Terrific Broth

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

Tag: Garden (Page 2 of 4)

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.

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“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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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′).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

Curb Appeal Take V – Landscaping Our Front Yard

Are you ready for more gardening projects on TerrificBroth? Better buckle up, because we are!

A few weeks ago, we attended a water wise gardening seminar and registered for a free landscaping consultation at the end. We needed some advice on our front yard, which was covered in bindweeds and dying lawn grass when we moved in:

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We made some improvement to the front of the house during the past year. But the lawn is still in bad shape despite thousands gallons of water we gave it:

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As you can see from the first photo or in this video, our front yard slopes down on the north side. The slope starts fairly gentle but becomes quite significant over the last 40 feet.

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Facing west and sloping down to the north, this front yard is beaten down by strong afternoon sun and northwest wind. It did not stand a chance.

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From a whole year of watering, weeding, and mowing this slope, we knew that we did not have the energy to keep up. We want our front yard to look good, but we also need it to be low-maintenance. More importantly, we need it to use less water than it does now.  So, when the landscape consultant came to our house, I only have one question – what should I plant in place of grass in our front yard?

The landscape consultant was pleasantly surprised by my question. She was probably expecting me to ask her how to keep the lawn green, which most of the people would desire. As most of the landscaping experts in Denver area, she prefers xeriscape and is good at designing urban spaces using xeriscape principles. But most of the time, her clients prefers green turf which is usually water-thirsty. Especially if HOA is involved. Most of the time, the best she could do is to suggest a relatively drought tolerant grass to put in.

Although unexpected, she quickly adjusted to my question and started giving me a bunch of plant names. I did not want to just cover everything with rocks and succulents – we still appreciate flowers and soft texture, and we want our garden to be a refuge for pollinators, birds, and insects. With birds and bees in mind, we spent almost an hour chatting about plants and ended up with a solid planting map at the end:

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This plan calls for the removal of 600 sqft turf, almost half of our front yard, and replace it with perennials and evergreens. We will also be putting in a dry creek to redirect the rain water from our downspout to the new garden space (labeled as “11” in the sketch below).

So what are we planting here? Let me break down the plan for you. If you are a plant freak like me, I can hear your heart racing.

First, the blue in the sketch above is our house and driveway, and all the circles will be plants. This sketch has west at the top, so this new garden will occupy the northwest half of our front yard and butts against our future front fence. The boundary was drawn arbitrarily; it most followed the line along which the slope became steep towards the streets to the west (up) and our neighbor’s driveway to the north (right).

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1 Windbreakers

The first order of business is to create a wind barrier for this slope. We get really strong north/northwest wind coming from the Rockies during all four seasons, and our house does not have any tall structure on its north/northwest to slow down the wind. On a slope like ours, the wind travels upward and sucks away all the moisture in the top soil, making the clay harder and more compact. Generally speaking, two practices are recommended for combating drying wind – mulch heavily, and plant tall trees on the north side as a windbreaker. And we will be doing both.

To create a wind barrier, we chose to plant six arborvitaes along the north side of the yard, aligning our neighbor’s driveway. Planting a tall hedge there will not only slow down the wind, but also conceal the cars filling up the driveway everyday.

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After some research, I chose the “North Pole” arborvitae for its winter hardiness and soft look. I ordered six of them and they arrived quickly and soundly.

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2. A Corner Anchor

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The six arborvitae are expected to run 3/4 of the northern side. For the corner, I prefer something softer than an evergreen, a flowering plant with a decent height. Having lived in SoCal I have missed the smell of citrus blooms. So mock orange became an easy choice for this corner. I chose a compact variety called Snow White Sensation, which gives pure white and double flowers.

Philadelphus Snow White Sensation®

3. Winter interests and Food for Birds

Most of the trees in our neighborhood are deciduous trees, which means that they lose their leaves in winter. From December to April, for five months, everything looks dead and it is really depressing. I crave more winter interests.

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The arborvitaes we bought are evergreens; they will be bright and soft green during winter months. We have two existing pine trees that have dark green needles. To add some red, I decided to use three winter berries called “Berry Poppins”.  These berry shrubs are known for their bright red berries which last entire winter until early spring. which can be a steady food supply for hungry birds. Also, they look incredible against snow.

Berry Poppins® - Winterberry - Ilex verticillata

These berries needs both male and female plants to bear fruit, so I also purchased a male plant “Mr. Poppins”. The male plant will not bear fruit, but it will flower in Spring for some Spring/Summer interests.

4. Xeriscape Perennials for Pollinators

The mock orange, evergreen hedge, and winter berries are the bigger and anchor pieces in this design. Although they together attenuate the northwest wind, they are not xeriscape plants. Therefore, for the rest of the garden covering the slope, we chose all drought-tolerate plants including perennial flowers and shrubs. I had such a good success with the garden-in-a-box from Resource Central this Spring – the one I got is called honeybee heaven and it attracts bumblebees and mason bees like crazy – that I decided to purchase another one of their fall gardens for this space. The garden kit I ordered is called “Cool Connection”, which includes 23 plants – such as penstemon, dwarf larkspur, and Salvia. These plants are not only drought tolerant but also hummingbird- and butterfly-friendly.

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In the planting map above, the penstemon, the dwarf blue larkspur, and the rose queen Salvia will be planted in the red triangle labeled as “8”. This garden kits provide three of each plants so they will be planted as clusters. I adore the color of these plants – they mostly bloom pinks, purples, and blues, hence the name “Cool Connection”.

The kit also provides three Butterfly weeds. I will likely put them in where the red circle labeled as 8 with a double bubblemint hyssop which blooms pink (also included in the garden kit).

5. Adding Soft Texture with Grasses

Next to the perennial flowers we will be adding some grasses. Blue grama grass is Colorado’s state grass, whose seed packets last entire winter and are an excellent food source for small birds.

The garden kits includes three of them, along with three switch grass which is a popular roadside plant in the Denver area. These grass are practically zero-water plants after the first year, and their long-lasting foliage provide shelters for small birds and insects in Winter months.  They will be planted in green triangles labeled as “7”.

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Also will be planted in area “7” are a couple of blue oat grasses. If you have not heard blue oat grass, or blue avena grass, definitely check it out. It has beautiful blue blades and its upright form just looks so perky.

Helictotrichon sempervirens Photo Courtesy of Walter's Gardens Inc.

6. Trying out New Shrubs!

OK by this time if you are still reading, I am impressed. We are more than half way there. I promise. If you think this garden is pretty full, keep in mind that we have 600~700 sqft to fill! In addition to flowers, I also need low growing shrubs and ground covers. One plant the landscaping consultant highly recommended is sandcherry, which is a native plant that bear edible fruits in late summer. It also has a striking red foliage in the Fall. I have never had sand cherry before. But I figured that I could always leave them for wildlife if I do not fond the flavor.

Prunus besseyi ‘PS’ (Pawnee Buttes) Photo Courtesy of Plant Select

The sandberry will be planted in the circle labeled as “6”, and “4” will be a dwarf mugo pine. We have two pine trees already in our front yard but they look very different. And this dwaft mugo pine will look completely different from either of them. It has short branches and low to the ground, but it will bear tiny cones on the tip of the upright branches. A cutie indeed.

7. Boulders and Groundcovers

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Aside from everything I’ve named, we will use boulder rocks (the “5”s) and groundcover plants sparsely. Groundcover (the “10”‘s) is a great way to keep the soil cool and moist. It is more attractive to mulch and can spread and spill over boulders for a more dramatic effect. The garden kit I mentioned above includes some ground covers such as Prairie Winecups. I also got some sedum, veronica, and creeping phlox from a local nursery.

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8. My First Irises

The last category of plants in this front yard will be irises. I have never had irises before and am dying to give it a try. They do excellent in our area – one neighbor has dozens of them in his front yard and they made a big statement in the Spring. I ordered some purple ones and white ones, and plan to tuck them in here and there to add some height (for example, in area labeled as “9”). I may have ordered too many, but I can always plant them in the backyard for some cut flowers.

9. Planting Progress

If you are wondering what we have been doing these past a couple weeks, now you know! I’ve been hunting down plants, while Slav has been digging in the front yard to remove all the sod. We even have some plants in the ground already!

The winter berries arrived first. They are tiny now but they will grow to 4 feet wide /tall and fill in eventually.

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Yesterday, we got all six arborvitaes into the ground:

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They are a bit root bound but otherwise very healthy. I broke open the old roots and planted them with lots of good compost. These trees are already 3 feet tall and they are supposed to grow a few inches each year.

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Most of the perennials we ordered will come in late August and late September. To prepare for planting, Slav removed all the sod and turned the soil.

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He did a really good job edging the grass. We will install the same plastic edging I used in the backyard to separate the flower beds and the grass.

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While we were getting the edging from Home Depot I saw a mugo pine. It is actually hard to hunt down online so of course it came home with us:

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Isn’t it cute?

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We are working on getting this big planting area prepared for fall planting, and we need to figure out a way to retain soil and mulch so they do not spill over the sidewalk every time it rains. Although right now our front yard looks like a mud pit, I think it still looked better than dead grass – at lease you can tell it is renovated! I knew that after all the planting in fall, this yard will be so different for so much better! So stay tuned, friends!

Garden Edging Continued | Perennial Bed Borders

“Spring is for planting, summer is for building, fall is for harvesting, and winter is for resting.” – Fouch Family Off Grid

One of my favorite homestead family, Fouch Family Off Grid, brilliantly summarized what the four seasons are like for their off-grid homestead. Although being city dwellers, we very much follow the same pattern. Except for us, the winter is for playing – in the snow.

This spring is our first in the ranch house. We planted, planted, and planted more. I had dirt under my finger nails for three months during which I presented at three conference meetings. Now summer rolls around, it is finally time to start building.

Edging project I: Honeybee’s heaven perennial bed

This past week was dedicated to garden edging. Garden edging is part of the hardscape and can be used to define an outdoor area or a flower bed. It is also a good way to keep the soil or mulch contained and the weeds out out of a flower bed. I initially went for soft edging, which means no physical boundary but mulching over the flower beds.

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It did not work very well for us because all the weeds were climbing into the bed.

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Not only the soft edging invited weeds, it also created problem for Slav who mows our lawn. The hedge trimmer hit the wood chips hard and and broke them into pieces. Some of them flew high in the air and even hit Slav’s face.

Here is an unspoken rule in our family: we try to make each other’s life easier. Slav takes out the recycle, so I make sure to flatten the cardbox boxes before putting them into the bins. I compost, so Slav chops kitchen scrapes fine so they break down faster. We are free to do whatever we want and however we want, but one’s action should not make the other’s household tasks more difficult. Although the consequence of my choice of soft edging was not immediately apparent, watching woodchips hitting Slav’s face was an implicit reminder that I needed to change things up.

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Edging can be done in different ways and with different materials – plastic, metal, brick, concrete, etc. You can see both plastic and concrete pavers against the flower bed below. I recently installed the same plastic garden edging along the back fence and really liked the look of it. But I do not think it is a good choice for edging this perennial bed. First, they are soft and cannot hold a perfect line by its own. Installing them against a relative straight fence avoids the problem, but they may appear wavy around a free-standing flower bed. Second, their primary function is to prevent root crossing and are meant to be installed deep into the soil. But the mulch in our flower bed was a couple inches above the ground so I want the edging to also be raised. Third, the plastic edging may not stand well to the blades of lawn mowers. Last, the main goal here is to create a wide separation between the wood chips and the grass, so I decided to use the concrete pavers, or more specifically, the concrete edgers.

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But first, look at how well everything is growing! This is the garden-in-a-box kit called “honeybee’s heaven” we planted early May. In just 6 weeks, everything has grown to 4x of their original size and all of the plants flowered. Thumbs up for native plants!

Such pretty garden deserves a good edging – an expensive one. These edgers are not cheap, about $2.58 a pop that only lines 0.8 linear feet (in contrast the plastic edging was $28 for 60 feet!) But the edger blocks are wide and tall, perfect for blocking the root from crossing underground while leaving enough height to keep the mulch in. Slav kindly picked up 50 of them for me – they are so heavy that I could only transfer 8 pieces a time using the wheelbarrow! But I am glad they are because it means that they can stand by themselves without additional reinforcement.

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I started by laying them out to create a curve I like then started digging into the ground along the curve. A whole week of rain made digging a breeze.

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Then I set the edgers in. I used native soil to bump up the concrete edgers a bit, until they sat a few inches above the soil and level. These edgers have curves on both ends, so it was easy to form a nice curve without much gap in between. I actually lay them on their sides because I like the height and the look much better.

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To be clear, setting pavers are usually much more involved than the way I did it. Especially if you are creating a patio or a walk pass. This is a good article describing how garden edging using pavers should be done. I you are up for a permanent edging task or a surface that will be walked on, I high recommend that you follow these steps. It requires paver base, stone dust, sand, and a lot more leveling and compacting, but the end result will be permanent and perfectly level. For my flower bed I chose the sloppy way. Our perennial bed may not be permanent and its shape may change in upcoming years, so I do not want to anything permanent. Besides, our lawn mower is not going to ride on top of this edging but next to it, so it does not need to be perfectly level.

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This is the finished product and I like it. It does a great job holding all the mulch in, and I like how polished it made the bed look. The grey color ties into our back patio so, so well. And the best thing is, Slav can now use the hedge trimmer right against the garden bed without worrying about flying woodchips!

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Edging project II: Underplanting perennial garden

In this spirit I also installed the same edgers around the other perennial bed in our backyard, right under our crab apple tree. I used to have branches right against the bed as a natural edger and I absolutely adore it. But again it did not work well for mowing.

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In the process I made the bed larger. The crab apple tree shades everything below so the poor flowers are not growing as well as I hoped. We need to plant something else next year and a bigger bed will allow me to have both shade and partial shade plants here.

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Here is the bed when I finished:

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I like the result a lot more than I thought. Maybe because of the messy edge of the pavers, the bed does not feel too serious. I also like how the same concrete edger ties the two beds together. They echo the color of our concrete patio which downplayed their existence. I do not find them intruding at all.

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As you can see we have drip tubing runs in and out of this bed. We will bury them as some point so Slav can push the lawn mower through this area, probably next year after we set up all the veggie beds.

Edging project III: Frontyard mailbox underplanting

Next we moved onto edging the last perennial flower bed. This bed is in our front yard and directly under our mail box.

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Our black metal mailbox is very boring and I think the underplanting complements it nicely – a boring rectangle with just a few plants in it. There is one lavender, two rosemary bushes, and a struggling rose:

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This poor rose. We’ve got bunnies in this neighborhood and they love this rose bush, or more accurately, the taste of it. Every a few days I find the new growth on this rose leveled to the ground. Thankfully these bunnies are as dumb as their cotton tails are cute – they have not discovered my salad garden yet (knock on wood).

Although uninspiring, it is still a big upgrade compared to the weeds and broken bricks we inherited:

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For this bed I decided to create a mowing strip. Mowing strips are usually done with brick pavers. I chose to build one that is composed of two lines of bricks, one line on their side and the other laying flat. The taller edge keeps the mulch in while the flat part is leveled with the turf for the lawnmower to ride on.

To build this mowing strip I more or less followed the instructions here. Again, I did not use paver base or stone dust or any form of underlayment, because I do not know how permanent this flower bed will be. I simply dug down, leveled the brick with native dirt, laid bricks in, and packed around them with soil. I brushed some play sand in between the bricks to fill the gap so grass will not find their way into the flower bed.

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This brick paver is purposely different from the concrete grey ones I used in the backyard. I want to make the edging in the front yard more formal while keeping the backyard look more natural. This brick is super flat with sharp edges, making leveling them with the grass pretty easy.

The new border feels like the way it should have always been. I like the width and how it fills the void lawn a bit. As you may have noticed, we also made it bigger for more planting area. I want to add some winter interest plants here so from November to April our yard does not look super dead.

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Mulch!

As the final step of polishing everything up, we proceeded to mulch. Mulch is great for weed control and in our area, it is also crucial for reducing surface evaporation and keeping soil cooler. We have really bad problem with weeds especially where we water often, such as around the veggie beds:

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We could hardly see where the veggie beds end and where the weeds start. In preparation for mulching, I pulled most of weeds out, cut the grass super short, and covered all the path in between and around the veggie beds with heavy duty cardboard.

After weeding and mowing:

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Slav brought in two full trailer loads of wood chips and we mulched in between and all around the veggie beds:

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Doesn’t the mulch make everything look sharper? I could not be happier. Some of these wood chips are from fresh-chipped pine trees and they smell AMAZING. We continued the mulch along the back fence around the fruit trees and roses. This is another area I had been weeding by hand since this Spring, which took a few hours per week. With all the mulching we have replaced ~1000 sqft of the lawn that needs weeding and mowing constantly. Cutting down maintenance time while saving water sounds like a win-win to me.

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Here you have it, all three flower beds edged, large area mulched, and my landscaper (Slav) is happy. And guess who else is happy? These roses.

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Happy summer!

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