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Bouquet of Flowers in Kitchen

Here in the northern hinterlands, we didn't have much winter. It was more like an unbelievably long late fall, which now seems ready to blend right into spring. Yet while the line between the seasons may be hard to draw this year, it's not fuzzy enough to get us out of spring cleaning. All we can do is make it easier to get done.

Though we tend to think of spring cleaning as uniquely American, the ritual has a surprisingly ancient and international pedigree. There are similar traditions in Iranian, Jewish, Scottish, Chinese, Greek, and other cultures. Here in the U.S., this rite of spring got going in cold weather climates for a simple reason: Winter was once insanely dirty.

In ye good olde days, American homes spent the cold months filling with soot from wood, coal, and candle flames, and mud and worse from outside (not to mention life's usual grease and grime). In a world without vacuum cleaners and spray bottles, the only thing that built up faster than the filth was the desire to stop living in it. Thus on the first available warm day of spring, usually sometime in March, windows would be thrown open to let the still bug-free breezes blow the dust out of the house. Everything that wasn't nailed down was dragged into the yard to be beaten, dusted, and scrubbed, and the walls, floors, and shelves inside were simultaneously de-funkified.

These days, it's thankfully a bit different. Today's spring cleaning is more about getting at the overlooked areas and hard-to-reach spots around the house so that things look really good. It doesn't mean whacking the winter out of everything we own with broom sticks on the lawn but slaying decades-old dust bunnies that could devour a small child and finally dealing with the disconcerting fuzz farm in the fridge. And we can get that dirty job done without excessive hair loss. Here's how:

Start by opening every last window and cleaning your indoor air. If possible, wait for a breezy day that will enhance this atmospheric rinse cycle.

Prevent running around by assembling a cleaning kit with gear for every contingency. I start with a big and a small sponge; a bucket of hot water; a bag of rags; a roll of our recycled paper towels for the really ugly grimes against nature; a duster; a scrub brush; an old toothbrush for tight spots; baking soda for scouring, and Seventh Generation All-Purpose Cleaner, Glass & Surface Cleaner, and Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner.

Then rent a carpet/upholstery steam cleaner. It's worth it. I am forever amazed at what comes out of rugs and furniture fabrics I thought were fairly clean. And steam cleaning does more than brighten things up. The plush stuff lasts longer when it's kept cleaner.

Now you're ready. Focus on the rooms you use most and tackle one at a time. Set up a big folding table in an adjacent space. Remove knick-knacks, wall art, books, and other loose objects from the target room, dust them (do it outside if things are particularly grubby), and stow the stuff on the table.

Push all the furniture and large objects into the center of the room and clean its now cleared periphery. Remember: this is a deep-dive-down-to-the-floorboards power scour in places no sponge has been in living memory. Thorough is your mantra. So spray and wipe every last surface from floor to ceiling. I'll even do paint touch-ups if needed.

Push everything back into place then steam clean any upholstery before finally dealing with the center floor space. Reassemble bookshelves and replace decorative items.

In the kitchen, empty all your drawers and cabinets, and give these spaces a good scrub. Clean the refrigerator inside and out. I use Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner here to kill household germs that may be present. Dust fridge coils to improve their efficiency. Pull appliances out and wash behind and beneath them.

Clean your oven by covering it with 1/4 inch of baking soda. Spray water over the works until thoroughly wet but not drowning. Spray again at bedtime and in the morning everything will wipe effortlessly clean.

Go through the pantry and get rid of expired food. In general, focus on the things you don't ordinarily clean -- the faucet, stove burners, the range hood, the inside of the microwave, corners and knobs.

In the bathroom, follow the same approach. Break out the Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner to kill household germs on hard non-porous surfaces -- even those you think may not need disinfecting. (Remember your mantra!)

Clear cabinets and linen closets, throw away outdated products, and organize what's left. Scrub grout, shine tile, polish chrome, and leave no lever, knob, handle, crack, or crevice overlooked.

Set aside a separate day for windows. They're a project all their own but one that makes a huge difference -- dirty windows block light and views, and make even sparkling rooms seem dingy.

In the end, it's really about time and attitude. You don't need any special tools or techniques. Just a free weekend and a willingness to boldly go with gusto where no dust rag has gone before. That's all it takes to have the cleanest -- and healthiest -- house on the block all year.

photo: Alan Cleaver

Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!