QUESTION: My teenagers insist that I bleach their white T-shirts with chlorine bleach. Is there something else I can use that will whiten them? Perfectly white T-shirts seem to be a status symbol. -- Angela Haines via e-mail
MARY JANE: You can brighten whites with either sodium perborate or hydrogen peroxide, both found in non-chlorine bleaches.
Found in most grocery stores that carry natural products, non-chlorine bleaches are all-fabric, meaning you can use them on colors as well as whites. For colored fabrics, it's best to test products first on an unseen piece of garment. Safe for most colors, testing is especially important for naturally dyed fabrics. Non-chlorine bleaches don't create toxic fumes or leave residues that can irritate your children's skin. (This is a plus with teenagers who are prone to blemishes.) Hydrogen peroxide products degrade naturally into oxygen and water. They are also gentler on fabrics. Point out to your children that their favorite T-shirts -- and the logos on them -- will last longer. Common brands include Country Save, produced in Arlington, Washington (360-435-9868, www.countrysave.com), and Seventh Generation from Burlington, Vermont (800-456-1191, www.seventhgeneration.com). Both Web sites offer a search section for finding the store nearest you to purchase their products.
Follow the directions on the package for the amount of non-chlorine bleach to use and pre-soak their T-shirts for an hour in your washing machine along with your soap or detergent. Teenagers usually end up with beverage and food stains. Use cold water for most stains. Use warm water for grease or oil stains. After soaking, run your machine through the rest of its cycle. Country Save and Seventh Generation sell non-toxic biodegradable laundry soaps and detergents. Try also Planet Inc. from Victoria, British Columbia (800-858-8449, www.planetinc.com).
You can pre-treat stubborn stains with a homemade stain remover by combining the following ingredients, easily stored in a small plastic squeeze bottle.
1 tablespoon vegetable glycerin (found in natural food stores)
1 tablespoon dishwashing soap
1/2 cup water
Shake gently before applying. Squeeze the mixture onto the stain, rub it in using a retired toothbrush, and then pre-soak as usual.
The best way to prevent dinginess and discoloration is a dose of good old-fashioned sunshine and fresh air. Available year-round, sunshine is a disinfectant, and fresh air is a natural ozone cleanser. Line-dried clothes have the smell of ozone, that familiar intoxicating smell you remember from rain and lightning storms. T-shirts, towels and sheets can go outside year-round. Even if it's too cold for them to dry thoroughly, you can bring them in after nature has cleansed and scented them. Though many detergent manufacturers have tried, nature still provides the ultimate laundry perfume, your reward as you gather them in your arms for your next laundry chore.
Inside, you'll need to find a good place for their t-shirts to finish drying. Wooden clothes racks are perfect for this. Watch for wooden clothes dryers sold in second-hand and antique stores. They can be purchased new by phone or on-line at Lehman's from Kidron, Ohio (888-438-5346, www.lehmans.com). Melayne Stevens, of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, makes her own wooden drying racks and is willing to ship them direct to customers. She customizes orders with both floor racks and stylish wall-mounted racks, building any size you need. Her basic 3' wide floor model sells for $35 plus shipping and wall racks sell for $75 plus shipping. You can reach Melayne by phone at 208-267-2322 or by e-mail: email@example.com.
QUESTION: In the winter when I can't get outside to garden, I enjoy my potted patio plants that I've brought indoors. Is there a rule-of-thumb to know when they've outgrown their pots? -- Teresa Dean via e-mail
MARY JANE: Plants do become root-bound if they're not repotted occasionally in larger containers. Just before it's time to water your plants, you can eliminate the guesswork by turning each pot upside down while using one hand to keep the plant from falling out entirely. Do this over an old sheet or some newspapers. Gently tap and coax the root mass loose. If the roots are beginning to circle the pot at the bottom, it's time to replant. Choose a pot that is at least two inches larger in diameter. If you'd rather wait until spring when new growth is due and it's easier to work outside, you can gently prune the roots with a razor blade and put it back in the same pot. If you decide to repot, add new potting soil to the bottom of the larger pot and fill in around the sides. Water well and let your repotted plants recuperate in a spot away from direct sunlight for a few days. Indoor plants provide an opportunity to garden without weeds in a controlled climate.