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

Tag: Back Yard Page 2 of 4

Home Stay + Drip Works

When it comes to gardening, water usage has always been on my mind. Colorado is famous for its snow-capped mountains. However, our growing environment is actually high desert, which means dry, cold, and very windy. The high clay content in our soil also makes snow and rain harder to penetrate. Therefore, from hardscape to plant selection, how to save irrigation usage has been driving my decision making.

In 2018, we built a dry creek in our front yard to prevent surface water run-off. We also converted large area of lawn space to mulched flower beds to reduce evaporation. Both hardscape and mulch are effective ways to hold the merely 15″ precipitation (annually!) in our land. In addition, the method of watering also matters.

We have been using drip irrigation in our flower beds for two years. More recently, we adopted drip irrigation for our front yard lawn space too! The most significant upgrade we made to our irrigation system is the recent automation. In today’s post, I’d like to show you the results of our hard work on drip automation, including how we adopted drip system for our front yard lawn space.

Backyard Watering Needs and Existing Drip Zones

I set my heart on drip irrigation very early, and have been setting it up in every flower bed I created. The very first flower bed we planted on this property was this pollinator/herb garden back in Spring, 2018. Due to the oval shape, I laid the 1/2″ solid tubing in circular fashion, and installed 2 gallon per hour emitters to point at the root ball of each plant.

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In this garden I planted exclusively drought-tolerate plants. They may not give the biggest and most fragrant flowers, but they are much more appropriate for this sunny location, and definitely give the strongest support to native pollinators. Now being more established, these plants require minimal watering even in the hottest summer days. I usually water this bed once a week for an hour, which means that most of the plants here get 2 gallon of water per week.

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The vegetable garden is located on the south side of the backyard and has its own drip system. Instead of emitters, soaker hoses were installed to accommodate the denser planting and shallower roots.

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Since setting up the garden in 2018, we switched to the 1/4″ soaker hoses from DIG, from which our drip connectors, tubing, and emitters come. To connect the whole veggie garden on the same grid, I ran a 1/2″ solid tubing along one edge of the bed, to which the 1/4″ soaker hoses connect and then run off the whole length of each veggie bed. The whole veggie garden is watered everyday in summer, for an hour or so.

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All of our fruit trees and climbing roses along the back fence share the third drip system. Solid 1/2″ tubing runs along the back fence and individual emitters sprout out from the solid tubing and point to the root balls of individual plants. Each fruit trees had a 4 gallon per hour emitter while the roses sported on 2 gallon per hour emitters. This zone got watered once a week last summer.

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A more recent addition to our edible garden is a berry patch, shown in the picture above. In the Spring of 2019, we covered the north slope in our backyard with mulch and planted 15 raspberry plants, 5 blackberry plants, two hazelnut trees. I used 1/2″ solid tubing to create a grid, and punched individual 2 gallon per hour emitters to the root ball of each shrub/tree.

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This zone gets watered every other day as fruit production requires more water.

Timer for Automation | Reconfiguring Drip Grids

As you can see, all of these drip zones were created as individual zones. To water each zone, a garden hose has to be connected to the inlet of that zone. With different watering schedule, in the hot part of the summer, watering often takes the entire evening during which every hour I had to connect and disconnect the hose among these beds. It quickly became a tiring and time-consuming task. On top of that, it felt absurd to ask our house sitter to do the same when we were on vacation. I had to admit, there were many times I forgot about watering, and left the drip running for hours. It was not only inefficacious but also ironic considering the whole purpose of using drip irrigation. By the end of 2019, it became clear that we needed to automate the irrigation system.

This Spring, I pulled the trigger on this handy Melnor digital timer after some research. It was actually sold in Lowe’s – but of course I ordered it online and had it shipped to my door, pandemic style.

Melnor Digital Hose End Timer

I order this particular timer for its ability to water four zones on different schedules. It also acts as a splitter for outdoor faucet. I did not go for the solar-powered models, due to mixed reviews. I also did not go for anything super fancy like wifi-connected ones, which are much more expensive. This timer is only ~$50 per pop. If it works as intended, I consider it a good investment with a fair price tag.

Since the timer only offers four outlets, I decided to combine the pollinator/herb drip zone and the fruit tree/rose drip zone to spare one outlet for general use. To combine the two zones together and run it back to the outdoor faucet, I first installed a T-connector at the end of the main drip line circulating the pollinator/herb garden:

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The solid tubing off to the left runs to the outdoor faucet, at the back of our house.

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The last solid tubing coming off the T-connection to the bottom of the picture runs towards the fruit trees and climbing roses. Along the way, it curves through the newly created terrace garden. I recently planted some vine crops here, so I installed some emitters on the solid tubing to water them.

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The 1/2″ solid tubing continues to run between the trees and roses, through the middle of the mulched bed:

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To water the trees and roses I installed emitters and directed them to the root ball of each plants. The fruit trees used to be watered with one 4-gallon per hour emitter, pointing directly at the trunk of the trees.

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As these trees grow fuller and started producing fruit, they need more water. In addition, their drip lines expands, so the emitters needed to be moved away from the root ball.

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To better water these trees, I added two more 2-gallon per hour emitters to each tree, making it total of 8 gallon per hour watering capacity. The emitters were also moved to the new drip line of each tree.

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Each climbing rose used to be watered by one 2-gallon per hour emitter. I bumped them up to 4 gallon ones and moved the emitters further away from the root balls as well.

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Last, I buried all the drip tubing under the mulch to keep them out of direct sun. This action does not only extended the life of the tubing and emitters, but also keeps the water cool when coming out of these black tubing. Needless to say that it is also a cleaner look when they are completely hidden.

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Installing Timer for Backyard Irrigation

Next, I connected each drip zone back to the timer. In the picture below, the rightmost black tubing is the main line for the berry patch, and the second to the right solid tubing is the one connected to the herb garden and the fruit trees.

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The veggie garden is located on the other side of the yard, so I connected a garden hose from the timer to the veggie garden drip zone. In this way we can detach the hose when mowing the lawn.

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The last garden hose on the very left is reserved for general use. We use it for lawn sprinkles, as well as to water the newly planted patio planters.

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The timer is rather bulky for the small clearance under the faucet, so it was mounted on the back of the house using a piece of plywood, and connected to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.

Front Yard Drip Automation
Connecting the drip zones for mulched flower beds

In 2018 we completed the front yard landscape, by converting over 700 sqft of lawn into mulched flower beds.

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In this large area, I set two separated drip zones – one for the arborvitae trees planted on the left side, the other one for the perennial shrubs to the right. The reason of creating two separated zones was mainly due to different water usage between the trees and shrubs.

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The perennial zone was set up using drip tubing with built-in emitters. They are better suited for densely planted flower beds, and work especially well with ground covers:

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The tree zone, on the other hand, consists of a long piece of 1/2″ solid tubing along the hedge. Individual emitters were directed to the root ball of each tree. Bigger shrubs planted at the corner of the yard also utilize this zone, as they need less water than the perennial flowers.

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These two zones had their own inlets, which could be connected to a garden hose to water. Now with the automatic timer, I need to bring water from the outdoor faucet to these zones via a solid tubing. As the first step, I linked the two separated drip zones together so only one solid tubing is needed from the timer to the flower bed. To ensure that I could water the two zones separately, I installed on-off valves to each zone:

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The 1/2″ solid tubing to the left (currently shut off) is connected to the tree zone:

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The flower bed in front of the fence is also watered by this zone. Below is the picture taken on the day I set up the drip system for this flower bed:

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The short end of the tree zone waters the three irises next to the dry creek:

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The solid tubing on the right (currently open) continue to run along the plastic edging, until it is connected to the perennial drip zone:

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You can see that it connects to the brown drip tubing with built-in emitters.

To connect the flower bed drip zones to the outdoor faucet, I ran another piece of solid 1/2″ tubing along the edge of the front lawn, next to the gravel, all the way back to the outdoor faucet/timer:

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You can see two solid tubing in the pictures above. Only one of them is bringing the water to the flower beds. As of the second tubing, it is for watering the lawn space.

Installing Micro-sprinklers for Front Lawn

A big part of automating our irrigation system is to set up automatic sprinkles for the front lawn. We have been watering the front yard by hand during the last two summers. Since DIG, where we got our drip system offers micro-sprinklers, I decided to give it a try for lawn space.

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The first step is always to run the solid tubing, which brings water to where needed. I laid down 1/2″ solid tubing along the boundary of the front yard lawn:

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then installed micro-sprinkles a few feet apart:

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I was able to surround the whole lawn with one solid piece of 1/2″ tubing. I terminated the tubing under the pine tree, near where it starts:

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We also have a piece of lawn on the other side of the driveway. It is almost a square. I ran the 1/2″ tubing with a few T connectors and 90-degree elbows, then installed micro-sprinkles as well:

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The inlet was set to connect to a garden hose, as opposed to the timer directly as the other side. It is because that the water has to be brought from across the driveway, and the black solid tubing cannot stand the weight of the car.

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The solid tubing runs along the sidewalk:

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and the driveway:

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And curves around the mailbox flower bed:

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On this side, the tubing lines along the property boundary:

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After I installed the micro-sprinkles, Slav buried all the solid 1/2″ tubing around the front lawn underground:

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It created a much neater look. Now you cannot see the solid tubing anymore, and to mow the lawn, we just need to simply move the stakes.

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Timer Installation for the Front Yard Irrigation

Similar to the backyard, I mounted the timer above the faucet with a piece of plywood.

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Then I connected the timer to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.

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The four automatic outlets are, from left to right: front yard garden hose wheel (for general use, I did not set time on this outlet), flower bed drip zones (can be watered separately with the two on-off valves), front lawn in front of the house, and front lawn in front of the fence gate (via a garden hose over the driveway).

For a cleaner look, I tucked the two 1/2″ black solid tubing under the gravel. You can see them disappearing under the ground.

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The Cost of Our Automatic Irrigation Setup

We have been using the new automatic system for two weeks and both timer have worked very well. With the two times installed, we are completely free from watering duty. Considering the price of the timer (~$50 per timer), I think it is completely worth it.

In addition to the two timers, we also paid $30 for 5′ hoses connecting the timers to the outdoor faucets, and $95 for two drip/micro-sprinkler kits used for the front lawn (under $50 each here). The kits come with many connectors we did not use, as well as hundreds feet of solid 1/2″ and 1/4″ tubing. We did not purchase any additional emitters or tubing for the whole project, and we still have leftovers.

In summary, the total cost of the whole project was about $230. It isn’t nothing, but considering the time we saved dragging hoses around, and the stress we are freed from, I think it is a good investment. The tubing should last years, and the timer feels solid. I will make sure to report back on the reliability and the quality of these timers. Hopefully they last for a few years!

This project should reduce our irrigation water usage, just by switching to micro-sprinklers on the front lawn alone. Another big advantage of automating the irrigation is that now our plants get consistent watering. We often do not think about this, but plants are like us, having a consistent schedule for nutrition, water, and sleep really benefits. I hope you are still following a healthy daily schedule and life style while staying at home. I know we are!

Home Stay + Building a New Terrace Garden

When landscaping our property I like a methodical approach. Starting with removing the dead and unwanted, followed by hardscaping and planting trees and big shrubs. The hardscape and structural planting form the fundamental elements of the landscape, directing the choices on small shrub and perennials. I manage to hold off on ground covers and bulbs, waiting for the trees to cast shade and the perennials to fill in. It is surely a long process, several years before one area to complete. But it allows ideas to emerge and taste to develop, resulting the best garden possible.

This approach worked wonderfully in creating our front yard garden, which we added in 2018. After deciding to turn the weedy part of the front lawn into mulched garden bed, we removed the turf, amended the soil, and built a retaining wall system for erosion control. We then added a dry creek and installed drip irrigation to manage water. As of planting, we started with an arborvitae hedge, some evergreen, and tall shrubs and screening bushes, before packing the space with hardy perennials. The once weedy and difficult area has shaped up to one of the most beautiful gardens in our neighborhood, and brought so much joy to us and our neighborhood.

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The shed surrounding before

This Spring, I decided to apply the same approach to another problematic area on our property – around our garden shed.

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The shed is located at the northeast corner of our land. The structure itself is in superior condition thanks to our renovation in 2017.

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But the area around the shed is not so hot. With the shed being a few feet away from the side and the back fence, the space behind the shed is a perfect catch-all space:

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Our compost bins have been here for two years. Without much sun they have been rather slow to produce.

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This corner is the only spot we could not see from the house. Inevitably, stuff got dropped off here, temporarily, then become part of the permanent exhibition…

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Firewood, tree stumps, shrub trimmings, they are used as ramp for squirrels to get over the fence.

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Moreover, the lawn space around the shed was… terrible. The steep slope= soil erosion = patchy lawn space = weeds.

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An overhaul is so needed yet so intimidating. Being the furthest from the house it is easy for me to look away. But this Spring, I won’t anymore. I cannot think of a better time to transform this space. A better time to admit challenges, to rip out of what does not work, and to rebuild from ground up. Transformation is scary work, especially when you have to shake the root. But it is the only right thing to do. So, let us!

Decluttering around the shed

The first order of business is always getting rid of what does not belong. The compost bins had been moved to the veggie garden. So what’s left to address is the big pile of firewood, big stumps, and tree trimmings.

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Trimmings were chipped into mulch, tree stumps were used up (you will see it later), and firewood were neatly stacked. It is amazing how tidy this space became with just a couple hours of work.

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I always liked the spot. Maybe it is the leaves slowly decaying on the ground, maybe is the summer shade thanks to the trees above. It has a woodland feel.

Here is the space before the cleanup:

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And after.

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Defining the boundary of future garden

With a clean slate I was much more inspired. Ideas started flowing and you could almost see steam coming off my ears. I had plans before, but they were no longer cool enough. Now I want a patio, and retaining wall, and a terrace garden. Go big or go home, right?

I will explain. Allow me to lay down some plastic (for killing weeds) first.

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Terrace garden is the best way to address sloped land, and I like the look. It cuts big slopes into small and flat garden beds, which are much easier to plan and manage. It also gives structure, variation, and transition space to a big open space. With appropriate screening planters, a terrace garden can be used to create “rooms” so not everything can be seen with one glance.

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For the area around the shed, I think it makes sense to have three tiers – the highest tier being the existing perennial garden (to the left), the lowermost being a patio space (where the black plastic was, leveled with the shed), and a heavily planted “bank” in between.

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I like to use a flexible hose to trace the boundary. It takes any guess work out of equation, and makes it easy to visualize the future flower beds from different angles and distance. In this case, I left it on the ground for days so I can watch it from every windows from the house.

Once I am happy with the shape of the flower garden, I cut out the new edge along the hose:

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Then reinforced it with metal edging. These edging were lining up the raspberry patch before. I just pushed them out to align with the new edge of the lawn.

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All the three tiers will be behind the metal edging. I went with a gentle curve rather than a straight edge.

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Creating a patio space around the shed

The next step was to define the boundaries between each of the three tiers. I started with the lowermost tier, namely the patio area, by leveling the soil here with the shed foundation.

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The excess soil was flipped to the future second tier – the “bank” if you will. Can you believe how much soil was removed from this small space?

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This space will be finished as a stone patio, which requires gravel base, pavers, and joint sand to say the least. For now, I simply laid down some 6-mil poly for weed control, and used the tree stumps from the tree removal last year to act as a temporary retaining wall. One stone, two birds. I am not mad about it!

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Leveling the second tier

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Now you can finally see the look of the patio. Do you like it? The perennial bed on the left houses lots of herbs. Once the mulched area behind the perennial bed gets incorporated to the second tier, I can walk around the perennial garden and harvest the herbs with ease. The bare soil between the mulch path and the black plastic-covered patio will also become the second tier. It will be heavily planted with trees and tall shrubs to screen off the future patio.

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Here is how the space look now. The boundary between perennial garden and the 2nd tier will be created as soon as I could get my hands on materials for a retaining wall.

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Can you see how tall the retaining wall would be around the patio? It needs to be 24 inches tall so I can mulch the second tier. I also plan to incorporate some kind of bench seating into retaining wall, likely with snowboards again.

Adding lighting to the garden shed

With momentum I tidied the shed: from head to toe. Here are my two walls of gardening tools:

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The left side houses storage shelves.

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And I have a handy small storage next to the door for strings and rulers:

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Our shed does not have windows, so it was pretty dark when the door is closed. I finally got around to add a shed light. And it was such an upgrade!

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We did not run power to the shed. So I picked a solar-powered light with a string on/off to conserve power. The solar panel was mounted outside of the shed door.

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I threaded the cable under the roof and secured it on a truss:

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So!

Here is the progress shot for the shed terrace garden! I like this layered look a lot better. Cannot wait to build the retaining walls, set the patio, and plant up the bank. As I mentioned at the beginning, I usually finish the hardscape before planting. But with the pandemic, things might go with the order of which can be shipped to my door first…

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Have you been doing any hardscaping at home? Do share!

Home Stay + First Week in the Garden

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One silver lining of staying at home, is that I finally got to watch the garden waking up this Spring. Spring has come slowly but steadily, with alternating sunshine and snow/rain showers. And our trees and perennials seem to be loving it.

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One pleasant surprise: all my helleborus came back! They were planted last summer and did not look so hot last season. A couple of them died back to the ground. But a couple weeks ago, all nine of nine helleborus sprouted new shoots, and looked strong and healthy.

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I’ve not seen any buds, but I am just happy that they are putting down their roots.

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The 2020 Spring garden to-do

With the warm weather I managed to spend a few hours every day in the garden. This might be the year that I actually stay on top of the Spring garden tasks! Who knows? Maybe I can actually sit down and enjoy the garden in Summer… I started with a long to-do list, including planting more trees and climbing vines, hardscaping the backyard, expanding the berry garden, and finally whipping the vegetable garden into shape. With the lock-down it looked like I would be trekking along just fine.

One big thing I checked off the list this week, was to prepare the vegetable garden for Spring planting.

1. Reducing the size of the vegetable garden

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We started with five 4′ x 16′ beds in 2018 and added two more last year. However, after last summer of growing, I realized that adding the two new beds were a bad decision.

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For example, the bed I added in front of the original field was too close to our patio, leaving a narrow path in between. We started having problem backing the trailer into the backyard. As of the bed behind the original field, it was way too close to two of the fruit trees.

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Honestly, we we could get away with just five beds. So I decided to reverse these two beds back to lawn and mulched space, respectively.

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I have pushed the boundary of the veggie bed back last Fall. So this week I started by removing soil from the first bed. As you could see here, the soil here was higher than the lawn space in front of it. And this is all rich soil from last year’s vegetable gardening:

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I scraped the soil to match the lawn space then reseeded grass.

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Our nights are still rather cold, so I covered the newly seeded lawn with Harvest guard after watering them in:

 

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It might not be obvious, but this 4′ x 16′ space generated six wheelbarrows of soil. I did not want to ever put soil into trash, especially good soil thanks to the compost we mixed in last Fall.  So I transferred all six barrows into my newly built patio planters.

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I also leveled the last vegetable bed by moving the soil here to the planters. Here was what the space looked like before:

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As you can see, the original boundary was right next to the trunks of the fruit trees.

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It was a mess where this last bed met the fence too.

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From the picture below you can see how much taller the soil on the last bed was above the mulched space behind. This space could really use some retaining system.

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I pulled up the old lumber that held back the soil here and scrapped 8 inches of top soil off this space. All the top soil went to the patio planters as well.

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It took another 6 trips of wheelbarrow to level this bed. After that I stacked the lumber back (they are pressure treated) to create a retaining wall. They are not anchored into the ground, but it looked like they do not need to be.

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Then the space is covered by mulch. The young fruit trees will benefit from not having grass growing on top of their roots, since frequent watering required by lawn space does not promote healthy root structures for trees.

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When I mulch, I always start by sheet mulching with cardboard, then follow with a thick layer of wood chips. Sheet mulching really works in terms of suppressing weeds. Just remember to remove any tape and staples. This approach also encourages the proliferation of earthworms and other beneficial insects, which build healthy soil.

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The before:

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The much cleaner after:

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By pushing the retaining blocks uphill, the messy corner next to the fence is now much cleaner as well

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And the other bird killed by this stone? All the patio planters were filled almost to the top:

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2. Moving compost bins

After mulching the area I moved our compost bins here. It just makes more sense to have them next to where most of the green waste will be generated.

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I like how the composted bins filled the void between the two fruit trees. It brings more symmetry to the veggie garden area.

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3. Planting strawberries

With the patio planter most filled with soil, I topped them off with some garden soil I had on hand:

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Then I planted strawberries! We grew these seascape strawberries last summer for the first time, and they were such a hit. They are so sweet and lovely that I purchased another batch this Spring. The only problem was that the rabbits loved them just as much. Even our dogs could not keep the bunnies out of the yard. So I transplanted last year’s strawberry plants into the big patio planter:

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Then planted the new batch into the two smaller planters. Take that, bunnies!

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The new strawberry plants came as bare-root, so it will take a while for them to leaf out. But trust me, they are all snuggled up in there and will start producing as soon as the weather warms up.

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We also ordered some garden trellises this Spring. I tried them in the planters and loved the look. It will be nice to grow flowering vines up these trellises this summer.

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I put in some screws inside the planter to store the most frequently used gardening tools. It is nice to have them close yet out of weather.

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4. Planting asparagus

Besides the strawberries, we also welcomed asparagus to our vegetable garden. Slav loves asparagus and it is one of the few keto-friendly vegetables. I also liked the idea of having more perennial vegetables.

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We had one asparagus from last year as a trial plant. I gave it zero attention, and it thrived in our native soil. For the new asparagus, I followed the instruction and planted the bare-root plants deep into trenches.

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We will not be harvest from these new plants this year, and probably only lightly next Spring. But these asparagus will produce for us for decades and only getting stronger and more productive. Cannot wait!

5. The 2020 veggie garden plans

Last I used scrape lumber to separate the paths from garden beds. I have been using wood chip mulch on the entire garden, including both in the gardening beds and on the paths in between. But this year, I will use compost as mulch in the veggie beds and keep the mulch only on the paths.

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The first bed houses the strawberries we planted two years ago, which have naturalized in this garden bed. They produce smaller strawberries than the seascape variety, but also very sweet and tasty.

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Last Fall I created a chive border for this bed by dividing one chive – just one! The little seedlings all survived and started shooting up fast. We do not eat lots of chives, but I hope that they can attract more pollinators to the vegetable garden.

The second bed is occupied by asparagus. The third and fourth bed are reserved for tomato, pepper, cucumber, and beans:

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I planted garlic in the fifth and now the last veggie bed last fall, using the cloves from my own harvest last year! They have come up looking healthy. 🙂

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We usually harvest garlic here around July 4th. So this bed will be available for planting warm season vegetables after. I’d like to try squashes and melons. Wish me luck!

6. Winter sowing

That brings us to seed starting! I’ve never done that before – for things I cannot get transplants, I always just directly sow into the garden. But this year I want to try things that scares me. And today is for sowing seeds. I’ve heard good things about winter sowing. It sounds super easy and it was. I was able to sow creeping thyme, cutting flowers, cold weather greens including lettuces, spinach, and cabbage, and even some warm weather plants such as beans in an hour.

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Are you preparing a vegetable garden? Have you been working in the garden during lock-down? I am thankful for the hope and relaxation gardening provides this Spring. Be good and be well. We will get through this.

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