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

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Seed Starting for 2021

It’s this time of the year again!

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Green lawn grass, fruit tree flowers, and budding perennials… We still have cold snaps every week, but with warmer days in between. It is time to seed the vegetable garden again!

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The 2021 Seed Haul

I have been buying seedlings for the vegetable garden. Our heavy clay soil is not ideal for direct sowing, and I have little time and patience for raising seedlings in trays. However, the year of 2020 taught me a lesson. Due to the pandemic I could hardly get any vegetable seedlings, and some of my online orders were cancelled. Anticipating a shortage of seedlings again in 2021 (which does not look like it will be the case), I purchased some seeds and decided to give this whole seed starting business a try.

First, tomatoes! I grew tomatoes every year because they do taste better home-grown. This year, I got seeds for several mid-size heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Young green beans are so flavorful when picked fresh off the vines and cooked immediately. So they are a must too.

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My favorite vegetable is undoubtedly peppers. I seeded some hot peppers this year and hope to create my own spice mix. The rumor is that pepper seeds are really hard to start without a heat mat, but I will give it a try anyway.

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Each year I would like to try to grow a couple new vegetables. Last year I started a perennial asparagus bed, and this year, I plan to grow okra and rhubarb for the first time. Slav and I first start eating okra when living in North Carolina, but they are harder to find in restaurants here. I am curious how they will do in our cold climate. I also want to give eggplant a try – the store-bought eggplant in US tastes a lot less flavorful than the ones I had in China. Maybe home-grown eggplants will be different?

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I am also gonna continue growing root vegetables such as beets and radishes. Despite our clay soil, they have been very eager to grow in my vegetable garden. In summer days, radishes and beets are always in rotation from our garden to grill.

Planting Vine Crops as Green Mulch

Last season, I tried watermelon and cantaloupe for the first time, which was a big success. I was surprised how little care they needed – you can pretty much just plant the seedlings, set up a drip emitter, and forget about them. Besides the fruits, an added benefit of vine crops is they function as a green mulch. My backyard had a big sloped area covered by woodchips which is very prone to weeds. But last summer, as the vine crop spread their leaves, they shaded all the weeds out. This season, I will be planting the entire side slope with melons, cucumber, pumpkin, and gourds as groundcover, and hopefully get some weird-looking pumpkins and gourds to decorate our front porch in the Fall!

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Initial Planting

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On the first sunny weekend in April, I filled up all the small pots I saved in the past, and started planting seeds. The first 4 x 8 tray with smaller pots was mostly for peppers and tomatoes, and all the other bigger pots were seeded with vine crops including cucumbers, squashes, gourds, pumpkins, melons, and cantaloupes. Beans, radishes, and beets will be sowed directly to the vegetable garden.

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I did not use plant markers, but made a spreadsheet and labeled the trays instead:

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I had companies.

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The pups are always generous with their emotional support.

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The Recent Progress!

These are the trays, just seeded on April 3rd.

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Here were the same trays 11 days later, Most of the tomatoes and vine crops have germinated. Peppers, eggplants, and luffa were still taking their time.

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Fast forward to today, 3 weeks after the initial planting, all of the seedlings have sprouted!

Peppers and tomatoes:

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Melons and cantaloupe:

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Pumpkins, gourds, and cucumbers

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Among the seedlings, the vine crops are showing excellent growth, whereas the tomato and pepper seedlings are on the smaller side.

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The most anticipated among all seedlings are the luffa plants. I tried direct sow last season and had no success. I hope all the seedlings make it this year so I can make some luffa sponges in the fall!

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These are the okra seedlings! They look unique and cute with their hairy leaves:

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In our climate (zone 5b) we are not completely out of the woods when it comes to frost until the end of May. I will transplant the seedlings into the vegetable garden on Memorial Day weekend, which means that they will stay in their trays for another month.  It feels like a cool adventure! Now, what are growing in your vegetable garden this year?

A Veggie Garden Upgrade

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2020 might have been the best year in my veggie garden yet. I planted only what we like to eat, and raised most of the plants from seeds myself. For the first time, the joy of return exceeded the labor and stress gardening in this space.

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I also had plenty of time to take a hard look at the veggie garden. It has been producing well, thanks to periodic compost application. Practically speaking, there isn’t anything I have to do to here for productivity. But it does bother me how messy it looked:

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The edging made of scrap wood, the woodchip mulch, the lawn grass keep growing into the veggie bed…More I looked at this space, more I wanted to give it a facelift. After all, the goal of gardening this Fall is to make the gardener happy, remember?

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Can you tell what I did now? In short, I replaced all the woodchip mulch with pea gravel.

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Do you like it? I loved it. And Slav likes it too! When I first proposed this project Slav immediately agreed. I was surprised that he even had an opinion, but then I realized that he always has an opinion, just might not say it voluntarily. 🙂 Oh man!

The veggie garden has experienced a few cosmetic upgrades. When we first started this space in 2018, we kept the lawn between the veggie beds. Inevitably, grass grew into the beds rapidly. The following season, we put down cardboard with woodchip mulch on top to create some pathways. This method worked well for over a year, but then the cardboard broke down and weeds started finding their way out again. I guess the woodchip mulch we used is too coarse to block the light. If we had used compost over the cardboard layer, we might have completely blocked weed growth. But in general, we are ready to move onto other mulch material offering more tidy appearance.

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When we built the horizontal fence next to the vegetable patch, a combination of landscape fabric + pea gravel was used under the fence for weed suppression. It worked very well, and we loved the look of pea gravel too! After going through our options, we decided to expand the pea gravel into the veggie garden, which would also get rid of the railroad ties (saved from the old fence) we used to separate the two materials.

So I got to work, the first step was to rake away the woodchips. I started from the corner of the garden, where the veggie patch meets the small flower bed:

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The soil underneath the woodchip mulch was so rich. Apparently, the cardboard we put down in 2019 has completely disintegrated underneath the mulch.

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Remember this small flower bed? I carved it out this Spring for the ginkgo tree, and added irises to fill the space. I intended to keep it mulched, so I moved the metal edging to keep the pea gravel out and topped the bed with a fresh layer of black mulch.

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Look at the ginkgo tree!

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I know, it still look like a twig…but it actually grew a lot. It is definitely a much stronger twig now.

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Love the leaves. Ginkgo is also called maidenhair tree because of the shape of its leaves.

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Below is the transformation of the side pathway. After removing all the mulch, I got rid of the railroad ties, and lined the path with landscape fabric.

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Even without the pea gravel layer, it looked a lot better already! Next, I raked woodchips off the pathways between the veggie beds. At this point, Slav was recruited to help with the old strawberry bed.

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These strawberries have been here for three years and stopped producing this year. As the strawberry plants became weaker, lawn grass took over. Knowing this bed will be turned this Fall, I basically let it go the entire summer. So it looked bad… Upon my request, Slav dug up the old strawberry plants, sifted through the top soil to remove large stones and grass roots, and mixed in a couple inches of fresh compost. The soil in this bed is so fluffy and rich now, it will serve as an awesome garlic bed for next year.

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When Slav worked on turning the old strawberry bed, I started putting down a new irrigation line. The veggie bed is watered by drip, but the irrigation grid was never connected to the timer when I automated most of our irrigation this Spring. So basically, I still had to drag a hose to the veggie garden, connect it to the drip grid in order to water this space. The main reason of leaving it out of the automatic setup was simple: the veggie patch is far away from our backyard outdoor faucet. But since Slav was already digging, he offered to bury a water line for me to connect the veggie garden drip grid to the outdoor faucet!

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I connected a long poly tubing to the existing veggie garden drip grid using a T-connector, then Slav buried the tubing all the way to the outdoor faucet at the back of our house:

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Slav has buried poly tubing in front yard this Spring so he moved very quickly on this project. It probably only took him half an hour. But let me tell you, his work will save me at least half an hour, maybe an hour each day during growing season to keep the veggie plants alive. Thanks Slav!

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After all the pathways cleared, I laid down landscape fabric and Slav brought in the pea gravel.

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What a transformation! Here was how the garden looked with woodchip mulch:

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And here is its new look with pea gravel:

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I think the small size of pea gravel made the pathways look tidy and spacious. I also love the color contrast between the gravel and the dark compost in veggie beds.

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I cannot help but putting a chair here. Morning coffee has never been so relaxing.

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It took us two days and $40 of pea gravel to complete the upgrade. Slav picked up the pea gravel with our trailer from a landscape company, so we did not pay any delivery fees. We had landscape fabric and poly tubing in hand. The woodchip mulch removed from the veggie garden did not go to waste either – it was applied to the newly planted patio garden, making this project essentially zero-waste. 🙂

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This small facelift for our veggie garden officially concluded the gardening tasks this Fall. A peony garden + a tidy veggie garden will give our backyard an awesome start next Spring. They are also treats to myself, after all the stress and work we had to put up with this year. 2020 has reminded me how to be kind to human beings, including myself. Treating myself is not selfish, and asking Slav for help does not make me weak. 2020, you have taught me a lot!

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The Dog Days of Summer

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What a lovely summer we are having this year! Except a few hot days here and there, we are experiencing in general much cooler temperature and a lot more rainfall than previous years. Bright morning sun and afternoon clouds kept plants and wildlife happy. It is seriously the best year for gardens and lawn since we moved into the house.

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Besides abundant flowers from returning perennials, we got many blooms from this year’s planting as well. Remember the Chinese Snowball Viburnum I planted near the patio planters? It did not fail to impress:

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Next to the Snowball Viburnum I planted a patch of garden Cosmos. Raised from seeds they were pretty pathetic when planted, but look at them now! Honestly I was just short of perennials and tried to fill the new patio garden with random annuals. But these cosmos really exceeded my expectations.

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And I had sunflowers for the first time! Planted by visiting birds they just came up one day on their own. I had no idea what they were, but decided to keep them out of curiosity. What a nice surprise! They are looooved by bees.

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Speaking of birds, we seeded a patch of grass in the backyard early summer which accidentally created a buffet for a family of American Robins. Apparently when you lay down compost on the ground and water a lot, earthworms come to the surface. And these robins just feast on the worms.

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Every time the sun sets Slav waters the newly seeded area. In a few minutes these two robins will show up for dinner. I think they can sense the moisture in the air. We had a lot of fun watching them hunting worms: they carefully listen to the movement under the soil, then snap at worms risen just below the soil surface.

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Once they get a bit of a worm they pull it out of the soil completely, crop it into pieces, then fly away with a mouth full of worm to enjoy in their nest.

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Besides worms they also steal my strawberries…but that is it. Interestingly they do not eat any grass seeds, nor any of my vegetables. Robins are steak-and-dessert kind of bird I guess.

What has been stealing our vegetable harvest is the Cottontail Gang. Look at this cute monster waiting for us to go inside so he/she can start supper:

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This is the first summer I got bunnies in my backyard – my dogs must have made a deal with these adorable little thieves to exchange my lettuce for their poop. Bunny poops are like M&M to my dogs – they just could not resist licking the last drop clean.

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Compared to the neighborhood bunny gang, the resident squirrels carry themselves with dignity. I keep some bird seeds and occasional sunflower heads in an old bird bath in the front yard. The resident squirrel couple show up in the mornings and eat quietly by themselves. They live in a big tree across the street and have been challenging our squirrel-proof bird feeder every winter. So far I am winning. So I understand their urge of getting fat during summer months and I am OK to lend a hand.

As our garden matures and expands there are more and more wildlife visiting. We saw many more native bees, a greater diversity of birds, and increased number of rabbits and squirrels hanging around. It is interesting to see wildlife crossing path and foraging next to each other. Like birds eating from the bird feeder at the same time when the squirrels are around, and they hide in the same tree when we come out of the front door. Lately, a couple bunnies visit in our front yard every morning, often during the time the squirrel family eats from the bird bath. They sometimes get as close as a couple feet to each other. It is so nice to watch them peacefully eating their respective meals side by side.

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Despite the bunny interest the garden is doing well too! Above is a shot of my cucumber plant about a week ago, and now it has climbed to the top of the trellis. I have already harvested a few rounds of radish and greens. And 75 heads of garlic came out just after July 4th:

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Last week I cut my herb garden back and gave all the trimmings to my co-workers. My car smelled like mint for days.

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We continue harvesting greens while beans, beets and zucchini come to season:

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Starting mid-July there has been a steady steam of onions, tomato, cucumber, and more zucchini…

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And even more zucchini…

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As you can see we are flooded with zucchini this year – they seemed to really like my garden so one plant is usually enough for two of us. However this year we planted four. I have donated lettuce and zucchini to food pantry twice, sent some to our neighbors, and made many, many meals with them:

Chinese zucchini pancake:

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Beef zucchini dumplings:

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Zucchini bread (with chocolate chips!)

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I even worked some into the sheet cake I baked form Slav. Zucchini is an amazing flour substitute and we can barely tell the difference!

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In the dog days of summer Slav and I celebrated our seventh anniversary. Seven years being married, and fourteen years being friends. I know this man well, but I am still discovering more. For example, I always thought he liked tiramisu and have been making it every year for our anniversary, only to learn that he prefers cheesecake…Oops. But we still enjoyed the cake which might be the only thing we had this summer without zucchini in it!

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How is your summer going?

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