The pleasure of working in my garden is matched by the fulfillment I get using my herbs every day—for seasonings, teas, tonics, and beautifully textured craft materials. I use many of the same herbs, along with essential oils and other common supplies, in my everyday chores around the house, from scouring the floors to tucking moth-repellent sachets into drawers and freshening the air.
Making simple herbal cleaning products gives me a sense of harmony with my environment. I also feel a connection with all the women who first gathered plants in the wild and nurtured seedlings in their gardens, then harvested the plants and prepared them for a multitude of uses. I can imagine them hovering over their concoctions in stillrooms, experimenting with new combinations of herbs to improve their efficacy, and eventually using their products all around the cottage or castle. Many of these women, and not a few men, wrote down their “receipts” in books so that subsequent generations might benefit from their knowledge.
I believe that safe, gentle cleaning products are better for people, animals, and the environment than harsh commercial ones. The National Research Council has estimated that hypersensitivity to chemicals found in common household products results in acute or chronic health problems for about 15 percent of the population. For the sake of my family’s health, I don’t mind the little extra time it takes me to make my own cleaning products.
Fortunately, none of the formulations I’ve developed requires much time to make. I’m not a glutton for housework, and I’m always looking for shortcuts, but I confess that I look forward to making up one or two different formulas a week to help me in the sweeping, wiping, vacuuming, dusting, and endless other chores that our little yellow brick bungalow demands.
Taking my cue from herbalists of the past, I’ve incorporated herbs into scouring compounds, floor and wall soaps, sanitizing room sprays, and fragrant sachets. The ability of some of these herbs to inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms and deter insects certainly contributes to the effectiveness of the products.
For cleaning fine china and glassware, bathroom fixtures, kitchen counters, lightly soiled walls, appliances, and painted woodwork, I like to use a warm solution of borax or baking soda spiked with an infusion of fresh or dried aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, and sage. I steep a cup of a single herb or a combination of several kinds for about 15 minutes in 4 cups of boiling water, strain, then stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons baking soda or borax. I wipe it on with a sponge, then lightly rinse.
For tough jobs like vinyl floors, walls, woodwork, furniture—even wicker baskets—I use my Herb Soap Concentrate. It’s my favorite all-purpose cleaning solution, and it’s quick and relatively inexpensive to make. It has as its base a mild commercial soap concentrate, to which I add herbs and herbal essential oils. I wipe it on with a sponge or mop, then rinse quickly, sometimes adding a dash of vinegar to the rinse water to discourage the growth of bacteria.
Furniture and Floors
I use my Herb Soap Concentrate for cleaning almost all my wood furniture and woodwork. For wood finished with shellac or varnish, I follow up by rubbing in essential oil of lemon with a lamb’s-wool duster. Once or twice a year, I damp-mop my hardwood floors, then rub lemon oil on them, too. I do this when I can open all the windows, as the scent is intense.
For wood with an oil finish, I use my Fragrant Wood Polish, which I developed many years ago at the request of my husband, who is a cabinetmaker.
Nothing feels more like spring to me than open windows and fresh scents around the house to dispel the stuffiness of winter. My Disinfectant Air Freshener formula can be varied according to your mood and to the oils that you have on hand. You can also make my Stinky Sneaker Sachet Blend to keep shoes smelling fresh.
Drawers and Closets
Cleaning out my drawers and closets, rearranging them to match the new season, and storing my winter clothes is a spring ritual at my house. First, I empty the drawers, vacuum out any debris, wipe them with a damp cloth, then spritz them with my Drawer Spray . Next I make sachets, also known as sweet bags, to put in the linen and clothes closets and dresser drawers.
A number of herbs are known to repel moths and carpet beetles, whose larvae eat the keratin of animal fibers such as wool, which has a sulfurous odor such pests find inviting. The larvae and egg-laying adults are also attracted to the salts and oils in sweat and stains. Since onions and garlic also have a sulfurous odor, the pests will home right in on that wool suit you wore the evening you ate that delicious, garlicky pesto in an overheated restaurant.
The Amish laid branches of southernwood (called garderobe by the French for its ability to protect clothes from pests) in their cupboards and pantries to deter ants and other insects. This technique may interfere with the ants’ ability to communicate through odor trails and, in the case of carpet beetles and clothes moths, may mask the odor of keratin compounds in clothing. Researchers have shown that compounds in sage, rosemary, wormwood, tansy, hyssop, pennyroyal, camphor bark, and cedar leaf inhibit the hatching of beetle and moth larvae. Other fragrant plants, such as thyme, patchouli, verbena, and mints may appeal to your sense of smell while displeasing the insects.
To avoid attracting pests in the first place, wash or dry-clean all clothing before storing in a drawer or ventilated closet. Leave at least an inch of space between garments in the closet. I occasionally run a fan to get the air moving. In humid areas, some people keep a light bulb burning in the closet to combat mildew. I also use an aromatherapy diffuser to mist lavender oil in my clothes closets once a week for about ten minutes, and I’ve never had moths in my woolen clothes.
Louise Gruenberg gardens as much as possible and cleans house as little as possible in Oak Park, Illinois. She writes and teaches about herbs.
Dadd, Debra Lynn. The Non-Toxic Home. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Florman, Monte, and Marjorie Florman. How to Clean Practically Anything. 3rd ed. Yonkers, N.Y.: Consumers Union of the United States, 1992.
Jhung, Paula. How to Avoid Housework. New York: Fireside Books, 1995.
Keville, Kathi, and Mindy Green. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1995.
Levenstein, Mary Kerney, and Cordelia Frances Biddle. Caring for Your Cherished Possessions. New York: Crown, 1989.
Rifkin, Jeremy, ed. The Green Lifestyle Handbook. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.
The following mail-order companies have good selections of essential oils and/or bulk herbs.
Avalon Skin Care Products, Inc., 499 Wright St., #301, Lakewood, CO 80228-1105. Catalog free.
Essential Aromatics, 205 N Signal St., Ojai, CA 93023. Catalog $3.
Essential Oil Company, PO Box 206, Lake Oswego, OR 97034. Catalog free.
Gabrieana’s, PO Box 215322, Sacramento, CA 95821. Catalog $1.
Gardens Past, PO Box 1846H, Estes Park, CO 80517. Catalog $1.
The Ginger Tree, 245 Lee Rd. #122, Opelika, AL 36804. Catalog $2.
Samara Botane, 300 Queen Anne Ave. N., Ste. 378, Seattle, WA 98109. Catalog $2.
San Francisco Herb Company, 250 14th St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Catalog free.