I. INTRO: FOUR DECADES
I’ve lived at this property for nearly 41 years. It should be looking a little bit different by now, right? At the time we bought the house, I didn’t know anything about fixing up a home interior, and not much about gardening or landscaping in the desert, either. We had little money. But one thing had to be done right away: the entire house, except the kitchen and bathroom, was carpeted in gold shag. I ripped it all up. I bought the cheapest tile I could find, a matte-finish brown paver-type ceramic, and learned how to lay it. (I had a how-to-book. I discovered that a good book—these days, a good Internet site—can often stand in for experience.) The new floor served as a good jumping-off place, a base, for all the other work that needed to be done—most of it, I hoped, for very little cash. I pulled off the fake-wood (cardboard) wainscotting in the kitchen and painted over the absurdly ugly wallpaper. Built shelving in the living-room and bathroom. Repeated my ceramic tile success with plain, white, inexpensive squares and gray—I hoped dirt-colored—grout. For years, the house was my three-dimensional canvas.
I wasn’t quite a new-stuffs-sucks person just yet. I hadn’t made the connection between consumerism and climate chaos, even though one of my high school teachers had talked about greenhouse gasses and rising seas some decades earlier. But I was becoming a do-it-yourselfer, which is, I think, a companion sensibility. I liked doing things myself, but I also had to. In my entire life, I never had an annual income over $25,000. Most of the time I chose to work part-time, earning half that or even less. This was my life. Why should someone else own it?
Eventually, the inside of the house was done, and I moved to the outside. At the same time, I took the basic permaculture course, taught in Tucson every year. And here’s where I really started playing with the landscape.
Wild things, even gardens, can get messy—grow out of control and escape the boundaries of design. If you want to sell your house, you’ll be advised to make it neat. To cut everything back. Make sure your house can be seen from the street. But I bet there are still those who would prefer the aesthetic of the square hedge, straight walkway, and bare surfaces of my 1981 house to the sprawling mass of trees and shrubbery of the 2016 photo.
I think the 1981 version looks sad. What a boxy little thing!—with a clipped privet hedge creating a tight square around the front yard. Both the privet and the mulberry tree were common landscape plants then—you still see them today—even though they don’t do well in the heat without lots of water. Because of this need, they sometimes create a crispy brown-and-yellow effect. Admittedly, the very top photo was taken in the winter; in a few months the mulberry would have some leaves—but the way I watered it, not a healthy canopy.
Today, I think, more people recognize what green space and foliage can do for a house: balance its right angles with curves and asymmetrical form, give it a sense of life and breath, or convey a sense of luxury. Various surveys indicate that landscaping can raise a property’s value by fifteen percent or more.
But I’ve been talking aesthetics. Controlled scenery. Plants go beyond that in so many other ways. They bear edible fruits. Sometimes, as in the case of greens, they offer their whole bodies (though I try to pick just a few leaves per plant). In this part of the country, they create much-needed shade. They take in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. They build soil. They support the lives of other creatures and plants. They provide medicines and treatments (my thriving aloe vera!). They provide fiber and wood and a host of other resources.
With a blank canvas like my early-Eighties house and yard, I felt like my planting work-play could go on forever. The location of every new function—the water-harvesting cisterns, the compost piles and bins, the found-materials storage area, the little kiddie pond—needed its own sweet space, to be enhanced or nicely concealed. Vegetation was the easiest way to do that. And maybe, as a centerpiece, I’d add a rusted old piece of kitchen ware, or a carving, or a piece of trash that could become something artful.
This post is mainly a tour of some of the functional corners of my yard. But first, a current note about this week’s Fabulous Find!
I’ve been cool-coating my roof this winter. Because the paint’s expensive, I bought just two buckets, though figuring it properly, by square feet, it wasn’t quite enough. To get more later, I’d have to borrow Terry’s car, but—well, that was better than storing extra paint and trying to keep it liquid for the future. As it turned out, the roof was in horrendous condition, the excess of last summer’s rain having lifted the previous coating off the asphalt, so that peeling one edge might expose a dinner plate-sized section of tar. The roof might even need a third coat. But I wasn’t ready just yet to buy more paint.
Then one day, out biking, I passed by a huge junk pile that I included three five-gallon buckets. One had solid paint in the bottom, one was full of odds and ends, and a third one—it had a roof paint label!—was tightly covered. Could it be what it said it was? Lifting it, I guessed it was maybe a third full, if liquid. Whatever was inside, I could use the bucket. I set the thing in my front basket. It caused the basket to hit my tire. So I found some wire and string (usually what I need for lashing an item to the bike presents itself nearby) and pulled the weight away from the tire. I had only six blocks to go.
Safely home, seated with a good angle on the bucket, I pried each tab of the cover until the whole thing came off. And there it was: a good couple of gallons of liquid roof coating. Enough to do a third coat on the roughest areas. I just calculated what I’ve saved doing my own roof coating instead of getting it re-roofed as recommended—for this kind of roof, that’s five to eight years. During my unusually long sojourn here in this one place, I’ve saved $20,000 to $40,000, depending on certain variables (including inflation). The latter amount is almost what we paid for the house!
II. ALL THE LITTLE CORNERS
I pretend there’s a Goddess of Reuse. Really, it’s just that we have so much, producing every kind of trash and then tossing it out. Even so, I feel taken care of. The piles of junk are sickening. But I like the feeling that the universe is looking after me.
One day I broke a large mirror. (Not a big loss, as it had begun to lose its silver backing.) I didn’t throw it out. I always worry that a sanitation worker (or anyone else who might handle the edges) will get cut. Instead, I painted the tips white to look like snow, and made a visual barrier to hide the compost piles behind it. (This photo doesn’t show the reflections very well, but they are mirrors.)
Not as old as Esmerelda—but dazzling!
You never know when your favorite quartz crystal is going to find a place in a family-heirloom “yard turtle”—the one now guarding the golden barrel from Roberta.
Nine lives? No, it’s not a cat.
I loved this plain yellow water dispenser when I bought it for next to nothing at a yard sale—probably because the unusual, heavy-duty hose spout appealed to me. Shortly after I set it up on my outdoor workbench, a strong wind sent a propped-up two-by-four into it and broke it into six pieces. I knew it would take some time and effort to fix, but I wanted to see if my latest pot-mending technique (mesh tape inside, smeared with Thinset) would hold water. It did. The cracks showed a little bit. So, inspired by the oleander leaves that embraced it, I cast a shadow on a piece of paper and transferred the design to where the unaligned surfaces met. A thick layer of housepaint hid the flaws. I liked the result, the way it tied the thing to its background. But before I even used up one fill of water, some animal—something—knocked the yellow ceramic top off, and smashed it to smithereens. The cover was beyond fixing. But now, having spent some time on the cheery crock, I couldn’t toss it. Luckily, the cover’s yellow knob was intact. After pinching off some sharp tips with pliers, the bottom circle was fairly even. From my container of miscellaneous covers, I chose a cover that fit and glued the yellow knob on top. It makes the glass cover look like it belongs with the dispenser.
I really love the thing now. I should probably store it in a big, bulletproof safe at the bank.
A rocky relationship
I bet I’m the only gal in town who could get excited about this rock. But don’t you see it? It’s a little shelf that could display any number of things. Like this stone-like statue with its paint worn off.
Someone threw out this trellis. Someone else threw away the heavy shade cloth I stretched behind it. Someone even front-curbed the rusted sheet metal after cutting out a scorpion, cow’s head, and bucking bronco. (Can you find the horse’s tail and hind leg?). Someone gave me the industrial “teeth” with bent-rebar hooks to fit. (Was it you?) I finished defining this space with a yard-sale gun cabinet, set horizontally for more peaceful storage purposes.
A rattlesnake you can sit on
This is the first mosaic I made. The bench is constructed from found bricks, concealed on both sides with scraps of tin roofing. Mosaics can usually be made free. I’ve even seen grout and tile adhesive at the Curbside Mall (often appearing with free paint). And ceramic tile, both whole and broken, often appear in alleys. This bench has survived remarkably well for the past twenty years, considering I didn’t know what I was doing. Occasionally a couple of the edge tiles fall off and I have to glue them back on.
So worth it! (I didn’t do the lifting)
Just as the original front yard had a privet hedge around it, the back yard was fully outlined in oleander bushes. Back then a lecturer at the Botanical Gardens in Phoenix said oleanders didn’t need supplemental water. But with the drought, that changed. My bushes started to die off. I began to replace them (they’re quite toxic). On the east side I used sections of wood fencing, given to me by my friend Elisabeth. Across the back, blocking the alley, Brad Lancaster—as payment for consulting work I did on his water harvesting book—brought over a bunch of dented corrugated tin and organized a whole crew to install it. They sank lengths of old telephone poles for posts, and showed me tricks, like using bottle caps as washers. Their work has stood up well. But the west side of the yard was a hodgepodge of cactus, reed fencing, pomegranate bushes, and metal from the front porch roof (did you notice its absence in the after pictures? By taking it off I gained passive solar heat in the winter). So when my friend Tina asked me if I wanted her old gate panels, I immediately said yes. I had nowhere to install them as a gate, but I could use them to replace part of the visually porous fence. It was a huge job to install them. They were so big and heavy we had to rent a truck to move them. I had to remove all the cactus in front of the area. And Terry had to call together three of his friends to help carry them from the driveway where we’d unloaded them to their new location blocking the neighbor’s house and dog. The last step—the fun part—was filling in the area with a new arrangement of vegetation.
Luckily I didn’t have to move the pomegranate bush—the little bare-branched tree in the photo’s lower right.. Right now, it’s sending out tiny leaf buds, which will soon fill in that spot with green. Though the leaf buds and early leaves are strongly streaked with a dark, rusty red.
III. THIS SPRING, SEE SAVINGS
Budding out elsewhere in the yard are the fig tree, the acacia, the pecan, and even the orange tree with its old leaves still functioning. An onslaught of flowers will mark the coming weeks, but some of the buds and young leaves—especially when I get out my magnifying glass—are every bit as spectacular. They’re like fresh, unblemished newborns, with tiny, perfect parts. They never venture out without hope.
I wanted to close with another before-and-after photo pairing—with its stories. And the essential idea behind this post.
Which is this: You can transform a small, boxy, low-mortgage house into something you love, for almost nothing. It may take time, but if you enjoy it, it’s time well-spent. (If not, it’s gonna cost you, in labor and materials. It’ll cost the planet too, of course.)
Things you might want to do:
- Replace the silly curlicue screen door with a makeover of your own design—maybe an old one was given to you by a friend. Be advised that if you use your dad’s circular saw you won’t be able to make sharp-pointed zig-zags out of your wood pieces. (It’s physics. Or geometry. Ask someone else.)
- Plant some eye-catching, site-appropriate plants around the place and let the tired, post-war landscape standards die.
- When it’s time to paint the house, choose a more interesting color. You’re right: white is the most reflective. In this hot locale, it’s important to keep your indoor cool; stick with the white if you like it—especially on the roof. But if most of your outer walls are shaded, and if you pick out a lightish shade of your color, you can choose something happier.
- Build a porch roof to shelter an outdoor kitchen, where you can cook on hot days without heating up the house. No experience at all in carpentry? Do a work trade with a friend who can teach you. It’s not rocket science.
- Not ready to cut a cat or dog entrance into your solid old house door? Find a couple metal shelf-like structures in the alley and top them with discarded ceramic tiles to create steps. Crack the window open to match your pet’s squeeziest girth. Keep the heat and cold out with foam, curtains, or quilted fabric. Your animal will love you for giving them some independence.
It hurts me to hear about people dipping into limited savings to buy what they’re told they need but don’t. It’s a bigger lie than the ones about election results. And maybe the biggest version of it is believing in the necessity of too much house. Home space is important if it’s needed for a business, frequent entertaining (for political or other reasons), a thriving home studio, or for who-knows-what other sensible need I can’t think of at the moment. But those real estate ads for manicured, sprawling dream homes? Pictures of properties in neat white neighborhoods with backyard barbecue-patios the size of a basketball court? Videos of large swimming-pool gatherings where everyone is beautifully smiling, laughing, drinking, and showing off their youth and perfect measurements—but nobody’s swimming? They’re images that damage the soul. Status is deceptive—often having nothing to do with peace and contentment. Reaching for it has ruined an untold number of lives.
My little house (900 square feet) and small yard (less than a quarter acre) has entertained as well as sheltered me for more than forty years now, and it isn’t done yet. It isn’t done entertaining me, and it isn’t “done for,” either. I think I’ve made it better. In these times of inflation, expense, and pinched budgets, stress isn’t as inescapable as social media and the news would lead us to believe.
True fact: When we bought this house, interest rates were at 19.5 percent. Mortgage challenges soon gave way to the joys of living here. And that was 41 years ago.