My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard's spare sculpture materials.)

Building a New Life

My house site before construction. (The boulders are Richard's spare sculpture materials.) The house site before construction. (The boulders–which I saved for landscaping–are Richard’s spare sculpture materials.)

Almost 14 months ago, on April 4, 2013, Tommy Meyers drove his backhoe up the bank onto this weedy, junk-filled former industrial site and began excavating for my new house.

I worked in my office in my old house, Terraphilia, with the windows wide open, listening to the growling of the backhoe engine. What Tommy was doing, I wrote then, was “breaking ground for my new life.”

Tommy Meyers and backhoe break ground for Tree House. Tommy Meyers and his backhoe commence work.

This afternoon, I picked up the Certificate of Occupancy for the new house, which means I can legally occupy what I call Creek House, in honor of the chuckling voice of nearby Ditch Creek.

The Certificate of Occupancy for Tree House. The Certificate of Occupancy for Creek House.

(I’m still awaiting the final inspection for Treehouse, the garage with studio above, and its CO.)

I have, of course, been living here since last October, when the sale on Terraphilia closed. The Building Department granted me a temporary CO then; none of us imagined I would be “temporary” for so long.

I was so delighted to receive my Certificate of Occupancy this afternoon that I took myself out to Salida Greenhouses and bought a big new blue-glazed pot to put at the street-side entrance of my front deck.

The new pot, blue to match the two pots by the front door, angled to fit into the corner of the deck railing by the front-stairs-to-be. The new pot, blue to match the two pots by the front door, angled to fit into the corner of the deck railing by the front-stairs-to-be.

Three large pots and a stock tank already sit on my front deck, making up my kitchen-garden-in-containers. I needed another pot for flowers to attract pollinators to keep my garden healthy (and make me smile at the blooms and their flying visitors).

As I filled the new pot with organic potting soil, mixed in compost for nutrients and water-retention, and carefully planted fuchsia and splashy coleus, calibrachoa and mini-petunias, ageratum and agastache, I thought about building both a house and a new life.

Fuchsia blooms I trimmed off to help the new plant get established. Fuchsia blooms I trimmed off to help the new plant get established.

I’ve just passed the two-and-a-half year mark since Richard died. (It was Tuesday at 11:07 am; I was at SeaTac Airport waiting for a flight home.) In the context of the nearly 29 years we were together, two and a half years is a relatively short span.

Sometimes I think I’m doing well in this metamorphosis into whoever it is I’m becoming. Other times I feel exposed and vulnerable, one giant nerve ending quivering with emotion.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve figured out what I’m doing and other times I feel like a kid trying on someone else’s clothes.

It’s a relief when I feel competent and strong, until I do something stupid or thoughtless. And then I just feel dumb, and clumsy with my new self.

Kayaking in the Columbia River near Portland Kayaking in the Columbia River near Portland

Why it is that losing a spouse has stripped me so bare? Because of the length of our partnership, I think, but also and perhaps more importantly, because of the depth of it. We really were each others’ other half.

Our lives were shaped to fit the other. Not in a deforming way; each of us flourished in the shelter and embrace of the other.

Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Molly, Richard and me at our apartment in Boulder, Colorado.

Without Richard, I am not only just me, I’m a me I’ve never known as an adult. We met and paired after one date. I was 25. He was 33. It’s no exaggeration to say we raised each other while we raised Molly.

Now I am raising a new solo me. It’s freeing, exciting, exhausting, and scary. And as with this house, each step is taking a lot longer than I imagined.

Unlike the CO I just received, there won’t be any official paperwork to show when I’m done. Because this very figuring out who I am and how to be in this world IS my new life.

When it’s over, so am I. I only hope I’ll have known plenty of moments where I feel like I’m living it well and lovingly.

A sunshine-bright coleus, planted with love today. A sunshine-bright coleus, planted today.

Stock tank garden-to-be

Planting Seeds

Stock tank garden-to-be Stock tank garden-to-be, waiting…

I’m not planting outdoors yet. For one thing, my steel front and side deck, where my kitchen garden will live in two galvanized stock tanks, isn’t finished.

For another, it’s still sub-freezing at night here at 7,036 feet elevation in the southern Rockies. But it is time to start my garden indoors.

I grow my own tomato, oriental eggplant and basil seedlings, rather than buying them at a local nursery or the farmer’s market. It’s a bit more work to start my own plants, but I’m addicted to the beauty and flavor of the heirloom varieties and the joy of tending my plants from seed.

Tomato seed packets from Renee's Garden Seeds Tomato seed packets from Renee’s Garden Seeds

I blame Renee Shepherd, plantswoman and chef extraordinaire, and the founder of Renee’s Garden Seeds, which specializes in heirloom and new edibles and flowers selected for their beauty, taste and ease of growing.

(They’re also sustainably or organically grown, and do not include GMOs.)

I was perfectly content to buy ordinary tomato seedlings until I discovered Renee’s offerings. Who could resist varieties like Black Cherry tomatoes (tiny, purple and smoky), Marvel Stripe (rose with yellow marbling and sweet), huge orange Persimmon (citrusy), or Stupice (dense and rich)?

You can see how easy it is to get hooked.

Seed packets and seedling pots, filled with organic potting soil. Seed packets and seedling pots, filled with organic potting soil.

I grow seven varieties of tomatoes, plus Italian Pesto basil (a large-leafed kind perfect for what its name indicates), along with three varieties of Oriental eggplant (small with thin, edible skin and a lovely nutty flavor).

I usually plant the seeds indoors in mid-March, but I’m behind this year. Yesterday I got out my tray of seedling pots and set it on the bench in the little sunspace/workshop off my garage.

I sorted my seed packets, found the bag of organic potting soil, and started filling pots.

My garden bench, in the south-facing windows of my workshop. The tray of seedling pots on my garden bench, in the south-facing windows of my workshop.

Once all the pots were brim-full of soil (it compacts as soon as it’s watered), I began sowing seeds, beginning with the Oriental eggplant varieties, then the seven varieties of tomatoes, and finally, the basil.

I put two seeds in each pot (just in case, although I usually get 100 percent germination with Renee’s seeds). I allocated one row of five pots for the eggplants and two rows for the basil, which left me five rows (25 pots) for the seven varieties of tomatoes.

Did I mention that my stock-tank container gardens can accommodate just seven tomato plants, one of each variety? And that I just planted 25 pots with two seeds each, a potential of 50 tomato plants?

I go just a little overboard planting tomato seeds every year.

One afternoon's tomato harvest from last year, plus a few Oriental eggplants. One afternoon’s tomato harvest from last year, plus a few Oriental eggplants.

It’s partly that I really love seeing those feathery little cotyledons sprout as if by magic. It’s also partly because having extra tomato plants feels like riches to me: I can share them with friends, who then get the benefit of those sun-warmed and delicious fruits.

And then there’s the practical aspect: My smallest seedling flat holds two trays of twenty pots each. So I have 40 pots—might as well fill them!

As I finished seeding each row of pots, I labeled the row with a post-it note so I’d remember what variety was planted where. Then I set the flats atop the wicking mat in the tray (the mat holds water, encouraging the roots to grow downward).

Newly watered pots on their sunny window seat Newly watered pots on their sunny window seat

I carried the whole thing into the house, along with the heat mat that goes under the tray, set it on my south-facing window seat in the living room where it’ll get lots of sun, and watered mat and pots.

This is the first year for my stock-tank kitchen garden, the first year I won’t be transplanting tomato plants into the beautiful raised beds of the extensive kitchen garden Richard and I designed and built at Terraphilia.

Like everything else in my new solo life, that’s a bittersweet first. I don’t particularly miss the house or the garden—I loved them while we lived there, but both are much too big for the one of me.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

I do miss the man though. I expect I always will.

Perhaps especially when the living room smells of moist soil and the promise of spring.

Local ingredients--everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away.

What’s Cooking

After last week’s post, The Dangerous Power of Thin, I wanted to share two simple recipes. I may have a tangled relationship with eating, but that does not extend to food and cooking.

I love to cook. I revel in playing with the flavors, colors, and textures of fresh ingredients, in preparing food that’s healthy and delicious, and visually appealing.

Local ingredients--everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away. Everything in the photo came from within a hundred miles, some from just a few blocks away.

I prefer to create from local ingredients because not only are they more likely to be fresh, I know them. They come from my community, broadly speaking, from earth that’s familiar to me—healthy food from a healthy land.

First is my favorite simple dinner, something I started making when Molly was still in high school. Tuesday is her 35th birthday—Happy Birthday, Sweetie!—which tells you how long ago that was. (The quantities in these two recipes make a single serving, but both scale up well.)

Baby Swiss from Rocking W Cheese on Colorado's West Slope, thanks to Ploughboy Local Market Baby Swiss from Rocking W Cheese on Colorado’s West Slope, thanks to Ploughboy Local Market

Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa

1 tsp butter or olive oil
2 T salsa (any kind: hot or mild, tomato and chile, fruit and chile…)
1 1/2 cups fresh greens (again, any kind, even mixed salad greens), torn into bite-sized pieces
1 – 2 eggs
1 T cheese, chopped into small cubes
fresh-ground pepper

Put the butter or olive oil in a microwavable bowl with a lid. (If you prefer to cook on the stove, you’ll need a very small flat-bottomed pan with a lid.) Spread salsa in the bottom in a layer, and top with greens. (Don’t worry if the greens fill the container–they shrink with cooking.) Microwave the salsa and greens for a minute or so on high, until they are hot and wilted. (Or sauté covered for a very short time without stirring.)

A green-shelled egg that's so local I bring the chickens food scraps, thanks to Maggie and Tony A green-shelled egg laid by my friend Maggie’s flock just a few blocks away.

While the greens are cooking, beat the eggs in a small bowl, add the cheese and grind in pepper to taste. Pour the egg mix atop the hot, wilted greens (again, don’t stir), cover, and microwave or cook on high for a minute, or until the eggs are set and the cheese melted.

Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa Cheesy Eggs Poached on Greens and Salsa

Uncover and enjoy. Excellent with warm sourdough bread and a fruit salad. I ate this for dinner tonight—yum!

The second recipe is the hot breakfast cereal I invented for Richard’s anti-cancer diet, which helped keep him healthy through four brain surgeries, radiation, and two courses of chemo. The idea is to eat food high in fiber and anti-oxidants, and low in simple sugars and starches, a good strategy for all of us. (All ingredients are organic, many are local.)

Measuring dry ingredients into the bowl. Measuring dry ingredients.

Creamy Hot Cereal

1 1/2 heaping T whole rolled oats (the old-fashioned kind)
1/2 T blue cornmeal (adds a nutty flavor)
1/2 T oat bran
1/2 T flax meal (great for Omega 3s)
1 T walnuts, chopped
1/2 T dried sour cherries
1 T raisins
1/2 T dried cranberries (not the kind sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup!)
pinch salt
1/2 T ground cinnamon (sweetens the cereal and lowers blood pressure as well as controlling blood sugar)
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/4 cup water

Mix ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl. Add water and let soak for at least an hour (overnight is fine). Cook on high (uncovered) for four minutes and then stir. Return to microwave and cook for another three minutes. Add milk or yogurt if desired. The cinnamon and ginger jazz up the flavor.

I buy the ingredients in bulk to save packaging and money. This cereal can be mixed up in quantity and stored in glass jars, but you’ll need to stir it before measuring it out because it settles. A serving for me is 2/3 cup of the mixture; others may eat more. (It’s very filling.)

Adding fresh-ground spices (these are from Savory Spice in Denver) makes the mix fragrant and flavorful. Adding fresh-ground spices (these are from Savory Spice in Denver) makes the mix fragrant and flavorful.

*****

You may notice some changes to the design of this blog/website. My friend Mark Wiard has been helping me update it, including adding a handy Events Calendar. Feel free to explore and let me know what you think, but be aware some sections are still under construction….

Maple strip flooring reclaimed from an old gymnasium.

Floors and Floods

Maple strip flooring reclaimed from an old gymnasium. reclaimed maple flooring

Late this afternoon when I stepped out on the loading dock of Richard’s shop, my flooring guys, James Mayfield and his brother, called me over to the new studio above the garage.

“We’re putting on the first coat of sealer. Take a look.”

I climbed the extension ladder, still the only access. (The exterior stairs will go in after it quits raining and my excavator can get his backhoe back on site for some serious grading.)

I looked through the door. “Oh yeah!” James stopped swabbing long enough for me to shoot a photo.

“It’s gorgeous. I love the way you let hints of the original markings remain. They tell a story.”

The maple floor boards before sanding, with random markings from its past as a gym floor. The maple floor boards before sanding, with random markings from its past as a gym floor.

James nodded. He’s very southern-culture courteous, but I could tell the day before when I asked him to sand only enough to level the surface, and not to remove all of the paint from what had once been a school gymnasium floor, he was dubious. But willing to humor his client.

“I wasn’t sure how it would look,” he said today. “I’ve never done a floor that we didn’t sand until it was ‘perfect.’ But this turned out good.”

“I want people to know it had another life before this one,” I said, “so they think about reusing materials like wood.”

We stood companionably, admiring the floor. Then I thanked James, climbed down the ladder and opened the garage door.

A small truckload of appliance boxes ready to be distributed to Creek House and Treehouse A small truckload of appliance boxes ready to be distributed.

And smiled again, this time at the sight of boxes  of appliances.

Another sign of progress, even though they’re still waiting to be moved to their eventual destinations in Creek House (my new home) and Treehouse (the garage/studio).

I checked each one on my mental list and then walked across what will be the courtyard between the two buildings.

I started to go around to the back door of Creek House, and then remembered that those floors had just gotten their second coat of sealer. I peered in the living room window instead.

Concrete floors in Creek House, newly sealed. Concrete floors in Creek House, newly sealed.

And smiled yet again. Even through the dirt-splattered pane, the floor looked great.

The house floor–the thermal mass that will keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer–is simple concrete. The guys at A-1 Concrete carefully troweled it smooth; Verlin and crew of Natural Habitats sealed it with non-VOC-emitting Behr Concrete Sealer.

The subtle patterning is what happens as concrete is mixed, plus the soft marbling from the tarps laid over it as it cures–and a few random construction drips and splotches. It too, tells a story.

Later, as I was pulling and bagging the late-summer growth of invasive tumbleweed and kochia along the City Trail across the creek, in the process revealing clumps of wildflowers colonizing the edges of the trail, the sun slipped through a gap in the clouds.

A rainbow arches over Salida and Creek House. Surely a good sign. A rainbow arches over Salida and Creek House.

I looked up and spotted a rainbow. I straightened my stiff back, trotted across the temporary bridge over Ditch Creek, and climbed the ladder to the Treehouse deck.

As I shot a photo, a woman walked by on the trail, her back to the rainbow. On impulse, I cupped my hands and shouted, “Rainbow!” and pointed.

She popped the earbuds out of her ears, turned, and grinned, her smile at least as big as the one on my face.

“Thank you!” she called. “I would have missed it.”

“You’re welcome. It was too good to keep to myself.”

She waved, replaced the earbuds and headed on up the path. I climbed down the ladder, finished weeding, and lugged two heavy black plastic trash bags to the city can at the other end of the block.

The rain started again as I walked home, still smiling.

*****

Tonight, a stalled monsoon front continues to deluge Colorado’s Front Range (east of my mountain valley), causing hundred-year floods, and washing away highways, houses and cars. My heart goes out to all affected by this wild weather, especially ironic after years of withering drought. Stay safe!

 

Adirondack chair on the guest cottage porch. (The rock is a weight.)

Whew!

Adirondack chair on the guest cottage porch. (The rock is a weight.) Adirondack chair on the guest cottage porch. (The rock is a weight.)

Eight days ago when I wrote the last post, the sale contract on Terraphilia had fallen apart.

First thing Tuesday morning (after Labor Day)–as soon as they learned the news, the people in second place re-tendered their offer.

By the end of the day Friday, after working out some small details, we had a contract. And I got an email from the prospective buyers saying they were “over the moon” about my accepting their offer.

Wow! (Much appreciation to my realtor, Kathleen Nelson of Keller Williams Mountain Realty.)

Of course, it’s not a sale until you have the certified check in hand. There is still the appraisal (this is not an easy property to appraise), the loan, and other hurdles.

But something about this contract just feels right–nothing logical, mind you, it’s a gut instinct kind of thing.

Treehouse (foreground) and Creek House (on the right) from the City Trail across the creek. Treehouse (foreground) and Creek House (on the right) from the City Trail across the creek.

I’m also exhausted from the whip-saw of emotions in just a few days from what felt like a sucker punch when the first contract imploded to cautious excitement and relief. (Fingers crossed….)

This contract gives me more time to move. Which is good, because as with every construction project I’ve ever been involved with, the new house and garage/studio are taking longer than expected.

There’s been lots of progress, thanks to my contractor, Dan Thomas of Natural Habitats, and all of the wonderful sub-contractors who have made time in their crazy-busy schedules for my small but not simple project.

On the outside, the first coat of stucco is on (the gray parts of the building exteriors in the photo above). The board-and-batten siding is all up, and after some dirt-work this coming week, the stairs will be built on the outside wall of Treehouse and the second-story deck will appear outside the studio door. (Access now is by ladder, which I enjoy climbing, but I recognize isn’t a permanent solution.)

The kitchen area with cabinets in, before Mackee began building sills and putting up window trim. The kitchen area with cabinets in, before Mackee began building window sills and putting up trim. The cabinet sitting by itself in the foreground is the kitchen island, without its top.

Inside, Creek House is painted (thank you, Alex of Timberline Drywall and crew!) and the kitchen cabinets are in and looking very fine (thanks to Rob and Rachel of Westwood Cabinets). Baseboards and doors are in, and door and window trim are going up–thank you, Mackee and Verlyn of Natural Habitats.

This coming week, the final coat of sealer will go on the floors, and we’ll be ready for plumbing fixtures.

It’s feeling like a house!

Here at Terraphilia, there’s progress too.

Eric Hagen, master of tools, wood, steel, horses and many other things, sorted, organized and priced the contents of the shop and held a shop sale. What he couldn’t sell, he found homes for, all but the big industrial dust-collection system and a wall-mounted veneer-press. Surely someone needs those….

The shower part of the tub-shower enclosure. Thanks to Tom and Lane of Alpha Plumbing, who had to go on eBay to find all the parts to the fixtures! The shower part of the tub-shower enclosure.

(Richard loved tools, plus everything else involved in designing and fabricating sculptures and functional objects from wood, steel and stone.)

And my most ambitious finishing project, the custom tub-shower enclosure in the master bath, is finally done, thanks to a lot of help.

Maggie and Tony Niemann patiently worked with me to finish the walls and trim.

Steve Duhaime of Architectural Glass wrapped the sill and added the “reedy” glass half-walls with their cool steel brackets.

Tom and Lane of Alpha Plumbing scoured the internet to find parts for the shower fixtures (the shower was roughed-in about 14 years ago, the fixtures have long since been discontinued) and invented the black steel shower-curtain rods suspended from the ceiling.

Glass half-walls screening the shower area. Glass half-walls screen the shower area.

Finishing this house and building Creek House and Treehouse feels like the best community effort, drawing on the art and skill of people I respect and appreciate.

When I started this process, I didn’t know I could learn to use and love tools, much less working with wood, steel, stone and glass.

I had no idea that I could dream up a house and be intimately involved in building it. Or that I would find the process fascinating and rewarding.

Yet here I am.

Tonight, as I was writing this post, I made myself a cup of ginger-lemon tea.

And read the tag on the tea bag:

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. Just the words I needed.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

YES.

Treehouse (foreground) and Creek House with board-and-batten siding appearing.

Clearing Out All But the Love

Treehouse (foreground) and Creek House with board-and-batten siding appearing. Treehouse, the garage plus with studio above (foreground), and Creek House, both with Craftsman details appearing.

In a month and a day, I’ll hand the keys to Terraphilia to the buyers.

Over the next few weeks, I have to finish the master bath (it’s close); sort, pack and move the contents of the house and guest cottage; and clear out the garage and shop. Of course, Creek House and Treehouse need to be ready for me to occupy as well. Yikes.

I still have some writing deadlines to meet. But as of today, all of my spare time goes to organizing, packing, and deciding what I no longer need. So at mid-afternoon yesterday, I headed out to the garage, thinking I’d spend an hour or so downsizing my gardening supplies.

On the way I decided to clean the barbecue, which has sat unused on the back porch since Richard died a year and eight months ago. I figured I could sell it.

Now that it's clean, the 16-year-old barbecue looks pretty good. Now that it’s clean, the barbecue looks pretty good.

Only once I had spent most of an hour scrubbing, checking to make sure all three burners lit, shooting a couple of photos, and looking at new barbecues online to get an idea of what this one might be worth, I decided to keep it.

It has a history: Richard and I bought that barbecue sixteen years ago when we moved to Salida. It was our summer kitchen the whole time we lived across the alley in our little renovated 1902 brick duplex.

Of course, everything I have has a history. The fact that I am trading 4,100 square feet of space for a little over 1,400 (garage included) generally keeps the “it has a history” excuse from being too compelling. In the case of the barbecue though, I decided that it could serve as my summer kitchen again at Creek House.

When I finally made it to the garage, my neighbor Bev Gray came over to help. She cleared all of the garden-clutter off the shelves and helped me decide what I wanted to keep (who needs five dozen plastic pots?) and what could be donated to the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore store or recycled.

Tidy shelves of camping gear (above) and garden stuff (below). Tidy shelves of camping gear (above) and garden stuff (below).

By the time we finished, the piles of gardening stuff to keep had diminished considerably.

I donned my face mask–I have serious respiratory allergies–and swept that part of the garage thoroughly. Then I headed inside and took a lovely long soak in the tub in my almost-finished master bathroom tub-shower area.

After which I imagined writing a blog post. Until I remembered I needed to call my dad and check in. By the time I got off the phone, my brain was fried.

I couldn’t resist going out to the garage one more time before bed. I had to admire those newly clean, organized and spacious shelves. And move a couple of boxes of books to the “library book sale” stack in the car….

When my energy for sorting, re-purposing, organizing and packing falters, I have only to walk down to the other end of the block.

Seeing the progress there reminds me of where I’m headed, and why I’m putting all this time and effort into sifting through the detritus of my life for what I want to carry with me as I go onward.

Treehouse from the shop loading dock. (It's name comes from the vantage point of the studio, which feels like its in the trees.) Treehouse from the shop loading dock. (Its name comes from the lofty vantage point of the studio.)

It’s not a bad thing. Most of the memories that come with my stuff are good ones, or at least sweeter than sad. I have been fortunate in many ways, recent losses aside.

That the love of my life is no longer with me is undeniably hard. Still, I am determined though to walk forward with just sort of love we shared, as a way to honor our time together. That steadies me somewhat as I look at how much I have to do in the weeks ahead.

I’ll be ready when the time comes, I know. Just as I know that Creek House is exactly where I need to go as I walk this new life on my own.

With love. Always.

Eastern black swallowtail emerges from its chrysalis on a fennel pant from my garden

Habitat Heroes: making a positive change in the garden

Eastern black swallowtail emerges from its chrysalis on a fennel pant from my garden Eastern black swallowtail emerges from its chrysalis on a fennel plant.

Last week, I headed to Denver to speak at Plant Select Day at Denver Botanic Gardens. My talk, “Design By Nature,” explored gardens as natural communities that can provide crucial habitat for beleaguered species of pollinators–birds, butterflies, native bees and others–and in the doing, bring us the joy of experiencing nature in our daily lives.

Biologists say that pollinators’ partnerships with plants play a part in providing one in three mouthfuls that we eat and drink. Yet many pollinators are in trouble: Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating European honeybee colonies, whole species of native bees like bumblebees are vanishing, monarch butterfly populations are in peril, hummingbird populations are experiencing drastic fluctuations.

What can we do to ensure a healthy food supply and the future of the birds, butterflies, and other species that brighten our lives and weave the global community that sustains this planet? Two of the biggest factors affecting pollinator populations are habitat loss and pesticide use.

Who needs a lawn when you can have a wildflower-studded prairie? Who needs a lawn when you can have a wildflower-studded prairie?

We have the habitat–right at home in our yards, pubic parks and golf courses, farms, orchards and other managed landscapes. Lawns occupy some 40 million acres of the United States and are some of the unhealthiest habitat around.

If we devote a portion of our lawn area to wildscapes, gardens that use native and regionally adapted plant species in designs that mimic natural habitat, imagine the difference we’d make for birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. (And the water, money and energy we’d save.)

Biologists who study native bee populations say that an 8-foot- by 10-foot patch planted with bee-friendly plants without pesticides is enough to make a significant difference for these inoffensive and hard-working pollinators.

White-lined sphinx moth nectaring at Rocky Mountain penstemon in a local park. White-lined sphinx moth nectaring at Rocky Mountain penstemon in a local park.

The two keys to providing effective habitat are design and health. Habitat design involves using plants pollinators will recognize and be able to use, and mimicking the “architecture”–the structure and scale of natural habitat. If the natural habitat is woodland, design a woodland garden, using shade and layers of plants similar to a natural woodland. If it’s prairie, design a prairie garden; if it’s desert, a desert garden and so on.

A healthy garden relies on the relationships between plants and their various partners to control “pest” populations, not on harmful synthetic chemicals.

In my high-desert garden, for instance, grasshopper outbreaks are an issue. I don’t reach for poisons: I provide a bluebird nest box. When the mountain bluebirds are in residence, they chow down on grasshopper nymphs to feed their hungry young. Urban house sparrows make a pretty good substitute for bluebirds; they’re not as graceful or beautiful, but they do eat grasshoppers. (Grasshopper nymphs are very nutritious, and in the mornings at my elevation, they’re apparently cold, slow and easy to catch!)

Habitat Hero logo with rufous hummingbird Habitat Hero logo with rufous hummingbird

My “Design By Nature” talk was part of the launch of the Habitat Hero project I’m working on for Audubon Rockies and the Terra Foundation. (For now, the project is focused on Colorado and Wyoming. The principles work anywhere though: design by nature, creating habitat that mimics what is natural in your area, use native and regionally adapted plants and eschew synthetic chemicals.)

The wildscape at Cherookee Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in industrial northwest Denver. The wildscape at Cherokee Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in industrial northwest Denver.

Habitat Heroes are, in the words of the project’s founder, Terra Board Member and passionate gardener Connie Holsinger, “Optimists–people who believe that the things they do can have positive impacts on the world around them.”

Habitat Heroes garden in a way that nurtures pollinators and other wildlife and restores healthy garden communities–along with our connection with nature right at home. The project sprouted late last winter and taking off much more quickly than we imagined.

We all want to leave our patch of ground in better shape than we found it. We can do that, garden by garden. All it takes is soil, plants, and a willingness to learn from nature as we go.

That’s what the Habitat Hero project is about. Join us to make a positive change in the garden–and the world.

The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio.

For Sale: Salida “Creative Complex”

The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio. The first page of the sale flyer for my house/cottage/historic studio. (Click the “sale flyer” link in the blog text to the left to download the actual flyer.)

I’ve done it. After more than a week of agonizing over just the right words and photos, I finished the sale flyer for my house, its attached guest cottage and Richard’s historic studio.

I printed out the first copies and distributed them around town. I gave them to friends who will pass the word around, and posted them on bulletin boards in key places. Next comes the email campaign. I’ll send them to out to my extensive list, starting here in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and rippling out across the country, spreading the word.

Why would I sell this beautiful house/guest cottage/historic studio complex on an unusually large city parcel–nearly three-quarters of an acre, a place with a spectacular view of the mountains, a place that’s walking distance from the Arkansas River and Salida’s lively historic downtown? A place I’ve put sweat, time and a good bit of cash into finishing (and I’m close to being done)?

Richard and I imagined this once-neglected property as our “last home.” He lovingly restored the crumbling old studio and then helped design and build the house and guest cottage, applying his gorgeous terraphilic sensibility to bringing the earth inside with sinks carved from local rocks, sandstone shelves sprouting like outcrops from the walls, and many other custom details. It was perfect for us.

This decidedly junky and blighted property before we adopted it. (Or it adopted us. I've never been sure.) This decidedly junky property before we adopted it. (Or it adopted us. I’ve never been sure.)

Until “us” ended with his death from brain cancer in November of 2011. Now it’s just me. I don’t need the 4,100+ square feet of finished space that comprises this creative complex. And while I’ve loved the challenge of reviving what once was a rundown industrial half-block anchored by a neglected brick millwork building, the property shines now. It’s time to let it inspire someone else.

As I said in my email transmitting the sale flyer:

As part of right-sizing to fit my new solo life, I am putting this whole “creative complex” up for sale, including my beautiful custom-designed and built house with its attached guest cottage, and Richard’s renovated studio. (I’m not moving far–I’m building a tiny house at the other end of the block.) I’m eager to find just the right someone(s) who will love and be nurtured by this extraordinary property with its incredible views and inspiring spaces!

June wildflowers in the front yard "unlawn." June wildflowers in the front yard “unlawn.”

So please help me spread the word: Feel free to re-post this and send the link for the sale flyer to anyone you think might be interested.

I’ve even planted the organic kitchen garden. Whoever buys the place will get eight varieties of heritage tomatoes, ready to pick, plus strawberries, asparagus, sugar-snap peas, scarlet runner beans, mesclun lettuces and herbs and more…. Yum!

I’m ready to move on. This beautiful place, bursting with wildflowers in summer and love and light year-round is ready to embrace its new people. Thanks for helping me find them, whoever they may be.

Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be this morning.

Progress report: the Red Queen and Rainbows

Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be this morning. Pouring the slab, the floor of my tiny-house-to-be. (The blue walls in front are the foundation.)

I feel like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: running and running just to stay in place. As she explains to Alice,

…It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

I am running as fast as I can, but life is still speeding past me. Perhaps because I’m trying to do too much? Huh. I’m going to consider that. Later.

Construction on my tiny house is one thing speeding along, despite a spate of bad weather in late April. The house is  coming “out of the ground,” thanks to my excavator, Tommy Meyers, my concrete guys, A-1 Construction, and my contractor, Dan Thomas of Natural Habitats.

Hand-troweling what will be my finished floor and also the heat-sink to store winter sunshine. Hand-troweling what will be my finished floor.

Today the cement truck beeped its ponderous way backwards up the ramp leading to the top of my foundation (which rises 5.5 feet above the lowest point of the lot) and splurted wet cement onto the rigid foam insulation beneath what will be the floor of my house.

Jimmy and the A-1 crew began spreading, screeding and finally, troweling it into a floor. (The bathroom will be in the left-hand corner of the photo, and the right two-thirds of the slab will be my open living/dining/kitchen area.)

The master bedroom in my architect-designed, sculptor-built house, with interior trim and doors by me, with a lot of help from patient friends. The master bedroom in this architect-designed, sculptor-built house, with interior trim and doors by me and friends.

Finish work on this house isn’t speeding along, mostly because I’m squeezing it between spiffing up the yard, writing a new memoir, masterminding the launch of a landscaping-for-wildlife project for Audubon Rockies, hosting this year’s first Terraphilia artist resident, Jill Powers, reviving the social media efforts of Women Writing the West,  for which I somehow became Vice-President of Marketing, and sundry other projects.

(I guess that illustrates “trying to do too much.”)

Tony, teaching me how to cut a window-opening in a sheet of galvanized steel that's about to morph into paneling for a tub-shower surround. Tony, teaching me how to cut a window-opening in a sheet of galvanized steel for a tub-shower surround.

Still, I have made progress, thanks to the help of patient and generous friends, especially Tony and Maggie Niemann, multi-talented creatives to whom I owe most of my carpentry and finishing knowledge. (Bob Spencer taught me doors.)

Almost all of the door and window trim is up, almost all of the baseboard is in and I’ve trimmed out a steel counter in the guest bath that Richard built for one of his beautiful basin sinks but never got around to finishing, and also trimmed the backsplashes for the kitchen counters about which ditto. What remains is the master bath, a complicated and challenging project both in terms of time and creativity. (See photo above.)

Guest bathroom counter with its new galvanized edging and the beautiful Richard-carved basin. Guest bathroom counter with its new galvanized edging and the glorious Richard-carved basin.

The memoir, which I call Bless the Birds, is also coming along. I think I’ve only got four more chapters to write. Of course, those four cover Richard’s third and fourth brain surgeries (both in  March of 2011), his 61st birthday summer, our Big Trip, and coming home to those last two transcendent months of his life.

To write compelling and lyrical memoir, I have to relive that time. I read through my journal, blog posts, letters and emails and Richard’s snippets of writing, and look at his art, the books he was reading and the photos I took. It’s sweet, poignant, illuminating, humbling, painful and freaking hard. Some days I have to procrastinate a lot before I sit down and write. Once I get going though, the story sucks me in. It’s hard to stop. When I do, I’m wrung out.

And I have other things to accomplish. Hence the feeling of running as fast as I can and not quite managing to stay in place.

A rainbow arcs over my neighborhood. A rainbow arcs over my neighborhood.

My work days begin before dawn and run until nine or ten at night. Still, they bring me gifts. Like today at lunch, when I snatched half an hour to watch the floor of my new house take shape. Or this evening, when a spring shower yielded the grace of a rainbow.

I take my blessings where I can. Which is, come to think of it, a good way to live.

Fall planting of Monet's Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat.

Loving-my-own-earth Days

Fall planting of Monet's Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat. Fall planting of Monet’s Garden mix plus mache (corn salad), overwintered under row covers and now ready to eat.

Yesterday, I planted spring and early summer seeds in my kitchen garden: Wasabi arugula (yes, it is really spicy!), Pixie cabbage, Bright Lights chard as colorful as its name, Paris Market mix (piquant and flavorful greens and herbs including chervil with its licorice overtones), Monet’s Garden mesclun (the lovely ruffled lettuces in reds and greens in the photo), Five Variety Mix (beautiful heritage lettuces including the aptly named speckled troutback), Regiment spinach, All-Season Blend broccoli, Baby Ball and golden beets, and Trieste bulbling fennel.

All come from Renee’s Garden Seeds, a pioneer in bringing flavorful, beautiful and easy-to-grow varieties to home gardeners. Seedswoman Renee Shepherd was passionate about local food and home gardening long before the locavore movement made both trendy, and is now working to source her seeds from organic growers. Thanks to Renee, I grow a bounteous kitchen garden and share that earth-healthy harvest with friends and neighbors.

A native Mammalaria or nipple cactus hiding in the blue grama grass, its rosy flower buds growing fat. A native Mammalaria or nipple cactus hiding among the curling leaves of the blue grama grass.

Today I spent much of the day sitting in my front yard, “pronghorning” my native dryland meadow. (The second half of that blog post explains my spring grassland-cleanup methods.) I don’t mow my mountain prairie, a tufted expanse of bunchgrasses and wildflowers.

Instead, once a year I cut it back and hand-rake it to remove the fine dead grass leaves and wildflower stalks. Stalks with seeds go to whatever patch of my formerly blighted industrial property is currently in need of revegetation. The curling dead grass leaves get placed around the yard as nesting material for house finches, mountain bluebirds and other songbirds.

Bright spring green Rocky Mountain penstemon leaves with red edges. Bright spring green Rocky Mountain penstemon leaves with red edges.

The gift of the time I spend up close and personal with the native grassland Richard and I so carefully restored on this difficult site is in seeing spring appear. Here at 7,000 feet elevation, nights are still wintry, dropping into the teens and low twenties, and spring showers are likely to come rattling sleet or dropping wet flakes of snow.

Green is never abundant in this high-desert climate. Which makes it all the more cheering to cut back dead flower stalks and find new spring leaves sheltering close to the sun-warmed soil like these Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus).

The silky hairs on pasque flower leaves trap heat and slow air movement, helping this early-spring plant modify still-wintry conditions. The silky hairs on pasque flower leaves trap heat and slow air movement, helping this early-spring plant modify still-wintry conditions.

Or pasque flower, the grassland rival to crocus with its blowsy purple flowers blooming while most other mountain prairie plants think it’s still winter. Or the tiny burgundy-colored leaves of wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), the ferny rosettes of scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) or the wavy-edged leaves of blanketflower (Gallairdia aristata). Or the soft new green leaves of big sagebrush (Seriphidium tridentatum), the shrub whose characteristic turpentine and orange blossom pungency marks the part of the West I call home.

Big sagebrush, Seriphidium tridentum, the indicator shrub for the landscapes I call home. Big sagebrush, Seriphidium tridentum, the indicator shrub for the landscapes I call home.

Sitting in my native grassland yard as I comb my fingers through the bunches of fine grasses and snap last year’s seed stalks from the wildflowers gives me the opportunity to observe the community of plants and their flying, crawling, burrowing and grazing partners in detail. That close attention is a kind of love, a way of honoring these resilient lives with whom I share this particular plot of ground.

It’s my love-my-own-earth Day observance, a reminder of the annual miracle of life renewing itself, no matter killing drought, horrific bombings, accidental plant explosions or other tragedies. When I uncover the new green of spring, my heart sings along with the warbling house finches. When I smell moist soil and the unmistakeable fragrance of spring sagebrush, I am reminded that life is resilient, bursting to be. And I am glad to be here, part of it.

*****

Troweling wet concrete after one wall of the foundation is filled. Troweling wet concrete after one foundation wall is filled.

Down at the other end of the block, the concrete trucks lined up on Friday, our first good-weather day in a week, to pour my stem walls. The foundation for my little house is now in place! Next up, back-filling around those stem walls, and then excavating for the garage/studio foundation. Step by step, a house takes shape.