Monthly Archives: April 2014

City Mouse Builds a Country Garden

I was raised in the heart of the city. We lived in apartments (without even a balcony) until I was in my middle-teens. Mom hated to cook so our meals were pretty basic and apart from salt & pepper, the only herb in our house was the cinnamon sprinkled, along with sugar, on my morning toast. Gramma was a little more domestically-inclined: before they moved into an apartment when I was 8, she had fresh peppermint growing in the yard to garnish our iced tea. (I’m exaggerating. But not much.)

So, my exposure to gardens was rather limited. It didn’t bother me at all until I was well into my 30’s. After all, the spice aisle at the grocery store carried nearly every herb I could ever want. But then, the gift of hearing plants that I’d managed to ignore for a few decades really kicked in and I knew I had to play in the dirt. When we built our house in the boonies, the septic drain field was a perfect spot for a large herb garden.

Oh, I had grandiose ideas. I was going to raise enough herbs to dry and sell and I was going to make that my livelihood, retiring from the boring clickety-punch. Hubby built me a 42-foot diameter raised-bed garden. We used eco-friendly treated lumber so it didn’t have the toxic crap seeping into the soil and cypress-mulched the pathways. It was lovely.

Original Garden

But, logic had flown out the window. There were several things I knew but obviously ignored:

  1. Not all seeds germinate.
  2. It takes a lot of dried herb to make an ounce. In some cases, a lot a lot. My beds weren’t big enough to support a commercial enterprise.
  3. Taking care of a garden takes a lot of time. I discovered I’m lazier than I thought.
  4. Mulch decomposes. Fast. The paths had to be re-mulched. Every year. To the tune of $100+ each time.
  5. Mulch also washes away when rainwater gathers speed going downhill.

I also didn’t take into account that I was getting older and some parts of my body might take exception to the hours of squatting necessary to keep the beds weed-free. After only a couple of years, I could only weed for maybe 30 minutes before my hips started complaining. Loudly.

To sort of make up for this, I planted flowers in several of the outer beds, reasoning I wouldn’t need to pay quite as much attention to them as I would the herbs. I ended up with beds of flowers and grass.

Then, the shoulder problems hit. My garden has effectively been ignored for the last two years because first one, then the other shoulder refused to move my arms enough to pull a weed more than a foot away from my hand.

As I mentioned before, the eco-friendly treated boards we used to build the beds started rotting. (They also made nice homes for termites. Ick.) Since the garden had to be rebuilt anyways, I decided it was time to downsize to something I could handle. The inner beds have been slightly enlarged & the outer beds will go away completely. I’ve been in the process of moving dirt from the outer beds to the inner whenever I have time & energy.

Garden in process of rebuild

The other issue is the pathways. Living on the side of a mountain means everything is on a hillside.  Despite our attempts at diversion, there’s no way to completely stop the rain from running downhill & through the garden area. Something to do with gravity, I think?


See all these rocks? They were taken from the dirt I moved from one outer bed. There are thousands like them on our property. The ones we’ve thrown into scattered piles to get them out of our way while mowing don’t move, they allow the water to flow through and over them. So, the paths are going to be made of rocks rather than mulch. It’ll be bumpy for a few years but eventually, they’ll settle down to something resembling a smooth(ish) walkway. Rocks I don’t have to buy and they decompose much more slowly than mulch.

The new beds will hold herbs I have a relationship with and use frequently. I felt bad having to discard some but hope I did a good job explaining why not all would be moved. One more bed will be built below the retaining wall to hold the rest of the dirt from the outer beds & I’ll put all the flowers there. I figure it’s going to take me another month before things will be the way I want them and a year before everything grows in & it actually looks like I hope it will.

The moral of Martin’s Fable: think before you plan. When it comes to gardening, everything takes more time and costs more than you hoped it would.



On Essential Oils

The Internet is a wonderful place to find information. It really is. But some of the time, the information is incorrect. And it pisses me off.

What prompted this post: a page I follow on Facebook shared this page about making “Rosemary Essential Oil”. It was shared numerous times before and even after another lady and I corrected it in the comments, thereby spreading the misinformation even further. The instructions tell how to make Rosemary-infused oil. While I have nothing against infused oils (I use them a lot), it’s totally different than Rosemary essential oil.

“Essential oil” (EO) is the volatile oil component of a plant. It’s what gives the plant its smell. For most plants, it is extracted by steam distillation*. There are some plants, though, where the oils are pressed out (as in citrus from the peel). Yet others don’t have enough oil to press out and the heat of distillation would evaporate any volatile oil so those are extracted by using a solvent.

Motivated by that post, I started perusing the Internet to see what was out there on making essential oils. There are a bunch of sites that tell you how to do it at home, some even giving instructions on how to build your own still. There’s a problem even with that: I found very little discussion of how much plant material you’re going to need to obtain a decent quantity of essential oil.

From Hammacher-Schlemmer

Copper Alembic from Hammacher-Schlemmer

Some plants have more oil than others. This is why, when you buy pure essential oils, the prices vary widely. If you’re looking at a shelf of EO bottles and Rose is the same price as Lavender, walk away. It takes approximately 60,000 Rose blossoms to yield just one ounce (by weight -a little less than an ounce by volume) of Rose essential oil. Conversely, only 220 pounds of Lavender flowers will produce about 7 pounds of oil. The more oil in the plant, the easier it is to get in quantity & the cheaper it’s going to be**.

One of the sites I saw suggested drying your herb before putting it into the still. That way you can get more material crammed in there. All well & fine if you’re using something like Lavender with a lot of volatile oil in it. But what about, say, Lemon Balm? That has so little volatile oil that nearly all of it evaporates in the drying process. You’d be lucky to get just a few drops of EO off a pound of dried leaves.

I make a lot of my own hydrosols (flower water) on top of my stove, using a method described in James Green’s book, The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. (Which, by the way, I highly recommend.) When I’m using strong-smelling plants, like Rosemary, I’ll get a few drops of essential oil floating on top of the hydrosol, which I draw off with a pipette. I’d probably get a little more if I actually used an alembic & distilled it. But even with my large Rosemary plants & a bountiful harvest, I still wouldn’t get enough oil to fill multiple bottles.

If you want to try distilling your own essential oils at home, by all means, do so. Just don’t expect to have 50 bottles of Rose essential oil to sell, unless you have a field of nothing but aromatic Rose bushes and a lot of time.

Please don’t believe everything you read on the ‘Net. It ain’t all correct.

* The process is very much like making moonshine and the equipment is nearly identical. When I mused about buying an alembic, hubby said OK if he could “borrow” it for his own use. I haven’t yet purchased one but if I do, I think I’ll have to guard it…

**The most expensive essential oil I’ve found thus far is Lotus Blossom. Last I saw, it was selling for £400 ($665) for five milliliters.