Posted in Family, Home

Our Little Patch of Plantation

image courtesy of

The current buzz-word for this practice is Urban Homesteading, but “urban” doesn’t quite describe us. Our little place isn’t within the city limits of any town (and if it were, even Idaho’s capital city barely qualifies as “urban”)… Perhaps in our case we should call it “backyard homesteading,” or just plain “turning-a-regular-home-into-a-mini-farm.”

Whatever you choose to call it, that’s the idea behind the Urban Homesteading movement: creating a self-sustaining lifestyle wherever you already happen to live. Or if you’d like a more “official” definition:

Urban Homestead.n. The home of a family living by principals of low-impact, sustainable self-sufficiency through activities such as gardening for food production, cottage industry, extensive recycling, and generally simple living.

People are undertaking Urban Homesteading in cities, in towns, in apartment blocks, in suburban backyards… In short, they’re Homesteading wherever they live. (And many of them are blogging about it!)

Keoni & Christian working on our chicken house

When Keoni and I talk about our plans to move back to Hawai’i and build a Bed & Breakfast on our Big-Island acre, we always envision that establishment as fully self-sufficient, but for some reason it hadn’t dawned on us until recently that we don’t have to wait for that venture before we start taking strides toward that lifestyle. For the B&B we picture starting from scratch with sustainability in mind—water-catchments, solar panels, composting toilets, fruit trees and garden, fishing-boat… We intend to live entirely off the grid (except for an internet connection). But we realized recently that it doesn’t have to be an “all-or-nothing” project, and we needn’t wait until we can do ALL of that to start doing some of it. The real point of “Urban” sustainability is making do with what you have, where you are.

Christian learning some new tools

If we all waited until we could afford to spend thousands of dollars on solar panels, we might never get started at all. So we’ve been asking ourselves what we CAN do now to live more sustainably… And we’re surprised by the lengthy list. Our little trailer-court plot is on its way to becoming a VERY-mini Homestead. Some of this won’t be new to you Regular Readers, but there’s something satisfying in looking at it all together…

  • We’re building a chicken coop for laying-hens. This is a project that began with our son Christian’s disclosure of his long-standing wish to raise chickens (who knew?!)  and it was in the process of researching “backyard chickens” that we began to come across references to Urban Homesteading… Seed of an idea planted!
  • a giant home-grown zucchini—too heavy to lift?

    We’ve been practicing “kitchen chemistry” in making our own household cleaners and personal care products. This, too, was a project that pre-dated the Homesteading idea, and stemmed not from noble environmental leanings, but from lack of money… Still, it got us thinking more along the lines of sustainability.

  • We’ve been sharing our neighbor Bill’s vegetable garden, and started growing our own kitchen herbs. And getting creative even on some little things… When sunflowers started sprouting beneath our bird-feeder, we transplanted them along the fence—hopefully by next summer we’ll be able to supply the bird-feeder ourselves.
  • I’ve written here about our habits of bartering and scrounging—we’re turning the practice of getting-stuff-for-free into an outright art form! Just yesterday we were over at one of the trailers in our neighborhood that was due to be demolished, pulling out some paneling (for use on the chicken house) and a ceiling light (for our living room) and a bunch of mirrors (I have Pinterest-inspired projects in mind) and some other odds-and-ends… We have always practiced recycling (we’re fortunate to have curb-side pick-up, and our Recycle bin is usually more full than our trash), but until recently, we hadn’t explored the practice of UPcycling.
pulling some paneling (and a vent) for chicken-coop construction, from the neighborhood trailer about to be demolished
  • We joined the Freecycle network, which provides a venue for members to give away (and pick up!) used items. We’ve posted a number of items as we’ve been sorting through and cleaning out our two sheds (we moved in such a hurried jumble that most of this stuff hasn’t seen daylight in the year since we moved here), and we have picked up several free items ourselves… Last week we picked up a partially-built dollhouse for Elena Grace (she’s uninterested in the chicken coop, but feeling left out nonetheless—hopefully this will serve as a parallel project with her), a couple rolls of chicken wire for the coop under construction, and materials to build…
  • garden helper
    Elena Grace fertilizing plants

    …a compost bin! Next summer we’ll probably graduate from garden-sharing to breaking ground on a plot of our own. I’d like to learn canning and drying, and we’ll see how much of a dent we can make in our grocery bills. The composter will be a help in fertilizing the growing-goods, and will materially cut down the amount of trash we’re sending to the landfill.

  • We do practice some small-scale water catchment, which we use for watering our plants. Truth be told, though, there’s not a lot of rain to catch in our high-desert Idaho climate (annual rainfall here is around eleven inches)… We’re happily situated on an island of the Boise River where the water table is barely below the surface, and we’re living on a well. We have a little timer on our water hose and run the sprinkler regularly—and with very little guilt, knowing that the water will seep right back in to the water table rather than being “wasted.” Our focus here is making sure that our water returns clean, particularly given that whatever seeps into the water table here will be showing up next in our well… Our natural composting (contrasted with store-bought chemical fertilizers) and home-made cleaning products will definitely be a “plus” in this regard.
  • small solar charger
    something like this could keep the internet up when the power is down..

    I would love to be able to switch to solar power (we certainly have enough sunshine here to make it feasible!) but that’s an expensive project. So we’re coming at this one from the other end, and working on cutting our power use. This summer’s project-list (after the chicken coop and the compost barrel) includes an outdoor clothesline—the clothes dryer is the single biggest power-suck in the house! We’re also looking at some serious weather-proofing before winter, because our power bill jumped ridiculously high last year when the cold weather set in. I’m actually looking at a small solar charger that can be used to power small items like phone and iPad chargers, and our internet router. We actually lose power out here with ridiculous frequency—it seems every time there’s a thunder storm or snow storm, we spend a few hours in the dark. The rest of the family doesn’t mind—the kids go straight to books and Legos and other no-power-needed activities—but it can wreak havoc with my writing deadlines when I can’t get online! There are a number of small solar chargers on the market for thirty bucks and under—I might be giving one of these a try.

Elena Grace getting creative with a planter…

When I was a kid, I used to make a game of pretending my bedroom was a houseboat, and that it was going to float away from the rest of the house on some exploring-adventure. I’d try to set up my houseboat-room so it would be entirely self-sufficient for my imaginary journey. I wasn’t allowed to have food in my room, but I’d stock up on plastic food from my sister’s grocery-shopping set, and put a can in my closet to serve as a (pretend!) chamber pot, and make sure all my favorite things were in the room with me, and stock up on maps (my dad’s old triple-A triptychs)…  I don’t remember actually pretending any of the journeys–it was the preparation that kept my interest, the idea of rendering my space entirely self-contained so it could float away on its own…

“I’m a chicken in my chicken-house!”

That childhood game of mine comes to mind again as we fiddle with improvements to our place, make do for ourselves, and work at cutting down outside costs. Truth be told, I hardly ever leave our little plot of yard—my writing-work is here at home, and we don’t Go Out for entertainment purposes or have a lot of errands to run… I could pretty well play my boat-game here, with the yard-boundaries of our “Homestead” being the deck-rails of the houseboat, everything our family needs contained within its small borders… I’m ready to cast off the mooring lines and float away in my imagination. I just hope the chickens don’t get seasick.

Posted in Family, Home

A Tattooed Chicken-Farmer in Heat (Wait, that didn’t come out right…)

Keoni’s thermometer at work last night. No, it’s not stuck in a hot dish—the KITCHEN was 118 degrees F!

Okay, okay: “A Tattooed Chicken-Farmer in THE Heat.” That’s what I meant. (Though our teenager, who has learned to approach our door warily if he arrives home unexpectedly, might vote for the original…)

Point is, it’s HOT in high-desert Idaho in the summer. Too hot to think. Too hot to remember all the, um… the little thingy-words that should go in the title. (Too hot to remember what we call the little thingy-words… Oh, articles! Yeah, those.)

It’s just. Damn Hot.

Elena Grace avoiding “bad form”

As if to psychically second what I was just typing… Christian is giving his sister instructions for using the iPad’s App Shopper to find new games: “There you go, yeah. For device you pick ‘iPad,’ for the price you pick ‘Free,’ and for categories you pick ‘Games’.”

I piped up with the motherly suggestion that the “Education” category also includes a lot of games, to which he replied with narrowed eyes, “Mom, it’s Summer! That would be bad form!”

[Who taught this mouthy kid to talk like that, anyway?   …Oh.]

Did I mention that it’s too hot for thinking?

Using my fancy watering-can to try and keep plants from shriveling with heat. Thinking of trying it on My People as well.

So today, here’s a mishmash jumble of odds-and-ends that haven’t made it into the blog in the last few weeks. Along with thanks to my friend Le Clown for the “tattooed chicken-farmer” moniker, which had the whole family giggling this morning!

The Art of Scrounging

I wrote recently about the much-maligned art of Packrat-ism, but hadn’t put a name to the activity that precedes Packrat-ing—namely, Scrounging.

Scrounge, v.  Finding cool shit in unlikely places.

our “scrounged” beach cart

Keoni is a master at this. Particularly if you expand that (highly technical) definition to include creative use of materials-at-hand to meet needs for which they weren’t originally designed… (Witness, for example, my “watering can” above.)

Just for fun, here’s a (partial) list of his scrounging-successes just in the last few weeks:

  • A folding cart that’s perfect for rolling our beach-stuff (cooler, portable BBQ, chairs, towels) from the car to the beach. Or, for that matter, from our house to the beach when the car has accompanied Keoni to work. There used to be a roadside vegetable stand near us, and this cart was among the things they abandoned when they closed up…
  • A 55-gallon soy-sauce barrel from a restaurant supply company, which is now destined to become our compost barrel. After we finish the chicken-house.
  • Christian demonstrating a Taekwondo move with his raft-pole

    Basaltic boulders (cleared from a construction site) to build our planned backyard fire-pit.

  • A metal fence-post for Christian to use in poling his inner-tube around the lake. (He tried a tree-branch walking-stick but punctured his ride almost immediately with one of its branch stubs…)
  • A bicycle. When he offered to help our neighbor Chuck, a disabled vet, to assemble the bike-bits leaning against his porch, Chuck said he intended to donate it… Well, we’ve been looking for a bike!
  • All the wood for our chicken-house project (including the house-shaped end pieces, from the same abandoned fruit stand). He came home on several occasions with two-by-fours strapped to the side of the car as if the Buick had taken up jousting…
  • …And speaking of Bessie Buick, several replacement bits for her dinged front end—and a pair of jumper cables!—from the “Jalopy Jungle” junkyard…
  • I appropriated one of the firepit-rocks to paint this “warning” for our front steps…

    Leftover wooden fence-post pieces from a ranch down the road, now sliced into different heights and standing on end to edge the boardwalk leading up to our house…

  • Stackable plastic soda crates (our grocery store let us take them) which have served in turn as craft table, fan stand, outdoor seating, and sawhorse…
  • Leftover tar paper from a nearby paving-job, perfect for use as a weed barrier underneath…
  • …the starter beds of wildflowers we’ve dug up from various places, and herbs we’ve transplanted.

In my previous life I would have gone straight to the store when I wanted any of these things—even the damn landscaping rocks—but this is WAY more satisfying.

Father-Son Bonding & Glitter Nail Polish

how Guys remove nail polish

Our teenage son stood in our bedroom doorway the other night and announced that he had to ask us a serious question.

[Parental attention engaged!]

“Do my toes match my outfit?”

As it turns out, his girlfriend had painted his toenails for him. And as it turns out, glitter nail polish is a bitch to remove. My nail polish remover was no match for the stuff… but luckily the stuff was no match for Dad’s pocket knife.

How [not] to Repel a Brother

Christian pointed out to Elena Grace the other day that she might want to re-think how she labeled her diary if she really didn’t want anyone to read it. I noticed the next morning she had done some editing:

Before & After the Brotherly Advice


Christian reading in his tent-fort

I think it’s been about four months since either of the younger kids have actually slept in their beds.

Around Spring Break our daughter and her wife visited from California, and we shuffled around the sleeping arrangements for a few days with the younger kids in “tent-forts” in the living room. Christian’s tent-fort, under a U.S. Marine Corps blanket draped across the corner of the room, has been there ever since. We moved Elena Grace’s tent-fort into her bedroom after the Cali-kids left, draped between her desk and chair. We laugh about the fact that she’s not using her perfectly-good bed… But it did make things easy when my mom visited—Elena Grace was already installed in her tent, with the unused bed waiting for Grandy.

Christian’s tent-occupation is, to some extent, a matter of privacy. That might seem counter-intuitive, since he’s planted right in the middle of the household now, but unlike his sister, he had a shared room—and suffice it to say that the sleep-habits of 11-year-olds and 16-year-olds are not a perfect match. Christian wakes early to read, but didn’t want to disturb his brother by turning on his lamp. Kapena comes home late from work or friends’ homes and was less observant about how his entrances affected Christian’s sleep.

Elena Grace in her tent-fort, before it got too HOT for flannel pajamas

Even at his dad’s house where he has a room to himself, I don’t think he feels it’s HIS room anymore. He has never been a guy who enjoyed surprises, so he was kind of traumatized when he arrived after a weekend with us to find his furniture replaced, his favorite reading-chair sitting in the street with the trash, and some of his favorite things mysteriously missing. (The kids have noted several times how assiduously their stepmother erases traces of ME in that household… And the reading chair had belonged to my grandfather.)

So bit by bit, Christian has been bringing his most Special Things to this household, and setting them up in his tent-fort where they’re safe.  Remarking on the fact that we allow him the permanent occupation of a living-room corner, he told me the other day that I’m “not really a traditional kind of Mom.”  Um… Thanks?

When it’s TOO HOT…

There’s only one place for a tattooed chicken-farmer and her family to go. We pack up our little scrounged cart and get our scorched butts to the beach.

Living in a climate that ranges from (Fahrenheit) five degrees in the winter to one-hundred-five in the summer, we sometimes think wistfully of the consistently temperate weather back in Hawai’i… But we’ve also learned not to lose out on the joys of Today by living in our  heads anticipating something different. Just think what we’d miss!—Today. Hot as it is, still a day with our ‘Ohana.

Posted in Family, Home

“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens…” (Part 1)

chicken house
laying out one end of the chicken-house… The scorch-marks are residue from our son Kapena’s ceremonial burning of a sweatshirt from his ex-girlfriend

Well, after tackling the political angle of backyard chickens and mustering our (mostly free) resources, we finally got our start on building the chicken house…  Or, to use the Hawai’ian handle, the Hale Moa (HAH-lay MO-wah).

We got through the framing today, so here’s our chicken-house-building (part one)—mostly in pictures, because I’m saving up most of my words for the 40K-word project I’m supposed to be doing now (and will actually have to get started on in a few minutes)…

So far the only item we have bought for this project is a box of three-and-a-quarter-inch sinker nails ($10.48 for a 5-pound box at Home Depot). All the wood we’re using was found, begged, or bartered—including the fortuitous find of the “house”-shaped pieces of plywood we’re using at the two ends of the chicken-house.

girls with power tools
girl with power tools!

We wanted to use four-by-four posts at the corners, but since our “finds” were all two-by-fours, we nailed two of those together for each corner post.  We measured out our lengths, and then I got to use the laser-sighted mitre saw that was my Mother’s Day gift a few years back (in the days when we did have money)… Hey, does Keoni know me or what?

Also, please notice and admire our nifty makeshift “sawhorse” of several stacked soda-crates (which we got for free from the grocery store) held together with zip-ties.

After measuring, cutting, and nailing our improvised four-by-four posts to each of the ends, we stood them up, propped one of them with a couple leaning boards, and nailed 8-foot two-by-fours along each side.

DIY chicken coop
nailing our measured-and-cut 2x4s to the end-piece
DIY chicken house
setting up the ends before adding the side cross-pieces

Keoni had to leave for work, but I wanted to keep playing (because, um, there were 40,000 words waiting for me inside—never mind that it’s 103 degrees OUTside), so I sanded down one of the cross-boards on the “front” end of the chicken-house, got out the kids’ paints, and labeled the project with a sign: Hale Moa.

chiseled-out cross-piece for the top

We’d talked about a single cross-piece across the top center, so I traced the apex of the house-shaped end, traced that onto both ends of a two-by-four, and chiseled out the shape on each end so it rests neatly on the top.

So here’s our first day’s progress; total cost so far just under $11. And Christian & Elena Grace are due to arrive any minute, so it will be fun to see what they think! I suppose I can’t put off those forty thousand words any longer…

Ta-da, the chicken-coop frame! I guess I could take that “temporary support” off the front now…
Posted in Family, Home

Kitchen Chemistry #3: PEOPLE-Cleaners

Two of my testers: Elena Grace (8) & Kapena (16). And wouldn’t you know it—she needs to be cleaned. AGAIN.

Well, here we are with the third installment of Kitchen-Chemistry do-it-yourself cleaners—doing positive things for both our wallet and our well-being! If you’re just joining, the previous installment covered household cleaners made from kitchen ingredients… They’re doing a great job of cleaning the house, they cost next-to-nothing to make, and we know they’re better for the environment (an immediate concern in our case, given that we’re living on a river-island with a very high water-table and using well-water)…

Since then I’ve been experimenting with people-cleaners, so here are my favorite recipes, tried and tested by my personal guinea-pigs family…

First, A Few Words About Castile Soap

The most expensive ingredient in the shampoo recipe is liquid Castile soap, made mostly from olive oil, and named for the region of Spain where it originated. I spent a fair bit of research-time trying to find a way around this expense (about 25 cents per ounce if you buy by the gallon, as much as 50 cents per ounce in smaller bottles), and concluded that I’m not equipped for home soap-making. It’s a more hazardous brand of kitchen chemistry, due to the use of lye, and requires some precision instruments (scale and thermometers) which we don’t have on hand. For body wash, you can find recipes that bypass the use of lye by grating existing bars of soap and adding your own ingredients, but bar-soap on hair doesn’t work well (I’ve tried)–so for shampoo I’ve included both the full-on”Food-Stamp Kitchen-Chemistry” suggestion, and the one I liked better, with the use of Castile soap when I can afford it. OK, on to the good stuff…

DIY Shampoo

Shampoo was a tricky one because, although I’m none too picky about things like body-soap, I’m very fussy about how my hair feels.

One of the most frequently recommended shampoo substitutes is a simple mix of baking soda and water, preferably followed by a rinse of apple cider vinegar. It works, and it’s absolutely the cheapest approach, although it’s not my favorite find. The cider vinegar leaves hair soft and shiny (and surprisingly, not smelling awful after rinsing), but it is a bit strong during application in the shower. (On the up-side… When you’re dousing your head with the equivalent of half a cup of “smelling-salts,” you’ll be plenty alert by the time you step out of your morning shower!)  The lack of lather felt odd when I was “shampooing” with the baking soda, but it got the job done.

lake shampoo
Christian “shampooing” at the lake

I should note that the baking soda approach is the favorite of our 11-year-old son, Christian (who doesn’t care about “conditioning” and skips the vinegar step)—I had promised him that if I came up with a suitably biodegradable shampoo-substitute, he could take his “bath” in the lake. Promise kept—and I definitely scored Cool-Mom Points with this one!  His only challenge is in rinsing all the baking-soda out, given his curly crop of hair with its approximate consistency (and tenacity) of velcro… For the rest of us, however, the Castile-soap recipe is the winner…

Big excitement: I got to use our home-grown herbs for this recipe!

DIY shampooI steeped the rosemary and lavender in the water, strained out the herbs, then added the Castile soap, oil, and honey. The whole batch went into an empty bottle of bought shampoo (Reduce, RE-USE, Recycle).

I found the Vitamin E oil at Walmart ($4 for 2 ounces, which will last for quite a few batches). I also saw recipes recommending coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and other light vegetable oils, but (thanks to that “Vitamins” e-book I wrote), I know Vitamin E is good for hair growth. The honey is intended to add shine, and the rosemary & lavender are supposed to be good for growth, as well as fragrance. One usage-note: give the bottle a good shake before using, because the oil tends to separate out.

nettle teaOur 16-year-old son, Kapena, needs dandruff shampoo, so I made a separate bottle for him, adding a couple bags of nettle-leaf tea to the steeping step. (For some reason, no one was in favor of adding stinging nettles to our garden. Hmm.)

DIY Conditioner

DIY conditionerOnce again, the most frequently recommended conditioning rinse that turned up with my research was vinegar.  And I found one version that takes some of the wallop out of the vinegar-in-the-shower smell. I filled a spray bottle one-third with apple cider vinegar and the other two-thirds with water. A couple sprigs of rosemary and a few stalks of lavender in the bottle add some pleasant fragrance. I just use the spray-bottle in the shower after I shampoo, leave it in while I soap up, and rinse it out before shutting off the water.  Some users actually recommended leaving it in rather than rinsing out, but I really don’t want to go around smelling like a fish-and-chips shop…

DIY conditioner
my spray-bottle of apple cider & herb conditioner

I’ll add that it did feel strange at first because I’m used to the creamy/slippery feel of conditioners, and I feared that this rinse wouldn’t be any help as a de-tangler. My hair gets way more snarled than you would expect, given how straight it is… But to my surprise, it combs out easily! There’s a faint whiff of vinegar while it’s still wet (Christian says it smells like sunscreen when I’m just out of the shower, hmm), but that scent doesn’t seem to linger.

Then there’s my very favorite conditioning, which I’m doing about once a week: Mayonnaise! I can’t believe what a gorgeous difference this makes—my hair tends to get dry and frizzy, but after my mayo-treatment it’s soft and shiny … Honestly, t’s like somebody else’s hair! I’ve never used a conditioner or hot-oil treatment, no matter how expensive, that worked as much magic as mayonnaise.

It looks pretty goofy (sorry, you won’t get a photo of this process) but I rub the mayo into my hair before I get in the shower, leave my greased-up hair wound on my head like a turban for ten minutes or so, and then hit the shower. Washing the mayonnaise out works best if you add your shampoo before getting your hair wet. Then just shampoo & condition as usual. One note on this one: it doesn’t make any difference to the results, but it’s a lot more comfortable to use room-temperature mayo rather than straight-from-the-fridge cold.

DIY Body Wash

bathtub reader
Elena Grace insists on body wash over bar soap. Of course, she still has to be reminded to USE it… Left to her own devices, she’d finish her book and get out still unwashed.

I was initially going to skip the idea of body wash, because I didn’t think I could get any cheaper than just buying a bar of soap. In fact, most of the recipes involve a bar of soap being grated into them anyway. However, Miss Elena Grace raised the protest that she doesn’t like using bar-soap, and on further reflection, the diluting ingredients added to the grated soap might actually make it stretch farther. I haven’t managed a statistical comparison of how long a bar of soap lasts us compared to a bar-of-soap’s-worth of body wash, but at half a gallon of body wash per bar of soap, I think we’re coming out ahead—and Her Highness is satisfied.

There’s a multitude of recipes to choose from, including those made with Castile soap and those made from existing bar soaps. In this case I went for bar soap because it makes a larger volume at lower expense. There are also all kinds of suggested additives, so you can get pretty creative with whatever you’d like. Add herbs, add essential oils, add a couple tablespoons of honey or coconut oil…

Elena Grace planting some new lavender–some of which will get used in shampoo

Some recipes include glycerin and some left it out—a little research revealed that glycerin makes soaps translucent, but doesn’t necessarily add to the “cleaning power”… It does act as a moisturizer, however, so if you have really dry skin you might want to include it. If you want to add glycerin (the body wash would no doubt be prettier), it’s pretty cheap and can be found by the Bandaids.

The recipe is simple: Start a half-gallon of water boiling in a large pot, and then put your bar of soap in a microwave-safe container and zap it for about 90 seconds. (After dozens of sites with instructions to grate the soap, I found one that recommended the microwave. By golly, it works! And takes most of the hassle out of this recipe…) Do watch it while it melts to make sure it doesn’t bubble over and make a mess in your micro. Pour the softened soap into your boiling water, add any ingredients you choose (I included a couple tablespoons of Vitamin E oil—great for skin as well as hair—because I do have dry skin, and hadn’t bought glycerin). When it’s thoroughly mixed up and the soap thoroughly melted, pour it into containers (we’re just re-using containers from previously-purchased  body wash bottles) and let it cool. (One lesson learned: if you’re pouring into flimsier plastic, let it cool a little before pouring. I have one crumpled-melted Dial bottle to offer as evidence…) It looks pretty watery for a while, but it thickens up nicely a few hours after the initial cooling.

Dial bottle
lesson learned: if you’re pouring into #1-PET plastic bottles, wait till it cools down somewhat…

Because you’re using manufactured soap for this, you don’t have to worry about preservatives or spoilage. Having said that, if you do pick up a recipe with Castile soap, I’ll pass along a tip which didn’t accompany all the Castile-recipes I saw, but probably should: add a teaspoon or so of citric acid to prevent bacteria from growing in your mixture. (For the Food-Stamp kitchen-chemistry version, you can use a packet of unsweetened powdered lemonade.) If you make bigger batches of shampoo than the recipe I gave above, you might consider doing the same with the shampoo.

And I’ll add that an advantage to this body wash approach is that you can use a favorite brand of soap. Kapena likes Axe products (drenches himself in them, to be honest), so a bar of Axe soap-turned-bodywash made him very happy. We’ve always liked Irish spring, so we’ve got the green body wash in our shower. And when the kids tried out their new pocket knives by carving up bars of Dial soap (my favorite “sculpture:” Christian carved a cell phone that cleverly had the “Dial” logo on its back) I gathered up their shavings and leavings and added that to a batch as well.

DIY Body Scrub

DIY sugar scrub
ingredients for a sugar scrub: white sugar, brown sugar, pumpkin spice, olive oil

Ah, the luxuries in life! I’ve always enjoyed a good exfoliating body scrub, and it turns out they’re easy to make. Most scrubs use sugar or salt for the exfoliating agent, but I’ll add the warning that you shouldn’t use salt if you have dry skin. (I could give the whole chemistry-teacher lecture about osmosis… Or we could keep it simple and I’ll just say that salt sucks the water out of your skin cells and leaves your skin dryer.)

DIY sugar scrubThere are so many delicious recipes, I couldn’t narrow down the field to just one! At its most basic, the body scrub recipe boils down to one part oil to two parts sugar. As for what type of oil, you can go with baby oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil, almond oil… Whatever tickles your fancy (or whatever you already have in your kitchen).

Possible additives for fragrance include vanilla extract or pumpkin spice (which is just allspice & cinnamon & nutmeg) or lemon zest (grated lemon peel) or even coffee grounds (love that one!)… Pretty much whatever comes to mind.

DIY sugar scrub
a (Parmesan cheese) bottle of sugar scrub

I found the easiest way to mix is to add a little of the oil to the dry ingredients—just enough to make it “crumbly”—and mix it all thoroughly. Then put it into whatever container you plan to use, and add the rest of the oil. My current scrub is in a Parmesan Cheese bottle (so fancy!) because that’s what was empty at the time. Note for next time, though–a shallower container would be more convenient. Now that I’m into the bottom half of this one, I’m keeping a spoon in the shower to scoop it out…

In a nicer container, this would make a great gift. I’m remembering spending something like fifteen dollars for exactly the same sugar scrub I just made with about twenty-five cents’ worth of ingredients. (Ouch!)

One more note: the days I use the sugar scrub, that’s a good time to have the DIY tub-scrub ready—the body scrub tends to leave an oily film on the bottom of the shower. But wow, does it do a great job on me.  The first time I made it, I used it one one leg and not the other (no moisturizer afterward) and I could see the difference. You know that scaly-white alligatory look of dry skin? That was the un-done leg, and the other one… Silky smooth.

DIY Eye Makeup Remover

DIY makeup removerI’m not picky about using body-soap on my face, but when it comes to removing eye makeup, soap just doesn’t do it. If you plan ahead and buy the “mild” Castile soap, it’s sometimes the same price as regular, and is fairly easy on the eyes. Alternatively, Johnson’s baby soap (“no tears”!) works great.

DIY-Eyemakeup-RemoverJust mix a teaspoon and a half of the baby shampoo or mild Castile soap with a cup of water and a quarter teaspoon of olive oil.  Give it a shake before each use, and apply with a cotton swab or re-usable cloth. I’ve always liked the Almay eye-makeup remover pads, but at five bucks for 80 pads, that’s out of my price range these days… And this little mix does just as well!

DIY Deodorant

DIY deodorantThis one you can’t do without. (At least in America. Though I’ve visited some countries where eau d’underarm was the accepted norm…) And this one took a fair bit of fiddling before I settled on something that was usable. This version is a little more liquid than some variations, but that helps in applying it thinly. Too thick, I found, and it dries in powdery clumps that drop off afterward. I recommend applying after a shower (when your under-arms are dry) and before dressing–if you dribble on clothing you might as well pick a new outfit for the day. I’ll also add that this goes on white, so it’s not the deodorant you want to wear with that sleeveless little black dress.

common sense is like deodorantThe recipe I settled on (though you, too, can fiddle with amounts—more or less oil to make it less or more solid) is equal amounts of coconut oil, baking powder, and cornstarch. For people who don’t react well to cornstarch, arrowroot is a suggested substitute—more expensive, but available in the spice aisle.  The cornstarch (or arrowroot) acts as an antiperspirant, and the baking soda absorbs odors. Another ingredient suggested in place of coconut oil is shea butter—but I had coconut oil already in the kitchen. Lots of people also add essential oils for fragrance, but I’m not a fan of flavored armpits.

I wasn’t sure how DIY instructions would handle application–I found one recipe that suggested packing your DIY mixture into an empty deodorant-stick, but most recipes just suggest a jar. (I actually don’t think the stick-idea would work well—even the most solid variations weren’t dense enough to keep their shape, especially when the bathroom was warm…) Scoop some and apply with fingers, or (for less mess) with a spoon or a little wooden paddle like the ones they use for tasting at Baskin Robbins. One user suggested rubbing it into your hands like moisturizer after applying, but I find it too gritty for that. I’ve been keeping a broken-off plastic spoon in my little container, and spread the deodorant with the back of the spoon. It’s worth mentioning also that the consistency changes drastically with temperature. It might be quite solid on a cool morning, and completely liquid on a hot afternoon.

This particular recipe is not a hit with the members of the household who have under-arm hair (especially Kapena, who is wedded to his Axe deodorant) so although I’m doggedly using the batch I made (and re-mixed, and re-re-mixed), I suspect that deodorant is one of the few items we’ll continue to buy. It works, I’ll say that much for it. But I don’t love it.

DIY deodorant And after all that… An alternative that’s less messy and fairly effective: just the baking powder and cornstarch, patted on like baby powder. However, it doesn’t really “hold up” for all-day use, especially on a high-desert Idaho summer day.

I’ll share one more idea that might work for you, though it’s not for us to try. (We’re both recovering alcoholics and don’t keep any kind of alcohol in the house.) A spray-bottle of rubbing alcohol, spritzed under the arms, is said to be effective in killing odor-causing bacteria. People who use it swear by it, and it’s certainly easier (and cleaner!) than my own attempts.

DIY Toothpaste

DIY toothpasteI’ve made two separate batches of the toothpaste—one without the whitening agent of hydrogen peroxide (for the kids) and one with (for us coffee-drinkers and recent smokers). Mix six teaspoons of baking soda with a teaspoon of sweetener (Splenda or Equal or whatever you use in your coffee, as long as it’s not sugar) and two tablespoons of coconut oil.

DIY toothpaste
Elena Grace’s PINK toothpaste

Peppermint is a traditional toothpaste-taste, of course, but really you could use any flavor. You’ll want to use something, though, because the baking soda is super-salty, and it’s like brushing your teeth with seawater if you don’t flavor it. (Believe me, I tried.)

I mixed the toothpaste batches in containers for cupcake-papers, and put a cut-off plastic spoon in each for easy application onto toothbrushes. Just for fun, I let the kids pick food-coloring, so here’s Elena Grace’s pink toothpaste!


rinse & reflect
Christian rinsing his “shampoo” job…

It says a little something that we can’t use bought shampoo in the lake… But we’d use it on our kids. Hmm. Now that I’m thinking about it, that’s probably a good standard to follow: if we could rinse it off in the lake, it’s safe on our kids. And us too, come to that. Now I can actually list (and pronounce!) the ingredients of everything being used to clean My People.

Check the ingredients on your store-bought shampoo against any list of harmful-chemicals-to-avoid, and you’ve got a better reason than “being broke” to make some changes. Besides… If you’re at all like me, you might get a kick out of making your own. Here’s to healthy living!

Many thanks to my dear Husband, who has patiently put up with (and mopped up after) the various messes I made in his kitchen, and with equal patience has been dabbing experimental goops on various parts of himself at my request. Mahalo nui loa, Keoni ku’u pilikia!

Posted in Family, Home

Barter ECOnomics & the Much-Maligned Art of Packrat-ism

folded dollar houseI’m a little embarrassed.

One of the lovely side-effects of living below the poverty-line  is the realization that most money-saving behaviors are thoroughly environmentally friendly. I’m embarrassed because it shouldn’t have taken a detour into destitution for us to put this type of lifestyle into practice. A matter of putting my money where my mouth is (figuratively speaking, that is, since absence of money is the catalyst in this case)…  So here we are, engaged in creative do-it-yourself projects, re-using and recycling and “upcycling” and making do for ourselves rather than buying even simple stuff.

shopping cart
of course we don’t avoid the store entirely… Grocery shopping for the essentials with our “phenomenal cook”–Elena Grace’s (accurate!) description of Keoni

In my previous life, if I needed (or wanted) something, I went straight to the store. Didn’t even think about it. Even a DIY (do-it-yourself) project would result in an automatic shopping-list for the needed components.

In contrast to that mindset, we make a game these days of “creative alternatives,” even with a DIY undertaking.  Our goal isn’t so much to do things inexpensively with DIY, but to see how close to FREE can we get with any project. For any item on our list, we’re asking ourselves what we could use, and where we might find it. (Funny thing—it does feel like a game, and there’s a definite satisfaction in “scoring” something we’re looking for.)

barter system
um, NOT quite how it works… (image courtesy of

Last month I joined the Freecycle network, which acts as a hub for people to offload (and pick up) used items at no cost. Without a doubt, the most neglected component of the eco-trinity (“Reduce, Re-use, Recycle“) is the practice of re-using—which is a shame, given the relatively high costs (both ecological and economic) of the recycling process… Freecycle operates a lot like the “free” listings on Craigslist (though unfortunately there’s not a lot of member activity in our area, so I’m still a regular Craigslist browser as well).

We are also blessed with a wonderful network of friends and neighbors who make bartering a viable possibility in our household economics. It should be said first, however, that although there is a steady traffic of foods and favors and funning exchanged across our various fences, the majority of those interactions aren’t undertaken with any aim so concrete as “bartering” for something specific. That’s just neighborliness, on all sides.

Keoni & Bill admiring our shared vegetable garden

Having said that, though–I will add, on reflection, that the habit of neighborliness has stood us in good “credit” with those neighbors when we are on the hunt for something specific. And since those same neighbors have now formed addictions to Keoni’s cooking, they know precisely what they want in return. Case in point: when we approached our neighbor Steve to ask about the stack of two-by-fours by his shed (gathering materials for our son’s chicken-coop project), Steve had a wish-list at the ready. He held up two fingers and requested (1) Keoni’s teriyaki sauce and (2) his ginger salad dressing. Then he stabbed his two counting-fingers toward the pile of wood and told us to have at it—he had no plans for it. When we asked Bill (retired from construction, and a certified electrician) to see if he could sort out the electronics of our broken shave-ice machine so we could offer it as a rental to Keoni’s boss, Bill jumped at the chance to ask for Keoni’s “Tahitian Lanai” banana bread.

There are times, too, when neighborliness results in rewards unsought. Keoni stopped to offer condolences to the father and brother of our recently deceased neighbor, asking also how he might be of help. They’re looking to sell the place, so he offered to keep the lawn mowed in the interim. He spent yesterday morning mowing and weed-whacking and clearing trash (his OCD kicks in here—he can’t do half a job without following through on whatever else needs doing) and when they stopped by again, he suggested to them that they should store the outdoor items to prevent them from disappearing. (Unfortunately, we had some experience with that last year—while we were in the process of moving from our foreclosed-on house to this trailer, someone decided to help themselves to a number of our outdoor tools, plants, even a water fountain…)

tackle box
Christian reverently inventorying our late neighbor’s tackle box. “This guy took REALLY good care of his stuff.”

To our surprise, they told him he could help himself to whatever he could use from the yard and garden; they had already taken the few things they wanted to keep, and they’re focused now on clearing the place out.  It seems a little morbid to benefit from the death of a neighbor (one of the few neighbors we didn’t know, at that), but on the other hand we can offer a most appreciative home to the fishing tackle, portable barbecue, gardening tools and potting soil… And maybe, after all, the neighbor would get a kick out of our delight over the little garden-hose timer, which has long been on our wish-list for use with our sprinkler on the lawn.

Our neighbors have also been a great resource for our start-up gardening. Bill is kindly sharing his established vegetable garden with us—we provided seeds (which can be bought with Food Stamps, yay) and weeding-services (always with the “help” of his nosy wiener-dog, Buster), and a steady stream of baked goods—in exchange for which we’re enjoying radishes and tomatoes and carrots and broccoli and zucchini and (my favorite!) snap-peas. Bill jokes that we must have a bakery-bush behind the house, and wonders how far apart you need to plant those…

We’re working, too, on our own collection of kitchen herbs—plants started from seedlings and cuttings we’ve gathered from neighbors and from the herb-garden at Keoni’s work, and even road-side and river-side. (Wild asparagus grows along the river right near our house!) Some of the home-grown herbs are going into my “Kitchen-Chemistry” experiments (another installment coming soon!)—our other ecological/economical DIY project.

weeding the vegetable garden on Bill’s side of the fence (with Buster’s help)

What actually prompted this post was the curious collection of components for our planned compost barrel (which will no doubt get a post of its own when it’s completed)—a project that combines both the Reduce and the Re-Use commandments… We’ll be cutting down substantially on our outgoing trash and gaining compost for our developing kitchen-garden—and we’ve gotten creative in assembling its ingredient pieces. We find that the key to bartering (and sometimes getting things free) is keeping eyes open for items we can use, and being willing to ask.

For the compost barrel, we asked for an empty 55-gallon barrel of soy sauce from a restaurant-supply company. Its pivot-rod will be an old gas pipe, which we asked for when a gas-company worker was checking lines in the neighborhood and taking out unused pipes. And its supports will be a pair of outdoor umbrella-stands that Keoni rescued from the trash heap at the restaurant where he works.

kitchen herb nursery
the “nursery” of kitchen herbs—including seeds planted in the egg cartons

And that brings me to Packrat Habits. I have officially retired from teasing Keoni about his Packrat-ism, due to the overwhelming number of times he has pulled something useful out of the shed—something for which we had no imagined use when he picked it up. The umbrella stands fit in that category, as does the John Deere key he picked up in a parking lot a few years ago. We didn’t own anything at the time that could possibly fit that key, but this summer when we misplaced the key to our riding lawnmower (itself an item partly-bartered from a neighbor last summer), damned if he didn’t pull out that found key from wherever he had it stashed, and damned if it didn’t fit our lawnmower! I concede the field—he’s less crazy than I thought.

Still plenty crazy, though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. On that note, there’s a clump of road-side wild-flowers I’ve had my eye on, and I think I’ll go dig it up—it’s either that or pay $5 at Home Depot.

Posted in Family, Home, Recovery

Home to Roost

Never mind the “Secret Lives of Bees”–I’m intrigued by the Secret Lives of Kids. I would never guess what’s going on in my own kids’ heads if I didn’t chatter and play with them. Case in point: our 11-year-old son, Christian, has been harboring a long-standing wish to own chickens.  I had no idea.

He first floated the idea in the context of our long-term Plan: a bed-and-breakfast on the acre that’s awaiting us on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Could we have chickens there, he wondered, and could he help with them? Given that the “long-term” part of the Plan is largely due to considering ourselves anchored-in-Idaho by joint custody until the kids get through school, that would be a lo-o-ong wait. Really, you want chickens? Well… How about NOW?

chicken coop
Anatoli’s chicken-house

Our neighbor Anatoli has chickens already—chickens who (he claims, in his own thickly accented English) “speak Spanish, and English, and on Saturdays, Russian.” And Chuck (the disabled Vet just down the way from us, whose yard gets mowed in turns by Keoni and Steve and Bill, who have undertaken the volunteer rotation without ever talking about it) has hens that he raised himself from the eggs. So no problem, we figured—and we promised Christian chickens this summer.

The beginning of May, to our surprise, brought a form-letter from the landlord reminding everyone to mow their yards and keep their porches tidy… and to get rid of “farm animals” by June 1. The letter clarified that chickens were meant by that, and that there had better not be any chickens left on the property by June. The afternoon of the letter’s arrival, Steve and Bill and Keoni and Anatoli convened at the “four corners” where our yards converge, and (like a bunch of biddies themselves) dissected the letter, managing in the process to dissuade Anatoli (conditioned, perhaps, by Soviet-Bloc life?) from immediately killing his dear hens. The idea of a neighborhood petition arose from the gab-session; Keoni volunteered me to write one up, and Bill said he’d walk it all around the park.

Gretchen Anderson
Gretchen Anderson, author of “The Backyard Chicken Fight” (and raising chickens in our hometown)

A little research showed that every town in our county (including the capital city of Boise) legally defines hens (up to a certain number, which varies town by town) as pets, rather than farm animals.  Since our leases prohibit “farm animals”—but not specifically chickens—our argument hangs on the definition. I got in touch with nationally-recognized author and “backyard chicken advocate” Gretchen Anderson, who happens to live in our own town of Eagle, to inquire about the rules and interpretations of this municipality–though I realized soon after that our trailer park (“Eagle” address notwithstanding) is outside the town boundary…

In any case, our “Request to Reconsider the Ruling Regarding Chickens” relied on these points:

  • Female chickens, up to a certain number, are legally considered pets rather than farm animals even within city limits of the cities in Ada County. The most restrictive city in Ada County is Boise, which currently allows up to three female chickens (and is in the process of considering an increase to allow six).  Other cities in Ada County have set even higher numbers allowable as pets, collectively setting a clear legal precedent for the classification of chickens as pets rather than as farm animals.
  • Female chickens do not create any noise nuisance, health hazards, or devaluation of property value.
  • Chickens provide excellent pest control with regard to bugs, provide fertilizer for gardens, and provide eggs for the household—all of which are markedly advantageous for families attempting to feed themselves in these tough economic times.
backyard chickens
image from

By the next evening Bill had collected more than forty signatures on the petition. The only person in the park who declined to sign cited as her reason the fact that she didn’t want her son-in-law (who also lives here) to take it into his head to raise chickens…  Bill met with the manager, presented the petition, and then… We waited.  June 1 came and went, and we still hadn’t heard anything either way. Anatoli’s and Chuck’s chickens continue to cluck away on either side of us, oblivious to their suspended sentence.

So… We’ve decided to go ahead and build our poultry-pen. Steve has a stack of two-by-fours for which we bartered a couple recycled coffee-creamer-jugs filled with Keoni’s teriyaki sauce & his ginger salad dressing, I just found a free roll of chicken wire on Craigslist, and Christian is doing the research about details like chicken-food…


On a more sobering note (literally, for the two of us), our little neighborhood also marked a sad circumstance today. Our neighbor four doors down—known for his metal-work and his race-car driving—took his own life today. Steve knew him well because he used to live in our trailer, and Steve (who has been Sober a year longer than we) says he was in Recovery, but had gone back to drinking. The Crime Scene Investigation team has been courteous and circumspect, quietly inquiring among the neighbors about his recent habits, what sort of music he’d been listening to. And I suppose it’s telling that in this fairly tight-knit little country neighborhood, no one had answers. It’s telling, too, that he’s one of the only neighbors whose name I don’t know.  We’d actually been keeping an eye out for him, wanting to introduce ourselves and ask if he had plans for the stack of tiles in his driveway, but we hadn’t yet found—or made—the opportunity.  We were reflecting yesterday on our brief 18 months of Sobriety—as well as lessons learned from that relapse, brief but utterly disastrous—and our neighbor’s suicide brings the severity of this disease home to roost.

While we’re working toward chickens, we’re enjoying ducks. We’ve watched this troupe since they were eggs under our back bushes…

To end on a related—but more upbeat—note, we lost a dear friend yesterday morning. I say “upbeat” because this man’s life is one to celebrate, even mixed with the sadness of goodbye.  Gary (or Grrrr, as we always called him) “graduated from the Program” with decades of Sobriety behind him—a man who daily celebrated the blessing of “going to sleep every night instead of passing out, and waking up every morning instead of coming to.”  We’re pretty sure that he has already ensconced himself in a back-row seat for the Great Meeting in the Sky, set up his Cribbage board, rolled his own cigarette, and responded to another angel’s “Good-to-see-you” greeting with his standard response: “It’s good to be seen!”  Grrrr, you are loved! And we know that you have gone home to roost where you will be most joyful. Save us a seat!

Posted in Home

Kitchen Chemistry #2: DIY Household Cleaners

Here we are—the second installment of do-it-yourself products on my money-saving mission for the household… We got off to a small-scale but sparkly start the other day with DIY jewelry cleaner, which did an amazing job without the gagging sulfur-smells of commercial cleaners. And that actually raises a point I hadn’t addressed before. I’ve been focusing on the money-saving aspect, but the products we’re starting to make for ourselves are indisputably healthier to have around the house, and eminently more ecologically friendly than the chemical compounds we’ve been in the habit of buying before.

toxic household cleaners
We’ve been “cleaning” our home by saturating it with potentially harmful and hazardous chemicals… And paying MORE money for the privilege of doing so. Brilliant.

If we handled our household cleaners with the same care with which I was trained to treat chemicals in a microbiology lab, we’d have a thick notebook of MDSD (Material Data Safety Sheet) information, and the number of Poison Control programmed into our phones! “Harmful if swallowed,” “Irritant to Eyes,” “Corrosive,” “Flammable,” “Harmful Vapors,” “Possible Carcinogen”…  This is the stuff we use to keep our home clean and healthy?  Well that’s embarrassing.

In contrast, most of the DIY recipes I’m about to share are concoctions you could safely drink. Not that you’d want to, by any means, but from a health-and-safety standpoint (or from a Mommy-standpoint), that’s a striking difference!

By the same token, these toxic chemicals in cleaners (often even more hazardous when they combine with one another–which inevitably happens after we’ve washed them down the drains) are polluting our water and air and the ecosystems around us. The more I’ve researched this week, the more I’ve realized that my brain has been far more thoroughly “washed” than my bathtub all these years… In short, the “down sides” and disadvantages of DIY household-cleaners add up to a total of… ZERO.

cleaning supplies
My two main cleaning supplies: Vinegar & Baking Soda

If you’re looking at a switch to economical and un-harmful household cleaners, your two largest-quantity investments will be vinegar and baking soda.

Vinegar is actually a mild acid with antibacterial properties, recommended medicinally by such notable folks as Hippocrates and the prophet Muhammed. (A fun historical-trivia side trip… It’s said that during the Black Plague in fourteenth-century Europe, a quartet of thieves made a good living robbing the homes of Plague victims while protecting themselves with vinegar and garlic. When they were finally caught, the judge is said to have offered to let them off the hook if they’d reveal the “secret” of how they’d stayed Plague-free…) From a scientific standpoint, a solution of 5% vinegar (diluted with water) has been proven effective 90% of the time in killing fungus, and 99.9% of the time in killing bacteria. It’s less effective than bleach at killing viruses, but it also doesn’t pose the dangers of acid-burn or inhalation-injury which are common household occurrences with bleach. And it’s cheap! (And attainable with food stamps.) Good stuff!

Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, also has a long-established history of medical and cleaning uses. (More history trivia… A couple decades ago Arm & Hammer donated enough baking soda to clean the Statue of Liberty! No word on how much that project took…) The powder itself can serve as an abrasive for scrubbing and is often used to absorb bad odors, and its chemical reaction with vinegar makes this combination rate as a super-power cleaner.

If you want to make your cleaners smell better, you can add a few drops of scented essential oils. I haven’t gone this route because I’m not spending any money I don’t have to (although I am growing lavender this summer and hoping to create some essential oils of my own–I’ll let you know how that goes). In the meantime, though, adding a citrus rind (lemon peel, for example) to a bottle of cleaner infuses it with a nice citrusy scent—and it’s cheap!

As you make your new household cleaners, you can store them in the spray-bottles that used to contain your old cleaners–just be sure to wash them out thoroughly to avoid any unintended chemical reactions. (Cooking oil usually works to get the gummy label-residue off your bottles, and then you can make your own labels, or even just write on them with sharpies…) Ready to get started?

Tub & Tile Bathroom Cleaner

tub and tile cleaner

The tub & tile recipe is the only one of the household-cleaners that calls for Castile soap, although this ingredient will also make an appearance when we get to personal-care products (next installment in the Kitchen Chemistry series!)… Castile soap can be found in both bar and liquid form, and it’s the liquid you’ll need for this.

Dr Bronner's Castile Soap
Dr Bronner’s Castile Soaps

Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap is the one I saw most frequently recommended as I researched, and with a sixty-year history, Fair Trade certification, organic and all-natural ingredients, and different flavors if you want to get “fancy,” I see why it’s a favorite. Its basic ingredients include hemp oil and tea tree oil, with other essential oils for the different scents. I went with the unscented, which is considerably cheaper than the “flavored” variations.

To make your tub & tile cleaner, just measure out the ingredients into a spray bottle to keep in your bathroom.

Tub Scrub

tub scrubThe salt in this recipe (kosher because of its coarseness–or you can substitute sea salt) acts as the abrasive element to give your tub a really good scrub. Cut a grapefruit in half, put the salt on its face, and use the grapefruit itself as your scrubber. The abrasive action of the salt gets the grime off, and you’ll end up with a great fresh, citrusy smell! (And the peel can go into another bottle of cleaner to add scent after you’re done with the tub.) This also works, of course, on sinks or toilet bowls or anywhere else that you get cruddy build-up which needs an extra scrubbing.

Toilet Bowl, Drain, & Shower-head Cleaners

bathroom cleanersThe vinegar-and-baking-soda combination works its magic in various venues in the bathroom–so although I found these listed as separate recipes, you can truly just keep the two ingredients on hand in your bathroom, ready to use in various ways.

  • For use as drain cleaner, pour half a cup of baking soda into the clogged drain, followed by half a cup of vinegar. Cover the drain with a wet cloth for about five minutes, then flush with super-hot water.
  • cleaning the shower-head
    cleaning the shower-head: vinegar & baking soda in a Ziploc baggie

    To clean your toilet bowls, add a quarter cup of baking soda and a full cup of vinegar into the bowl, and let it sit for a quarter of an hour before scrubbing and flushing.

  • To clean your shower-head, fill a heavy-duty ziploc baggie with a cup of vinegar and one-third cup of baking soda, then use a twist-tie to secure the baggy over the shower-head so it’s submerged in the mixture. Leave it overnight, and run some hot water through it when you take your morning shower.

Rather than having various bottles of different pre-mixed concentrations, we’ve found that the easiest thing is simply to have a “bathroom-dedicated” bottle of vinegar and a Gladware-container of baking soda—along with a couple old measuring cups—under the bathroom sink for easy access and quick use.

Glass Cleaner

glass cleanerThis one I keep pre-mixed in a spray bottle, and it works on metal fixtures (polishing the faucets) as well as on mirrors and windows.

I follow up with the trick my mom taught me: the best thing for polishing glass isn’t a cloth (which tends to leave streaks or lint), but crumpled newspaper. It initially seems as though it will streak, but keep wiping until the glass-cleaner is no longer in evidence, and you’ll have a lint-free, streak-free, spiffy shined mirror!

Kitchen Cleaner

Kitchen messes tend to include oils–so the kitchen cleaner includes the grease-cutting element of dish soap. (You can also substitute the Castile soap for dish soap if the liquid dish soap itself isn’t something you want to purchase separately.) Measure your soap, baking soda, and vinegar into a spray bottle, and then fill the bottle the rest of the way with water. Using warm water will help the ingredients dissolve, and you might need to give the bottle a shake or a swirl before using, just to make sure it’s still mixed before you spritz your kitchen surfaces.

Wood Polish

wood polishThis is a recipe you’ll probably need to make fresh when you want to use it; you could keep the extra in the fridge for a while, but it won’t keep indefinitely.

Squeeze the lemon (strain the juice, or at least pick out seeds) and then add the olive oil and warm water. Put a lid on the container and give it a good shake–the water and oil will naturally want to separate, so shake it up thoroughly right before using.  A microfiber cloth with this mixture gives wood a beautiful polish, and it smells great! You could also use lemon juice straight from a bottle, rather than squeezing a lemon–although using a whole lemon gives you some lemon-peels to add to your other cleaner-bottles for scent…

Dishwasher Detergent

dishwasher detergentI’ve seen this recipe both with and without the citric acid, and with several different suggested sources of citric acid for those who choose to include it. If you have hard water, though, you’ll probably want to include the citric acid, which works to eliminate hard-water spotting on dishes and glassware.

lemi-shineFor the citric acid component, there’s a product called Lemi-Shine which gets rave reviews from users (I haven’t tried it, but it looks promising), or (the Food-Stamp kitchen-chemistry approach) you can use ten packages of unsweetened lemonade. Both the Borax and the washing soda (not to be confused with baking soda, though Arm & Hammer makes both) can be found in the laundry or cleaning aisle. You can use sea salt rather than kosher; as with the tub scrub, it’s the coarseness we’re after as a cleaning agent.

Laundry Detergent

laundry detergentTruth be told, I thought I’d be out of luck on DIY laundry detergents, because we have one of those machines that requires the more expensive HE (“High Efficiency”) detergents. This is good for both our power bill and (if we weren’t on a well) the water bill, but problematic when it comes to keeping ourselves in detergent. The appliance salesman, back when I bought the machine, was adamant that the HE detergent was not to be messed with, but I’d never looked into what, precisely, is the difference between the detergents. When it came time to look into DIY options, that was my first question–and the answer (happily!) is that HE detergents are low-in-suds (a sudsy detergent will shut off the water pump in an HE machine)–and the DIY detergent fits the bill!

Zote soapThe majority of detergent recipes I found involved “cooking” big pots of soap to make a gel-like detergent that can be poured into the liquid soap-dispenser of the machine. The version I’ve chosen to use, however, is much simpler–no cooking!–and results in a solid detergent instead. So I’m adding the detergent directly into the machine with the clothes, rather than using the liquid dispenser feature of the washer, and I’m perfectly happy to do that and save the extra hassle!

The Zote soap (along with washing soda and Borax) can be found in the laundry aisle of Walmart or a supermarket, and it’s also available in a scented pink version.

If you have a food processor with a  grater attachment, this recipe is super-easy. Without a food processor, you’ll be spending a little time to grate the soap…

A 5-gallon bucket is perfect for mixing (and storing) this recipe. We have a number of those around from the days when we used to buy soy sauce in 5-gallon installments for the restaurant. I’ve noticed that Home Depot also sells buckets this size, or perhaps you have one from a previous purchase of dish detergent or laundry detergent…

To create your detergent, grate the Zote soap, then add the Borax, washing soda, and baking soda, and make sure it’s thoroughly and evenly mixed up. A full load of laundry only needs two Tablespoons, which means this laundry detergent is going to last a long time!

Fabric Softener & Whitener

fabric softenerThis one is easy! White vinegar added to the “fabric softener” dispenser of your washer not only acts as a very effective fabric softener, but also whitens and brightens your clothes! You can use it in a color load (like “color-safe” bleach) and you don’t have the risk (as with bleach) of accidental spills and bleach-spotting, or acid-burns in clothing. A grapefruit peel added to your laundry-vinegar bottle adds a fresh scent, though I’m happy to report even the straight vinegar didn’t end up making our laundry smell like vinegar. I’ve also read that lemon juice acts as an effective brightening agent, and some people use a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and lemon juice. I haven’t yet tried this one (vinegar being cheaper), but I imagine the citrus-scent would be appealing (a-peel-ing?) as well.

pirate laundry cartoon
©Mike Bannon, image courtesy of mordant

To finish up your fabric-softening, you can substitute a couple crinkled balls of aluminum foil in your dryer in place of buying dryer sheets. The tin foil eliminates static, and can be re-used almost indefinitely.

Or, of course, you can save on your power bill by line-drying your laundry when the weather is dry and warm. (A clothesline is on my wish-list for this summer’s projects!) If you live in a climate like ours with strong summer sunshine (the Boise area is a “high desert” climate), you’ll want to turn any dark or colored clothes inside-out before hanging them, to avoid fading. For your whites, though, sunshine is an amazing “bleach!” My mother used to have an apron with deep pockets, in which she kept all her wooden clothespins, making it easy to pin up the laundry efficiently–so an apron like that will be my sewing-machine project when Keoni is installing a clothesline…

So there you have it!

Eco-friendly, people-friendly, and budget-friendly household cleaners… And although I embarked on this research project because of our tight financial situation, I’ll tell you right now that I won’t be going back to store-bought cleaners even when our finances improve. I love the simplicity of these, and it just feels good to do things this way. It’s a step in the direction of the lifestyle we want to be living–not because we’re crunchy hippie-types, but because health and environment matter, regardless of a person’s politics. Down the road, when our kids are finished with school in Idaho, we intend to open a bed and breakfast on our acre in Hawai’i–and one of our main goals there is to have the place be as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible! My dream is to have a grand total of two monthly bills–internet and insurance–and be providing our own power, water, food… Making our own cleaning products is just a little step in comparison to that goal–but a good step nonetheless.

children are making memories
Clean house? Yes. TIDY house? Definitely not. That’s okay–we’re busy LIVING here…

I have at least two more installments upcoming in this series: DIY personal-care products (shampoo and the like), and “kitchen gardening” (we’re starting to grow some of our own herbs, and working on a composting set-up). I’m also hoping, as I said earlier, to branch out into some “luxuries” like making essential oils from our lavender–so there will definitely be some more Kitchen Chemistry upcoming! In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some of these recipes, and I’ll welcome the addition of your own tips and tricks if you have some to share!