Coming this week and next to The Monday Garden are a series of articles on “Living Lighter With Less”

I was drafting, for other use, a collection of thoughts on ways to keep a small home (mostly likely a high-rise apartment) reasonably clean in minimum time with minimum money while leaving a light footprint on the planet and not poisoning ourselves or our pets. Post-Katrina, I’m now rewriting and posting the material on as this material might be useful to some of the thousands who are now rebuilding the basics. This material is for:

• those starting over from scratch on a minimal budget;
• those doubling and tripling up in a smaller space than they are used to;
• those downsizing from a detached dwelling to an apartment; and
• those who want a clean, attractive home with minimum effort and cost.

If you have a suggestion to add, please post it in the comments section following the article.

Here’s a taste of what’s to come:






Cleaning Tools



Right up there with simplifying to under 10 cleaning products is simplifying the cleaning tools. It’s another area where you can go crazy on cost and on bulky gear, and, yet, not get all that much for your money. If you live in a small space, choosing the right cleaning tools can make all the difference in keeping clean with minimal effort and leaving space in the closet for your clothes.


Picture: the essential cleaning tools are also compact and simple.


Terry wash cloths: Terry cloth washcloths are one of the all-time best cleaning inventions. Nothing works better or is more versatile, and you can pop them in the wash with the regular laundry. You can buy a pack of 4 to 10 for $5 to $10, depending on quality, brand, etc. Keep a stack in the bathroom. In the kitchen, a stack of terry cloths serves as the dust cloth, counter–wiper, dishrag, dish dryer, floor mopper, re-useable paper towel, etc. etc. Since they are small, you can use several a day, so you always have a clean, dry cloth at hand. Wiping the cat and dog down weekly with a damp washcloth controls pet allergens.

For the garage, rip your old towels into squares. To distinguish the “good” terry washcloths for the bath and drying dishes from the serious dirt rags, buy slightly different washcloths each time you get some new ones, so they are instantly “color–coded”. Periodically, pre-soak with oxygen cleaner to de-stain.

Cotton and linen dish towels: Pretty cotton and linen dish towels are decorative and add color to the kitchen but for save them for lining the bread basket and keeping the veggies fresh. Let the washcloths do the heavy work. For long-lasting fresh veggies: wash, then swing the wet veggies in a towel (preferable outside) to get out excess water; store in the refrigerator in plastic shoe boxes form the Dollar Store lined with clean, dry cotton dish towels.

Paper towels: If you have plenty of re-useable terry cloths, and cotton dish towels, you seldom need paper towels, so don’t buy the 6-roll pack – it takes up too much space. Paper towels are good for lining the microwave and for cleaning up stinky or oily spills where you will need to toss the clean-up rag immediately. (Oily rags area fire hazard – they can spontaneously combust). Brown (unbleached) paper towels are better for the environment.

Brushes: A sink-vegetable brush is very handy, and one with a long handle keeps your hands out of the water. Stick the brush in the dishwasher at least weekly. It is also good to have a few small, stiff scrubbing bushes with long handles, including a bottle brush or two. For big jobs, buy a flat floor scrub brush that screws into a pole. A separate brush for toilets is a must. Complete your brush set with some old toothbrushes. A cat/dog grooming brush is also good.

Sponges: You don’t really “need” sponges if you have washcloths and a sink brush, but if you like them, you can get a pack of small square ones with scrubber backs in the Dollar Store for about $1. You can keep sponges clean longer by running them through the dishwasher.


Stainless steel bowls: A set of nesting stainless steel utility bowls, from mini to the largest size your cabinet can hold, serves as extra sinks and buckets that are good for everything from floor mopping to plant transplanting and baby washing. You can often get good deals on stainless steel bowls in the thrift store.

Plastic utility buckets: Buy 2 matching plastic utility buckets at the same time so they fit together. Use the top one to store your under-sink cleaning equipment. Slip the bottom bucket off for mopping floors, roof leaks, and the like.


One broom-stick length pole with screw-on attachments: Tools with broom-length handles take up closet space. If you have several, they are always tangled up in a small space. You can save a lot of space and money by buying one removable, wood pole or aluminum telescoping pole, from the hardware store. To go with the pole, get a flat-head scrub brush , a squeegee for windows, and a large soft broom head for hard floors. The screw-on heads can also be used separately as hand tools. For dusting, mopping and drying floors, you can wrap a terry cloth around the scrub brush or, what works great with a washcloth for dusting and mopping the floors, is one of those handles sold for use with disposable chemically-treated dust cloths (see picture below).

Carpet sweeper: A carpet sweeper, if you haven’t used one, is a long handled, mechanical dust pan. They run $20 to $50. The $20 ones work fine. Carpet sweepers clean floors and carpets almost as well as a non-HEPA vacuum and have the blessing of being quiet and non-electric. Most fold flat for storage. In a small home or a home without much carpet, you can use a carpet sweeper instead of a vacuum. If you have both, use the sweeper outdoors, for quick indoor clean ups, and for sweeping up objects that might damage the vacuum.

Cleaning Products



We all know that, regardless of a home’s type, size and cost, keeping the home reasonably free of dirt and mess is critical to mental and physical well being. The smaller the home, and the more humans and other creatures living in it, the more that sanitation and neatness count.

However, time and resources for cleaning are often limited. So what are some ways of keeping a home, large or small, reasonably clean in minimum time with minimum money? While we’re at it, why not try to make product and material choices that leave a light footprint on the planet and are healthiest for you and yours? The ironic part, it turns out, is that, despite all the hoopla for the new-better-different this and that, when it comes to cleaning, healthiest is also simplest and cheapest.


There are so many cleaning products on the market. However, if you’re not vigilant, you can run up a big bill and bring unwanted chemicals into your home. Then there’s the cabinet–choking clutter created by all the bottles and stuff. So what cleaners do we really need? We can keep the home clean under ten products and do it while SAVING money ANDprotecting the environment.

THE BIG FOUR: These are the only four cleaning products that you actually “need”. They are all cheap, versatile, readily available, and user-friendly.

1. Liquid vegetable-oil soap: One foaming soap will do for hands, dishes, body, and plants. There’s no need for separate products, except in advertisers’ minds. Any vegetable oil-based soap works fine. It is cheapest to buy a large container and decant into smaller re-usable bottles for the tub, and each sink. An organic product is extra good for you and the planet, if you can get it, and can afford it. Dr Bronner’s castile soap, available on-line and in health food stores, is an old-timer favorite which can also be used as toothpaste, hair and dog shampoo, and as a general household cleaner. In a pinch, any liquid dishwashing soap will do.

2. White vinegar: White vinegar is a wonderful all-purpose cleaner. It is distilled from grain and can’t hurt you unless you get it in your eyes. With its high acid content, white vinegar is a natural antibacterial and degreaser. Dilute with about 2/3 water for windows, mirrors, blind slats, and daily cleaning of appliances, cabinets and woodwork. You can mix the vinegar and water in bowl or use a spray bottle if you have one. White vinegar rinses clean. Use it straight or diluted only by 1/3 for de-scaling coffee makers and terra cotta pots. White vinegar is probably the cheapest cleaner on the market; a pint bottle costs under a dollar, a gallon jug is about $2.

3. Baking soda: Baking soda has some magic ingredient that coaxes most pans to self clean after soaking for an hour or two. Likewise, baking soda happily absorbs odors in everything from sneakers and the cat liter box to the trash can and the bathroom. It makes a gentle scouring powder for fresh vegetables, greasy hands, woodwork, appliances, sinks, leather goods, and counter tops. Put some in the dishwater and the laundry to boost your soap’s cleaning power. Baking soda is very cheap and so versatile that you can use it on skin rashes and insect bites, brush your teeth with it, stick a box in the refrigerator to control odors, and pour it down a clogged drain mixed with salt and hot water. Rub in on the cutting board to get out onion smells. Put a new box in the refrigerator and later rotate it under the sink for use as a cleaner.

4. Hot water: The number one all-time cleaner is plain, old hot water. (See the related artilce on cleaning tools for steam-cleaners).


5. Citrus oil degreaser-solvent: A citrus oil degreaser-solvent is great for the most stubborn label glue and grease. Any strong spot remover-degreaser, though, may dissolve plastics or strip color, so test first. A 2 oz bottle of citrus oil solvent at the Dollar Store cost a dollar or less and lasts a long time as you only use a drop at a time. (Query: can we cross this one off the list and use full-strength lemon juice instead? What’s worked for you?)

6. Powdered oxygen cleaner: a generic hydrogen peroxide-based “oxygen cleaner” (about $3.50 in the Dollar Store) is all you need for cleaning grout and the toilet bowl, for whitening the laundry, and for major kitchen floor stripping. Treat an oxygen cleaner with respect like chlorine bleach, though: let the oxygen cleaner solution sit for a while to work; watch where it drips as it can strip non-fast colors; use properly diluted and rinse thoroughly. It is “natural” but, like most of “nature”, not harmless. The powdered form is the cheapest and most versatile.

7. Dishwasher soap: If you have dishwashing machine other than the kids, you normally use a soap specially made for the machine. Loose powder is the cheapest but some like the convenience of the pressed tablets. What can be skipped are the pricey chemicals to finish, dry, etc. If the dishwasher seems gunky, or the glasses don’t sparkle, throw in vinegar or baking soda with the next wash. If you want a cheaper dishwasher powder, there are recipes on the web for a mix of borax and baking soda.

8. Laundry soap: If you can, choose a hypo-allergic, biodegradable, fragrance-free, low suds, concentrated laundry detergent. All you need for the clothes is the detergent plus oxygen cleaner for whitening and pre-soaking stains, and a cup of white vinegar for very stinky clothes. I hate to hurt the manufacturer’s feelings but you don’t “need” laundry conditioners and dryer sheets. Some say that they can be harmful to health. I do know that laundry conditioners and dryer sheets seal cloth so it doesn’t absorb moisture – a horrible thing, I think, in a T-shirt, bath towel or bed sheet.

9. Salt and lemon juice: Like white vinegar, table salt and lemon juice are cheap and can be used as cleaners, disinfectants, food preservatives, and food seasoning. They can also be used to boost the power of baking soda or vinegar. Try salt as a metal cleaner. They say to rub salt on the flatware before washing, and to scour the greasy frying pan with it. Salt is also used spot remover— try it dry to absorb the wine out of the rug and diluted with water for upholstery stains. Lemon juice is a great natural disinfectant, degreaser and odor remover. Lemon juice is supposed to work for windows — about about 1/4 cup to a gallon of water. Let me know if it works for you.

10. Specialty cleaners: Depending on taste, need, and budget, you might also want a specialty cleaner or two such as hair shampoo (generic baby shampoo works as well as most shampoos), facial cleansers, shaving cream, toothpaste, and nail polish remover (a handy solvent).


RECIPES: There are hundreds of recipes for make-it-yourself home cleaning solutions. They usually don’t work for me because I find most recipes too complicated, too hard to remember, and too much clutter to keep handy in paper form. If you’d like to try some, do a web search for “vinegar”, “salt”, “borax” or “baking soda” plus “clean”.

READ THE LABEL. If there are cautions or warnings on the package, why do you want the stuff in the house? Everything goes in the mouths of human babies, puppies and kittens. Likewise, you and your animals absorb household chemicals through fumes in the air and residues on the floor. Small amounts that don’t seem harmful to an adult human can be serious for a 10 lb. cat. Remember also that tons of these chemicals are produced and released into the environment each year solely because you and I buy them.

POLISHES : You really don’t need much in the way of polishes. If you’re using a rinse-free, non-steak cleaner like white vinegar, you can skip the specialty polishes for counters, appliances, and stove tops.

Wooden objects: Baskets and wood boxes last longest if sealed with stain, lacquer and/or enamel. Wood floors and furniture also want a sealer or stain. Then, mist occasionally for hydration and clean with a slightly damp cloth. Some say that baskets like to be quickly dipped in cool water once a year.

Non-wood floors: Whatever you use on the kitchen and bathroom floor is going right in the baby’s and dog’s stomach. Try just mopping with one of the safe cleaners mentioned above. So what if the floor’s not so shiny?

INSECTS: Aerosol poisons are worse for you then bugs, arguing and denial will not change this fact. Second fact: cockroaches are a part of life in multi-family dwellings, rich or poor. The best way to discourage roaches is to guard all food sources. Store food only in sealed metal, plastic or glass containers. Clean up after ever meal and serve food in dishes that don’t spill easily, like low soup bowls rather than flat plates. Food garbage goes out daily or is kept in a sealed container.

For all bugs, fly swatters are good as is a feral-born, insect-eating house cat. If you must, put out insect traps where kids and animals can’t reach them but lay off the poisonous sprays and liquids. For plant bugs, toss the plant or use plain water, dish soap, insecticidal soap, rubbing alcohol or a sticky-glue trap (make your own with strips of red or yellow duct tape).

ALLERGENS AND GERMS: Many think that daily exposure to small amounts of germs (bacteria and virus) keeps our immune systems properly functioning. Accordingly, too much disinfecting and germ-avoidance can be a bad thing except for infants, the elderly, and others with weak immune systems.

Allergens, though, are different. Current thinking is that allergies are cumulative and that the more exposure to allergens can be reduced, the more the body can tolerate the allergens that it has to handle. So if you have someone in the house with asthma or severe allergies, the more you can reduce that person’s exposure to dust, molds, pollen, etc., especially in their bedroom and other places where they spend significant time, the more likely they are to be able to tolerate the cat, outdoor allergens and the like.