GutHaus and Sustainability

Welcome to our garden, GutHaus. It is a pleasure to share it with you.

For six decades its’ been home to the Mastenbrook’s, beginning when Johanna & Richard arrived Labor Day, 1955, and expanded when Joyce & Keith moved in next door in 1998. Prior to that it was the family compound of the Guth family, Frederick & Katherine, their seven sons and one daughter. Arriving in 1916, the Guth’s purchased a five-acre parcel of the state school lands tract, land set aside for sale to fund school construction. Just beside the word “public” in the image below are two squares, the smaller represents Johanna’s house and the larger represents the Guth family home. That home burned down some time around 1930, after which our current home was built, in 1932.


After World War II, there was tremendous growth in Seattle and most of the neighborhood was subdivided into standard sized city lots. The Guth Compound was the final holdout in the entire school land tract, which began with 72 of these five-acre tracts. A later plat map shows several more buildings on the Guth property.


However, the street shown here was only lines on paper, not actually built elements of the landscape. An early aerial photograph of the area reveals just how rural northeast Seattle was just after the war. Per Johnson, while researching for the 35th Avenue re-zoning study found this archival image of the 40th Avenue and 70th Street junction. The lower quadrant is the Guth Compound. Five houses can be seen, of which four are still standing. But what’s really amazing is how rural it looks! Just how far do you think you’d have to travel today to find landscape with the same density?Guth House 40th & 70th c.1948

In 1952, Irving Donnergaard and Louise Guth-Donnergaard, built a new brick house, and my parents purchased, for $13,000 and two-hundred dollars down, their old place. It would be another decade before 39th Avenue was built, nearly the last of the vacant lots. Set so far back from 40th Avenue, meant our lot could not be subdivided, resulting in an extra large lot. Irving Donnergaard was my gardening inspiration, and when Louise gave me their backlog of Organic Gardening magazines, the die was cast. Environmental science studies at The Evergreen State College eventually led to Landscape Architecture, at Oregon. Returning to Seattle in 1988, I began building the garden. The plans for the backyard were developed in my term at the university, and for the entirety of the summer construction was underway

.Donnergaard, Irving & Louise

The ubiquitous Tam Junipers were such a “thing” in the good-old northeast Seattle, thankfully more and more they are being removed. We lost all the Pines (Pinus monticola) and the Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) to root rots and anthracnose. It was devastating but opened the way for new things. After Joyce and I met, were married, and settled in Wallingford, our old neighbor Ben Guth passed away. A recluse in his final years, we bought the house “as-is” and began work on the garden. That was in 1998, and we were doing fine until September 2001, when the economy and culture was shook by the World Trade Center disaster. Changes needed to be made, especially in why we garden


We wanted our garden to represent our values and concerns about the environment. We wanted our it to be sustainable, but what does that really mean? Someone asked me, “Do you know anything about Permaculture?” I didn’t and the suggestion lay dormant for a long time, before I did something to learn more. I read Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway and began rethinking the garden plan, then I went to Lost Valley,in Oregon, for a PDC (Permaculture Design Course) with Toby, Jude Hobbs and Rick Valley. I read David Homgren’s book Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability and attended his advanced course at the Phinney Neighborhood Center.

Our progress in the garden moved towards the edible forest garden model, and I read David Jacke’s book Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture (with Eric Toensmeier), then attended an advanced course in Helena, Montana, led by David Jacke. This style was more in keeping with the way our garden was developing and I want to stress that our garden is very much a work in progress. There are a lot of old plants, that’s one of the benefits of our long-term association with this place. At the same time there is constant change. A garden is the composite of a multitude of living organisms from the soil micro-biota up to the enormous trees. Summer droughts and winter snow storms have taken their toll on various plantings, increasing shade created by trees and shrubs has diminished the presence of sun-loving herbaceous perennials. Every loss is an opportunity to select a new species to test for its’ ability to find a niche in the garden.


sus·tain·a·ble : In ecology, sustainability is the capacity to endure, it is how biological systems remain diverse and productive indefinitely (wikipedia).  What makes a garden sustainable? With change inevitable, what garden elements contribute to the overall sustainability of our culture. Permaculture, which addresses sustainable design, is founded upon three ethical standards: Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Share the Surplus. Every gardener is free to express these in their own way and they all contribute to sustainability. Here are some of the ways our garden enhances sustainability, from our perspective.

Biological Diversity. We cultivate a wide selection of native and exotic species, some grown for food, or fiber, or just aesthetic pleasure, while others support wildlife.


Biomass Accumulation. The carbon sequestration contributes to a reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide, trees in particular, because they live very long lives.


Mulching & Litter Management. Allowing fallen leaves and small branches to accumulate helps to feed soil organisms. Use the “chop-and-drop” method, cutting twigs into small pieces before leaving them atop the soil. Piles of twigs and small branches create habitat for insects and other critters that in turn support birds, and on up the food chain.

Cultivation of Edible Species. Our garden includes many edibles and we have focused on the ones we enjoy eating the most, and the ones that thrive. Plums are ideally suited and we grow several, including the Japanese ‘Methley’, Europeans ‘Geneva Mirabelle’ and ‘Schoolhouse’. High value plantings, like Raspberries and Cascade Blackberries are repeatedly planted around the garden. Herbs, especially medicinal varieties are grown.

Cultivation of Native Species. Native species play a special role due to the association between native plant species and native fauna. When possible, native species should be chosen over exotics. This relationship between native flora and fauna results in plants being eaten, as a gardener be proud of this and accept the leaf damage as a sign of success. This scene includes Vine Maple, Blackcap Raspberry, and Cascara that came into the garden from the King County Native Plant Salvage program, which digs on sites slated for development and uses the plants for restoration work.


Rain Gardens. The lower “Bog Garden” was built, in 1988, to fix a water problem. Heavy rain regularly led to water leaking into the basement. A drainage system was installed with a trench drain and overflow into the sunken planting area. It has worked quite well and receives water from both houses.


Intelligent Irrigation. Both houses have their own 16-zones irrigation systems. Having many small area zones allows more specific targeting of water, based upon the needs of plants. The system uses micro-spray and drip emitters for more efficient watering. These heads and emitters can be increased for new plantings and removed once drought tolerant species are established. Eventually we want to improve the system with rainwater harvesting cisterns.

Livestock: Bees, Chickens, and Worms. The city lot presents limitations on what is workable, but we’ve found great success with bees, chickens, and worms. The bees provide valuable pollination services and provide delicious honey. The chickens provide eggs and eat vegetable scraps and weeds, while providing endless fascination for children; cleaning their pen provides a valuable compost ingredient. The worms process kitchen wastes into extremely valuable worm castings.


Pathways. A variety of pathways are used in our garden. Heavily used paths are paved, but many are low maintenance gravels. Light colored stones are used to reflect light at night. And a driveway widening project used eco-pavers that allow rain to percolate. Our driveway remains gravel which creates no run-off and is easy to clean.

Composting. We export a lot of yard waste, as our limited space prevents us from composting everything on-site. Brushy plants that are slow to breakdown get packed into the bin or trucked away, but smaller material is composted in wire bins. The piles are usually large and turned a couple of times. But sometimes they are just set up in the garden and left to dissolve away. Trees are especially good at finding these nutrient rich resources.


Arborist Chips and Sheet Mulching. The best way to prevent digging and the resultant backaches, improve soil texture and biota, eliminate weeds and prepare for planting is to sheet mulch. This can be as simple as spreading between 6-inches and 12-inches of Arborist Chips and waiting. While they smoother weeds, they are also feeding all the soil biota and in about a year the soil will be wonderful. In a few years only a few chips will remain, which was the case in all the areas we used this method. You can also improve the sheet mulching by adding compost, leaves and any other non-weedy plant material.

Hugelkultur. For us this is a new practice, one that consists of burying woody material beneath soil to create mounded planting beds. The decaying wood provides nutrients and hold water like a sponge. The practice is particularly useful during the initial construction of a new garden, when the disturbance is minimal. It also buries carbon for slow decomposition, which equals sequestration and it reduces export environmental impacts. We have also buried several trees by just leaving their logs near the surface to decay, rather than burning.


No Dig Gardening. Did you know that everytime you till the soil you release carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change? A good Kitchen Garden is a highly productive resource that produces great benefits, worthy of a little digging. I say, go for it! But try to incorporate no-dig, no-rake areas, as we have done. And a footnote on digging: using a spading fork or border fork will make weeding easier and prevent cutting worms in half.

Urbanite Walls and Terracing. The creation of level terraces will improve growing conditions as rain is slowed and erosion contained. The walls make used pathways and heat sinks, depending on their locations. They can be simply built as we have done with concrete blocks or broken concrete, known as Urbanite. Mortar between the courses makes a nearly permanent wall out of a discarded by-product of urban growth.


Nutrient Accumulators & Nitrogen Fixers. Several plants provide important ecological services without which the health of the garden would not be the same. Nutrient accumulators generally are tap-rooted species that bring nutrients up from deep in the subsoil. Compost their leaves or practicing chop-and-drop, or use as feed. Chickens absolutely love Dandelions and will eat every inch of them. For nitrogen there are many useful species, one of my favorites is Ceanothus, which is also great for bees and bumblebees.

Parking Strips for Community. Creating more than shaded parking for cars, our parking strips draw passersby into the garden. You can’t help but experience the garden as you walk past, and last year I added a sign board to inform people of SusNES events and more.


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