Home » homesteading

Category: homesteading

Hand-made natural beeswax candles

These are pretty dark days. Let’s make some light!

If you’ve never made natural beeswax candles before, now is a great time to give it a try.

Handmade candles add magic and comfort to your fall and winter nights. You can also save money by making your own. But it’s not just about the end result. The process of making candles itself is calming, almost meditative: you’re in a warm kitchen, fragrant with the grounding scent of beeswax, slowly dipping tapers in molten wax one after another until, layer by layer, they become beautiful, thick, smooth candles.

 

Materials you’ll need

This is what you’ll need to make a dozen pairs of taper candles and a couple of large pillar candles:

  • 3 lbs beeswax
  • 3 lbs soy wax
  • stearic acid
  • wicking: thick square braided wick for pillar candles, #2/0 Square Braid Cotton Wicking for taper candles, individual 3-4″ waxed wicks for small votive or container candles
  • for pillar candles: something to seal the wick hole at the bottom of the mold (I use QuakeHold museum putty or Play-Doh)

A word about waxes: I can only speak to making candles with natural beeswax and soy wax — I’ve never made candles with paraffin. I’ve made candles with 100% beeswax, but the last few years my preference has been 50% beeswax and 50% soy wax. The candles turn out a lovely light yellow color, and the soy wax also lowers the total cost as natural beeswax is not cheap.

Different waxes behave differently. Soy wax is softer than beeswax. It can still be used for dipping tapers, but it needs a longer drying time between layers.

If you can find a local source of beeswax, consider yourself lucky. Failing that, here are some online stores specializing in candle making supplies:

 

Equipment

  • a pouring pot or dipping vat dedicated to melting wax
  • a large pot to set up a double-boiler (get a cheap used stock pot at a thrift store)
  • molds: aluminum pillar candle mold for pillar candles, or small votive molds for votive candles

 

Preparing to make candles

You’ll need some kind of a rack for drying taper candles. You can get creative with a laundry drying rack or a coat rack. A drying rack for handmade pasta would also double as a candle drying rack.

Make metal rigs for dipping taper candles in pairs. I made mine out of old clothes hangers with wire cutter and a pair of pliers.

Lastly: wax is a real pain to clean. Do yourself a favor and protect counters and any other surfaces with newspaper or brown packaging paper. (For cleaning up any spills or utensils with wax on them, paper towels dipped in olive oil seem to work best.)

Now you’re ready to begin!

 

 

Hand-dipped Taper candles:

Prepare your wicks. Cut a length of wicking — it needs to be at least twice the length of the desired length of your taper candles.

Each end of the wicking needs to be weighted with something initially to keep the wick straight. The weight can be any cheap metal object such as a screw, a nail, or a nut. Don’t use anything you value because it’s going to be forever encased in beeswax!

Slide the wicking through your rigs so you can dip two tapers at once.

Set up your double boiler (pouring pitcher inside a large pot filled with water) to melt your wax. You want all the wax to melt before you start dipping. Keep an eye on the temperature and consistency of the wax. The ideal temperature for dipping tapers is about 165F. If its’ too hot, the wax will just melt off the wicks. Too cool, the wax forms wrinkles on the candles when you dip them. Finding the Goldilocks temperature of “just right” may require sometimes taking the dipping vat off the burner or out of the pot completely.

Dip your tapers. Allow several minutes to cool, then repeat. The dipping motion should be slow and steady, as shown in this video.

About halfway through the process, cut the weights off, and then dip a few more times.

Repeat until you reach a desired thickness.

Pillar candles:

Usually I make two dozen taper candles and then use the remaining wax to make pillar candles.

Before pouring the wax into molds, you need to add some stearic acid to your wax. The stearic acid hardens the candle and makes the wax shrink just a little, which makes it easier to slide the candle out of the mold once it has set.

Add stearic acid at a rate of 3-6 tbsp per pound of wax.

Next, prepare the mold: Thread the wick through the wick hole at the base of the mold. This can be a somewhat maddening task. If the wick end gets frayed, try dipping the end in melted wax and forming a pointed end with your fingers. Tie a small, tight knot at the base just outside the wick hold.

Secure the top of the wick by tying it to a pencil or a skewer on top of the mold.

Seal the wick hole on the bottom with mold seal to prevent leakage of the molten wax when you pour it into the mold. I have used QuakeHold Museum Putty or, in a pinch, Play-Doh (pictured here). Press it firmly into place.

Once the stearic acid combo has melted into the wax, pour the wax into your prepared mold. Let cool completely before proceeding to the next step. This can take a few hours or even a day for very large candles.

Remove the mold sealer and cut the knot at the base of the candle. If it’s completely cooled, your candle should slide out of the mold when you turn it upside down. If it doesn’t, try placing it in the fridge for 20 minutes — the cold will further shrink the wax.

Trim the wick to desired length. Your pillar candle is done!

Garden-to-table Buckwheat

This weekend, we had garden-to-table buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. We ate them about 20 feet from the garden bed where said buckwheat grew. This buckwheat is my first real homegrown grain harvest, and it checks all the boxes for me: gluten-free, locally sourced and hands down delicious, with a distinctive nutty flavor.

To most urban gardeners, growing grains might seem like it’s outside their wheelhouse. After all, when we think of growing grains, we think of hundreds of acres of farmland extending to the horizon. If this is you, I encourage you to read Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon. It inspired me to try growing small patches of grains myself. This year, I dedicated one long bed (about 4 x 20 feet) for growing a grain crop. I decided to start with buckwheat, a plant I’m already familiar with, as I’ve grown it as a cover crop many times. But I haven’t actually been methodical about harvesting the groats until now.

Buckwheat really is a fantastic beginner’s grain. It is nutritious and so friggin’ easy to grow:

  • You don’t need rich soil. In fact, buckwheat seems to do better in poor soil!
  • You barely need to irrigate.
  • Buckwheat has few disease or pest problems
  • Buckwheat (like other pseudo-cereals, such as quinoa and amaranth) has a favorable nutrient profile, forming a complete protein
  • It’s gluten-free!

Growing buckwheat

Buckwheat is a remarkably resilient plant that not only tolerates, but in fact thrives in poor soils. Once established, it grows even if you ignore it, as long as it gets some rain from time to time.

Buckwheat prefers cool temperatures, but is frost-tender. That makes it somewhat tricky to figure out an optimal time window for planting buckwheat, which has a sow-to-harvest time of 10-15 weeks. Here in the South, the best time to plant buckwheat is actually mid-August. That way, the buckwheat gets to grow during the cooler fall weeks, but can still be harvested before the first frost, which here in Asheville, NC, comes in late October.

 

Harvesting buckwheat

Harvesting the buckwheat groats is reasonably easy. I say this after unsuccessfully trying to harvest enough lambsquarter seed to make a quinoa-like meal… After those nearly invisible, tiny seeds, the buckwheat groats seem bulky and easy to extract.

 

When grown on an urban garden scale, buckwheat is best harvested by hand. One option is to walk through the buckwheat patch whenever you need some, simply stripping the dark brown grains off the stalk with your fingers until you have a cupful.

To harvest an entire bed of buckwheat at once, cut the buckwheat down with a scythe or sickle mower, tie the plants into bundles, and let them dry protected from rain. I brought mine into our sunroom. Chicken and (other) birds also seem to love buckwheat, so if a few plants are left behind it will all get eaten eventually.

When the stalks are completely dry, thresh them inside sacks or old pillowcases. What you’ll have at this point is lovely buckwheat groats, but with a fair amount of plant matter and leaves in the mix.

 

Processing Buckwheat

This is the part that can be a bit challenging and time-consuming. Take your time. You may have to try a few different methods to figure out what works for you, as I did.

The next step is to separate out the chaff from your buckwheat groats. If you’re in the small minority of modern folks who have winnowing skills and a decent winnowing basket, it’ll be a breeze. Otherwise, you may have to try a few different setups. I had the most success with a fan set up next to a shallow tray. I placed a couple of cups of buckwheat on the tray and grabbed a handful and let go, grab a handful and let go, on repeat. All the dry leaves and other chaff flies off because it’s very light. Ideally what ends up on the tray eventually is just the buckwheat groats.

Here’s another setup I tried: using one of my Excalibur dehydrator trays as a tray. The perforated silicone is ideal for letting tiny pieces of chaff to fall through, but catching the buckwheat.

After winnowing, you have yourself a nice batch of wholesome buckwheat groats.

You could grind them into flour as they are, but the taste is better if you remove the dark brown hulls.

  1. First lightly toast the groats, or put them in a hot oven for a short while. It’s well worth the effort, as it helps the hulls to separate easily.
  2. Grind the toasted groats to remove the hull. You can use a blender or a food processor, but I had the most success with a good old-fashioned food mill. The hulls just shattered off (all over the table, as you can see…). The resulting coarsely ground buckwheat will still have some bits of hulls in it, but they can easily be sifted out with a flour sifter at the end.

Now you can grind the groats into flour. If you don’t have a grain mill, a food processor or blender will also work.

 

Here’s the pancake recipe I used to make ours. Some people like to use 50% buckwheat flour and 50% all-purpose wheat flour, and that works great. But in my opinion it’s not necessary to cut the buckwheat with wheat — the buckwheat’s flavor is not overwhelming at all. Even my daughter, who usually demands “ordinary pancakes” (as opposed to her mom’s experiments), gobbled them up enthusiastically.

 

Gluten-free Buckwheat Pancakes

  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • butter (for the pan)

Set a well-seasoned cast iron pan on medium heat. Mix the dry ingredients together well. Mix the melted butter together with the syrup, eggs, and buttermilk separately, and add to the dry ingredients. Mix until the batter is well blended and there are no more dry lumps.

Melt a dollop of butter on the heated pan and ladle the batter onto the pan in desired sizes.

Rotational Grazing with Backyard Chickens

Rotational grazing — rotating animals across pastures — is a common practice in large-scale sustainable farming. Put simply, it means subdividing a pasture area into smaller paddocks with fencing, and moving the grazing animals from one paddock to another on a specific timeline. The idea is to create a strategic disturbance for limited periods of time.

On large diversified farms, multi-species rotational grazing sees the animals moved in succession: for example, first cattle, then sheep, followed by poultry, and maybe pigs at the end. Rotating animals in this way is beneficial for both animal and pasture health: pasture paddocks get to rest and regenerate when the animals are in other paddocks, and the animals always get access to diverse, fresh, good-quality forage plants.

But what does rotational grazing look like in the urban or suburban backyard, and with a single species — in our case, chickens?

We don’t have acres and acres of pasture. What we do have on our 1/3 acre is a vegetable garden, young food forest areas with perennials, and some grassy areas. Still, we’ve found ways to move our chickens through the landscape in ways that help to optimize their health, and integrate them into our garden management system. I’m sharing some of what we’ve learned in case it’s useful to others.

 

managing chickens in the urban garden

Chickens are great foragers (though some breeds have a stronger foraging instinct than others). Access to diverse landscapes with plenty of greens, bugs, grains and seeds provides them with a healthy, varied diet. And the eggs we harvest are much more nutritious as a result: pastured chicken eggs have twice the vitamin E, more omega-3 fatty acids, and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as compared to eggs from commercial chicken operations.

The ground in the chicken run quickly becomes dusty, compacted, and devoid of any greenery, which is also a sign that chickens shouldn’t be kept confined to the same area for too long. They are so happy when they get to explore new ground, to kick and scratch good garden soil and take some dirt baths in it.

At the same time, chickens can be destructive if left to their own devices in a vegetable garden. Like any gardener, I’ve had moments of heartbreak when a less-than-perfect fencing setup allowed the chickens to rip apart carefully tended young seedlings.

In a nutshell: you want some combination of free range and smart fencing.

For rotating our chickens around in the garden, we create designated fenced-in “paddocks” in the specific spot where we need their scratching, pest control and fertilization services. We have two primary ways for doing so: 1) a chicken tractor and 2) movable fencing.

 

Chicken tractor

A chicken tractor is any simple outdoor enclosure that’s lightweight enough to be moved around. We built ours out of 2 x 4’s, PVC pipe, and chicken wire, but there are tons of designs out there for building a chicken tractor that works for you.

The chicken tractor is particularly handy for getting to narrow spots. Here the chickens are foraging and doing weed control in between rows of young currant bushes. Bringing the chickens through here every couple of weeks is all we’ve needed to keep the weeds from taking over.

 

Temporary fencing

Whenever we want to let the chickens forage on a larger area, or clean up a particular garden bed after it’s been harvested, we use 3-foot wire fencing to create a “paddock” in any shape we want. Some people use electric poultry netting. On hot summer days, we use shade cloth over the fenced-in area to help keep the chickens cool — as well as to discourage the most mischievous of them from trying to fly out.

No-TILL Garden bed prep sequence

My favorite way to integrate the chickens into our no-till garden is recruiting them to do the cleanup after a particular bed is harvested. This is roughly the sequence:

        1. Harvest food + pull out any large stalks or vines that chickens are not likely to eat.
        2. Create a fenced perimeter around the bed and bring in chickens (yes, I carry them one by one from the chicken run) to forage and scratch
        3. Move chickens to another area and rake off any remaining plant debris
        4. Aerate the soil with a pitchfork or a broadfork
        5. Spread a 1″ layer of compost
        6. Plant next crop or cover crop

One caveat: our setup is not perfect. My preference would have been to have fully free-range chickens with access to all areas of the garden (except the annual vegetable beds, which they would quickly rip through). Alas, we don’t have a perimeter fence, and all of our neighbors have large dogs, so it hasn’t been possible. So we always need to have some kind of protection around the chickens.