Making Your Own Cleaning Products

homemade cleaners green living enviro-mama booksHave you ever had something nagging at the back of your mind? Something that you really want to do, and have been meaning to do, but just can’t seem to get around to actually doing? I’ve been feeling that way about a fabulous book that has been sitting in my tray for months. It’s called Homemade Cleaners: Quick-and-Easy, Toxic-Free Recipes, and it’s written by Mandy O’Brien and Dionna Ford. Unfortunately, being back at school, living through a major renovation fiasco, working and parenting all conspired to keep me away from this book.

I knew I wanted a copy as soon as I heard about it. I’ve always been intrigued by making my own cleaning products. I did attend a local event last year where I tried making my own all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner and tub and tile cleaner. It was good, and it whet my appetite enough to learn more. I’ve looked online, but I found it overwhelming. There’s so much out there, and people seem to experience such mixed results, that I’m not really sure where to start. This is why I appreciate this book, which provides a friendlier introduction to non-toxic cleaning.

For such a small book, Homemade Cleaners is packed full of information. It starts out by encouraging simple steps, and explaining why we should care about the chemicals in our cleaning products. Then it’s divided into sections by cleaning task. There are tons of tips, and recipes for everything from all-purpose cleaners to glass cleaners to furniture polish to laundry soap and more. There’s also information on dealing with bugs, keeping your yard healthy, purifying indoor air and choosing and cleaning a grill (which, being from Vancouver, I will insist on calling a barbeque).

I haven’t tried as many of the recipes as I would have liked, but even on first glance I’ve appreciated that green cleaning doesn’t require you to go out and buy a whole lot of stuff. If you’ve got baking soda, vinegar, borax, castile soap, lemon juice and some essential oils you’re most of the way there. There are multiple recipes you can try for most cleaning tasks, so if one doesn’t work for you there are lots more to try. With the renovations happening in my house and new wiring, tile, cabinetry and paint in my bedroom and ensuite, I especially appreciated the tips on how to use plants to remove chemicals from indoor air.

homemade cleaners non-toxic cleaning book review

I would say that Homemade Cleaners is mostly about how to adopt a simpler, less toxic cleaning philosophy for yourself and your family. It’s much more than a recipe book. If you’re wondering how to reduce the number of chemicals your family is exposed to at home, it’s a great place to start.

What about you – what are your favourite green cleaning resources?

Me and My Mason Bees

I am very suggestible when it comes to gardening. When my West Coast Seeds catalogue arrives each spring I have a very hard time narrowing my order down. I want to buy all the seeds, and all the supplies. I am very much a bandwagon jumper. Sometimes this pays off, like when I discovered my fabulous potato planter bags that make potato harvesting a breeze and free up garden space. Sometimes this doesn’t pay off, when I bite off more than I can chew and my crops fail.

This year I’ve undertaken an experiment, prompted by my catalogue, that may or may not pay off. I’m keeping Mason bees. They are native pollinators, and reputed to be very gentle. In fact, apparently the males don’t even have a stinger. I ordered a mason bee starter kit that included a mason bee house, nesting tubes and a little cardboard box filled with Mason bee cocoons. When the cocoons arrived I put them in my fridge, as instructed.

Keeping Mason bees sounds very easy. You put the house up, take the little box of cocoons out of your fridge, open one end and place the box inside the house. Within about half an hour the males emerge. The females slowly make their way out a few days or weeks later. The females then return to the house to lay their eggs, and by the fall those eggs have hatched, pupated and built cocoons, which go into your fridge for next year.

This past weekend I put up my Mason bee house and placed my little box of cocoons inside. When I opened the box I was surprised to see a bee staring back at me. I’m thinking that maybe it somehow got a little warmer than it was supposed to, and I was scared, but the bee emerged in a few minutes looking none the worse for wear. It flew off pretty quickly thereafter. Only a few minutes later my daughter and I could hear another bee working its way free. He slowly climbed out, then made his way to the top of the house to warm up in the sun before flying away. My daughter took his empty cocoon and put it in her box of treasures.

So far, I haven’t seen any females making their way out, but it’s been a little bit rainy. I’m just trying to leave the bees to their own devices, and trust that they know what they’re doing. It’s not like I can control them in any way in any case, so this seems like the best course of action. I’ll keep you updated on any more bee-related action that I see. In the meantime, here are a few photos of my Mason bee adventures.

mason bee house
Mason bee house

mason bees
Another angle of the house

first mason bee out
The first mason bee to emerge

looking for the sun
The second mason bee to emerge, crawling into the sun

mason bee cocoon
An empty mason bee cocoon

Oh (Real) Christmas Tree

christmas tree enviro-mama real tree fake tree debateWhen Hannah was really little – I think it was Christmas 2005 – we bought an artificial Christmas tree. (In fact, I know it was Christmas 2005 because I am a blogger and I have photographic evidence.) I was less-than-thrilled about the purchase at the time. I’d always had real trees when I was growing up, and I loved the ritual of going to buy the tree, and the way it made my house smell fabulous. However, my husband preferred artificial trees, and it seemed a sensible way to go when I already had a baby making a big mess in my house. I certainly didn’t need a whole bunch of pine needles on the carpet on top of the toys that were already scattered everywhere.

At the time I insisted on buying a nice artificial tree, and reasoned that it would end up being much cheaper in the long run. I also thought that it would be a more environmentally-friendly choice to buy a reusable tree rather than to buy a cut tree each and every year. However, two things happened last year that made me re-examine my choice.

The first thing that caused me to re-think my tree choice was this article from David Suzuki’s Queen of Green. The summary is that an artificial tree’s environmental footprint is about three times higher than a real tree’s environmental footprint, if your artificial tree lasts six years (which is apparently about average). The pendulum starts to swing in the direction of the fake tree at around the 20 year mark, or in situations where your real tree comes from very far away. This isn’t the case where I live, as Christmas tree farms are everywhere in British Columbia.

There are other concerns about fake trees. too. They’re typically made of PVC. It’s not the friendliest chemical, and it can contain lead. In fact, there are many stories involving lead contamination from artificial trees. While lead is becoming less and less common in recent years, back in 2005 when we bought our tree there was less awareness, and one presumes, more lead was used. Since my tree doesn’t say anything about being lead-free, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s not.

Ultimately, though, it’s not just the environment that swayed me. The second big thing that caused me to re-think my tree choice was taking the tree out of storage last year. I pulled the box out of the crawlspace under our house, and put it up. It smelled dusty and musty, and after I put it up my house smelled dusty and musty, too. Instead of leaving me feeling festive, decorating the tree left me feeling kind of sad. I could follow everyone’s favourite piece of advice and hang up a pine-scented air freshener, but in the first place those air fresheners smell nothing like a real tree, and in the second place adding a whole lot of artificial fragrance to my home would only increase the number of chemicals already floating around. Ew.

The desire for a real tree led my family to the local tree lot in mid-December this year, where we chose a Douglas Fir. Yes, it shed needles. Yes, getting it home and into the stand was kind of a pain. Yes, I had to water it. Yes, there was inconvenience involved. However, it really did smell fantastic, and my kids enjoyed the process of picking it out. Once it was up, it really felt like Christmas, and I was happy about my tree instead of depressed by it.

I am returning to my real tree roots – and I feel good about that. The fact that I still felt good when I took the tree down today and vacuumed up the needles that littered the floor is confirmation that I’m making the right choice for myself. A little mess is a small price to pay for a merrier, greener, holiday season.

What about you, do you have a real tree or an artificial tree? And does it surprise you to learn how much greener real trees are?

Organic Grocery Delivery Follow-Up

organic grocery delivery one green thing enviro-mama

With less than a week left in the month, I’ve clearly missed the boat on planning my One Green Thing for November. Ah, well, some months are like that. However, it occurs to me that this means I also haven’t updated you on my One Green Thing for October, which was trying out organic grocery delivery. I wanted to fill you in on how that’s been going.

As you may recall, I reactivated my account with SPUD.ca, a local business that delivers organic and locally-grown and produced food once each week. (Just a note – I am not being compensated in any way for this blog post, I’m just sharing my experience because I think you might be interested.) I had used the service a number of years ago, but stopped it because I found that I was spending too much on groceries. With a weekly commitment on Sundays making it difficult for me to visit my local farmers’ market, I decided to try them out again.

I am a month and a half in now, and it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. The pluses:

  • A weekly standing order means that I never forget the basics like milk, bread, eggs, lettuce and so on.
  • I really don’t have to visit the grocery store nearly as often – I’m averaging about once every three weeks now. Coupled with the fact I’m not frequenting the farmers’ market this means I’m spending very little time grocery shopping.
  • My delivery driver remembered me, even all these years later, and was glad to see me.
  • I know exactly where my food is coming from, because they tell me.
  • They have an iPhone app, so when I finish something in my kitchen (like, say, mayo) I can order it right then and there.
  • Like pretty much any grocery store, they carry some items I can’t find anywhere else, which I’m enjoying.

The minuses:

  • While they carry almost everything I need, there are some things I just can’t get from them, like my husband’s gluten-free bread or certain spices.
  • They definitely are more expensive than shopping at the grocery store, although I’m getting a higher percentage of organic food.
  • Sometimes they mess up my order, or don’t have something in stock. While they work hard to make it right, it still means that I don’t have something I expected to have.
  • They deliver to my house on Thursdays. It would be more convenient for me if I got groceries at the beginning of the week, so that I had more fresh food on hand for my kids’ school lunches.

One the whole, for me, the pluses are currently outweighing the minuses, so I’m keeping it. I’ll let you know if I change my mind again.

Have you tried home grocery delivery? What did you think?

Trying Soap Nuts + A Giveaway!

soap nuts green eco-friendly laundryIn my efforts to make doing laundry greener, I’ve tried a lot of things. I gave up dryer sheets. I’ve used eco-friendly detergents than I can count. I’ve hung my laundry to dry. However, until recently, I haven’t tried soap nuts.

I’d heard about soap nuts from a lot of different sources. Some people swear by them, and others are more lukewarm. I’ve considered trying them myself, but since my husband does the laundry and he prefers detergents that more closely resemble conventional options I hadn’t taken the plunge. When Ken McGowan of Sinfully Wholesome got in touch with me about a review and giveaway, I decided it was time to make the leap. I let him know I’d love to try some out, and not long after they arrived in the mail.

Soap nuts are actually not nuts, they’re berries that grow in Nepal and India. They contain a natural surfactant, which means they can be used as a cleaner. Using them is simple – you put 5-6 soap nuts in a small cloth bag and throw it in the laundry. It works for 5-6 loads, which is about how much laundry my family does in a week. You don’t need to remove it for the rinse cycle, which is good, because trying to remember to take the soap nuts out would be challenging. When you’re done with the soap nuts, you can steep them in boiling water overnight to make a household cleaner. After that, they’re compostable.

soap nuts sinfully wholesomeThe soap nuts I received were organic, and they came packaged in a bag made from handmade Nepalese Lokta paper, which is harvested from the self-regenerating Lokta bush. Nothing else is added – no colours, fragrances or chemicals of any kind. The berries themselves are non-toxic – in fact, Ken says you could eat them, although they don’t taste that good. They’re also good for people with allergies, and can be used in any kind of washing machine. From an environmental standpoint, the upsides seem pretty clear. I gave my husband the run-down on how to use them, and we gave them a go.

soap nuts review giveawayThe soap nuts do seem to work, in that our laundry was definitely cleaner after washing than before. The clothes smelled good, as well. The soap nuts do leave a slight residue on the clothes. This is touted as a natural fabric softening effect, but my husband found it off-putting. Also, he found it a little difficult to locate the bag of soap nuts amongst the wet laundry when removing it from the washing machine. In the end, I was more impressed than he was, which was not even a little bit surprising to me. My husband is a skeptic, especially when it comes to cleaning clothes. I would use the soap nuts all the time, but he prefers something that comes with a dispenser.

In the end, the most accurate opinion of soap nuts is probably going to be formed by trying them. To help you out, Ken is giving away two 500 gram bags of Sinfully Wholesome Soap Nuts. There are enough soap nuts to wash 150-200 loads of laundry in each bag (which is another upside to cleaning clothes this way – it’s actually very affordable). The giveaway is open to Canadian and US addresses. Just fill out this form before 9:00pm Pacific on Friday, November 22, 2013 for a chance to win. For an extra entry, subscribe to Sinfully Wholesome’s mail list. Good luck!

The contest is now closed.

What about you – have you tried soap nuts? What did you think? I’d love to hear!

One Green Thing: Organic Grocery Delivery

One Green Thing Strocel.comToday I’m tackling my One Green Thing for September. This month it’s all about shopping online. But first, I’ll talk about turning down my thermostat last month.

The temperature noticeably cooled in the later half of September in Vancouver. While it’s a gorgeous and sunny day today, we’ve had a number of mornings when I’ve felt compelled to dig out my winter coat in the past few weeks. There’s a dusting of snow atop the local mountains, and it’s getting dark earlier. This means that when I turned the thermostat down from 22 Celsius / 72 Fahrenheit to 20 Celsius / 68 Fahrenheit, I definitely felt it. I did a few things to help me adapt. I put a basket filled with blankets by the TV, and I’ve been keeping a blanket on my computer chair. I also bought myself some slippers, and dug out my sweaters. At this point, I’m pretty much acclimatised, and I’m feeling confident I can make this change permanent.

organic food grocery delivery enviro-mama carrots

This month I’m changing the way I grocery shop. I’ve recently taken on a new obligation on Sunday mornings, which is making it difficult for me to get to the farmers’ market regularly. However, I don’t like the idea of buying all my food at the regular grocery store. Instead, I’ve decided to try SPUD.ca, my local organic grocery delivery again. I used their service when Hannah was little, but I was still visiting the grocery store and farmers’ market weekly. Shopping at so many places became too expensive. In the years since I’ve used them their selection has expanded, and my hope is that I’ll be able to skip weekly grocery shopping by using them.

The primary reason I’m making this change is convenience. I am not a fan of grocery shopping. However, it is an eco-friendly change as well. The delivery service ships the groceries in reusable bins. They source local, organic and sustainably-produced products. They purchase carbon offsets for their delivery truck, and recycle a lot of difficult-to-recycle packaging like the plastic bag my daughter’s dried cranberries come in. When you buy something from them, you know exactly where it’s coming from, which is more than I can say for most produce at the grocery store. While I will miss being able to visit the farmers’ market each week, this is the next best thing.

My big questions are how much switching to grocery delivery is going to cost, and whether or not I’ll really be able to skip the grocery store. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I’m enjoying being able to shop at home, in my pajamas, whenever I want.

If you’d like to get in on the act and take on One Green Thing of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to grab the button from this post if you’re blogging about it, and spread the enviro-love.

One Green Thing: Put on a Sweater!

One Green Thing Strocel.comToday I’m tackling my One Green Thing for September. This month it’s all about handling the colder weather. But first, I’ll talk about preparing my garden for winter last month.

In early August, I said that I would start my winter garden. I placed an order and got some over-wintering seeds, as well as some cover crops. I’m still in the early stages, though. There are some plants still to harvest in my garden, and I’m slowly working through what I have and getting ready to plant my fall crops. I’ve laid the groundwork, though, and I’m feeling good about it.

one green thing put on a sweater

With September here, there’s no denying that fall is on its way. The days are a little shorter, the mornings and nights are a little cooler, and the weather is a little wetter here in Vancouver. My plan is to try to reduce the amount of energy I’m consuming in the winter months ahead. I’m doing this in two ways. The first – and biggest – way is that there are renovations underway on my sunroom right now. In fact, literally as I type someone is banging away eight feet from where I sit. The result, hopefully, will be a more energy-efficient home, which will lower my energy bills. The second way I’m targeting energy consumption is a little more achievable. I call it put on a sweater.

My thermostat has gone up and down over the past number of years. At the moment, it’s up again. I’m planning to reduce it by a few degrees. If I’m cold, I’ll try putting on warmer clothes. I also took an old basket we have kicking around and I’m using it to hold blankets in the living room, so if anyone’s cold while they’re sitting and watching TV they can put one on. It’s a small thing, but hopefully it will make a difference over the course of the winter. I’m also considering knitting myself a shawl – if you know of a great pattern for worsted weight yarn, please let me know!

How do you keep your heating bills in check in the cooler months? Leave a reply and let me know! Also, if you’d like to get in on the act and take on One Green Thing of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to grab the button from this post if you’re blogging about it, and spread the enviro-love.

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