3 things to do with citrus peels

Waste not, want not! Our  recent post on Candied Grapefruit Peel yielded some interesting comments, and at the same time Erik made a discovery about citrus. Thus, three things to to do with your rinds:

Idea #1
Readers Terry and Barb both commented that they soak citrus peel in vinegar to make citrus infused vinegar to use for cleaning, and in Barb’s case, as a deodorant. This is an excellent idea. Infusing vinegar with cleansing/disinfecting herbs, like lavender or sage, is something I’ve known about for a long time, but don’t do, in practice. I’m too lazy. Instead, I scent my cleaning vinegar with essential oil. But we always have citrus peels laying around in piles, and the simplicity of the citrus idea is so a peeling that I had to try it. (ouch! stop throwing things!)

I filled one jar with orange peels and covered it with vinegar. After only a couple of days it started smelling really nice. Now it’s about a week old and doesn’t seem to be getting any more potent, so   I’m going to strain it off. In a second jar I’m trying an experimental blend of orange and thyme. Like citrus, thyme has excellent disinfectant qualities, but I’m not sure how its scent will blend with the orange.

I suspect our cleaning vinegar is going to smell like citrus from now on out.

UPDATE: I’ve been using orange-peel vinegar for a while now and the only drawback is that it is tinted yellow. If you spray a light surface and forget to wipe afterward, it will leave yellow stains behind. Not true stains–they wipe up easily even if they’re long dry. This isn’t a big problem because generally I am spraying and wiping, but once in a while I’ll find yellow droplets in spot I forgot to wipe.

This, of course, disqualifies this spray for carpet cleaning. (And plain vinegar spray is a great thing to use to clean up pet accidents on carpet.)

Speaking of pet accidents, I realized this first when I found a yellow spray at the base of our bathroom sink and immediately though young Trout had taken to spraying. Cryeth the cat: “O! Unfair! I never did such thing!”

Idea #2
A reader named Chile sent us this link to an old Cuban recipe for candying grapefruit pith. As you know, grapefruit pith can be quite thick. If you have some separate use for the peel or zest, you can cut the leftover pith into cubes and candy it with cinnamon. She says it’s really good!

Idea #3
Erik has learned that you can make pectin out of citrus rinds and membranes. Like apples, citrus is quite rich in pectin. This is a really good use for under-ripe, not so tasty oranges. Here’s a how to link: Wedliny Domowe. The same link also has instructions for making pectin from apples. It’s all about local sourcing, after all. An oddity of living where we do is that it is much easier to come by citrus than apples. At least for now.

On a related note, we also know that you can make clear, citrus flavored jelly by boiling organic citrus rinds in water, then straining off the solids. The resulting liquid is citrus-flavored and pectin-rich. Add sugar and you have citrus flavored jelly. It’s tasty, we’ve tried it. But unfortunately, we don’t have a recipe. If you happen to have a recipe, please share!

Heavy-duty disinfecting the non-toxic way with hydrogen peroxide and vinegar

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells
Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

The comments on yesterday’s post indicated some general interest in strong disinfectants, and questions as to whether vinegar really was a good disinfectant. Vinegar is an acid and as such it does kill wee beasties, though not as many wee beasties as the nuclear options such as bleach or Lysol will. For everyday use, I think vinegar does a fine job. But I admit there are times, like when you’re cleaning chicken juice off a cutting board, where you might want something stronger.

Here’s a safe, super-strong way to disinfect. We covered it in The Urban Homestead, and it floats around the interwebs, too, so it may be review for some of you.

1) Take a bottle of hydrogen peroxide (3% solution, the kind you buy in the drugstore). Leave it in the  brown bottle it comes in because hydrogen peroxide is light sensitive. Screw a spray bottle nozzle onto the brown bottle.

2) Fill another spray bottle with undiluted white vinegar.

3) Mist the surface you wish to disinfect with one spray bottle first, and then the other, immediately after, like a one-two punch. Do not combine the two liquids in one bottle for the sake of efficiency. That doesn’t work. It makes a new chemical altogether which is not effective for this. Keep them separate. Always apply in the form of mist.

This methodology was developed in the mid-90’s by Susan Sumner a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. She actually developed this technique to remove salmonella from the surface of meat and vegetables. Yes, it can be applied directly to the food! I gather you rinse it off after application. It is said not to leave lingering flavors, but I haven’t tried it.

This combo works like gangbusters at killing salmonella. Nothing else works better. The magic is in the mix, somehow. As Sumner told Science News Online,

“If the acetic acid got rid of 100 organisms, the hydrogen peroxide would get rid of 10,000, and the two together would get rid of 100,000.” 

This one-two punch spray is very effective at killing germs of all sorts wherever it meets them, not just on food, so you can use it in on your cutting boards, in the bathroom, in garbage cans…wherever you need the extra assurance. And it’s so safe, it’s edible.

So no more excuses for clinging to your bleach, people. Ditch the poison!

Clean your bathroom without resorting to Poison

We talk about non-toxic housecleaning in almost every lecture we do, and we cover it in both books, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked about cleaning the bathroom on this blog. We did cover how to clean kitchen sink fairly recently, but I’m not sure what else we’ve done.  Of course, I know my regular Root Simple readers are so hardcore they could give me tips in this area, but I thought it would be good to cover non-toxic cleaning for new readers and folks crawling the interwebs for information.

It’s a really, really important topic. There’s no simpler way to remove toxins from your immediate environment than switching out your cleaning supplies. We call this “low hanging fruit.” There’s lots of things in this world that you may not like, but which you can’t control. Housecleaning, however, is totally within your power to change. Cleaning this way also saves you money and cabinet space, reduces plastic waste and not least of all, protects our waters from chemical contamination.

Just say no to chemical warfare in your home.

It all starts with the Holy Trinity of Non Toxic Household Cleaning:

  1. White vinegar*
  2. Baking soda (sodium carbonate)
  3. Liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s

Get yourself these things, some empty spray bottles and rags, and you’re in business. You don’t need anything else.

Prep:

Fill one spray bottle halfway full of white vinegar. Fill it the rest of the way with water. This is your all purpose wipe down spray, aka the 50/50 spray

Take another empty spray bottle and pour about a tablespoon of liquid soap into the bottom. Fill it up with water. This is called “soapy water.”

Yep. This is why we make the big bucks.

That’s it. You’ll find other recipes which are more involved. Some people like to put a squirt of soap in their vinegar water. Sure, why not? Other people make rather elaborate concoctions of a little of this and a little of that. I’ve found that simple is best, because 1) I can’t be bothered to do more and 2) I’m not sure any more elaboration is necessary.

Cleaning ain’t rocket science, and it’s not like I’m prepping my bathroom for surgery. Stuff just needs to be wiped down to remove dust and other surface dirt. Whatever I clean, however I clean it, will get dirty the next time it’s used, so why all the struggle and germ phobia?

All cheap white vinegar is the same, but I like El Pato brand because of the duck on the label. Why doesn’t El Pato make t-shirts?

The vinegar spray is great because it doesn’t leave any residue behind (which soap does), shines up things fairly well, disinfects to some extent because it is an acid, and deodorizes as well. Yes, it smells like vinegar, but you get used to that. You begin to associate that smell with the idea of clean. The scent goes away when it dries, and it takes any lingering odors with it.

The bathroom sink

Work the right side, the left side is yet to be done. See the hard water deposits forming around the base of the faucet? That’s on its way out.

The bathroom sink doesn’t get nearly as dirty as the kitchen sink, at least not in our house. See my post on the kitchen sink* if you have a really grotty sink that needs bleaching. In the bathroom, all I do is spray down the sink with the vinegar/water spray. Generously. Regular use of it will help prevent hard water deposits from forming around the faucets. Spray and wipe. I find using a clean, dry rag gives the best polish to the sink.

If you already have hard water deposits around your faucets or elsewhere, apply full strength vinegar to that area. If it runs off (depends on how your sink is shaped) try soaking rags or paper towels with vinegar and lay those over the deposits. Let the vinegar work its magic for a half hour or so and come back. You should be able to scrub off the deposits now. If you still have trouble, trying applying the vinegar hot.

To clean scummy build-up out of the sink, follow your vinegar wipe-down with a generous sprinkle of baking soda. Scrub with a damp cloth or a nylon sponge. Rinse.

Bathtub/Shower

The advancing line of clean

Here I prefer to use soapy water spray instead of the vinegar spray, though you could try the vinegar. I find that soapy water cuts through soap-scum build up quite well, perhaps because like dissolves like?
To clean our clawfoot tub, what I always do first is spray the whole interior with soapy water, then sprinkle over that a generous coating of baking soda, focusing on the spots that look grungy. I scrub these areas first, using an old nylon net bath puff, which is my favorite tub cleaning tool. A nylon sponge or a rag would work fine, too, though. The secret here is to use not so much soapy water–just enough to wet the surface, not enough to puddle. The baking soda should be just damp when you’re scrubbing with it. If it’s too wet, it’s not effective.

After I scrub the scummy parts, I wipe down the whole tub and rinse.

Note: I have no proof, but I do believe that big brand soaps (and their knockoffs) make more soap scum than natural soaps, and that scum is harder to remove than what’s left behind by natural soaps. They are definitely not good for your skin. When you switch your cleaning products over, switch over your bar soap to a nice, natural soap. Maybe something from the farmers’ market, or maybe even something you make yourself. Or yes, the ubiquitous Dr. Bronner’s is fine, too.

Toilet

Plunging the bowl to reduce water level. Cat heads are not recommended for plunging, as they are not bristly enough.

First thing I do is start scrubbing the bowl with the toilet brush, just using the bowl water. It’s amazing how much plain water and a scrub brush can do. I plunge as I scrub, with the goal of lowering the level of the water in the bowl down to a minimum. If you can’t make this happen by scrubbing & plunging, then pour a bucket of water in the bowl–that will lower the water level, too.

That first scrub takes care of a lot of the basic build up. Next, soak the bottom of the bowl in straight vinegar to remove stains and the-lord-knows-what that collects down there. Take that big cheap gallon jug of vinegar and refill the bowl to the usual water line with a couple of cups of vinegar. I like to pour the vinegar all around the sides of bowl to give those surfaces a good antiseptic dousing. Then let the vinegar sit at the bottom of the bowl for about a half hour. When you come back, give a final swish and flush.

While the vinegar is doing its work in the bowl, spray the entire toilet from top to bottom–back, lid, seat, base– with the 50/50 vinegar water, and then wipe it down with a rag. This is plenty sufficient to clean those parts, and if you have a seat/lid that shows water spots (like ours, because it’s black) just be sure to wipe those parts dry and you’ll have no spots.

If you have rust stains under the rim, pure vinegar (how did you guess I’d say that?) will help. Soak paper towels or rags in vinegar and plaster them under the rim and leave them as long as you can. When you come back, you should be able to scrub those stains away. Lemon juice would also work well.

Vinegar soaked rags under the rim, working on the rust stains. Apologies for the terrible picture!

Mirror

Because I’m way too lazy to make up a different formula or even pick up a different spray bottle, I use the 50/50 vinegar spray on the bathroom mirror. Spray on, buff off with a dry cloth. Works fine. Same goes for our mystery metal Ikea garbage can.

(Amendment as per Donna’s comment below: I should say that you can clean your mirrors with water alone. Donna also recommends newspaper for polishing, which is a fine technique. All in all, you just need to get windows or mirrors slightly wet, then polish them with whatever you have on hand that is clean and dry. I use the vinegar spray because it is a handy moisture delivery device.)

Floor

Again, all you need is vinegar–about a half cup in a bucket of hot water, or more like a full cup for a big bucket or a dirtier job. Mop. No rinsing required. I use this on tile, linoleum, vinyl flooring and even, with a barely damp mop, wood floors.

If I’m in an expansive mood I’ll add a few drops of essential oil to the bucket so I can Sniff n’ Mop.

* Warning Regarding Vinegar: Vinegar is apparently not recommended for use on stone surfaces–like granite counter tops or stone composite floors. I don’t have any personal experience with these surfaces, but I’ve read that this is so. Vinegar is a mild acid (5%), and acid can etch stone. It’s hard to imagine vinegar etching stone, especially when diluted, but it’s best to be cautious. The effects might build up over time. As always, ask the manufacturer of the stone surface, if you can.

Also, if you leave full strength vinegar on a finished metal surface for long enough, you might end up dulling it. I’ve never had a problem wiping down my fixtures and appliances with 50/50 blend, but once I soaked a sink head in a bag of hot vinegar overnight. My goal was to remove mineral deposits in the faucet. It worked, but it also dulled the head of the faucet. You can always rinse your faucets off after cleaning with vinegar, just to be sure. Rinse with water and then dry with a cloth and you’ll have no spots. Until someone uses the sink.

* I just realized that I posted that “how to clean your sink” post exactly one year ago to the day. Something about Feb. 13th makes me think about cleaning, apparently. Must be my romantic nature.

Phoebe, the implacable bathroom supervisor, says “Scrub, you lazy swab! Damn your eyes!” 

Clean your hands with olive oil

I was just outside staining a piece of wood and got oil stain all over my hands. A bit of olive oil took it right off. These days, olive oil (or any cooking oil, really) is my first resort whenever I’ve got something staining, greasy, sticky or icky on my hands. I’m pretty sure we’ve written about this before–but it bears repeating: There’s no need to expose your skin to harsh chemicals like turpentine or paint thinner.

Usually oil alone will do the trick. For tough jobs you can grit up the oil with a few shakes of salt or baking soda. Sometimes a mix of oil and soap works better.

A sad but true story: As an art student, I was taught to thin my oil paint and clean my hands and brushes with turp. I often painted holding a turpentine dampened rag in one hand for hours on end. I wiped my turp soaked brushes on my jeans (’cause, you know, it looked cool). I cannot imagine how much turpentine I absorbed into my skin over the years. It was only much later that I discovered I could clean my brushes and hands just as effectively with oil.

Oil dissolves oil. Oil dissolves a lot of things. Keep it mind.

Scrubbin’ It

Say hello to my new friend the KingSeal Stainless Steel Scrubber, Heavy Duty Commercial Size. If you’re doing the cast iron cookware thing, as we are, you’re going to need a scrubber. And this puppy is the Hummer of scrubbers (apologies for that metaphor) and far sturdier than the usual flimsy supermarket scrubbers. It was gifted to me by Steve Rucidel, who owns a restaurant–so this is an item you’ll have to seek out at your local restaurant supply store.

Sadly, made in China–but what ain’t these days?

Now if only I didn’t have to do the dishes!

Mrs. Homegrown here:  

This is indeed a fine, stout scrubbie, but as at least one commenter says, it may not be the best thing for the cast iron. For indeed, if your cast iron is well seasoned, food should come off a rag, or a couple scrapes with a flat spatula. Unless you’ve really burnt dinner or something.  I’m laughing right now that Erik should put forth opinions on scrubbing cast iron, when in fact he’s very, very good at avoiding cleaning it day to day. He’ll do dishes, but “forget” the pans on the stove. Forget them for, like, what is it now…15 years?  He’s excited by the sturdy, attractive qualities of this object, and the fact his buddy Steve gifted him it–but he asked me to post this clarification re: the cast iron.

Loofah Sponges

We talk about the joy of loofah–or luffa– (Luffa aegyptiaca) all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve every blogged about it here. I was reminded of it when we received a letter from Candace, who heard us on a podcast talking about how much fun it was to grow loofah sponges. She said:

I wanted to thank you for that part of the interview in particular.  I decided to grow some this summer and it has been a great joy.  It is a beautiful vine, and the flowers are always loaded with bees, bumble and honey and all kinds of other insects. By the way, luffa are delicious.  Mine has been eatable at a diameter of 1 to 1.5 in and a foot long with no problem.  There are several recipes on line for them as well. They are a definite interesting grabbing item to share at get togethers, pulling the skin off and shaking out the seeds.  I’ve gotten several people interested in growing them that have never grown anything before by showing them the luffa.

Thanks for the feedback, Candace! And thanks for reminding us about this great plant. It’s just fantastic to be able to grow your own cleaning tools. They’re expensive in stores–too expensive to consider using on dishes and such–and just try to find one that’s organic and locally harvested!

Most people think loofah sponges come from the sea, but they are actually members of the cucumber family and grow on vines. With their skins on, they look like zucchini sized cukes. They’re quite attractive and fast growing. The vines can reach 20 feet if they’re happy, and the fruits form on big yellow flowers. They are so prolific and easy to grow (given the right conditions) that you only need a crop every few years to keep you in sponges.

We’ve never tried to eat loofah, mostly because we’ve been too greedy for sponges. But we’re going to chill on that next time around and eat a few. 

The only catch with loofah is that they need a long growing season: 4 months from sprouting to get a sponge, 3 months from spouting to harvest the fruits to eat. This does limit its cultivation to more southern latitudes, unless you can maybe get a jump start by sprouting indoors. 

Some tips:

  • The seeds need warmth to sprout–sort of like tomato seeds. They won’t start in cold soil. Start them indoors over heat if you have to. 
  • Basic growing requirements are lots of sun, lots of water, warm weather and time. Again, three months for food, for months for sponges.
  • Here in SoCal March is a good month to plant the seeds directly in the ground.
  • Provide support for the vine: it’s a climber. The vines are long and the fruit big.
  • Some people harvest for sponges after the skins turn brown. I find that if you wait that long the sponge itself can be blotchy/discolored. This is purely an aesthetic problem. Many people bleach their sponges in a mild bleach solution, so this doesn’t matter. I don’t bleach mine, so I like to harvest while they’re still green–though I think they might be a little harder to peel at that point.
  • It might help if you throw your harvest in a trash can full of water and let it sit overnight before you peel. Then you can peel in the can, in water, because it’s a messy business. Or do it however you want. You can’t really screw this up. Don’t worry too  much about how or when you peel them. You’ll get a sponge.
  • The seeds float out under water, or can be shaken out. The later is an excellent task for pesky children.
  • Each mature loofah yields tons of seeds, but be sure to save plenty because the germination rates aren’t high. Save seeds from the best specimens.

ETA: More info here: http://www.luffa.info/

    How to clean a stained coffee cup

    This is what it looked like fresh out the dishwasher. Ugh!

    The sink post reminded me about this quick and easy tip. If you’ve got a stained coffee mug, baking soda will take that gunk right off.  Just sprinkle some baking soda in the mug, then wipe down the inside with a damp rag or sponge. The stain will give in on the first pass.

    As I described in the sink post, the trick here is to keep the mug on the dry side, because baking soda scrubs best when only slightly damp. Your sponge or rag should be damp, but the mug shouldn’t have water in it.

    Just a swipe with the magic powder does it.

    I don’t like housework, but this sort of cleaning makes me happy.

    Cleaning the Sink with Baking Soda and Lemons

      
    Our sink, freshly cleaned and so darn photogenic!
    This is because you can’t see all the clutter just out of view.
     

    A little green cleaning review here. It is possible to keep a sink white and shiny without bleach or other toxic cleansers. I took pictures this week while I was cleaning to prove it.

    Below is our grungy sink. A photo can’t quite capture that particularly scuzzy quality a dirty sink has, that gunky bacterial record of all the dishes and greasy pans that have sat in it over the week. In the lower right corner you can see my homemade scrubby–just a few of those red plastic net bags that fruits and veg are sometimes sold in, wadded up and tied into a yellow one.

    The more usual state of our sink. That is, minus the piles of dishes.

    Step one: baking soda scrub

    A few quick things about baking soda:

    • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an inexpensive, non-toxic, mild abrasive. You can use it safely on enamel, stainless and fiberglass sinks. 
    • While you can find baking soda in the baking aisle of most stores, search it out in bulk, both for savings and because you’ll go through quite a lot of it. We buy it in huge boxes or bags at our local restaurant supply chain. I expect it would also come in bulk at grocery warehouse stores.
    • Make a shaker for it out of a jar with holes punched in the lid,  repurpose some other shaker, or buy a sugar shaker from a restuarant supply place. I’d used an old jar for several years before seeing a metal sugar shaker at an Asian market for all of $1.99 and decided to splurge. You can see it in the windowsill of the top picture. You know, it was totally worth the $1.99.

    Using baking soda:

    • The trick to using it effectively is to not use it in a very wet environment. Baking soda dissolves quickly in water, unlike some scouring cleansers. Don’t try to use it in standing water, or even with a very wet sponge.  For it to work well, it has to be on the dry side. If my sink is wet, I’ll run a towel over it to get most of the water out before scrubbing.
    • Use a generous amount of baking soda. 
    • See the lumps and clumps forming in front of my scrubby in the picture below? You can actually see the line between dirty and clean, and the lumps of barely damp baking soda that are picking up the dirt. In my experience, if you’re not producing these sort of lumps, deep cleaning isn’t going to happen. Look for these lumps. They only happen when a) you use enough baking soda, and b) when the cleaning surface is just damp. Not too wet, not bone dry.

    These are the magic clumps. I like to imagine myself a snowplow.

    Step two: bleaching

    Baking soda is an abrasive–it has no bleaching properties. If your white sink remains yellowed or stained after the scrub, you can bleach it with lemon juice. I always set aside unused lemon halves or withered lemons from the back of the fridge for this purpose.

    •  Dry the sink. Again, the less water the better.
    • Cut the lemon into wedges. I find a half lemon will usually do the job on my single sink, but lemons vary.
    • Scrub the sink with the wedges, using both sides. Smear the insides around to spread pulp and juice evenly all over the sink. Use the skin sides to scrub problem areas. I find the wedges do a good job of cleaning around the edges of the drain. I also rub lemon all around the border of the sink and counter, in the tile grout there. It never fails to loosen hidden dirt.
    • By the way, lemon juice is very effective at removing rust stains. For serious stains, combine it with salt to make a paste.
    • Leave the lemon juice to do its work. Leave it sit until dry, at least a half hour. Overnight is fine.

    The sink coated with lemon juice and pulp, the drain edge scrubbed.

    When you come back to rinse I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how bright the sink is. As a bonus, the lemon rinds can go down the disposal to freshen it:

    Look Ma! No toxins!

    Yes, this requires a little elbow grease, and a little attention to detail, but the scrubbing with baking soda doesn’t take any longer than scrubbing with a toxic scouring powder, and you’re spared from breathing that junk in, getting it on your hands, and adding it to our water supply–not to mention the danger of having it around the house. The lemon bleaching is an extra step, but one I always enjoy. Maybe it’s the scent, or maybe because I like playing with my food.

    Extra tough situations:

    • If the baking soda isn’t cutting it as a scrubber, try scrubbing with table salt or Borax, or a combo of baking soda and salt or Borax. 
    • Borax is a laundry additive, and sold in the laundry aisle. It isn’t as safe a baking soda. It will dry out your skin if you use it with bare hands, and you definitely don’t want to snort the stuff or feed it to your pets and babies, but it’s not bad for the water supply. I harshed on it a bit in our first book, but have softened my opinion about it of late. It has its uses. What’s interesting about Borax is that it releases hydrogen peroxide when mixed with warm water, so it not only is a sturdy scrubber, but also will have some bleaching properties if your sponge is moistened with warm to hot water. 
    • If I have a stain that lemon juice can’t address, I turn to the laundry room again. There I keep a little box of powdered oxygen bleach–Ecover’s, to give them a free plug. Others would work the same, I suspect. This is basically powdered hydrogen peroxide. I can either plug up the sink and soak it in a strong solution, or make a paste of the powder and leave it sit. 

    Bathtubs/Showers:

    I scrub our enamel clawfoot tub/shower with baking soda, too. The only difference is that tubs and showers accumulate soap scum, and I find you need soap to dissolve soap scum. So to clean the tub I’ll usually spritz it with diluted castile soap. (I keep a bottle of this around for general cleaning.) Then I’ll lay down the baking soda and scrub with a scrubby. The scum comes right off.

    I think the persistence of soap scum has much to do with the kind of products you use in the shower. We use homemade soap, and very mild shampoo, and nothing else. These don’t form much scum, and it cuts easily with liquid castile soap and baking soda.

    If you use more detergent based products, body washes and advanced hair products, and big brand drugstore soap, which has a very different formulation than homemade, you might have trouble dissolving the scum. I’d advise you cut around the problem by using simpler body products. But in the meanwhile, you might find Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, their detergent alternative, with cut through that scum better than castile soap.

    Sun Bleaching Really, Really Works

    Line drying in the sun is a time honored means of brightening whites. But I had never guessed how effective it can be.

    I have a pair of white bath towels which developed mysterious, spreading yellow stains all over them, stains which I could not remove no matter what I tried (Borax, oxygen bleaches, stain removers), and which I may have actually worsened by a final, desperate flirtation with chlorine bleach a few years ago.

    The towels were in good condition otherwise, but I wouldn’t hang them in the bathroom because– seriously–they made us look incontinent. I downgraded them to “slop towel” status, and didn’t think about them much again, until lately, when I was considering getting rid of them, to save room. But how to do that? I have too many rags, Goodwill wouldn’t want them, and throwing them in a landfill would be beyond the pale. I pondered composting them as an experiment, but figured they’d need to be shredded.

    Finally, I decided to hang them off the side of our porch for a couple weeks (in good weather, of course!), just to see what happened. Day and night, I just left them there. Turned them whenever I thought about it, then forgot about them entirely.

    Today I pulled them off the porch, and they look a whole lot better. I’m shocked they’re not counter-stained by diesel particulate. There are a few intractable stains from their days as slop towels, but 95% of that nasty yellow splotching is gone. They will be rotated back into bathroom use.

    Mr. Sun, I’m impressed.

    Max Liebermann, The Bleaching Ground, 1882, Wallraff-Richartz Museum

    Sun was once the primary way women used to keep their whites white–urine and lye were other less pleasant alternatives, as well applying bluing to counteract yellow. All of these may have been combined with sun exposure. Villages had designated, communal areas for spreading out laundry. Do an image search for “bleaching ground” and you’ll find lots of old paintings on the subject. Linen manufacturers also used to bleach linen in the sun, so you might find pics of huge operations as well as ordinary laundresses.

    • Some nice factoids on old fashioned laundry techniques can be found here, at Old and Interesting.

    • I’ve read that to rid yourself of perspiration stains on white shirts you can mix lemon juice and water–maybe at a 50/50 ratio? Soak perspiration stains in that and then lay shirts out in the sun to bleach. I’ve not tried that myself, since Erik and I have totally given up on wearing white.

    What’s the dirt on soap nuts?

    Sapindus mukorossi fruits, image from Wikimedia Commons

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    I’m trying to take a temperature reading on soap nuts. Have you used them? Did you like them? How do you use them–as laundry detergent, shampoo, soap? Do you use whole nuts or make a liquid? How long have you been using them? Do you find a big difference between brands?

    If you could shoot me a comment, I’d really appreciate it.

    On a more advanced level, I’m curious about their interactions with soil and compost, so if you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them. I’m curious as to how they’re harvested, and if their growing popularity is impacting their local ecosystems.

    If you’ve never heard of soap nuts, let me know that, too! I’m wondering where they sit in the general public awareness.

    Soap nuts are saponin-rich fruits, usually of a tree called Sapindus mukorossi (though all Sapindus make soaping fruits), which can be used for laundry and other cleaning purposes. They’re usually sold only lightly processed: seeded and dried. A handful of these dried fruits, which look somewhat like small dates, are put into a cloth sack and thrown in with the laundry. The fruits release saponins, natural surfactants, which clean the clothes. Supposedly. I hear mixed things. I’m experimenting with Maggie’s Soap Nuts right now (and Erik is complaining about their…uh…rich organic smell…which doesn’t seem to linger after drying), but I’ve not used them long enough really judge how they work. The truth is, so much soap is embedded in the fibers of our clothing that you can wash the average garment a couple of times in nothing but water and it would still come out pretty clean. And, for better or worse, Erik and I don’t do that much wash. I feel like I need to adopt a Little League team or something to really test drive this stuff! So send your comments, or your ball teams, this way…

    Updated 12/14:
    I’ve continued to use soap nuts off and on– I also use Oasis Laundry Detergent, which is a greywater safe detergent which I trust.  Soap nuts are also safe for greywater, by the way. As far as use goes, I’ve come to the conclusion that soap nuts work fine for regular soil, but for tricky whites I always use the Oasis plus some kind of oxygen bleach (which I don’t send out via the greywater). Dirty whites just need more oomph than the soap nuts can provide.
    Also, I mention Maggie’s soap nuts above–they used to be available by Amazon, but they are no longer. We’ve also sampled soap nuts from Green Virgin Products and they worked well, and they are currently available via Amazon. You may find soap nuts in your local health food store, of course, though in some areas it can be hard to find them in stores.
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