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Living Green: The Missing Manual by Nancy Conner

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Chapter 1. Home Green Home: Creating a Safe, Earth-Friendly Place to Live

Living green is all about reducing pollution and creating a safe, healthy environment for you and your family, not to mention all the other critters on the planet. There’s no better place to start your quest for greenification than at home—after all, that’s where you have the most control.

Turns out there could be some pretty scary pollution right in your own house:

  • The air in your home is probably more polluted than the air in the industrial part of a big city.

  • Many common cleaning products contain toxic substances.

  • The average American home contains 63 synthetic chemicals, which add up to about 10 gallons of hazardous stuff.

Yikes! Almost makes you want to up and move to a log cabin in the woods.

Luckily, you don’t need all those nasty chemicals in your home. And, as you’ll learn in this chapter, getting rid of them doesn’t mean giving mildew free rein over your bathroom. Nope, you can easily and cheaply replace potentially harmful cleaning products with simple, natural alternatives. Same goes for your lawn: You can keep it healthy without feeding it synthetic fertilizers; the last section of this chapter teaches you how.

Before you can banish harsh chemicals in your home, it’s important to learn about them and the problems they can cause so you can dispose of ‘em properly. So this chapter starts with a rundown of common chemicals and the health problems they can cause. But don’t lose hope: Keep reading to learn how to keep your family healthy without hurting the earth.

The Chemicals You Live With

Your home is your castle, your sanctuary, the place where you raise your family and relax at the end of the day. But rather than being a safe haven, many homes are a minefield of chemicals that can affect your health and harm the planet. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called the typical American home “the number one violator of chemical waste per capita” because many of those chemicals get tossed in the trash or go swirling down the drain. Let’s take a tour of a typical home to see what chemical hazards may be lurking within its walls:

  • Throughout the house. Paint, carpet, draperies, upholstery, and furniture may contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The box on VOCs and You explains what VOCs are and why you should avoid them.

  • Kitchen. Cleaners are the culprits here. Oven cleaners and drain uncloggers are loaded with lye. Dishwasher detergents may contain lots of chlorine—the leading cause of childhood poisoning—and phosphates, which pollute rivers and lakes. And many antibacterial cleaners contain a potentially harmful chemical called triclosan.

    Note

    The next section includes a table that tells you exactly how the chemicals mentioned here can affect you—see How Household Chemicals Can Affect Your Health.

  • Bathroom. Here you’ll find toilet-bowl cleaners (which get rid of gunk with corrosive ingredients like hydrochloric acid and oxalic acid), lye-filled drain uncloggers, and tub and tile sprays that go after mold and mildew while releasing sodium hypochlorite and formaldehyde into the air. And air freshener sprays may contain formaldehyde or phenol, neither of which you want to breathe in.

    Note

    When you open the cabinet under your kitchen or bathroom sink, a characteristic smell wafts out. You may associate this smell with a clean house—but it comes from chemicals you don’t want to inhale. VOCs (VOCs and You) can escape even from closed containers, making the air under the sink some of the most polluted in the house. That’s a good reason to use the green cleaning products discussed later in this chapter.

  • Laundry room. The chlorine bleach you use to get your whites white is strongly corrosive, so you don’t want it anywhere near your eyes, skin, mouth, or nose. Detergents and fabric softeners may contain chemicals and fragrances that can irritate skin or, worse, get absorbed through the skin and harm your health—not what you want on your family’s clothes, towels, and bedding. And dryer sheets may contain chloroform or pentane.

  • Living and dining rooms. The furniture polish or wax you use to clean your wood furniture may contain phenol or benzene. Upholstery and carpet shampoos are likely to have perchloroethylene or ammonium hydroxide in them.

  • Bedrooms and closets.Bedrooms are often heavy on fabrics and upholstery: bedding, drapes, carpeting, and so on. These materials, especially when new, can emit VOCs (VOCs and You). And more VOCs are waiting in your closet. Dry-cleaned clothing, for example, may give off benzene or contain perchloroethylene. Permanent-press clothing may be full of formaldehyde, and the fibers in fleece easily absorb VOCs from the air—and then re-emit them. Dust mites and pet dander can also cling to your clothes and cause breathing problems. Most closets aren’t very well ventilated, so your walk-in closet may have some of the most polluted air in your home.

  • Home office.Love the smell of fresh markers? Hold your breath! Markers, including felt-tip pens, permanent markers, and dry-erase markers, contain solvents that help the ink dry fast. Those solvents get into the air and into your lungs. Copiers and some printers release ozone, VOCs (including formaldehyde), and particulates (teensy particles that come from materials like paper, ink, and toner). To breathe easier, make sure your office is well ventilated, and get an ozone-filtered laser printer.

    Tip

    Markers labeled “low VOC” or “low odor” don’t release as many fumes. When you use a marker, put its cap back on when you’re finished with it. Better still, use colored pencils or crayons to avoid fumes altogether.

  • Basement and garage.If you have old paint cans sitting around, you’re storing a source of VOCs that the EPA calls one of the top five environmental hazards. You don’t want the ingredients in paint anywhere near your family: benzene, toluene, xylene, formaldehyde, even lead if the paint was made before 1970. That’s why some states, like California, define certain kinds of leftover paint as toxic waste and have special rules for disposing of it (see Clearing Out Clutter). If you wear contacts, the lenses can absorb these VOCs and trap them against your eyes, where they can cause irritation and get absorbed into your body. Other stuff you may store in your basement or garage—like paint strippers, varnish, lacquer, pesticides, glues, and sealants—also give off VOCs. Car soaps, waxes, and products that help you remove tar and bugs from your car contain petroleum distillates that can irritate your skin and respiratory system.

Note

Fortunately, you can buy low-VOC paints. Paint tells you all about them.

That’s a scary list! The next section goes into more detail about health problems associated with these chemicals. But don’t lose hope: Starting on Clean and Green: Environmentally Friendly Cleaning, you’ll learn that you don’t need all those nasty things in your house. There are all kinds of easy ways to avoid harmful chemicals while keeping your house clean and healthy.

How Household Chemicals Can Affect Your Health

The following table spells out health problems that common household chemicals can cause.

Tip

Household products are packed with potentially harmful substances, so this table can’t cover them all. If you want to learn about a specific product or ingredient, check the Household Products Database from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov. Search for a product by name to see possible health effects and safe handling instructions. Search for an ingredient to get a list of products that contain it, along with links to information about its toxicity.

Chemical

Health Effects

Found In

Ammonia

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; skin problems; aggravation of asthma symptoms

Cleaning products, paint stripper, adhesive removers, some fertilizers

Ammonium hydroxide

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; aggravation of asthma symptoms

Cleaning products, disinfectants, metal polishes, car care products, carpet and upholstery cleaners

Benzene

Cancer

Adhesive removers, degreasers, interior paints, dry-cleaning solvents

Chlordane

With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage; cancer

Flea powders, pesticides

Chlorine bleach

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; skin problems; aggravation of asthma symptoms

Cleaning and laundry products, toilet-bowl cleaners

Chloroform

Central nervous system damage; possibly cancer

Dryer sheets; adhesive removers

Cresol

With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Antibacterial cleaning products, disinfectants, deodorizers, pesticides

Dichlorophene

With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage; cancer

Flea powders, pesticides

Ethylene glycol

Dizziness; heart, brain, kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Antifreeze, de-icers, brake fluid, adhesives, paints

Formaldehyde

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; aggravation of asthma symptoms; headaches; nausea; fatigue; memory problems; possibly cancer

Adhesives, sealers, paint, caulk

Glycol ethers

Infertility

Water-based paints

Hydrochloric acid

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; aggravation of asthma symptoms

Cleaning products, toilet-bowl cleaners

Lye

Blindness (from direct contact with eyes); skin irritation

Drain uncloggers, oven cleaners, dishwasher detergents

Methanol

With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Antifreeze, de-icers, car care products, shellacs, adhesive removers, paint strippers

Naphthalene

Cataracts (with long-term exposure); nausea

Carpet cleaners, car care products, paints, insect repellants

Oxalic acid

With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Toilet-bowl cleaners, car care products, cleansers, metal polish

Ozone

Respiratory system damage

Given off by printers and copiers

Pentane

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; skin problems

Solvents, dryer sheets, fabric softeners

Perchloroethylene (also called tetrachloroethylene)

Dizziness; headache; nausea; skin irritation. With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage;possibly cancer

Adhesives and sealants, car care products, polishes, spot cleaners; dry-cleaning solvents

Perfluorooctanoate and perfluorooctane sulfonate

Infertility in women

Pesticides, stain-resistant upholstery, adhesives, nonstick cookware coatings

Phenol (a.k.a. carbolic acid)

Skin irritation. With long-term exposure: kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Antibacterial cleaning products

Sodiumhypochlorite

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; aggravation of asthma symptoms; skin irritation

Cleaning products, disinfectants, drain uncloggers

Toluene

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; dizziness; nausea; central nervous system damage; cardiac arrest

Adhesives, solvents, paints, car care products.

Triclosan

Liver damage

Antibacterial soaps and cleaning products, pet shampoos

Trichloroethane

Dizziness; liver and central nervous system damage

Adhesives, lubricants, furniture cleaners

Xylene

Dizziness; eye, nose, and throat irritation; respiratory problems; nausea; kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage

Adhesives and sealants, car care products, paints, pesticides

Note

This list is overview of some of the health problems household chemicals can cause, but of course it’s not diagnostic. If you’re suffering from any of the symptoms mentioned here, see your doctor.

The kinds of symptoms you have depend on the type of chemical, how concentrated it is, and how long you’re exposed to it. For example, people whose work exposes them to high levels of VOCs, like painters and cleaners, are most likely to suffer health problems. Over time, even low-level exposure can cause problems, especially in kids, the elderly, people with existing conditions such as asthma or allergies, and folks who are extra sensitive to chemicals.

If you use products that contain any of the chemicals in this list, buy small quantities so you won’t have to worry about disposing of leftovers. Also, be sure to work in a well-ventilated area (fresh air reduces the concentration of VOCs) and follow the manufacturer’s directions. Never mix different kinds of cleaning products: Mixing ammonia with bleach, for example, creates chloramine gas, which is highly toxic—and often fatal—when inhaled.

Tip

Because VOCs can leak from closed containers, don’t keep old, half-empty bottles of cleaning products, paint strippers, or other VOC-filled chemicals in your home. But don’t just toss them in the trash, either—read on to learn how to get rid of them safely.

Disposing of Household Chemicals

By now, you’re probably ready to gather up all your cleaning products and dump them in the trash. Not so fast: While it’s a good idea to remove harsh chemicals from your home, you need to dispose of them safely. The earth will thank you for it.

To get rid of household chemicals, don’t throw them in the trash, pour them down a drain, or burn them. If your community has a day designated for hazardous waste pickup, unload them then. If you’re not sure how to dispose of hazardous waste where you live, call your city’s waste department or your garbage company or go to www.earth911.com. This helpful site lets you type in the kind of stuff you want to get rid of (such as paint or household cleaners) and your Zip code, and it finds a disposal facility near you.

Tip

Head to this book’s Missing CD page at www.missingmanuals.com for a list of all the websites mentioned in this book.

When it comes to health—yours, your family’s, the environment’s—you don’t want to take chances. Luckily, you don’t need to expose your family to harmful chemicals and indoor air pollutants because there are simple, healthier alternatives. As the next section explains, you can make your home greener and healthier in no time.

Clean and Green: Environmentally Friendly Cleaning

Nontoxic, earth-friendly cleaning products are nothing new. That’s how people kept their homes clean before companies sold cleaners packed with synthetic chemicals. Your great-grandmother probably used vinegar and baking soda to scrub her house. This section shows that you don’t need mass-produced chemicals to keep your home sparkling.

Here are the basics you’ll need to green your cleaning:

  • Baking soda. Sodium bicarbonate (that’s baking soda’s chemical name) is a nontoxic, inexpensive, multipurpose cleaner. Many people keep an open box of it in the fridge to absorb odors, but you can use it in every room of the house. It’s a cleanser, stain-buster, and all-around deodorizer. Try putting some in the cat’s litter box to absorb odors. Or to freshen up a smelly carpet, sprinkle a layer of baking soda over it, leave the baking soda overnight, and then vacuum first thing in the morning.

  • White vinegar. Vinegar is all-natural and all-safe—and an excellent all-around cleaner. Like baking soda, it deodorizes and cleans. It’s also a natural ant repellant: Spray or wipe vinegar along doors and window sills where ants come in to keep them out. And a half-vinegar, half-water solution will make your windows sparkle. (If the half-and-half mixture leaves streaks on the glass, try adding a drop or two of liquid castile soap, mentioned later in this list.) Be sure to use white vinegar; other kinds like cider vinegar may discolor what you’re cleaning.

    Tip

    Get two empty spray bottles; fill one with pure white vinegar and the other with half-vinegar, half-water. Use the full-strength vinegar for tough cleaning jobs, such as around the toilet and in the bathtub. Use the diluted vinegar to clean counters and windows and spot-treat carpet stains.

  • Lemon juice. When life hands you lemons…use ‘em to clean your house! The mild acid in lemon juice makes it great for cutting grease and getting stains out. A mixture of equal parts lemon juice and water in a spray bottle cleans your kitchen and bathroom and leaves them smelling wonderful. (You can also add a few drops of lemon juice to your water-and-vinegar cleaner to make it smell less vinegary.) No need to squeeze endless lemons, either—bottled lemon juice works just as well as fresh squeezed.

    Tip

    Lemon juice can spoil, so put this mixture in the fridge to keep it fresh. Or simply mix up a new batch whenever you’re cleaning.

  • Club soda. Not only does club soda make a good mixer, it also removes stains from fabrics and carpets, and does a great job of cleaning stainless steel. Pour a little on a cloth, and then dab at stains or wipe away fingerprints and smudges.

  • Borax. This white powder is a naturally occurring mineral that dissolves easily in water and removes dirt. It also kills fungi and works as a deodorizer. You can find it by the detergents in most grocery stores. You’ll learn several ways of using borax later in this chapter.

    Note

    Borax is a natural substance, but it still requires some common-sense care when you’re handling it. Borax can be toxic if swallowed, so don’t store it where kids can get at it. Some people report that borax irritates their skin after prolonged contact, so wear rubber gloves when you work with it, especially if you’ll be scrubbing for a while.

  • Olive oil. You’ve probably read that olive oil is good for your heart, but did you know it’s also good for your wood furniture? To clean wood without using chemical polishes, combine three parts olive oil with one part white vinegar. Or, if you like lemon-scented polish, try two parts olive oil to one part lemon juice. Use a soft cloth to rub a small amount of polish into the wood, and then buff it with a clean cloth.

  • Castile soap. This soap is made with vegetable oil (olive, coconut, or jojoba, for example) instead of animal fat or synthetic chemicals, and it comes in both bar and liquid forms. You can find it in health-food stores and some grocery stores. It’s gentle, versatile, and earth-friendly. Use liquid castile soap for washing dishes and clothes; dilute it with water to use it as a spray cleaner.

  • Coarse salt. This stuff is great for scouring pans and cookware. Mix coarse salt (like sea salt) with vinegar (try one part salt to four parts vinegar) to remove stubborn coffee and tea stains from cups, rust stains, and bathroom soap scum.

    Tip

    To polish copper, brass, or silver, mix a teaspoon of coarse salt into a cup of vinegar, and then mix in enough flour to make a thick paste. Apply the paste to whatever you’re polishing and leave it there for at least 15 minutes. Then, rinse with warm water and use a soft cloth to make the metal shine.

  • Hydrogen peroxide. This mild bleach (which you can find at any grocery or drug store) is much safer than chlorine bleach: it breaks down into just water and oxygen. It fights bacteria and removes stains, including blood stains. Use a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution for cleaning (check the label to find out the percentage).

  • Essential oils. Not only do these smell great, they can also kill bacteria. These oils—which include thyme, peppermint, lavender, bergamot, clove, basil, pine, lemon, lemongrass, eucalyptus, and tea tree—are antiseptic and antibacterial. Just a few drops will do it: Choose a scent you like, mix 10–20 drops of the oil into a spray bottle full of water, and spray the mixture on surfaces to zap germs and bacteria. You can buy these oils at health food stores and shops that sell aromatherapy products. Look for the phrase “pure essential oil” on the label.

  • Cleaning cloths. To save some trees, recycle old clothes and towels by cutting them into squares and using them to clean instead of paper towels.

  • A squeegee. Rather than using fistfuls of paper towels to clean your windows, copy the pros: Use a squeegee to get your windows crystal clear and streak free. Squeegees are also great for cleaning mirrors and shower doors.

  • A plunger. To clear clogged toilets and drains without resorting to caustic chemicals, use a plunger and some good, old-fashioned elbow grease. Battling Bathroom Grime the Natural Way has more tips for unclogging drains.

Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner

Equal parts white vinegar and water mixed in a spray bottle is a cheap cleaning solution that gets the job done. But some people don’t like the smell of vinegar, which can be a bit nose-wrinkling when you spray it (the smell dissipates quickly). Lemon juice smells better but costs more.

Here’s a recipe for a good, all-purpose cleaner that works throughout the house. It cuts grease, cleans glass, disinfects countertops and other surfaces, removes soap scum from sinks and tubs, and leaves your home smelling great—all without hurting the planet:

1 cup water

1 cup white vinegar

1 drop liquid castile soap

4 drops grapefruit seed extract or eucalyptus oil, both of which are disinfectants. Undiluted eucalyptus oil can irritate the skin, so handle it carefully.

10–12 drops essential oil(s). Choose scents you like to boost disinfectant power and leave a fresh smell. Lavender is a good choice, as is lemon or tea tree oil. Or try a combination, like six drops of lemon oil, three of orange, and three of lime to make your home smell clean and delicious.

Mix all the ingredients in a clean 32-ounce spray bottle. Spray on, and then wipe with a soft cloth. That’s it!

Note

This mixture can separate if it sits for a long time, so be sure to shake the spray bottle before you clean.

Go ahead and tweak this recipe to find the ingredients and proportions that work best for you. You might try different essential oils, on their own or in combination. You can also add half a cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to boost cleaning power. (If you don’t like the smell of hydrogen peroxide, add a few more drops of essential oil.)

A Green Kitchen Is a Healthy Kitchen

For most families, the kitchen is the heart of the home. It’s where you do your cooking, eating, chatting, laughing, coffee-drinking, homework, and so on—in other words, it’s where life happens. So you want it to be safe for your family, your friends, and yourself. This section gives you green cleaning strategies for the room everyone uses most.

For all-purpose cleaning, try the recipe on Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner. Use this cleaner on countertops, stovetops, walls, inside and outside the fridge—everything up to and including the kitchen sink! For more specialized cleaning, try these approaches:

  • For a good mildly abrasive cleanser, dampen a sponge and sprinkle on some baking soda, scrub away, and then rinse. Two tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in a quart of warm water shines up chrome and stainless steel sinks and stovetops without damaging the finish; simply apply the mixture, and then rinse it off.

  • If you need a nonabrasive cleanser, mix a quarter-cup of borax with enough liquid castile soap to form a paste. If you want, add a few drops of lemon oil to make it smell good and add germ-fighting power. Use a damp sponge to apply a small amount of the mixture to the surface you’re cleaning, and then follow up with a rinse.

  • To remove fingerprints from stainless steel, dab a small amount of olive oil on a soft cloth, and then rub away the prints. To brighten stainless steel and protect its finish, dampen a cloth with white vinegar or club soda and use it to buff the surface to a shine.

  • When you run the dishwasher, use a phosphate-free detergent. The trouble with phosphorus (which shows up as phosphates in detergents) is that, after it’s gone down the drain, it runs off into rivers and lakes. Plants love phosphorus—it’s an important nutrient for them. So when too much phosphorus gets into a lake, for example, it makes the algae grow like crazy, which upsets the lake’s balance, making the water cloudy and stinky and harming aquatic plants and animals. Dishwasher detergents can contain as much as 4 to 8 percent phosphates, so look for brands that are phosphate-free, like those made by companies in the box on A Green Kitchen Is a Healthy Kitchen.

  • To clean and deodorize the microwave, combine half a cup of white vinegar with a cup of water in a microwave-safe glass bowl. Put the bowl in the microwave and heat it on high power until the mixture boils. Turn off the microwave and leave the bowl inside with the door shut for 5 to 10 minutes. This gets rid of odors and loosens zapped-on food splashes and stains so you can wipe them away with a damp sponge or cloth.

    Tip

    Another way to clean the microwave and get rid of old food smells is to use a bowl of lemon slices floating in water. Microwave it on high for a minute or two, let it sit, and then wipe down.

  • Cleaning the oven is a special challenge when you’ve banished harsh chemicals from your home; it can be tough to loosen baked-on gunk. The first line of offense is a good defense: Try to prevent spills by putting a sheet of aluminum foil on the oven’s floor, under (but not touching) the heating element. Change the foil as needed (be sure to recycle it).

    If something bubbles over and you need to clean it up, sprinkle coarse salt (Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner) on the fresh spill while the oven is still warm but not hot (don’t burn yourself!). If the spill is already dry, you may need to dampen it first with water. After the oven has cooled completely, scrape away the residue, and then clean the oven with your all-purpose cleaner.

    Another thing to try is baking soda. Dampen the oven, and then cover the area you’re cleaning with baking soda. Let it sit overnight (don’t use the oven in the meantime). In the morning, wipe away the baking soda with a damp cloth or sponge, and then rinse the oven. If necessary, use a steel-wool scrubber to (gently) scour off tough stains.

    One more option: Combine two teaspoons of borax with two tablespoons of liquid castile soap in a spray bottle, then fill the bottle with water and shake it up. Spray the mixture onto oven stains, and then scrub the stains away.

  • To clean wooden cutting boards, rub them with lemon juice, leave ‘em overnight, and then rinse in the morning. (Lemon is a great deodorizer.) If you’re in a hurry to clean the board, wipe it with white vinegar.

  • To deodorize your kitchen, use baking soda or white vinegar. An open dish of either one works wonders in the fridge. Sprinkle baking soda at the bottom of your garbage can to absorb odors. To get smells out of your sink, pour a cup of vinegar down the drain, wait an hour, and then rinse.

    Tip

    If you’ve been working with strong-smelling foods like onions, garlic, or fish, rub some vinegar or lemon juice on your hands to neutralize the smell.

  • No-wax floors get clean when you add a cup of white vinegar to a gallon of water and mop as you normally would. Another floor-cleaning recipe is to put a quarter cup of borax, a half-cup of white vinegar, and a gallon of water into a bucket. If you need to get scuff marks off, try sprinkling some baking soda over the mark, and then wiping the spot with a warm, damp, soft cloth.

Battling Bathroom Grime the Natural Way

Nobody likes a grimy bathroom. But despite what TV commercials would have you believe, you don’t need harsh chemicals to keep yours clean and fresh-smelling. Especially when safe, natural alternatives are so easy to use and give you such good results. Try these in the bathroom:

  • There are several recipes for green toilet cleaners:

    • Use the all-purpose green cleaner on Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner. (It also works on the toilet’s seat, lid, and tank.)

    • Mix one part 3% hydrogen peroxide with one part water.

    • Combine one part borax with two parts lemon juice.

    • Combine an eighth of a cup of borax with a quart of water and add a few drops of liquid castile soap.

    • Whichever one you choose, shake the mixture before you use it, spray or squirt the cleaner into the bowl and under the rim, let it sit for several minutes, and then scrub with a toilet brush and flush to rinse.

  • If mold and mildew are taking over your bathroom, fill a spray bottle with water and add several drops of grapefruit-seed extract. Spray, wait a few minutes, and then wipe. Or try adding equal parts borax and white vinegar (start with a half of cup each) to a bucket of warm water. Use the mixture to scrub mildew away.

  • For tub and tile cleaning, try the all-purpose cleaner on Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner, or use baking soda to scour the tub and shower.

  • To clean tile grout, make a paste using three parts baking soda and one part water. Spread this paste on the grout, scrub it in with an old toothbrush, and then rinse.

  • To keep your drains clear, rinse them out (carefully!) with boiling water once a week. If a drain backs up, bust the clog with a combination of baking soda and vinegar: Pour half a cup of baking soda down the drain, and then follow it with half a cup of white vinegar. This is the same mixture that middle-school kids use to simulate volcano eruptions, so don’t be alarmed when it foams up. When the fizzing stops, flush the drain with warm water. If the drain is still slow, use a plunger to break up the clog, and then repeat the vinegar-and-baking soda procedure.

    Warning

    Baking soda and vinegar can also unclog your kitchen sink, but this combination can damage some garbage disposals, so read your disposal’s owner’s manual or check with the manufacturer before you try it.

  • Mirrors and shower doors shine up beautifully with a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and water. (If you get streaks, add a drop or two of liquid castile soap.)

  • The lime scale that coats faucets and plumbing fixtures dissolves in the mild acid of vinegar or lemon juice. Soak a cloth in white vinegar, and leave the wet cloth on the fixture for about an hour. Wipe, and then rinse. Or cut a lemon in half and rub the cut surface over the fixture. Be sure to rinse thoroughly.

  • Air freshener doesn’t have to come from an aerosol can—or contain chemicals like phenol and formaldehyde. You already know that an open dish of baking soda or vinegar absorbs odors. If you want to do more than neutralize odors, here are a bunch of sweet-smelling options that won’t hurt your respiratory system or the environment:

    • Open the windows! Nothing freshens the air like fresh air itself.

    • Combine equal parts lemon juice and water in a misting spray bottle or a clean, empty perfume atomizer (a bottle that sprays a fine mist).

    • Combine a few drops of your favorite essential oil (Recipe for an All-Purpose Cleaner) with water in an atomizer.

    • Make potpourri. Ask your local florist for flowers that they’re going to throw out, or choose sweet-smelling flowers from your garden. Lilac, lavender, and roses work well, as do herbs like rosemary and lemon balm. Lay out the petals in a single layer on an elevated screen or hang stemmed flowers in small bunches—the idea is to let air circulate freely around them. (It takes a week or two for the flowers and leaves to dry out completely.) When it’s dry, put the mixture in an airtight container (add cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, or cloves if you like) and let the scent develop for about a month. When it’s ready, pour your potpourri into a bowl or dish and place it where you want to freshen the air.

    • Use a cotton ball to soak up a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract or a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil, and then hide the ball in an inconspicuous place in the bathroom.

Clean Laundry, Clean Earth

A greener lifestyle doesn’t have to mean dingy laundry. You can keep your whites white and your colors bright without sending nasty chemicals down the drain (and from there into lakes and rivers). Here are some earth-friendly tips for the laundry room:

  • When you buy laundry detergent, look for products that are biodegradable, free of petroleum-based ingredients, and that don’t contain bleach. To reduce potential irritants, pick detergents without dyes and fragrances, as well. (Check out detergents made by companies listed in the box on A Green Kitchen Is a Healthy Kitchen.)

    Tip

    If you want to know exactly what’s going into the wash with your clothes, make your own laundry detergent. To do that, you’ll need to get some washing soda, which is sodium carbonate, often used as a water softener. It’s available in the detergent aisle of most grocery stores.

    Here’s what you do: Grate a bar of pure soap, like Ivory or Fels Naphtha, using a grater or by feeding it to a food processor in small chunks. Put the grated soap in a saucepan and add enough water to cover it. Stir it over medium-low heat until the soap dissolves.

    Meanwhile, heat two-and-a-half gallons of water. Pour the hot water into a bucket. Add the hot, melted soap to the bucket and stir. Mix in half a cup of borax and a cup of washing soda (not baking soda). Let the mixture cool (it’ll gel), then cover the bucket and keep it near your washing machine. To use the detergent, stir it to break up the gel and add half a cup to each load of laundry.

  • Wash in cold water, not hot, to save energy and lower your utility costs. Sometimes you may need to wash in hot water—for example, to help hydrogen peroxide whiten, as explained later in this list—but make it the exception, not the rule.

  • Hang clothes outside to dry whenever possible instead of running the dryer, which is a major energy hog. Air-dried clothes smell better, too—without chemical perfumes.

  • Use inexpensive wooden drying racks for indoor drying.

  • To whiten whites, switch from chlorine bleach to 3% hydrogen peroxide, which is the basis for oxygen cleaners (like OxiClean). Add a cup of hydrogen peroxide to loads of whites, and wash with hot water. Another option is lemon juice: Add half a cup to the rinse cycle, and then hang the clothes outside to dry.

  • To brighten colors, add half a cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle. Three-percent hydrogen peroxide is also safe for most colors (test it on a small, inconspicuous spot first).

  • To deodorize smelly socks, dirty diapers, and sweaty t-shirts, add a half-cup of baking soda to your laundry detergent. (This will also whiten and brighten the clothes.) A sprinkle of baking soda in the hamper or diaper pail helps deodorize between laundry days.

  • There are lots of ways to banish stains besides chemical stain removers:

    • Spot-treat blood stains with 3% hydrogen peroxide solution. (If you’re cleaning colored fabric, test an inconspicuous spot first.) Put a little hydrogen peroxide on the blood stain and blot it. Then rinse thoroughly to avoid bleaching the fabric.

    • Sprinkle some baking soda or borax onto a damp stain, rub it in, and then wash.

    • Use baking soda and water to make a thick paste and apply it to grease stains. The grease should come out in the wash.

    • Try white vinegar on food stains like wine, coffee, jam, and ketchup. Rub in the vinegar, and then wash.

  • White vinegar is a natural fabric softener. Put half a cup of it in the rinse cycle to soften clothes (add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to make your clothes smell heavenly, too). Or replace commercial fabric softener with the homemade kind, using this recipe:

    Put one cup of baking soda in a one-gallon bucket, and then add two cups of water. Stir the mixture as you slowly add a cup of white vinegar. (When the vinegar hits the baking soda, it’ll fizz, so take your time.) If you want, add a drop or two of an essential oil. Transfer the mixture to a clean bottle or other closed container. When you’re ready to use the fabric softener, shake the bottle, and then add one-quarter to one-third cup of the mixture to the wash cycle.

  • To make laundry smell fresh, add a teaspoon of lemon juice with your detergent.

Nontoxic Furnishings

Your brand-new living room set looks great—but did you know it may be polluting the air in your home? Just like cleaning products, new furniture can give off VOCs (VOCs and You), thanks to off-gassing, which means giving off the chemicals used to make the product. For example, your new sofa’s cushions and the chemicals that make them stain- and fire-resistant all emit VOCs. So do the glues used to make furniture, including the glue that holds particleboard together. So while you’re sitting in your living room watching the tube, you may be breathing in formaldehyde, benzene, dioxins, and other VOCs. (They say watching TV is bad for you, but it doesn’t have to be that hazardous.)

You may also want to think about how your furniture was made and what impact that had on the environment. Take that new sofa, for example. The foam in its cushions is made of polyurethane, a petroleum-based material that isn’t exactly earth-friendly. To make just one pound of polyurethane foam requires nearly a pound of crude oil, half a pound of coal, and 400 gallons of water—and spits 4.5 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Also, unless the cotton used to make the couch’s fabric was organic, the cotton was sprayed with pesticides. In addition, up to half of the dyes and other chemicals used to treat the fabric got washed back into the environment as waste. And where did the wood for the sofa’s frame come from—a well-managed, sustainable forest or an at-risk one?

Your buying decisions make a difference. Use your wallet to vote for furniture that’s both healthy and environmentally responsible by considering these options:

  • Buy used. Whether you go to a fancy antiques store, the local thrift shop, or check the classifieds, buying used furniture has several green advantages. Because it’s not new, the furniture has already done its off-gassing, so you’re not bringing VOCs into your home. Buying used also saves the energy that would have gone into manufacturing brand-new furniture and keeps perfectly good, usable furniture out of landfills.

  • Buy recycled.You can find beautiful furniture made from reclaimed wood, salvaged lumber that comes from old buildings like factories, warehouses, barns, and houses. If you need new carpeting, look for carpet with recycled content (Kitchen and bathroom cabinets), which does less off-gassing than traditional carpet.

    Tip

    Reclaimed wood is also an earth-friendly source for flooring and paneling, as Floors explains.

  • Buy handcrafted. When you buy furniture directly from the artisan who made it, you can ask questions about how it was made or commission a piece that fits your needs.

  • Buy floor models.Furniture that’s been on display in a showroom has already done most of its off-gassing, so it’ll release fewer VOCs into your home.

  • Buy natural. When you’re buying drapes or upholstered furniture, insist on natural fabrics like organic cotton, linen, hemp, and wool. Compassion in Fashion tells you more about what to look for when buying organic fabrics.

  • Buy certified. Wooden furniture looks good and is made from a natural material, but you want to be sure that the wood was harvested responsibly. Wood is a renewable resource, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is committed to promoting sustainable forestry worldwide. When you buy an FSC-certified product, you know it came from a responsibly managed forest. Check out FSC’s website (www.fscus.org) and do a product search.

If you do buy brand-new furniture, carpets, or drapes, open the windows! Increasing ventilation lets VOCs out and fresh air in. Use fans to get the air moving and bring in as much fresh air as possible. A few days with the windows open will greatly reduce the levels of off-gassed VOCs in your home.

If you can’t open the windows (you live in the snow belt and had your new carpet installed in January, say), climate control is the second-best way to reduce off-gassed VOCs. These chemicals love warm, humid conditions, which make them evaporate faster. Keep the temperature cool and the air relatively dry to make them off-gas more slowly.

Tip

Stainless steel furniture looks sleek and contemporary. It won’t off-gas—and it’s likely to be high in recycled content.

A Greener Lawn

You already know about the types of chemicals in your home, but what about just outside your door? Many homeowners take great pride in their lush lawns. Yet acres of thick, bright-green grass cost far more than a few bags of fertilizer and some weed-killer:

  • Pesticides and fertilizer get into homes and run off into lakes, rivers, and drinking water supplies like wells. Some of these chemicals are harmful to humans and animals.

  • Watering lawns uses a huge amount of precious water: up to 60% of all the water people use in arid climates.

  • Yard waste (such as grass clippings and tree branches) accounts for nearly 20% of the solid wastes in landfills.

  • Gas-powered lawn mowers, weed trimmers, and leaf blowers emit more greenhouse gases per hour of use than most cars.

You don’t want to harm the great outdoors while you’re enjoying it. Read on to find out what’s bad about chemical lawn treatments and learn natural alternatives you can try.

The Trouble with Pesticides

Pesticide, insecticide, herbicide, fungicide: The suffix -cide comes from cida, the Latin word for “killer.” The chemicals that kill lawn pests like insects and weeds can also be toxic to people and pets. That’s why you see those little plastic flags warning you to stay off recently treated grass.

Every year, people in the U.S. dump more than 100 million pounds of pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Suburban lawns and gardens actually get more pesticides per acre than most agricultural areas. And those pesticides can get tracked into your house or blow in through open windows as you enjoy the breeze on a nice day.

Pesticides get into your body in one of three ways:

  • Through the skin. You might want to think twice before you walk barefoot through the grass or lie down on a shady lawn. And pesticides can get into your house on shoes or clothing. Then, when you walk barefoot through the house or pick up clothes to toss into the washing machine, they can get on your skin.

    Note

    Some parts of the body absorb pesticides more readily than others. The eyes, ear drums, and scalp are all fast absorbers. And if you have a cut or scrape, pesticides can get into your body much more easily than through healthy skin.

  • Through inhalation. You can breathe in pesticides in dust, fumes, or mist from a spray. Particles can travel in the wind, so your neighbor’s pesticide use can affect your health. Larger particles tend to stick to your throat and nasal passages, but smaller particles can get into your lungs and from there into your bloodstream.

  • Through the mouth.Nobody in their right mind would munch on pesticides, but ingestion is a common way for pesticides to get into the body. Pets may eat grass or lick pesticide-coated fur. And if people have pesticide on their hands and don’t wash it off, it can get on their food.

In a recent study of more than 9,000 people across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found pesticides in everyone who had both blood and urine tested. And the average person had evidence of 13 pesticides out of the 23 the CDC tested for. Pesticides have been linked to a range of diseases, including cancer, birth defects, liver and kidney damage, neurological and hormonal problems, and infertility. And they’re not just toxic to humans—pets and other mammals, birds, fish, and bees are also at risk. Common symptoms of pesticide poisoning include a burning sensation in the throat, coughing, rash, diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, and headache. If you suspect you’ve been overexposed to harmful pesticides, see your doctor.

Note

Pesticides also kill the earthworms that aerate and mix the soil and help make humus (a rich form of dirt that’s made up of decomposed organic material, like dead leaves and worm poop—not to be confused with hummus, the tasty Mediterranean dip), all of which is good for your lawn. But if you use chemical pesticides, you can kill up to 90% of the worms that naturally make your soil healthy and fertile.

The chemicals in pesticides also run off into rivers and lakes, contaminate groundwater, and leach into wells. From there, they can kill aquatic plants and animals and get into drinking water.

Note

The National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns educates people about the dangers of pesticides and promotes safe, healthy, environmentally friendly lawn and landscape care. Learn more or get involved at www.beyondpesticides.org/pesticidefreelawns.

If you use pesticides, use them safely. Buy small quantities, store them in their original containers, and dispose of any leftovers according to package instructions and local ordinances. But fortunately, as you’re about to learn, you don’t need these dangerous chemicals to have a healthy lawn.

Keep (Chemicals) Off the Grass!

Whether you’re discouraging weeds and other pests or encouraging your lawn to grow, you can do it without using harsh chemicals. This section describes how to care for your lawn the natural way.

The grass is greener…when it’s the right kind

The first thing to do when you’re switching to natural lawn care is to take a good look at what you’re growing. Is your lawn the best kind of grass for your area? In warm, dry climates, for example, you want a grass that can tolerate drought conditions and recover quickly after an extended dry spell. Temperature range, shadiness, rainfall, humidity, wear—all these factors affect which variety of grass grows best in your region. And knowing which one works best can save you water and cut back on the time you spend caring for your lawn.

Tip

For recommendations about the kind of grass best suited to your climate and conditions, visit www.american-lawns.com/lawns/best_lawns.html.

When choosing a grass, keep in mind that fine-bladed varieties and the older types of Kentucky bluegrass (like Kenblue and Park) need less water and fertilizer than perennial ryegrass or many of the newer varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Or go with a “no-mow” lawn. That’s a bit of a misnomer—you’ll have to mow, oh, once a month or so, starting in June. No-mow lawns are made up of low-maintenance grasses, mainly fescue. Prairie Nursery (www.prairienursery.com) and NoMowGrass.com (http://nomowgrass.com) sell low-maintenance grass seed blends.

Tip

Groundcover plants, such as juniper and ivy, are truly “no-mow” alternatives to grass. Check with your local garden center to find groundcover that’s suitable for your area. Some kinds can be aggressive, so make sure the species you pick won’t take over the neighborhood.

Go Native

Another option is to rethink the whole concept of lawns. Many homeowners are replacing grass with gardens of native plants, like wildflowers and ornamental grasses. Native plants already thrive where you live, so they require less care than grass and other plants that don’t grow there naturally. You can replace your whole lawn with such a garden, use native plants for decorative borders, or design a more complex landscape.

Tip

The U.S. EPA has a website devoted to landscaping with native plants: www.epa.gov/greenacres. The site has all kinds of helpful stuff like suggestions for getting started, landscaping and maintenance tips, and how-to videos.

Prepare your lawn for natural care

If you decide to stick with grass rather than native plants, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Whether you’re planting a brand-new lawn or caring for an existing one, there are a few simple ways to keep it green and lush.

If you’re starting from scratch and planting grass seed, it’s a good idea to:

  • Check the topsoil. A lawn needs at least four inches of topsoil to thrive. Eight inches—or more—is even better. If you can only dig an inch or so into your yard before hitting rock or solid clay, buy topsoil to give your grass something to take root in. To make rich soil your new lawn will love, mix the top four inches of dirt with an equal amount of compost before you sow the seeds.

  • Test the soil. To test your soil’s pH—that’s its level of acidity—buy a do-it-yourself tester kit or hire someone to test it. Ideally, the soil should be slightly acidic to neutral, with a pH of 6–7. If the pH is lower than 6, add lime to make it less acidic; if it’s above 7, add gardener’s sulfur to make it more acidic (you can buy both at any nursery). Sulfur is also a good natural fungicide.

Tip

If you have a pro test the soil, ask him to check for the major nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That’ll help you choose the best fertilizer for your lawn. And if you know your soil already has enough of those nutrients, you can avoid overfeeding your lawn: When you give it nutrients it doesn’t need, the extra nutrients run off into lakes and streams and make algae go nuts.

Once your grass seedlings are fully grown (they grow up so fast, don’t they?), here’s how to keep them happy and healthy:

  • Enrich the soil. Make sure your dirt is full of the nutrients that will make the grass thrive. If you enrich the soil with compost, you only need to spread the compost once a year—if that often. (The Joy of Composting explains what compost is and how to get started composting.) Aim for up to 1 cubic yard of compost for every 1,000 square feet of grass (that works out to a layer that’s about a third of an inch thick after you’ve spread it). Use a shovel to spread compost, and use a broom to sweep the compost off the grass and into the soil. Then water the lawn to help wash the compost’s microbes into the soil.

  • Dethatch. As grass grows, a layer of woody stems builds up under the blades and above the soil. This layer is called thatch. When it gets too thick, air, water, and nutrients have trouble reaching the grass’s roots, so it’s a good idea to get rid of thatch when it gets more than about half an inch thick. Get a rake with strong, stiff tines (garden stores sell dethatching rakes), and sink the rake into the thatch. Strike hard enough to get the thatch up but not hard enough to pull up grass blades. If your thatch is particularly thick and hard to get up, consider using your lawn mower’s thatching blade (if it has one) or renting a power dethatcher. Toss the thatch you dislodge onto your compost pile (see The Joy of Composting).

    image with no caption
  • Aerate.Another way to help air and water reach your grass’s roots is to use an aerator that removes plugs of turf, loosening up dense or compacted soil. You can buy a manual aerator, but these can be tricky to use, especially if you have a big lawn. Other options include renting a power aerator, hiring a lawn service, or buying earthworms to aerate your soil for you.

Tip

The best time to aerate your lawn is before you apply fertilizer.

Get smart about fertilizers

Fertilizers promote plant growth, making your lawn lush and green. But what’s in that stuff you’re feeding your lawn? Both natural and artificial fertilizers contain elements that help plants grow—like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—but they get those nutrients from different sources:

Tip

Look for low- or no-phosphate fertilizers. As mentioned on page xx1, phosphorus is a plant nutrient, but there’s probably already enough of it in your soil to feed your grass. (Have your soil tested if you’re not sure.) The phosphorus in fertilizers can run off into rivers and lakes and make algae go nuts, which can choke off healthy bodies of water. Some areas with at-risk lakes have banned fertilizers with phosphates.

  • Natural fertilizers use organic materials to enrich the soil and provide nutrients for your lawn. (Here, organic means that the fertilizer came from a living thing, whether plant or animal.) Grass needs a lot of nitrogen, so these fertilizers contain protein, which can come from stuff like ground corn, soybeans, bone meal, or seaweed. The protein gets eaten by friendly microbes in the soil that then expel nitrogen, which your grass absorbs through its roots. It takes about three weeks of letting the microbes to do their thing before you start to see a difference in your lawn, so be patient. The Joy of Composting tells you more about natural fertilizers.

    Tip

    Here’s an advantage of using organic fertilizer: The microbes that eat the fertilizer will aerate your lawn and soften the soil, making watering more efficient. So if you care for your lawn the organic way, you shouldn’t have to aerate it. (Microbes eat thatch, too.)

  • Inorganic fertilizers—also called chemical, mineral, or artificial fertilizers—don’t come from living sources. They may be mineral in origin, such as limestone and mined phosphates, or synthesized, like ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizers. A significant problem with these fertilizers is that they can suppress the bacteria in the soil that produce nitrogen, making you increasingly dependent on inorganic fertilizer to enrich the soil with nitrogen. This kind of fertilizer can also wash off and get into surface water, making plants grow like crazy and harming water quality. Finally, current methods of producing these fertilizers aren’t sustainable: Potassium and phosphate fertilizers use up already limited resources for those minerals, and the process for making nitrogen fertilizer uses fossil fuels or natural gas—resources we can’t afford to use thoughtlessly.

Note

Producing ammonia, the main ingredient in artificial nitrogen fertilizer, currently accounts for 5% of the world’s natural gas use.

Spring and fall are the best times to fertilize. If you’re using a commercial organic fertilizer, apply between 10 and 20 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn.

Note

What about using compost to fertilize your lawn? Compost, by itself, isn’t a good fertilizer. Compost supplies the soil with healthy microbes, but they then need protein to thrive and produce the nutrients that help your grass grow.

Say goodbye to weeds

If weeds seem to like your natural lawn-care program as much as the grass does, you don’t need to poison the weeds to get rid of ‘em. Instead, try these approaches:

  • Deep watering. As Give Your Lawn a Drink explains, when you water your grass deeply, you encourage the grass to grow long roots. This means the grass will be more deeply rooted than the weed seedlings that want to take up residence. When the top inch or two of dirt dries out, the weeds dry out and die. But the grass, whose roots go deeper, can still reach damp soil and survives until the next watering.

  • Frequent mowing. Grass grows from the bottom up, adding new cells to the bottom of each blade. Most weeds, on the other hand, grow from the top, adding new leaves at the top of the plant. So if you mow frequently with the mower blades set high, you cut off the weeds where they grow and leave the grass unharmed.

    Tip

    High mowing also makes the grass taller than weed seedlings, so your grass hogs the sunlight and shades the weeds.

  • Good, old-fashioned digging. One sure way to get weeds out of your lawn is to dig them out. At the start of your region’s growing season, grab a hoe and dig up weeds while they’re still small. Later in the season, use a trowel to dig out dandelions and other weeds at the roots. (It’s easiest to dig up weeds when the soil is damp.)

  • Suppressing new weeds before they grow. Corn meal gluten is an organic fertilizer that also prevents seedlings from growing healthy roots (but doesn’t harm the roots of full-grown plants), so it’s a good, natural way to control weeds. After you dig out a dandelion, for example, sprinkle corn meal gluten around the spot where it was to keep any seeds that got away from turning into new dandelion plants.

    Warning

    Don’t use corn gluten meal for weed control or as a fertilizer if you’re growing new grass from seed. It’ll mess up grass seedlings’ roots just like weed seedlings’ roots.

  • Zapping weeds with vinegar. Vinegar tastes great on a salad, but growing plants don’t like it. Although you can get high-concentration vinegar (10, 15, or even 20% acetic acid) from garden-supply stores, household vinegar (5% acetic acid) is both cheaper and safer. (If you go for high-concentration vinegar, protect your skin, eyes, and lungs from possible irritation.) Simply spray undiluted household vinegar on weeds, saturating their leaves; the leaves should wither within a couple of days. This works best on young plants (older weeds can regrow from their roots), and you may have to repeat the process every couple of weeks until the weeds are gone. Be aware that vinegar isn’t picky—it kills grass, too—so this method works best when you have a patch of weeds you want to get rid of.

Note

Vinegar lowers your soil’s pH, making it more acidic, but only for a couple of days. The acid in vinegar breaks down in water, so don’t spray it on weeds if there’s rain in the forecast.

Give Your Lawn a Drink

Many people water their lawn more often than they should, which wastes water and doesn’t help the lawn. When you practice natural lawn care, you don’t need to water as frequently because the well-aerated soil soaks up water and holds it like a sponge.

Tip

The best time to water is in the morning. Watering in the evening can make your lawn vulnerable to fungus.

Here are the two most important things to know about watering:

  • Water infrequently. Watering too often encourages thatch (Get smart about fertilizers), while less frequent watering makes the grass push its roots deeper into the soil. How do you know when to water? Watch your grass. It lets you know when it’s getting thirsty by curling its blades. Water when the blades start to curl (but before they turn brown). Another way to check is to walk across the grass; if you turn around and see your footprints, the grass is getting dry and it’s time to water. Or grab a trowel and dig about three inches into the soil. If the dirt is damp at that level (even if it’s dry on the surface), you don’t need to water.

  • Water deeply. When your grass gets thirsty, give it a long, satisfying drink. Place a cup in the area you’re watering; when there’s an inch of water in the cup, turn the water off. This may seem like a lot of water, but when you water deeply, you don’t have to water as often.

Tip

Oddly enough, a good time to water is after it rains. If a rainstorm drops half an inch of rain on your lawn, for example, you can give your grass the deep watering it needs while using less water—another half an inch, and you’ve done the job. And you don’t have to wait for a rainy day to give your lawn a drink of rainwater—Outdoors explains how to collect rain and store it for later.

Mowing Tips

It’s probably no surprise to learn that gas-powered lawn mowers create lots of pollution. For small lawns, consider an old-fashioned push mower (also called a reel mower)—you’ll get a workout and a great-looking lawn. Electric mowers are another option; there are cordless models if you’re worried about mowing over the cord.

Set your mower blades as high as they’ll go. Like other green plants, grass converts light into food through its leaves, so if you cut the grass too short, you’re basically starving it because it can’t absorb as much sunlight. To help your grass grow upright, don’t always start mowing in the same spot and go the same direction. For example, if you mow from east to west one week, try going from north to south the next time.

There’s no need to collect the clippings after you mow (unless it’s been so long since you last mowed that they cover the grass in big clumps). Let them decompose and enrich the soil—they add nitrogen and other nutrients, which means you won’t need as much fertilizer. A mulching mower can help with this process. If you need to remove clippings from your lawn—either because it’s been ages since you last mowed or the grass was wet so it clumped—don’t bag the clippings. Toss them on your compost pile (The Joy of Composting) instead.

Tip

Most of the time, lawn mowers sit unused in sheds or garages. Use yours more efficiently by sharing it. Get together with some neighbors, pool your money to purchase a mower, and then take turns using it. (Assign days to avoid confusion.)

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