kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

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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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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:

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:

More signs of spring:

First time we’ve seen flowers on our privets:

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.

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.

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.

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:

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:

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 flower in bloom, opening from the bottom up:

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:

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:

Zinnias in amongst the hairy vetch:

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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:

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.

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:

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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:

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.

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

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:

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:

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

Orb spider with beautiful markings on our siding:

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:

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:

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.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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:

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:

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).

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:

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

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

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.

Permaculture: The First Two Years

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Observe and Change

Growing up, my parents always had a garden plot of vegetables in our backyard. Pulling weeds in the hot sun is my strongest childhood memory of these gardens. Needless to say, the memory is unpleasant. Growing vegetables seemed like a sweaty, tiresome chore. More to the point, it seemed entirely unnecessary since we had so many grocery stores in our area.

It was only many years later, after living in our first house for awhile, that an interest in plants, of any kind, was sparked. My wife and I were living in a fairly standard suburban tract-home subdivision. Most of our neighbors had foundation plantings around their homes; some even had additional flower beds carved out of their well-kept lawns, although these were the exception. Apart from these plantings up close to each home, the subdivision was almost entirely a repeating pattern of roads, homes, and then their individual patch of green lawn.

In an effort to improve our curb appeal (we had zero plantings and only lawn grass), we started with some basic perennials like ornamental grasses, flowers, and some small shrubs around the front entry.

After realizing how much fun it was to plan out and arrange these plants, the border edging, and even the shape of the borders themselves, each subsequent spring meant carving up more patches of lawn in order to develop our plant varieties and combinations.

It was during this period that I began reading Mother Earth News, Fine Gardening, and ordering online from suppliers like Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Seeds.

After starting out copying what I had seen my parents do — using store-bought chemical fertilizers and pesticides to manage plant health — we quickly moved in the direction of organic solutions. Not only were they less dangerous to handle, they were also less detrimental to the overall soil food web.

“Think of scooping up a handful of soil and leaf litter and spreading it out on a white ground cloth, in the manner of the field biologist, for close examination. This unprepossessing lump contains more order and richness of structure, and particularity of history, than the entire surfaces of all other (lifeless) planets. It is a miniature wilderness that can take almost forever to explore.”

— Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Initially viewing the soil in our yard as a lifeless medium requiring endless varieties of supplements in order to achieve the results we were looking for, as I read and learned more, we began to focus on the soil as our main building block for everything we wanted (vegetables, shrubs, flowers — even a healthy lawn).

In fact, an early prod to trying something unconventional occured after realizing our lawn care service had only one solution to every problem that cropped up in the yard: using either larger quantities of chemicals, or just different varieties of chemicals. There wasn’t any concern for site conditions or causes; the only emphasis was on treating symptoms, namely, weeds.

“… how chemical companies have always handled the problem of pest resistance: by simply introducing a new and improved pesticide every few years. With any luck, the effectiveness of the last one will expire around the same time its patent does.”

— Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

At some point, after we had a couple of growing seasons with mixed results, I came across Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution and Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. Each, in their distinctive way, advocated for a ‘nature first’ approach when gardening or farming, emphasizing the importance of setting up structures and plant relationships that would allow nature, over time, to do most of the work for us.

“Nature, left alone, is in perfect balance. Harmful insects and plant diseases are always present, but do not occur in nature to an extent which requires the use of poisonous chemicals. The sensible approach to disease and insect control is to grow sturdy crops in a healthy environment.”

— Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

After my daughter was born, and my wife grew tired of her hour-long commute, we decided to sell our home and move closer to her work. By that time I had also learned about Passive House and Pretty Good House, in addition to Susanka’s Not So Big House series of books — homebuilding design strategies that were defiantly moving away from conventional norms (not unlike Permaculture).

The more we thought about what we would want from our new home, the more this combination of Passive House and Permaculture design principles appealed to us.

Here’s one example of what can be done on a suburban lot:

In terms of the Permaculture, we knew we wanted to experiment more with growing our own food, to the extent that’s possible in our Climate Zone 5 region, here in the suburbs of Chicago. After trying to grow a whole host of veggies our first few years gardening — thumbing through any number of seed catalogs in winter became a favorite pastime — we slowly learned what we enjoyed growing and what we thought was more hassle than it was worth.

Here’s another example of what can be achieved in the suburbs:

Short of an end times scenario, in which every calorie we consume would first need to be harvested from our yard, we whittled a potential list of food options down to a workable number of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. With its focus on soil health, a side benefit of setting up a Permaculture-inspired landscape is that a patch of ornamental flowers or grasses can be quickly converted to food production, in most cases within a single season.

Although we were excited about trying new fruit varieties (whether in tree, shrub, or vine form), our main design goal was to be largely ornamental in focus — especially at first glance to any passerby, with food items woven in amongst the bold mix of colors and textures.

Permaculture is still a new idea in most parts of the US, so we felt more confident that our neighbors would be supportive so long as things looked ‘pretty’ for most of the year. We were also confident that, with the right mix of plants, we could welcome in the local wildlife, no matter the scope of our overall food production.

Here’s an example of what time plus significant acreage can produce:

Regardless of the name applied to its specific scale or form — Permaculture, Agroforestry, Edible Landscape, Food Forest, Regenerative Agriculture — we knew that our design would begin with a foundation of thick mulch (similar to the Ruth Stout method).

In addition to going lawn-free, here are some of the other main goals for our yard:

  • Avoid digging (e.g., no seasonal plowing of the soil for growing vegetables)
  • Avoid outside inputs; as much as possible, create a closed loop system
    • e.g., no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides
  • Xeriscaping techniques
    • plant selection and placement based on water needs
      • limit plants that do require more water to those areas where water tends to sit, or else plant close to the house for easy, quick watering (e.g., dahlias)
    • leave no bare soil exposed
    • no dedicated irrigation system
      • occasionally hand water new plants for the first year until established
      • water vegetables, and flowers like dahlias, infrequently but deeply
      • use sprinklers only after prolonged period of drought and plants are visibly stressed
    • use thick base layer of mulch to retain moisture and even-out temperatures seasonally, in addition to building long-term soil health
    • encourage rainfall to stay on site and be absorbed rather than allow it to run-off
  • No waste
    • dedicated compost bin (for plant-based kitchen food waste)
    • compost or ‘chop and drop‘ cuttings in situ (e.g., Russian comfrey, shrub prunings, perennial cut-back in spring)
    • again, the goal is a mostly closed loop system
  • After getting soil and plant relationships established, mimic Fukuoka’s ‘do-nothing‘ approach

When confronted with a problem in my first years gardening, it’s easy to recall the immediate impulse to reach for a chemical solution, or to look online for a quick (typically industrial) fix of some kind. This knee-jerk reaction ebbed over time, particularly as I learned more and I experimented with natural or even ‘hands-off’ ways of reaching the same solution.

Many of the ideas associated with organic or Permaculture-based growing become obvious, even second nature, once they’ve been adopted and the subsequent positive results speak for themselves. Even so, it does take some time for this change in perspective to fully develop (again, the same is often said of Passive House building principles).

An anecdote from Sepp Holzer regarding voles illustrates this change in mindset — working with nature to get what you want, rather than engaging in a pitched battle of costly resistance:

“… If I fight them (with poison, gas or by catching them), the territory will only become free for others. The lower population density will be balanced out by more and more empty territories. Voles will produce more offspring or even just produce more males. Instead of catching, poisoning or gassing pests, it is better to consider the cycle of nature. If I let the voles work for me, I will have aerated, loose and well-drained soil and also lush, diverse vegetation. The vole will no longer appear as a cause of damage. Moreover, poisoning and gassing will contaminate the soil… The energy required to repair damage to the soil is much greater than the supposed damage caused by the voles eating crops. It is important to make sure that there are always enough decoy plants available to them… If there are enough available, the voles will leave the fruit trees alone. It is not a question of what I can do to fight the ‘pests’, but what can I do for them, so that they will not cause damage and even work to my benefit [emphasis added]. “

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

As Permaculture advocates are quick to point out, in many cases ‘the problem is the solution‘. This approach to problem solving requires imagination and a willingness to question assumptions while also thinking through potential unintended consequences. Far different from the normal way of doing things, rooted in a ‘better living through chemistry’ approach, one that assumes a fix must already exist, so it’s on a store shelf somewhere and you just need to find it.

Rather than attempt a deep dive on the science and design principles associated with Permaculture, what follows is more of an overview of our experience setting up the basic foundation and structures of our design, with commentary on what we find works and where issues have come up for us.

Please consult the many excellent resources outlined above for a more in-depth look at all the possible techniques and plant relationships, and how they can be organized to fit the scale of your own project (from patio to homestead).

For some additional options, go here: Resources

Getting Started

Our lot is roughly 60′ x 190′, so about a quarter of an acre. It was an infill lot that had been sitting idle since at least the subdivision was first developed.

Except for a single, large elm tree, with its open southern exposure the lot was mostly ideal for Passive House (e.g., passive solar heating and rooftop solar panels) and Permaculture design goals.

“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”

Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Unfortunately, the large elm tree needed to be removed since it would’ve been right outside what would become our kitchen door.

Thankfully, none of it went to waste. The mulch would be used up fast once we neared the end of construction and could begin to concentrate on landscaping. Even the larger logs, along with some additional logs donated by a neighbor after one of their trees fell down, would be kept towards the back of our lot. In this area they would serve as excellent mushroom food, a break between our yard and the utility easement, and a fun spot for my daughter to run and jump from log to log.

As far as soil conditions, after testing we learned it was ideal for our basement foundation. However, below the first 6-12″ it was predominantly clay.

“The great issues facing our environment — both locally and globally — are linked to the innumerable organisms that live underground. The health of our soils and gardens and fields have suffered from a dependence on chemical fertilizers and a lack of appreciation for the contribution to soil fertility of the myriad creatures that labor underground. Their interactions below ground result in a balance between the processes of growth and the processes of decay. The humus that these creatures generate during the processes of decay is essential to fuel the processes of growth. Without humus, mineral nutrients from fertilizers are soon lost from the soil, along with the pore spaces that hold the moisture and the air that make a well-structured soil so productive and fertile. Countless reciprocal interactions between life belowground and life aboveground shape the world in which we live.”

—James B. Nardi, Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners

This became readily apparent once excavation began and the soil horizons were exposed:

Without much attention or care (apart from regular mowing), at least in the conventional sense, the lot had flourished without any chemical inputs or irrigation for years. Although not exclusively lawn grass, any number of ‘weeds’ were growing happily alongside one another in a thick, healthy green turf. Unfortunately, once construction began, much of this fertile top layer would end up being disturbed or damaged.

Design Plan for the Yard

A quick overview of conditions on our lot:

Our house runs mostly east-west along its longest axis. Even so, our north side, beginning in spring and going until fall, gets a significant amount of early and late afternoon sunlight.

In the backyard, which faces west, the neighbor’s imposing trees offer ample shading beginning around noon, before the sun breaks through once more, briefly, in the evening as the sun sets.

In terms of grading, most of the yard is sloped towards the north, although there’s a small section near the very back of the lot where the pitch reverses itself (thus, the far south-west corner is always the wettest section of our yard; here, water can collect and experience mostly shade conditions).

“Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system… People always say to themselves, well, of course, we can always start another garden, build another trellis, put in another gravel path, put new crocuses in the new lawn, and the lizards will find some other pile of stones. But it just is not so. These simple things take years to grow — it isn’t all that easy to create them, just by wanting to. And everytime we disturb one of these precious details, it may take twenty years, a lifetime even, before some comparable details grow again from our small daily acts.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

Once we purchased our lot and had some sense of the size of home we would be building, I could start planning the layout for Permaculture design ideas.

One of the first elements for our yard would be a deep mulch layer. While suppressing weeds, it could also help break up the clay just below the surface, while also improving drainage (soaking up large quantities of water like a sponge) as it slowly decomposes to make ‘black gold’ or compost (acting, essentially, as a slow release fertilizer).

In lieu of fencing, we thought a wide variety of shrubbery (height, width, color, and texture) along the southern edge of our property, with additional shrub layers to parts of the north and west, would be an excellent way to gain some privacy while also maintaining mostly open views. As these various shrubs matured, they could offer excellent shelter and nesting sites to birds in the area. One of our main defenses against insect pests would prove to be welcoming in the birds.

“… creating ideal conditions for wildlife by permitting fencerows to grow up, by the establishment of multiflora hedges, and even ‘islands’ of undergrowth or multiflora in pines in large open fields. Even the unpopular house sparrow makes a contribution in keeping down insect populations, a contribution far beyond that for which he is given credit… I have seen the house sparrow in our gardens stripping every green aphid from the roses…

The hedges, the birds, are merely a part of a general pattern based upon natural checks and balances in the operations of nature and have contributed enormously to the material welfare of Malabar Farms, as well as to the pleasure and beauty contributed by the hedges and by the presence and increase of bird life of every sort.”

— Louis Bromfield, From My Experience

These shrubs could also offer us some protection from wind once they mature. In effect, we would be setting up a fairly traditional hedgerow, with many of the same benefits enjoyed by pre-industrial farms.

Out at the street, a mix of perennials, flowers, grasses, ground covers, and smaller shrubs could handle some neglect away from the house, while also surviving winters covered by plowed snow and salted roads.

The north side of the driveway would be a mix of mostly shorter perennials, mainly chosen for their color and texture. Since this area would experience run-off from vehicles on the driveway, we thought it best to avoid growing any food here.

The remainder of the yard, meaning most of the front and back, could be used to grow a variety of food items, while also affording us the opportunity to play around with a wide range of plantings to boost visual interest and biological diversity.

The north side, we always assumed, would be a blank slate until most of the yard was started. As we experimented in other areas, we could incorporate what we learn on this side of the house.

Some of the ideas for our house and yard that were eventually dropped due to budget, time, or site specific constraints included composting toilets, a gray water system, and on-site water storage such as cisterns or above-ground tanks — ideas that are well worth exploring whenever possible.

“Our current ways of getting rid of sewage poison the great bodies of natural water, and rob the land around our buildings of the nutrients they need… Almost every step in modern sewage disposal is either wasteful, expensive, or dangerous.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

As a basic overview, this framework would serve us well when the time came to begin purchasing and placing plants on site.

It was only as we headed towards the tail end of construction that we could even begin to address the site conditions in preparation of our Permaculture goals.

Since we wouldn’t be putting down grass seed or sod (going lawn-free was one of our earliest design goals), the first priority was to address water management, in particular those areas of the yard that were most under pressure from soil erosion every time it rained.

First batch of plants for around our front yard culvert:

In addition to the perimeter of the house and garage, it was also important to get mulch, stone, and plants set up around our culvert out by the street. This culvert was under typical pressure from direct rainfall, but also my neighbor’s sump pump and gutters, as well as water from our own sump pump.

Along with purchased stone, we also scavenged chunks of concrete from the job site:

To decorate the termination point in the culvert for our sump pump discharge, we decided to go with a combination of decorative stone and a variety of plantings. The usual suspects — Luke, Eduardo, and Jesus (not pictured) — were back to help us set up the culvert along with the border around our house.

The soil directly around the house had been visibly damaged by equipment and foot traffic during construction, so we decided to heavily mulch these areas without putting down cardboard first for sheet mulching, as we would later do for the remainder of the yard.

Our excavator was back for final grading:

With the final grading complete, we were ready to put down an initial layer of hardwood mulch. Here, again, the dingo proved its worth, as my wife used it to carry loads of mulch to the backyard.

South-west corner of the house as we put down an initial mulch layer:

Even with a shortened growing season, our new plants around the culvert were heading into their first winter happy and healthy.

Another view of the front yard after final grading and an initial layer of mulch has been put down.

Black and yellow garden spider:

Even with all the disruptions of construction, wildlife — of various sorts — was making itself known on site.

The mulch was down for only a few weeks, but it was long enough for some mushrooms to show up in various spots around the house. We were looking forward to seeing mushrooms sprout as the mulch breaks down. So far, we’ve been happily surprised at how quickly and consistently they began to appear.

As I dug out some clay soil in preparation for decorative gravel along our front walkway, this reddish spider showed up on our front steps.

Woodlouse Hunter Spider:

We were excited about building attractive habitat for local wildlife, so these early signs of life were encouraging, particularly since so little had been put in place up to this point.

Drywall and interior finishes were next up for the house. This work would occupy us through the winter.

In spring, we could look forward to sheet mulching and getting some basic structural elements of our Permaculture design in place.

In the meantime, we put the yard to bed for the winter as best we could, and, with the help of countless plant catalogs, began making our plans for next year.

First Spring: Sheet Mulching and Hügelkultur Bed

Sheet mulching a quarter acre suburban yard requires large quantities of cardboard. Luckily, a source near us, ABT Electronics, is happy to give it away in the form of appliance and mattress boxes. These thick, oversized boxes make relatively quick work of large spaces, which speeds things up when you’re trying to cover a lot of area fast.

After calling ahead to schedule a time to pick up the boxes, my daughter and I showed up in a rental van to load them up.

Once unloaded at home, we worked our way through the boxes, removing as much plastic shipping tape and staples as possible.

The boys and I began laying down the cardboard boxes just a few at a time, careful to overlap all of the edges by a few inches (this makes it tougher for weeds to fight their way through to the surface). After soaking the boxes with a garden hose, we then began putting down a thick layer of mulch over the top of the boxes.

At our previous home, I was used to putting down 2-4″ layers of mulch. Here, we were putting down 8-10″ of mulch, which seemed like a lot at the time. If I had it to do over, however, I would’ve gone even thicker, with a solid foot as a goal. Because there’s some settling that occurs once the mulch has been in place for awhile, and because it’s difficult to get a perfectly uniform layer across an entire lawn, I wish now we had gone thicker.

Looking back, another option, at least in the backyard, would’ve been to cut what remained of the existing turf at the back of our lot as low as possible, and then seeded the area with green manure, in the hopes that these plants could outcompete the existing ‘weeds’. If successful, then it would be possible to eventually cut down or remove the green manure plants in order to transition to fruits and veggies, or more ornamental options. If it worked, it would doubtless be less expensive than sheet mulching (time and money). Perhaps worth trying in a small area before expanding over wide expanses.

In terms of keeping costs down, one option is to call around to tree service companies in your area to see if they’d be willing to deliver wood chip mulch from felled trees and brush. Because this material is often destined for a landfill, which require disposal fees, companies will sometimes prefer delivering to your home for free.

In our case, we had mixed results pursuing this. When the timing was right, we managed to get a handful of deliveries from a couple of local companies, but it wasn’t always easy to match demand with supply (companies are unlikely to drive very far out of their way to deliver to your home).

With a good portion of the backyard complete, we moved on to creating our hügelkultur bed. The basic structure was formed using portions of our remaining elm tree, branches, twigs, and random pieces of bark. On top of this we placed a layer of topsoil mixed with some mushroom compost.

As with the mulch, we wish we had gone bigger with the hügelkultur bed. Even so, we used up every scrap piece of wood that we had on site, so if we had gone bigger it would’ve required that we bring in additional material.

If you look around online, you can see some impressively massive hügelkultur beds. Some so large they act as effective windbreaks.

A wider view of the backyard:

Note the diminutive shrubs off to the left. The purple sandcherry and dwarf blue arctic willow won’t stay tiny for long. While buying smaller plant options requires some patience, it makes meeting budget constraints easier, even as it allows you to purchase a wider variety of plants.

For the most part, I’ve been able to avoid designing-to-death every square inch of space in our yard. By adopting a more generalized idea of what I think can work in a certain area, it’s allowed for much more happy and successful outcomes, even the occasional happy accident.

This also helps when getting ideas down on paper, or even after plants have been purchased and you’re ready to put them in the ground. By being more open to various arrangements and combinations, the outcome tends to be more interesting, both aesthetically and even in terms of function.

Below is one area of exception. Pretty much everything shown was purchased and planted. In the case of these various shrubs, the idea was to create a living fence, one that offered privacy to my neighbor to the south, but also an opportunity for wildlife to have access to flowers, shelter, nesting sites, and even some fruit. By varying the heights and shapes of the plantings, we’ve tried to create more visual interest while avoiding the soldiers-standing-at-attention look that sometimes happens when the same plant is used down a long line to mark a border, as a windbreak, or for privacy.

Included in the list are dogwood, almond (they didn’t survive — we were pushing it in terms of climate region), purple sandcherry, a maple shrub, shasta viburnum, several privets, a weeping cherry, and a crabapple.

With the back and sides of the house mulched, we were able to move on to the front yard. With the house almost ready for us to move in, it was exciting to get plantings arranged by the front step.

As with much of the yard, we started with basic structural elements. For instance, a rain garden next to the downspout, with ample amounts of rock and what will become robust ornamental grasses. Also added into the mix are colorful favorites like echinacea, shasta daisies, penstemon ‘dark towers‘, and a few lavenders. Keeping the lavender next to the concrete steps, where we’re sure to brush up against it, will make easy work of collecting the spent flowers.

With a few adjustments over time, this setup easily manages the sometimes heavy flow of water from the nearby downspout. The first year saw some erosion in the mulch layer, but after adding some more stone as the plants had a chance to get established, this area has subsequently been issue-free and, arguably, one of the most cohesive and well-developed areas in the yard.

“Most of our job in relation to water is to intercept and direct its flow into a variety of storages — tanks, ponds, swales, rain gardens, livestock, plants, the soil — and only release it once it has done a whole series of duties… If you store water, you must also provide for its release and continued flow. You can only slow water down. You have a right to use it, but you don’t own it. All of it must sooner or later be released, if not to the stream, then to the soil or the air.”

— Peter Bane, The Permaculture Handbook

Boulders, gravel, thick mulch, and a variety of plants work together, encouraging water from the downspout to infiltrate rather than run-off. Over time, we’ve implemented this strategy at each downspout, even on the north side where there’s only a few feet to the neighbor’s property line. Even in this case, the goal is to encourage as much of the water exiting the downspouts to infiltrate into our yard, rather than escaping to the neighbor’s property. While the rocks and stones help to slow the water down, the thick mulch and plant roots are able to absorb surprisingly large quantities of water.

In theory, this strategy can even help recharge aquifers. If the infiltration is slow and consistent, it can encourage water to remain on site where it can be a source of water that some plants can call on during severe drought conditions. Instead of looking at water as strictly something to be gotten rid of (this is the case when it comes to the structure of our house), in permaculture terms it needs to be cultivated and managed in a way that’s beneficial to the plants and soil.

Out front, by the street, we added a parkway tree, some additional stone, and a handful of new plants.

Below, the view of the north side of the house and yard shows very little planted, and not much around the downspouts at this point. Because the north side is the smallest area in the yard in terms of square footage, and it gets minimal foot traffic, we decided to hold off on addressing it. It also gives us more opportunity to figure out exactly what we’d like to see on this side of the house.

The stone-filled culvert where water from our sump pump exits is both functional and slightly improved with the addition of mulch and a plant combination of Lychnis ‘Petite Jenny’ and blue iris where the water eventually passes out of the culvert and into our neighbor’s yard.

In the backyard, around the hügel bed, my daughter helped me plant a series of bare root fruit trees. Utilizing Ann Ralph’s techniques, laid out in her small tome, Grow a Little Fruit Tree, we cut these back hard right after planting. The goal is to keep these fruit trees compact but fruitful (ideally under 6′ tall to make harvesting easy).

“Ask yourself what seems best, listen to your own good opinion, and cut something out. These choices are entirely up to you and not nearly as consequential as you fear.

The tree responds. You watch what happens. You learn. The tree grows and creates new choices for you in the form of new branches. You can always make adjustments and corrections next time.”

— Ann Ralph, Grow a Little Fruit Tree

On the hügel itself, we planted a series of herbs, including sage, basil, and lemon balm, along with a series of strawberries. Later we would add some tomatoes and peppers. We also planted some potatoes that we’ve yet to dig up (the vegetation and flowers continue to come up each summer).

The trees in the backyard were a mix of nectarine, peach, plum, and cherry.

“In the climates where fruit trees grow, the orchards give the land an almost magical identity: think of the orange groves of Southern California, the cherry trees of Japan, the olive trees of Greece. But the growth of cities seems always to destroy these trees and the quality they possess.”

— Christopher Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language

In the front yard, we did a mix of red apple and Granny Smith (hopefully for apple pie one day).

In addition to fruit trees, we also planted a series of blueberries and strawberries, spreading them throughout the front and backyard, in the hopes of upping the quantity and variety of food available in each successive growing season. In the case of strawberries, we’ve opted for everbearing varieties.

Marking Progress

In the photo below, even though things look pretty thin so far, there’s actually a foundation of plantings that have been put in place.

For instance, in the back, off to the left, are the logs donated by a neighbor after their tree fell during a storm. Also, in the far right back corner, there’s a mix of Miscanthus giganteus and Sante Fe Maximillian sunflower, along with three ‘Tiger Eyes‘ Sumac and some ‘Walker’s Low‘ catmint. The Miscanthus and Maximillian sunflower (which is perennial) are our attempt at a bamboo alternative.

When fully grown, these plants range in height from 8-15′, offering the size and dense layering associated with bamboo (it takes 2-3 years for these two varieties to really get established).

The Sumac and catnip are complements in terms of height, flower color, and texture. The small yew evergreen will eventually be our perennial ‘Christmas tree’ once it matures (and gets wrapped in solar powered lights during the holiday season).

Immediately around the hügel are the fruit trees, matched with Russian comfrey (a favorite in Permaculture design) for added mulch and nutrients. We’ve had good luck with the comfrey — it’s easy to ‘chop and drop’ under each fruit tree several times each growing season. When it’s happy, comfrey produces large, vivid green leaves with dainty lavender flowers that bees love to visit.

Between the hügel and the back corner, there’s a mix of wildflowers and ornamental grasses. We’ll need to add to this area over time, as there’s still plenty of open space available.

There’s also been some erosion in the mulch layer after heavy rains. As the summer progressed it was clear that some areas, especially in the backyard, were showing signs of having thinned out. It was significant enough that we even had some weed seeds show up in a couple of areas.

Overall, the sheet mulching was incredibly effective at weed suppression. To date, the only ‘weeds’ that have managed to survive are Virginia creeper and some bindweed. The Virginia creeper is concentrated towards the back corner of the yard, intermingled amongst the Miscanthus and sunflowers. The bindweed pops up along the entire northern edge of our property.

Both weeds are sparse, emerging in only limited areas. They are easy to pull once they get a few inches up above the mulch. Unfortunately, this is the best option for controlling them, as any herbicide is unlikely to kill the entire plant. Clearly happy to grow and spread beneath the mulched surface, even if you managed to kill it in one spot, they’d likely pop up elsewhere.

Utilizing this disciplined approach of constantly pulling it as soon as it pops up was effective against a patch of chufa, or nutsedge, at our last house:

It took time, 2-3 summers in fact, but eventually the constant pulling seemed to exhaust the individual plants and they eventually disappeared. We’re hoping for the same result with these weeds. Worst case may be controlling rather than eradicating them altogether.

Interestingly enough, the lawn grass of our neighbors to our north and south is easily the most relentless invader, spreading by rhizomes, relentlessly trying to invade our mulched border. Several times a year we cut a groove into the line between our mulch and their grass, pulling up the grass that’s trying to get established in our mulch. It’s relatively easy work, but absolutely necessary in order to avoid being overrun.

As we put in new plantings we were always careful to pull back the mulch until we had dug down to the clay layer so that we could add actual soil before setting the new plants in place.

In many spots the cardboard hadn’t disintegrated yet, although there were a couple of areas where it was mostly gone. Presumably, in another year or two, it will be gone.

Digging down 8-10″ past the mulch layer to expose the original clay soil:

While putting in the new plants, we also saw evidence of white mycelium developing just below the surface of the mulch, along with plenty of earthworm, spider, and insect activity. All hopeful signs for the future health of our yard.

Apart from the decorative stone throughout the yard, the shrubs, ornamental grasses, and sunflowers are the basis of our structural layer (in visual terms) up to this point.

Later in the summer a couple varieties of basil pretty much took over the top of the hügel. To the left, a tuft of new leafy growth is visible on the fruit tree. In the background, near the house and downspout, the first year of growth on the Helenium ‘Dancing Flames‘ and the beginnings of a rain garden are visible, even though at this stage it’s still mostly just stone slowing down the water in this area.

A view of this same area, but from inside the house:

Erosion in the mulch layer is clearly evident in the many tiny gullies formed as water moved away from the downspout. Nevertheless, the stone and plants are in place to at least establish the beginnings of a rain garden.

During construction, when the ground was pretty much bare, our sump pump ran almost continuously during every rainstorm. With a heavy layer of mulch and the rudimentary beginnings of a rain garden at the mouth of every downspout, the sump pump ran noticeably less often, even during the heaviest of storms (in one case, 3″ in about an hour).

View from the south-west corner of the house: shrubs and grasses, just off the kitchen door, slowly getting established; the hügel and plantings in the backyard taking shape.

From left to right: four privets, Karl Foerster feather reed grass, Shasta viburnum, more grass, and then a crabapple barely in view.

In just a couple of years the privets and the viburnum will completely dwarf the grasses.

Another view of the backyard, this time from the far, south-west corner. In the foreground is a mix of perennials (flowers and grasses), beyond them is the hügel, and then, running along the southern edge of our property, the series of shrubs that one day should grow together into a living fence.

In the front, many of the perennials, especially the grasses, have enjoyed decent growth, and even the shrubs have leafed out well and taken on some new height. The area just behind the pile of stones was used extensively during construction as a staging area for building components, thus suffering a lot of abuse.

The soil in this area has compacted, and it’s been a struggle to grow much of anything so far.

To help this area recover we’ll try mostly a green manure mix, and then transition eventually to mostly flowers in order to add more color to the front yard.

Post-construction, this area has continued to be a staging area for materials, including gravel, decorative stone, topsoil and mushroom compost, and, of course, many yards of mulch.

If we can loosen the compaction in this area sufficiently, we could probably even sneak in at least three more fruit tree guilds.

First Harvest

In our first full season of growing we’ve had some nice development, although much of what we’ve planted is nowhere near maturity, remaining undersized and often wispy in appearance. This is to be expected so early in the process. The main goal, so far, has been to establish a base; both in terms of visual weight and in the long-term sense of function.

Even in the photo above, the rough outlines are present. For example, out at the culvert a series of plants are in place to absorb heavy rain events while also being resilient enough to survive periods of extended drought. The goal is to avoid having to water anything that far away from the house. Apart from last year, when the first plants went in, we’ve been able to let things flourish on their own. The thick layer of mulch does wonders in this regard.

They’re hard to see at this stage, but there are also apple trees, strawberries, and some blueberries planted in amongst the shrubs and perennials. They’re all just getting started.

Even though it’s early days for the yard, we’ve still managed to garner a decent harvest this first summer. From the backyard we’ve enjoyed a fair number of tomatoes, peppers, and basil. From the front, it was exclusively lavender and some peppermint.

Lavender we’ll use in satchels to go next to pillows or inside drawers for aromatherapy:

During our first full growing season we also managed to bring in our first flower cuttings, including two plants that have been a mainstay for us since our last house: agastache ‘Ava’, one of the more durable and long blooming flowers in our yard (loved by pollinators and hummingbirds alike); and Russian sage, an equally impressive magnet for pollinators. Also, one of our favorite perennial ornamental grasses, Palm Sedge, which helps to fill out and add texture to a bouquet.

In the fall, the hügel bed finally filled up a little. The fruit trees, which had been aggressively cut back in the spring, had taken on a nice flush of leafy growth. In the far back corner of the yard, our Miscanthus giganteus and Maximilian sunflowers were doing well, even if they were stunted in their first year as they acclimate to their surroundings. We look forward to next year when they grow together in a thick wall of leafy green, mimicking a stand of bamboo.

At this stage the yard is, admittedly, still looking mostly like a mulched moonscape. A small price to pay in order to patiently and methodically decide how we want to fill in all the remaining gaps. It was tempting to purchase enough mature, or at least semi-mature plants (at much greater cost, of course), to fill the entire yard and then hope we had guessed right in our placement and mix of sizes, colors, and textures.

Our approach, although it requires more patience, should allow us to experiment and observe seasonal changes as plants develop and grow together. And we’re certainly not afraid to remove or move things around to improve the relationships between plants.

In addition, the wildlife is still showing up, be it ever so slowly. Even with relatively few flowers, we’ve still managed to have our share of bees and wasps, hummingbird moths, and even a single hummingbird.

The dragonflies have taken notice of the yard, too, even showing up on a window screen to dramatic effect:

We had our share of mushrooms again this year, although not as much as we anticipated.

We even had a moth show up on our soffits, presumably to enjoy the breeze coming from air entering the vented attic.

More Mulch

Although we didn’t get to enjoy the yard as much as we would’ve liked (there was plenty of work to finish up on the interior of the house — trim, cabinetry, painting, and storage), we still had a lot of fun watching the yard come to life this year.

Even so, it was apparent by the end of the summer that most of the yard could benefit from a deeper layer of mulch. Our options seemed to be either wait a couple of years and add more mulch, or just do it now and hopefully be done with mulch for the foreseeable future. In the end, it seemed like it was easier to commit to mulching now rather than later, mainly because so much of what we had planted was still undersized, with plenty of gaps remaining between plants. If we waited even a couple of years, the plants would begin to fill out and knit themselves together.

When a tree service was working near my daughter’s school, and they agreed to drop off a few loads of wood chips, it seemed too good to pass up.

The wood chip mulch encompassed a wide variety of textures, particle sizes, and even the occasional clump of grass and dirt. Once it was down, it didn’t really look all that different from hardwood mulch. Initially it was more pokey, and just generally messy, but with some rain and time it flattened out and began to weave together into a carpet, similar to a quality hardwood mulch. By the following spring, after the sun had a chance to bleach the color to a mixed brown-gray, it was indistinguishable from the substantially more expensive hardwood mulches.

For the hügel bed I tried to build the mulch up in layers, giving it a terraced look. Over time this would mostly disappear, but it did seem to help with erosion on the mound.

With the first couple of loads I made sure to increase the depth of the mulch in the far back corner of the yard, around the Miscanthus and the sunflowers. After that area was covered, I worked my way up the north side of the yard towards the house.

Around the boulders in the photo above: at right, there is a mix of native grasses (in this case, palm sedge), and then between the two rows of boulders there is a combination of stachys hummelo and creeping thyme that is just beginning to take root. We hope the thyme will eventually spread out and spill over and around the boulders.

It was nice to at least get started on all the mulch that would need to be put down next spring. The cooler fall temperatures made it an enjoyable task.

Overall, things were progressing nicely and, even in this early stage, a yield was being produced (even if it wasn’t always for us).

Robins have discovered the crabapples outside our kitchen window:

Winter can test even the most celebrated gardens with deep, lingering snow, extreme fluctuations in temperatures, and harsh windstorms. Moreover, the structure of various plants is on full display, unable to hide behind lush foliage or showy flowers. Even though we have managed to fill some of the voids in our yard, the visual interest isn’t quite where we’d like it to be yet. But, then, that’s what ‘next year’ is for.

The front yard has only the beginnings of some structure, although, in this case, our ‘little black box’ in snow helps to improve the view.

One last look back at summer…