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

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4 Years in the Ranch and a Patio Garden Update

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We moved into our ranch house 4 years ago. Four years! We started renovating the house from the day we moved in, and have made it so much better both appearance and functions. Besides the house itself, we also planted lots of trees and perennials, and turned these old weedy yards into beautiful flower beds and edible gardens.

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The most recent improvement of our backyard landscape is the patio garden. There used to be a straight line dividing the lawn space and the raspberry patch. Last Spring, I cut out a curved flower bed at the edge of the raspberry patch, and planted it with peonies:

2020 Fall:

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I am happy to report that all the peonies have come back this Spring! We even got flowers from some of them:

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This is my first time growing flowers with big petals. While I was excited to get flowers, I was so surprised watching peony flowers changing color over time:

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This one flowers coral pink when the flowers first open:

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which fade into a light pink:

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In between the peonies, I planted Russian sage. They are supposed to fill in the space between peonies when the peonies are done flowering, with a sea of purple flowers. They were such baby plants when I put them into the ground last Fall, and did not show up until mid-May, which really got me worried. But now they are getting bigger each day and I know they will be holding up well:

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Behind the patio garden is our raspberry patch, which just explored this year. Not only they came back earlier and grew fuller, they started developing young shoots all around the original plants, expanding into the pathways surrounding the patch.

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One of the varieties has already flowered – we are getting raspberry soon!

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One end of the patio garden reaches all the way to our back patio. It touches the cedar planter I built last year, which houses our strawberries:

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This Spring, I added a pot of wild strawberries at the end of the patio garden. They are supposed to be excellent groundcovers.

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On the other end, the patio garden wraps around the future shed patio, and connects to the flower bed along the back fence. That is how this garden beds got its name – it extends from the back patio to the shed patio! This area will see some disturbance when we build the shed patio, therefore, I did not plant anything precious, but only irises we got for free from a neighbor:

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The picture above was taken last summer, right after planting. And this is how it looks now! All the irises came back and some of them have flowered:

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I did not know the exact variety of these irises when planted them, and happy to see that they flower blue and purple. I have white and light purple irises in the front yard, and these two varieties fit well into my garden color theme. And both of the varieties smelled amazing.

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I also planted an apple tree! It is the only permanent planting I did here (away from the edge of the shed patio). It was very healthy when it arrived last Spring. So I am not surprised that it branched out early this year, and already looks so full in early summer. I think we are gonna see some fruit this year!

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Although I do not plan to put more perennials yet, I am comfortable using this space to grow annuals. This Spring, I interplanted squashes and zucchini among the irises. I raised them from seed myself this Spring, so they are the perfect filler for this area for next to nothing. And they will add some much needed height and color to this space once the irises are done.

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In between the shed patio garden and the raspberry patch is our herb garden! This is the first flower bed we planted, back to 2018, so all the plants have matured and got super big this Spring.

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Tarragon sits at the very tip of this oval garden, then there are oregano, lemon balm, and sage.

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There is also an Egyptian walking onion. I had lots of fun watching it grow and “walk”.

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Apparently, some of other herbs “walk” too! I think it is charming to have a bit lemon balm spilling over onto the pathways. Besides, when I walk on them and crash the leave, it smells amazing.

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We started this flower bed with a garden-in-a-box kit, so there are some flowering plants here too:

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These tall purple stalks are all from one catmint called “walker’s low”. It is seriously the best plant I’ve grown: it stays low, spreads far, flowers all Spring and summer, and it is a true pollinator magnet. There are always bees buzzing around these stalks, and this Spring, two hummingbird moths found it too:

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A mature garden not only has plants, but also inserts, birds, and even mammals. We have noticed bunny dropping in the backyard, and recently, we started to see two cottontail rabbits hanging out in our backyard.

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These two rabbits happily share the backyard with each other, and with the dogs. Amazingly, they do not escape when we walk onto the lawn! I think they have figured out that we mean no harm, so all they do when we got close is to hop away a few feet and watch us. Luckily, they do not touch the vegetable garden or any of my flowers, only eating grass. So there is no reason for us to stop them from coming into the yard either. In fact, I think one of them made a nest behind the garden shed, and the other one lives under the raspberry bushes.

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Recently, we decided to push the kitchen renovation to next year, which is the last big-ticket items on our renovation list. This decision freed us this summer to enjoy the fruit of our labor for the first time. It has been a lot of work during the past four years to get to this point, the point that we allow ourselves to slow down without rushing ourselves, the point that we can put work aside without feeling guilty. Today, at the 4-year-annivesary of our home ownership, I am looking at the work we did, and truly appreciating the comfort and beauty we created together. Happy anniversary, house!

Planting a Peony Garden!

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The 2020 Fall must be the longest anticipated Fall on my calendars. I am sure you understand why. As soon as our backyard crabapple tree turned color, I was ready for snow to come. But before tucking myself in for a cozy winter, there are some gardening tasks to take care of first.

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Fall in Colorado means the last days of sun ray. And my dogs made sure that they took it all in. This year I had a lot more opportunity to observe my dogs. How they live their lives is a good reminder on what’s important in life. Sleep, lots of day naps, fresh water, stretch, curiosity (sometimes too much), and always, always staying close to your humans…all of which I should do more myself.

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Another thing I thought a lot about this year is the purpose of our actions. We often act to serve others around us, to please other people, and more often than not, doing something to serve oneself is considered selfish. The lockdown allowed me to reexamine my life and identify what makes me happy, and what makes me stressed. To my surprise, the things stresses me out are often trivial, and very easy to correct. Honestly, no one else cares about them one way or the other. Slowly, I came to the realization that I should act a bit more to serve myself and make my life happier.

One good example is what I plant in my own garden. I’ve always been very utilitarian when it comes to garden design and plant choices. But spending time taking care of plants I do not particularly care about started feeling more like a chore than joy. So this Fall, I decided to that my gardening tasks should have one goal and one goal only – plant something I desire, which will bring me joy, regardless its practicality. And to me, this “something”, is peony.

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I always wanted peonies – not only because I grew up with it (it’s the national flower of China), but also for the incredible elegancy and resilience peony represents. When I learned that peonies grow well in Colorado, I was more than committed to make them the queen of my garden. However, my peony dream was held back during the last a couple growing seasons, because I had not identified a good location to plant them.

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Until this Spring, when the patio garden came to life. Do you remember the patio garden? It aligns the northern edge of our backyard lawn space, stretching from the bank of the future shed patio all the way to the back of the house.

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Initially, I carved out this skinny and long garden bed to soften the edge of our raspberry patch. But as soon as it came to shape, I knew it would be perfect for peonies. It is mostly south-facing, protected from strong wind, well-drained, and next to the lawn space so the bloomed can be seen from the house and majority of the backyard. It could not be more suitable for peonies even if I was trying to create a flower bed for peonies!

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So here they are, all 9 peonies in white and pink colors, planted in the ground with the flags to indicate their location. I had to shop around this year due to the plant shortage. But I managed to get 8 bareroot peonies from several online suppliers.

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One of my wonderful neighbors, who is a very experienced gardener, gifted me a double pink peony after she divided hers. Gotta love your local gardening friends!

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To cap the peony hedge with a more natural appearance, I planted a cold-hardy rosemary (figures crossed) and three English lavender at the end of the patio garden.

 

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The lavenders were moved from other part of the backyard, so they looked a bit rough at the moment. But they will be fine next Spring.

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Do you recall this Chinese Snowball Viburnum? I planted it this Spring and I think it likes our soil. It grew quite a bit, even gave me two big flowers this summer. It should grew to be a multi-stem ornamental tree, with peonies planted around its stems.

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Peony has a relative short flower season. After blooming in Spring, their leaves and stem grew to be bush-like and do not have much to show for. Peonies also require a few feet space in between due to their extensive root systems, resulting in a rather unexciting garden space during Summer and Fall. To spice up the patio garden, I adopted a trick from P. Allen Smith, who is an experienced peony grower: planting Russian Sage in between the peonies.

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Russian sage does not sprout until late Spring. so they will not block the peony blooms, nor steal significant amount of nutrition or water from blooming plants. But in Summer months, Russian sage gets tall quickly and can mask the peony bushes with their tall, purple flower stalks. So the idea is that the peony hedge in Spring will be come a Russian sage hedge during summer and fall months, lasting all the way to frost.

I splurged a whole flat of Russian sage plugs and dotted them among the peonies. Russian sage flowers are practically pollinator magnets. So adding them will only help the food production in my backyard. I had a few leftover after planting the peony part of the patio garden, so I decided to continue the Russian sage hedge into the shed patio bank:

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Above is how the patio bank looked like this Spring, right after I finished moving the soil. Since then, I have planted a transparent apple and some irises (also from my gardener neighbor). And here is how it looks like now:

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For space reference, the peony/Russian sage mix was planted to the left side of this picture, and ended before the kidney-shaped herb garden. Planting a few Russian sage on the right side helps to bring the color and the texture of Russian sage to the right side of the garden path, so it does not look like the Russian sage ended too abruptly.

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Here is the bank from another angle. There are two varieties of irises planted here, both of which flower purple, and the apple tree flowers white. Image the white apple blooms, purple irises, and white and pick peonies in Spring, and purple Russian sage flowers and irises in Summer…It will be so gorgeous, people!

Here is the apple tree. It came super healthy and have flowered on its first year. I will surely order more plants from the Jung Seed Company again!

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Do you recognize this plant? I think it is lamb’s ear? Did not plant any but three of them came up near the shed this Fall. People say that volunteer plants means healthy garden/soil. I hope it is true! 🙂

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With the peonies, Russian sage, herbs, irises, and apple tree, the new patio garden is fully planted! I started breaking ground here in April. And now it is the end of October. It has been the longest time I spent completing a garden bed, but this is also the first time that I planted everything truly wanted and exactly where I want them to be. So the wait will be worth it! The best part is, now I have something to look forward to next Spring. I am sure everyone needed something like that right now. Hopefully, it will be a different time!

Home Stay + Building a New Terrace Garden

When landscaping our property I like a methodical approach. Starting with removing the dead and unwanted, followed by hardscaping and planting trees and big shrubs. The hardscape and structural planting form the fundamental elements of the landscape, directing the choices on small shrub and perennials. I manage to hold off on ground covers and bulbs, waiting for the trees to cast shade and the perennials to fill in. It is surely a long process, several years before one area to complete. But it allows ideas to emerge and taste to develop, resulting the best garden possible.

This approach worked wonderfully in creating our front yard garden, which we added in 2018. After deciding to turn the weedy part of the front lawn into mulched garden bed, we removed the turf, amended the soil, and built a retaining wall system for erosion control. We then added a dry creek and installed drip irrigation to manage water. As of planting, we started with an arborvitae hedge, some evergreen, and tall shrubs and screening bushes, before packing the space with hardy perennials. The once weedy and difficult area has shaped up to one of the most beautiful gardens in our neighborhood, and brought so much joy to us and our neighborhood.

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The shed surrounding before

This Spring, I decided to apply the same approach to another problematic area on our property – around our garden shed.

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The shed is located at the northeast corner of our land. The structure itself is in superior condition thanks to our renovation in 2017.

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But the area around the shed is not so hot. With the shed being a few feet away from the side and the back fence, the space behind the shed is a perfect catch-all space:

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Our compost bins have been here for two years. Without much sun they have been rather slow to produce.

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This corner is the only spot we could not see from the house. Inevitably, stuff got dropped off here, temporarily, then become part of the permanent exhibition…

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Firewood, tree stumps, shrub trimmings, they are used as ramp for squirrels to get over the fence.

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Moreover, the lawn space around the shed was… terrible. The steep slope= soil erosion = patchy lawn space = weeds.

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An overhaul is so needed yet so intimidating. Being the furthest from the house it is easy for me to look away. But this Spring, I won’t anymore. I cannot think of a better time to transform this space. A better time to admit challenges, to rip out of what does not work, and to rebuild from ground up. Transformation is scary work, especially when you have to shake the root. But it is the only right thing to do. So, let us!

Decluttering around the shed

The first order of business is always getting rid of what does not belong. The compost bins had been moved to the veggie garden. So what’s left to address is the big pile of firewood, big stumps, and tree trimmings.

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Trimmings were chipped into mulch, tree stumps were used up (you will see it later), and firewood were neatly stacked. It is amazing how tidy this space became with just a couple hours of work.

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I always liked the spot. Maybe it is the leaves slowly decaying on the ground, maybe is the summer shade thanks to the trees above. It has a woodland feel.

Here is the space before the cleanup:

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And after.

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Defining the boundary of future garden

With a clean slate I was much more inspired. Ideas started flowing and you could almost see steam coming off my ears. I had plans before, but they were no longer cool enough. Now I want a patio, and retaining wall, and a terrace garden. Go big or go home, right?

I will explain. Allow me to lay down some plastic (for killing weeds) first.

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Terrace garden is the best way to address sloped land, and I like the look. It cuts big slopes into small and flat garden beds, which are much easier to plan and manage. It also gives structure, variation, and transition space to a big open space. With appropriate screening planters, a terrace garden can be used to create “rooms” so not everything can be seen with one glance.

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For the area around the shed, I think it makes sense to have three tiers – the highest tier being the existing perennial garden (to the left), the lowermost being a patio space (where the black plastic was, leveled with the shed), and a heavily planted “bank” in between.

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I like to use a flexible hose to trace the boundary. It takes any guess work out of equation, and makes it easy to visualize the future flower beds from different angles and distance. In this case, I left it on the ground for days so I can watch it from every windows from the house.

Once I am happy with the shape of the flower garden, I cut out the new edge along the hose:

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Then reinforced it with metal edging. These edging were lining up the raspberry patch before. I just pushed them out to align with the new edge of the lawn.

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All the three tiers will be behind the metal edging. I went with a gentle curve rather than a straight edge.

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Creating a patio space around the shed

The next step was to define the boundaries between each of the three tiers. I started with the lowermost tier, namely the patio area, by leveling the soil here with the shed foundation.

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The excess soil was flipped to the future second tier – the “bank” if you will. Can you believe how much soil was removed from this small space?

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This space will be finished as a stone patio, which requires gravel base, pavers, and joint sand to say the least. For now, I simply laid down some 6-mil poly for weed control, and used the tree stumps from the tree removal last year to act as a temporary retaining wall. One stone, two birds. I am not mad about it!

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Leveling the second tier

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Now you can finally see the look of the patio. Do you like it? The perennial bed on the left houses lots of herbs. Once the mulched area behind the perennial bed gets incorporated to the second tier, I can walk around the perennial garden and harvest the herbs with ease. The bare soil between the mulch path and the black plastic-covered patio will also become the second tier. It will be heavily planted with trees and tall shrubs to screen off the future patio.

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Here is how the space look now. The boundary between perennial garden and the 2nd tier will be created as soon as I could get my hands on materials for a retaining wall.

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Can you see how tall the retaining wall would be around the patio? It needs to be 24 inches tall so I can mulch the second tier. I also plan to incorporate some kind of bench seating into retaining wall, likely with snowboards again.

Adding lighting to the garden shed

With momentum I tidied the shed: from head to toe. Here are my two walls of gardening tools:

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The left side houses storage shelves.

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And I have a handy small storage next to the door for strings and rulers:

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Our shed does not have windows, so it was pretty dark when the door is closed. I finally got around to add a shed light. And it was such an upgrade!

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We did not run power to the shed. So I picked a solar-powered light with a string on/off to conserve power. The solar panel was mounted outside of the shed door.

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I threaded the cable under the roof and secured it on a truss:

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So!

Here is the progress shot for the shed terrace garden! I like this layered look a lot better. Cannot wait to build the retaining walls, set the patio, and plant up the bank. As I mentioned at the beginning, I usually finish the hardscape before planting. But with the pandemic, things might go with the order of which can be shipped to my door first…

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Have you been doing any hardscaping at home? Do share!

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