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

Category: From Farm to Table Page 1 of 4

Eat clean. Eat simple. Eat local. Vegetable gardening | Food production

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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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?

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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