Driveway Island, the early days

This fall (Or is that "last fall", now?), I performed a major overhaul on the bed in the middle of our circular driveway in front of the house, which I call the "driveway island." I had been planning and acquiring plants all summer to redesign the bed in fall. The process made me think of the journey this bed has gone through. It was one of the few "landscaped" areas on the property when my family first moved in, consisting of a pine that was destined to grow too big, some barely living St. John's wort, three overgrown junipers, some daffodils, and yellow gladiolus. It was hardly inspiring to begin with, and the plague of deer that still swept through our property at that time made any improvements rather difficult. The bed just looked uglier with each year. I was really getting fed up with it when an opportunity presented itself in high school. I chose to redesign this bed for my cumulative project. It was one way to make sure something actually happened. Sorry in advance for some of the poor-quality photos. I had to scan them all from a binder I made illustrating the project, and some were pretty bad to begin with. It was a lengthy process, even more so because I had to convert the scanned images from pdf files to jpg files individually because I used an online converter instead of finding and downloading software that might have allowed me to do it in one lump. I'm still working on cropping the images into individual pictures, too. There's a reason I haven't started this post sooner.

This is the earliest picture I have of the driveway island, circa 2002-2005. Somewhere in there, I think. It was before we logged, because I see in the background to the right the bare patch under a clump of trees near the pump house. By this time, we had already made some changes, planting a heath, Sciadopytis verticillata (Japanese umbrella pine), and Ginkgo biloba. The red laceleaf Japanese maple that now claims center stage was sitting off to one side in a wooden planter, with roots bursting through the bottom to sink into the ground. The pine in the middle was large even when we first moved in, when I was in third grade. I'm not sure exactly when this picture was taken, but I think it was sometime early in high school. The pine has grown to dwarf the bed, and we had limbed it up to open up the space beneath it.

Fast forward a year or three, and the pine is history. This shot was taken from the opposite direction as the previous one. As you can see, the bed is covered in moss and weeds. The wooden post is a totem pole my older brother made when he was in high school. You can also see some elements along the front (west side) of the house that aren't there anymore. The arborvitae is long gone. There's a large rhododendron to the right of it that has been moved. The white in front of the house is a dusty miller that I tired of pruning to keep it looking good. The front of the house itself has changed in the last few years. The ugly faux stone wall, inset by over a foot compared to the rest of the house, has been bumped out even with the rest of the house, plus a large bay window. The brown, wooden steps have been replaced with a large ramp and steps. You can also see, in the background to the right, piles of wood chips, stumps, and a chunk of log left over from logging several areas around the house.

Just for comparison, this is what the front of the house looks like, post remodel. This photo is from April, 2014, and things have grown a lot since then, though I'm still working on filling in the bed between the ramp and steps.

Back to the driveway island, here you can see the view from the house as it was before my initial makeover. Appealing, isn't it? Once the pine was removed, the St. John's wort took off, quickly covering the area that once fell in the shadow of the pine, and then a bit more. Ironically, the deer used to keep the St. John's wort clipped to a barely living stub at the edge of the pine branches. For whatever reason, once the pine was gone, they decided to leave the St. John's wort alone and it was left to spread unimpeded.

Another angle. Isn't that just awful? How we tolerated this scene for so many years I simply can't fathom.

The previous owner must have liked yellow, as all the flowers in this bed when we moved in were yellow. I'm not such a fan of true yellow, except in a few special cases like fall and winter-blooming flowers, in which case I'll accept mot anything. When we started work on this bed, I spent days sifting carefully through the soil to make sure I didn't leave any St. John's wort rhizomes. Miraculously, it didn't come back to haunt me later.

These junipers were a constant nuisance. They grew constantly, and thus had to be cut back constantly, too. It was wonderful to tear them out.

On some rainy day, I caught sight of a rabbit taking shelter under the Japanese maple. You can also see a gladiolus bloom in the background to the left. At some point, the deer suddenly decided that they loved gladiolus blooms, and would devour them all, leaving ugly chewed bases along bare stems.

Just another view of the bed. Originally, I had planned to include the green maple in the design, but later decided to relocated it to a spot near the head of the driveway. Unfortunately, it developed some sort of disease and was looking so poor this year that I finally removed it this summer.

I was very into planning back then. And since I was doing this as a project for school I drew up a rough design using a little landscape design stencil kit from Office Max. Clearly, I wasn't a professional, but you can read some of my notes, for what they're worth. I have a whole key of abbreviations in the binder I made for this project, but I won't go into that much detail. Each square represents one foot. The concentric dashed circles in the center of the bed are the red laceleaf Japanese maple that you've already seen, estimating its future growth. The larger set of circles represents the green Japanese maple, or rather what I thought it could grow into if the deer would stop eating it. This was going to be a very "Northwest" bed, with dwarf conifers, Rhododendron impeditum, hardy geranium, lilies, barberries, alliums, kinnikinnick, heaths and heathers, heucheras, pennisetum, even Euonymous elatus. Ye gods of garden design. What was I thinking?

I went through several drafts as I made changes and found new plants I wanted to include or omitted plants I had previously wanted. For this second draft, I also added color. The green maple represented by the large dashed circles in the upper left of the previous draft, is gone in this version. I switched out a lot of plants because of that. The swaths of light green are lime thyme. In some ways, I like the first draft better. It was simpler in plant palette but had more diversity in microclimates because of the green maple. In this second draft, I went a little crazy, scattering things and increasing the plant diversity greatly. It was still very "Northwest", but this time I included phormiums, Lithodora diffusa, and Hebe 'Red Edge'. This was pre-Phormium Killing Winters. Phormiums were in their heyday here in the Pacific Northwest and we all wanted them. We still do, but many of us have given up on actually growing them.

I wasn't satisfied, so I did a third draft, which I eventually settled on, more or less. This version has a little more cohesion and grouping, a little more dedication to a color scheme, though it's hard to tell from the photo. Looking back, it was still chaotic and many of the plants grew larger than I expected. At that time, I was under the naive impression that plants only grew to the size listed on their labels or in books. This plan included rockcress (Arabis), lamb's ears, Stipa gigantea, heathers, Hebe 'Red Edge', Sedum spurium 'Dragon's Blood', Berberis japonica 'Crimson Pygmy' Lithodora diffusa, Phormium 'Amazing Red', alliums, Crocosmia 'Lucifer', tall bearded irises, Bergenia crassifolia, Rhododendron impeditum, Chamaecyparis 'Gold Fern', grape hyacinths, crocus, dwarf daffodils, lime thyme, Carex comans 'Amazon Mist', Asarum caudatum, and the red maple in the middle. Only about a third of those plants are still growing in this bed today, but many others have come in to replace the ones that aren't there anymore.

I'll leave it there, for this post. I'll be continuing this series through the first redesign to the present incarnation. There will probably be a lot of, "what was I thinking," involved in this series. I'm finding it nostalgic, slightly embarrassing, and very educational to re-examine this bed from the beginning. I've learned so much since then. I know many, many more plants and I understand their needs and the conditions of this bed, and the rest of the garden, far better than I did then.


  1. As I looked at your plans, I kept thinking that I should really get back into the mode of drawing those up myself, at least for my larger planting projects. I did that early on here (although mine weren't nearly as precise as to scale) but I've fallen off the wagon since. It's a useful exercise even for the amateur gardener/landscaper.

    1. It is useful. Sometimes I think I should actually draw up a plan for the larger areas of the garden. Actually, that might help me figure out what trees I want to plant and how many I can cram in.

  2. I love "what was I thinking" posts...we learn so much as time goes by don't we? I look back at some of my early blog posts (coming up on 7 years now) and cringe at some of my plant choices. Anyway, looking forward to the next installment, in the meantime I'll be chuckling at your "naive impression that plants only grew to the size listed on their labels or in books"...

    1. Plants have the same trouble as deer. They don't read. ;)

  3. I do love those retrospective posts. It's funny how different our garden ends up looking, barely resembling our original plant and definitely not looking as neatly as it once did on paper. Not that I ever designed on paper; it was only images in my head, and the outcome is usually vastly different. I too feel nostalgic looking back. I changed as did the garden: you can say we grow (old) together.


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