Choose natural cleaning products for your home

By Jenny Dembinski

We have the freedom to choose from countless products to clean our home. If you are like me, I want the cleaner to do the job of removing dirt and grime, mold and bacteria, musty smells and worse. I also would like to preserve the health of my family, myself, my pets, and my environment. Is this a possible choice?


Most cleaning products out there contain chemicals and toxins: formaldehyde, chloroform, styrene, and triclosan, just to name a few. Red flag:  the fragrance of these chemicals will knock you out as you walk down the cleaning supply aisle of your favorite super market. I will argue that you don’t even need to walk down that aisle to purchase two simple cleaners that are just as effective, cost a fraction of the price, and are natural, non-toxic, and will not harm our natural environment. These cleaning agents are baking soda and vinegar (both white and apple cider vinegar will do).

Here are a few cleaning tips, using products right in your panty:

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is a salt composed of sodium ions and bicarbonate ions. The natural form is mahcolite, a component of the mineral natron found dissolved in many mineral springs. Baking soda helps regulate pH; it keeps a substance neither too acidic nor too alkaline. It has the ability to retard further changes in the pH balance, known as buffering. This dual capacity of neutralizing and buffering allows baking soda to do things such as neutralize acidic odors (like in the fridge) as well as maintain neutral pH (like in your laundry water, which helps boost your detergents power).

Baking soda works well as a deodorizer, surface soft-scrub, oven cleaner, non-wood floor cleaner (1/2 cup baking soda to a bucket of warm water). You can clean your dishes, pots and pans; freshen your sponges and shower curtains; make a hand cleaner (three parts baking soda to one part water); and clean your brushes and combs (1 tsp baking soda to basin of warm water). Baking soda can be ingested as it is used for baking and is an effective antacid to treat heartburn.

Vinegar consists of about 5-20 percent acetic acid, water, and trace chemicals that may include flavorings. Acetic acid is produced by the fermentation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria.  Dilution with water is recommended for safety and to avoid damaging the surfaces being cleaned. The acidity of vinegar dissolves mineral deposits from glass, coffee makers, and other smooth surfaces.

Use vinegar for cleaning shower door and windows (dilute with water and apply to crumpled newspaper for best results). Use vinegar for polishing brass or bronze, silver, and copper. It is effective in removing clogs from drains (even more so if directly poured onto 3 tbsp of baking soda placed over the drain), ungluing sticker-type price tags, and cleaning non-wood floors (1/2 cup white vinegar to ½ gallon warm water. Floors have the greatest surface area of your house; your pets and toddlers basically live there. Why not use the least toxic cleaner?

Apple cider vinegar claims to have antibacterial properties. Combine 1/2 cup of vinegar with 1 cup of water to create your own all-purpose cleaner. Fruit flies a problem? No worries! Fill a cup with apple cider vinegar and a couple of drops of dish soap and leave on the counter and watch the flies accumulate and die in the solution. Other uses: clean dental appliances or your toothbrush, or use it as a detangler for your hair that also removes product buildup and creates shine.


So many choices! Let’s do one thing: This summer let’s all try to limit our use of chemicals in our own home. Let’s choose the products that not only disinfect and deodorize but also are environmentally and human-health friendly.

Sources: Wikipedia and Care2 by Melissa Breyer


DO ONE THING: Choose non-toxic household cleaners

Choosing an insect repellant

by Janet L. Andersen, PhD*


In Vermont, mosquitoes carry West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis virus, and ticks carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis. There is no absolute protection against being bitten by an infected mosquito or tick, but there are precautions when taken together that substantially reduce your risk.



Health Vermont and other trusted authorities recommend wearing long-sleeve shirts, tucking long pant legs into boots, and conducting a thorough body examination after going back indoors. Insect repellents can further reduce risk, but no synthetic or natural chemical repels 100% of mosquitoes or ticks all of the time. A single bite can transmit disease.


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires proof that registered products repel pests named on the label, but allows some natural chemicals considered to be safe to be sold without registration and without proof they repel insects. This loophole allows products to be sold that may or may not work or that may work for such a short time as to be functionally ineffective. Examples of ingredients used in unregistered repellents are:  cedar oil, eugenol, geranium oil, peppermint oil, lemongrass oil, rosemary oil and soybean oil.


Insect repellants registered by the EPA as scientifically proven to be effective have these active ingredients:


  • N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET)
  • Picaridin
  • Amino acid IR3535 derived from β-alanine
  • Citronella oil derived from dried cultivated grasses
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus extracted from leaves
  • 2-undecanone or methyl nonyl ketone
  • Catnip (or catmint) oil extracted from leaves.


Registered products have “EPA Reg. No.” with the individual products number usually on the back side of the container.


Read the entire label, including the fine print, as if your health and safety depended on it!  Not all of these compounds repel ticks. Most products that repel mosquitoes also repel black flies. DEET, citronella, and catnip oil products include a warning to use soap and water to wash skin and sometimes clothing after use. Most repellents may cause skin irritation and should not be applied to cuts, sunburned or otherwise damaged skin, such as after shaving. Generally, a product states how long it is effective for ticks, mosquitoes, and black flies and how many times each day a product can safely be applied.


These warnings also apply to products used to treat your lawn for mosquitoes and ticks.  Only EPA registered products have been reviewed for safety and efficacy. Scrumptiously follow the label, including time between application and when you or your pets can reenter the treated area and other instructions for keeping the chemical off pets and humans.


*Dr. Andersen retired to Barnard from the EPA where she managed natural pesticides. She has a PhD in Plant Pathology from University of Maine and a Master of Science from the University of California, Berkeley.


Planting the Three Sisters

By Cassidy Metcalf


This is my third season as coordinator for the two community gardens in Woodstock. I’ve enjoyed planning the garden season, helping orient new members, and organizing work days and potlucks. This year, however, in addition to my normal coordinator duties, I have the unique pleasure of maintaining a garden plot as well.



For the past few years, my husband and I have grown a small vegetable plot together in our backyard. This year we are living in a new place and don’t have access to a garden space at home, so the community garden plot was a perfect fit for us. Instead of planting our usual repertoire of leafy greens and carrots, we decided to try our hands at something a little different. We chose to grow corn, beans, and squash – collectively known as the Three Sisters. We had both heard of this interesting trio and wanted to see if we could successfully farm them ourselves.


Corn, beans, and squash were the main agricultural plants cultivated by a number of Native American groups in North America. Together, they contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and all eight amino acids, providing a balanced diet and allowing most tribes to thrive as vegetarians. The Three Sisters were also essential to peoples’ spiritual well-being. Native Americans believed they should always be planted together, eaten together, and celebrated together.


Over thousands of years of agricultural experimentation, Native Americans developed a unique system of planting in which each of the three crops contributes something to the group. The corn stalks serve as a pole for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the sprawling squash leaves shade the area, keeping weeds at bay and holding moisture. Today we call this style of gardening ‘companion planting,’ but Native Americans were doing this long before the term existed. They understood instinctually that crops planted as a whole ecosystem would be stronger than if planted separately.


Planting the Three Sisters is simple, but must be done with careful consideration of timing and space. Prepare the soil in spring by adding aged manure or compost to increase fertility. Make a flat mound of soil about a foot high and 4 feet wide. When danger of frost has passed, plant corn in the mound by sowing six kernels about 10 inches apart in a circle about 2 feet in diameter. When the corn is 5 or 6 inches tall, plant three pole beans evenly spaced around each stalk. A week later, sow five winter squash seeds around the perimeter of each mound.


What you will end up with is corn in the middle, beans growing up the corn, and squash plants filling the empty space around the mounds. The specificity of this method may sound a little funny, but it has proven itself over thousands of years of agriculture. The numbers listed are intentionally exact and designed to form the most efficient system. If you plant too closely, the space will be crowded and unproductive. If you don’t wait until the corn is tall enough, the stalks could become overtaken by the beans and stop growing.


If you are interested in seeing this Three Sisters planting in person, come on over to the community garden at Billings Farm. There are lots of other wonderful plots to enjoy as well. Located on Billings Farm and King Farm properties, the community gardens are a project of Sustainable Woodstock and open to all community members. The cost is $40 for the first plot and $25 for each additional plot. The gardens are full this year, but if you would like to be on the list for next year please email