Solstice Wall – Circles

Solstice Wall – Circles

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

One design idea has stood the test of time. I always liked the idea of using circles that balance the linear lines and also symbolize the sun. Late in the process we agreed on the final design and I continue to feel it’s right. Here’s a sketch I made while planning.

Adding circles increased the difficulty factor. We now needed to map perfect circles within the radiating lines of the rays. This includes cutting each ray to match the curve of the circle’s line.

To make it work, I needed to think about the size of the circles and then draw them on the panels on the floor. The easiest way to create the circles is using a string and chalk. I tied the string to a thumbtack and placed it in the center of the circle. Then I stretched the string out the edge of the circle and drew the circumference of the circle.

When I was a kid, my brother David taught me this method for making skateboard ramps. The curve created by the string creates a nice transition between horizontal and vertical. Here’s a photo of David and friends building a ramp in the 70s.

Here’s a short time lapse video of the process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Design Ideas and Mock-ups

Solstice Wall – Design Ideas and Mock-ups

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

Lately, I’ve been sharing a lot about building the Solstice Wall. Behind the scenes, we are always working on the design and what we think it should look like on the wall.

One way we’ve found to think about the design is by using lines on a photo of the wall. This creates a close-enough view of the size, shape, and feel of the rays on the wall.


Here’s a short video:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Proof of Concept

Solstice Wall – Proof of Concept

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

One of the fascinating parts of this project, to me, is that there is no playbook. I can’t find any helpful resources for how to make the Solstice Wall work. I’m sure people have done similar things, but their process and problem-solving seem to be unattainable. I take this as a challenge. We will experiment our way through.

One of the most productive experiments to date is a proof of concept model I created to test the materials and be sure that they will work as expected.

The Solstice Wall is made from a variety of materials:

  • Lumber in the wall (existing)
  • Drywall on the lumber (existing)
  • Plywood on the drywall
  • Paint on the plywood
  • Metal dowels in the painted plywood
  • Plywood strips on the dowels
  • Stain on the strips

This list gives me a bit of anxiety. All these layers have to work properly across a wall-sized installation.

To soothe my feelings, I made a model:

This proof of concept helped me experiment and test the layers and how they interact. More than that, it gave me confidence that our design would work.

Here’s a short video with more:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Mapping the Lines with a Laser

Solstice Wall – Mapping the Lines with a Laser

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

I always assumed the rays of the Solstice Wall would be mounted directly onto the drywall. Over time and lot of experiments, it became clear this would not work well. I tried installing versions of the rays and found that the drywall was not a sturdy or reliable base. The rays felt loose.

We considered using epoxy or drywall anchors, but nothing seemed to make sense. The anchors would be secure, but the installation needed to be highly precise, minimally visible, and easy to repair.

This prompted us to think about more secure ways to mount them. The obvious choice was mounting plywood panels on the wall and then mounting the rays on the plywood.

This idea had an added benefit: we could move the entire operation to the floor, design and build everything, and then install it all at once.

The Puzzle

The plan seemed almost perfect, but there was one snag. The coordinates of each ray existed in only one form: thumbtacks on the wall. How could we translate the thumbtack coordinates from the wall to the panels on the floor?

The answer was to place boards on the edges of the wall and use a laser level to establish the lines on the boards.

This way, we could place the boards on the floor by the panels and map the lines.

The idea worked and our work moved to the garage floor, where we could continue to design and build the rays before installation

Here’s a brief video about this process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Cutting the Rays

Solstice Wall – Cutting the Rays

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

To start building the Solstice Wall, we needed to cut a 4X8 sheet of Baltic birch plywood into 1″ strips that we’ll eventually mount onto the wall. Thankfully, a friend offered his large table saw for cutting the plywood. Thanks, Tony!

Once we had everything aligned, we could start. It was a two-man job and it went pretty quickly.

It was so exciting to see the rays come to life and be ready for sanding and staining.

While we planned the installation the rays were kept safe in our garage.

Here’s a brief video about this process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Staining Options

Solstice Wall – Staining Options

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

The rays of the Solstice Wall will be made of Baltic birch plywood, cut into strips. The plies will be visible, so I needed to figure out how to stain and finish them.

Plywood is made from layers of wood that are laminated together with glue. The properties of the wood mean that the plies absorb stain in different ways.

When we built Flattop, we were the painters, and that meant staining over 3,000 square feet of wester red cedar for our ceiling and soffits.

We used a transparent stain that used to go by the name Sikkens. We had a lot left over and I started to experiment with the best ways to apply the stain. I started with the process we used for the cedar: sand and stain, sand and stain. It looked OK, but the stain built up in places and looked dull and a bit too dark.

Next, I tried applying the stain, but wiping it off before it had a chance to soak in. This brought out the plies and created a lighter, cleaner look that I was looking for. This felt like the right direction, so for now, this is our model for how we’ll finish the rays.

Here’s a brief video about this process:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall – Choosing Materials

Solstice Wall – Choosing Materials

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

Once we decided the lines on the solstice wall would be three-dimensional, it became a different kind of project. We’d be adding something to the wall that needed to be installed. One of the first questions was: what material should we use for the lines, or “rays”? One idea stood out.

shadow line from the solstice wall

When designing the built-ins of our home, we used Baltic birch plywood. We loved the color, the Scandinavian look, and seeing the plies. The bench below is made from two pieces of plywood laminated together.

We asked: what if the lines on the wall were made of the same plywood, with the plies facing outward? This way, the installation would have an aesthetic connection to other parts of the home.

Baltic birch Plywood is easy to work with, stable, and relatively affordable. It seemed perfect. The final decision was made: the lines on the solstice wall, what we call the “rays” will be strips of plywood. 

Next, we had to think about how it would attach to the wall. It was far more complicated than I imagined.

Here is a brief video about the subject of this post:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

Solstice Wall Shadow Lines – 2d or 3d?

Solstice Wall Shadow Lines – 2d or 3d?

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

The solstice wall is based on the movement of the shadow line in the photo below.

We marked the locations of the shadow every fifteen minutes so we could create a map of the shadow’s location as the sun set.

The lines above became a starting point for months of debate. The initial idea was to draw the lines on the wall’s surface and use them to create an interesting design.

Over time we realized that drawing on the wall wasn’t the right approach. It was two-dimensional and not very interesting. The wall is huge and in our main living space. We needed to find a remarkable approach and take our time getting it right.

Eventually, we started to consider making the shadow lines 3 dimensional and thought about adhering pieces of wood to the wall. This felt like the right direction, but it needed more. Soon we saw an opportunity to hold the shadow lines off the wall. This way, the shadows would be more interesting and the whole thing would look more sophisticated.

This idea stuck. But it also created new problems to solve. How would we install the pieces of wood on the wall? It took months and multiple models to figure out what could work. More on that soon.

Here is a brief video on this subject:

I’m sharing this process on social media. Follow along!

The Solstice Wall: An Introduction

The Solstice Wall: An Introduction

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

At our home on Orcas Island, we have a large interior wall that faces south. In 2021, during our first summer at Flattop, we noticed that the roofline cast a shadow across the wall as the sun set every evening. This shadow’s movement gave us an idea.

What if we marked the location of the shadow line as it moved up the wall? That seemed like an interesting idea, but the marks would be specific to a single day. What day should we do it? The obvious answer was on the summer solstice. So, when that day arrived, we placed tacks and sticky notes on the wall that marked the shadow’s location in 15-minute increments.

These lines were like coordinates for the shadow’s location over the evening. The tacks allowed us to start thinking creatively. The shadow lines created a canvas across the whole wall, which is about 10′ X 15′.

These lines, which only existed digitally, were the foundation for months of design debate. What could we create that uses the lines and the whole wall? For the past 18 months, we’ve been working to answer that question.

Here’s a brief video introduction:


Today, we have everything lined up to bring a new idea to life and I’m sharing every part of the process. I’ll share on this blog and a few places on social media:

Sleep, Creep, and Leap

Sleep, Creep, and Leap

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

In talking to plant people, you hear the adage, in reference to planting ornamental plants:

The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.

It’s a nice, medium-term way to think about the garden; one that teaches patience.

“…and on the third year, your gardening genius will finally be revealed!”

Two summers ago, just after moving in, I planted the garden with hope for the future. Just wait, I thought, in the summer of 2023, the garden will be bursting with color, fragrance, and life. I couldn’t wait.

The summer of 2023 just passed and I’m not sure my hopefulness in 2021 was warranted.

The second summer (2022) arrived and built my confidence. Most plants lived through the winter and crept into the summer, just as expected. Sections of the garden did well, like this huge dahlia.

We built a new bed which I filled with trees and shrubs, along with a bunch of perennials.

The process of choosing plant locations has always given me mild anxiety. How do I know where to plant them? What will they become in this location versus another one? Is this plant taking a spot away from a better one?

With a three-year plan in mind, I began to ask: Do I want these plants in these locations, for years?

An example is the boysenberries we planted along our fence. Over time, they become part of the fence and more permanent. I think we chose well with these two vines and should get berries next year. The plant in the middle is pineapple guava, one of the few tropical fruits you can grow outdoors in our region.

Another win is creeping thyme, which is starting to grow nicely over the rock wall.

As I learned more about gardening and garden design, I realized that I wasn’t locked in. I could experiment over time, and learn what works where. I could move sad plants and divide perennials I love. I could shake up everything. This was liberating and I started to see that the garden was always in flux.

Last fall I dug up 20+ Dahlia bulbs and overwintered them inside. I now know this isn’t required, but I wanted to move them anyway. They did almost nothing this year. As of October 2, a total of one has bloomed.

This “frost free” gardenia looked dead after a harsh winter. Today, it’s starting to show signs of life and I’m claiming victory in its savior.

Bottom line: experience matters and you have to earn it. The person who made planting decisions in the first summer was a rookie and rookies should not be making three-year plans. But what could I do?

The 2021 garden was a chance to learn from mistakes. Perhaps gardening knowledge is simply a collection of lessons learned.

Year Three – A New Beginning

Here in year three, I should be able to finally start the three-year plan and stick to it. I was inspired to dig almost everything up and start over. Like many things, the more you learn about gardening, the more amateur you feel. I’m under no illusion that I know what I’m doing, or that I’m capable of pulling off the three-year plan. But I am going to try.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve formulated a plan. I created an overhead map of our property so I could sketch a design reflecting my accumulated knowledge to date. The red marks are new or moved plants.

For the first time, this plan accounts for dividing perennials, planting some things I’ve propagated, and getting bulbs in the ground for the spring. Unlike the garden before, I’m thinking ahead about the overall design. This means planning ahead regarding height, color, spread, what blooms when, and for how long.

Finally, I’ll plant things with a real three-year plan in mind. Then, in 2026: Camelot!

I want it to be so, but I am realistic. I have so much yet to learn. I fear that in 2026, I’ll be saying “That 2023 dude was an idiot” and resolve to start the REAL three-year plan. Vive la 2029!?!?

You can see where this is headed. There is no end. There is no magical point where any garden is leaping all the time. Plants change constantly and sometimes mysteriously. There is always a new problem to solve or an idea to manifest. Maybe a leaping garden is more of an aspiration.

I’m already looking forward to the spring of 2024 so I can see the results of my planning and the start of what should be a longer-term experiment. If I keep saying, “Just wait until next year!” every year, I will be on the right track.

I Can Recommend

Speaking of gardening, I want to share a show and a few Instagram accounts that have taught me.

Gardener’s World:

For over 50 years, the show Gardener’s World has been a staple of British TV. Each episode has a mix of practical advice, visits to unique gardens, and an overall soothing British feel.

Monty Don is the long-time host (along with his golden retrievers) and I’ve come to be a big fan. It’s the kind of show that you put on when you don’t want to think too much. It’s light, educational, and quite entertaining. It helps, too, that UK weather matches our own.

​Seasons 6 and 7​ are on Amazon Prime. Seasons ​7,8,9 are on Tubi​.

Instagram Accounts

​Dave The Plant Man​ is a constant source of useful and interesting posts about plants. He’s so kind and charming.

​Nettles and Petals​ is an account by Jamie Walton, an extremely tattooed and experienced gardener who focuses on edibles and wild plants.

​Powers Plants ​posts frequent tips and observations about small home gardens and garden design.

​Branches and Leaves​ has taught me a lot about propagating shrubs and trees.

​You Can Do It Gardening​ – Jess is a garden coach who records herself consulting with clients. Great for design and how-to.

​Garden Mentors​ is by a local friend named Robyn Haglund. She doesn’t post as often as the others but knows her stuff and teaches online classes for gardeners.