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by Amanda

Sustainable Gardening - Cornflower and Northeast Mix

Spencer and Cliff recently designed and built a net-zero energy home nestled in the woods of Duxbury, Vermont. They moved in mid-summer and immediately got to work adding beauty to their newly-cleared, bare property. With sustainability, cost, and pollinators in mind, they used a variety of wildflowers and cover crops to amend their soil and create the foundation of their dream gardens. In just the three short months since they moved into the home, they’ve completely transformed the landscape.

Sustainable Gardening - Wildflowers Next To The House
The couple took into account both the outside and inside when designing their sustainable home.

Designing The Sustainable Home

Spencer and Cliff met three years ago at a sustainability design course in Vermont. Several years later, when they decided to build a home together, they knew they wanted it to be net-zero, which means that after a one-year cycle the home produces as much energy as it consumes. Spencer, an architectural designer, worked with a local company called Vermod to design and build the home.

Sustainable Gardening - Northeast Mix on Slope
They cleared almost an acre of their four-acre property and planted wildflowers and clover throughout.

Cliff says they focused on the entire property—inside and out—when designing the home. “Not only were we thinking about the construction of our home and what it looked like and sustainability, but that also included several more layers on how we were going to interact with nature outside and community around us,” he says.

They purchased a four-acre lot in Duxbury, Vermont, and spent the late winter clearing roughly one acre of it for the home. The house was assembled on the lot and Spencer and Cliff were able to officially move into the home in July.

Sustainable Gardening: Tough Growing Conditions

As soon as Cliff and Spencer moved in, they set their eyes on the outdoors. “The property was all backfill, rocks, and gravel. It was a mess,” says Spencer. He spent months before they moved in picking rocks out of the soil and working on hardscaping for drainage, aesthetics, and more. Spencer is the novice gardener of the couple; Cliff is a certified Master Gardener and has also worked at various nurseries and grounds throughout his life.

Sustainable Gardening - Clover and Northeast Mixture
A large patch of White Clover is filling in on the right of the rock path. To the left is our Northeast Pollinator Mixture. Despite the rocky, sandy soil, everything is thriving.

“The digging was all done during the wintertime and it was a forest, so there was no topsoil to speak of,” says Cliff. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on hauling in topsoil this summer, they got one truckload of compost from a friend who is a horse farmer and improvised.

Part of their improvisation included Spencer hand-picking rocks from the soil. The other involved building and adding nutrients to their soil with Dutch White Clover. “The first important reason why we planted Clover was to help amend the soil,” says Cliff. “The other reason was we didn’t want to have any grass because we didn’t want to have to mow it.” The Clover they chose only gets about 3-6” tall and comes back year after year, which makes it a great alternative to a traditional grass lawn.

Sustainable Gardening: Wildflowers Everywhere

After Spencer and Cliff planted Clover where the traditional lawn would be, they filled in everywhere else with Wildflowers. They planted Wildflowers in the front slope that abuts the road, all around the house, in their raised beds, and back property. They planted the majority of the property with our Northeast Wildflower Mix and Northeast Pollinator Mix. “We wanted to have color right away so the annuals are able to give that, but what I liked is in these mixes there are also perennials, because we can’t be spending money all the time for our flowers,” says Cliff.

Sustainable Gardening - Cornflower and Cosmos

They view the wildflower base that they created around the home as the foundation for their gardens to come and are excited to add more and tinker with it each season. This year Cliff and Spencer experimented with mixtures, individual species, and our single color mixtures. “I wanted to have patches of flowers and do some more artistic things with the landscaping. We bought some reds, pinks, and yellows, and whites,” says Cliff.

Sustainable Gardening - Sunflower and Cosmos

Cliff and Spencer’s Seed List For The Season:

Throughout the property they added swaths of single-color plantings and mixtures, bringing your eye throughout the landscape. They also had fun with different combinations; one of my favorites was the pairing of our Lavender plants with Sweet Allysum seeds. The mass purple and white planting was gorgeous.

Sustainable Gardening - Lavender and Sweet Alyssum Seeds
This easy combination of Lavender and Sweet Alyssum Seeds is so elegant.

Sustainable Gardening: A Wildflower Wedding

The couple had hoped to get married on the property on Labor Day Weekend, but after moving in July they just didn’t have enough time to prepare. They’ve pushed the wedding back to next summer and figure that will give the perennials plenty of time to get established and come back stronger next year.

Sustainable Gardening - Perennial Plants
Spencer and Cliff told me that they want to keep adding more and more perennial plants to their landscape and sourced many this season from friends and neighbors.

A big project before next year’s wedding is building more raised beds, which they’ve already sourced the materials for from a bed & breakfast just down the road.

Sustainable Gardening: Plans For Next Season

The couple says next season they’d like to incorporate more medicinal plants into their landscape. “Whether it’s for us or for people we know who’d like to take advantage of them, we’d like to have that opportunity with medicinal plants,” says Cliff.

Sustainable Gardening - Potting Bench
It's obvious that the two are big antiquers; everywhere you look there is another found object on display in the gardens.

Another goal they have for the future is to turn their love of growing flowers into a business. “We’d like to have flowers to cut and sell at Farmers Markets … what we have for retirement will be augmented by what we have growing here,” says Cliff. Eventually they’d also like to build a greenhouse to extend their short growing season.

Sustainable Gardening - Cliff and Spencer
Spencer (left) and Cliff (right) in part of the wooded area of their property. They like to garden to stay connected with nature.

Why Do They Grow?

When asked why he gardens, Cliff says, “First of all, it’s because it makes us feel good. We’re able to connect with the earth, which is very helpful, and helps to release stress and anxiety … also to feel like we’re adding something to nature, and we want to keep the pollinators around.” Cliff says that gardening is also a way to connect to other people.

Sustainable Gardening - Raised Bed and Pollinators
One of the reasons Spencer and Cliff garden is to help the local pollinators in their region. This raised bed includes Tomatoes, Kale, Mrigolds, and Coreopsis.

Spencer says,  “I just love working out in the garden and getting my hands in the dirt.” He is also a big cook and enjoys growing his own food in their raised beds.

Sustainable Gardening - Painted Lady Butterfly
A Painted Lady Butterfly sits on Catchfly, which is part of the Northeast Pollinator Mixture they planted.

It’s obvious that this creative couple has a knack for growing things. In the few short months at their property, they’ve put together a fantastically colorful, low maintenance, retreat for both themselves and local pollinators. “This is the first time I have been a homeowner,” Cliff says, “So I have a lot of dreams. We’ve been working together with each other’s dreams and it’s done very well.”

Sustainable Gardening - Containers
Pots line the front of their net-zero energy home, which was a cool 60 degrees despite the 90-degree weather outside.