The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

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A Veggie Garden Upgrade

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2020 might have been the best year in my veggie garden yet. I planted only what we like to eat, and raised most of the plants from seeds myself. For the first time, the joy of return exceeded the labor and stress gardening in this space.

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I also had plenty of time to take a hard look at the veggie garden. It has been producing well, thanks to periodic compost application. Practically speaking, there isn’t anything I have to do to here for productivity. But it does bother me how messy it looked:

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The edging made of scrap wood, the woodchip mulch, the lawn grass keep growing into the veggie bed…More I looked at this space, more I wanted to give it a facelift. After all, the goal of gardening this Fall is to make the gardener happy, remember?

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Can you tell what I did now? In short, I replaced all the woodchip mulch with pea gravel.

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Do you like it? I loved it. And Slav likes it too! When I first proposed this project Slav immediately agreed. I was surprised that he even had an opinion, but then I realized that he always has an opinion, just might not say it voluntarily. 🙂 Oh man!

The veggie garden has experienced a few cosmetic upgrades. When we first started this space in 2018, we kept the lawn between the veggie beds. Inevitably, grass grew into the beds rapidly. The following season, we put down cardboard with woodchip mulch on top to create some pathways. This method worked well for over a year, but then the cardboard broke down and weeds started finding their way out again. I guess the woodchip mulch we used is too coarse to block the light. If we had used compost over the cardboard layer, we might have completely blocked weed growth. But in general, we are ready to move onto other mulch material offering more tidy appearance.

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When we built the horizontal fence next to the vegetable patch, a combination of landscape fabric + pea gravel was used under the fence for weed suppression. It worked very well, and we loved the look of pea gravel too! After going through our options, we decided to expand the pea gravel into the veggie garden, which would also get rid of the railroad ties (saved from the old fence) we used to separate the two materials.

So I got to work, the first step was to rake away the woodchips. I started from the corner of the garden, where the veggie patch meets the small flower bed:

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The soil underneath the woodchip mulch was so rich. Apparently, the cardboard we put down in 2019 has completely disintegrated underneath the mulch.

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Remember this small flower bed? I carved it out this Spring for the ginkgo tree, and added irises to fill the space. I intended to keep it mulched, so I moved the metal edging to keep the pea gravel out and topped the bed with a fresh layer of black mulch.

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Look at the ginkgo tree!

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I know, it still look like a twig…but it actually grew a lot. It is definitely a much stronger twig now.

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Love the leaves. Ginkgo is also called maidenhair tree because of the shape of its leaves.

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Below is the transformation of the side pathway. After removing all the mulch, I got rid of the railroad ties, and lined the path with landscape fabric.

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Even without the pea gravel layer, it looked a lot better already! Next, I raked woodchips off the pathways between the veggie beds. At this point, Slav was recruited to help with the old strawberry bed.

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These strawberries have been here for three years and stopped producing this year. As the strawberry plants became weaker, lawn grass took over. Knowing this bed will be turned this Fall, I basically let it go the entire summer. So it looked bad… Upon my request, Slav dug up the old strawberry plants, sifted through the top soil to remove large stones and grass roots, and mixed in a couple inches of fresh compost. The soil in this bed is so fluffy and rich now, it will serve as an awesome garlic bed for next year.

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When Slav worked on turning the old strawberry bed, I started putting down a new irrigation line. The veggie bed is watered by drip, but the irrigation grid was never connected to the timer when I automated most of our irrigation this Spring. So basically, I still had to drag a hose to the veggie garden, connect it to the drip grid in order to water this space. The main reason of leaving it out of the automatic setup was simple: the veggie patch is far away from our backyard outdoor faucet. But since Slav was already digging, he offered to bury a water line for me to connect the veggie garden drip grid to the outdoor faucet!

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I connected a long poly tubing to the existing veggie garden drip grid using a T-connector, then Slav buried the tubing all the way to the outdoor faucet at the back of our house:

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Slav has buried poly tubing in front yard this Spring so he moved very quickly on this project. It probably only took him half an hour. But let me tell you, his work will save me at least half an hour, maybe an hour each day during growing season to keep the veggie plants alive. Thanks Slav!

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After all the pathways cleared, I laid down landscape fabric and Slav brought in the pea gravel.

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What a transformation! Here was how the garden looked with woodchip mulch:

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And here is its new look with pea gravel:

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I think the small size of pea gravel made the pathways look tidy and spacious. I also love the color contrast between the gravel and the dark compost in veggie beds.

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I cannot help but putting a chair here. Morning coffee has never been so relaxing.

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It took us two days and $40 of pea gravel to complete the upgrade. Slav picked up the pea gravel with our trailer from a landscape company, so we did not pay any delivery fees. We had landscape fabric and poly tubing in hand. The woodchip mulch removed from the veggie garden did not go to waste either – it was applied to the newly planted patio garden, making this project essentially zero-waste. 🙂

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This small facelift for our veggie garden officially concluded the gardening tasks this Fall. A peony garden + a tidy veggie garden will give our backyard an awesome start next Spring. They are also treats to myself, after all the stress and work we had to put up with this year. 2020 has reminded me how to be kind to human beings, including myself. Treating myself is not selfish, and asking Slav for help does not make me weak. 2020, you have taught me a lot!

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Planting a Peony Garden!

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The 2020 Fall must be the longest anticipated Fall on my calendars. I am sure you understand why. As soon as our backyard crabapple tree turned color, I was ready for snow to come. But before tucking myself in for a cozy winter, there are some gardening tasks to take care of first.

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Fall in Colorado means the last days of sun ray. And my dogs made sure that they took it all in. This year I had a lot more opportunity to observe my dogs. How they live their lives is a good reminder on what’s important in life. Sleep, lots of day naps, fresh water, stretch, curiosity (sometimes too much), and always, always staying close to your humans…all of which I should do more myself.

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Another thing I thought a lot about this year is the purpose of our actions. We often act to serve others around us, to please other people, and more often than not, doing something to serve oneself is considered selfish. The lockdown allowed me to reexamine my life and identify what makes me happy, and what makes me stressed. To my surprise, the things stresses me out are often trivial, and very easy to correct. Honestly, no one else cares about them one way or the other. Slowly, I came to the realization that I should act a bit more to serve myself and make my life happier.

One good example is what I plant in my own garden. I’ve always been very utilitarian when it comes to garden design and plant choices. But spending time taking care of plants I do not particularly care about started feeling more like a chore than joy. So this Fall, I decided to that my gardening tasks should have one goal and one goal only – plant something I desire, which will bring me joy, regardless its practicality. And to me, this “something”, is peony.

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I always wanted peonies – not only because I grew up with it (it’s the national flower of China), but also for the incredible elegancy and resilience peony represents. When I learned that peonies grow well in Colorado, I was more than committed to make them the queen of my garden. However, my peony dream was held back during the last a couple growing seasons, because I had not identified a good location to plant them.

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Until this Spring, when the patio garden came to life. Do you remember the patio garden? It aligns the northern edge of our backyard lawn space, stretching from the bank of the future shed patio all the way to the back of the house.

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Initially, I carved out this skinny and long garden bed to soften the edge of our raspberry patch. But as soon as it came to shape, I knew it would be perfect for peonies. It is mostly south-facing, protected from strong wind, well-drained, and next to the lawn space so the bloomed can be seen from the house and majority of the backyard. It could not be more suitable for peonies even if I was trying to create a flower bed for peonies!

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So here they are, all 9 peonies in white and pink colors, planted in the ground with the flags to indicate their location. I had to shop around this year due to the plant shortage. But I managed to get 8 bareroot peonies from several online suppliers.

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One of my wonderful neighbors, who is a very experienced gardener, gifted me a double pink peony after she divided hers. Gotta love your local gardening friends!

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To cap the peony hedge with a more natural appearance, I planted a cold-hardy rosemary (figures crossed) and three English lavender at the end of the patio garden.

 

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The lavenders were moved from other part of the backyard, so they looked a bit rough at the moment. But they will be fine next Spring.

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Do you recall this Chinese Snowball Viburnum? I planted it this Spring and I think it likes our soil. It grew quite a bit, even gave me two big flowers this summer. It should grew to be a multi-stem ornamental tree, with peonies planted around its stems.

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Peony has a relative short flower season. After blooming in Spring, their leaves and stem grew to be bush-like and do not have much to show for. Peonies also require a few feet space in between due to their extensive root systems, resulting in a rather unexciting garden space during Summer and Fall. To spice up the patio garden, I adopted a trick from P. Allen Smith, who is an experienced peony grower: planting Russian Sage in between the peonies.

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Russian sage does not sprout until late Spring. so they will not block the peony blooms, nor steal significant amount of nutrition or water from blooming plants. But in Summer months, Russian sage gets tall quickly and can mask the peony bushes with their tall, purple flower stalks. So the idea is that the peony hedge in Spring will be come a Russian sage hedge during summer and fall months, lasting all the way to frost.

I splurged a whole flat of Russian sage plugs and dotted them among the peonies. Russian sage flowers are practically pollinator magnets. So adding them will only help the food production in my backyard. I had a few leftover after planting the peony part of the patio garden, so I decided to continue the Russian sage hedge into the shed patio bank:

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Above is how the patio bank looked like this Spring, right after I finished moving the soil. Since then, I have planted a transparent apple and some irises (also from my gardener neighbor). And here is how it looks like now:

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For space reference, the peony/Russian sage mix was planted to the left side of this picture, and ended before the kidney-shaped herb garden. Planting a few Russian sage on the right side helps to bring the color and the texture of Russian sage to the right side of the garden path, so it does not look like the Russian sage ended too abruptly.

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Here is the bank from another angle. There are two varieties of irises planted here, both of which flower purple, and the apple tree flowers white. Image the white apple blooms, purple irises, and white and pick peonies in Spring, and purple Russian sage flowers and irises in Summer…It will be so gorgeous, people!

Here is the apple tree. It came super healthy and have flowered on its first year. I will surely order more plants from the Jung Seed Company again!

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Do you recognize this plant? I think it is lamb’s ear? Did not plant any but three of them came up near the shed this Fall. People say that volunteer plants means healthy garden/soil. I hope it is true! 🙂

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With the peonies, Russian sage, herbs, irises, and apple tree, the new patio garden is fully planted! I started breaking ground here in April. And now it is the end of October. It has been the longest time I spent completing a garden bed, but this is also the first time that I planted everything truly wanted and exactly where I want them to be. So the wait will be worth it! The best part is, now I have something to look forward to next Spring. I am sure everyone needed something like that right now. Hopefully, it will be a different time!

Home Stay + Spring Garden, 2020!

Hi friends and family! I hope you had a fun Memorial day weekend. For Northern gardeners like me, a successful Memorial day weekend means getting your vegetable garden planted! Being housebound for 10 weeks, I put more hours into the garden that I could ever hope for. This is the Spring I not only stayed on top of basic tasks like planting, watering and weeding, but also made changes to the garden that will improve our landscape in a long run. I cannot think of a better time to show you the garden than today. Are you ready?

The Video Tours

First, here are the garden walk-through videos! You can click the “play” button in the middle of the video, or for better quality, head over to Youtube.

The front yard tour:

The backyard tour part one, which covers the veggie garden and herb garden:

Backyard tour part two: the berry patch and new patio garden.

If you have trouble viewing the video, do not worry! Below are the pictures I took over the last two weeks of different blooms!

I. The Front Yard Perennial Bed

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Here is our front yard flower bed today!  Most of the plants went in during Fall 2018, when they were just babies.

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Boy did they grow up:

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Planted along the dry creek are irises. They have been blooming since early May:

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Last Fall I dotted some Hens and Chicks along the dry creek. Apparently they all rooted in and came back this Spring:

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The white flowers behind the Hens and Chicks are called “Snow-in-summer”. It is a rather tall groundcover that blooms from early Summer through frost. They are such a fast grower/spreader – this patch was started with two 2-inch cans!

At the end of the dry creek, I cut out this small flower bed last Fall, and planted two peonies and a climbing rose. A trio of grass aligns the fence to add some softness.

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Around the corner of the house is a new honeysuckle, underplanted with stonecrop:

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Imagine the honeysuckle climbing 8 feet tall and filling the space between the window and the gutter, with the sedum covering and trailing off the entire planter…

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The rest of the flower bed is filled with flowering perennials:

Salvias, pink:

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Penstemons, Husky red

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Salvias, Purple

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Penstemons, Pineleaf Beardtougue

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Mugo pine and stonecrop “Angelina”

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English lavender, FlowerKisser “After Midnight”:

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Also planted here are Colorado State flowers and grasses. The Columbines have been putting on lots of foliage growth. They are expected to flower from mid-summer through Fall. The Blue Grama grasses are also getting bigger each day.

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I love this Pawnee Buttes Sand cherry! It grew much bigger this Spring compared to 2019, and we are not even getting to the Summer days yet! This particular Sand cherry variety is a western native and supposed to be a low-mount ground cover, but I’ve seen mature plants about 4 feet tall.

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The Silver brocade sage adds a nice ice-blue color to the flower bed:

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Near the retaining wall are planted groundcovers that flowers in different time of the season. They look like low mounts now but will eventually meet each other to create a nice flowering carpet:

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I tacked some baby Hens and Chicks last Fall into the small gaps between the retaining wall and the sidewalk. I did not hold too much hope then, but look at them now!

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How could you not love a plant that is beautiful, always looking like it is flowering, impossible to kill, but not invasive?

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II. The Mailbox Garden

On the other side of the driveway is our mailbox garden:

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This spot is one of the toughest on our property – west facing, beating afternoon sun, water runoff, compact soil, and being pilled onto salt and snow for months during winter. It is my test ground for plants – if a plant can survive here, it will thrive anywhere in my garden without water! And so far everything I threw here passed their entry exam:

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The Red Hot Poker (Torch Lily), Hot and Cold:

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Salvias, Blue

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Lilies:

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More Stonecrop:

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Creeping Thyme:

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One of the best upgrade we made this Spring, is to automate all the front yard irrigation, not only for the flower beds but also for the trees and the lawn. It saved us so much time and stress, and the plants are much happier too for getting consistent water:

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III. The Backyard Vegetable Garden

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This is the third season of this vegetable garden. Starting with just a couple beds, we now have five 4′ x 16′ in-ground beds, two of which are planted with perennial vegetables. I am a believer of perennial edibles – “planting once, harvest forever” sounds great!

The strawberries bed has been producing for two years:

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A chive border was planted in front of the strawberries last Fall by splitting one – yes, just one – chive plant! Gotta love a plant that is beautiful, edible, tough as nails, and attracts pollinators!

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Last year I asked Slav to “pick a vegetable you want me to grow”. And he picked asparagus! The plant ended up loving our soil and intense sun.

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This Spring, I added 25 more crowns around it and dedicated this entire bed to asparagus. All the crowns sprouted nicely. We should be able to start harvesting asparagus next Spring, and many decades ahead!

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I am a big fan of garlic scapes. Growing up, garlic scapes and strawberries were only available for a couple weeks each year, usually around my birthday. Each year I look forward to them as birthday treats. Starting 2018, I plant a whole bed of hardneck garlic every Spring for the scapes.

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The remaining two beds are planted with annual vegetables we love – tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumber, cabbages, radishes, beets, arugula, and salad greens.

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After filming the video tour, I put up some trellises for the climbing beans: This year we are growing Limka and red noodle.

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IV. The New Ginkgo Tree and Helleborus Garden

One of the new addition to my garden this year is a Ginkgo tree. I planted it next to the veggie garden. It is a slow-growing tree, especially during the first a few years, so it would not cast shade on the veggie garden any time soon. But eventually, I would love to have the whole yard covered by canopies of big trees for a forest-type micro-climate.

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Before that happens, this little flower bed under the crabapple tree is my only “shade” garden. I dedicated this whole space to my favorite plants: helleborus.

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Helleborus, or hellebore, is also called Christmas rose or Lenten rose. It flowers in January through April, and offers the most delicate looking flowers that often used for water art.

I planted this garden last year with white, dark purple, and black flowering helleborus, basically what you see in the picture above. They have not flowered this year, but all of them came back from the winter looking much stronger. Without the flowers they still got nice and glossy foliage to look at:

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V. The Pollinator/Herb Garden

Besides the veggie garden occupying the south side of the backyard, and fruit trees and climbing roses aligning the east fence, we also densely planted the north side of the backyard. This part of the yard receives full sun and is on a slope. To prevent water run-off, we covered the entire area with wood chip mulch and turned it into an edible garden.

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The flower bed in the front is our pollinator garden. Planted here are all sun-loving perennial herbs and flowers. There are sage, English lavender, mint, tarragon, catmint, lemon balm, oregano, hyssop, walking onion, Black Eye Susan, lavender cotton, sulfur flower buckwheat, and some ground cover.

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To add more shade trees, I planted a maple tree here in 2019. It will eventually become 40 feet tall and its canopy will meet the canopy of the crabapple tree.

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VI. The Berry Patch!

A big part of our edible garden, besides the vegetable beds, is a berry patch we planted last year. 20 berry plants, including 15 raspberries and 5 black berries, and two hazelnut trees went into this big mulched area:

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The three rows of raspberry are different varieties. You can see the difference between their sprouting time and growing habit. The row on the very left came up first and spreads the most, and the right row has a more of a tight form.

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VII. The New Patio Garden + Planters

Last is the newest addition to our backyard – the patio garden!

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What I call the “patio garden” includes the patio planters (planted with stawberries), the strip of mulched area in front of the planters and the berry patch (which is mulched with dried grass clippings for now), and the area between the herb garden and the shed.

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Due to the pandemic, we did not manage to get perennial plants to fill the new patio garden. To fill the space, I seeded some annual flower and vine crops. The entire patio garden, from the patio to the shed, is full-sun and get overspray from our grass sprinklers. It will be fun to plan this garden this Fall!

The space closest to the house now have a couple annual herbs, with cosmos seeded in between:

Lemon verbena

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Rosemary

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Cosmos

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The pink flags are there so Roxie does not get into the flower bed – this girl likes to nap on fresh mulch, which I totally understand. But the new flower seedlings would like to disagree.

I did manage to put in two perennials here, one being a Chinese Snowball Viburnum. It will eventually grow to be a multi-stem tree, 8 feet tall with a 6 feet spread. It will provide some afternoon shade for the snowboard bench and the flower bed below.

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The other perennial is a lingonberry, and it flowered right after being planted!

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Where the patio garden curves along the berry patch were recently seeded with lettuce and beets. It is treated like an extension of our veggie garden this year, but will be plant with pretty perennials this Fall! I have some leftover cantaloupe seeds that are fairly old, so they all got thrown there too. Maybe one of them will come up!

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Near the newly built shed patio I planted a vine crop patch! All the seedlings of  zucchini, squash, cucumber went in here.

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The goal is to let them becoming a green mulch for the area, so less weeds can come up:

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I did manage to get one perennial in this area, and it is an apple tree!

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We already planted a honey crisp apple tree a couple years ago, but transparent apple is Slav’s favorite. Although popular in Poland, we could not find this apple sold in stores around us. So let us grow it!

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VIII. The Shed Patio and A New Pollinator House

Remember the shed patio I created a few weeks ago? It is still bare and covered by black plastic…given the current situation of the pandemic, this patio might have to wait until next Spring.

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We did spice it up a bit by setting two faux evergreen trees in front of the shed. One of (many of) Slav’s snowboards serves as a temporary seating.

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Oh, the leave-cutting bee house we DIYed last year reached full occupancy! Totally did not expect it and very encouraged by it. We put up a bigger native pollinator house for native bees and butterflies this Spring, and hope it ill be appreciated.

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So, here you have it, our 2020 Spring gardens! We put lots of hard work into landscaping over the last two years, and I think the garden really shows it. Although many of our trees and perennials are still young and need time to fill in, I’d say that we’ve landscaped 90% of the property already! I especially appreciate the hardscape we put in, such as patios, fence, dry creek, the retaining wall, and the most recent drip irrigation and automation system, which will all serve us well for years to come. I cannot wait for our garden to mature and to support the native ecosystem – the pollinators, birds, and even animals. Grow little garden, grow!

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