Grow Your Own Cleaning Supply Garden

Cultivate sustainable living from outside to inside as you grow, make, and clean with these safe DIY household supplies.

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by AdobeStock/Halfpoint

When I started to keep house with my husband, I wanted everything to be clean. What I didn’t realize was that my continuous use of so many commercial cleaning products was doing as much harm as good around my home. Since my grandmother’s day — when all you needed to keep the house spotless was soap, water, and time to scrub — many chemicals have been introduced into our cleaning supplies to save time. We spray chemical-laden disinfectants on countertops to quickly and efficiently kill every microscopic thing that might be alive. But there’s a dirty secret about cleaning: Soap and water is, and always has been, enough to prevent illness. The need for “disinfection” hasn’t risen out of an epidemic, but instead is the result of a simple change in marketing.

Studies continue to show that soap, water, and a little elbow grease will remove almost all the dirt, grime, germs, and contamination from surfaces throughout our homes. And for those of us who feel more comfortable with the idea of disinfection, there are natural options. Vinegar, for example, will take down most any nasty microbe, but it does leave an odor and isn’t for everyone. Adding essential oils to homemade solutions has become popular, and some oils are certainly an option for your homemade cleaning arsenal. Many essential oils are aromatic, effective cleansers.

Being ever the “grow-my-own” type, however, I wondered what plants I might cultivate that would also help me clean the house. Unfortunately, I can’t grow a plant that will physically stroll in and clean up, so there goes my million-dollar idea. On the plus side, I came up with a list of effective plants you might like to try growing and harvesting for homemade disinfectant solutions. When using herbs for cleaning, you’ll make use of a less-concentrated form of their chemicals than their essential oil preparations. Fresh and dried herbs are often the easiest to use as a tea in cleaning supplies, but you can also use either form for their abrasive qualities in any job that requires scrubbing.

With a little bit of garden space, time, and care, you can both clean your house and keep everyone who lives there safe from a cleaning cupboard laden with chemicals. Get started with the following five plants and recipes.

Plains Yucca blooming with large bell shaped flowers in a small

Yucca (Yucca glauca)

Part Used for Cleaning: Root

Propagation: Division of rhizomes

Where to Plant: Full sun

A common name for this plant is “soapweed yucca,” because it has a long history of being used for the saponins its roots contain. Not only do these roots produce slippery soap bubbles, but the plant also has some antibacterial traits. When harvested fresh, you can create soap by pounding the roots on a hard surface with a rock until they begin to create suds. To use dried roots, add 1/4 tablespoon cut-and-sifted root to a quart of water and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer until suds form and the resulting soap reaches your desired thickness.

Yucca is actually pretty easy to grow, even though it looks like a desert dweller. It’s hardy in Zones 4 to 10, quite frost-tolerant, successful in a variety of soils, and doesn’t require a lot of water to keep going.

Long green needles of white pine Pinus strobus against sun

Pine (Pinus spp.)

Part Used for Cleaning: Needles, sap

Propagation: Nursery stock or seed

Where to Plant: Full sun to part shade

The needles on a pine tree are visible all winter long, which means we can collect them year-round. While pine has a number of amazing qualities for both internal and external personal care, it also shines as a cleaning agent. Turpentine, made from the sap of pine trees, is added to cleaning supplies for its antiseptic qualities. The needles also carry these qualities, and are much easier to work with.

To grow a pine tree, it’s best to purchase a sapling. Growing from seed is possible, but it can be unpredictable and takes much longer. Plant your tree in full sun to partial shade in spring or late fall, and avoid any area that’s overly wet; pine trees aren’t very picky about soil type, but they don’t like wet feet. Many pine trees grow in Zones 3 to 7.


Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Part Used for Cleaning: Leaves

Propagation: Seed, cutting, nursery stock

Where to Plant: Full sun

Sage is antiseptic, antifungal, and antibacterial. In laboratory tests, sage has been shown effective against E. coli and salmonella, two of the most feared kitchen menaces. It’s also well-known as an herb used in smoke cleansing sticks or smudge sticks. While smudge sticks primarily serve ceremonial purposes for certain cultures, there are ways to respectfully incorporate burning sage into your home lifestyle. Burning sage in your home may also cleanse the air of bacteria, in addition to its traditional use of banishing negative energy.

Sage is very easy to grow. It’s cold-hardy in Zones 4 to 8, only requiring a bit of care and extra mulching in the colder climates to ensure its return. Sage isn’t too picky about soils, but doesn’t tolerate wet feet. Be sure to plant it in a well-drained area, and you can pick throughout the growing season for cleaning supplies.

Thyme twigs

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Part Used for Cleaning: Leaves

Propagation: Seed, cutting, nursery stock

Where to Plant: Full sun

There are many varieties of thyme that can be grown for the purpose of cleaning supplies. They’re hardy anywhere between Zones 2 and 10, but the most common types are hardy from Zones 5 to 9. Thyme is a creeper and doesn’t get very tall. It’ll do best in slightly alkaline soil. This is a perfect plant for rock gardens, as the stones underneath the plants prevent leaf rot and ensure good drainage.

Harvest this antifungal and antibacterial plant throughout the growing season by clipping all the green growth just beyond any woody stems.

Rosemary camphor wild plant (Rosemarinus officinalis)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Part Used for Cleaning: Leaves

Propagation: Seed, cutting, nursery stock

Where to Plant: Full sun

Rosemary is another important antibacterial herb. With its Mediterranean roots, it likes well-drained soil. I admit to never successfully keeping a rosemary plant alive indoors, but I’ve had great success outside; my oldest plant lived in our unheated greenhouse for years until a particularly harsh winter took its toll. Rosemary is fairly tender, so if you want to get it through the winter outdoors, you’ll need to be in Zones 7 to 10. I’ve heard of folks who live in colder areas getting rosemary through the winter with a sheltered spot and lots of mulch, but don’t count on it.

If you’re using rosemary for a cleaner, you can cut the growth tips at any time during the growing season. Choose the green stems, not the woody ones, to let the plant continue to grow between cuttings.

Keeping Clean and Staying Healthy

Disinfecting our homes comes with a cost. More and more, studies are showing the damaging effects harmful chemicals in cleaning supplies have on our health. Some products, such as furniture polish, chlorine bleach, and even air fresheners, contain toxic substances — notably volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases that are released into the air and can cause irritation, headaches, difficulty breathing, or cancer. Other cleaners may also cause chemical burns upon contact or inhalation.

To avoid these chemicals altogether, make your own natural cleaning products, and never underestimate the power of soap and warm water. If you do choose to buy cleaning products, pay attention to the labels. Choose brands that contain little or no VOCs, flammables, strong fragrances, and other irritating ingredients. Research your current products online at trusted sites, such as the Environmental Working Group. To avoid harmful fumes, keep whatever area you’re cleaning well-ventilated.

Incorporate these homegrown herbs into safe cleaning supplies with these recipes:

Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist and herbalist. She is the formulator at Mockingbird Meadows and chief soda jerk at her family’s unique storefront apothecary, Soda Pharm. She’s also the author of Sweet Remedies: Healing Herbal HoneysHeal Local, and Conceiving Healthy Babies.

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