Vegan, Palm-free Cold-process Soap Recipe

There’s a phrase in gardening that really rang true starting last year with the perennials in my permaculture garden:  “First it sleeps, then the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps!” After watching the garden grow last year and seeing how much was produced, I went about drying herbs from the garden.  I had a short list of projects to try- starting with making tea blends and using the natural soap book I was given so long ago, tinctures, salves, and maybe one day: candles.

I had always been afraid to make soap because of the danger of Lye, but the idea of creating my own blends with things I have grown myself was so exciting to me.  My initial varieties were made using a soap base recipe straight from my book that was more traditional, but involved palm oil instead of lard.  Because of the environmental impacts of both of those products- I wanted to offer a Vegan, Palm-free version.  

All the literature out there talks about mishaps, eruptions and burns caused by improper ratios or carelessness.  It is very important to keep the ratios in proportion for the saponification process and to avoid any of these issues.  I’ve only been making soap for a year, but it seems that as long as you’re careful to measure the exact amount in weight of the materials in the recipe- all should be ok.  Don’t improvise- it’s not like making brownies. Its always important to take this chemistry process seriously, and practice safety.  Suit up and do not touch anything with your bare hands.  Rinse everything that has come into contact with Lye or uncured soap with vinegar and then wash thoroughly in the sink.  Keep a bottle of white vinegar on the counter just-in-case.  Be ready to rinse with vinegar if any lye gets on you.

Safety gear:

  • Safety Glasses
  • Rubber Gloves for handling chemicals
  • White Distilled Vinegar- neutralizes a chemical burn (remember that scene from Fight Club? If not, watch a clip so that it is in your mind whenever you make soap!)
  • Clothing: Long Sleeves, Pants, Closed-toe shoes
  • Workstation and Well-ventilated area. (I mix my lye-water outside on the back deck, near my kitchen where I melt the oils)
  • Each time you make soap, be sure you have everything you will need before you get started.  I always lay out all the supplies and materials to make sure everything is in good shape, which helps avoid sudden trips to the store.
  • Set aside a large chunk of time for this.

Supplies: (Most of this stuff you can get at the thrift-store)

  • FOR LYE: Heat-resistant Glass Pitcher, Food Thermometer, Silicone Spatula, Measuring Container
  • FOR FATS: Large Ceramic-coated Stew Pot, Food Thermometer, Silicone Spatula
  • MEASURING: Food scale (need to be able to tare weights, and do oz/g conversion)
  • BLENDING: Stick Blender (Immersion-style), Silicone Spatula
  • CUSTOMIZING: Various large & medium bowls, smaller bowls for mixing herbs/exfoliants/oils. I reuse plastic utensils for stirring
  • CURING: Soap mold  (Initially, I’d made my own from wooden and cardboard boxes lined with wax paper), Soap Cutter (Ruler and a sharp knife work well), Drying rack (stackable wire baking racks?)

Read through the entire recipe before you begin to make sure you understand the whole process.  This base recipe will make plain, unscented bars.  If you’d like to make them have a certain scent, exfoliating property or healing property- most times, those items can be added just before the base recipe is ready to pour into the mold.

Base Recipe for Vegan, Palm-free Cold Process Soap:

  • Distilled Water (10oz./293.49g)
  • Lye (aka Sodium Hydroxide) (4.4oz./124.73g)
  • Organic Castor Oil (1oz./28.35g)
  • Organic Coconut Oil (6oz./170g)
  • Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (26oz./737g)
  • Grape Seed Extract (natural preservative) (7g)

Makes a 42 oz. batch: approx. 12 bars

* HOT TIP:  I’d just like to point out that several of these items are available at any grocery store and are considered food items so they’re covered by public aid programs.  In my 20’s I’d once been on a version of foodstamps, and kindof wish I knew then how to make my own soap!

Wearing all your safety gear: Measure out the water, bring outside for next step. Measure out Lye and bring outside to the water for mixing in open air. Slowly pour Lye into water stirring slowly to dissolve.  A strong fume will emit during the chemical reaction- do not breathe it.  For safety, Lye must always go into water (not the other way around) Use a food-grade thermometer to monitor the temperature. It will shoot up to over 180ºF when the chemical reaction starts.  Let it drop to 80ºF .  If it’s dropping too slowly, set the pitcher in an icebath to bring the temp down faster.

80º: *keep your safety gear on* Meanwhile, measure out the Oils and heat the pot, stirring just enough to melt any solids.  Both the Water and Oils need to be the same temperature before blending, this may require letting both cool down or heating up the Oils.  When both reach about 80º, pour the Lye Water into the Fat/Oils and begin blending with the immersion blender.  This process is called Saponification- changing the oils into a soap.

Reaching Trace: Be sure you’re still wearing safety gear- It will splash if you’re not careful! Blend with the immersion blender thoroughly for 5 minutes or so. As you’re blending you see the liquid change into more of a pudding consistency.  When you lift the immersion blender- it leaves a trail or “trace” of the blender. Once the soap “reaches trace”, it is ready to be poured into a mold- or you can add scents & textures.

Making varieties: Here’s the point where you might want to add essential oils, special nutrients, or dried herbs.  So far I’ve been able to incorporate many different plants from my garden including: Loofa Gourd, Thyme, Rosemary, Lavender, Calendula, Chamomile, Comfrey, Sage, Rose, Yarrow, and Sunflowers. I pre-blend these into the pot or a bowl depending on what variety of soap I’m making, and add them just after the saponified oils reach trace.

Pour into the mold and wrap with several layers of plastic wrap and an old towel.  I also like to set my molds on an old cookie tray so that they can be moved if needed while they set.  They’ll be slowly cooling and hardening over the next day or few, depending on what additional ingredients were added at the last phase.  Once they’ve set for a few days, take them out of the mold and cut the bars.  Some people like to do a pH test at this point using pH strips from a lab supply company.  Let them continue to cure and harden for 4-6 weeks before using.

Yes, so that was a year of work and a ton of research distilled into one post, so I hope it helps if you’re curious about the soap making process.  If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!  I’m happy to point you in directions of places I have found helpful on my journey. Remember that you’re doing a chemistry process and treat the materials with respect, and you shouldn’t have any trouble.




From the garden: Sore Muscle Salve

When I started thinking about what I’d like to grow in my permaculture garden polycultures, I wanted to include plants with as many ecological services as possible- which is a great approach in limited garden spaces.  These purposes can include plants which have roles in providing food, medicine, beneficial insect habitat, wildlife habitat, plants for craft uses like dye or basket making, and plants for natural building like scaffolding and cordage, as well as creating a natural mulch or providing nutrients for neighboring trees and shrubs. Some multipurpose plants fill many roles in the garden at the same time.

When choosing medicinal herbs, its best to start with growing things you actually will use for your own remedies. I consulted lists of herbs with the most beneficial properties, those that are expensive to obtain organically, and then confirmed that I could process the beneficial plants myself with minimal equipment/inputs.  I chose plants with culinary and medicinal value, as well as plants that provide habitat for beneficial insects and the surrounding plant community. The garden is designed using a polyculture approach, which in permaculture is an intentional group of plants that creates an ecosystem which provides for the needs of one another, each plant holding roles representing a “guild”.   These polycultures can consist of shrubs, herbaceous plants, vines, groundcover, fungi and roots designed to mimic the layers of a forest while harmoniously supporting the needs of a central fruit or nut tree. When you create many polyculture guilds in your garden space you begin to develop a food-forest, but I’ll talk more about that in later posts.

For a small Rowhomestead,  medicinal herbs were included in polyculture guilds for a Serviceberry tree, Fig tree, dwarf Peach tree, dwarf sour Cherry, Hazelnuts and an experimental Almond tree, just to see if it could grow in this climate.  There is also an herb spiral, which allows for growing 14 different herbs in a 5′ diameter and has helped make much use of limited space.  Because the garden is now several years old, harvests are quite a bit more than can be easily kept up with.  The garden is now entering the time when a plan needs to be developed for Permaculture Design Principle 3: Obtain a Yield.

Knowing the garden would continue to produce large yields, I decided to reconnect with the information I began to gather when I was much younger- beginning my training in herbalism by working at a small family-run health food store when I was just out of high school.  I dove deep into my library of herb books and finally took a hands-on Apothecary class in the summer of 2016, to learn methods for creating home remedies.  I started drying plants from my garden and learning to make tea blends (all ways of expressing Permaculture Design Principle 2: Catch and Store Energy).  By that winter, I finally made use of the Natural Soapmaking Book which had been a gift nearly 15 years before from my friend Sherry before she left to join the Peace Corps in Ghana.  I used many of my dried herbs in the 13 soap varieties I had made that first year.

This is all part of my long journey back to what first inspired me.  The desire to connect on a spiritual level with plants- to learn their complexity, medicine and role in the plant community so that I can prepare and share their medicine to help my community. I typically use a folk way in preparing my herbal remedies- which is part of my spiritual journey in switching off my science-mind of doubt and fear and concentrating on my intuitive-mind of what feels right, looks and smells right.  

Heres my first preparation of Salve. Preparing the salve is a 2 step process. First is to create the Herbal Blend Oil by infusing the carrier oil with the healing herbs. I used a blend of my own dried, organically-grown garden herbs with a few things I don’t yet grow.  Not sure if I’ll ever grow tropical plants like Ginger and Turmeric or Eucalyptus in Zone 7, but maybe one day we’ll have a greenhouse or something.

Step 1: Herbal Blend Oil  1 part carrier oil (1:1 blend of organic Olive Oil/organic Coconut Oil) to 1/3 part dried herbs.  I looked at several muscle soothing salve recipes and found I had plenty of the dried herbs from my garden on hand. I am always harvesting and drying herbs throughout the growing season, which I store in large glass jars on my shelf.  Sometimes I’m not sure what I’ll need the herbs for at the time I harvest and dry them, but I know the specific parts I save are useful.  Other times I know exactly why I’m saving them.  It was a bit of a surprise that I had so many ready to go for this recipe.  Other than the store-bought Ginger, Turmeric, Eucalyptus leaves and Chili I had, I was able to use all my own organically-grown garden herbs: (from 2016) Calendula flowers, powdered Comfrey leaves, Chamomile flowers, Rosemary leaves (from 2017) Mint leaves, Lavender flowers, Lemonbalm leaves, and Juniper needles.  My list of additional herbs that can be added to such a salve also includes: arnica flowers, cayenne powder, cramp bark, pine/cedar/cypress/birch leaves needles and bark, St. John’s Wort flower and Willow bark.  I chopped the herbs, blending them and enjoying the fragrance.  Then put the herbs in a small crockpot which I only use for infusing oils and submerged them in oil.  I set the crockpot on low for 8 hours.  After which point I strained the oil through a fine-woven cotton bag (typically used for making jelly) into a clean jar and composted the herbs.

Step 2: Sore Muscle Salve  The next phase was converting the oil into a salve, which means using beeswax to harden the oil.  I followed a recipe for making 4 oz. of salve which had a ratio of:

1/4c + 2 Tbsp – Herbal Blend Infused Oil (recipe above)

2 Tbsp – Organic Beeswax Pellets (Raw/Filtered/Premium Quality/Cosmetic Grade)

10-25+ drops each Organic Essential Oils (Any blend of these work well for soothing sore muscles: Black Pepper, Clove, Coriander, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Ginger, Lavender, Marjoram, Rosemary, Sweet Birch)

Because this is a folk recipe, the specific herbs in the Herbal Blend Infused Oil can vary and the strength of the essential oil blend can vary as per your taste, needs, and what plants and essential oils are available.

I heated the Herbal Blend Infused Oil on the stove for a little while, adding the beeswax pellets and stirring slowly until the pellets dissolved.  At that point I poured the mixture into 2 oz. tins and added drops of essential oil.  I made enough for about 24 containers and set them aside to cool and harden.

Its been a few weeks now, and we’ve already been appreciating the salve after a hard day of gardening work. I’m excited to have positive feedback after sharing them with our other hardworking friends who need a little soothing- whether its from muscle cramps or body aches.  Looking forward to the next project!





Starting something, no matter how small

Using Small and Slow Solutions is one of the 12 Design Principles of Permaculture. This refers to taking steps to begin to put your thoughts, ideas and plans into practice. Not just sitting with them and hoping to one day have the perfect place to create the perfect garden or farm.  Sometimes a small space is all some of us will ever have, and for that alone we should be appreciative. Learning to address issues and work within constraints can lead to some surprising opportunities and outcomes.  

Starting small allows you to sustainably work within your own limitations of time, space, or budget so that you end up having more successes as you define them for yourself. Instead of charging into a large unmanageable situation and getting overwhelmed, taking small steps will provide time for learning as you go and create stronger, more long-term growth. This type of development takes time, like a small acorn growing into a giant oak. 

Learning about the permaculture approach was a homecoming for me, as someone who had the fortune of growing up on a small homestead in rural Illinois. My parents experimented with growing food organically and had an orchard and apiary, with black raspberries growing wild in the little woods next to our home. I felt a deep desire to share my experiences, knowledge, and love of wildlife within my community.

When I started out with my gardening company, I had been subcontracted to work on some permaculture projects which were designed much too large for anyone to manage by themselves.  Sometimes these grand visions lead to half-working systems that are abandoned, not to mention the major expense and labor investment.  Instead of using small approaches and learning from small mistakes, a big mistake can lead to feelings of failure and disappointment. Wider discussions in the world of permaculture often involve people dreaming of one day having land, but this can be unattainable for most people. This led to the feeling that there was something really missing from the discussion in Permaculture Design. So many of us live in urban environments, so perhaps sharing the journey of living with the constraints of small spaces can inspire others to begin their journey where they are, instead of dreaming for more. One of the most inspiring aspects of permaculture is for me its ability to inspire creative solutions to complex problems, which is something that can be realized on any scale.

Noting these observations and interactions led shaped the approach for my own company, much like sitting in your garden and observing the available sun before you start your design as illustrated in Design Principle 1: Observe and Interact.  Permaculture works best when people consider scaling projects to their own realistic available time and money as well as phasing large projects based on what is manageable over a long period, so people grow their skills and management abilities along side their maturing garden space.  

After having had the opportunity to move to a small Baltimore rowhome in 2015, I had an opportunity to design for efficiency from scratch.  Within months, I started growing  fruits, nuts, berries, roots, medicines and herbs.  In addition to having a robust kitchen garden, it was a dream to be able to preserve jam, dry my own tea, process some herbs for medicine, and make soap with the garden yields.  All things I’ve been doing now that the garden is starting to mature. I hope that the Rowhomestead approach can be an inspiring testing place for efficient, accessible and achievable Permaculture Design for regular folks.

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I’ve lived on such a small footprint of this planet.  Maybe they prefer to envision me existing somewhere in the dreamscape of rural farmland, but living in the city on small Rowhomestead allows time to reflect and grow with all of these ideas.  It not only allows freedom to slowly grow my small gardening company: Roots & Sky, but also time to develop efficiency – time to prepare harvests into medicine or make food preserves, address obstacles and dream of new projects. While not everything planted will survive and not every design created works the first time, everything is viewed as a process.  This is part of Design Principle 4: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback.

Since beginning my Permaculture journey, I have had intense dreams of the 13-acre farmette where I grew up. I know that I’ll likely never again be able to live in such a large, beautiful, wild space where my brothers and I had room to roam and play among animals and in the woods as kids.  I also know the lessons and experiences I had while watching our parents experiment in homesteading was a gift that I continue to reflect on, and now I must try to recreate that space and magical feeling in my own garden and share those lessons through the gardens I help create for other people.  To combine what I grew up doing and observing with what I’ve learned though studying and practicing Permaculture in order to really explore what is possible on any scale. This is what I call Permaculture’s “Radical Optimism” and now is a critical time to share it.  Permaculture transcends gardening.  It is a way of life that is generous, respectful and integrated.  It is slow and deep, thoughtful and reflective.  It is adaptable and allows for growth and change.  It can be applied to a business approach, social activism, and survival of the values we embrace to create a holistic permanent culture that uplifts and supports all people, living beings, and nonliving elements.

Starting here and reflecting with Rowhomestead is a chance to learn by doing, and a chance to share the journey and hopefully inspire others.