– By ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI

McClatchy Newspapers

TACOMA, Wash. – Stare out of Ingrid Walker’s back windows in the rain and you won’t see a dull, dripping yard with leafless trees. What you will see is pattern and color — royal blue granite shapes, yellow tin mushrooms, warm red brick paths and shiny glass stepping stones in a modernist mosaic that covers the entire yard. Even the gravel is colored. Which is exactly how this university arts and culture professor imagined it when she moved to Tacoma from the California sun.

What’s even more fascinating, though, is the fact that every little part of her backyard mosaic has its own story to tell — because 90 percent of Walker’s hardscaping is recycled.

“I’m from Northern California; I wanted something cheerful to look at,” explains Walker, of why the all-grass backyard she’d bought with her North End Craftsman house just didn’t cut it as a panorama during the long rainy season. Being a mosaic artist as well as an associate professor in interdisciplinary arts at the University of Washington Tacoma, Walker naturally imagined a yard full of patterns and different materials, something that would sparkle in the rain. But she didn’t want it new.

“I don’t really like flagstone,” she says. “I like old things; decrepit, rusty things.”

Enter Scott Gruber. A landscaper who also likes unusual materials, Gruber worked with Walker on a giant mosaic design for her 50-by-20-foot backyard. Taking about three months (“because neither of us really knew what was going to happen,” says Gruber), the landscaper plumbed friends, colleagues, landscaping suppliers, online and his own pile of job leftovers to find an array of hardscaping elements that all come with their own unique history.

Take the red bricks that curve around the southern fence — part of an old chimney a friend was tearing down just at the right moment. Or the yellow bricks behind them, once part of an old industrial kiln. One sitting-step below the curve is a pool of crushed rock — plain black-and-white granite peppered with red and blue bits of granite countertop that Gruber found in a pile hidden behind the office at River Road Landscaping. They shine in the rain, Walker says. Behind the curve stands a grove of rusty old tin mushrooms from Mexico, yellow and red with cute holes cut into them.

Arcing around the back steps are more pavers: large sandstone chunks from old downtown buildings, originally from the Wilkeson quarry at Mount Rainier and later used as fill material down at the Tideflats, and leftovers from Gruber’s pile. They’re blended seamlessly with just a few new gray pavers and brightly colored offcuts from granite countertops.

By the back gate is a large concrete bench, some 4-by-4-by-2 feet — it began life as an industrial counterweight during the building of the Seventh Street Bridge on the Tideflats, and the dip in the center is perfect for Walker’s miniature planting of bright succulents. Next to it stand two sculptures — a mossy monolith originally part of the now-gone Music Box Theater downtown — later used in a garden wall by a friend of Gruber’s — and a rusty red diesel truck fuel tank, stood on end like a Richard Serra sculpture. Along the path, Walker has upturned two iron carriage steps to form another intriguing piece of art.

Then there are the large yellow paving squares, originally City of Tacoma picnic table-tops; the fiberglass tank from River Road Landscaping that looks just like cement and is a perfect warm container for tomatoes; glass bricks from the old Auburn train station, now stepping stones. Gruber even reused some of the old red concrete that was originally in the yard, and Walker has made a glass-topped cache in the path to hold nostalgic little home items found in the digging.

“We were just scavengers,” says Walker with relish. “We’d run out of material and have to find more stuff. Or Scott would come by saying, ‘Look what I found!”‘

Creating a yard from found materials isn’t easy, however.

“The biggest challenge in using mixed materials is the different dimensions and thicknesses,” explains Gruber. “You have to try to homogenize the look, to transition from one material to another.”

He also estimates that he lifted around 43,000 pounds of materials, either by hand or with a small excavator.

But overall, Walker is completely happy with her Mondriaan-ish back yard. Using recycled materials saved her around $4,000, and she’s pleased she’s avoiding the “high-end restoration” she did on a previous home. The clean mosaic makes the ideal foil for the herbs, grasses, fig tree and raspberry cane planted among the pavings.

Maybe the best compliment comes from the next-door-neighbor, Ken Richardson, who watched the whole long process from beginning to end.

“I love it,” Richardson says. “It’s different. It’s unique.”LOOK AND LISTEN

WANT TO LANDSCAPE using found or recycled materials? Here are some tips and resources from landscape designer Scott Gruber and Karen Roice, general manager at a store for recycled building materials.

WHERE TO FIND STUFF:

n Put the word out. Tell your friends; somebody may just be demolishing something you can use for free.

n Check online. But if you find something good, jump on it immediately, says Gruber: “These things are a pretty hot commodity.”

n Use up your own leftovers.

HOW TO USE IT:

n Make sure you have something that can lift heavy weights such as historic stone pieces or industrial leftovers. Gruber has a small excavator.

n Plan for continuity, despite things looking different. “Try to homogenize … to transition from one material to another in a feathering way,” Gruber says. “You need visual continuity.”

n Plan to do extra digging to get the surface level; not all materials will be the same thickness.

n Think artistically. Some older red bricks, for instance, come with mortar chunks set on. You can sometimes leave this on for visual effect.

n Be creative. Karen Roice has seen customers use bathtubs as fountains, fencing for porch swings, sinks as planters and more