Front yard makeover – part 1

Earlier this year, drought restrictions in California had been lifted (unwisely so, in my humble opinion). And thus, our HOA sent out a letter saying that we no longer have an excuse to have dry/dead lawns.

I’m not much of a fan of lawns. And the environmentalist in me wanted to protest. But the frugal, rule abiding citizen in me also didn’t want to get fined. So, I got out my collection of saved newspapers, made a trip to the local landfill to pack my SUV with free compost and spent a good weekend on a DIY waterwise landscape makeover.

Here’s the before and after:


After covering the dry lawn with newspapers and a thick layer of compost, I topped it off with brown mulch and decorated with planters. Here’s the breakdown of materials and costs:

  • Newspapers = FREE (from work)
  • Compost = FREE (Miramar Greenery)
  • Brown mulch (Home Depot fortunately had a sale the weekend I did this) = $20
  • Landscaping stones (Home Depot) = $11
  • 2 large terracotta planters painted blue (farmers market, locally made) = $50
  • White and salmon ivy geraniums (Armstrong Garden Center) = $20
  • Planters containing succulents = FREE (I already had the planters and the succulents were propagated from cuttings my mom has collected over the years)
  • Labor = me

Running cost: $101



Just when I thought I could sit back and let the garden do its thing, I found some unwelcome surprises.

The garden beds had several small holes in different spots and seedlings that I had just transplanted were munched down to their stems. After shaking my fists in the air shouting, “Whyyyyyyyyy?!?!” I decided to get to the bottom of this/these mysterious critters.

I gathered the following clues over the last three to four weeks: these critters only came out during the day; they left shallow holes dug from above ground, not tunnels or burrows from below; they only ate certain seedlings; and they could somewhat be kept out with fencing that mice could fit through.

Based on these clues and my location, it seemed reasonable that my garden was being attacked by squirrels. I was never able to catch them in the act myself. But this past weekend, my parents did me a favor by monitoring my yard and confirmed that, yes, my mystery invaders were indeed SQUIRRELS…lots of them, coming out in the afternoon through the rotting wood fence between my yard and the neighbor’s.

I couldn’t let the squirrels win this fight. I originally was going to just wrap hardware cloth around the perimeter of each raised bed, but my husband came up with a more aesthetically pleasing idea to build some legit pest fences.


The fences were constructed as four separate frames that could be individually removed from the border. The fence frames were built out of 2×2’s cut to fit right on top of the raised bed frames. Hardware cloth (1/4 in mesh) was cut and stapled to the frames. Near the ends of each frame, we installed 1/2 in 2 hole straps — these slip right over 3/8 in rebar stakes that hold the frames upright and in place.


The finishing touch was covering the top with bird netting (secured with clothespins) to block squirrels from climbing over the fence. The cost of homegrown produce sure keeps adding up!

Raised bed greenhouse

Garlic and carrots have sprouted. Bok choy, cilantro, lettuce, onions, shallots and flower seedlings have been transplanted. Nighttime temperatures are in the low 50s, so it’s time for a greenhouse.


I placed 6 rebar stakes (2 ft long, 1/2 in diameter) into the raised bed and slipped 10 ft long, 1/2 in diameter PVC pipes over them, creating arches to make the frame for the greenhouse. Pictured above are two of the three arches with the last two rebar stakes in the front. The PVC pipes were painted copper so they wouldn’t look so much like…well, PVC pipes.

Greenhouse plastic (purchased as a 10 ft x 100 ft roll from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply) cut into a 10 ft x 13 ft rectangle was placed over the arches and secured with row cover snap clamps. The open sides were closed with velcro stickers.


Raised bed greenhouse!

Vermicompost harvest

I took another hiatus from gardening…my container garden ended up getting neglected, which isn’t such a bad thing considering the drought.

But I’ve still been composting kitchen scraps in my worm bin. The top tray of my multi-level worm bin is almost full, so I figured this was prime time to harvest the black gold from the starter tray. Here’s about 10 gallons worth of mature vermicompost (started January 9):


There were still some straggler worms in this tray, but the majority of them have already migrated to the top tray. So all I had to do was dump this onto my garden bed and mix it into the soil.

Oh yeah, I have a raised garden bed now. Picture and post to come soon.

Spring/Summer 2016 container garden

I’ve started my garden this season with container-grown veggies. Here’s what everything looks like so far:


I started seeds throughout March and April. Seeds that have yet to germinate and young seedlings are housed in the Gatorade bottle cloches (which act as mini greenhouses and protect seeds from the birds).

The plan is to eventually have raised beds, but this piece of land is currently an unlevel patch of tough lawn. So I’ve instituted a no-till gardening approach to make the ground more workable, which will make it easier to level out the dirt and install raised beds on top.

What I’ve done is sort of like lasagna gardening, just with way less layers. I first covered the grass with a layer of wet newspaper.


Next, I layered wet cardboard on top of the newspaper.


I finished the foundation with a layer of compost (which I got a nice free load of from Miramar Greenery).


It looks like I have a freshly tilled garden plot. The layers of newspaper, cardboard and compost will block sunlight to the grass, which will gradually decompose underneath (along with the newspaper and cardboard). The decaying organic matter should attract some earthworms, which will help enrich the yard dirt and transform it into some nice garden soil.

This space, meanwhile, is home to various planters filled with a mixture of (free) compost, yard dirt, blood meal, bone meal, egg shells, coffee grounds and orange peels.


This was the first iteration of the planter arrangement. It’s changed several times until I settled on the arrangement shown in the first picture. I’ll be adding more plants, so my setup is still evolving.

Soil test

I’m planning to start seeds soon. Currently, the yard is rife with hedges, birds of paradise plants, and other shrubs (as well as weeds) that I don’t care much for. I’ve been slowly uprooting this vegetation to make room for the vegetable garden and was curious about the state of the soil.

Typically, I’d just add a bunch of compost with a bit of blood meal and bone meal to the soil and call it good. This formula has worked well for me throughout all my humble gardening days. But this time, I figured I’d get to know the soil a little better first by conducting some soil tests.


I purchased a Leaf Luster Rapitest Soil Test Kit from my local nursery. The kit comes with four tests: pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The instructions were straightforward. Generally, the tests call for mixing one part soil with five parts distilled water, letting everything settle, and mixing small samples of the water with the capsules provided in the kit.

Here are the results from the soil tests and recommended amendments:

  • pH –> alkaline (amend with sulfur)
  • nitrogen –> depleted (amend with blood meal)
  • phosphorus –> depleted (amend with bone meal)
  • potassium –> sufficient


I already have two of the three recommended amendments. I guess I’ll need to get some sulfur to lower the soil pH and make it better suited for growing vegetables, which typically thrive in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7. And of course I’ll be throwing in a bunch of compost per my normal ritual.

Outdoor composting

If it’s not obvious, I love composting. So much so that in addition to composting kitchen scraps with the worm bin, I’ve started composting yard waste (leaves, grass clippings, hedge cuttings, weeds) with a simple outdoor compost bin. IMG_20160128_172315

All this greenery is typically considered part of a homeowner’s trash, but with a little help it will transform into a garden’s treasure in a few months. This heterogenous heap will look like a mound of soil when it’s all done composting, and I can use it as fertilizer and mulch for my plants.

Why do I have a separate worm bin and outdoor compost bin? The three main reasons are pests, space and convenience. I compost kitchen scraps in the worm bin rather that in an outdoor pile so as not to attract rogue critters. Also, the yard wastes are too big and bountiful to fit in my worm bin. Lastly, I can keep each compost bin closest to their food sources: worm bin near the kitchen and yard waste bin in the yard.

Here’s how I made my outdoor bin:


  • Roll of 3 ft x 25 ft welded wire
  • Metal cutters
  • Four 3 ft long U-post stakes,
  • Zip ties
  • 3 ft long plant stake or rod


  1. Using metal cutters, cut out four 3 ft x 3 ft squares of welded wire (I used the 3 ft long U-post stakes to measure). These squares will be the sides of the compost bin.IMG_20160109_140310
  2. Mark out a 3 ft x 3 ft square on the ground where the bin will be located. Stake a U-post at each corner.
  3. Position a wire square upright between two U-posts and zip tie both sides to the posts. Do this for three of the squares, reserving the fourth square. So far, the setup should have three walls with an opening (where the “door” will be).
  4. With the last wire square (the door), weave the garden stake (or rod) through one side. This will keep the door straight for opening and closing.
  5. Position the door at the opening of the bin and tie the free side (without the stake woven through) to a U-post with zip ties. IMG_20160109_155349IMG_20160109_155322Just fill with yard waste and cover the pile with a big piece of scrap cardboard to keep it moist.