Terrific Broth

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

Category: Landscaping (Page 1 of 4)

Dry Creek DIY – A Labor of Love

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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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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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And constructed our first dry creek!

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 🙂

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

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

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

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

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Slav put the sod back on and patched it perfectly:

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

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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:

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

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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?

Enjoy!

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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!

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