Tending Your Microbial Garden

I spent 4 years in college studying the human body.  My interest in life at that point was to comprehend how the 10 trillion cells that make us up work together.  But as it turns out, those 10 trillion cells are but a fraction of the whole. We’re actually made up of 100 trillion cells. Those other 90 trillion cells of “us” aren’t genetically “us” at all, but make up our very own microbiome: a whole ecosystem of viruses, bacteria and microorganisms that live in and on our body. The relationship is symbiotic — that is, we give them a place to live and  in exchange they help keep us healthy.

These microbes make it possible for us to digest food, recognize invaders and help us fight off other bugs that could make us sick.  And new research is suggesting that when this delicate system is upset it could contribute to a host of chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and possibly, obesity.

Blind to this fact, doctors and commercial soap makers have been waging war on on our microbial ecosystems for years.  Antibiotics and antibacterial soaps have done amazing things to rid us of the infectious and disease-causing kinds of bacteria.  But they also do a fantastic job of wiping out our healthy bacteria in the process.

Perhaps this subject seems a little far afield from writing about life on the farm, but the symmetry is surprising.  Industrial farms use herbicides and pesticides, which obliterate pests and weeds more efficiently than hoeing and rotating crops.  But this short-term gain has a huge cost because these chemicals also lay barren the complex micro-universe responsible for soil fertility.   And because we are motivated by a love of all healthy ecosystems that make life on this planet possible, we see the wellbeing of our vegetable gardens as well as our microbial gardens as interrelated.

One way we have been tending to our own microbiome of late is to getting rid of commercial soaps. Industrial soaps (like Dial, Ivory, and anything antibacterial) have “the same cleansing effect on your skin that napalm has on the forest.”  That description comes from Dina’s mom, Kate, who makes her own line of natural soaps in the kitchen of her South Dakota home.  Not only does Kate’s soap clean by naturally lifting dirt and leaving beneficial bacteria in place, it is perhaps the best smelling stuff in our house. (Dina’s note: besides Dina.)

If you have gotten bars from us in the past, bad news: we are going to be broke pretty soon, so we are asking supporters to buy it here through this website.  All proceeds go directly to paying for Erik’s tuition at Farm School.

The good news is that you can buy it here through this website.  All proceeds go directly to paying for Erik’s tuition at Farm School.


But if you’re the industrious type, you can ignore the good and bad news and just make your own. Kate has written up this fantastic guide to making biome-friendly soap complete with tips to help you keep from poisoning your dog or melting your skin (both are possible, but never fear!). The information she supplies here will familiarize you with the general process of soap making and from there, you can work with a variety of recipes. All we can take credit for in this post are the photos (and the soap lullaby at the end.)  The rest is straight from Kate’s brain:


The first step in soap making involves thinking, dreaming, and sniffing and mixing essential oils —followed by chemistry and math.

Each type of fat or influences your soap differently (Translation: lanolin and castor oils make soap super emollient; lard makes it hard, palm oil makes is sudsy, etc.).

Soap recipes can get even more complex when you learn how each oil breaks down into its own array of fatty acids and how each type of fatty acid affects your skin differently (Translation: some retain moisture more, some stimulate cell production, some do a better job of dissolving built-up skin oils, etc.)

You can study the chemistry until your eyes get bleary, and, eventually you need to remind yourself that, in the “olden days,” whatever animal was on the slaughter list determined the fat used, and the strength of the lye varied depending upon how much wood ash was stored up over winter.  Sometimes your soap came out as hard as quartz, but most often it turned out as a gooey gelatinous substance you stored in a barrel and ladled out as needed (think: melted soap in the bottom of your soap dish, only gallons of it).

The bottom line is this: get on the Internet and search for “cold-process” soap.  Don’t read about “melt-and-pour” soap, since that is not soap making at all.  Don’t let the label “cold process” fool you; the other process involves cooking the soap until it is entirely saponified (think: grandma stirring the soap cauldron over the fire all day long).  Cold process just means the soap sits for a few days while magical molecules do the work.

If you find a source that references lye-tables, fat and oil properties, saponification, and safety goggles, you are on the right track.   If you are on a site that offers to sell you a complete fool-proof kit or the ‘secrets’ of real soap making, surf away.  There is nothing a true fool can’t mess up, and making soap is about as secret as making ice cubes.

The picture here shows a page in my notebook for a very basic recipe.

The first thing I do is measure my lye and mix it with the water needed because it takes a while for the lye/water mixture to cool down to 120 degrees.

Once the lye hits the water, an endothermic reaction takes place that can actually make the water BOIL if you pour it in too fast.

When you take this step, wear rubber gloves, cover your arms, wear goggles, and be in a peaceful yet vigilant mood.

Lye will digest living flesh and make it un-living pretty quickly.  You can keep a gallon jug of vinegar around as an emergency topical antidote; nothing much will help if you drink lye.

Measuring and weighing your fats and oils on a high quality digital scale is your next step.

Once you are hooked on soap making, you will be hunting in thrift stores for gigantic Tupperware bowls since everything that touches your soap mixture needs to be plastic, glass, or enameled.  You can use wood in a pinch, but the lye will—literally—eat anything metal.  I use vitamin E as my only preservative. It is expensive, but I can pronounce it and don’t need to test it on bunny eyes to trust it.

Heating the oils until they are liquid, mixed, and all 120 degrees is next.  I use a gigantic old roaster oven because its removable inner tray is enameled, and I can easily bump up the temperature in a controlled manner.  Yes, many humans cooked soap over open fires in the ‘olden days,’ but many turned themselves into human torches, too.

Once your lye/water and your oils are both hovering at 120 degrees, it’s time to C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y pour the lye/water into the warm oils.

Don’t get all cowboy and use a stick blender when adding in the lye/water as you see here.  Use a spoon the first dozen times you do this until you are in complete control of your tools.  Stick blenders are wunderbar, but they splash and can transfer your soap from the roaster over tray to the ceiling, light fixtures and nearby pets in a second.

Once the lye and oils are both safely mixed, you can smile and relax a bit.  And you can pretend to check the temperature on your mixture if you need to pose for a picture (as you see here).

Now get your colors (I use organic mineral oxides) and keep your essential oils at hand because this is the fun part.

Whether you want to make blue soap or green soap get ready to say oo-o-oh and ah-a-a-a when the oxides begin to swirl and your soap starts to look delicious!

The last substances you add are your essential oils.

At this stage, you might separate out several few ladlefuls of your soap mixture so you can color it differently and create a contrasting swirl.

Just spoon it into a crock pot that is also heated to about 120 degrees. There you can color it and then pour it into a freezer bag (or a pastry bag if money is no concern) and squirt it into the trays as a next-to-last step.

“Grease up” your molds or trays with castor oil before transferring the soap mixture into them.

First, ladle in a layer…

before pouring directly from the tray…

…in order to preserve the film of castor oil on the tray surface.  If you go too fast, you will be carving and clawing the soap out of your now-trashed trays.

Once the soap is in the trays, you can pick up the freezer bag filled with your contrast color and carefully snip off the corner.

Shoot a thin stream of the contrast color into the tray while exerting firm but even pressure on the bag.

Strangling the bag, I’ve learned, is another sure way to transfer soap to the ceiling and nearby pets.

Lastly, you get to employ homo sapiens’ first and best tool: the finger.

Just stick that finger in and play until the swirls make you happy.

And now that you have heated, beaten, poured, whipped, ladled, and swirled your soap, it’s time to put it to bed.

Lay the trays on a flat, protected surface and cover the trays with lots of thermal layers so that the heat from the saponification process will be retained and will help the soap cure evenly.

Singing to your soap to encourage it to be useful and beautiful helps.


  • December 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm // Reply

    Hello, thank you so much for this info. I was curious if you could provide a list of where you get your supplies ie. mineral oxides and such?
    Thanks this is so very helpful. Can’t wait to make some soap!!!

    • December 17, 2012 at 10:17 am // Reply

      Kristy, sorry for the delay in responding. . . . dummy me, I did not know I could simply ‘respond’ to you on Dina and Erik’s blog!

      The mineral oxides, essential oils, and fragrances mostly come from Wellington Fragrance (http://www.wellingtonfragrance.com/). This is the only source I have found for inert, organic mineral colors.

      The fat I get locally from butcher friends and render myself. For the really expensive ingredients, e.g., coconut oil and palm oil, you just have to search. If you live in a major city, you might try food supply companies since they sell in quantity–and I mean QUANTITY, as in 100-pound tubs.

      The hardest ingredient to get is the lye. It took me visiting every single hardware store in Rapid City, South Dakota and getting look after ‘look’ from store employees to finally ask someone “What the hell is it with lye? Why do all the stores say its not in stock and just refer me to the next store over!!!??”

      Meth cookers was the answer, of course, but I did not know that at the time. I am registered with one chemical supply company in the Black Hills where I can personally go and buy lye in 100-pound bags. I have to fill out forms each time even though they all know me after seeing me every couple of months for years now.

      So, are you really going to give the soap-making a try?? Please let me know how it turns out, ok?

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