from the wet ingredients.

The dough should be firm enough to shape into a ball. It looks like something a dung beetle would live in.

Roll the mixture into a ball, then place it between 2 sheets of wax paper. With a rolling pin or large bottle, roll it out to about 1/8″ – 1/4″ thick.

Cut out small circles (I used a 1/2″ diameter circle cutter) and place on the lined baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes (don’t let them get too brown), then turn off the heat and let them sit in the warm oven for at least an hour to allow them to thoroughly dry. (Katie points out that this is a very important step that prevents the treats from growing mold).

NOTE: Since these are treats, please limit them to 1 or 2 per day for your rabbit.

my rabbit is a bit camera shy

but it didn't take her long to get over her self-consciousness and dig into her treat