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

Category: Eat Green Page 1 of 18

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!

The Dog Days of Summer

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What a lovely summer we are having this year! Except a few hot days here and there, we are experiencing in general much cooler temperature and a lot more rainfall than previous years. Bright morning sun and afternoon clouds kept plants and wildlife happy. It is seriously the best year for gardens and lawn since we moved into the house.

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Besides abundant flowers from returning perennials, we got many blooms from this year’s planting as well. Remember the Chinese Snowball Viburnum I planted near the patio planters? It did not fail to impress:

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Next to the Snowball Viburnum I planted a patch of garden Cosmos. Raised from seeds they were pretty pathetic when planted, but look at them now! Honestly I was just short of perennials and tried to fill the new patio garden with random annuals. But these cosmos really exceeded my expectations.

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And I had sunflowers for the first time! Planted by visiting birds they just came up one day on their own. I had no idea what they were, but decided to keep them out of curiosity. What a nice surprise! They are looooved by bees.

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Speaking of birds, we seeded a patch of grass in the backyard early summer which accidentally created a buffet for a family of American Robins. Apparently when you lay down compost on the ground and water a lot, earthworms come to the surface. And these robins just feast on the worms.

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Every time the sun sets Slav waters the newly seeded area. In a few minutes these two robins will show up for dinner. I think they can sense the moisture in the air. We had a lot of fun watching them hunting worms: they carefully listen to the movement under the soil, then snap at worms risen just below the soil surface.

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Once they get a bit of a worm they pull it out of the soil completely, crop it into pieces, then fly away with a mouth full of worm to enjoy in their nest.

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Besides worms they also steal my strawberries…but that is it. Interestingly they do not eat any grass seeds, nor any of my vegetables. Robins are steak-and-dessert kind of bird I guess.

What has been stealing our vegetable harvest is the Cottontail Gang. Look at this cute monster waiting for us to go inside so he/she can start supper:

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This is the first summer I got bunnies in my backyard – my dogs must have made a deal with these adorable little thieves to exchange my lettuce for their poop. Bunny poops are like M&M to my dogs – they just could not resist licking the last drop clean.

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Compared to the neighborhood bunny gang, the resident squirrels carry themselves with dignity. I keep some bird seeds and occasional sunflower heads in an old bird bath in the front yard. The resident squirrel couple show up in the mornings and eat quietly by themselves. They live in a big tree across the street and have been challenging our squirrel-proof bird feeder every winter. So far I am winning. So I understand their urge of getting fat during summer months and I am OK to lend a hand.

As our garden matures and expands there are more and more wildlife visiting. We saw many more native bees, a greater diversity of birds, and increased number of rabbits and squirrels hanging around. It is interesting to see wildlife crossing path and foraging next to each other. Like birds eating from the bird feeder at the same time when the squirrels are around, and they hide in the same tree when we come out of the front door. Lately, a couple bunnies visit in our front yard every morning, often during the time the squirrel family eats from the bird bath. They sometimes get as close as a couple feet to each other. It is so nice to watch them peacefully eating their respective meals side by side.

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Despite the bunny interest the garden is doing well too! Above is a shot of my cucumber plant about a week ago, and now it has climbed to the top of the trellis. I have already harvested a few rounds of radish and greens. And 75 heads of garlic came out just after July 4th:

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Last week I cut my herb garden back and gave all the trimmings to my co-workers. My car smelled like mint for days.

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We continue harvesting greens while beans, beets and zucchini come to season:

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Starting mid-July there has been a steady steam of onions, tomato, cucumber, and more zucchini…

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And even more zucchini…

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As you can see we are flooded with zucchini this year – they seemed to really like my garden so one plant is usually enough for two of us. However this year we planted four. I have donated lettuce and zucchini to food pantry twice, sent some to our neighbors, and made many, many meals with them:

Chinese zucchini pancake:

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Beef zucchini dumplings:

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Zucchini bread (with chocolate chips!)

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I even worked some into the sheet cake I baked form Slav. Zucchini is an amazing flour substitute and we can barely tell the difference!

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In the dog days of summer Slav and I celebrated our seventh anniversary. Seven years being married, and fourteen years being friends. I know this man well, but I am still discovering more. For example, I always thought he liked tiramisu and have been making it every year for our anniversary, only to learn that he prefers cheesecake…Oops. But we still enjoyed the cake which might be the only thing we had this summer without zucchini in it!

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How is your summer going?

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