Deborah J. Martin - A witch and a bitch with an herbal itch - and an overactive imagination.
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City Mouse Builds a Country Garden

April 21st, 2014

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?

Rocks

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

April 2nd, 2014

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.

 

 

 

“Upheaval” Excerpt

March 21st, 2014

I know as “The Herby Lady” I’m supposed to be all about herbs but I’m having fun writing fiction. There’s nothing more satisfying than writing someone you know into a story…and if you don’t like them, writing them out of the story!

That said, I can’t seem to get away from herbs. To prove it, here’s an except from the upcoming Upheaval: Ogre’s Assistant #2:

After lunch, she took me into her greenhouse, both cats following. “I understand Gregory did a lot of energy work with you and what you did at the fight kinda shows that he did. So, I’m not going to focus on that with you right now. The greenhouse is a good place to get you used to plant energy. Let’s start with one of the friendliest I know, peppermint. Focus on the plant and tell me what feelings you get or what your gut tells you.”

I tried not to feel silly when I stared at the plant. But all of a sudden, I got the same feeling like you do when you open the refrigerator door on a hot day – a wash of cool air.

“It’s in the second book but I’ll tell you that means in healing it’ll bring down fevers. For spellwork, I use it if a situation needs “cooling off”. Naturally, it has other uses but generally speaking, the first impression you get is the one where it’ll work best for you.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“For the most part, every plant has more than one medicinal or magical property. The overlap is mind-boggling. So if you need something for a specific situation and you don’t have it, there’s almost always a substitute. Because your energy goes into anything you do, the better your connection with the plant, the easier the work, whether you’re drinking tea for an illness or casting a spell for something.”

I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t get sick so I had no idea about illness – unless you counted the occasional hangover. Ibuprofen and gallons of water healed me there.

Over the next couple of hours, she introduced me to about half the plants she had, some in flats ready to go into the ground when it got warm enough, some that were permanent residents in the greenhouse.

Peppermint wasn’t the only one I got something off of. Basil gave me an image of Martin – it must be good for money; off sage I got a hot, desert-dry wind – drying; mugwort made me giddy but I felt a cocoon surround me – you can get high off it but it’s good for protection; and so on. I wrote all my impressions in my notebook which, according to Cassandra, I’d be transferring to the second binder.

Then there were the plants where no matter how hard I focused, I got nothing. Feverfew? Lavender? One of her ferns? Zip. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Some are easier than others, and some you’ll never form a true connection with. Just make notes of what I tell you in case you need them for something.” I furiously scribbled.

All of a sudden, I heard Cassandra yell, “Hey!” I looked up from my writing to see her shooing both cats away from a plant in a deep pot. I could see the soil was disturbed and both of them had sheepish looks on their faces.

“You know better,” she chided Merlin. “I’m sorry, I could not help myself,” I heard from Fudge.

She sighed. “I should have known better. They were after the valerian root.”

“Valerian? Is that a form of catnip?” I asked, pen poised to write down her answer.

“No. Believe it or not, some cats don’t like catnip. However, some react to valerian or chamomile in the same way. I knew about Merlin’s affinity for valerian and it appears Fudge has the same love for the herb. Here. Smell this.” She held out a large amber jar with the lid off.

I took a whiff and almost choked. “Eeew. That smells like freshly-worn gym shoes.”

She laughed as she screwed the lid back on. “I know, right? But cats seem to like it. I’ll give you a little in a muslin bag for Fudge to play with once in awhile.”

See? I can do herbs & fiction together! Upheaval: Ogre’s Assistant #2 should be available soon. It’s all done but the cover. In the meantime, Stressed! Ogre’s Assistant #1 is available on virtually all e-book platforms.

I’m Spring Cleaning & You Benefit!

March 20th, 2014

It’s the Spring Equinox here in the northern hemisphere and I have some “cleaning” to do. You see, the publisher of A Green Witch’s Formulary sent me a double order of my books and I have stacks of them in my office.

Because I’m a neat-freak & those stacks bother me, you benefit! From now until Beltane (1st May) or when I run out – whichever comes first, I’ve marked my inventory down to $7.50 instead of $13.95. That means you US folks get an autographed copy shipped to you for less than the cover price! (I can’t easily calculate overseas shipping but I’ll honor this price to you, too!)

Hurry! Supplies, while somewhat plentiful, are limited. Click here to take advantage of my irritation at piles of books in my office!

Adventures with Kyphi

March 13th, 2014

So…you have probably heard of Kyphi. No? Ooh…you’re missing out.

Our friends over at Wikipedia describe Kyphi as “a compound incense that was used in ancient Egypt for religious and medical purposes”. The good folks over at Ancient Egypt Online list four different sources for Kyphi recipes.

Since getting called by an Egyptian god, I figured I ought to do something kinda familiar to him so decided to make a batch of Kyphi. I opted for a modified version of that found in the Harris Papyrus but then … proportions? More rootling around the ‘Net and I found this site where she talks about making Kyphi, complete with proportions.  I modified that a little further to suit my own needs and then made up a shopping list – I’ve been rather lax in keeping my herbal stock up.

Once I had all ingredients in hand, I started in. The first thing to do is grind all the dry ingredients. Oh, not to a powder but awfully fine. (I’m a Virgo. Neatness counts.) I’ll say it here: I didn’t use a mortar & pestle. Grinding resins is a bitch, especially when you’re a little person without much in the way of upper body strength. I have a coffee grinder used solely for grinding herbs. It got a workout.

Problem one: the Frankincense is sticky. It ground up all right – and then immediately stuck to itself. I broke that up as best I could but I still ended up with little perls of it. (Shudder. Not neat.) (I found out later if you freeze resins overnight before grinding, they won’t be nearly as much of a pain. I made a note.)

Dry ingredients in one jar? Check. Wet ingredients in a second jar? Check. Shake both daily, giving loving intentions all the while. Two weeks later…

Problem two: couldn’t find fresh juniper berries so had to use dried. I use dried berries a lot and they generally plump up okay when soaked in a liquid but juniper berries don’t have as much meat as some others & they didn’t quite “plump”. (Makes sense. They’re not actually fruit but seed cones.)

Smoosh the juniper berries & raisins with the rest of the wet ingredients, try to make a smoothie out of it. Again, I prefer modern conveniences: hand mixer instead of elbow grease.

Modern WitchesMostly successful. Combine slightly-lumpy smoothie with kinda-lumpy dry ingredients. Admire subsequent goopy substance.

Dust fingers with powdered benzoin, form the goop into little balls. Dusting didn’t prevent my fingers from looking like those of a toddler eating without utensils. (It’s not too horrible tasting if you lick your fingers. Just sayin’.)

Kyphi Balls

Although I own a dehydrator, I wanted the timing to be “old-fashioned”, so I let my little balls of goop air dry for an additional two weeks.  This is the only advantage I can think of to low humidity in the house. Static electricity be damned – these little guys dried HARD!

Finally, six weeks after I’d decided on the project, my incense was ready to be tested out.  Fired up a charcoal disk in an incense burner, plopped one ball on the disk & waited to be transported by the scent. It did smell heavenly. I’m usually not a fan of sweet scents but the whole combination is sweet/spicy. I can see why the Egyptians concocted this incense.

Kyphi on Charcoal

Problem Three: It’s been a long time since I used combustible incense and now I remember why. Within minutes, my eyes started burning – even sitting at the other end of the house. (I’m a smoker and smoke bothers me. Go figure.) Although it didn’t put out a horrible amount of smoke (the alarm didn’t even cheep), I ended up opening a window in 40°F weather & putting the burner on the sill until it was done.

So, I want to “burn” Kyphi for this guy but can’t handle the smoke. What to do? Enter the oil-warmer, generally used for – what a concept – warming essential oils.

Kyphi in Oil Warmer

I poured a little water in the top of the warmer & plopped another ball of Kyphi in there. The ball melted and as it did, released the scent beautifully without irritating my eyes. It’s a balancing act – you want little enough water that the herb mixture gets good ‘n hot but not so little that it burns & starts smoking. This is my solution. It does leave a goopy residue when it’s done but cleans up easily with hot water. (Now I have to find a suitable, masculine-looking oil warmer. Pink ain’t his color.)

I had so much fun making the Kyphi, I ‘m going to make more. Plus…I’m working on a custom incense blend for a friend. Didn’t like the first combination so try, try again. But oh, it smells so loverly in my shop…!

 

Ack! Pollen Season…

March 11th, 2014

…started two weeks early this year & caught me unaware. Itchy eyes, itchy skin, a little sneezing (which is bound to get worse if I don’t do something). Of course, it didn’t help that today, the US Forest Service did a controlled burn and smoke permeated the better part of two counties…

It’s time to take more frequent showers to get the pollen off my skin & out of my hair; grab the sterile saline solution* to rinse my eyes; and start drinking three cups per day of a Nettle infusion to combat respiratory reactions to all the pollen.

* Get the stuff made for rinsing contact lenses. It’s less expensive than anything else and works like a charm.

Polling the Delegation

February 28th, 2014

I love writing. I really do. But given that my day job also involves staring at a computer screen for hours on end, I need to get off my butt and do something on occasion. (Something that doesn’t involve housecleaning…)

When I had my shop open, that was easily accomplished. I’d be bagging herbs, making products, shipping products out…everything involving movement – and no computer screen. I miss that. Especially in the winter months when I can’t do anything in the garden.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an overwhelming itch to make something so I started rootling around the Internet for a project. It had to involve herbs and had to be something I found interesting. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, this is the ‘speriment I mentioned.

A lot of my ‘speriments don’t produce results but I have fun in the trying. This project actually came to fruition and I like it! Plantable gift tags are made of recycled office paper (I generate a lot of that), recycled twine and seeds. Your gift recipient simply plants the disk (after removing the string & instruction sticker on the back), waters it and in a couple of weeks, voilá! Herbs!

Original Papertag Planted Papertag

Pics are lousy, I know. I’ve never claimed to be a good photographer. There are baby seedlings in that pot that don’t show up.

I know it’s not a unique idea but… I was thinking about offering a set of 4 for $4: one each Basil, Catnip, Thyme and Sage. What do you think? Is this something I should pursue?

 

Taking Witchcraft to Work

February 24th, 2014

I’m lucky…I’m self-employed and my office is in my house so I can decorate and/or do anything I damned well please. The majority of the witches I know, however, aren’t that lucky. They work in a corporate environment and nine times of ten, whether the boss knows about their witchy tendencies or not, have to keep things under wraps in their office or cubicle. What’s a corporate witch to do? There are several things that, on the surface, are totally innocuous but have underlying magical capability:

Mr. Light(This is a cool idea)

Plants are a wonderful way to bring magic into your workspace – especially if you have a window. My favorite is Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). It helps with concentration and memory. However, she likes a lot of light so if you’re stuck under nothing but fluorescent, she may not like her environment. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) will grow – slowly – in an office and is one of the herbs used in spells to attain success. It is also a calming herb – great for office stress. Virtually any Mint (Mentha spp.) will grow in low light conditions and are also great for concentration, cleansing away negativity and in money (paycheck) spells.

Don’t have enough light for even a low-light plant? Try a bowl of potpourri. Unless you have a co-worker allergic to everything, the light scent shouldn’t be enough to bother anyone but you. Find a pleasing bowl, mix up some herbs with success/money/tranquility properties, infuse them with your intent & keep it on your desk. Stir it occasionally to release fragrance and magic.

Crystals are another way to “pretty up” your space with magic and no one the wiser. You’ll just be another person who likes pretty rocks. My husband (who isn’t even the magical sort) has a smoky quartz sitting on top of his computer case. Among other attributes, it removes negativity and fosters group cooperation. You can have one or more scattered around your office, or a small bowl of them, properly charged, and no one will be the wiser.

If you can have candles lit (most can’t), by all means, keep one (that you’ve dressed and charged) going during the day, or light it when it’s really needed.

The same goes for essential oils. If scent isn’t an issue in your workplace, you can purchase an electric warmer (circumventing the need for a lit candle), mix up several vials of oils for different situations and diffuse them. People will comment about how nice things smell with no idea you’re not only diffusing scent but intention.

And my last idea…a paperweight. This can be anything that holds magical meaning for you. Mine happens to be a stone with Djehuty (Thoth) painted on it. You could easily make one with craft resin, embedding, oh, a four-leaf clover or something, and using it to hold stuff down on your desk. Or just as decoration. It’s pretty but more than decoration, right?

So, those are my ideas. What do you do to bring magic to work with you?

 

Sunday Rant

February 16th, 2014

With the expansion of the Internet & lack of paper delivery here in the boonies, I wake up each morning with coffee & my computer…checking news, blogs, social networking, and the one special-interest forum I belong to.* Although I enjoy reading more than one view of current events & catching up with family, friends & acquaintances, I’m starting to re-think that process. Why?

Apart from the news (which seemingly is all bad these days), I’m seeing so much intolerance in the Pagan community it’s heartbreaking. “You’re not doing it right.” “You can’t be X if you do Y.” “You believe what? You’re nuts!” What ever happened to “whatever floats your boat” and/or “can’t we all just get along”? I don’t always think or believe the same way my friends do, yet we would never criticize one another’s path (which is one of the reasons they’re my friends).

My second problem is people (and I hate to point fingers but it seems to be the younger generation) who want to be spoon-fed. For example: that forum gets new members who, rather than read the thousands of posts (much less the stickies/pinned posts), start right in asking questions whose answers are easily found with a little searching and a lot of reading. A second example: a popular author I follow on Twitter is constantly pointing querents to his FAQ rather than answer the same question for the hundredth (thousandth?) time.

And don’t get me started on the lack of even-close-to proper grammar & spelling! Every social networking site & every forum that I’m aware of have built-in spellcheck. OK, the software isn’t perfect but all the red squiggly lines seem to get ignored. (I just googled a word this software didn’t recognize to ensure I’d spelled it correctly – but only because I’m too Sunday-lazy to walk upstairs to look it up in one of four dictionaries on the shelf.) I also know there are word usages spellcheck won’t pick up but come on! You’ve undoubtedly seen the “there/their/they’re” problem. But “dose” for “does”? Some things I read are so horribly written it’s difficult to discern the meaning behind the “words”. Is it our education system or laziness?

I’ve always admitted to being an old hippie but maybe I’m just getting old. My tolerance for intolerance is rapidly waning. So’s my tolerance for lack of the “hard work” mentality. And I don’t think there’s enough coffee in the world to solve that attitude.

A friend of mine lives on a boat & starts his morning with the sea. I’m not anywhere near the ocean but I think I’m going to follow his example & start my morning with the woods. They don’t do human drama…they just are. So, if you don’t see me on the Internet in the morning, you might want to look outside. Perhaps if I have a less-irritating start to my day, it will end with me being less irritated, as well.

//end rant

* Yes, I’m well aware one shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. “The one forum to which I belong” sounds rather stilted, don’t you think? I try to save the formal writing for business letters.

Lazy Sunday-Cat Style

February 3rd, 2014

It started raining about noon yesterday, so hubby & I settled down for an afternoon of reading. It does tend to get crowded on our dual-recliner:

WP_20140202_001 Mischa-the-grump is getting more tolerant of the kittens – Yuri was cleaning Mischa’s ear

WP_20140202_002They migrated over to my chair & got even more comfortable

WP_20140202_003Maks decided to join them. Holding a book in front of me got much more difficult!