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

Category: Hardscaping Page 1 of 6

Land Development | Hardscape | Fencing

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!

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!

Two Trees Out, Two Trees In

Oh boy did time fly…It has been two months since I last opened the blog page. What happened? Work. Work, work, and work. In good news, Slav started a new job which he enjoys. But it sucked 200 hours out of him in just the first 3.5 weeks. 200 hours! I barely saw him in February. Luckily I was also up to my neck in my work – writing one manuscript and one grant proposal stole entire February away from me. Needless to say that we did not do a thing to the house/yard during this time.

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This is the latest picture I took in the basement after putting in a new egress window in. It was late January, right before our money-making jobs got in the way of our money-burning renovations. Since then, we devoted the last bits of spare energy into ski trips – priorities. 🙂 And before we know it, it was March!

March brought a sense of emergency – I’ve told you of my plan on planting more edibles this Spring, which is contingent on removing all the vegetation along the northern fence. This is the only portion of fence that does not belong to us, and it was in very rough shape:

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This photo was taken after we removed the chain link fence from our side. You can see the trees along the fence have grown into the posts and started to lift the panels off the ground. These are elms trees, which in Colorado are considered “trash trees” because they are invasive and easy to catch diseases. They likely seeded themselves and no one could get in between the two layers of fences to remove them in time.

These photos show what they look like during the growing season. Due to lack of care and diseases, The elm tree in the middle and half of the other two elm trees were already dead. In the second picture, you can see only the trunks of the middle elm tree because it had fell down.

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To eliminate the danger of them falling on the house or one of us, and also to save the fence, we decided to cut them down even through they are technically not our trees. But someone gotta do it. Right?

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Removing the chain link fence exposed the entire trunks of these elm trees for easy removal. To do it safely, we hired a licensed and insured tree company (Arborist Alliance) to remove the elm trees and the big stump left from the elm in the middle. We were fortunate to have a couple sunny days in between snow storms for safe operation.

Elm tree No. 1

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Elm tree No. 2

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Of course I took a day off to watch this exciting operation. I took zillions of pictures kneeling in melting snow + mud despite the weird looks from the crew members, only to find in the evening that there was no memory card in the camera. Oops. Anyway, I hope you still get the excitement with the blurry cell phone pictures below:

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A crew of five people arrived bright and early and started working. The tree on the right were brought down by cutting at the chest height, one trunk at a time. But the one on the left were cut down a lot more slowly and carefully due to its close proximity to the houses.

The one on the right was done in half an hour:

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The one on the left were cut down branch by branch, a couple feet a time:

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This crew worked like a well-oiled machine and very efficiently. Two crew members worked on the two elm trees while the third crew member assisted them from the ground. As the branches came down, two other members separated the branches from the main trunks with chainsaws, and brought the smaller branches to the wood chipper parked in front of our house.

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All the smaller branches were turned into wood chips immediately. Technically, the trunk of the tree and big branches can be chipped too. But we wanted them for firewood, so it worked well in both their benefit and ours to just leave the main tree trunks in our yard. They cut the tree trunks and bigger branches into 3 feet sections and stacked them neatly next to our firewood pile.

The task that took the longest was actually cutting down the elm tree on the left. It was not only because it was sandwiched in between our house and the neighbor’s house, but also that there were several big nests on the tree and potentially had wild life in them. Just like we guessed, one of them was used by squirrels. The mother escaped before a crew member climbed onto the tree, left two babies behind:

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We carefully transferred the babies and all the nesting materials into a cardboard box, then set the box near the tree trunks after all the tree work (with loud noises) was done. The baby squirrels were picked up by the mother within half an hour and relocated to another nest. No animal was harmed during our operation! Yay!

The crew arrived around 830 AM. By noon, the two elms were gone and the decris were mostly cleared out:

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After lunch break, the crew worked on stump grinding. They brought in a machine which has a saw blade running vertically into the ground to grind the stumps and roots into basically saw dust. Due to the close proximity of the stumps to the fence, they removed a fence panel to get to as much tree stump as possible.

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Grinding three tree stumps (one left from the elm tree in the middle which had fallen down) took about 2 hours with the machine and just one guy. Other members spent this time cleaning up in both our yard and our neighbor’s yard. All the debris was racked up and put into the chipper. At the end, the fence panel was nailed back.

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Even without the main branches and big tree trunks, the wood chips generated from our trees still filled more than one big truck load. I asked if they could leave some for us to use as mulch, and I got a big “Yes!” as the reply. It actually takes tree business money, gas, and time to dump wood chips at the city. So downloading some to customers was always welcomed. They kindly suggested to leave the wood chips from their previous job, which were all from a healthy tree instead of the wood chips from our diseased elms. So, just like that, we got a bunch of firewood + ~10 yards of fresh wood chip mulch, and in addition $100 discount for taking them off the tree crew’s hands. A win-win for both of us!

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10 yards of wood chips did not look like much, but it took Slav two days to move all of them to the backyard where I wanted. At the mean time, the two hazelnut trees came in early March. They were planted along but ~8 feet away from the wooden fence, in the middle of the sloped hill.

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Hazelnuts need cross-pollination to fruit, so it requires at least two different varieties of the hazelnuts trees. We ordered two dwarf North American native varieties, one called Jefferson, and the one called Yamhill.

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These hazelnut trees are supposed to get to 8~12 feet tall in 3~4 years. I expect them to provide some privacy year around between us and the northern neighbor, as they flowers in winter. They also should eventually provide shade to the mulched area below, which will create more forest-like micro-environment. But before they reach their mature size, we will use the space around them for wine crops such as melons and pumpkins, and for bushy crops including rhubarb, zucchini, and squash plants. These plants will keep the mulch moist and discourage weeds from coming up. It will be fun!

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Just like that, two elms are out and two hazelnuts are in. The berry garden is the next and I could not wait to get all the edibles into the ground before the real Spring comes!

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