The Art of Darkness

Easy Bath Beads

May 30th, 2012 by Cobwebs

Bath BallsHomemade bath beads are a super-easy project that are nice as a gift or simply to indulge yourself. They’re also a good way to use a favorite scented herb.

Here are two recipes, one for a milk-based bath and one for a diffusing oil. Everything for the first one (with the exception of the essential oil) should be available at your local grocery store. The citric acid and oils for the second recipe can be found at health food stores or online. Essential and fragrance oils are widely available at craft stores and online.

Milk Bath Beads

1 C powdered milk; you can use powdered goat’s milk if you’re feeling indulgent, but plain dry milk powder works fine.
1/4 C borax powder
1/4 C cornstarch
2-4 T strong herb tea (see below)
10-20 drops essential oil or fragrance oil of your choice (see below)
2-3 drops food coloring (optional)

To make the herb tea, cover about 1/4 C of dried herbs with 1/2 C boiling water, let steep for 10 minutes, then strain and cool. Strongly-scented herbs such as lavender or peppermint will provide the most fragrance, but you can use any herb that appeals to you, from dried rose petals to green tea. (Make sure that whatever plant material you choose isn’t a skin irritant, and if you collect it from your garden ensure that it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals.)

Choose an essential or fragrance oil in a complementary scent, and ensure that it’s also skin-safe; some “fragrance” oils are formulated for household rather than personal use, and some essential oils can irritate skin or eyes.

Mix the milk powder, borax, and cornstarch in a bowl. In a separate small bowl mix 2 T of herb tea with about 10 drops of fragrance oil (don’t be surprised if the smell is rather strong; it will be muted quite a bit in the finished product). Mix in a few drops of food coloring if desired–using too much will throw the liquid ratio off and could potentially stain the tub, so if you want a really deep color use a little soap pigment instead. Thoroughly blend this liquid into the dry ingredients, adding small amounts of additional tea if necessary, until it reaches a claylike consistency. Be careful not to add too much liquid or the mixture will turn to sludge. Add a few more drops of fragrance if the scent isn’t strong enough to suit you.

To form balls, roll the dough into pieces about the size of a golf ball; if you’re making a lot of them you might want to wear latex gloves to prevent skin irritation. You can also shape the balls using something like a fillable plastic ornament as a mold; rub the inside with a bit of vegetable oil to help the dough release. Dry the balls on waxed paper for 24-48 hours depending on size, until firm to the touch. Store in an airtight container. To use, simply toss in warm bath water and let it dissolve.

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Making Dream Pillows

May 8th, 2012 by Cobwebs

SachetThe ol’ herb garden is in full swing, which means I am giving away giant wads of cut herbs to vaguely-puzzled neighbors* and looking for things to do with the rest. I’m thus somewhat startled to discover that I’ve been running this blog for over five years and haven’t ever mentioned dream pillows. Apparently I never pay attention.

Dream pillows are simply largish sachets, filled with herbs that are reputed to have calming properties and/or a sweet scent. They are super-easy to make, and if you don’t have a garden you can easily purchase the herbs online.

The pillows are intended to lay on top of a regular pillow inside the pillowcase so the sleeper can inhale their scent. They should thus be reasonably flat and can be fairly small; a 6-8″ square is more than sufficient. Since they aren’t really meant to be seen you can get away with making them out of plain muslin, although if you’re making one as a gift you might want to use pretty fabric–a vintage handkerchief would be a good choice–or decorate it with embroidery or fabric paint. A natural fabric such as cotton which doesn’t have an overly tight weave is the best choice for releasing the maximum scent.

The easiest version of these pillows is just a square bag: Fold a piece of fabric in half, stitch two sides, turn right-side-out, fill with herbs, then slipstitch the other side closed. If you want to make the pillow washable and/or refillable, finish the open end with Velcro or add a ribbon drawstring (to keep bits of herbs from spilling out, you might want to enclose them in a smaller mesh or muslin bag and insert that into the prettier drawstring cover). If you want to get fancier, Tipnut has a nice roundup of sachet tutorials. And if you don’t want to bother with sewing at all–or if you have a large number of pillows to make–you can find drawstring muslin bags inexpensively at craft stores or online.

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Chicken Wire “Ghosts”

October 25th, 2011 by Cobwebs

Ghost Dresses

Once again, Pinterest and its “no attribution for you!” tendencies are thwarting me. I ran across these ghostly dresses and this splendid ghostly figure, and whilst I assume they’re the work of the same person I can’t guarantee it.

Fortunately, the latter photo not only had an attribution, it actually pointed to a tutorial that describes how to make a chicken-wire ghost of your very own.

I love how ethereal these look. They’d be splendid tucked into a dark corner of the yard on Halloween, or simply placed in a garden as a year-round decoration. Chicken wire is cheap, so it’d be easy to create a whole menagerie of ghostly figures to keep you company.

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Garden Graveyard

August 15th, 2011 by Cobwebs

Herb TombstoneHere’s a head-smackingly brilliant idea: Plant markers shaped like tombstones.

Instructables user PenfoldPlant had access to a laser cutter, so his instructions focus on cutting the little headstones out of acrylic. If you don’t have a laser cutter handy there are numerous other ways to do this, depending on your skillset and budget. Possibilities include 3-D fabrication using a service like Shapeways, sculpting in ceramic, carving from wood or stone, or using plain ol’ polymer clay.

Some of the pretty detail work and fine lines might be rather time-consuming to do by hand, but even much simpler designs would still be striking in the garden. In particular I like the clever little mottoes, with the parsley’s Latin inscription including its taxonomic name and the cilantro being declared a friend to salsa.

(via Cat Winterfox)

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Plant a Moon Garden

April 14th, 2011 by Cobwebs

Spring is slowly sidling into view here in Northern VA,* which means that soon it will be possible to stay out after dark without risking frostbite. Now’s the time to start thinking about creating a garden to enjoy when the sun goes down.

Even if you don’t have the space (or ambition) to devote a large garden to midnight strolls, many of these plants do well in pots. Choose a few for their color or fragrance and use them to turn the corner of a balcony into a moonlight retreat. Some of the smaller ones would also be lovely in a window box.

White flowers and silvery foliage are good choices for an evening garden, since they stand out in low light. There are also many plants which bloom at night, adding wonderful fragrance. Depending upon your region and light availability, consider some of these:

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An Update on the Bees

November 23rd, 2010 by Cobwebs

BeesSo the bees are safely tucked away for the winter, and other than keeping snow from blocking their entrance and checking once or twice to make sure they haven’t used up all of their food stores, I can pretty much ignore them until spring. Reflecting upon my first year of beekeeping, I have to say that I heartily recommend the hobby.

Bees take far less care and attention than any other livestock, so it’s possible to fit them into the busiest schedule: You inspect the hive once a week (or less) during the height of the season, and perform very occasional maintenance duties like dusting them for mites.* They’re surprisingly non-intrusive: Even though we certainly noticed their activity in the garden, we never really saw an increased bee presence where we didn’t want them.** And they’re also amazingly gentle: Shadowboy and I would often walk right up to the hive and watch them going in and out, and Shadow Jack occasionally used a weed whacker a few feet away without ever being bothered. I was stung exactly once this year, and it was completely my own fault.***

The information overload that I complained about initially also quickly resolved itself. You do have to know a fair amount about caring for bees, but the trick is that you don’t have to know it all at once. By the time you need to start learning about more advanced topics like pest control, you’ve already learned (and are comfortable with) routine inspections and maintenance. A seasonal calendar and a couple of reference books (plus the indispensable Mr. Google) will help you stay on track.

I unfortunately didn’t get to harvest any honey this year–which isn’t unusual if you start with a package–but I did collect a bit of extra wax and plan to experiment with candles. However, even without the honey, the hobby is immensely rewarding. It’s fascinating to observe the hive at work, and to pull out a frame swarming with bees and figure out what each one is doing.**** It’s also fun to be a “speaker for the bees:” I’ve done community outreach events with my beekeeping club, spoken to Shadowboy’s class, and been interviewed by a college student writing a paper on urban beekeeping. People seem to be fascinated with bees, and it’s rewarding to be able to de-mystify them. It’s also a healthy activity: Between prepping the hive site, working with the bees, and doing yardwork (such as planting bee-friendly flowers) to make them comfortable, I’ve spent more time outside this year than I normally spend in three.

Bottom line: Immensely rewarding hobby, and I highly recommend it. If you’ve got space for a hive, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

*Which is actually fun. As someone with strong crunchy-granola tree-hugging tendencies, I’ve opted for a pest management routine that emphasizes non-chemical solutions. To get rid of the varroa mites that infest bees, you open up the top of the hive and dust heavily with powdered sugar (which encourages the bees to groom themselves and knock off the mites). Surprised bees boil out of the hive, looking like little flying powdered doughnuts. It’s hilarious.

**Well, aside from one incident where I sprayed some wax foundation with sugar syrup (which encourages the bees to build out honeycomb) and put a leftover frame in the garage. An hour later there were, oh, about five thousand bees in the garage. Covering the frame in plastic wrap so they couldn’t smell the syrup solved that, but it was a rather arresting sight.

***I frequently wander down to the hive when I get home from work, and one time I noticed a line of ants near the entrance. I was standing right next to the hive, wearing no protective gear, shooing ants away with a stick, and a guard bee essentially went, “You have got to be kidding me.” If you’re slightly less dumb than I was, you’ll probably never get stung.

****In the photo above, for example, they’re not swarming; they’re cooling off. When it gets too hot they collect in large clusters and fan their wings, cooling themselves and helping to maintain the hive temperature. Either way, a big wad of bees hanging from the landing board is certainly an impressive sight.

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Gnome Management in the Garden

November 1st, 2010 by Cobwebs

The Utah State University Extension’s YouTube channel features informational videos on subjects like planting strawberries and pruning shrubs.

And occasionally they get a little giddy.

(via The Haunted Gardens)

p.s. – I’ll be participating in the still-failing-to-roll-trippingly-off-the-tongue NaBloPoMo again this year, so there will be a post every day of November, including weekends. Can you hardly wait? I thought so.

Posted in Funny Peculiar, Unhallowed Ground | 1 Comment »

The Haunted Gardens

October 28th, 2010 by Cobwebs

LogoI can’t believe that a blog devoted to gothic gardening has been operating for nearly a year and I only now stumbled across it.

The Haunted Gardens is a group blog devoted to environmentally-friendly gardening with a spooky twist. They talk about plants like cemetery lilies and black hollyhocks, and feature interesting garden accessories like jack-o-lantern chimineas and skull gardening boots.

Since the blog is fairly new they don’t have a lot of archive depth yet, but their posts so far are definitely intriguing. It’s exciting to find a site devoted to just the kind of gardening I’m interested in, and I’ve already found several plants that I may have to try in my own yard. Lovely!

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Seedy Birdhouses

September 23rd, 2010 by Cobwebs

BirdhouseThese are brilliant. Artists Luke Bartels and Jeff Canham hand-craft birdhouses from “the wrong side of the tracks,” including strip clubs, head shops, liquor stores, and more.

The one-of-a-kind birdhouses are for sale at The Curiosity Shoppe, and you can see additional photos on Canham’s site. I love how much character and silly charm is added with a clever paint job.

Obviously, the artists’ birdhouses are handmade and completely unique, but if you don’t happen to have $675 to blow on a birdhouse* and do happen to be a little bit crafty you could get an unpainted wooden birdhouse (frequently available at hardware or craft stores) and paint it yourself. The bad-area-of-town theme is hilarious, but you could also do a haunted house, a medieval apothecary, or any other design that amuses you. The birds won’t mind.

(via Neatorama)

*If you do, will you adopt me?

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Gothy Gardens

July 13th, 2010 by Cobwebs

Herby SkullI haven’t done a gardening post in ages, largely because most of my gardening this year has tended toward the mundane rather than the spooky: I’ve been planting things to make the bees happy, and their preferences aren’t particularly gothy. However, I’ve been saving a list of plants that would be perfect for a spooky garden, so even if I haven’t had the chance to plant any at least I can share them with you.

Obviously, check any plant for suitability (size, temperature requirements, invasiveness, etc.) before you stick it in the ground; depending upon your location, some of them may have to be grown in pots. You can use one or two as accent plants in a garden or mass a lot of them in a single bed to create something more blatantly spooky. That latter is my preferred approach; I like to give visitors the impression that my front yard might eat them.

One of my favorites is Spilanthes oleracea, also called the “Peek-a-Boo Plant.” It’s got round yellow blossoms with burgundy centers and essentially appears to be a bunch of eyeballs on stalks.

Ricinus communis, the castor bean plant, is a big, showy ornamental. Depending upon the variety, foliage can be purple, dark green, or reddish, and the seedpods are colorful and spiky. The plant is also highly poisonous, so do NOT plant it if you have children or animals who might nibble at it.

The Butterfly Bush species Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’ is a tall, attractive plant with blackish-purple blooms. It has the added benefit of attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden.

The Bat Flower, Tacca chantrieri ‘Black’, has black blossoms that look sort of like a bat. If you squint. It’s a really striking houseplant, though, with huge glossy flowers and dramatic whiskers.

There’s a variety of broomcorn (Sorghum nigrum) that has shiny black seeds is often sold under the name “Black Witch’s Broom.”

The daylily Hemerocallis ‘Bela Lugosi’ is a gorgeous purple-black flower with the added benefit of a wonderful name.

Speaking of that, there are actually a lot of daylilies with evocative names, like Forbidden Desires, Goblin MoonMerry Witch, Wicked Witch, Creature of the Night, Banshee, Deep Secret, Autumn Sunset, and Night Song; irises named Dracula’s Shadow, Ominous Stranger, and Ghost Train; and tulips called Queen of the Night and Tattoo. Let’s just say that if there’s a popular flower you happen to like, it’s probably got at least a few varities with spooky names.)

A variety of sea holly, Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is a tall, greenish-grey plant that has prickly flowers. It’s a striking landscaping plant and would also look nice as part of a dried-flower arrangement.

One of my favorite shrubs is the Corkscrew Willow, Salix matsudana tortuosa: Its twigs are twisty and contorted, which not only give the whole bush a peculiar look but also make wonderful additions to a vase of cut flowers. The Corokia cotoneaster is another great shrub; it’s also called a “wire netting bush,” and its grey foliage and mounding habit make it look odd and ghostly.

Japanese Blood Grass is an extremely arresting ornamental grass, with tall garnet-to-burgundy blades. Eleusine coracana ‘Green Cat’ is another ornamental grass that produces strange claw-like flowers.

Carpet Bugle (or Bugleweed), Ajuga reptans, is a nice ground cover which has several dark varieties like ‘Burgundy Glow’ and ‘Royalty’.

Other, non-specific suggestions for a gothic garden is to look for twisty trees, vines and other trailing plants, black or other deep-colored flowers, and perhaps some night-blooming plants. The Victorian-type garden with a wide variety of plants stuffed into every available place is a great look for this kind of garden. Gazing balls, menacing statuary (I’m partial to pleurants), sundials, and wrought iron are all attractive additions. Even better, use a big cauldron as the focal point of a flower bed and plant it to overflowing with trailing plants.

What’s your favorite gothy plant? I’d love to hear more suggestions in the comments!

(Image from Skull-a-Day. Isn’t it fabulous?)

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