Terrific Broth

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

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Planting It Up!

After overhauling our front yard for months, it is finally planted!


Landscaping the front yard was never on our 2018 to-do list. But summer rolled around and our front lawn started to look really, really bad. We booked a landscape consultation to get some ideas on how to rejuvenate the front yard, which led to the decision to replace 600-sqft of tuft with a perennial garden. Once we had the idea, we just couldn’t shake it off and had to put it in action right away.


Following professional advice, we removed the turf of the northwest corner of our front yard and amended the soil. We also built a retaining wall and a dry creek to help to keep the topsoil and precious water in our yard. We are new to landscaping and needless to say, there was a lot uncertainty and self-doubt. Did we add enough compost? What about PH? Is the retaining wall tall enough? What curvature should the dry creek have? Which color of mulch looks the best? And most importantly, what plants should we get for the front yard?

The last question probably took the longest time to research. We wanted flowering perennials that look good but low-maintenance, pollinator friendly and diverse, strong yet xeriscape, and we want as many native and edible plants as possible. There is a high bar to meet.


Fortunately, Colorado has a long tradition of urban permaculture and lots of helpful resources. We have been attending water-wise seminars and visiting garden centers/exhibitions full of native plants. The “bee heaven” garden-in-a-box kit we have been growing since Spring boosted our confidence. And the free (!) landscaping consultation we received from Resource Central provided a long list of plants we could choose from in order to assemble a successful high country garden.


Most of the plants arrived last Saturday and we got busy at planting.




In total we packed 64 perennials into this 600 sqft space, including evergreens, large flowering shrubs, berry-bearing shrubs, grasses, flowering perennials, ground covers, and irises.

Six evergreens (North Pole Arborvitae) functions as windbreakers along the north edge of the front yard. They should grow into a 10~15 feet tall privacy hedge between our yard and our neighbor’s driveway.


In addition to the arborvitaes, we planted a dwarf mugo pine in the middle of the landscaping. I love the color and the low mount growing habit of this pine. Colorado has long winters and most of the trees in our yard are deciduous. We could always use more evergreens for winter interest.


Speaking of winter interest, I want more color on top of evergreens. So we chose to plant 4 Berry Poppins (one being male). The three female shrubs should bear bright red berries next winter once they put on more growth, which not only look great against snow, but also provide food for hungry birds in winter.


Another fruit-bearing shrub we planted here is a western native Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry. This shrub produces edible berries in summer which are delicious. It also has a mahogany-red foliage in the fall.

To create a mixed and soft-looking hedge, we planted a mock orange tree called “Snow White Sensation” at the northwest corner of our yard. It should grow to be 6’~8′ tall and mask the street light pole behind. It will carry some height to the corner, provide some shade and privacy, without being too tall while being right next the sidewalk. It also has a softer look compared to the arborvitaes – it has multi-stems that arch gracefully and will bloom white flowers in Spring and early summer.

Mock orange, at the lower left corner:


Little dog sign hopefully prohibits neighbor’s dogs to poop in our yard…


I used 14 irises (white and purple) to align the dry creek, and ground covers along the retaining wall.




On the slope, in between the house and the street, we planted xeriscape perennial grasses and flowers. These plants came from another garden-in-a-box kit called “Cool Connection” from Resource Central, which has a color palette of pink, white, purple, and burgundy which I adore. I am really happy with the quality of the plants from our last garden-in-a-box purchase, and I think the selection of native, drought-resistant plants really sets the garden for success. All the perennials included are either native to Colorado or have been shown to do well with little water in our weather.






This is how the garden-in-a-box plants supposed to look like on their third year – with our experience with the Spring garden, I expect most of the plants to reach their mature sizes in their second summer!

Before we put down mulch, Slav and I put in drip irrigation for the entire garden bed. We divided the whole planting bed into two zones according to the water need – one for the arborvitaes, and the other one for all the other perennials.



We then put down 4″ of wood chips to cover every inch of the bare soil. (We get our mulch for free from our city park service), then top dressed the planting bed with additional 1″ of black mulch. Slav and I both love the look of green plants again black mulch. However, we want to use as little dye as possible, even though it is advertised as a natural, non-toxic high quality dye . So top dressing is the best solution for us.


With >4″ of mulch, we only need to water once a week to keep the soil damp and cool. Mulch also allows everything in this flower bed to naturalize and spread. We only used landscape fabric under the arborvitaes and at the bottom of the dry creek, since we do not want anything (else) to grow there.

Here is our finished flower bed. 🙂


Cherry on top, I made a fall wreath for the front door and Slav replaced the rusty and old hose hanger with a brand new Eley hose reel.



Remember the sad before?


And this is the happy “after” after we replace the 600-sqft of tired grass and weeds…


We. Love. It! We will be keeping an close eye on all the tiny plants and baby them over their first winter. I think it might be time for another video walkthrough of the yard, don’t you think?

Dry Creek DIY – A Labor of Love


We’ve been landscaping our yard for four months now. Four months! Our living room still does not have baseboards, and our bathroom windows refuse to open. But our yard came as a weed infested trash pit and I grew up touring gardens like this, so landscaping we have been.

Jichang Garden, WuXi, China

It also makes sense to landscape as early as we could since perennials take time to grow. Since May, we have planted 22 fruit trees and shrubs, 4 climbing roses, 2 climbing vines, 28 perennial flowers, and a 400-sqft vegetable garden. In spite of the heavy clay soil, everything is doing exceptionally well and putting on lots of growth.


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Morning glory #gardening

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My perfect rose 🌹 #awakeningrose #gardening

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We planted most of perennials in early Spring. By early summer, we had seen the rewards from our planting. The early success totally messed up my dopamine system. So late summer, in true avalanche fashion, I gutted our front yard.


Well, to be fair, Slav gutted our front yard. Slav lifted 600 sqft turf grass, and Slav sifted through the topsoil to remove roots and weeds. Although, he did it upon my order request. I designed the garden and bought plants, and I told him where to dig. Of course, knowing Slav would be the one doing all the physical work subconsciously led to my over-design of the front yard garden.

Slav really deserves a metal of “the best husband in 2018”. He did not question at all my decision and plans and he did not even ask what plants I ordered. His blind trust landed him sooo much dirt work which ate up a solid month of his spare time, and an additional week to build the retaining wall.


We spent three weekends alone just to sift soil. But at the end, we are rewarded with weed-free, crumbly and rich soil that is great for planting:



And thanks to the cooler weather in August, our arborvitae survived just fine despite being planted in the middle of summer.


Yet, just when we were gearing up to fall planting, I spotted some nice dry creeks in our neighborhood. Dry creeks are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also an effective way to retain water and prevent storm water runoff.

Still sore from the retaining wall built, I approached Slav for the possibility of incorporating a dry creek into our front yard landscaping. My guy, my hero, who was busy making dough for the family at that time, responded, “Sure, map it out and I will build it”.

Don’t you just love this guy? I do.

So, last weekend we got a ton of river cobbles from a local rock shop:


And constructed our first dry creek!


To not undermine the hard work Slav had put in, here are some numbers:

1. Determining the shape of the dry creek with 2 electrical cords:

For marking boundaries I prefer electrical cords to garden hoses for better flexibility. The goal is to direct the water from the corner downspout to the garden area, then to slow it down so all the rain water can be slowly seeping into the garden.


As part of the planning, I marked where the plants (we have 50 of them coming!) would go with rocks.




As you can see, the dry creek mostly follows the slope but fans out and terminates 2/3 downhill on the slope.



2. Digging a 130 ft long, 3-5 feet wide, and 1.5 feet deep trench:

This step was not hard at all given that we have already turned the soil in most places. We formed swales as creek beds, which are basically shallow trenches perpendicular to the slope. The dirt removed from the trench was pilled downhill along the swales to form berms, which are like dams to retain water in the swales. Berms and swales are common ways in permaculture to slow down water and topsoil run off from a hill.




3. Laying and pinning down 4-ft wide landscape fabric:

We have serious bindweed issue in our yard, so we put down some landscape fabric before filling the creek bed with rocks. The side of landscape fabric facing down has fine hair to wick moisture, which helps water to seep down into the soil.




4. Layering in river rocks and big boulders to get the “creek” look:

As mentioned before, we got a ton of 1.5″ size local river cobbles. We also got a pallet of big boulders (for $45!!!) from the Resource Central’s retail store (where we got the retaining wall blocks). As Slav shoveled the cobbles into the creek bed, I set the boulders randomly along the creek for a more nature look. I am not artistic at all so it took a while for the creek to look semi-acceptable. I am sure there will be more tweaking down the road.







5. Connecting the downspout to the dry creek

The last step of the dry creek construction was to direct water from the corner downspout to the creek bed. To keep the lawn continuous, we decided to bury a pipe under the lawn that connects the downspout with the dry creek. We have a piece of 4″ black PVC laying around and guess what, it fits the distance perfectly! 🙂


We used a piece of flexible elbow to connect the downspouts to the PVC pipe:


And a flexible T connection at the end of the black PVC pipe splits the water into each side of the creek bed.


Slav lifted the sod carefully then dug down another 4″ deep to bury the pipe.


The downspout had to sink lower into the ground to accommodate the sod on top. (See how we graded around the foundation here.)


Slav put the sod back on and patched it perfectly:



We then refilled the rock back to bury the downspout end of the connection:



The T connection sits at the bottom of the creek bed. We put some water through the downspout to make sure that the dry creek worked properly:


We then installed garden edging around the PVC pipe and this is the final result!



6. Fall Planting in two weeks!

Now the dry creek is done, we are FINALLY ready for planting. We have over 50 perennial flowers and shrubs coming in by the end of this month, and I am pumped to wrap up everything landscaping for 2018. I will be sure to walk you through all the plants with my camera once the dirt is settled. Just for reference: here is a video in which I explained our 2018 gardening goals back to the Spring – you can tell that we were not thinking about landscaping front yard at all! But the nice thing about being a home owner is precisely this: to be able to shift focus and do whatever we want, right?



Front yard Hardscaping – Retaining Wall DIY

Howdy, friends! It’s been two weeks since our last update. Thanks for being patient with us. We have not stopped working in the front yard. In fact, we were digging and building every Saturdays and Sundays. But landscape work is physical and it usually takes us more than one weekend to get a particular task done. Today, I want to share a fun “hardscape” project we completed recently – a retaining wall DIY! We loved the result and hope you find it interesting too.


“Hardscape” is a word I did not know until three weeks ago. Oh guys, it is really hard! I bet the person who came up with the name was exhausted from his/her hardscape project and just went for the most straightforward name possible. We built the wall ten days ago and I still feel exhausted when I see it!


What exactly is hardscape? It means that “the man-made features used in landscape architecture, e.g. paths or walls, as contrasted with vegetation.” So things like flagstone path, brick path, retaining walls, garden beds, water features, are all counted as hardscape. Hardscape not only decorates a garden and makes it beautiful, but also provides access and utility. In our case, our front yard is sloped, so a retaining wall is the best solution for preventing top soil and mulch from washing into the street.


Retaining walls can be constructed with different materials. Railroad sleepers, bricks, concrete, stones, or even tires. Retaining walls that hold significant amount of soil require some engineering and are usually done by professionals. We were able to DIY ours because it is just a couple feet tall and mostly for holding back light materials such as mulch.


We ended up using concrete blocks. Originally we considered wood sleepers, but upon walking around neighborhood, we realized that they do not hold up very well to the heavy clay soil in our neighborhood. Without a clear vision, we visited a few stores to see which material might work better. That was when we came across these chunky concrete blocks at Resource Central’s retail store.


These blocks are 16″ long and 8″ deep, much bigger than the big box store product. I’ve only seen them used in commercial building projects, such as shopping centers and city streets. The retail store of Resource Central’s is a second hand store for reclaimed materials, so these blocks are likely coming from commercial projects. Being second hand, they were significantly cheaper than the 12″ long blocks in big box stores (we got 102 of them for $120!). Needless to say we do not mind to overbuild with a good deal, so all 102 blocks came home with us.


Believe or not, it took us three trips to the retail store to transport all the blocks back, because they are heavy! Our car can only toll 40 of them at a given time (!), so the whole shopping and transportation took a day. Comparably, the building process was actually pretty straightforward. We knew that this wall would reside along the sidewalk, which is already straight. All we need to make sure was to build the wall at level and step the blocks up with the slope. So the first thing we did was to get a leveled string line along the whole length of the retaining wall, which should tell us the slope we had to follow.



We did not bother to set up professional strings and posts. Our whole system was pretty primitive. Well, it got the job done. You can see from the picture below how steep the slope is. With the string more or less level and one end on the ground, the other end was 37″ above the ground level! The whole string was 37′ long, so the average of the slope is about 1 inch per foot.


The slope of the sidewalk is fairly consistent between the two ends, so we basically followed the slope and stepped up our blocks gradually.


Retaining wall step up has some rules. The last block before stepping up needs to be completely buried, and the first block on the next level needs to sit on the buried block. We followed the instructions from this website, which has very helpful videos and schematic for how to correctly construct a step-up retaining wall.

Our blocks are 6″ tall and 16″ long. Since we have 37″ vertical space to go, we need to step up 6 times. Our slope is 1″ per 1′, that means we need to step up every 4.5 blocks (4.5 x 16″=72″=6′).


We marked the ground next to the wall every 6′ with spray paint, then started digging the trench. We used a tamper to compact the soil below till level before setting the blocks in.



The first row was the hardest. The ground needs to be fairly level and all the blocks needs to be level with each other. But after the first row was in, the rest went up quickly.


As shown in the picture above, the blocks were gradually buried into the ground due to the slope of the side walk. When we had one completely buried, we would level the dirt next to it and put the next one on top of the dirt and the one buried.



On each end of the wall we used a half block to create a clean edge.


I was pretty useless in this operation – Slav was the one who dug the trench, compacted the soil, and moved the blocks. These blocks were so heavy that I could barely move one by myself. So all I did was to smooth the soil after it was compacted and made sure the neighboring blocks were level with each other. It took us two afternoons to construct this 37′ wall. And guess what, we used exactly 102 blocks!



Slav gave the whole wall a power wash until the blocks showed their rich red color. I followed with sand to fill the gaps between the wall and the sidewalk to prevent ock weeds growth.


Just to clarify, we did not use adhesive in this project. The blocks were simply stacked on top of each other. Each block also has a small lip on the back (you can see it better in this image which pictures a block similar to the ones we used), so the blocks on top can lock onto the blocks below tightly. This lip provides some strength to endure the soil behind, but for retaining walls that need to hold back large amount of soil, the blocks need to be glued together with masonry adhesive. In our case, we will have very little soil behind the wall once we remove all the grass Slav turned over. We are confident that this retaining wall is steady enough for any rain or snow we might receive.


There has been a few T-storm since the wall was completed, and we did not lose a single drop of soil due to run off, even though the blocks are just set next to each other. We love this look a lot better than just the grass meeting the street. Incidentally, it makes a pretty comfortable place to sit. I found myself sipping drinks on it whenever I am out and about in the front yard. What do you think? Do you like it?

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