Lemon and Raw Lye Soap

I’ve gotten too big for my soap britches.

I was so proud of my shea butter success that I set out to invent another soap the very next day. I thought I’d make a nice fresh lemon zest soap.


Since I was already winging it with the lemon zest, I decided to stick to an oil ratio from my book: 21 oz olive oil, 10.5 oz coconut oil, and 1 oz castor oil combined with 4.8 oz of lye and 10 oz of water.

I mixed it all together and blended it to trace. Then I added a handful of lemon zest.


I’m choosing to believe that the lemon zest was my downfall. I don’t have any actual proof, but this is my first batch to go wonky and the zest is the only new variable. My heart tells me that adding the very acidic zest threw off the careful balance of base and oil and messed up its saponification.

But I can’t help but remember my coffee soap, in which I replaced all the water with decidedly acidic black coffee. While it didn’t smell amazing, that batch turned out fine. And I’d even used the same olive/coconut/castor oil recipe…

I suppose it’s possible I just measured something wrong.

Whatever the cause, the stuff never neutralized. After the two hours that always does it for a two pound recipe, I dropped a little Phenolphthalein in and got the bright pink that meant it was still basic.


I gave it another half hour. And another. And another. At that point I decided it just wasn’t going to happen. On top of not testing neutral, the batter was runny, much more like cold than hot process. I mixed in the rest of my zest, poured the stuff out into a loaf mould and left it overnight.

The next day I turned out something that could easily pass for an olive loaf. On the left edge you can see a hot pink streak of Phenolphthalein.


I’m totally prepared to find that it can’t be salvaged, but I don’t want to give up just yet. I sliced the loaf into bars that are actually pretty pleasant looking. I’ll leave them open to the air in the basement – with any luck they’ll cure just like a cold process batch. I’ll just have to wait and see.


To make matters worse, my beloved shea butter concoction is not really holding up under the pressure of being soap. It does lather, but only with some serious scrubbing. And when it dries it fills with fissures that don’t exactly evoke visions of moisturized skin.


But hey, at least it’s not caustic.


Lemon Hope

My lemon tree has had a strange winter. It’s shot up by a few feet and is about as tall as I am. And it’s lost a lot of its leaves…

Both very good reasons to give it a bigger pot.


This tree has never given me a lemon and perhaps it never will, but I love it anyway.

I planted it from a seed three years ago when I moved to Providence. In a fit of gardening I went to the grocery store and bought every food I thought I could plant. The only remnants are this tree and my prized ugly rosemary bush, grown from a sprig.

I bought a 16″ pot with a false bottom that’s supposed to be self-watering. Citrus trees need a lot of water, so I’m hoping this helps.


First I had to get the tree out of its old pot. I gently turned it on its side. Some loose soil fell out, but but almost all of it was bound up in the root ball.

Cat for scale.IMG_4254

It took some doing to get the root ball out of the pot. I banged on the sides and bottom and yanked gently on the trunk. The trunk is a good centimeter in diameter and very woody, but this was rougher than I wanted to be with it. I was about to get the shears to cut the pot away when the whole thing popped out all at once.


The roots had started to circle around the bottom – not ideal. I loosened them up a little with my fingers, so hopefully they’ll spread out in their new home.


I made a bed of a few inches of potting soil and set the tree on top of it. At some point in the winter it sprouted this new little stalk from the base of its trunk. It’s the healthiest part of the tree and my failsafe – if the main plant gets worse I’ll lop everything off and hope this little guy makes it.

There are some new leaves higher up, though, so I’m hoping for the best.


I filled the pot up too high with potting soil and worked in some kelp meal. I’ll have to research what lemon trees like to eat, but in the meantime I get the impression that you can’t go wrong with kelp.


I filled the pot even more too high with buckwheat hulls to keep the moisture in. My dad has forever put bits and bobs in his potted plants, so I do too. They’re especially helpful for holding the hulls in place and dispersing the watering can’s stream more evenly.

The bits and bobs featured here are oyster and scallop shells, a rusted railroad tie, and some rocks from Iceland.


I’ve put the tree in a dappled shade part of the driveway. I’ll move it to full sun eventually, but this is already a big change from its window inside, and I don’t want it getting scorched.

Hopefully it starts to recover those lost leaves.


Maybe someday I’ll even get a lemon.