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

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Life happening | House tours | Holidays

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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We Are Not Done with Plumbing Yet…

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Hi all! A couple weeks ago I was happy to announce that we were done with plumbing work in the main floor bathroom. But little did I know, plumbing was certainly not done with us yet! A few days after, on a Thursday night, as I was showering in our master bathroom, water started coming up from the basement shower drain as well as the floor drain in the utility closet. The water quickly got under the new flooring in the utility room, which fortunately held up well after drying. But boy, was it a scare.

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As any good home owner would do, Slav went to the big box store, rented a drain snake, and tried to clean out the sewage drain himself. Poor man worked over the entire weekend in snow and cold, only to make the situation worse by having the head of the snake stuck in the sewage pipe, under the house! Sunday night, we finally called an emergency plumber in, who ran a camera through all the drain pipes. The diagnose? A piece of old cast iron plumbing pipe under our house rusted through, and the snake head hooked to the side of this broken pipe.

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To give you a reference, above are the utility closet and laundry niche. The floor drain is located inside the utility closet, and our master bathroom was behind the wet wall. The snake head stuck right underneath the wet wall, somewhere behind the washer.

When we upgraded the bathroom plumbing and later the utility room floor drain, we did not replace all the cast iron pipes under the basement slab, only the drains that connected the utilities. Now looking back, based on how bad these cast iron connections look, we should have anticipated that the underground pipes were in pretty bad shape as well.

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And this is what the underground pipe looked like when our plumber broke the concrete slab and cut it out! The bottom of the pipe was completed rusted through. And the snake head probably finished the job of splitting it open.

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Next to the rusted cast iron pipe you can see one of the connectors. This portion of pipe was immediately downstream to the vertical kitchen sink drain, which we later learned that are usually in the worst shape for any house with cast iron drains.

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In the picture above is the kitchen drain. As you can see, we have replace the old pipes with new PVC ones till just above the basement slab. This upgrade was done when we upgraded the water lines for the basement and the kitchen, which was before the utility room was framed and drywalled. We did not want to go through the trouble of breaking the concrete slab then due to the cost, and now we have to do it – by breaking into the finished framing/drywall and with finished flooring! Guys, learn from our mistakes: do thing right at the first time, as early as possible, even it seems costly. It might not be the easiest decision to make, but you will not regret later!

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On the other end of the broken pipe there is the main connection under the house. Both main floor and basement toilets and the floor drain tie into it. Fortunately, it is in fairly good shape and our plumber was able to tie the new PVC pipe into it without replacing this piece.

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Below is the shot I took from the utility closet side. The plumber only needed to open a small portion of the dividing wall and remove very little framing. We were so happy that we did not need to replace this main connection, which would have required to demo some of the tiles in our master bathroom…

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The last connection the plumber had to address is the shower drain connection. The vertical pipe serves the main floor shower drain, and the bottom Y connection goes out to the basement shower drain as well as connects to the main drain line. By taking out the old pipe, we have to connect the showers back to the new pipe. At some point during the demo, it looked that we would have to demo part of the tiled master shower in order to replace this connection… But fortunately, our plumber was able to dig carefully under the master shower, and eventually replaced this connection without breaking the shower floor and wall tiles!

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After removing all the rusted pipes, our plumber finalized his shopping list, picked up pieces needed, then rebuilt our plumbing.

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Then he mixed some concrete and buries everything back up – After a 8-hour day of work, we have our laundry niche again minus some drywall:

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Now the pipes from the kitchen sink and main floor shower are completely upgraded to PVC! We could finally shower and use toilet at home again after days of gym showers and grocery store bathroom breaks…

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Slav reconnected the water and dryer vent. Now I could do laundry again!

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It was a huge undertaking plus lots of mini heart-attacks. but our plumber did a very good job to preserve our finished surfaces. At the end, we only had a few pieces of drywall open, and a small hole between the laundry niche and the utility closet. Inevitably we have to do some touchup paint work, but I was very grateful that we did not need to tile the master bathroom again.

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Our plumber also did a good job setting up protections around the work site. We did cover all the furniture in the basement with tarp, but the confinement kept most of the dust away from the media room so the final clean-up was surprisingly easy.

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It was a hell of week. On top of the plumbing issue, our dryer broke around the same time the plumbing issue happened. Fortunately, Slav was able to fix the dryer himself with some cheap replacement parts. And $4000 later (the emergency plumber/camera work + underground pipe replacement) we finally got some normality back into our lives. I have to say, this Spring has been tough. Probably because I was having high hopes for a “normal” Spring after the tough 12-month. Apparently, the difficult time is not over yet. Do not celebrate too early!

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Fortunately there was beauty in our lives too:

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My hellebores are blooming for the first time. How exciting.

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These hellebores were planted in the Fall of 2019. They did not bloom in 2020 which was a huge bummer. But this Spring, they showed me their beautiful faces:

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It will still be a few weeks before all the buds completely open. But they have already made me so happy in these cold Spring days that we had to pee behind our garden shed, along with the dogs.

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There is hope, guys!

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