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

Category: Eat Green Page 2 of 24

The Side Yard Evolution

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Is it spring at your home yet? We shoveled snow just last week… So the gardening season is still far away for us. I am actually starting seeds this week, and I will make sure to show you the plant babies when they come up. To get rid of the cabin fever, I want to revisit a feel-good gardening project we completed last fall, which was actually a five-year evolution of our north side yard.

2017-2018: The new fence and side yards

The ranch house has two small side yards – one on the south side of the house, and the other on the north side. Both side yards were lawn space when we bought the house in 2017:

The south side yard

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The north side yard

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When we built the fence in 2018, we decided to incorporate most of the south side yard to the back. So we could hide the trailer and trash cans from the street view:

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When it came to the north side of the house, we decided to move the fence line forward to match the south side. This meant that most of the north side yard would be connected to the backyard as well.

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The six-foot privacy fence helped to create this 20′ x 15′ space. It is hidden from majority of the property. You have to walk around the house in order to see the space in its entirety.

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My initial plan was to make this side yard a “secret garden”. But at that time, we just started landscaping the front yard and there were much bigger fishes to fry (here and here). So this place waited.

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2019 fall: Sheet mulching and planting ground cover

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The next Spring, we mulched the entire northern slope of the backyard with wood chips. Edible perennials like hazelnut trees and raspberries were planted, the former of which you could see in the picture above. We kept the lawn grass on the north side yard, but very soon, the lawn grass started dying. The fix-foot tall privacy fence blocked the afternoon sun to this side yard. And being on the north side of the house, this space became too shady for grass to grow.

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Gone the grass, came the weeds. I knew I had to do something ASAP here. I decided to plant vinca minor as a ground cover. Vinca minor, aka periwinkle, grows vigorous in our area. It is one of the very few groundcovers that can out compete perennial weeds and it is evergreen. By planting it along the property line, I hoped to stop the weeds coming from our northern neighbors’ yard.

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The periwinkle were little plugs I took from a gardener friend. They quickly grew into a dense mat with small purple flowers popping up all season long. I love them.

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I did not have enough periwinkle to cover the whole side yard, so I decided to sheet mulch the rest of the space. The steel edging separating mulch from the lawn was removed, and I laid down cardboard directly on the grass and weeds:

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The steel edging did not go to waste! It was installed along the side of the house to prevent the foundation drainage rocks from falling into the future garden. I took this opportunity to expand the rock area a bit wider:

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Then put cardboard against the new edging and weighted them down with scrap wood:

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Then just tiled away.

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For sheet mulching, adding cardboard is only the first step. It is recommended to mulch over the cardboard with wood chips or compost, so light will not reach the ground through the gaps between the cardboard. We did not have time to apply mulch that fall, so we weighted the cardboard down with rocks, scrape wood, and Roxie.

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Of course I did not mulch over the periwinkle. They continue to grow even in winter months and I could see that they would eventually climb the hill and cover the entire slope.

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Here is how the side yard looked before and after the cardboard layer. Although the cardboard was not pretty to look at, I did feel better knowing that the weeds were under control.

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2020-2021: A secret pumpkin patch

With the unexpected disruption of our lives in 2020, we were not able to plant this side yard for a while. To not let the space sit empty, I put in pumpkins and butternut squash here. Boy did they grow! These vining plants completely covered the cardboard by mid summer, and we got hundreds of pumpkin and squashes in the fall:

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We repeated pumpkins here again in 2021 and got great results again. The side yard was the perfect spot for a pumpkin patch – the vines did not look too hot before harvest, but we could hardly see it from most of the backyard.

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If you think the fall sight was bad, the winter view was worse. Lazy me left all the vines in the ground to decompose after harvest. Although the dead vines functioned like a mulch layer, it was terrible to look at. This was NOT the secret garden I had in mind. Oops.

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2022 Fall – Finally planting!

Fast forward to the Fall of 2022, after finishing the major renovations inside of the house, it was time to make over this little side yard! My plan was still to make this space a secret garden. With the fence/house on all three sides, I would be adding screening evergreens and climbing plants on the perimeters and fill the center with perennials.

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To prepare for the planting, I racked out pumpkin vines and cardboard pieces that had not decomposed after two seasons, and added the grass clippings I saved over the summer. This not only helped the ground to retain moisture, but would also add organic matter into the soil when it decomposes.

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We also decided to remove the old lilac. It was intermingled with the old chain link fence and we had to cut it down to the ground during the fence removal. The poor lilac has not looked healthy since and never flowered again:

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Lilacs are famous for its deep root system. I called for help:

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When we started this project, Charlie just joined the pack. He was following us everywhere.

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Here is Charlie again, pulling on the lilac roots. Too bad he did not do it when the root was still in the ground. ๐Ÿ™‚

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After removing the old lilac, Slav (and Charlie) weeded along the fence and applied mulch between the periwinkles.

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Planting arborvitae along the fence

Then, it was time to plant! I first added six “North pole” arborvitaes the same as the ones we planted in the front yard for privacy. I spaced them 3 feet apart, which should cover 19′ of the fence when they grow up.

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The first one was planted 3′ from the corner (where the yellow marker was). The periwinkle should eventually cover the ground around the arborvitae.

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Here were the little ones, planted!

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They looked so good and fresh.

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Completing ground planting with shade-loving plants

To fill the ground I got a starter connection of shade-loving plants mostly hostas and ferns. They were most bareroot so I used flags to indicate where they were planted:

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The hostas were spaced apart based on their mature sizes. After a couple years, we should not be able to see the ground in between.

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I used an old straw bale to mark the future path. I made it curvey and narrow, so the path would not be obvious from distance.

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Here is how the path ends. I planted a bigger arborvitae at the corner as an anchor.

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Finishing the shade garden with mulch

No landscaping project is complete without drip irrigation and mulch. I used up all the drip tubings I had to install a drip system for the side yard. Not an inch more! Of course Charlie was around to help. What a sweet boy!

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The last step was mulch. Now the shade garden was planted!

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2017-2022: A five year evolution

Over five seasons, this side yard endured many changes. From the lawn grass:

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To a weedy ground:

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To its pumpkin patch glory:

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To sheet mulch:

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And finally to the shade garden today!

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Like many people, we focused on other areas that โ€œmattered moreโ€ and let this space wait. But after five years, it eventually got the attention it deserves. And I am looking forward to the 2023 Spring mainly because of this garden. Please treat the picture below, which I took in early 2019 as the “before”, and I hope to update you the pretty “after” a few months from now! Stay tuned, friends!

 

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Life with a Hot Tub

Last year Slav gifted me a hot tub. It was not fancy by any means – just an inflatable tub that only fits both of us. But it was very affordable and perfect for me to try. Now six months has passed, I am surprised how much I enjoyed it. Hot tubbing relaxes not only my muscle but also my mind. And I loved the part of being outside and taking in the fresh air.

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When we first got the hot tub, we set it up on the back patio, close to the outdoor faucet and electrical box. But our back patio sits high up and is well lit by the light from the kitchen. So I always felt a lack of privacy when hot tubbing at night. Last Fall, as we were hardscaping around the garden shed, we decided to build a spot for the hot tub as well. The goal was to move it farther away from the house, and to where it could sit lower in the yard.

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Building an in-hill patio for the hot tub

The spot we picked was on the northern slope of the yard. This space was part of the former raspberry patch we removed last Fall. After incorporating the upper half of the old patch into the nearby flower beds, we were left with this 7′ x 15′ strip of land near the fence:

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This spot is a lot lower than the house and back patio and therefore provides more privacy. After removing the raspberry bushes, the area in front of the two hazelnut trees was just enough for our 6′ x 6′ hot tub. I mapped out where the hot tub would be with some tree stumps, and Slav came in and dug out all the raspberry roots.

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From the picture below you can see the slope of the yard. To create a flat spot, Slav decided to dig into the slope and create an in-hill patio that sits a lot lower than the house itself. I am not gonna lie. It was a lot of earth-moving. And Slav did all of it with his two hands and a shovel!

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You can also see the edge of the flower bed lined up with tree stumps. We decided to keep a 4′ wide walking path between the hot tub patio and this flower bed. The tree stumps were placed directly onto the slope and raised the planting area quite a bit higher. So Slav could simply flip the soil directly into this new planting area as he dug. It saved lots of back-breaking effort of transferring the soil somewhere else.

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I must have forgotten to take a picture after Slav dug out the in-hill patio, but you can get an idea on how much soil he removed from the picture below!

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Building the retaining wall

To make sure the in-hill patio is stable and safe we needed a retaining wall. We decided to construct the wall directly on the hardpan soil, just like how we did it for the front yard retaining wall and the one around the shed patio. Slav started by scraping some soil off the edge of the patio space, so he could set the first row of blocks lower than the patio level.

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The first row of the retaining wall blocks are always the most critical. They are the foundation of the entire structure and have to sit perfectly level on well-compacted soil. They also need to run straight. Slav used a straight 2″ x 4″ as his guide, and a hand soil tamper with several levels to make sure each block was pefectly lined up with its neighbors.

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Laying the first row of the blocks took us an entire afternoon. But it was worth the time to set a solid foundation. We also took time to fine-tune the dimensions and the shape of the patio. We decided to make it bigger than planned, so we would have enough room to walk around the tub.

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We also added some soil to the patio space so the first row of the retaining wall blocks were half buried. This step should add some stability to the wall.

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Then it was time to build up! We got these retaining wall blocks second-hand so some of them were cut already. Slav took his time to select the best pieces for ends and corners. It was like a big Lego game but with heavy blocks. A good workout for both muscle and mind.

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We curved one end of the retaining wall to create a flower bed. It just made sense to keep the ground here higher based on the slope of our land.

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Before the retaining wall was constructed I had already planted the new magnolia tree. This tree will grow to 10-15 feet tall and bring pink magnolia flowers right over the hot tub.

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The blocks we used produce a pretty curve. I like it a lot.

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With a good foundation and design the rest of the building process went pretty smoothly. We back filled the soil behind the blocks as each row went in, and used a hand soil tamper to make sure there was no air pocket.

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The finished retaining wall

After a month of digging and a whole weekend of building. Here was the result:

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And here was the small flower bed next to the patio:

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Do you like it? I looooove it! This small flower bed brought such gentle feel into the hardscape. I cannot wait to pack it full with fluffy shrubs and soft flowers.

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From the picture above and below you could get an idea how much higher this small flower bed sits above the hot tub patio. Starting higher should save us a few years to grow a green screen here for privacy.

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Here was the view from the other side of the patio. The path on the right leads to the back door:

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I liked the gentle flare Slav put at the end of the wall.

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Here was the view when walking down from the house to the hot tub patio. This inner diameter is 7.5′ wide. There would be enough room for one person to walk around the 6′ square hot tub.

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Here is the view of the herb garden and the lawn from the patio space. We left a wide path around the patio and all flower beds, so we could easily push the wheelbarrow to any corner of the backyard. I liked how everything was connected with the new layout.

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The path coming from the house:

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Finishing the patio area and creating a base for the hot tub

After finishing the retaining wall, Slav leveled the patio area once again, and compacted the soil.

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Slav also compacted the soil in the area beyond the patio space, where we would get in and out of the hot tub. We are considering building another retaining wall below to keep the soil contained in this area, but that would be another project for another day.

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We did not want to put the hot tub directly on the dirt, so we decided to add some pool pads. Landscape fabric was added to keep the dirt and weeds down. These plastic pads did not only function as a leveled base for the hot tub, but also worked as an insulation layer.

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To make sure that the pool pads would not shift, Slav put down a few flagstones left over from the shed patio build.

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We then weighted down the landscape fabric with gravel. It will help to drain away any water we carry out out the hot tub. Now the patio was ready for the hot tub!

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Moving the hot tub and mulching the surrounding yard

Slav drained, cleaned, and dried the hot tub. Then we carried it to its new location:

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The hot tub sits perfectly over the pool pads, and the gravel area is just perfect for one person to move around:

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We then put down a thick layer of wood chip mulch around the new patio to cover the exposed dirt. This spot looks so tidy now!

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Originally I thought about planting right up to the retaining wall, but now, I am glad that I have left this path. It improved the traffic flow among all the flower beds. The dogs also love to come here when we are in the hot tub. They can lay down here if they want to be close. It is so sweet.

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I could not help but adding a new dwarf pine in this flower bed. The Pinus parviflora “Tanima no yuki” grows 3′ tall and 2′ wide and will cover this corner with its lovely needles in a few years.

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The hot tub now sits 4′ below the back patio, which puts us way below the fence line. I purposely did not put any landscaping lighting here. Now it feels very private to use the hot tub at night.

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The new hot tub experience!

Here it is, our new hot tub spot! It was a lot of work, but now the whole hot tubbing experience is so much better. We are now completely surrounded by trees, flowers, birds, insects, clouds, and stars. It feels like sitting in a hot spring in the wild! Being lower in the yard also adds a cozy feeling especially at night. There was one time a bunny ran right by the hot tub on the path above it, stopped at my eye level, and chilled right in front of my eyes. It was so magical.

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Another additional advantage of moving the hot tub is we now have room again on the back patio! It was packed full with a giant tub and all hot tubbing related stuff for the last six months. Now we can use the grill and have room to sit here again:

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I recently started hot tubbing in the mornings on weekend too. It was nice to relax, look around, and plan my day, which usually gets me into a more crafty and creative mind. Slav has gotten used to looking for me in the hot tub… I think it is here to stay. ๐Ÿ™‚ If you have never used hot tub before – give it a try! It is a great way of getting out of the digital world and getting in touch with our senses. You will love it. I promise!

Getting Rid of Our Raspberry Patch!

Over the years, we have carved out quite a few large garden beds on our property: the vegetable garden, the back fence orchard, the front yard flower bed, and most recently, the shed patio garden. But we have never “renovated” one. Last Fall, after completing the shed patio project, we decided to redo one of the garden beds in our backyard – the raspberry patch:

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Why redo the raspberry garden?

I started this raspberry patch back in 2019. The first a couple summers, the raspberry plants remained small. Despite that, we still got the raspberries we needed:

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But during the last two seasons, these raspberry plants explored:

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Although we tried to thin the canes in Spring, the growth was too robust to control. The patch quickly grew into a 7-foot-tall jungle. Rabbits and mice started making nests between the canes.

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We also found raspberry suckers popping up everywhere: in nearby flower beds, on the lawn space, and even inside basement window sills. Raspberry spreads by horizontal rhizomes underground. Although we love eating fresh raspberries, we did not want a raspberry-infested yard.

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Digging out the raspberry canes and future plans

Finally, we made the painful decision to remove the raspberry patch. It was not a task for the faint of heart – these canes were full of thorns and we expected snakes and rodents had taken refuge inside the patch. I started by cutting off the canes after the summer harvest, and worked from the outside in. I found so many berries we could not see through the dense foliage, and ended up freezing several five-gallon buckets of berries from this small patch! Can you believe it? Raspberry must really liked our soil.

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After I cut down the canes, Slav the husband of the year took over to dig out the rhizomes.

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It took Slav a few weekends to eliminate the raspberry roots. Here was the pile from his work. Mostly prickly raspberry canes. Oh my.

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At the meantime, I started contemplating how to utilize the former raspberry patch. I quickly decided to incorporate half of it into the nearby patio garden. Adding this section significantly enlarged the once skinny patio garden, making it look more like a planting “island” instead of a “strip”.

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This was the look of the new planting island. Imagine a small ornamental tree where the yellow stick is, maybe an evergreen, surrounded by low-mount grasses and perennial blooms? It will create a layered look and bring more winter interest to this area.

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Next to the planting island I wanted a path, so we could walk among the big flower beds easily. Being a visual person, I started by laying down some tree stumps to highlight the future path:

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From the picture above and below you can see that the path travelled from the back of the house, right under my office window, to the center of the herb garden. It looked wide in the pictures, but in reality it was barely four feet wide. I also made the path curvy for a more organic look.

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It was a lot harder to decide what to do with other half of the former raspberry patch… Although north-facing, this slope was very productive when planting pumpkins and melons.

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Unfortunately, we are no longer able to plant vine crops here next year, because of our new dog, Charlie. Charlie loves to taste unripe fruits from my garden, precisely one bite from each fruit. This little devil…

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I will show you how we converted this slope in the next post – we found a great use of it! You will like it, I promise. ๐Ÿ™‚

Planting the back patio “island”

When it came to the plant choices, I knew we needed some evergreen trees. We only had deciduous trees in our backyard, which looked really bare for 5 months of a year. Planting more evergreens will bring some much needed structure into the winter garden. However, evergreens were so expensive – that I can only afford the tiniest size. But if we plant now, we can have something pretty to look at in ten years!

Besides the evergreens, I also ordered a Jane magnolia. I’ve been long wanting a magnolia tree. It is the tree besides gingko that I really missed since moving to the States. The Jane magnolia is the most cold-hardy and it might have a fighting chance in our zone 5 winter.

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I got a couple of the Japanese grasses to plant around the trees. These grasses are cold-hardy, vigorous, and they can tolerate both sun and shade. They should be able to naturalize in our yard and become a dense groundcover in a couple years.

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Came with the tree order were a couple free plants. They are called “Rainbow” dog hobble (leucothoe fontanesiana). I never heard this plant before, but I was immediately attracted to its variegated leaves and open branching structure:

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Apparently the dog hobble is a native to our climate, drought tolerant, and evengreen to zone 5 (!). It checks all the boxes I want for a mile-high garden. They should mature to 4-5 feet tall and wide. I think they will add lots of color to this corner.

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Here is how everything looked like in ground: a “Bialobok” Colorado Spruce, surrounded by three Hakone Japanese Forest Grass “All Gold”. I later added several ‘Nigrescens’ black mondo grasses in between the “All Gold”:

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I transplanted this rosemary from the patio garden. It was shaded by a russian sage so it did not put on much growth last year. But it developed a massive root ball. Hopefully the strong root system could help it survive this winter and establish itself as a perennial in my garden:

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Also transplanted here was a passion flower from the mailbox garden. It barely grew there last year. I figured that it could use some protection from afternoon sun. Passion flower is supposed to be a perennial too in my zone (5b), so we will see if it comes back next Spring!

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To offset the costs of the new plants, I filled the rest of the planting area by “shopping my own garden”, which means that I walked through my yard, divided what looked mature, and dug out what looked crowded. There were an English lavender from the front yard, a catmint (cut back to the ground) from the herb garden, and an itoh peony I got from a neighbor:

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Last but not the least, the Jane magnolia was planted into the ground! It took me a while to find it a permanent home:

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To finish the new planting area, we covered the bare soil using cardboard, and piled Fall leaves on top. I am curious to see how many weeds will come up in this area since we disturbed the soil, and we are certain that the raspberry runners will come up in Spring. We plan to put a few inches of wood chips next Spring as mulch, which will tidy up this area a lot. It would be very nice if all the perennials come back to life!

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