You are currently viewing Our Driveway Re-Invention Part 1

Our Driveway Re-Invention Part 1

I know that people find it fascinating that I live and now garden in the house where I was born and where my father was born (he died in 2014 at a healthy 100). It not all that unusual, I think, in much of New England, and oddly enough, it’s not that odd for my neighborhood for some reason. In fact – on this driveway upgrade project, I had two friends help me from up the street who went to elementary school and high school with me.

Our driveway before reconstruction in March 2020. Our house of off the the right by our first driveway, the grey house in the back was our garage and my sisters house until we sold it three years ago. A dirt road runs along the left side of the picture.

My parents, while not as serious (or obsessive) a gardener as I turned out to, would probably be considered by today’s standards still rather serious about plants and gardens. You’ve probably seen all the photos of my parents’ colossal veg garden and flower gardens from time to time on this blog, and clearly, I got my gene from them.

By 1949 the second driveway on the left started to have trees running down the stream next to it.

Old gardens have a way of getting away from you, especially when one has a busy corporate job as I did that required me to travel and commute. Of course – we don’t have kids to help take care of the yard and garden as my parents did with us. For a few decades, my brothers, sister, and I felt like we were just here to work in the garden (probably why I hate hard physical labor today!).

By 1964 things didn’t change too much.

Over time, the second driveway to our house has fallen into disrepair. It always bothered me, but honestly, it just wasn’t a priority.

For much of the 20th century, when my dad and his 7 brothers lived here, there were tall yew and hemlock hedges around the property (16
high before we cut them down). Along this long driveway stood 11 weeping willow trees that while stunning, and considered a showpiece by my dad, were naturally messy and problematic. Over 100′ tall with trunks about 5 feet in diameter, these short-lived trees eventually died or were lost in summer thunderstorms. I don’t miss them.

In the 1960s my dad was proud of his studio (the north light windows, here) and his various entertaining areas. My parents would host big parties for the newspaper and family. Tall willows (seen in the back) lined the big driveway where about 15 cars could park.

I was born in 1960, and by then this second driveway included a basketball court, had a wide 40-60 foot section to play in but was unpaved, just hard-packed gravel—all under the magnificent hanging canopy of 100′ weeping willows. My dad would often point out the oriole nests and other wildlife that used the very long willow branches as nesting material. We would tarzan swing on the 30 foot long dangling whip-like branches, but by the late 1970s the trees were growing weak and dying. Storms would often break large limbs in the summer and the sound of chainsaws was not uncommon after every thunderstorm.

My oldest brother John helping my sister in 1968 cut limbs brought down by a fierce thunderstorm.

A plan to plant spruces in between each tree happened in the 1970s, but these trees always grew weakly, clearly stressed by the competition of the large willows. By 2000 all that was left were about 18 spruce trees that, while at least 35 years old, were not taller than 25 feet and facing all sorts of fungal and insect problems.

While regal to park underneath, the row of willows gradually fell apart and I always knew that if I ever got the place that as the youngest, it would fall on my shoulders to think about what would be next.

Gradually the one gorgeous driveway and the bordering gully on the dirt road just became overgrown with bittersweet, weed trees and poison Ivy. Joe and I moved back here after my job in NYC in 1990 and in 1997 when my mom died, we decided to take over the house. We could help my dad (we said… “he’s 84 years old – how much longer could he take care of this place and still live?” Little did we know how lucky he was to live another 16 years, but along with that came a commitment to stay here.

This picture of our back yard in 1968 shows how tall the willow trees were.

The second driveway project, as many of my projects seem to be, just evolved into a much bigger project than what I had originally planned. My wish list, ‘honey-do list’ or ‘things that must be done list is always long, and priorities always get pushed around (that’s normal, right? Please tell me that that is normal. In March of 2020 – just as Covid-19 lockdown was keeping us all at home, we started thinking about street presence.

This came about because – horror of all horrors – I was kindly asked to participate in the Garden Conservancy Open Day’s program. It was always a dream of mine to be asked to be a Garden Conservancy Tour ( I think the only one in my city of Worcester, MA) but this also comes with…ugh – the stress. Stress associated with not only preparing the garden for public vieweing, but more about my concern about disappointing visitors. I just imagined people saying things like: “what? I bought a ticket and drove here for this?”. I wouldn’t blame them. Most of the other gardens on these tours are estates and large, designed gardens with gardening staff.

This project began in March 2020, but by early may the tours were only on-hold due to Covid restrictions. My gut was telling me that they will probably postpone or delay the tours in June, but you never know. I started to worry about the pending June 9th tour but by late May, the dates were canceled, and we now had the luxury of time.

I had a strategy, though. The greenhouse and a few of the better-looking plantings would be the focus. Then I would show collections of plants that I was growing, may staging them in containers on tiered plant stands that I had made (crazy me – I grew 18 varieties of calendulas in 12-inch pots as a trial – just because I knew that I could get them to bloom for that date.).

In early March 2020, the edge the driveway area looked like this. Not exactly garden-tour worthy. You can still see the stumps of the tall willows on the left – nearly 25 years after they died.

That was the start of my main freak-out, mainly where would people park and what would they see first? What they would see first was essentially a muddy, rut-filled driveway in a very average working-class neighborhood and the front of our somewhat ugly house with a front porch that really should be first on my makeover list, but as of right now, has been bumped to #3 on the que. (It never ends.).

My buddy from high school (who is now 60, but a young 60 like me) said: “hey, I can cut down most of these old, ratty, dying spruce trees if you want. Then all you would have to do is to order some pea stone and cover the mud on the driveway.’
he continued.
“And we could probably do it in about a week.”

“Easy peasy”, I thought. Though, I should have known better.

Starting at the back of the driveway near our garage (now sold as a house) the trunks became for difficult to deal with.

Sixteen trees turned into 21 trees, and a couple that was in electrical wires, so we just left them. And you know what happens when you cut a tree down – it suddenly looks about 5 times bigger on the ground.
A few other neighbors showed up with chainsaws, and then Joe ran out and bought a new bigger Husqvarna.

I swear – start a project with four guys with chainsaws on a Sunday morning, and suddenly you have ten guys with chainsaws showing up wanting to help. The problem was – most of these guys I wouldn’t trust with a butter knife (sorry Boozer and Bonzy) (real names, old neighborhood).

As the trees came down we began to realize the scope of this ‘little project’.

Geeky me (risk-assessing me) then felt that we needed safety equipment, and not just ladders but arborists with ropes who knew what they are doing. Maybe even real tree guys – those monkey-like arborists who could deal with the taller trees still standing between the wires. Like a prayer answered from heaven, two just showed up as they were out of work for a real tree company due to Covid, and we were able to negotiate a very reasonable price. I just had them ‘fell’ the trees, and I would handle the rest. Again, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into.

At one point, I started this project thinking that I was going to save a lot of money (and not by sending our video of trees coming down to America’s Funniest Home Videos). Still, like most home remodeling projects – things connect and snowball into much bigger projects.

My vision for space didn’t help either. Once the trees were dropped, I started to see the opportunity here. Maybe I could plant something exciting now? But what? A long 200′ fence morphed into a long pleached hedge, and Pinterest Boards started being printed out.

Maybe I would plant a mixed shrub border? Maybe an allee of oak trees? How about something fast-growing and evergreen to again block out the neighbors and get the privacy that we once and always seemed to have?

Yet, before that would happen, I needed gravel, and I knew that I should probably install it correctly or as accurately as I could. This meant calculating how many tons of not only gravel but crushed rock we might need (turns out we needed a lot – 12 tons of each.

Spoiler alert: That’s a lot of gravel.

Plus, we were doing all the work ourselves.
Mike suggested that we not use a wheelbarrow but maybe rent a Cat for a three-day weekend. Thank God we did. The best part was, after three days the company we rented it from failed to come to pick it up. First, for a day or two, we waited. But then used it some more in the evenings thinking that we now had another day (or night) to work. We’d use the machine all night trying to get another 2 tons of rock spread, and then wash off the beast hoping that the rental company wouldn’t notice.

This went of for three weeks.

A rented Bobcat ended up helping us tremendously.

Grateful, because when the rental company finally called, the man just laughed on the phone. Said he forgot then lost the paperwork, and he apologized for “inconveniencing us”. Good thing Joe didn’t get the call, or he would have tried to swindle more out of him like ‘I can’t believe to made us keep this huge machine in our driveway for a month!”. In the end, it all worked out.

The Crushed rock and gravel were spread 6 inches of crushed rock, even got it compacted by another neighbor who happened to have a steam roller (I called it a steam roller, but felt that it must go by a different name than what I called my Tonka steamroller). Surprisingly, they are still colloquially called steamrollers by most people according to a Google search (maybe ‘Road Roller’ just never caught on.). The 200+ foot drive now covered with 6 inches of crushed rock and 1.5 inches of blue peastone – the driveway looked gorgeous, and I was delighted (but then started wanting more).

When I worked briefly as a horticulturist in the posh suburbs of Boston a few years ago, I always admired the granite cobblestones ‘aprons’ usually at the end of a gravel drive. These could be three stones wide or a dozen stones wide. The wealthiest used Belgian Block for their entire drive.

Granite Cobblestone blocks and Belgian blocks delivered on 7 palettes.

I don’t know what compelled me, but I decided to install a cobblestone apron at the end that was maybe about 12 feet deep and then outline and edge the entire driveway. Completely overkill for my humble neighborhood, but maybe as the only gay couple on the road we could fulfill our gentrification duty and raise the bar for others to follow.

Honestly, that was more stone than I had imagined it to be, and it was heavy. Not to mention that this would be installed all by hand, with hand tools. Perhaps a bit half-assed, but…we proceeded with winter on the doorstep. With time, I and a friend had prepared the area and set in nearly 3/4 of the Belgian Blocks and Cobblestones before snow fell in October and the ground froze. It looked so nice.

Just after the first snowfall in November, it was mostly done. That would be it for the winter. Landscaping would have to wait until spring, but at least that gave me time during a long, Covid winter to plan and figure out what I wanted to do. Until then, we could enjoy what already looked like a far nicer driveway than we had ever imagined. That said, the landscapable read to the left remained unresolved. It was much larger of an area than we had imagined, and it demanded attention, we knew, as soon and spring 2021 arrived.

End of Part 1.

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