Cleared Ground

So last week, we had our driveway re-graveled.

I will admit, I felt a twinge. The numerous pot-holes might be deep enough to rip the undercarriage out of lesser vehicles, it might have been twelve years since it was done, the mailman might have flatly refused to ever drive up to the house again…still, I twinged. Those potholes also held water for weeks at a stretch, and were used as impromptu bird baths by any number of species, including our lovely and elusive hermit thrushes and a few passing warblers. Butterflies puddled at the rims. Those holes had wildlife value, dammit!

Still, after I quite literally had to upgrade to off-road capable tires in order to get up and down the driveway, I knew it was time. (Those tires cost as much as getting it re-graveled, too.) We called the guys in, and they Did What Had To Be Done.

And I will say categorically that they did a fabulous job. They were very respectful of my plantings around the edges, and the foreman walked the entire site with me, asking what was a good plant and what was a killable plant. They didn’t harm a single one of my plantings, which is more than I can say for the UPS truck.

However, they had to dig new drainage ditches along the sides of the road, because drainage is a real problem for us (hence the un-draining pot-holes) and that meant that the woods along the side of the drive had to be cleared for several feet. They left large trees and all of the dogwoods (I would have missed those dogwoods!) but everything else had to go. The local topography largely determined how much got cleared, and the end result is that the woods now have an oddly scalloped edge along the driveway.  (I rather suspect one or two got cleared extra-far back just so they had a spot to turn the heavy machinery around, and one was opened so that they could dump all the downed trees on my existing brush-pile, as requested.)

The end result looks like this.

Not a very exciting picture, I grant you.

That’s the stretch closest to my garden. There are about five other openings like this, of varying sizes, totaling several hundred square feet of newly cleared ground.

I strongly suspect that a lot of people, at this point, would freak the hell out.

The stuff that used to be there, after all, was green. It ran right up to the road, and it was reasonably dense, and it looked like woods. “Oh god!” cries the budding gardener, “THEY BULLDOZED MY WOODS!”

Well. Not so much, really.

Sara Stein, in her fantastic book Noah’s Garden, wrote about trying to clear the invasives out of her woods…and discovering slowly that the invasives were the woods, that when you stripped out the buckthorn and the multiflora rose and all the rest, there was nothing left to save. It looked like woods, and it did the most basic ecological job of woods—filtering water, controlling soil erosion, sequestering carbon, etc—but that was it. You’d prefer it to concrete, but not by a lot. The only wildlife it supported were the generalists who can live anywhere.

This was pretty much the case on our property. I have made it a point to ID as much of the stuff as I can, and what I lost were a bunch of saplings (of very common trees) and a big-ass tangle of invasives. Sure, they cut down some red maple and sweet-gum saplings. Big deal. We are hip-deep in those trees around here. I yank them out of my flowerbeds. There are mature specimens all over, and saplings all along the other edges.

More importantly, they also took out big chunks of autumn olive (bad) Japanese honeysuckle (worse) and leatherleaf mahonia, which I suspect is gonna be one of the next big invasives. (Keep an eye out. You heard it here first. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but they’re popping up all through the woods.) This was a chore that I knew I’d have to get to someday, but never had the energy to tackle. It really did kinda require power equipment. Keeping the garden clear is exhausting enough.

So I greeted the bare dirt, not with horror, but with glee. And also a bit of panic.

What I don’t know about nature will fill a thousand volumes, but one thing I DO know, and that is that cleared ground doesn’t stay clear for long. Disturbed earth is a magnet. The Japanese stiltgrass is gonna come in like gangbusters, the poison ivy will roll in, and all those weed seeds lurking in the dirt are going to explode into life, probably while I am sitting here typing this article. The sweet-gum and the maple will drop seeds all over it. The sawtooth blackberry is going to start flinging canes at it. (Sawtooth blackberry is a great native plant, and much like poison ivy, I am fine with it existing, as long as it stays over THERE. No, back father than that. Give me another thirty feet. Yes. That’s good.)

I’ve got, in essence, a blank canvas and a timer. If I want to have any say in what grows in these areas, I have to put them under cultivation RIGHT NOW, or forever hold my peace. (Forever in this case being “until I rent a backhoe.”)

My first act was to go down to Niche Gardens and pick up a load of native shrubs—deciduous holly, Florida leucathoe (a truly marvelous part-shade shrub—we’re at the north end of the range.) and Virginia sweetspire. To this I added yellow anise-tree, which hails from a bit farther south but has spectacular deer resistance, and a well-behaved hybrid evergreen holly as a screen, since I can now actually see the neighbor’s house. (We can’t have that!) Several native trees also joined the mix—sourwood, which I always wanted to plant, but lacked space for a fifty-foot tree, and American yellowwood. I rounded this out with a Southern wax-myrtle, (I’d honestly plant three or four, except that I can only ever find them in enormous pots, and my ability to dig holes that size in already compacted dirt is limited.) one of our lovely mountain laurels, and a “Natchez” native mock-orange. The mock-orange is in flower right now—most cultivars are double, for some idiot reason, but fortunately “Natchez” is single—and I was literally having to wave away the pollinators as I tried to get it in the ground this weekend. Fortunately the neighbor’s honeybees are well-behaved and the various tiny flies weren’t of the stinging variety. I hope this one survives, since it’s clearly a popular choice.

This was not a cheap endeavor. If I weren’t on a tight deadline, I’d probably try growing a lot of these from cuttings, since a number are already present in my garden, but time was of the essence. My credit card may have made a noise like a wounded duck, I grant you.

Even with all the shrubs placed, of course (and just getting them all in the ground will be a Herculean undertaking) I still have oceans of bare dirt. My solution to this is two-fold—the elegant and very spready Chasmanthium latifolium, aka river oats, one of the only grasses that will take part shade and intense root competition, and the extraordinarily tough Chrysogonum virginianum, aka green-and-gold. Green-and-gold spreads with great vigor and takes a lot of abuse—exactly what’s called for in this case, since if you think I’m lugging a hose all the way down the driveway, you’re out of your mind. My favored selection is “Eco-Lacquered Spider” which is extraordinarily fast-spreading even for the species, and expands by runners like a strawberry plant. I’ve also got some heart-leaf aster coming, which will fit in nicely, and hopefully give me some late season color.

The vines are already in place—wild grape and Virginia creeper—and to this, I’ve added some virgin’s bower clematis, in hopes they’ll manage to keep the honeysuckle at bay. (Har.)

There’s any number of plants that I could fit in here, of course—one new patch is even pretty much full sun, and it’s really tempting to just annex it for the garden proper. In the main, however, I want this to be a low-care area. I don’t have the time to spend fertilizing and watering, and I have to go lightly with the mulching so that water continues to actually run off the driveway. My goal is to make it more productive for wildlife, with seeds (the river oats) berries (the holly) and various nectar sources (sourwood, etc) without needing me to hover over it after the first season or so. Given what I was working with before, there’s nowhere to go but up.

And if, in a year or so, that much ground, just sitting there, hardly planted at all calls to me…well, hey. These things happen.

© 2012, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. tinafreysd says

    Dirt is bound to get ground in to a carpet that is walked on regularly, even if you take your shoes off before doing so. Vacuuming your carpet regularly, at least the highest traffic areas, will delay the inevitable, but once dirt is pressed into the carpet’s fibers, it’s time to do more than vacuum..
    tinafreysd recently posted..Treating Your Acne Naturally

  2. says

    Good luck with the reclamation project! You’ve got a great start. I had a similar experience a few years ago when we moved in to our newly built house in Connecticut and it came with a freshly bulldozed bare hillside in back. I did what you have done — immediately started putting in sapling trees (about 50) and shrubs (dozens), all native. The invasive roses and autumn olive and bittersweet and barberry are winning the game so far, but the trees and shrubs are now beginning to overtop the ragweed and goldenrod.

    It’s a daily battle for ground, literally, and it consumes a lot of my gardening energy, but a forest WILL grow out there. I like your choice of woody plants, particularly the sourwood and American yellowwood. Nice!
    Laurrie recently posted..Orange Dreams

  3. says

    Ahhhh…..A blank canvas…..always an adventure and it sounds like you have a very creative proving for wildlife plan. Nice choices! I admire your zeal to purchase and set things up to be planted. May your muscles be warmed up enough to attack the next step….or maybe you should get that beagle and boyfriend out there!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

  4. Tuire says

    I have lots of wooded (aka weeded) areas and I had great plans for cultivating one specific area into something more attractive. Until this spring we found dozens of Morels in that small area and I decided to leave it alone, just maybe cut off the worst spreading bushes, although I am still in the process of identifying them. I think it’s a great goal to try to ID all plants in your property and I will try to do the same. Great story!

  5. Michele Sherry says

    I discovered this site a while ago &really enjoy it, am learning lots! But I have to say I really love Ursula Vernon’s writing. At this point, I will read anything with her name on it. She’s the most enjoyable garden writer I’ve read in ages…as good or better than Mike McGrath. Please keep it coming!


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