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

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Home Stay + Spring Garden, 2020!

Hi friends and family! I hope you had a fun Memorial day weekend. For Northern gardeners like me, a successful Memorial day weekend means getting your vegetable garden planted! Being housebound for 10 weeks, I put more hours into the garden that I could ever hope for. This is the Spring I not only stayed on top of basic tasks like planting, watering and weeding, but also made changes to the garden that will improve our landscape in a long run. I cannot think of a better time to show you the garden than today. Are you ready?

The Video Tours

First, here are the garden walk-through videos! You can click the “play” button in the middle of the video, or for better quality, head over to Youtube.

The front yard tour:

The backyard tour part one, which covers the veggie garden and herb garden:

Backyard tour part two: the berry patch and new patio garden.

If you have trouble viewing the video, do not worry! Below are the pictures I took over the last two weeks of different blooms!

I. The Front Yard Perennial Bed

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Here is our front yard flower bed today!  Most of the plants went in during Fall 2018, when they were just babies.

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Boy did they grow up:

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Planted along the dry creek are irises. They have been blooming since early May:

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Last Fall I dotted some Hens and Chicks along the dry creek. Apparently they all rooted in and came back this Spring:

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The white flowers behind the Hens and Chicks are called “Snow-in-summer”. It is a rather tall groundcover that blooms from early Summer through frost. They are such a fast grower/spreader – this patch was started with two 2-inch cans!

At the end of the dry creek, I cut out this small flower bed last Fall, and planted two peonies and a climbing rose. A trio of grass aligns the fence to add some softness.

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Around the corner of the house is a new honeysuckle, underplanted with stonecrop:

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Imagine the honeysuckle climbing 8 feet tall and filling the space between the window and the gutter, with the sedum covering and trailing off the entire planter…

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The rest of the flower bed is filled with flowering perennials:

Salvias, pink:

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Penstemons, Husky red

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Salvias, Purple

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Penstemons, Pineleaf Beardtougue

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Mugo pine and stonecrop “Angelina”

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English lavender, FlowerKisser “After Midnight”:

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Also planted here are Colorado State flowers and grasses. The Columbines have been putting on lots of foliage growth. They are expected to flower from mid-summer through Fall. The Blue Grama grasses are also getting bigger each day.

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I love this Pawnee Buttes Sand cherry! It grew much bigger this Spring compared to 2019, and we are not even getting to the Summer days yet! This particular Sand cherry variety is a western native and supposed to be a low-mount ground cover, but I’ve seen mature plants about 4 feet tall.

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The Silver brocade sage adds a nice ice-blue color to the flower bed:

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Near the retaining wall are planted groundcovers that flowers in different time of the season. They look like low mounts now but will eventually meet each other to create a nice flowering carpet:

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I tacked some baby Hens and Chicks last Fall into the small gaps between the retaining wall and the sidewalk. I did not hold too much hope then, but look at them now!

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How could you not love a plant that is beautiful, always looking like it is flowering, impossible to kill, but not invasive?

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II. The Mailbox Garden

On the other side of the driveway is our mailbox garden:

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This spot is one of the toughest on our property – west facing, beating afternoon sun, water runoff, compact soil, and being pilled onto salt and snow for months during winter. It is my test ground for plants – if a plant can survive here, it will thrive anywhere in my garden without water! And so far everything I threw here passed their entry exam:

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The Red Hot Poker (Torch Lily), Hot and Cold:

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Salvias, Blue

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Lilies:

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More Stonecrop:

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Creeping Thyme:

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One of the best upgrade we made this Spring, is to automate all the front yard irrigation, not only for the flower beds but also for the trees and the lawn. It saved us so much time and stress, and the plants are much happier too for getting consistent water:

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III. The Backyard Vegetable Garden

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This is the third season of this vegetable garden. Starting with just a couple beds, we now have five 4′ x 16′ in-ground beds, two of which are planted with perennial vegetables. I am a believer of perennial edibles – “planting once, harvest forever” sounds great!

The strawberries bed has been producing for two years:

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A chive border was planted in front of the strawberries last Fall by splitting one – yes, just one – chive plant! Gotta love a plant that is beautiful, edible, tough as nails, and attracts pollinators!

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Last year I asked Slav to “pick a vegetable you want me to grow”. And he picked asparagus! The plant ended up loving our soil and intense sun.

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This Spring, I added 25 more crowns around it and dedicated this entire bed to asparagus. All the crowns sprouted nicely. We should be able to start harvesting asparagus next Spring, and many decades ahead!

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I am a big fan of garlic scapes. Growing up, garlic scapes and strawberries were only available for a couple weeks each year, usually around my birthday. Each year I look forward to them as birthday treats. Starting 2018, I plant a whole bed of hardneck garlic every Spring for the scapes.

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The remaining two beds are planted with annual vegetables we love – tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumber, cabbages, radishes, beets, arugula, and salad greens.

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After filming the video tour, I put up some trellises for the climbing beans: This year we are growing Limka and red noodle.

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IV. The New Ginkgo Tree and Helleborus Garden

One of the new addition to my garden this year is a Ginkgo tree. I planted it next to the veggie garden. It is a slow-growing tree, especially during the first a few years, so it would not cast shade on the veggie garden any time soon. But eventually, I would love to have the whole yard covered by canopies of big trees for a forest-type micro-climate.

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Before that happens, this little flower bed under the crabapple tree is my only “shade” garden. I dedicated this whole space to my favorite plants: helleborus.

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Helleborus, or hellebore, is also called Christmas rose or Lenten rose. It flowers in January through April, and offers the most delicate looking flowers that often used for water art.

I planted this garden last year with white, dark purple, and black flowering helleborus, basically what you see in the picture above. They have not flowered this year, but all of them came back from the winter looking much stronger. Without the flowers they still got nice and glossy foliage to look at:

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V. The Pollinator/Herb Garden

Besides the veggie garden occupying the south side of the backyard, and fruit trees and climbing roses aligning the east fence, we also densely planted the north side of the backyard. This part of the yard receives full sun and is on a slope. To prevent water run-off, we covered the entire area with wood chip mulch and turned it into an edible garden.

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The flower bed in the front is our pollinator garden. Planted here are all sun-loving perennial herbs and flowers. There are sage, English lavender, mint, tarragon, catmint, lemon balm, oregano, hyssop, walking onion, Black Eye Susan, lavender cotton, sulfur flower buckwheat, and some ground cover.

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To add more shade trees, I planted a maple tree here in 2019. It will eventually become 40 feet tall and its canopy will meet the canopy of the crabapple tree.

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VI. The Berry Patch!

A big part of our edible garden, besides the vegetable beds, is a berry patch we planted last year. 20 berry plants, including 15 raspberries and 5 black berries, and two hazelnut trees went into this big mulched area:

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The three rows of raspberry are different varieties. You can see the difference between their sprouting time and growing habit. The row on the very left came up first and spreads the most, and the right row has a more of a tight form.

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VII. The New Patio Garden + Planters

Last is the newest addition to our backyard – the patio garden!

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What I call the “patio garden” includes the patio planters (planted with stawberries), the strip of mulched area in front of the planters and the berry patch (which is mulched with dried grass clippings for now), and the area between the herb garden and the shed.

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Due to the pandemic, we did not manage to get perennial plants to fill the new patio garden. To fill the space, I seeded some annual flower and vine crops. The entire patio garden, from the patio to the shed, is full-sun and get overspray from our grass sprinklers. It will be fun to plan this garden this Fall!

The space closest to the house now have a couple annual herbs, with cosmos seeded in between:

Lemon verbena

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Rosemary

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Cosmos

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The pink flags are there so Roxie does not get into the flower bed – this girl likes to nap on fresh mulch, which I totally understand. But the new flower seedlings would like to disagree.

I did manage to put in two perennials here, one being a Chinese Snowball Viburnum. It will eventually grow to be a multi-stem tree, 8 feet tall with a 6 feet spread. It will provide some afternoon shade for the snowboard bench and the flower bed below.

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The other perennial is a lingonberry, and it flowered right after being planted!

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Where the patio garden curves along the berry patch were recently seeded with lettuce and beets. It is treated like an extension of our veggie garden this year, but will be plant with pretty perennials this Fall! I have some leftover cantaloupe seeds that are fairly old, so they all got thrown there too. Maybe one of them will come up!

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Near the newly built shed patio I planted a vine crop patch! All the seedlings of  zucchini, squash, cucumber went in here.

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The goal is to let them becoming a green mulch for the area, so less weeds can come up:

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I did manage to get one perennial in this area, and it is an apple tree!

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We already planted a honey crisp apple tree a couple years ago, but transparent apple is Slav’s favorite. Although popular in Poland, we could not find this apple sold in stores around us. So let us grow it!

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VIII. The Shed Patio and A New Pollinator House

Remember the shed patio I created a few weeks ago? It is still bare and covered by black plastic…given the current situation of the pandemic, this patio might have to wait until next Spring.

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We did spice it up a bit by setting two faux evergreen trees in front of the shed. One of (many of) Slav’s snowboards serves as a temporary seating.

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Oh, the leave-cutting bee house we DIYed last year reached full occupancy! Totally did not expect it and very encouraged by it. We put up a bigger native pollinator house for native bees and butterflies this Spring, and hope it ill be appreciated.

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So, here you have it, our 2020 Spring gardens! We put lots of hard work into landscaping over the last two years, and I think the garden really shows it. Although many of our trees and perennials are still young and need time to fill in, I’d say that we’ve landscaped 90% of the property already! I especially appreciate the hardscape we put in, such as patios, fence, dry creek, the retaining wall, and the most recent drip irrigation and automation system, which will all serve us well for years to come. I cannot wait for our garden to mature and to support the native ecosystem – the pollinators, birds, and even animals. Grow little garden, grow!

Home Stay + Drip Works

When it comes to gardening, water usage has always been on my mind. Colorado is famous for its snow-capped mountains. However, our growing environment is actually high desert, which means dry, cold, and very windy. The high clay content in our soil also makes snow and rain harder to penetrate. Therefore, from hardscape to plant selection, how to save irrigation usage has been driving my decision making.

In 2018, we built a dry creek in our front yard to prevent surface water run-off. We also converted large area of lawn space to mulched flower beds to reduce evaporation. Both hardscape and mulch are effective ways to hold the merely 15″ precipitation (annually!) in our land. In addition, the method of watering also matters.

We have been using drip irrigation in our flower beds for two years. More recently, we adopted drip irrigation for our front yard lawn space too! The most significant upgrade we made to our irrigation system is the recent automation. In today’s post, I’d like to show you the results of our hard work on drip automation, including how we adopted drip system for our front yard lawn space.

Backyard Watering Needs and Existing Drip Zones

I set my heart on drip irrigation very early, and have been setting it up in every flower bed I created. The very first flower bed we planted on this property was this pollinator/herb garden back in Spring, 2018. Due to the oval shape, I laid the 1/2″ solid tubing in circular fashion, and installed 2 gallon per hour emitters to point at the root ball of each plant.

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In this garden I planted exclusively drought-tolerate plants. They may not give the biggest and most fragrant flowers, but they are much more appropriate for this sunny location, and definitely give the strongest support to native pollinators. Now being more established, these plants require minimal watering even in the hottest summer days. I usually water this bed once a week for an hour, which means that most of the plants here get 2 gallon of water per week.

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The vegetable garden is located on the south side of the backyard and has its own drip system. Instead of emitters, soaker hoses were installed to accommodate the denser planting and shallower roots.

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Since setting up the garden in 2018, we switched to the 1/4″ soaker hoses from DIG, from which our drip connectors, tubing, and emitters come. To connect the whole veggie garden on the same grid, I ran a 1/2″ solid tubing along one edge of the bed, to which the 1/4″ soaker hoses connect and then run off the whole length of each veggie bed. The whole veggie garden is watered everyday in summer, for an hour or so.

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All of our fruit trees and climbing roses along the back fence share the third drip system. Solid 1/2″ tubing runs along the back fence and individual emitters sprout out from the solid tubing and point to the root balls of individual plants. Each fruit trees had a 4 gallon per hour emitter while the roses sported on 2 gallon per hour emitters. This zone got watered once a week last summer.

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A more recent addition to our edible garden is a berry patch, shown in the picture above. In the Spring of 2019, we covered the north slope in our backyard with mulch and planted 15 raspberry plants, 5 blackberry plants, two hazelnut trees. I used 1/2″ solid tubing to create a grid, and punched individual 2 gallon per hour emitters to the root ball of each shrub/tree.

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This zone gets watered every other day as fruit production requires more water.

Timer for Automation | Reconfiguring Drip Grids

As you can see, all of these drip zones were created as individual zones. To water each zone, a garden hose has to be connected to the inlet of that zone. With different watering schedule, in the hot part of the summer, watering often takes the entire evening during which every hour I had to connect and disconnect the hose among these beds. It quickly became a tiring and time-consuming task. On top of that, it felt absurd to ask our house sitter to do the same when we were on vacation. I had to admit, there were many times I forgot about watering, and left the drip running for hours. It was not only inefficacious but also ironic considering the whole purpose of using drip irrigation. By the end of 2019, it became clear that we needed to automate the irrigation system.

This Spring, I pulled the trigger on this handy Melnor digital timer after some research. It was actually sold in Lowe’s – but of course I ordered it online and had it shipped to my door, pandemic style.

Melnor Digital Hose End Timer

I order this particular timer for its ability to water four zones on different schedules. It also acts as a splitter for outdoor faucet. I did not go for the solar-powered models, due to mixed reviews. I also did not go for anything super fancy like wifi-connected ones, which are much more expensive. This timer is only ~$50 per pop. If it works as intended, I consider it a good investment with a fair price tag.

Since the timer only offers four outlets, I decided to combine the pollinator/herb drip zone and the fruit tree/rose drip zone to spare one outlet for general use. To combine the two zones together and run it back to the outdoor faucet, I first installed a T-connector at the end of the main drip line circulating the pollinator/herb garden:

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The solid tubing off to the left runs to the outdoor faucet, at the back of our house.

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The last solid tubing coming off the T-connection to the bottom of the picture runs towards the fruit trees and climbing roses. Along the way, it curves through the newly created terrace garden. I recently planted some vine crops here, so I installed some emitters on the solid tubing to water them.

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The 1/2″ solid tubing continues to run between the trees and roses, through the middle of the mulched bed:

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To water the trees and roses I installed emitters and directed them to the root ball of each plants. The fruit trees used to be watered with one 4-gallon per hour emitter, pointing directly at the trunk of the trees.

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As these trees grow fuller and started producing fruit, they need more water. In addition, their drip lines expands, so the emitters needed to be moved away from the root ball.

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To better water these trees, I added two more 2-gallon per hour emitters to each tree, making it total of 8 gallon per hour watering capacity. The emitters were also moved to the new drip line of each tree.

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Each climbing rose used to be watered by one 2-gallon per hour emitter. I bumped them up to 4 gallon ones and moved the emitters further away from the root balls as well.

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Last, I buried all the drip tubing under the mulch to keep them out of direct sun. This action does not only extended the life of the tubing and emitters, but also keeps the water cool when coming out of these black tubing. Needless to say that it is also a cleaner look when they are completely hidden.

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Installing Timer for Backyard Irrigation

Next, I connected each drip zone back to the timer. In the picture below, the rightmost black tubing is the main line for the berry patch, and the second to the right solid tubing is the one connected to the herb garden and the fruit trees.

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The veggie garden is located on the other side of the yard, so I connected a garden hose from the timer to the veggie garden drip zone. In this way we can detach the hose when mowing the lawn.

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The last garden hose on the very left is reserved for general use. We use it for lawn sprinkles, as well as to water the newly planted patio planters.

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The timer is rather bulky for the small clearance under the faucet, so it was mounted on the back of the house using a piece of plywood, and connected to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.

Front Yard Drip Automation
Connecting the drip zones for mulched flower beds

In 2018 we completed the front yard landscape, by converting over 700 sqft of lawn into mulched flower beds.

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In this large area, I set two separated drip zones – one for the arborvitae trees planted on the left side, the other one for the perennial shrubs to the right. The reason of creating two separated zones was mainly due to different water usage between the trees and shrubs.

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The perennial zone was set up using drip tubing with built-in emitters. They are better suited for densely planted flower beds, and work especially well with ground covers:

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The tree zone, on the other hand, consists of a long piece of 1/2″ solid tubing along the hedge. Individual emitters were directed to the root ball of each tree. Bigger shrubs planted at the corner of the yard also utilize this zone, as they need less water than the perennial flowers.

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These two zones had their own inlets, which could be connected to a garden hose to water. Now with the automatic timer, I need to bring water from the outdoor faucet to these zones via a solid tubing. As the first step, I linked the two separated drip zones together so only one solid tubing is needed from the timer to the flower bed. To ensure that I could water the two zones separately, I installed on-off valves to each zone:

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The 1/2″ solid tubing to the left (currently shut off) is connected to the tree zone:

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The flower bed in front of the fence is also watered by this zone. Below is the picture taken on the day I set up the drip system for this flower bed:

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The short end of the tree zone waters the three irises next to the dry creek:

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The solid tubing on the right (currently open) continue to run along the plastic edging, until it is connected to the perennial drip zone:

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You can see that it connects to the brown drip tubing with built-in emitters.

To connect the flower bed drip zones to the outdoor faucet, I ran another piece of solid 1/2″ tubing along the edge of the front lawn, next to the gravel, all the way back to the outdoor faucet/timer:

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You can see two solid tubing in the pictures above. Only one of them is bringing the water to the flower beds. As of the second tubing, it is for watering the lawn space.

Installing Micro-sprinklers for Front Lawn

A big part of automating our irrigation system is to set up automatic sprinkles for the front lawn. We have been watering the front yard by hand during the last two summers. Since DIG, where we got our drip system offers micro-sprinklers, I decided to give it a try for lawn space.

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The first step is always to run the solid tubing, which brings water to where needed. I laid down 1/2″ solid tubing along the boundary of the front yard lawn:

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then installed micro-sprinkles a few feet apart:

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I was able to surround the whole lawn with one solid piece of 1/2″ tubing. I terminated the tubing under the pine tree, near where it starts:

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We also have a piece of lawn on the other side of the driveway. It is almost a square. I ran the 1/2″ tubing with a few T connectors and 90-degree elbows, then installed micro-sprinkles as well:

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The inlet was set to connect to a garden hose, as opposed to the timer directly as the other side. It is because that the water has to be brought from across the driveway, and the black solid tubing cannot stand the weight of the car.

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The solid tubing runs along the sidewalk:

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and the driveway:

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And curves around the mailbox flower bed:

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On this side, the tubing lines along the property boundary:

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After I installed the micro-sprinkles, Slav buried all the solid 1/2″ tubing around the front lawn underground:

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It created a much neater look. Now you cannot see the solid tubing anymore, and to mow the lawn, we just need to simply move the stakes.

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Timer Installation for the Front Yard Irrigation

Similar to the backyard, I mounted the timer above the faucet with a piece of plywood.

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Then I connected the timer to the outdoor faucet with a short hose.

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The four automatic outlets are, from left to right: front yard garden hose wheel (for general use, I did not set time on this outlet), flower bed drip zones (can be watered separately with the two on-off valves), front lawn in front of the house, and front lawn in front of the fence gate (via a garden hose over the driveway).

For a cleaner look, I tucked the two 1/2″ black solid tubing under the gravel. You can see them disappearing under the ground.

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The Cost of Our Automatic Irrigation Setup

We have been using the new automatic system for two weeks and both timer have worked very well. With the two times installed, we are completely free from watering duty. Considering the price of the timer (~$50 per timer), I think it is completely worth it.

In addition to the two timers, we also paid $30 for 5′ hoses connecting the timers to the outdoor faucets, and $95 for two drip/micro-sprinkler kits used for the front lawn (under $50 each here). The kits come with many connectors we did not use, as well as hundreds feet of solid 1/2″ and 1/4″ tubing. We did not purchase any additional emitters or tubing for the whole project, and we still have leftovers.

In summary, the total cost of the whole project was about $230. It isn’t nothing, but considering the time we saved dragging hoses around, and the stress we are freed from, I think it is a good investment. The tubing should last years, and the timer feels solid. I will make sure to report back on the reliability and the quality of these timers. Hopefully they last for a few years!

This project should reduce our irrigation water usage, just by switching to micro-sprinklers on the front lawn alone. Another big advantage of automating the irrigation is that now our plants get consistent watering. We often do not think about this, but plants are like us, having a consistent schedule for nutrition, water, and sleep really benefits. I hope you are still following a healthy daily schedule and life style while staying at home. I know we are!

Adding New Planting Space to Our Front Garden

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After an uncommonly wet Spring, we welcomed the heat of summer. It has been over 90 degrees (32 celsius) for the past two weeks. Despite of daily thunder, there was very little rain. Our garden immediately reacted – all the cool weather veggies lost their cool, and the lawn started to turn yellow. Without the leisure of natural precipitation, we started to spend our evenings dragging around hoses and watering different parts of our yard.

Backyard bee garden – the 2nd year:

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I had every intention of giving you a garden update before leaving for summer vacation, at which time the lawn was still green and the new growth on perennials were tender. But several unexpected incidents kept my up to my neck. First, our basement renovation hit some major road block, which we are still clearing away till this day. Shortly after, several wishful attempts at my day job did not work out as I hoped. Around the same time, my mom fell and broke her ankle back in Beijing.

Awakening climbing rose, the 2nd year:

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This might have been the first time I lost so much control of my life and in almost every aspect of it. To make peace I walked out to the garden. Chinese proverb says “谁非过客,花是主人”, which literally means “we are just trespasser on the land owned by flowers”. There is some truth to it, right? I am pretty sure that bindweed is the real owner of our property. Jokes aside, watching life rise and fall in nature did give me a fresh perspective on accomplishments. Not everything will work out, and too much attention might in fact stunt the growth.

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The Mailbox Underplanting

Have I shown you the small flower bed under the mailbox this year? It was a little dirt patch filled with weeds when we moved in two years ago.

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Last summer, we got rid of the weeds and created a mowing strip with brick pavers.

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And this is the same space today:

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Salvia, lily bulbs and grasses were planted this Spring to hold down the fort at this possibly the toughest spot of the whole property. The red rose are the only thing we kept from previous owner’s flower bed.

Salvia

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Black Lily

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Creeping Stonecrop ground cover

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Creating a New Flower Bed

Since returning from our summer trip, I’ve been slowly working on a new flower bed in our front yard:

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This area is around 12 ft x 4 ft, and located right in front of our DIY horizontal fence on the north side.

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See the dry creek in the picture above? The new flower bed is located to its right and in front of the fence.

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We decided to replace the lawn with flower bed here for two reasons. First, it is hard to maintain this patch of the lawn. It is so close to the house that we had to water it by hand. It is also on a steep slope and hard to cut with our lawn mower. Second, we would like to soften the fence with some plants.

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I started by removing the grass and moving the edging separating the lawn and the old flower bed forward. Three blue avena grasses (helictotrichon sempervirens) were planted in a row a few feet from the fence. They are supposed to get 4 feet tall in a few years and will provide some soft texture in front of the fence. Along also planted was an iceberg climbing rose. We are lucky to have nurseries selling plants that have adopted our high country climate.

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We have pretty bad bindweed issue in this area, so I covered the area with my favorite landscape fabric. We have used it in our front yard flower bed and under the southern fence with success. It is worth the initial investment.

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I found the edge of the landscape fabric along the dry creek, and continued the  fabric to cover the entire new flower bed. I use this landscape staple to secure the fabric.

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The next step is to run drip irrigation, which we installed in all the perennial flower beds. It does not only water more effectively, but also avoids hard water deposits on the foliage of the plants from overhead watering.

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Running drip irrigation is easy and fun, like lego for adults. With the existing drip tubing nearby, I simply T-off the existing tubing and added emitters close to the root balls of the new plants:

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I also added two mist emitters to water the lawn immediately adjacent to the new flower bed:

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Fresh mulch makes everything look better:

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New plants in their happy home:

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Now when your walk around the corner, the view of this new flower bed replaced yellow and overgrown grass:

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The two emitters linked to the drip irrigation tubing will give plenty of water to the lawn between the dry creek and the evergreen pine. Our current lawn sprinkle does not reach this corner.

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We still have plenty of room for plants in this flower bed. I am taking my time to find plants I truly love. I am considering Arctic Fire dogwood for some red winter color, however a close contender is Chinese peony, if they can handle the beating afternoon sun and strong wind in this area. What do you think?

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How do you like a new flower bed? As I finished spreading the last bag of mulch, I realized how much creating a new flower bed meant to me. It is a new start. It is a new opportunity to succeed, a new battle to win. It is something I may start taking back the control I had been losing since the beginning of this year. I still might not succeed, but at least I am giving another shot. And this time, I need to let go all the expectations and just enjoy every inch of growth it gives, however small it might be. At the end, I am just trespassing on this land of, hopefully not bindweeds, but flowers.

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