The Low Maintenance Garden Experiment: Dry and Shady Driveway Border

The driveway garden was a puzzle. From the day we moved into the house, we had no idea how we were going to address the small grassy area on the street side of our driveway which is backed by a hedge of spring blooming forsythia.

Both dry and shady because it was beneath a thick branched oak tree and a giant black pine, the previous owner had tried to grow grass there without much success. It was an awkward space to mow and the hose wouldn’t reach that far. We needed a maintenence free solution. My husband, who had grown up in the west, loved the idea of a “desert garden” and so I put him to work transforming the space.

Low Maintenance Driveway Border
Low Maintenance Driveway Border

In the early half of the 20th century a gas station had stood on the spot.  The soil was now dry and compacted. Doc used my little “Mantis” tiller to plow up the space. He added a layer of dead leaves and pine needles (the only organic material we had on hand) and rototilled them into the soil. We added several bags of cow manure and mushroom compost.

I came home the next afternoon and Doc had placed some large rocks throughout the garden space in addition to some good sized slabs of Idaho lava that he’d brought home from his parent’s house the summer before. He’d added decorative logs as well.  The space was beginning to take shape.driveway garden 3

We made a trip to the garden center where I picked out his plants. We planted a Yucca, a prickly pear cactus, sedums, varieties of ice plant, and hens and chicks around and among Doc’s rocks and wood accents. They aren’t really “western” plants but they are as close a substitute as will grow in our climate.  None of what I chose was known for long-lasting, flashy blooms but their different forms and colors make interesting and attractive combinations. And they were all plants that could be placed in the ground and ignored for several years.

In the shady, back half of the bed, the half closest to the large oak tree, I took a different tactic. I planted clumps of spreading, sweet woodruff and I added a couple of large hostas that had done well in other dry, shady spots around our yard.

Rummaging through our basement, I pulled out boxes of the smaller stones that Doc and daughter Amy had collected on our road trips. As we drove across country each year, Doc would often stop the car if an area looked “rocky” and he and Amy would scour the roadside looking for interesting pieces to add to their collection.  One year, the two of them loaded the floor of our pop up camper with so many rocks that I was sure the tires would blow as soon as we got onto the freeway. The two of them were, at least, conscientious enough not to pick up rocks in protected areas but that still left plenty of stones between Ohio and Idaho to choose from. And we now had boxes of rocks, just sitting there, in our basement,  going to waste!  I knew exactly how to put them to use.

I carried the boxes outside and dumped them in the garden where I spread them amongst the plantings and also designed a rock “river bed.” They are all different colors and shapes, some with stripes or flecks of color and shiny, reflective surfaces. The variety makes a beautiful garden. They never need to be watered and the rain and snow  doesn’t hurt them.

driveway gardwn 4

Once the garden was finished, I edged the entire thing with a round rock border using stones found around the yard. Yes, it could be viewed as old fashioned and “cheesy.” But I remember rock borders in the yards of neighbors when I was a kid and they’ve always felt “homey” to me. Besides, I liked the idea of using a natural material and using a found item that I already had instead of running to the home improvement store to buy something new made of plastic. It’s what a gardener would have used in the 19th century and the look suits our 1864 house.

That garden project was completed many years ago. All the plants have since filled in and have been, more or less, trouble free. The only water they get is what falls from the sky. Occasionally a plant will die and we buy a new one. Or else I just move in a new rock.

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