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

Category: Flower Gardens Page 1 of 10

Urban Farming

The Side Yard Evolution




Is it spring at your home yet? We shoveled snow just last week… So the gardening season is still far away for us. I am actually starting seeds this week, and I will make sure to show you the plant babies when they come up. To get rid of the cabin fever, I want to revisit a feel-good gardening project we completed last fall, which was actually a five-year evolution of our north side yard.

2017-2018: The new fence and side yards

The ranch house has two small side yards – one on the south side of the house, and the other on the north side. Both side yards were lawn space when we bought the house in 2017:

The south side yard


The north side yard


When we built the fence in 2018, we decided to incorporate most of the south side yard to the back. So we could hide the trailer and trash cans from the street view:



When it came to the north side of the house, we decided to move the fence line forward to match the south side. This meant that most of the north side yard would be connected to the backyard as well.




The six-foot privacy fence helped to create this 20′ x 15′ space. It is hidden from majority of the property. You have to walk around the house in order to see the space in its entirety.


My initial plan was to make this side yard a “secret garden”. But at that time, we just started landscaping the front yard and there were much bigger fishes to fry (here and here). So this place waited.


2019 fall: Sheet mulching and planting ground cover


The next Spring, we mulched the entire northern slope of the backyard with wood chips. Edible perennials like hazelnut trees and raspberries were planted, the former of which you could see in the picture above. We kept the lawn grass on the north side yard, but very soon, the lawn grass started dying. The fix-foot tall privacy fence blocked the afternoon sun to this side yard. And being on the north side of the house, this space became too shady for grass to grow.


Gone the grass, came the weeds. I knew I had to do something ASAP here. I decided to plant vinca minor as a ground cover. Vinca minor, aka periwinkle, grows vigorous in our area. It is one of the very few groundcovers that can out compete perennial weeds and it is evergreen. By planting it along the property line, I hoped to stop the weeds coming from our northern neighbors’ yard.


The periwinkle were little plugs I took from a gardener friend. They quickly grew into a dense mat with small purple flowers popping up all season long. I love them.


I did not have enough periwinkle to cover the whole side yard, so I decided to sheet mulch the rest of the space. The steel edging separating mulch from the lawn was removed, and I laid down cardboard directly on the grass and weeds:



The steel edging did not go to waste! It was installed along the side of the house to prevent the foundation drainage rocks from falling into the future garden. I took this opportunity to expand the rock area a bit wider:


Then put cardboard against the new edging and weighted them down with scrap wood:


Then just tiled away.


For sheet mulching, adding cardboard is only the first step. It is recommended to mulch over the cardboard with wood chips or compost, so light will not reach the ground through the gaps between the cardboard. We did not have time to apply mulch that fall, so we weighted the cardboard down with rocks, scrape wood, and Roxie.


Of course I did not mulch over the periwinkle. They continue to grow even in winter months and I could see that they would eventually climb the hill and cover the entire slope.



Here is how the side yard looked before and after the cardboard layer. Although the cardboard was not pretty to look at, I did feel better knowing that the weeds were under control.




2020-2021: A secret pumpkin patch

With the unexpected disruption of our lives in 2020, we were not able to plant this side yard for a while. To not let the space sit empty, I put in pumpkins and butternut squash here. Boy did they grow! These vining plants completely covered the cardboard by mid summer, and we got hundreds of pumpkin and squashes in the fall:


We repeated pumpkins here again in 2021 and got great results again. The side yard was the perfect spot for a pumpkin patch – the vines did not look too hot before harvest, but we could hardly see it from most of the backyard.



If you think the fall sight was bad, the winter view was worse. Lazy me left all the vines in the ground to decompose after harvest. Although the dead vines functioned like a mulch layer, it was terrible to look at. This was NOT the secret garden I had in mind. Oops.


2022 Fall – Finally planting!

Fast forward to the Fall of 2022, after finishing the major renovations inside of the house, it was time to make over this little side yard! My plan was still to make this space a secret garden. With the fence/house on all three sides, I would be adding screening evergreens and climbing plants on the perimeters and fill the center with perennials.


To prepare for the planting, I racked out pumpkin vines and cardboard pieces that had not decomposed after two seasons, and added the grass clippings I saved over the summer. This not only helped the ground to retain moisture, but would also add organic matter into the soil when it decomposes.


We also decided to remove the old lilac. It was intermingled with the old chain link fence and we had to cut it down to the ground during the fence removal. The poor lilac has not looked healthy since and never flowered again:


Lilacs are famous for its deep root system. I called for help:


When we started this project, Charlie just joined the pack. He was following us everywhere.


Here is Charlie again, pulling on the lilac roots. Too bad he did not do it when the root was still in the ground. 🙂


After removing the old lilac, Slav (and Charlie) weeded along the fence and applied mulch between the periwinkles.


Planting arborvitae along the fence

Then, it was time to plant! I first added six “North pole” arborvitaes the same as the ones we planted in the front yard for privacy. I spaced them 3 feet apart, which should cover 19′ of the fence when they grow up.


The first one was planted 3′ from the corner (where the yellow marker was). The periwinkle should eventually cover the ground around the arborvitae.


Here were the little ones, planted!


They looked so good and fresh.



Completing ground planting with shade-loving plants

To fill the ground I got a starter connection of shade-loving plants mostly hostas and ferns. They were most bareroot so I used flags to indicate where they were planted:


The hostas were spaced apart based on their mature sizes. After a couple years, we should not be able to see the ground in between.


I used an old straw bale to mark the future path. I made it curvey and narrow, so the path would not be obvious from distance.


Here is how the path ends. I planted a bigger arborvitae at the corner as an anchor.


Finishing the shade garden with mulch

No landscaping project is complete without drip irrigation and mulch. I used up all the drip tubings I had to install a drip system for the side yard. Not an inch more! Of course Charlie was around to help. What a sweet boy!


The last step was mulch. Now the shade garden was planted!




2017-2022: A five year evolution

Over five seasons, this side yard endured many changes. From the lawn grass:



To a weedy ground:


To its pumpkin patch glory:



To sheet mulch:


And finally to the shade garden today!


Like many people, we focused on other areas that “mattered more” and let this space wait. But after five years, it eventually got the attention it deserves. And I am looking forward to the 2023 Spring mainly because of this garden. Please treat the picture below, which I took in early 2019 as the “before”, and I hope to update you the pretty “after” a few months from now! Stay tuned, friends!



Getting Rid of Our Raspberry Patch!

Over the years, we have carved out quite a few large garden beds on our property: the vegetable garden, the back fence orchard, the front yard flower bed, and most recently, the shed patio garden. But we have never “renovated” one. Last Fall, after completing the shed patio project, we decided to redo one of the garden beds in our backyard – the raspberry patch:


Why redo the raspberry garden?

I started this raspberry patch back in 2019. The first a couple summers, the raspberry plants remained small. Despite that, we still got the raspberries we needed:


But during the last two seasons, these raspberry plants explored:


Although we tried to thin the canes in Spring, the growth was too robust to control. The patch quickly grew into a 7-foot-tall jungle. Rabbits and mice started making nests between the canes.


We also found raspberry suckers popping up everywhere: in nearby flower beds, on the lawn space, and even inside basement window sills. Raspberry spreads by horizontal rhizomes underground. Although we love eating fresh raspberries, we did not want a raspberry-infested yard.


Digging out the raspberry canes and future plans

Finally, we made the painful decision to remove the raspberry patch. It was not a task for the faint of heart – these canes were full of thorns and we expected snakes and rodents had taken refuge inside the patch. I started by cutting off the canes after the summer harvest, and worked from the outside in. I found so many berries we could not see through the dense foliage, and ended up freezing several five-gallon buckets of berries from this small patch! Can you believe it? Raspberry must really liked our soil.


After I cut down the canes, Slav the husband of the year took over to dig out the rhizomes.


It took Slav a few weekends to eliminate the raspberry roots. Here was the pile from his work. Mostly prickly raspberry canes. Oh my.


At the meantime, I started contemplating how to utilize the former raspberry patch. I quickly decided to incorporate half of it into the nearby patio garden. Adding this section significantly enlarged the once skinny patio garden, making it look more like a planting “island” instead of a “strip”.


This was the look of the new planting island. Imagine a small ornamental tree where the yellow stick is, maybe an evergreen, surrounded by low-mount grasses and perennial blooms? It will create a layered look and bring more winter interest to this area.


Next to the planting island I wanted a path, so we could walk among the big flower beds easily. Being a visual person, I started by laying down some tree stumps to highlight the future path:


From the picture above and below you can see that the path travelled from the back of the house, right under my office window, to the center of the herb garden. It looked wide in the pictures, but in reality it was barely four feet wide. I also made the path curvy for a more organic look.


It was a lot harder to decide what to do with other half of the former raspberry patch… Although north-facing, this slope was very productive when planting pumpkins and melons.


Unfortunately, we are no longer able to plant vine crops here next year, because of our new dog, Charlie. Charlie loves to taste unripe fruits from my garden, precisely one bite from each fruit. This little devil…


I will show you how we converted this slope in the next post – we found a great use of it! You will like it, I promise. 🙂

Planting the back patio “island”

When it came to the plant choices, I knew we needed some evergreen trees. We only had deciduous trees in our backyard, which looked really bare for 5 months of a year. Planting more evergreens will bring some much needed structure into the winter garden. However, evergreens were so expensive – that I can only afford the tiniest size. But if we plant now, we can have something pretty to look at in ten years!

Besides the evergreens, I also ordered a Jane magnolia. I’ve been long wanting a magnolia tree. It is the tree besides gingko that I really missed since moving to the States. The Jane magnolia is the most cold-hardy and it might have a fighting chance in our zone 5 winter.


I got a couple of the Japanese grasses to plant around the trees. These grasses are cold-hardy, vigorous, and they can tolerate both sun and shade. They should be able to naturalize in our yard and become a dense groundcover in a couple years.


Came with the tree order were a couple free plants. They are called “Rainbow” dog hobble (leucothoe fontanesiana). I never heard this plant before, but I was immediately attracted to its variegated leaves and open branching structure:


Apparently the dog hobble is a native to our climate, drought tolerant, and evengreen to zone 5 (!). It checks all the boxes I want for a mile-high garden. They should mature to 4-5 feet tall and wide. I think they will add lots of color to this corner.


Here is how everything looked like in ground: a “Bialobok” Colorado Spruce, surrounded by three Hakone Japanese Forest Grass “All Gold”. I later added several ‘Nigrescens’ black mondo grasses in between the “All Gold”:


I transplanted this rosemary from the patio garden. It was shaded by a russian sage so it did not put on much growth last year. But it developed a massive root ball. Hopefully the strong root system could help it survive this winter and establish itself as a perennial in my garden:


Also transplanted here was a passion flower from the mailbox garden. It barely grew there last year. I figured that it could use some protection from afternoon sun. Passion flower is supposed to be a perennial too in my zone (5b), so we will see if it comes back next Spring!


To offset the costs of the new plants, I filled the rest of the planting area by “shopping my own garden”, which means that I walked through my yard, divided what looked mature, and dug out what looked crowded. There were an English lavender from the front yard, a catmint (cut back to the ground) from the herb garden, and an itoh peony I got from a neighbor:


Last but not the least, the Jane magnolia was planted into the ground! It took me a while to find it a permanent home:


To finish the new planting area, we covered the bare soil using cardboard, and piled Fall leaves on top. I am curious to see how many weeds will come up in this area since we disturbed the soil, and we are certain that the raspberry runners will come up in Spring. We plan to put a few inches of wood chips next Spring as mulch, which will tidy up this area a lot. It would be very nice if all the perennials come back to life!

The Summer Backyard


My friends, welcome to the backyard!


June came and went quickly. We travelled, worked, and spent weekends tidying up the yard. Slav was busy at fertilizing, watering, and mowing the lawn, while I took care of the flower beds and planted the veggie garden. We managed to keep the backyard pretty neat this year, so I figured I will show you how far we’ve come.


Climbing roses and fruit trees

After the hellebore blooms in Spring we finally entered the rose season. The climbing roses “awakeningI planted back in 2018 started covering the back fence.


Also planted in 2018 are the fruit trees. The two cherry trees have not given us any fruit yet. I heard that it takes 5-9 years for cherry trees to bear fruits. For now we enjoy the healthy leaves and the privacy they provide.


The apple tree we planted in 2018 bore exactly two apples this year. LOL. There should have been more had we not had snow in the middle of May. These are honey crisp apples which are hubby’s favorite.



The nectarine and the peach tree planted in 2018 had died due to frost. So we planted another apple tree and a winter-hardy pear in their place. These two tree was purchased from Jung Seed and I can tell from the get-go that they were super healthy and much more robust. Just look at how many apples the new apple tree (transparent) bore this year:



Can you believe that we just planted it last Spring? The pear tree also has grown tall.


Speaking of newly planted trees, my baby ginkgo is going strong! It is supposed to grow slowly during its first ten years, but I can see how happy it is judging by the leaves and new branches. It also grew much taller than when it was first planted.


Peppers and tomatoes

We had a cold, cold spring which really shows in the vegetable garden. All the heat-loving vegetables, such as peppers, aubergine, and okra are embarrassingly small. I actually intended to grow more peppers this year, and seeded lots of different varieties. But most of the pepper seedlings died during the crazy May snow storm and the ones survived have grown very slowly.

Pepper (my biggest one)






Thankfully we still have lots of tomato plants. Oh the tomatoes! We ate so much fresh on sandwiches and salads and Slav made several big patches of tomato sauce, which we enjoyed all winter long on pizza and pasta dishes. This year I seeded even more and different varieties. The dedicated tomato bed can only contain half of the seedlings I raised, so I planted the rest in other vegetable beds wherever there was space.


Some of them are dotted among the asparagus ferns,


and the rest were planted in the pepper bed which was rather empty anyway….


Did you notice the size differences between tomato seedlings planted in different beds? They are all from the same batch of seedlings! The ones planted very closely in the tomato bed are relatively small:


On the other hand, the ones planted in between the asparagus ferns grew a lot bigger. It seems to be true that more space you give a crop, bigger it gets.


I am looking forward to a good tomato year and we cannot wait! Especially given that other crops like peppers and cucumbers did not seem to be growing well.

The garlics and bean tunnel

One crop that did not get affected by the Spring weather is the garlic. ~140 garlic cloves were planted last Fall, and all of them sprouted.


After enjoying scapes in June, we are ready to harvest the garlic heads in a couple weeks.


I planted the garlics under the bean tunnel this season, and seeded noodle beans and cantaloupes in between. The beans have come up looking slender.


I love how elegant these string beans look when climbing up. I actually do not know if they are green or red noodle beans, so it will be a surprise in July!


Also these beds I planted lettuces and mustard greens. We have been using the leaves in burgers, soups, and for stir fry in June. Several rabbits visit often and I can tell that they enjoyed some leave too. 🙂


The cold Spring weather was bad for some but good for others, including the rhubarb I raised from seeds last Spring. They were tiny and scrappy last season, but all three of them came back strooong this year. We have harvested a bunch of stalks and made several delicious pies. Rhubarb is hubby’s another favorite.



Squashes and pumpkins

Last year we grew way too many yellow squashes and green zucchinis. It was nice to watch the plants grow, but honestly, it was a pain to consume that many. So this year, I only grew one plant each. The goal for my edible gardening this season is to only grow what we can/like to eat.


As of the pumpkins, I raised mostly butternut squashes and small Kabocha pumpkins. Not only they are our favorite to eat, they also store very well in our heated house.


I planted all the butternut squashes along the edge of the veggie beds, and concentrated all the Kabochas in the small side yard north to our house. I think they like the slopes there:


The rest of the sloped side yard was planted with ornamental pumpkins. I am raising six different pumpkins and gourds here, which can be used for Fall decorations. A couple plants each will be enough for us and all of our neighbors. I felt proud seeing every front porch on my street decorated with my pumpkins.


I used to scratch my head over how to use this sloped side yard. After last season, I know the answer: a pumpkin patch! Rambling vines love the sloped yard and their big leaves shade the soil in summer. I cannot think of a better use for this space.


The hazelnut trees I planted in 2019 have grown to 8 feet tall. They have flowered profusely this Spring, but I have not seen any nuts yet. How many year does it take for hazelnut to produce? Anyone knows?


Melons and cantaloupes

Another goal of mine this year is to grow more watermelons and cantaloupes. Last year I grew very few, and the fruits were so sweet and fragrant. So this season, I dedicated the mulched area along the back fence to melons:



The melon plants remained small since planted. These seedlings needs a long time to put down good roots and they really need consistent heat to grow. I think the biggest lesson gardening has taught me is the art of patience. A Chinese proverb says, “Planning extensively and execute slowly. Patience and accuracy leads to steady progress”. I see it in gardening and try to apply it to my work every day.

The herb garden

The herb garden was the first flower bed we planted. It has been the most robust flower bed in our yard. And this year is no exception:




Lemon balm:


Walking onion:










I raised this little basil plant from seeds this Spring. Hopefully the July heat will help it grow better:


One new plant I added this year to the herb garden is this Bay Laurel. We use bay leaves a lot in soups during cooler months. It makes sense to have our own plant and dry the leaves ourselves.


As usual, Dill has been popping up everywhere.



The berry garden


I planted berries heavily as part of my edible garden. Nothing beats getting up the morning, walk around in my pjs with a cup of warm tea, and enjoy fresh berries of the plants. We had a good month of strawberries and service berries, and now come in season are raspberries and blackberries.





Pies are made and smoothies are drunk. We felt such healthy peeps now!


So, here is the backyard! I cannot believe how many trees, flowers, and different edible plants we have now in this small backyard, especially considering that four season ago, this was just a big lawn with a few half-dead trees! You have come a looong way, my backyard!

Page 1 of 10

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén