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!

Onward and Upward

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Happy June, everyone! We had a busy but productive past few weeks. For starters, I was awarded a major grant for my research! This funding will not only kick-start the project I hope to do for years, but also allow me to assemble my own team. For any newly established scientist like me, getting a funding in this size is a big deal. So it is good news!

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Also in the past a few weeks, I wrote a manuscript to summarize my latest research project. I have been working on this project on and off for three years now, and the findings are interesting. In biomedical research, not every project works and most of the research effort does not make into publications. So when one project works out, it is worth a celebration.

Then it was my birthday! I turned 42 this year which sounds like a big number. But I still feel my life is on an upward trajectory. I am still gaining new insight, developing new interests, making new friends, and learning everyday. Just like a Chinese proverb said, “live like a student for life”. It keeps you young!

A mini bathroom update

Along with good new at work, things are really turning corners in the main floor bathroom! Slav finished and painted the drywall. And last week, the glass shower door was installed!

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We are still waiting for shower door silicone to cure, before our plumber can come back to install the fixtures. Slav is installing the lights and outlet covers this weekend – then we will have a new bathroom! It has been 8 months without a functional bath on the main floor. I am excited to have two toilets again!

Growing upwards with new garden trellises

The second half of May is also go-time in the garden. I usually plant our vegetable garden at the end of May, so hardscape in the vegetable garden always happens during the two-week period between Mother’s Day (when the last frost day passes) and the Memorial Day weekend. This year’s project is a proper bean tunnel.

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I have tried trellis netting before. It is good enough for beans and cucumbers to climb, but it also tends to sag with the weight of produce. So this year, I decided to build a legit bean tunnel using cattle panels. These cattle panels are so steady that they are hard to bend into narrow arches as I hoped. So instead of having a bean tunnel over a 3-foot wide pathway, we made it arch over about 7 feet wide, covering one pathway and one vegetable bed. It will add a bit more work during harvest time, but will also create a shaded area for lettuces and radishes. We will see!

Speaking of lettuces and radishes, these are the ones I sowed in early April:

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Along with some arugula:

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We have been eating them since mid-May and they are so good! We never had such a successful lettuce year like this Spring thanks to all the rain we’ve gotten.

We also made a cucumber trellis with the same cattle panel. I set it in the middle of a 4-foot wide vegetable bed, and planted cucumbers along trellis:

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The space on each side was planted with tomatoes. The idea is to train all the cucumber plants onto the trellis, and leave the ground space for tomatoes. I hope they all fit!

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Planting luffa for the first time…in the Gingko garden!

A new climber I am trying this year is luffa. I have been trying to germinate luffa for three seasons now, either in pots or in ground, without success. But apparently it is easy for other people! A friend germinated too many and gave me an extra plant, I hope it grows well and who knows, maybe I will get a sponge or two!

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By the way, I planted the luffa in the “ginkgo garden” so I can keep a close eye on it. This is a small mulched area off the corner of the vegetable garden, where the ginkgo tree was planted last year.

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I’ve shown you the ginkgo sprouting in early Spring. This picture was taken on May 8th.

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And this is the ginkgo now! Love how robust it is.

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I put some purple irises around the ginkgo to fill the space. They came from my neighbor’s garden and are super happy now living across the street from their old home.

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I love the look of dark blue/purple irises next purple/pink chive flowers with pink/red pea gravel. I did not plan a white/pink/purple garden on purpose, but I think I am getting there nonetheless!

Green mulch please!

Another big project in this year’s vegetable gardening is melons and gourds. I wanted to grow more vine crops as green mulch this year, particularly on a sloped area in our backyard. This part receives full sun, and stays out of our sight from the house – it is perfect to grow vine crops like melons and pumpkins.

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Planted here are cantaloupes, honeydews, watermelons, and different varieties of pumpkins and gourds.

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I germinated too many so some of them were planted along the back fence, among fruit trees, climbing roses, and blackberry bushes.

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By the way, our new pear tree sprouted! It looks healthy just like the apple tree we got from the same nursery last year.

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And we cannot forget squashes! Last year they produced so well that we gave out a lot. And this year we are growing just as much.

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The end of all five vegetable beds were recruited to plant pumpkins as well… I really geminated too many. They can trail off onto the pathways and should not interfere with whatever growing in our vegetable beds.

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Planting grapes along the northern fence!

The most exciting thing coming to our yard is…grapes! Boy this is really the year for vine crops! I got four grapes and planted them along the northern fence of our backyard.

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Honestly, the area next to the northern fence had me scratching my head for years now. Besides the lilac bush we inherited, this large 10-feet wide space along the fence were just a big, empty space covered with woodchip mulch. Besides the vine crops which are annual, I really wanted some perennials here. And some height will be nice since we are on a hill and can see straight into our northern neighbor’s home from our backyard.

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I tried growing evergreens along this fence, but none of them survived… I also tried blackberries, but they lack the height we need. During last year’s lockdown, maybe I just had enough time to think it through, a light bulb went on in my head: grapes!

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I now think growing grapes are the perfect killing-two-birds-with-one-stone solution: the fence offers protection from strong winds and unexpected late frosts, and the trellis for the grapes can function as a privacy screen between families. Free-standing grape trellis is pretty straight forward to build. However I think we will wait until next year given the unreasonable lumber price now.

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I have thought about growing grapes since we bought the house. When I was a little kid, my grandpa had one in his small Beijing-style courtyard, and I had fond memories of playing and eating under the grape trellis. I have been researching on how to grow grapes in our cold climate, and surprised by how much interest there is growing grapes on the front range! Lots of effort actually went into breeding the right variety – early maturity is a must since we have a relative short growing season – and developing the safest protocol of raising them in our specific climate (1, 2). Based on my research, the space in front of this northern fence is actually the ideal location for grape vines in our area.

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Apparently, grapes are recommended to be planted on slopes. especially on northern slopes, which ensures water drainage and even soil temperature in Spring weather. Grape trellis also should run west-east direction to cuts down on shade cast on vines by the trellis. In addition, this orientation dries up rain or dew quickly, and therefore cutting down on diseases. The northern fence in our backyard runs a perfect west-east direction, so running grape vines/trellis parallel to the fence is exactly what we are supposed to do. Last, this slope is far away from any lawn sprinkles, so we can control the irrigation to these grape vines (cutting down on watering before harvesting time will make the grapes taste sweeter). In summary, in front of northern fence could not be a better location even we had planned it!

Now everything veggie garden was planted, and the automatic drip system was turned on, we can hopefully kick our feet up and enjoy the fresh produce of our labor. The raspberry patch is already flowering, and we started to see peony blooms. I am coming back next week to give you an update of the patio garden we created last Spring. Stay tuned, friends!

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Spring Garden, 2021

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Spring used to be the season I looked forward to the least because of my love of snow, but gardening has changed that. I now enjoy coming home not in dark, still having an hour of day light to walk around the yard. Watching new life emerge from the soil is confirming and comforting, and nothing beats the excitement of seeing the first flower of the year.

The first wave of blooms are hellebores. I planted them in the Spring of 2019, and they have been establishing themselves for the past two years. I kept reminding myself that hellebores need time to establish. And this Spring, my patience has paid off! All the hellebores were loaded with buds as soon as they peeked out of the snow, and they have been flowering non-stop since March.

Look what a show they’ve put on:

During the months of March and April we had quite a few heavy winter storms. As soon as the snow melted, the herb garden woke up:

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Last Spring I transplanted some periwinkle from a neighbor’s yard. I did not know if I would like them or not, but there were lots of nasty weeds spreading into my yard from our neighbor’s on the North, so I had to come up with a tough groundcover to plant against the fence as a “weed barrier”. These periwinkles grew quickly and by this Spring, they have already completely covered the strip of land against my neighbor’s fence! And they bloom the cutest dense mat of blue glowers!

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One big landscape project last year was the patio garden. I love it as a soft border seperating the beautiful lawn space and the more practical raspberry patch. I planted some peonies here last Fall, who have come up and look very healthy:

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Next to the peonies are the patio planter boxes I built last Spring during the lockdown, which houses our strawberry plants:

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Behind the patio garden is the berry patch I planted in 2019.

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Next, the shrubs are all doing well! We inherited a lilac bush, which got a rejuvenation cut a couple years ago when we removed the chain link fence it grew into. It is still on its way of recovery, so we do not have flower this year – but it is OK! The service berry bush was loaded with flowers thanks to all the rain we got recently. And I am looking forward to harvesting service berries for the first time this year!

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We have quite a few trees on our property. The crabapple tree in the middle of the backyard has put on a spectacular show thanks to the trim and deep fertilizing treatment we gave it last year:

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All our fruit trees but one came back this Spring and started to bud up:

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What we lost was a nectarine tree. It snapped during one of the heavy storms last Spring. We planted a cold-hardy pear tree at its place just a few days ago:

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I also planted a couple ornamental trees. One of them is a Chinese snowball viburnum. It gave us exact one flower last year. 🙂 I am hoping for more this year!

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The most exciting tree I have planted on our property is a gingko tree. I was told that it grows very slowly. However, it has grew 8 inches last year and came back happily:

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I adore the tender gingko leaves. Aren’t they cute?

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We will be planting the vegetable garden in the next a couple weeks and I will surely come back with more detailed update. Here are the garlic and asparagus beds looking lush today:

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That is pretty much the backyard! Moving onto the front yard, the perennial flower beds have a few blooms already:

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The western sandcherry:

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The dwarf pine and sedums:

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The irises by the dry creek showed the first few flower buds:

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The sedum and honey suckle in the front yard planter:

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Hens and chicks thriving in the tiny cracks between the retaining wall and the sidewalk:

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This is truly the best our garden has ever been. It looks so lush, healthy, and full of life that it literally stops our neighbors on their tracks. I think the labor and sweat we put in during the past three years has finally paid off!

Happy Spring, everyone!

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