Terrific Broth

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

Category: DIY Built (Page 1 of 4)

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?

Finishing What I Started – Floating Nightstand Build

Have you ever started something with great momentum, worked through 90% of it, then “took a break” that lasted forever? This describes half of my renovation projects, which are mostly done but not completed:




There are many hypothesis on the psychology underlying the inability of finishing tasks. One theory is that the procrastination is actually fueled by perfectionism and the fear that the finished product will not impress. People who are good at seeing big picture have a hard time to break it down into manageable tasks. For me, it might just be simply short attention spin. I got excited at starting a new thing but lose interests quickly during execution.

It dos not help that I live with a very accommodating partner. Slav, my housemate of 8 years and husband of nearly 5, is one of the most mild-tempered individual that you’d ever meet. He nods to every new idea I had (exciting!), cheers along every project I started (Oh! I did not think it would be so hard!), and most gratefully, tolerates all the almost-done projects I failed to complete (I will tackle it next week, I promise!). He thinks everything I did in the house is an improvement, “although incremental”. However, as a neuroscientist, who is fully aware  my own psychological shortcomings, I cannot let myself slip into this chronic procrastination crack. I need to overcome my own laziness and bring some project, a project to complete completion.

There is no shortage of contenders, as shown above. And the winner is…


Floating bedside tables for our master!

The design evolution

I have long wanted floating nightstands – shall we call it “nightfloats” for short? The most important reason: cleanliness. We have a Labrador who sheds non-stop (but he is cute! And we love him very much). A couple days without vacuuming, you can see black hairballs rolling along the baseboards (eww). Floating furniture allow us to vacuum every corner of our rooms. So, when I made our headboard during Christmas. I also designed a sideboard/nightfloat combination for both sides of the bed.


This SketchUp image shows how I designed the nightfloats originally. The side panels, which are as deep as the headboard, will be standing on both sides of the bed and secured to the wall. Two nightfloats and two sconces will be mounted on the side panels, which hide all the wires behind. The blue rectangle represents a window above the bed.


As you can see, there is not a lot of room on either side of the bed. I decided to make the side panel/nightfloat 19″ wide, which is the distance between the bed and the wall to the right.


However, when I actually pop a big piece of plywood next to the bed, the room felt so… filled up to the brim. The bed assembly took over the entire back wall, making the room feel cramped. With a king and storage bed, it is so critical for us to keep everything else light and minimal. Hence the choice of curtains on the closet, the ladder for clothes drop-off, and the minimal decor. We quickly nix the idea of side panels, and decided to only make the nightfloats.

headboard after

Nightstand details_1

Nightstand details_2

Without the side panels, one drawer nightstand looked a bit too skinny. So we opt for a more balanced two-drawer design. This guest post from The house of wood confirmed that this is the look we wanted. Although I did not follow their plan and building material, the dimensions and building process is fairly similar.

Building the carcass

With SketchUp plan in hand, I started cutting all the pieces to size.


I usually do not keep a cut list, but rather try to use up various pieces with minimal waste. After building two nightstand, I have only waste some trimmings that could be picked up by two hands – I’d say that it is pretty good!!!


I also collect all the sawdust for composting later. We keep a small bin in the kitchen for collecting green waste. Layering in sawdust kept it odor-free and dry. A win-win in my book.


I decided to join all the pieces with pocket hole joints.



Slav gifted me these quick release bar clamp (similar here) which are life savers for a one-man operation.




Drawer build

Now it comes my favorite part: building the drawers. There is something very comforting about the repetitive process of assembling drawers. I can build drawers everyday. If you are in the Denver area and want a few drawers built, let me know!


There are also many ways to build drawers which I am having fun trying. The first drawer I built uses butt joint and screws, and my second batch was built with butt joint and brad nails. For both cases, the drawer bottoms were screwed/nailed directly onto the bottom of the drawer frame. This time I used pocket hole joints for the frame, and cut grooves with the tablesaw on all sides of the drawer frame to sink the drawer bottoms in.


The groove were cut to fit the 5 mm plywood I had on hand (left from this project). I used a piece to make sure the groove lining up perfectly while jointing pieces together:


For small drawers like what I am building, these plywood sheets are rigid enough and should not bend easily. If you are making drawers than exceed 2′ on one side, much wider drawers, I will recommend a center support.


After inserting the drawer bottoms, I closed them off by joining in the last side. These drawers felt super solid and I am very happy with them. 🙂

The assembly

I attached all the drawer slides which is pretty straightforward. I maxed out the drawer depth by having very limited space between them, but math worked.



I cut a piece of plywood to cover the whole front (including the frames), then sliced it into two pieces where the drawers divide. The cut took off 1/8″ of plywood horizontally, which left a perfect reveal between the two drawers while keeping the wood grain continuous.


Slav helped me to mount them in the bedroom. We used the Hangman french cleat for our headboard and it was rock solid. So this time we used two of this smaller version for the nightfloats.


Finished around 10 pm, perfect timing for bed:


As planned, the nightstand on Slav’s side fits like a glove.


And them just cleared the storage bed drawers:


Customer Review:

We have used these nightfloats for a couple nights and they are perfect. The top provides plenty of space for lights, clock, and a glass of water much needed for sleeping in such dry climate. The bottom drawers are reserved for undies and socks, and the top drawers are perfect for ear buds, night guards, and glasses.



We love the seamless look in the front so we will not be adding hardware to the drawers. They are not difficult to open – all it takes is a firm grip on both sides. We might add finger pulls down the road if we see something we like enough.


We do however, plan to paint the nightfloats – should they be white as the walls, black as the bed frame, or grey as our headboard? (Apparently there are only three color in my world!)

These drawers remain empty until we paint the nightfloats. It is funny that I have added nine drawers – nine! – to our house within the last a couple weeks, yet none of them got filled. Should I celebrate our lack of stuff, or be charged of overbuild?

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