kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Permaculture: 4th Year

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Leap Year

In terms of the old gardening adage ‘first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap…‘ our yard is mostly on schedule. We were technically entering our fourth year of planting and growing, however, it was still only the second or third year for a majority of our plants. Nevertheless, it was exciting and deeply gratifying to see a major growth spurt from many of the older plants. This fourth year also presented us with our first real explosion of color throughout the growing season. Our yard has clearly moved on from the mulched moonscape look of its first two years.

Although we began with a diversity of plantings, even in our first year, because much of what we planted came from small pots it’s taken time for large areas of the yard to fill in. The main goal has always been overall health, whether it’s been the soil, our extensive mulching, or the wide variety of plants we’ve organized by guilds and aesthetics. Using permaculture design strategies, we knew we were operating with sound principles, but, even so, it’s difficult not to be impatient with the rate of growth year to year.

Early in the design phase of the build we decided to plant in stages, making a little progress each year, rather than try to get everything in the ground the first year. While it’s required some patience, this strategy has allowed us to develop a sense of what will work on our site, get a feel for the plant varieties we’d really like to have, and it helps to ensure the best placement for each plant grouping.

While permaculture is generally thought of as a series of design principles used to maximize food production in a sustainable way, we’ve chosen to emphasize the flowers and grasses to create a haven for wildlife, in particular pollinators and birds, all while producing a decent amount of food for ourselves. Even though various descriptors could apply to what we and others like us are trying to do with our yards (e.g., food forest, edible landscape, micro agroforestry or regenerative agriculture), at a basic level, it’s employing strategies that work with nature to produce better and more sustainable outcomes.

“One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.”

—Joel Salatin, quoted by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Early spring clean up usually begins for us in the backyard. The standing Miscanthus giganteus stalks and the Maximillian sunflower branches (visible in the background in the photo below) make excellent sources of biomass.

backyard permaculture in spring

We’ve used the Miscanthus giganteus for tepees and general use staking, while the sunflowers get stacked in small piles under our ‘living fence’ shrubs where we hope they will attract toads, frogs, and eventually snakes and salamanders. Some have also found their way onto the hügelkultur bed as added mulch.

Shasta viburnum flowers
This is the first year that our Shasta viburnums were covered in flowers.

We tend to pile up the cuttings from our wide variety of grasses before deciding where to place them. Below, a sparrow rummages through one of our piles looking for nesting material. As things progress each growing season, there’s more bounty to share with the wildlife that is slowly making our yard home. This has been one of the more rewarding aspects of watching things develop each growing season.

Even some of the smaller signs of progress let us know we’re on the right path. For instance, as our plantings continue to grow and develop, spreading ever closer to one another, more of the leaf litter from the previous fall manages to stay on site, rather than being lost to the surrounding yards as the wind tries to move it around. In addition, any excess gets added to our ‘cold’ compost bin where it’s mixed with our kitchen scraps.

An early sign that we were in a ‘leap year’ began with our crabapple blossoms. The profusion of blooms brought in an early cloud of busy pollinators:

crab apple in bloom

Although exceedingly ephemeral, these spring blossoms are a nice way to leave behind our cold, gray winters:

crab apple blooms close up

Almost without exception, our ‘living fence’ shrubs all took on significant growth this year. While many of them started out at waist height, or even shorter, most are now at least shoulder height at this point. They’ve also spread out, inching towards one another, beginning to form an almost continuous wall of vegetation.

Here’s a section of ‘living fence’ just outside our kitchen door:

living fence

Our privets began to have some blooms last year, but this year they were covered with intensely perfumed flowers for the first time:

privets in bloom

This explosion of flowers did not go unnoticed by the many pollinators in the area:

bee on privet flowers

This new growth was also beneficial to the many birds that come through our yard, offering new landing sites and even additional hiding spots when hawks would come through, diving bombing, looking for a quick meal:

As our plants continue to flourish, and we’ve added some additional bird feeders, our army of sparrows has grown. Unfortunately, they’ve not always been viewed as beneficial to the farmer or gardener:

After enjoying the bird seed, they help us manage destructive pest insects, in particular Japanese beetles, whose numbers have continued to dwindle in each successive growing season.

“I supplied nature with the tools, and then I relied on nature’s disposition toward fertility.”

— Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Another area where we’ve seen significant growth is around our downspout rain gardens. Now that the grasses, groundcovers, and flowers have had a couple of years to settle in, they have no trouble keeping up with even the heaviest of downpours. We’ve noticed that our sump pump doesn’t run as much, which is an additional benefit.

It’s still spring in the photo below, so many of the plants are enjoying their first burst of leafy green foliage:

permaculture yard in spring

Below, with an aerial view of the backyard, it’s clear that the structure of the yard is finally taking on some recognizable shape. For instance, the far right back corner is dense and lush with ‘tropical’ growth provided by the Miscanthus giganteus and the perennial sunflowers. The shrubs to the far left, south-facing edge of our yard have filled in dramatically, in particular the pair of arctic willows. Between these shrubs and the hügelkultur bed, our five goumis continue to develop. Off to the far right, in the middle, a mix of asparagus and fruit trees are spread out. We’ll be mixing in some flowers and fruiting shrubs in this area over the next couple of years.

edible landscape layout

Although there are clearly some empty spaces that remain to be filled, we’ve come a long way since our first two years.

“The archeological evidence seems clear on the question of the original environment. For most of two million years human beings lived on the savannas of Africa, and subsequently those of Europe and Asia, vast, parklike grasslands dotted by groves and scattered trees. …people work hard to create a savanna-like environment in such improbable sites as formal gardens, cemeteries, and suburban shopping malls, hungering for open spaces but not a barren landscape, some amount of order in the surrounding vegetation but less than geometric perfection.”

— Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Below is a second aerial view, this time of our front yard. While there are still many gaps present here, too, especially down the middle and along the driveway, it does feel like the various plant groupings are slowly coming together. It’s also no surprise that the area around the culvert, out at the street, looks the most lush and full, since this area is where we began planting nearly four years ago.

food forest layout

Here’s a closer view of the back end of the culvert, later in the summer:

culvert with plants

Here are two more views of the culvert from the same spot, one in the late afternoon, the other at dusk:

In contrast, the far southwest corner of our lot has been the slowest to develop. This area initially took on a lot of water in early spring. In addition to adding a deep layer of hardwood mulch, we’ve also selected plants such as iris and blueberries that don’t mind periods of inundation before things dry out over the course of the summer. It also helps that we’ve added plants to this area each year, so that the mulch and the roots of the plants can work together absorbing this additional moisture.

A closer view of this southwest corner, with ferns, irises, astilbes, some fruiting shrubs, and our compost bin:

compost bin

While the irises took off in their second year, the astilbes continue to lag far behind:

This ‘Caesar’s Brother’ variety offers a unique and intense purple that looks amazing in dappled shade:

Caesar's brother iris

In its first year, our false indigo produced only foliage, so it was nice to see some color this year:

false indigo blooms close up

“A garden which grows true to its own laws is not a wilderness, yet not entirely artificial either. Many gardens are formal and artificial. The flower beds are trimmed like tablecloths or painted designs. The lawns are clipped like perfect plastic fur. The paths are clean, like new polished asphalt. The furniture is new and clean, fresh from the department store.

These gardens have none of the quality which brings a garden to life — the quality of a wilderness, tamed, still wild, but cultivated enough to be in harmony with the buildings which surround it and the people who move in it.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

A view from the southwest corner of the house as things begin to take off:

Close up as some strawberries ripen under one of our sage plants:

strawberries ripening

Our fruit trees continue to expand and thicken up, as we continue to shape them using the technique outlined by Ann Ralph in her book Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

Also, all of our goumis have set a significant amount of fruit, which we happily share with the robins and blue jays (they took a bulk of the harvest this year, but we don’t mind sharing the bounty with our feathered friends). The goumis also thickened up quite a bit at their base since their first year. With this rate of growth, it’s easy to imagine that we may have to do some cutting back in a couple of years just to ensure they don’t overtake other plants around them. A nice problem to have as the vegetation in our yard fills up the remaining voids.

goumi at ground level

Some of the building blocks that we added this year included fruiting bushes, additional ornamental grasses, and some showy flowers:

We even enjoyed our first blackberries from the yard. Unlike store bought varieties, which tend to have a lemony aftertaste, these were pure sweetness:

blackberries ripening

One of many happy surprises this year was the burst of growth on the blackberries, seen below trying to envelop our compost bin:

blackberries growing on compost bin

We also found time to add some decorative elements, including this Zen frog that my daughter helped me decorate:

stone frog

We decided to place him in an empty gap between our bird feeders and our fruit and asparagus patch:

decorative frog

We were also lucky to come across some urbanite, a byproduct of some roadwork being done in our area. Going through the piles, we selected small and medium sized chunks (the pieces with exposed aggregate being the mostly highly prized).

piles of urbanite concrete

The chunks of concrete, when paired with plants and mulch, produce a visual effect somewhat redolent of ancient ruins. In terms of the visual interest, it’s a nice mix of hard and soft, organic and man-made. The concrete, moreover, also serves to prevent soil erosion in areas where the grading is uneven. For southern facing areas of our lot, these chunks of concrete can even contribute to the vegetation around it by acting as a heat sink, at least in theory, prolonging the growing season by offering some protection against early frosts.

urbanite next to plants

Along the north edge of our front yard, the urbanite chunks came in handy, as we mixed the pieces in amongst flowers and some shorter native grasses:

urbanite in the landscape

In terms of biophilic design, one of our favorite features is the large west-facing windows in our family room and main bedroom. Because the yard is always changing, and the view is so nicely framed, there’s always something new to see, no matter the season.

Here’s the view of the backyard standing at the family room window in summer:

backyard permaculture in summer

Because of the Suntuitive self-tinting glass on these windows, we can enjoy the view at any time, even on the hottest and sunniest summer days, thus eliminating the need for window treatments.

“This suggests that people want to be near windows for other reasons over and above the daylight. Our conjecture that it is the view which is critical is given more weight by the fact that people are less interested in sitting near windows which open onto light wells, which admit daylight, but present no view.”

—Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Another view of the backyard, this time approaching the family room window — our bit of lush jungle in the backyard, constantly evolving with dynamic changes in colors, textures, and various kinds of wildlife:

view of an edible landscape from a window

The hügelkultur bed is another area of the yard that saw substantial growth this year. With almost no bare areas left, it allows us to cut and shape the many varieties of plants that have finally started to weave themselves together:

In addition to various kinds of tomatoes, basils, and peppers each year, the perennial anchors include herbs like sage, lemon balm, and oregano, along with strawberries, kniphofia, salvias, and several echinaceas along an outside edge.

One of the many bowls of fresh fruit we enjoyed over the course of the summer:

bowl of homegrown berries

A view of the far northwest corner of the yard. The tall grass and perennial sunflowers serve as a backdrop for the catmint and bird feeders in front. While the Rudbeckia Maxima are thriving, several ornamental native grasses are struggling to keep up. In this case, it’s a variety that’s known for taking up to several years to reach its full development:

“Grow grasses, mosses, bushes, flowers, and trees in a way which comes close to the way that they occur in nature: intermingled, without barriers between them, without bare earth, without formal flower beds, and with all the boundaries and edges made in rough stone and brick and wood which become a part of the natural growth.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Below is a view from the southeast corner of the house, heading into the front yard. As the vegetation fills in and begins to reach maturity, knitting itself together, the wide open footpaths that we once used to haul mulch around the yard are slowly disappearing:

permaculture front yard

This year we were finally able to begin addressing the north side of the house. In previous years, apart from some plantings along the driveway, we were limited to just establishing the downspout rain gardens, which, initially, utilized mainly rocks.

Here on the north side we planted a variety of native grasses, along with spiderwort, lupines, phlox, blue-eyed grasses, and some hot lips.

Even in this first year, the plants were able to take on a decent amount of growth:

This photo below, taken on the northwest corner of the house, looking into the backyard, reveals just how much things have developed in these first few years. At this point, apart from the hügel bed, which is out view, and an evergreen (our future Christmas tree covered in solar LED lights), only the sheet mulching is complete:

After a few growing seasons, a fair amount of work, and some good weather, the backyard has been able to develop and settle in:

Along the north side of our driveway, the various native grasses and flowers all did well this year, and they’re finally spreading out and filling in together, especially any number of Gaillardias, which really took off this year.

One of our favorite plant combinations is native grasses (e.g., Palm Sedge and Beak Grass) with Kniphofia, further mixed with Gaillardia, Agastache ‘Ava’, Echinacea, and Hyssop officinalis.

gaillardia and hyssop

In effect, we’ve created an alleyway of pollen and nectar so insects and hummingbirds can flit and bounce their way up and down the side of the driveway, jumping from Gaillardia to Hyssop to Echinacea to hummingbird mint to Russian sage and catmint.

bee on gaillardia

Across the driveway, the green manure bed has been thickening up, flourishing this year with Daikon radish and annual flowers:

green manure patch

Still predominantly green manure plants, we hope to transition this area to flowers, fruiting vines and shrubs, and maybe even a couple more fruit trees in the coming years.

It looks like the worst of the soil compaction that occurred in this area during construction has been mostly alleviated, replaced with a thick layer of humus, ready for whatever we decide comes next.

Mushrooms

As our deep layer of sheet mulch continues to break down, we’re able to monitor, to some degree, the process each time we dig a hole for a new plant. The network of mycelium that is present is abundant, and frankly kind of magical to observe:

planting in sheet mulch

With so much life in the landscape, we had another good season of unique mushrooms popping up throughout the yard. My daughter and I enjoy hunting for them after it rains. Because we’ve already had such a wide variety of mushrooms show up, it’s always fun to go looking for something we’ve never seen before.

Below, this beauty came up in a grouping around our ferns in the dappled shade of the far southwest corner of our yard:

oversized mushroom

Over time, a variety of mushrooms have shown up around the large logs that were donated by a neighbor when they lost a tree to a storm:

In this southwest corner, there’s a decent amount of leaf litter produced from several trees along the edge of our yard. In amongst this leaf litter, these large, meaty mushrooms showed up late in the season:

meaty mushrooms

This smaller, dainty variety popped up throughout the yard:

Here’s another view of some mushrooms taking over one of the larger logs next to our blackberry and red currant plants:

mushrooms on log

“… an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature.”

— Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi

Taking our time while on the hunt for mushrooms can really pay off, as it did with this one, just barely emerging above the leaf litter:

mushroom in leaf litter

It’s difficult to pick a favorite variety, but it may be this one, based on its overall shape and structure. It’s also another one that would be easy to overlook:

close up of mushroom

“He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected… he was driven by a sense of wonder… No one had looked at plants like this before… He found connections everywhere… he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today… If everything was connected, then it was important to examine the differences and similarities without ever losing sight of the whole.”

— Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Blooms

In addition to all of the mushrooms, it was a season full of bold colors as our many flowers and shrubs continued to develop.

close up of bee on zinnia

As the empty spots fill up, we’re turning our attention to a variety of groundcovers that can help fill the gaps while complementing the other flowers, shrubs, and grasses around them. In addition to the sedum Angelina below, we’ve also incorporated other sedums, ajugas, Carex varieties, lamiums, and lamb’s ears. In terms of total coverage, the strawberries are, by far, the clear winner, happily spreading in between and around other plants (the mix of weed suppression and sweet snack is hard to beat).

Angelina sedum with urbanite

Below, a purple poppy mallow, showing off a first year bloom:

close up of purple poppy mallow bloom

A small vignette in the yard, combining the hardscaping of urbanite with its exposed aggregate, with the deep mulch, a tough native beauty in the purple poppy mallow, and the equally tough and prolific sedum Angelina:

We’ve incorporated a wide color palette in our choice of flowers, reminiscent of a cottage garden. Perhaps my favorite flower, certainly my favorite echinacea, is the Rocky Top variety:

close up of rocky top echinacea flower

In addition to bright, colorful flowers, we also added some more subtle touches, such as black Mondo grasses around our front walk:

close up of black mondo grass

While hardly a native grass, it does have a lot to offer in terms of color — its initial bright green transitioning to black — and texture. With its modest size, it plays well tucked in and around lavender, prairie dropseed, and Echinaceas. An excellent example of something small having an outsized impact.

Now that the hügelkultur bed is maturing, we’ve been adding grasses and flowers around the perimeter. One of our favorites, and one that’s taken a couple of years to get going, is sneezeweed:

close up of sneezeweed flower

Below, a late summer view of the hügel bed and backyard as a storm rolls in. Note the new perennials planted between the hügel bed and the house — what we hope proves to be a vibrant mix of color and texture with a combination of ornamental grasses and flowers. The hügel bed has never looked so lush and full of life, so it feels like it’s reaching something close to its full potential.

Our hard work, plus some time, was paying dividends around our front door area, too. These were some of the earliest plants we got in the ground back in 2017-18.

“…Schelling emphasized the vital force that connected nature and man, insisting that there was an organic bond between the Self and nature. Schelling suggested that the concept of an ‘organism’ should be the foundation of how to understand nature. Instead of regarding nature as a mechanical system it should be seen as a living organism. The difference was like that between a clock and an animal. Whereas a clock consisted of parts that could be dismantled and then assembled again, an animal couldn’t — nature was a unified whole, an organism in which the parts only worked in relation to each other. In a letter to Schelling, Humboldt wrote that he believed this was nothing less than a ‘revolution’ in the sciences, a turn away from the ‘dry compilation of facts’ and ‘crude empiricism’.”

— Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Insects and Wildlife

Besides the ‘shrooms and blooms, we’ve enjoyed a plethora of insect and wildlife sightings, which hopefully speaks to the overall health of our landscape.

Great Black Wasp

One of the more whimsical sites in the summer garden is watching chubby bumble bees fight their way in and out of individual ‘hot lips’ blooms:

bee on turtlehead flower

Toads enjoy hanging out by our downspout rain gardens, presumably because of the thick foliage and fairly consistent moisture:

With each growing season, we see more butterflies, hummingbird moths, and hummingbirds showing up. At this point, they’re starting to show up in groups, even sometimes methodically making their way around the house over and over with enough nectar on offer in every corner of our landscape to keep them occupied.

close up of black swallowtail butterfly
Black swallowtail butterfly resting on one of our apple trees.

Part of the fun in trying to draw in the pollinators is watching the lengths to which they will bury themselves in blooms in order to retrieve pollen and nectar:

bee inside hibiscus flower

A yellow garden spider, or ‘corn’ spider, was safely hidden in amongst the branches of some Hyssop until some blown sawdust from woodworking revealed his otherwise carefully concealed redoubt:

corn spider web

Our exterior lights are a beacon for clouds of insects, which draws in frogs, toads, any number of spiders, and even an occasional praying mantis, in this case below one of our garage lights, acting as nightwatchman:

praying mantis next to exterior light

With the help of all of our birds, our yard has been mostly pest free when it comes to destructive insects. These bug vacuums are also great fun to watch and listen to as they pass through each day.

Sometimes, as we come around the side of the house to enter the backyard, it’s not uncommon to see a couple hundred birds take off in a cloud of desperate motion. Once they realize it’s just us, they usually return within a matter of minutes. At first this was unsettling, especially for my daughter, but now it’s just part of the natural rhythm of working and playing in the backyard.

In addition, the birds make use of the house for resting spots, whether on the edge of the roof, our deep window sills, or even the railings around our basement window wells.

sparrows on metal railing

As the quantity of flowers has increased, we’ve also seen an uptick in the number of hummingbirds. This year we had 2-3 consistently stop by, even without a dedicated feeder for them. It was fun to watch them dive bomb each other, fighting over the many flowers in the yard.

plume moth close up
Plume moth hanging out around our front door.

One of the stranger phenomenon we witnessed in the yard was a small congregation of bees showing up on our Miscanthus giganteus in the front yard. They were showing up in groupings on individual blades of grass, as many as 15-20 on each blade. This happened almost everyday during the heart of the summer, usually late in the afternoon or early evening. It wasn’t clear what they were doing, perhaps mating or sharing food? Regardless, they were mostly quiet and unaggressive, even when we approached and got close to observe. Based on their size and coloring, they may have been mason bees (?).

bees on blade of grass

Peppermint, when it’s flowering, rivals even the Russian sage in terms of its ability to attract pollinators:

grapevine beetle in mulch
Grapevine beetle exploring the wood chips.

The yard is beginning to show signs of the ‘unity in diversity’ Alexander von Humboldt wrote about 200 years ago. From soil to sky, it’s the rich abundance of life celebrated by permaculture advocates even today.

Harvest, or: Produce a Yield

One of our biggest harvests of the year was the consistent fruiting of our many strawberry plants. Only during some drought in June and July did the flowering and fruiting slow down. There was some competition — as the robins, chipmunks, and squirrels took their share — but there was always plenty leftover for us.

bowl of freshly picked strawberries

It took a couple of years for them to get going, but the strawberry plants are finally stretching out, weaving their way through the yard as an effective groundcover, all while producing consistently sweet fruit:

The hügelkultur bed kept us busy as well. For most of the summer, and into fall, there was always something worth picking on a daily basis:

collecting veggies from hügelkultur bed

“In a healthy town every family can grow vegetables for itself. The time is past to think of this as a hobby for enthusiasts; it is a fundamental part of human life.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

This summer produced a bumper crop of dried lavender, which we were able to give away to friends, family, and some coworkers in small cotton satchels:

bumble bee on lavender bloom

Each year the Miscanthus giganteus and the Maximillian sunflowers thicken up. This was the first year we could literally disappear from view by walking into the center:

sunflowers next to ornamental grass

We’ve been very happy with the bamboo-like look and structure of this combination:

Maximilian sunflowers

And the sunflower blooms in fall never disappoint:

close up of Maximillian sunflowers

The pairing continues to make for a nice silhouette against a summer sky when working or wandering in the yard:

The addition of the catmint and bird feeders in the foreground has helped to fill out this corner of the yard:

Maximillian sunflowers in bloom

There has also been progress made in terms of the views in winter. In fact, there is now some lingering structure to help get us through the coldest months. Our west-facing windows are a great vantage point from which to bird watch, or catch a glimpse of the hawks as they take their shots around the bird feeders, almost on a daily basis.

permaculture landscape in winter

How far we’ve come…

Some of our goals heading into our fifth growing season will include adding some physical structure (likely to include some seating in the garden), more flowers (of course), and we may even, for the first time, be able to divide and spread around some of the plants that will be 4-5 years old.

As important as it is to set goals, it’s equally worthwhile to take stock of just how far we’ve come. With the chaos of construction, followed pretty quickly by the COVID crisis, it’s been easy to lose any real sense of time, let alone progress. It’s important to look back occasionally to remind ourselves of just how dramatic some of the change and development has been:

Here are another series of photos showing how things have transpired, this time concentrating on the front yard. For instance, the initial sheet mulching layers going down:

Adding plants and an additional layer of mulch during the early days of the COVID crisis:

As the space between plants continues to dwindle, and as things mature and spread out, the fecundity may approach the level of wildness (albeit with the occasional gentle nudge from us) that Eric Toensmeier observed in an abandoned lot behind a strip mall that nature had been busy reclaiming for her own:

food forest in front yard

“This feral ecosystem behind Kmart featured over ten acres of dense clumps of thicket-forming shrubs interspersed with open wildflower meadows. Here and there some teenaged oak and black locust emerged. Songbirds and sparrows were everywhere, and once you walked in a few feet, it was easy to forget you were close to roads, shopping centers, and housing projects. Bumblebees and other pollinators buzzed around a myriad of flowers, from thistles to black-eyed Susans.”

— Eric Toensmeier, Paradise Lot

During what amounts to just 2-3 full growing seasons, it’s amazing how much the yard has filled in. With some luck, the house may be slowly transitioning from something that was once imposed on the site — creating some upheaval in the immediate ecosystem — to something that looks like it was an always existing natural habitat with a home somehow dug in and nestled into its center. If the details are attended to, and with enough time elapsed, this illusion may become real.

“It is as if the plants were a gift from the people inside to people on the street.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language
close up of bumble bee on lavender

Permaculture: 3rd Year

2

More Mulch

In October, 2019, we began to add more mulch to our backyard. The following spring, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, and schools and businesses went remote, we decided to move ahead and complete this additional layer of mulch.

As things turned out, it was an excellent way to get outdoors and get some exercise when most activities were off-limits due to the shut down.

Adding wood chips to the hügelkultur bed the previous October:

adding mulch to hügelkultur raised bed

With weeks of online working and learning ahead of us, escaping into the yard at various times of the day proved to be a welcome source of respite, one that we were extremely thankful for. With so much uncertainty in the moment, the yard was a nice escape where there was always something new to see and learn, and genuine excitement around watching plants show new growth and development. Just quietly observing while walking through parts of the yard was an opportunity to register what’s different, what’s working, or noting details that may require a slight revision or even a radical change.

In terms of goals for the yard, after the new wood chip mulch layer was added the plan was to incorporate more ‘base’ plants such as ornamental grasses, additional fruit options (tree, shrub, and vine), along with more flowers beyond what we planted last year.

As noted in an earlier blog post, our experience getting wood chips (recently mulched trees and shrubs) from a local tree service has been hit-or-miss. After getting a couple of loads this way, the remainder was ordered from a local mulch supplier who offered wood chips supplied from various tree service companies. Even though the texture and particle size does vary quite a bit by the individual load (even within a single load), overall, we’ve been very happy with the quality of the material.

We were typically receiving about 10-15 yards with each delivery. Essentially the limit of what our driveway and staging area in the front yard could easily handle at one time.

This early in the growing season the front yard was looking pretty grim, as most perennials had yet to reemerge from the cold:

large pile of mulch in driveway

Some sections of the wood chip pile were close to the size and texture of particles normally found in a typical double ground hardwood mulch. In many other parts there was significant variation in the size and look of the chips, varying from thoroughly chopped to chunky, including smaller branches that were mostly still intact. Even so, as noted in the earlier post, after a couple of months the pieces fade to a mostly uniform color while the individual pieces themselves slowly weave themselves together like they would in a more typical mulch. Having now gone through the process, the significant price savings associated with wood chip mulch makes this interim period well worth enduring.

Although there are any number of benefits associated with a thick mulch layer, one unanticipated benefit is how spongy and comfortable it is to walk on. I was looking forward to putting down some flagstone as part of a path, at least on the south side of the house, but once we realized how nice the mulch is to walk on, we’ve since dispensed with the idea. A big advantage the mulch has over any hardscape material is that, regardless of age, should someone take a fall, or even go down hard on a knee, the sponginess of the mulch is forgiving. It does harden up during the winter, but still nothing like asphalt or stone.

In addition, the mostly larger overall particle size of the wood chips means it will take longer to break down than a shredded aged hardwood mulch. In the photo below, the mixed, slightly random look of the material is evident:

Included in the mix of materials are larger chunks of wood (similar to chopped up 2×4’s), shrub foliage, smaller limbs, or even complete sections of conifer or willow branches, along with a range of stick sizes. Even so, by the end of the summer it looked pretty much like typical mulch, including the graying out in color that normally occurs from sun exposure.

Out of curiosity, before putting down the new layer of wood chips, I pulled back the existing mulch in a few areas to examine the clay below. I did this in a variety of spots in the yard. In addition to obvious signs of life in the mulch layer — earthworms, spiders, and various insects — it was interesting to observe that in some areas the sheet mulching cardboard had completely disintegrated, while in other areas, where the clay was pretty solid, the cardboard had remained mostly intact.

“No scientist before Darwin had taken such an interest in the creatures living underfoot. Earthworms were still largely considered a garden pest that damaged plant roots and spoiled clean green lawns with their castings… Worms were simply overlooked, ignored, misunderstood — and their impact, their importance to the soil and to the ecosystem as a whole — was far greater than anyone could have guessed.”

— Amy Stewart, The Earth Moved

If this base layer of clay had even a small amount of black soil in it, the cardboard was mostly gone. In contrast, those areas where the clay seemed monolithic the cardboard didn’t appear degraded much at all.

Backyard still looking mostly like a mulched moonscape at this point:

sheet mulching next to hügelkultur raised bed

Even though our initial mulch layer was only about a year old, it was interesting to see the varying rates of decay. In most areas, even if it was a little thin, the original mulch material was mostly intact. In parts of the yard that retain more moisture, however, the process had accelerated, in some cases to the point where the material resembled aged compost more than it did the original, rough-textured mulch.

Below, around our side stoop off the kitchen, I pulled back the mulch at the edges to ensure as thick a layer of new wood chips as possible:

Getting the wood chips to the backyard required a lot of trips with the wheelbarrow, so we were excited to finally reach the south side of the house. From this point, we were able to get the wood chips in place at a much quicker pace. Thankfully the wood chips (or any wood-based mulch in general) is relatively light and easy to move around, especially when compared to top soil or gravel.

Probably the one area, besides uniform color and particle size, where hardwood mulch outshines the wood chips is at the edges of our property that meet with our neighbors’ lawn grass. Where the hardwood mulch can be compacted to form more tightly held together mounds (when necessary), the wood chips remain looser, tending not to hold their shape quite as well.

New layer of mulch on the south side once complete:

sheet mulching side yard

Here, below, we’re reaching the edge of the front yard. This gives the best sense of how deep we were going with this new layer of material. And, again, a variation in particle size is clearly present:

Below, in this photo of our front yard, various permaculture elements are in place even though there are still plenty of voids in which to explore options. For instance, off to the left, there are various strawberry plants (mostly second year), small blueberry bushes, an apple tree, a few lavender, and then the many perennials in the culvert just out of view. In the middle is another young apple tree, Miscanthus giganteus just starting to emerge, more blueberries, and then the staging/green manure area. To the right, mostly out of view, a third apple tree, Russian comfrey, more blueberries, and more lavender. Along the back, our still undersized assortment of shrubs that one day will be our ‘living fence’. Many of the basics are in place, it’s just early days in terms of their eventual development:

wheel barrow next to mulch pile

For many of the outdoor projects we’ve been able to get our daughter involved. In spite of the perceived monotony, moving wood chips around was a good mental break from countless hours of online learning indoors. Loading up the wheelbarrows is mostly enjoyable, messy fun:

The Beast on her throne of wood chips:

mulch and wheel barrow in driveway

As we began to enter the front yard, rocks had been strategically placed to either mark a pathway, reduce erosion, act as a mini heat sink to extend the growing season of nearby plants, or else just act as a guide for the garden hose as we move it through the yard trying to avoid damage to any of the plants.

Below, off to the left, there are a series of small, second year blueberry plants, more Russian comfrey, and then the series of shrubs along the south edge of our property.

In the lower right, a mix of apple tree and more Russian comfrey in the foreground, with the series of perennials around the front entry behind.

The beginnings of a well-worn trail in the mulch from all the trips with the wheelbarrow will be covered by the new layer of wood chips. As plantings mature, this ‘path’ will continue to disappear:

At first glance, not much is going on in the photo below. Nevertheless, some building blocks are in place. In the background, for instance, is a second year Illex Winterberry shrub, while the red-white-blue roundel is a stump from a former peach tree. The peach tree had clearly been struggling for some time, so I tried to coppice it our first spring, hoping to generate new and healthy growth, but I may have removed too much of the tree at one go, so it unfortunately never recovered.

Around the stump are newer strawberries, a deep layer of wood chips, along with a mushroom in the foreground. To the left and right, just out of the shot, are some of the shrubs for our eventual ‘living fence’:

Below, our front yard once the new layer of wood chips has been completed. At this point, the plants are just emerging from their long winter slumber.

Some of the young plants in the foreground: daylilies, lavender, peppermint, shasta daisies, sedum, aster, lamb’s ears, and bee balm.

young permaculture front yard

Progress and New Plantings

As always, when we go to plant something new we first dig down to the soil under the mulch (in most areas of our yard this is some version of clay). After adding soil (usually a top soil/mushroom compost mix), we place the new plant into position before pushing the mulch back and watering it in.

Below, we’re getting ready to plant a series of flowers around one of our downspout rain gardens. With the palm sedge already in place and doing well, we added yarrow, Russian sage, stachys hummelo, and echinacea for their variation in size, texture, and color:

planting after sheet mulching

With soil in the hole, a new plant is ready to go in:

Ferns in the shady far south-west corner of our yard; one of the first perennials to emerge in spring:

fern fiddle heads emerging from leaf litter

More signs of spring:

crab apple in bloom

First time we’ve seen flowers on our privets:

young privets in flower

The privets are gaining some bushiness, but not a lot of height or width yet.

The flowers in the front yard are producing some significant color for the first time. Instead of our yard being just mulch and green foliage, the bright and varied colors of the blooms are bringing in the pollinators and the beneficial insects.

Sump discharge side of our culvert with some color this spring:

This is the first year that the irises have bloomed. Their light blue flowers complement the riot of pink displayed by the Lychnis ‘Petite Jenny‘. Even though the irises haven’t been strong bloomers so far, they are happily spreading out in the flowerbed. Hopefully this is a good sign for next year’s blooms.

Lychnis petite Jenny with iris

In addition to the new red scabiosa (pincushion flower), around the mailbox we’ve planted catmint, Tennessee ‘Rocky Top‘ Echinacea, and Blue Lyme grass (‘Blue Dune‘). In between the scabiosa and the flowerbed around the mailbox is a second year Russian sage.

The ‘Rocky Top’ is my favorite variety of Echinacea. When it’s happy, it produces an abundance of beautiful pink flowers, which also work well as dried flowers.

The Blue Lyme Grass is aggressive, spreading by rhizomes, so it can fill up a space quickly. We chose it for this small area to add texture and color. The stiff, upright habit, with sharp-edged leaves and wheat-like flower stalks contrasts nicely with the softer mounding habit of the catmint and the color and texture of the Rocky Top. Using the Blue Lyme Grass does require some discipline in order to prevent it from completely running through and taking over a flower bed or a nearby yard. Every couple of weeks I go looking through the bed for new stalks trying to pop up. Once found, they’re easily removed by pulling them up back to the main plant where they’re then cut. Apart from slightly disturbing the mulch, their color and texture is well worth this added bit of work to control them.

Lychnis petite Jenny in culvert

Even so, I would likely not plant them in a wide open growing area. Here, around the mailbox, their ability to spread is somewhat curtailed by the nearby road, driveway, and stone covered culvert. Used in this contained manner, they can be much easier to deal with. Growing in a hot, dry area with clay soil, as they are here, is also said to help better control their spread.

Last year we planted several small Rose of Sharon Hibiscus ‘Purple Pillar’ shrubs. They started out tiny, in 5″ pots, so their growth has been minimal to date. Even so, we did get to see some blooms this year, which better helps us understand their potential to deliver some stunning color for our garden in future summers.

close up of hibiscus flower bud

Out at the street, around the south end of our culvert, we’ve planted a series of plants that can deal with periods of hot, dry weather, while also enduring weeks covered by snow and road salt from plows in winter. In addition to the shrub base layer — Little Devil ninebark, three Fire Chief arborvitae — there are daylilies, shasta daisies, sedum, echinacea, Russian sage, asters, monarda ‘bee balm’, lavender, peppermint, and native grasses. An addition from last year, Kniphofia ‘Red Hot Poker’, is settling in and producing some vivid flower stalks. We have these on both sides of the driveway and mixed in along the southern edge of our property with the series of shrubs we’re setting up to be our living fence. Some of these shrubs are in the background. Most of them have taken on some bushiness this year, although their height remains undersized:

new culvert with rocks and plants

As with the Blue Lyme Grass, the peppermint will take over a flower bed if not kept in check. Every few weeks my daughter helps me go through and pull out the extensive runners that spread out from the main plant. Since the runners are near the surface this makes quick work of pulling them up. It’s the most enjoyable kind of weeding — easy to pull while delivering the fresh scent of real peppermint.

Last summer our street was resurfaced and, because of some poor execution of the details, we ended up with excessive water in this area that led to a stagnant pool of water at the bottom of our culvert (this quickly became a haven for mosquitoes). In the short term we addressed the problem by adding significantly more rocks and gravel to the area. Ultimately, it was only when the city came back to properly address the situation that the stagnant water problem was resolved. We’ve kept the rock in place since it adds a nice decorative dry river bed effect to this side of the culvert:

culvert filled with small boulders

In our current garden, as well as our last one, we incorporate any number of native plant species, but we don’t worry too much about using non-native varieties, especially if they can offer a unique flavor, scent, texture, or flower color, so long as they don’t threaten to take over an entire area. The Kniphofia would be one example in this regard. Although native to South Africa, they do quite well in our climate zone 5, Chicago suburban site next to the driveway. Even when not in bloom, the foliage is a nice alternative (even though similar) to grasses or daylilies. Here are two in their first season:

Kniphofia flowers next to driveway

Kniphofia flower in bloom, opening from the bottom up:

close up of Kniphofia flower

For the north side of our driveway we started with a series of native grasses (e.g., palm sedge, Long Beaked carex, pennisetum) and flowers (e.g., Rocky Top echinacea, agastache ‘Ava’, hyssopus officinalis, gaillardia, and Purple Poppy mallow), before adding sedum Angelina and more Kniphofia.

Along with the plants directly around our culvert out at the street, this side of the driveway has gotten very little supplemental water, even under drought conditions, yet it thankfully continues to thrive:

Russian sage next to driveway

As the Russian sage reaches its full size, it’s covered in pollinators when in bloom. The sound of their work is clearly audible, making it enjoyable to just stand nearby and listen to the hum.

This is the first year that our green manure bed has finally taken off. With a base of hairy vetch, field peas and oats, we also added sunflowers, zinnias, dahlias, and a variety of other wildflower seeds. To see such thick, healthy looking vegetation in this once mostly bare site makes me believe we could eventually convert this spot to more fruit tree guilds, or just a wide variety of small shrubs and flowers:

Sunflowers are easy to grow, and they’re a joy to have around for cut flowers as well as yet another haven for pollinators and beneficial insects. In addition, their substantial stalks and leaves make useful biomass for mulching:

close up of yellow sunflower

Zinnias in amongst the hairy vetch:

zinnias mixed with hairy vetch

Blue cornflower fights its way up through the mat of green manure plants:

close up of bachelor button flower

Dahlias are mostly a guilty pleasure. Unmatched as a cut flower, they do require more attention than anything else we grow. For the most part, this means consistent watering, so we plant them fairly close to the garden hose to make this chore easier. Although ‘chore’ may be a misnomer, since watering the dahlias allows me to observe the health and progress of the dahlias, while also keeping an eye on nearby plants as well:

grasshopper on dahlia

Below, a view of our front entry in summer. Near the front door everything is growing and filling in nicely. Closer to the driveway, the perennial grasses (prairie dropseed and pennisetum), and the butterfly bush are struggling a bit; again, we believe because this area saw a lot of abuse and compaction during construction. Even the Miscanthus giganteus in the front yard are trailing behind the development of those in the backyard (i.e., fewer stalks and less height). In the background, the shrubs near the property line are beginning to show signs of filling in:

Thankfully, we haven’t experienced a lot of pests in the yard, either in the form of insects, small rodents, or harmful fungus. To date, we’ve only really had Japanese beetles (mostly on our ‘living fence’ shrubs), some aphids, and a few leafhoppers in late spring to early summer. We think this is due to the combination of no chemical treatments (even when we do see pests present), and a wide variety of plants that help maintain a natural balance between pests and their predators.

“The trick to maintaining populations of these natural pest-control agents is to provide food for them. Even predators and parasitoids have to eat…. all feed on pollen or nectar… In other words, a weed-free, wall-to-wall monoculture cannot support them… A diversity of plants supports a diversity of ‘beneficial’ insects… When plants are attacked by herbivorous insects, the leaves release volatile compounds into the air, which waft out from their tissues like distress signals. Predatory and parasitic insects can pick up these chemical messages (or smells) and interpret them, perhaps even to the extent of identifying the species of plant-eating insect that is present. If the predator or parasitoid catches the scent of an edible insect or a prospective host, it will home in on the signal and attack, thereby protecting the plant from extensive damage.”

— Candace Savage, Prairie: A Natural History

Below, another view of the culvert, this time looking north. The yard is beginning to take on some of the characteristics of a cottage garden, even a native habitat sanctuary or prairie. We’re looking forward to seeing it mature over the next several years:

permaculture front yard

Some new additions in this area included more native grasses, for instance, ‘Blackhawks‘ big bluestem and ‘Shenandoah‘ switch grass, along with flowers, including bee balm and several more agastache ‘Ava’ (another long-blooming flower favorite for us):

First flowers on the hibiscus:

close up Korean hibiscus flower

View from our front door just after a rainstorm. The rain and heavy cloud cover help bring out the many shades of green in the neighborhood vegetation:

front yard permaculture

Below, our front entry with lavender in bloom and the surrounding grasses at their full height. We’ve always enjoyed the happy look of shasta daisies mixed in amongst grasses and more vividly festooned flowers:

lavender at front entry

View from our front walkway looking up at an ornamental grass and a gaura as it leans over the concrete. The gaura, much like the agastache, looks fragile but is a surprisingly durable perennial — another favorite from our last house that we’ve carried over into our current garden design:

ornamental grass with sky in the background

A hawk sits atop a nearby lightpost, overlooking our front yard. As the yard continues to come alive, we get more and more visitors like this:

Beyond biological diversity, a secondary benefit to a wide range of plants in the garden is more colorful bouquets for our kitchen island:

One of the more common insect predators in our yard is the crab spider. Here, he’s managed to catch a ride into the house on a basil leaf. They especially enjoy hanging out on our shasta daisy blooms, hiding on the white petals in wait for a pollinating insect:

close up of crab spider on basil leaf

Later in the summer, with an even wider variety of flowers in our endless bouquet:

bouquets on kitchen island

From the right perspective, the front yard is looking much fuller than it actually is. Hopefully a preview of future summers when the yard grows thick with an abundance of vegetation:

black siding

Below, from the corner of the garage looking east, the strip between the driveway and our neighbor’s lawn is beginning to noticeably fill in. We’ve only just started planting around the downspout, in this case with palm sedge and some lamium as a future groundcover. The overhang of the garage has proven to be a hard drip line, meaning nothing grows directly below it since this area sees such little rain. In the future we’ll keep plants on the outside face of the hump that drops down to our neighbor’s lawn. Directly under the overhang we’ll maintain a mulched walkway, perhaps even adding some decorative flagstone.

One of the many benefits of having so many ornamental grasses in the garden is the cuttings from spring cutback, which can be used for self-mulching in the immediate area or taken elsewhere (in most cases, to the hügel bed) for some free mulch.

As the yard fills up, we’re hoping in the future to only need additional mulch or wood chips for edge and border areas around the perimeter of the house and out at our property lines.

Looking west from the second garage downspout, we’ve put down quite a bit of stone, in addition to more grasses and lamium. The remainder of the north side will have to wait until next year.

In the background, you can see three smoke trees that we planted earlier this year. Although small at the moment, we look forward to when these will be part of a second section of ‘living fence’; in this case, helping to close in our north side.

downspout rain garden

Spring from the south-west corner of our house. It’s still early in the season, so the perennials are just getting started. This view also shows the dappled afternoon shade enjoyed by the backyard plantings, especially in the heat of June and July:

hügelkultur raised bed second year

The view from the same corner, this time looking back to the east, towards our series of ‘living fence’ shrubs:

living fence shrubs

Same spot, later in the season, after the perennials have had a chance to fully leaf out and, in some cases, experience new growth. We planted five goumis to the left of the hügel bed, in an offset pattern of male and female plants. Off to the far right, in the distance, two of the three young smoke trees are visible:

Same view again, this time in the heat of summer. The perennials and annual veggies around the hügel have had a chance to take hold and spread, and our ‘living fence’ of Miscanthus giganteus and Maximilian sunflower in the far back corner is filling in nicely. In addition, we’re seeing the strawberries spread out this year, although there still hasn’t been many flowers or fruit. Shade is just beginning to fill the backyard at this point in the day. And the downspout rain garden finally has some vegetation to better absorb excess water:

edible landscape

A view from the far west back of our garden, looking towards the house. This was late spring, so things were just getting started. Note the small teepee structure off to the left, made from cuttings from the Miscanthus giganteus, which closely resemble thin sections of bamboo, excellent for staking or more decorative projects like this.

This is another example of the late afternoon – early evening, dappled shade in the backyard. Once it’s a little lower, the sun will reenter the backyard for one final blast of light before fading into sunset:

We enjoyed our first significant harvest from the hügel bed this summer. In addition to tomatoes and peppers, we also tried ground cherries and a new variety of basil. Because of all of our basil, chicken pesto has become a summer favorite for lunch or dinner.

Our daughter has taken to harvesting whatever she can find around the hügel. It’s been fun to watch her evaluate the ripeness of tomatoes and peppers as she makes her way around the hügel bed. Here, she’s waiting for some bees to move on before picking a tomato. We keep preaching all the benefits bees afford us, but she’s not entirely convinced it’s enough to offset the risk of being stung:

second year hügelkultur raised bed

Since we’ve tried to involve her in all stages of the yard’s development, I’m hoping it leads to a lifetime interest in plants and nature more generally. For me, gardening came into my life in a roundabout way. Hopefully she can take an interest more immediately than I did since her exposure has been more direct and wide ranging. Whether that means a small collection of garden herbs in her kitchen, a more elaborate fruit and vegetable garden, or just an assemblage of house plants that she dotes on — we’d love to see her engage in the caring of plant life in some form.

“…If children have the chance to grow up around nature, then they will be able to learn from it. It is incredible how much there is to discover. Intensive observation will inspire them with ideas that they will want to implement straightaway. Learning begins and success will follow. Children do not give up easily, they are curious and they have special access to nature. Their urge to discover motivates them to try again and again if they do not succeed the first time — that is the most important thing: to never give up and to learn from your mistakes.”

—Sepp Holzer, Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening

In terms of perennial food sources, this year we’ve had the chance to add more blueberries, red currants, raspberries, and our first blackberry bush:

Our first blackberry flowers:

blackberry flowers

We also set up a handful of asparagus crowns. We didn’t get much growth out of them this first year, but we’re hoping we can grill a few in a couple of years:

first year asparagus

Some of the new flowers added this year included: ‘Moonshine‘ yarrow, meadow sage, some salvia, and several kinds of gaillardias (another flower we’ve continued to enjoy from our last house).

In terms of shrubs, in addition to the goumis, we also added three types of willow to the backyard: one with variegated leaves, another with herbal-looking leaves, and traditional willow at the back of our lot to add to the ‘living fence’ look we’re beginning to establish with our tall grasses and perennial sunflowers:

We had another good year for lavender, which we dried and gave away in small cotton satchels to family and friends.

There was also sage to be collected, which we used all winter, especially in homemade chicken soup:

sage hanging to dry in pantry

Another view of the backyard in late summer: the back of the yard and the south end, to the left, is filling in nicely, while the hügel thrives and the goumis (down the center) take on some first year growth:

More Structure, Function, and Accents

Along the way, we’ve been adding decorative accents (sometimes they’re functional too, for example, preventing erosion or retaining heat), such as rocks, boulders, bricks, pieces of metal — a variety of detritus picked up from the Chicago lakefront, cast-offs from arts and crafts projects, and otherwise ‘found’ items we’ve come across in the last couple of years:

In addition to the cuttings from our Miscanthus giganteus, propped up in teepee form, these collections of items should, over time, offer areas of shelter for smaller forms of wildlife that wish to take up residence in our garden.

This year we also noticed the birds starting to use the various shrubs as landing sites, or even shelter when a hawk dive bombs the yard looking for prey around our bird feeders.

Another project was creating a structure to contain our compost pile. Utilizing leftover pieces of cedar and shou sugi ban, my daughter helped me put it together and position it in the backyard:

diy compost bin

With a little bit of added structure, it took on the look of a wishing well while also creating more space for additional bird feeders:

compost bin with bird feeders

A view from our bedroom window as the summer progressed. While some areas are lush with growth, many others are just settling into their sparse, first year acclimation period:

backyard permaculture

Mushrooms

We had an exciting year in terms of mushroom varieties. In addition to the wide selection, they popped up in nearly every corner of our yard, regardless of sun exposure or moisture levels.

As the mulch and wood chips continue to break down, the network of mycelium should be branching itself out across our entire garden, upping our overall soil fertility while increasing the ability of our plants to fend off pests and disease.

Mushrooms popping up around our veggies on the hügel:

mushrooms on hügelkultur bed

They continue their slow work, breaking down the large logs from our neighbor’s fallen tree:

close up of mushroom on log next to creeping charlie

In some instances, they blend in so well with the mulch that they are easy to miss if you’re not actively looking for them:

Right after a good rain is the ideal time to go looking for new upstarts:

Below, the stinkhorns that showed up around one of our downspout rain gardens made themselves known with a strong visual, as well as olfactory, presence:

stinkhorn mushrooms in rain garden

The sheer number of varieties that we’ve seen pop up in the yard, just in our first two years, has been exciting to watch:

It will be interesting to see if the fruiting continues, or tapers off, as our existing mulch layers breakdown over time.

“Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes… to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.”

— Leonard Koren, Wabi-sabi

This one, below, was particularly easy to miss, as it hugs the ground with a fibrous-looking body reminiscent of a cracked open peach pit:

close up of mushroom on mulch

Wildlife

As our garden develops, we’ve been able to observe an increasing number of creatures paying a visit, both in quantity and kind:

Rabbit hutch spider stops by while we’re painting in the garage:

close up of rabbit hutch spider on concrete

Our last house was near large ponds, so every spring and summer our backyard and basement window wells saw dozens of frogs and toads. In our current home, there have only been a handful of visitors who have managed to fall into our stone basement window wells.

Below, a large bullfrog has managed to fall in. We gently collected him and placed him at the base of one of our arctic blue willow shrubs, allowing him to hide out at the base of the dense foliage:

close up of bullfrog in window well

In addition to earthworms around the base of plants and above ground after heavy rains, spiders are the most common creatures we see in the yard — on plants, on the mulch, and in the leaf litter:

Funnel web spider:

funnel web spider in leaf litter

A few weeks after painting and helping me place a series of decorative logs in our backyard, my daughter realized there was an active carpenter ant nest underneath one of them:

Once discovered, she returned each day to monitor the nest’s progress by gently rolling up the log to expose the constant activity below:

close up of carpenter ant nest under log

Below, a toad explores our tomato patch on the hügel:

Initially registering as a random flying insect inside the garage, the following day this large stag beetle showed up on the garage floor, expired:

We’ve seen any number of beneficial insects in our garden, including many lacewings. Their stick-like eggs show up occasionally on our black siding to vivid effect:

close up of lacewing on window

A Fowler’s toad on the move around our lemon balm and vegetables:

close up of Fowler's toad in mulch

We’ve had any number of paper wasp nests around the house. Each one has been relatively small and out of the way, so we’ve been able to leave them alone as they go about their business in the garden:

Paper wasp on our basement window:

close up paper wasp on window glass

There’s been no shortage of spider varieties around the house. With all the Passive House air sealing we did for the shell of our house, few insects have managed to gain entry into our home. Typically, only a handful of small spiders each year manage to get through the gaskets on our basement windows.

close up translucent spider

Frogs and toads showed up throughout the summer to enjoy easy pickings around our exterior lights:

toad on boulder

Spiders, too, took advantage of all the insects congregating at our exterior lights. The spider webs on black siding proved to be ideal, if unplanned for, Halloween decorations:

spider web on black siding

Below, just before I took this picture there were three other sparrows on the window screen (unfortunately, before I could get to my camera). We’ve seen sparrows more than once take advantage of the shelter provided by our ‘innie’ window placement during rainstorms. Even in the heaviest wind-driven rainstorms, the top third of our window glass remains dry, offering added protection to this portion of the windows from water intrusion:

sparrow on window screen

Even a Praying mantis has enjoyed the view from our window screen:

praying mantis on window screen

Orb spider with beautiful markings on our siding:

close up orb spider markings

We almost stepped on this silver-gray metallic toad as it hid in the mulch and leaf litter under our cherry tree next to some Russian comfrey. It was quite the year for frog and toad sightings in our garden. As our vegetation spreads out, growing together, knitting itself into an undulating blanket of foliage and flowers, it should make it easier for more visitors to explore and find refuge in our yard. Eventually we hope to see even some snakes and salamanders:

toad in mulch

Wandering through our Maximilian sunflowers and Miscanthus giganteus, we came across a large Praying mantis (nearly a foot in length), hanging out on the towering blades of grass:

praying mantis in Miscanthus giganteus

Fall Color

Heading into our second fall, we were excited to see how the Maximilian sunflowers would perform. Both the Miscanthus giganteus and sunflowers were reaching something close to their mature height in their second year. Much taller and fuller than what they achieved in their first full year.

Most of the ornamental grasses have reached their full development, but almost everything else in the yard was at least a year or two away from full maturity.

backyard permaculture

During spring and summer, my daughter enjoys monitoring the progress of the fast growing Miscanthus giganteus and the sunflowers.

Apart from the privacy screening they provide from mid-summer through most of the winter, both plants will produce a substantial amount of biomass for self-mulching around the base of these plants, or for elsewhere in the yard:

child standing next to Miscanthus giganteus

As they gained height over the course of the summer, both the grass and the sunflowers took on the lush tropical look of bamboo, making for a nice visual complement in terms of their distinct growth habit and texture:

Sante Fe Maximilian sunflower hedge

It’s only in late summer that the sunflowers really begin to stretch out in preparation for their massive show of blooms.

Standing at the back corner of our yard, they begin to block out the view to our house:

By late summer, they’ve woven themselves together into a sea of green, making for a thick privacy screen.

The Tiger’s Eye Sumac in front of the grasses and sunflowers always start strong in the spring but struggles, even dying back some, under the heat of summer. We hope it’s nothing serious, and only just a symptom of getting acclimated to site conditions. Next summer we may try some supplemental watering during periods of hot drought. If we can get them to their full height, their chartreuse color combined with the blue of the catmint in front of them should make for a nice combination with the grasses and sunflowers:

standing in front of Maximilian sunflowers

Once they’ve stretched out, the Maximilian flower buds create a strong silhouette with blue sky behind them:

In the photo below, late summer at this point, the grass-sunflower combination has realized its full potential, with the jungle-like appearance a stand of bamboo can produce. At this point, the combination has entirely occluded the view of the house:

As the flower blooms develop, they take on a spidery look:

Maximilian sunflower bud

It’s a touch bittersweet to see the blooms coming on. A sure sign that fall is in full swing and winter is close at hand:

close up maximilian sunflower

The Maximilian blooms also make excellent cut flowers for full, overflowing bouquets. Opening from top to bottom, it’s easy to slowly trim them down the stem as buds fade and the ones lower down start to open up:

Maxmilian sunflower bouquet

As good as they look indoors, the real show remains outside when they reach their peak:

Sante Fe Maximillian sunflower

In the photo below, the yellow fireworks are just beginning their show:

Currently, the only other plant in our garden that can compete with this burst of color in the fall is a small, undersized maple shrub (Bailey Compact Amur Maple), located in our front yard. In contrast to the Miscanthus and Maximilian, the maple shrub has struggled during its first two years. This was the first season it spread out a little, and the first year it was able to produce bold fall colors. A good sign that it, along with many other plants in the yard, may take a big leap in growth and production next year.

In addition to the compost bin that we installed in the backyard, we also added a few bird feeders using some gas pipe for the structure. Inviting the birds into our yard was one of our main goals in terms of Permaculture design.

“It is a general rule that, when the bird fauna stays intact, so does the rest of the fauna and flora.”

— Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Although our ‘living fence’ series of shrubs on the south end of our property line are not substantial enough yet for nesting sites, this is the first year where the birds have taken any interest in them, using them for temporary landing sites before taking their turn at the feeders. They also appear to be looking for insects on the shrubs, which is another hopeful sign.

Driveway Stencils

The bulk of the heavy work in the yard was finished before summer even began. With most of these garden ‘chores’ completed, we turned our attention to any number of arts and crafts projects (e.g., furniture pieces and artwork for the interior walls) and sealing our driveway. After its first couple of years, the surface of the driveway was already noticeably faded, so it clearly would benefit from a fresh coat of sealer:

Instead of just sealing the surface, we decided to add some color to the driveway with stencils and paint.

The first design hurdle was settling on an attractive pattern. Since so much of our house utilizes asymmetry and curves (this is especially true in the yard), we decided to maintain this more natural theme by utilizing a curvy line out by the mailbox to our front sidewalk:

The next question was what color(s) should we use. We wanted a mix of colors, so we thought a good option would be to use parking lot paint, which typically uses white, yellow, and blue. Also a nice metaphor for the occupants of the home — one unique stencil per person.

With the driveway sealed, we proceeded with the first few stencils, starting out by the mailbox:

painting stencils on driveway

To avoid things getting messy, we decided to do just one stencil a day, which allowed each stencil to completely dry before moving on to the next one. It also meant that we only had to monitor a small area of wet paint as it dried. This was helpful since we were simultaneously working on several different projects at once, both inside the garage and on the driveway.

Below, my daughter is almost at the halfway point for the driveway:

painting stencils on driveway

The big curvy line of the pattern definitely tries to maximize the visual interest, regardless of one’s point of view of the driveway. It was also intended to playfully mimic the flight pattern of a busy pollinator:

The paint for the stencils has proven surprisingly durable. So far, no fading or peeling has occurred (even after two full seasons of weather).

stencil pattern for driveway

Below, note the plants in the background, on the north side of the driveway. The grasses are in their second summer, so they’ve mostly reached their full size. Around them are any number of groundcovers and flowers that are only getting started:

flower stencils on driveway

Below, a wider, fuller view of the pattern from our front walkway:

stencils on driveway

Below, one final view of the pattern from the street:

driveway with stencils

Even though the right side (north) of the driveway is filling in, most of the plants in this area are still young and undersized. Note, too, halfway up the driveway on the left, the green manure bed that’s finally looking full and vibrant for the first time.

Below, a panoramic look at the front yard. Most of the hard work is complete. In the coming years we can play around with how we’d like to address the remaining gaps:

In addition to utilizing divisions of existing plants, we can also add new plant varieties or even decorative accents in the form of art pieces, or more functional components such as seating areas to take in specific views of the garden. There frankly hasn’t been much time to just sit and enjoy the garden yet.

Robins still enjoy the crabapple outside our kitchen window:

Going into our fourth growing season, the main goal will be adding color to the garden. After the first year of sheet mulching, creating our hügelkultur bed, and establishing our ‘living fence’ shrubs, we’ve been busy ever since with adding a base layer of fruit tree guilds, our alternative bamboo stand in the backyard, a wide variety of ornamental grasses, groundcovers, smaller shrubs, and fruiting vines.

With most of the main structural elements in place (both in terms of permaculture design and visual interest), for the next couple of years we look forward to playing with color in the yard to complete our garden quilt.

Urban Rustic: Second Bedroom and Bath

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Bedroom Details

For my daughter’s bedroom, I wanted to do a couple of murals on the two largest opposing walls. The remaining walls would continue the neutral gray we would utilize throughout the main level.

The first mural would be multi-colored, inspired by Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat guitar:

Although I would change up some of the original colors, the overall layout would be roughly the same.

The mural started with a base coat of blue. Once this was dry, I applied painter’s tape to set up most of the striping that was based on the guitar:

With the tape in place, I could begin applying the finish coat of pink:

Once the two coats of pink were dry, I slowly pulled the painter’s tape to reveal the blue lines just below the surface:

The final step was setting up and painting the white stripes, including some ‘torn’ or ‘frayed’ ends:

The second mural would be a more subdued, but stark, black and white color combination.

On this larger, opposing wall I wanted to try recontextualizing (i.e., appropriation) an iconic but infamous piece of graphic design. In this case, the World War II era Imperial Japanese flag (or Rising Sun flag), so it was important to undermine and invert the intent, or at least the associations, of the original design, rather than, for example, trying to undermine it with humor. In effect, steal some of the thunder inherent in the power of the original layout but for wildly different goals.

Much of the fascist iconography (in all its variations), while undeniably effective in terms of ‘branding‘ when it was on the rise during the WWII period, is also ripe for satire and deflation:

An American artist, Ron English, does an excellent job in this regard, similar to The Simpsons, when it comes to satirizing or ridiculing marketing and pop culture icons and logos:

Where the original Rising Sun flag personified a ‘might makes right’ ideology, one rooted in racist ideas about cultural superiority, I wanted to undermine this ‘logic’ without losing the visual impact of the original design.

Alongside Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, of course, produced some of the most notorious symbols and imagery of the WWII era (the power of these symbols and images resonates to this day, showing up in some pretty unlikely places):

In terms of the Rising Sun flag, the power of the design begins and ends with the circle or disc at its center.

“If the square is bound up with man and his works, with architecture, harmonious structures, writing and so on, the circle is related to the divine.”

— Bruno Munari, Design as Art

In addition, the 16 equally sized bars or ‘sun rays’ in the original only strengthen the effect, encouraging our eye to land on and remain focused on the red disc.

“The eye is attracted by the dark disc and has no way of escaping. It has to tear itself away… The eye is in fact accustomed to making its escape at the points or corners of things, at the head of an arrow for example. A triangle offers three escape routes, a square offers four. A circle has no corners, and the eye is forced to go round and round in it until it tears itself away with an effort.”

— Bruno Munari, Design as Art

A twisted irony considering that this rising sun motif (traditionally a sign of hope, e.g., marking the end of bad times) is so strongly associated with the darkest period in Japanese history.

With a base coat of pure white, the black circle, after being laid out in pencil, was handpainted. When dry, I then laid out the black sun rays using blue painter’s tape to establish the exact thicknesses and angles:

Instead of using the red and white combination, I chose to go with a more stark, even absolute, color combination of black and white (i.e., all of the colors combined with an absence of color). Additionally, I broke up the 16 ‘sun rays’ into only 12, while also playing around with their individual sizes, ensuring variation in the final layout. In a similar way, the intent was to reflect the difference between a square (fascist overtones, man-made) and a circle (divine, natural). Where the original 16 uniformly sized and spaced ‘sun rays’ suggest conformity and submission of the individual to a system of authority, rooted in strict hierarchy (e.g., the sun, like the Emperor, at the center of power), having fewer, thicker ‘sun rays’ in various sizes suggests not just imperfection but also playfulness, while hopefully retaining much of the power in the original design. Because of the wall layout, it also meant more variation in the length of the individual ‘rays’, particularly having one spill across the door opening to the walk-in closet, even ‘ending up’ on the back wall of the closet where it helps to set-off a framed series of portraits:

Since so much of the Fascist movement utilized language to achieve its aims, especially in the use of sloganeering and euphemisms, the black circle seemed the ideal spot for the placement of some poetic language. My daughter helped me stencil in a line over the ‘black sun’ from a Bruce Cockburn lyric, which is quoted in a U2 song:

Repeating the logic of the ‘imperfect’ sun rays, the layout of individual letters was intended to highlight their fragility — some opaque, some appearing slightly faded, running above and below an invisible line — as if struggling to stay on the wall.

Having a vivid mural near a doorway definitely makes for a strong visual statement:

We let the black ‘spill over’ into the walk-in closet as an accent wall — a stark background for some framed superhero portraits:

With the two murals complete, I could turn my attention to making some new furniture pieces, including a bedframe and a dresser.

For the bedframe, I utilized framing members (sticking with our Urban Rustic theme), including 2×6’s, 2×4’s, and the 1×4 furring strips:

Keeping the wood natural, combined with lag bolts in the corners, I finished off the bed frame with some racing stripe hash marks and our daughter’s nickname stenciled on the side:

With the bed frame in place, I added a bunch of throw pillows with interesting designs or patterns along the two interior walls:

After our extended build, which included a few moves along the way, it was finally time to come up with at least a semi-permanent dresser for my daughter.

Wanting to keep things playful (as opposed to formal), it seemed like a good opportunity to do something over the top, for instance, using bold colors while having it be oversized in terms of its structure and footprint.

In the photos below, the initial carcass and then the drawers being put together. I decided to go with deep, overlay drawers to maximize the opportunity for storing bulky items like sweaters, hoodies, and jeans. I also just liked the proportions:

For the top, I found a couple pieces of mostly clear hickory, which was combined with a deep pour epoxy in a bright pink ‘river’ table top:

I tried to incorporate as many decorative swirls in the pink epoxy as possible, giving it a slight retro hot rod flame look:

We kept a high gloss finish, which seemed in keeping with the child-like quality we were aiming for. In addition, although the hickory was mostly clear in terms of the wood grain, there was one large knot that allowed us to incorporate a couple of bright metallic blues:

Oversized dock cleats were used for the drawer pulls, which are surprisingly ergonomic in terms of daily use:

The bright pink epoxy reminds me of hard candy like Jolly Rancher pieces with their preternatural shine:

The whitewashed 1×4 furring strips serve as a rustic visual counterpoint to the more over the top epoxy:

The blue on the drawer fronts consisted of a couple coats of thinned paint, which produced a nice water-like blue effect. The paint was then protected with a couple coats of Osmo Poly:

The pink, blue, and white of the dresser were also a nice visual echo of the Van Halen mural:

Some of my online Urban Rustic finds ended up in the bedroom, including the vintage theater marquee question mark (above), along with a ‘Chicago’ eye bolt welded to an oversized nut used as a doorstop:

The bedroom door itself utilized some leftover 2×6’s from framing, pocket screwed together. The bright, vertical pink stripe continues the ‘racing stripe’ motif that began with the siding. The door handle matches our Roto window and door hardware. With only two real doors in the whole house, apart from our two exterior doors, it seemed like a nice touch to be able to maintain the same aesthetic throughout:

When the door is closed, the vertical stripe, especially next to the blue accent wall and the large, black barn door, makes for a bold, pleasing collection of design elements:

I also sprinkled in some smaller framed art pieces, combining visuals with text.

“It is far more fascinating to come into a room which is the living expression of a person, or a group of people, so that you can see their lives, their histories, their inclinations, displayed in manifest form around the walls, in the furniture, on the shelves. Beside such experience — and it is as ordinary as the grass — the artificial scene-making of ‘modern decor’ is totally bankrupt.”

Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Below, a framed set of Ani Difranco lyrics is paired with a vintage railroad signaling light:

The black “LOVE” epoxy was added to the mix sometime later:

The black epoxy is a nod to an underrated Afghan Whigs album:

After letting my daughter create a painting using red, pink, and silver pigments, we dropped her blue-covered hand onto the canvas as a fun, messy way to mark the passage of time:

In the walk-in closet, for storage we went with a combination of 2×10’s and gas pipe for some open shelving. We would utilize this combination elsewhere on the main floor — including a linen closet, the pantry, and even in our kitchen. Sometimes we would use 2×8’s, depending on the items being stored on the open shelving:

The open shelves were an excellent place to store books, board games, as well as a spot to sneak in some more artwork:

The Björk piece was inspired by this performance:

In order to use clothes hangers, I also added an industrial looking clothes bar:

To keep my daughter’s jewelry contained, but also easy to access, I made a storage spot out of a glove factory hand mold, painted black and mounted on a decorative concrete base. The base, made with Buddy Rhodes concrete, is accented with red decorative glass. While the top is polished, to bring out the shine in the glass, the bottom and outside edges were left raw to emphasize the difference in final finish.

Using another piece picked up from Great Lakes Yard, I created a bench for just inside the bedroom. A convenient spot for books, homework, or the next day’s outfit. In an effort to hold onto its original roughness, much like the piece in our main bedroom, I only lightly sanded before patching nicks, gouges, and other damage with black and silver epoxy. Also matching the dresser top, a flood coat of clear epoxy is the final, durable high-gloss finish:

Close-up look at a damaged area, filled with metallic silver epoxy prior to the flood coat:

Bathroom Details

In this second bathroom, we opted for white hexagon tile for the floors, including inside the shower. For the shower walls, we used vertically oriented oversized white subway tile with blue glass accents.

Matching the main bathroom, I repeated the use of our charred cedar with lag bolts and washers, combined with a vessel sink and our quartz countertops. With a vessel sink, the taller backsplash helps to keep excess water off the walls. We also continued with our 1×6 poplar base and 1×4 poplar door casing here in the bathroom area.

The bathroom starts with our base gray color for most of the walls — except for two walls, one directly in the bathroom; the second, making the transition to the bedroom. Here, our basement floor combination of blue and green shows up again:

Heading into the bathroom area from the main living area (kitchen and family room), our monster theme begins with a portrait of Dracula, based on the original Bela Lugosi portrayal (the joke here with the monster theme is that nothing good happens in bathrooms — the sights, the smells, the shaving, the plucking, the scrubbing, etc.).

Instead of relying on vintage, original posters, or even stills from these classic movies, I opted for portraits that had a more modern take on these iconic creatures. It also marked a fun transition, incorporating one of my daughter’s nicknames, from bathroom to bedroom:

It’s a whimsical, detailed portrait of one of the great movie monsters:

I love the vivid pinks and reds in this King Kong poster:

Above and behind the toilet seemed an ideal, menacing perch for Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman:

This modern, graffiti-inspired take on Boris Karloff’s iconic Frankenstein’s monster is rich in colorful details:

An added touch was positioning him on the green accent wall so that he’s clearly visible in the mirror above the sink, which, with its delicate butterflies, hints at the tragic lakeside scene with the little girl and her flowers from the classic James Whale movie:

For those at the sink who take notice, the monster is watching their every move:

For the bathroom door, I repeated the bedroom door’s use of 2×6’s, pocket screwed together, painted white, with a racing stripe. I also used the same door handle, once again mimicking the Roto hardware on our windows and doors, while also adding a cute, but also highly functional, Schlage VACANT/ IN USE deadbolt lock:

When we were collecting design elements for our house in the pre-construction phase back in 2015, these were just starting to show up in restaurant bathrooms in our area. They seemed equally useful in a residential setting:

Instead of using a screwed-on door stop attached to the baseboard, the bottom of the door, or even the floor, this colorful bag of coffee does the same job admirably with a nice pop of color:

For a toilet paper holder, I opted again for a custom-made option — pared down, sleek, and functional:

Exiting the kitchen, on the way to the bathroom, reveals a linen closet area. Here, I again opted for open shelving, with 2×10’s and gas pipe. The advantage of the open shelving is always knowing what you have and when to order or buy more. The downside, of course, is that there’s no place to hide from dust and clutter if things are allowed to get out of hand.

The ‘Crap’ and ‘Fur’ decorative boxes help contain the worst clutter-prone items — miscellaneous medicines, first-aid products, and hair care tools:

One final monster, just to the left of the bathroom sink, started with an Ed Hardy poster (n.b., Art for Life is a beautifully illustrated overview of his work in tattoos and on canvas):

His ‘Surf or Die’ piece captures the energy and playfulness I was after with our monster theme:

Using the same finishing process as the artwork in our main bedroom and in our basement, I mounted the image first on plywood before later doing an epoxy flood coat.

“… what we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to.

As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Since it’s so close to water at the sink (and things like toothpaste spray), I decided to leave it with a high gloss finish for easy clean-up:

In addition to the colors in Hardy’s painting complementing the colorful butterflies surrounding the mirror, the painting itself is a nice surprise for first-time visitors as they exit the bathroom.

Urban Rustic: Main Bedroom and Bathroom

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Design Elements

To create a warm, inviting bedroom and bathroom we knew we wanted to incorporate the same basic Urban Rustic design elements that we intended to use throughout the house. At their most basic level, these elements include wood, metal, and concrete (or stone). These show up at the largest scale in our hickory wood floors, our ‘stained’ concrete porcelain tiles, and our quartz countertops (kitchen and bathrooms). On a much smaller scale, these elements show up in variety of decorative objects that we have carefully curated, placing them throughout the house.

The overarching goal was a mix of sleek and modern with aged but beautifully worn. Whether for the exterior or the interior, the visual cues were rooted in a motif of early 20th century artisan workshop and small farmhouse.

“Successful modern reinterpretations of traditional architectural styles move us not only at an aesthetic level. They show us how we, too, might straddle eras and countries, holding on to our own precedents and regions while drawing on the modern and the universal… Without patronising the history they profess to love, they show us how we, too, might carry the valuable parts of the past and the local into a restless global future… [succeeding] in succumbing neither to nostalgia nor to amnesia.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

On the exterior this is achieved with a blend of black charred cedar, or shou sugi ban (aka yakisuki), and a restrained use of natural cedar highlights:

The rustic siding and overhangs are then complemented by the modern, sleek, metallic windows, doors, and even the gutters and downspouts. These visually heavy, and mostly dark, elements play well with the surrounding landscape: in summer, contrasting with the vibrant green vegetation and bold flower colors; in winter, our black box stands out in the surrounding white blanket of snow.

Heading indoors, we knew we wanted to experience the inverse of what we established on the exterior.

“… the balance we approve of in architecture… alludes to a state that, on a psychological level, we can describe as mental health or happiness. Like buildings, we, too, contain opposites which can be more or less successfully handled… we instinctively recognize that our well-being depends on our being able both to accommodate and to cancel out our polarities… Our attempts to harmonise our different aspects isn’t generally helped by the world around us, which tends to emphasise a range of awkward antitheses. Consider, for instance, the truisms which hold that one cannot be at the same time both funny and serious, democratic and refined, cosmopolitan and rural, practical and elegant, or masculine and delicate.

Balanced buildings beg to differ.”

— Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Where the black siding absorbs sunlight, creating a brooding, deeply rooted in place black box, for the interior we wanted to make sure we flipped this dynamic, with a mostly neutral baseline, allowing us to then accent this bright and light foundation with vibrant pops of color. Where the exterior is dark and bold, we wanted the interior to be light-filled, warm, and inviting.

As a backdrop, we went with clean white ceilings and basic painted wood trim details. With light gray walls as a neutral canvas, it allowed us to play around with colors and textures, both for artwork and in terms of furniture or decorative objects. With this basic palette of colors and materials, we knew that the bold artwork that we wanted for our walls would really pop and have a long lasting visual vibrancy over the widest possible range of the color spectrum.

Going with basic painted white trim also meant we could contain costs while also keeping the main focus on decorative elements like flooring, wall art, and miscellaneous decorative objects.

For the baseboard, we went with 1×6 poplar, which we had used previously in our last house:

Around exterior doors and windows we chose to utilize drywall returns rather than more elaborate wood trim details. The exception was for our window stools. Here, we went with 8/4 poplar. The thicker material goes well with the chunky profile of our passive house doors and window sashes, particularly noticeable when the units are open.

Below, testing out a piece of the poplar stool in our Pantry-Laundry Room, trying to figure out how far beyond the window opening to go with the horns:

To create a more rustic, informal look, in addition to the thickness of the material, saw marks on the outside edge were mostly left unsanded. The face of each stool was given a gentle, rounded-over edge by hand, while being careful to sand — only minimally — on and around the surface of the saw marks.

Even though I was a little worried about not sanding this face sufficiently, it turned out that we ended up with a nice balance. In the right light, typically morning or afternoon raking sunlight, the saw marks are evident, even prominent, through the layers of primer and paint, offering up interesting shadow lines. At other times of the day, or under the glow of artificial light at night, these saw marks mostly disappear:

Opting to forego an apron trim piece below the stool we felt produced a simpler, cleaner look, although it did require some drywall patching below each rough window opening to more easily close the gap between stool and drywall with a high quality caulk.

We wanted the visual heft of the stools to stand on their own. Using any style of apron may have softened the look we were going for. The downside to a more minimal look, of course, is that there are fewer places to hide imperfections.

We really like the balance between the more formal white paint and the size and texture of the stool itself.

Main Bedroom

In the bedroom and bathroom we started with a white ceiling, white trim, and gray walls. Instead of using an accent wall, we opted for ‘blocks’ of color on two walls, on display upon entering the bedroom:

A dark, rich gray for the headboard wall is offset with a barn red for the long wall that connects the bedroom to the bathroom. To keep the space feeling as open as possible, we opted to go without doors for the bathroom or the walk-in closet. We realized this was an option based on our last home where these two doors were never used, remaining in the open position for the ten years we lived there.

Below, the point where bedroom meets bathroom, and where the richness of the color palette is fully realized:

The combination of ‘weathered concrete’ porcelain tile with the warmth of the hickory mimics the contrast between dark, cool gray and rich red on the adjacent walls.

The same area, looking up towards the ceiling:

With the paint and trim complete, we could finally get some artwork on the walls. We decided to give away most of our wall art from our previous house to family and friends. This allowed us to personalize our new home, particularly since we were opting for a DIY-heavy approach. It also meant our daughter could be involved in anything new that we created.

Below, this framed reproduction of Magritte’s ‘Empire of Light‘ is one of the few items that carried over into our new house:

Note the thickness of the profile on the open window sash with the thickness of the previously mentioned window stool:

A significant percentage of our construction budget went to Passive House details like air sealing, insulation above building code minimums, an ERV, and high performance windows and doors, not to mention our solar panels. Consequently, when it came to interior design, we were happy to commit to a DIY approach:

Apart from any potential savings compared to items bought off-the-shelf, we also find it more fun and rewarding to come up with our own bespoke self-designed handmade items. We’ve also found that custom made items tend to endure and stick around far longer than mass produced items, regardless of their price tag (typically both in terms of durability and enduring affection).

“‘Decor’ and the conception of ‘interior design’ have spread so widely, that very often people forget their instinct for the things they really want to keep around them… people have begun to look outward, to others, and over their shoulders… and have replaced their natural instinctive decorations with the things which they believe will please and impress their visitors… [Decor] is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life — the things you care for, the things that tell your story.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

For the bookend space to the left of our bedroom window we used a rust technique on some sheet metal. In a bath of white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and salt, we soaked each piece of metal until we achieved the heavily scarred surface we were aiming for:

There is some latitude in controlling this chemical reaction as the metal rusts. Minimizing the time of exposure can allow some of the original bare metal color to remain. With a longer soak, and some brushing of the liquid repeatedly over the surface of the metal, a much deeper, all-encompassing level of damage can be achieved.

This sample, pictured below, shows a blend of rust and bare metal, prior to being sealed:

After the rusted steel sheets had a chance to dry, we used a low VOC sealer from AFM Safecoat to bind the rust and prevent any ongoing ‘dusting’ (similar to the strategy we employed using tung oil on our charred cedar).

The four individual panels were then mounted on a sheet of plywood. The plywood had been attached to 2×4’s, making it simple to hang the piece on the wall:

The white letters were painted on prior to the seal coat because I wanted some of the rust to bleed through the paint for a more weathered effect to match the level of rust:

To maximize the overall bare-bones look, the 2×4’s and plywood, clearly visible on the sides, was left fully exposed:

The phrase itself is from The Doors song ‘When the Music’s Over’, part of which has an environmental message that blends well with our rock ‘n’ roll theme.

With our blue porcelain frog sticking to the window header, our vignette with a nature theme is mostly complete, framing the view to our backyard, which, at this point, was still little more than a mulched moonscape.

Mid-morning, in the photo above, with sun entering through the open doorway from the left (south).

The authors of A Pattern Language strongly advocate for east-facing main bedrooms:

“The sun warms you, increases the light, gently nudges you to wake up — but in a way that is so gentle, that you will still actually wake up at the moment which serves you best…”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Below, the sun just before the winter solstice, almost reaching directly into the bedroom (just over 16′ from the south-facing windows). This was part of our passive solar strategy for the house:

Although our bedroom technically faces west, because of the size of our bedroom and family room windows (4.5′ x 9′), and the oversized door opening to the family room that faces south, we end up with a flood of morning light regardless. The intensity of the light is far less than direct east-facing, but the overall effect is similar. On paper this shouldn’t really work, but reality shows otherwise. Something to consider for those in the design stage of their own build.

The next project for the bedroom was to add some seating below the window.

To get started, we picked up some reclaimed lumber from Meeghan, at her shop Great Lakes Yard.

The piece on the left, below, has been epoxied and sanded, ready for its final clear coat. The piece on the right, destined for the family room, is finished, waiting for legs to be attached.

The epoxy was serving both decorative and structural functions. These pieces, particularly the one on the left, were in pretty bad shape in terms of structural integrity. The epoxy was filling cracks, crevices, and also allowed me to rebuild some of the badly damaged outside edges. We chose a blue metallic pigment since it offers an almost water-like iridescence.

Building up some of the outside edges not only added to the visual effect, it also helped stabilize what would’ve otherwise been a piece on the verge of falling apart. This section of wood was a structural framing component during its working life. I left some of the larger holes empty (these look like they were for conduit), while concentrating on the smaller voids. In addition, the mortise pockets benefited from some of the blue epoxy, giving these areas a look of pooling water while also making these spots easier to dust and keep clean:

The built-up outside edges have a nice shimmering water look to them:

Some doubled up 2×6’s painted black with some nice metal hardware completes the look. The original level of wear in the piece can be read in the front vertical face as it changes in thickness from one end to the other.

Having large windows in the bedroom makes a bench like this ideal for a quick sit to take in the evolving flow of life in the backyard as the seasons develop and change. The rest of the time it’s a structural framing member that has been transformed into what we hope is a deceptively unique decorative object:

For our new dresser we decided to go full-on rustic with reclaimed wood and vintage fruit label drawer pulls. The warm wood tones help balance the fiery red accent wall while echoing the color variation in our hickory floors. The aged wood would also serve as a warm, neutral backdrop, helping to put emphasis on the pieces that would soon sit atop the dresser.

My daughter helped me apply tung oil to the ‘box’ and the drawers, giving the dresser a warm, natural matte finish. After a final sand and wipe down, the tung oil brings the old, dry looking wood grain back to life:

Whether it’s searching for interesting reclaimed items or just unique decor touches, I’ve had better luck looking online than with brick and mortar stores. After trying several locations in the Chicago area, as well as various shops when we’ve been out of town, I always come back to shopping online, largely because the pool of options is so much greater than at any one store. We’ve gotten lucky buying a couple of items locally, but the overwhelming majority of what we purchased came from online shops.

Although time consuming, browsing sources like Etsy almost always proved more fruitful in the end.

In the case of the drawer pulls, I found these vintage fruit label ones on Etsy:

Even when it comes to having items framed, we had better luck developing our own technique than using the more traditional frame (wood or metal) with glass approach.

We start by mounting the image to some smooth plywood that’s been previously sanded and dusted. We mount the image using a spray on adhesive. As the glue sets up, we do our best to squeegee out any air to ensure good contact between the plywood and the photo. Once the glue has fully dried, we do an epoxy pour, a flood coat, allowing it to spread over the entire surface, including falling over the edges.

With the initial pour allowed to dry for a couple of days, if a high-gloss finish isn’t ideal, I then sand the epoxy before applying a hardwax oil coating of Osmo Polyx, typically in a satin finish, although the matte finish makes for a nice, subtle velvet-like finish as well.

This technique is roughly the same deployed for river tables, or any project with wood, epoxy, or wood-epoxy combination:

In our case, to experiment with this technique we started small, with a Blondie and Pat Benatar concert poster, before moving on to much larger images:

The trickiest part is making absolutely sure the outside edges of the image are fully adhered to the plywood. If not, when the flood coat of epoxy is applied you risk having the image lift, which is virtually impossible to fix after the epoxy has been poured.

For our red accent wall I decided to use an image of our daughter playing on the Chicago lakefront at sunset. The rich blues in the failing light accentuate the water theme I was after:

In addition to the image, we added a slightly tongue in cheek family altar with a small slab of decorative white concrete as its base.

Below, afternoon sun breaking across the photo and the red accent wall:

For our headboard wall we started with a print by Nikki McClure. We really enjoy the playful vibrancy in her work. The print was mounted and finished with epoxy and then the Osmo as outlined above.

With a base frame made of 1×4 furring strips, I attached the print and then surrounded it with additional 1×4 furring strips to create the finished surface:

Using the furring strips was in keeping with our Urban Rustic design goals, in this case utilizing underappreciated framing materials to show off their inherent beauty and utility in a new context.

After completing a light sanding, trying to hold onto the grading stamps as much as possible, I then whitewashed the 1×4’s to complete the rustic look. The goal was a weathered look:

This was amplified by using the Osmo to seal-in the whitewash since it adds a slight amber, or yellowing, to the surface of the wood, increasing the aged effect. It was a relatively light whitewash application, which allowed some of the original wood color to come through the final finish:

For my nightstand I started with 1/2″ Purebond plywood for the carcass. The dimensions are larger than what’s typical, but I wanted it to look short and hefty.

I made deep drawers, using Blum drawer slides to help support the weight of anything put in the drawers, especially books. We used them for our kitchen drawers and we love the smooth function and soft close function. They’re not the cheapest option, but their quality is hard to match.

I wrapped the carcass with 1×4 furring strips, just like the headboard piece, and then used 1/2″ plywood for the drawer fronts, painted a vibrant red to match our red accent wall. Both the carcass and the drawer fronts were sealed with the Osmo.

The black drawer pulls I found online. I didn’t try to refinish them, instead I just applied a couple coats of sealer to prevent further rusting. I then attached them to the drawer fronts with some lag bolts. This combination epitomizes the Urban Rustic aesthetic: sleek, modern red and shiny steel with rusted, worn and peeling hardware.

For the top I glued two sheets of 3/4″ Purebond plywood together for a chunkier look, using Timbermate putty to fill and smooth out the exposed edges.

With a slightly rounded over edge created using a router, it was time to have some fun applying stickers. Starting with a Vespa Italian roundel and striping, my daughter and I added various other famous high-performance Italian industrial design brands, partly inspired by the work of Bruno Munari.

As with the wall art photos, first we did an epoxy flood coat before sanding and applying a final couple coats of Osmo satin, which produces a nice combination of hard-wearing with a subtle shine.

The stickers were a fun homage to high Italian industrial design:

The little tank of a nightstand is a nice mix of urban and rustic elements: