‘Blank Slates’: Too Much of a Good Thing??

Pick up most gardening books and you are likely to see the proverbial ‘blank slate’ touted somewhere in its pages as being A Good Thing.  In most cases, it is – as anyone who has had to either hew down, or pay someone to remove, the other “proverbial” which is ‘mature trees’ that one doesn’t happen to want. Sometimes the blank slate comes with the house; other times it’s created by the removal of the aforesaid Unwanted Plant Materials. The latter situation is where I currently find myself and my garden. It has occurred to me, however, that the resulting blank slates may be a bit too much of a good thing, due to sheer quantity. In other words: Where the heck do I start???

The other day I realized that I now have 18 separate Blank Slate planting beds. Yikes, how’d that happen?!? To be fair, some of them are not completely empty…but they are empty enough to qualify. And since I’m not even remotely related to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or even Mark Cuban, this means I am in for a loooong-term project. [Yet another reason to wish I was thirty years younger, but I digress.]

My blank slates come in various sizes, shapes, and growing conditions. Let’s take a tour; and oh, by the way: my soil is heavy clay. That’s the one thing that’s consistent here at the Money Pit; the only variation is the percentage of stones and rocks (from 10% to 50%) in any given hole that’s dug. Oh, lucky me.

Backyard Blank Slates

Out of necessity I’ve given all the planting beds names, though most are excruciatingly prosaic. For example, this is the Black Bench Bed. The original inhabitant was a creeping sedum – probably ‘Angelina’ – that was terminally infested with grass and weeds; the Tortured Conifer was here also. This photo was taken after both were removed.
Last year I nabbed a palletful of cheap pavers at Home Depot on sale for 25 cents each and used them to put a temporary edging on several of the planting beds that, like this one, never had any defined edge at all.

The bed now has black aluminum edging and a very young (less than 2 ft tall) Disanthus cercidifolius ‘Rikyu’ between the bench and the cedar. The cast aluminum bench is in poor shape; it’s still solid but the powder coating has worn off more than 50% of it and I need to find out how much it will cost to have it refinished.

Now that all the Obnoxious Oaks are gone, I have a collection of stumps in various beds. This oak separated into three trunks about six feet above what you see here. Poison ivy kept growing within the few plants that managed to survive among the roots. I call this the Clover Trunk Bed because of the stump shape.
After removing the plants, I regularly sprayed for P.I. (poison ivy) recurrence for a year.

Because of the oak roots, this area is not dig-able for more than a few inches down in most places. I am thinking that a mono-planting of Geranium macrrorhizum will probably be the best bet; probably ‘Alba’ to pick up the white trim on the dark brown shed nearby.

This spot formerly included a triple-trunk oak, so it’s the Triple Trunk Bed until I decide which eventual tree to name it after. Original plants: a ninebark that kept having to be hacked back to keep it from blocking a necessary path, a large ornamental grass, a sickly yellow buddleia, tiger lilies, a large group of orange ‘ditch daylilies’ of which there were far too many on the property, a large self-seeding Rose of Sharon and its quadrabazillion seedlings perpetually appearing all through the bed and adjacent lawn, a peony (almost certainly ‘Festiva Maxima’), a nice burgundy heuchera, an astilbe, an infestation of Houttonyia cordata, and a bunch of P.I. amidst the ornamental grass and daylilies. Not a good scenario for maintenance!

Everyone got kicked out except for the peony. For a very short time, a variegated redbud ‘Carolina Sweetheart’ was in the center until it decided to start dying about five weeks later, and the nursery took it back. It was replaced by an ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel that seems happy as a clam in the same spot. This makes it the frontrunner for renaming this the Witch Hazel Bed but the jury’s still out because there’s a lot of space left. The sickly buddleia is replaced by Picea pungens glauca ‘Blue Totem’ that will slowly get to 15 ft tall but only 5 ft wide. I am looking forward to seeing this next to the yellow flowers of the witch hazel in the spring. Haven’t even begun to think of what else I’m going to put into this bed.

When I bought the Money Pit, the Stone Bench Bed had only three occupants: an overgrown Callicarpa (probably ‘Profusion’) with a self-sown Miscanthus smackdab in the center of it, and a wisteria. There was no bench here because it was at that time next to a magnolia in an adjacent very small bed and almost entirely overgrown by the branches. After having said three occupants evicted (well, I am STILL fighting the remnants of the wisteria which stubbornly refuses to die completely) and the bench relocated, I made the mistake of moving a camellia from its front (morning sun) exposure to here (all sun, all day long.) It became very unhappy, as you can imagine. The daylilies were bonus plants from an order my son had placed and had no room for, so I temporarily adopted them. They were supposed to be pink.

The camellia was moved, with profuse apologies on my part, back to an eastern exposure when the temporary cheapie-paver edging was added. The bonus daylilies were, of course, a shade of orange. Just what I needed: more orange daylilies. 😦

Unfortunately, I forgot to photograph this bed while the camellia’s recent replacement, Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit’, was still in attractive leaf. It has gorgeous yellow new foliage that ages to a blue-green. Supposedly this cultivar doesn’t really “smoke” but it’s still a baby so who knows. I’m contemplating either a dwarf conifer or the new upright Callicarpa ‘Pearl Glam’ for where the daylilies used to be; it has burgundy foliage, white flowers, and bright mauve berries. Due to newly discovered buried lines and pipes I cannot ‘center’ anything that requires digging a hole larger than perennial/bulb size here.

Speaking of grasses, the nearby bed had three humongous ones. You can only see two in this photo; the third is hiding behind them.

And there it is, on the right, after I’d spent yet another autumn afternoon trying and failing to cut them all back to ground level. I am not a fan of large ornamental grasses at all.

After having them dug out, a post with an electrical outlet was uncovered in the midst of them. Former owners had an above-ground pool at one time, supposedly, so this was needed for the pump. The outlet did not work so I had it replaced, thinking it would be handy to have an outlet toward the back of the back yard.

The result of the Topsoil from Hell delivery this past spring: Weeds’R’Us. The new electric outlet lasted four months before it too died, and it was found that the conduit from the house to the outlet was “bad.” I gave up and had it removed rather than keeping an electrician on retainer.

New edging, wood post removed, and no weeds (for now.) Originally, I was planning to put a silverbell (Halesia carolina ‘UCONN Wedding Bells’) in the middle of this, and may do so yet. The other tree candidate for that spot is Heptacodium miconoides, the Seven Son Flower. That’s as far as I’ve got with this particular blank slate, which until it receives an occupant is known as the Ex-Grasses Bed.

Now we come to the four planting beds that form part of a circle in the middle of the backyard. They are the the Bridge Bed East, the Bridge Bed West, the Crape Myrtle Bed, and the Center Bed (because it is in the center when I look out of my kitchen window.) All of these beds were raised about 8” above ground level and ringed with those loosely stacked pieces of bluestone. And I do mean “loosely!” Absolutely nothing held them in place except gravity. They may look somewhat picturesque in the photos but were a monumental pain in the derriere: chronically shifting either from weather or plant roots or any errant contact, grass and weeds constantly germinating in all the spaces, and providing a home to more crickets and slugs than I’d ever seen in my life. In short, the edging was a damned nuisance but the cost of having it replaced with something more upscale (I didn’t want wood) was just not possible.

The little footbridge divides the flanking bed(s) to the east and west. Both are in full sun all day. This is the Bridge Bed East. Yes, it was a mess and yes that’s Houttonyia running rampant throughout the bed. There used to be phlox here. It lost the fight to the daylilies, tiger lilies, and Chameleon Plant.
After the Big Rip-Out, I was constantly spraying new Houttonyia for the next six months as if playing whack-a-mole because it just kept popping up in another spot.

New edging and a new bridge, which is much bigger and more yellow than I thought it would be. Oopsy. Time for some judicious planting which is why this will be the first Blank Slate that I tackle in the spring of 2020. I actually do have the start of a plan: Nandina ‘Firepower’ adjacent to both sides of the bridge, a pair of evergreen azaleas near the righthand approach to it, and a dwarf Japanese maple in the center (probably ‘Hana Matoi’ or ‘Japanese Princess’, although I will wait and see what my favorite nursery will have in the spring!) and at least a couple of dwarf conifers. These beds are hotspots for P.I. and Houttonyia which means I won’t be able to plant anything other than shrubs until I’m sure those two nemeses are gone.


Orange daylilies, tiger lilies, some yellow rudbeckia, and some phlox originally populated the Bridge Bed West. And of course, poison ivy.
Cleaned and nuked for a year.
This bed is a little smaller now than it was, but that’s okay because formerly I could barely get my garden cart between it and the edge of the Crape Myrtle Bed adjacent to it. Now I have enough room to navigate and to turn that corner without twisting myself into a pretzel. I’m considering a dwarf gingko in the center here, perhaps ‘Gnome’ or ‘Chase Manhattan.’ Or a dwarf flowering almond. Or a tree peony. Or…..???


Ah, the Crape Myrtle Bed, originally called the ninebark bed because of what you see in the center of it although it also qualified for “Poison Ivy, Tiger Lily and Orange Daylily Bed” as well.

I got tired of constantly hacking back the ninebark so that I could see the rhododendrons behind it.

The new sapling at the opposite end is a young Halesia ‘UCONN Wedding Bells’ which may or may not get moved to the Ex-Grasses Bed in the spring. I’m dithering. You may have noticed that the tall post lights next to these beds are gone; that’s because two of the three were starting to lean like the Tower of Pisa and were in the way of the edging conversion anyhow. No sense keeping something that was (a) never used, (b) extremely annoying, and (c) would cost more to fix than they were worth.


This bed was originally full of phlox which, the first spring I was here, looked very nice. Then the lurking weeds (including mugwort) took over, and the buddleia that was in the middle of the bed died. And then the dreaded Houttonyia appeared amidst it all…
Enough, already!

One thing I don’t want to do with this bed is to block the line of sight from the kitchen window to the pedestal in the middle of the ‘circle’, so this may end up being dwarf conifers and other small shrubs such as Leptodermis oblonga, plus some peonies and iris. The ongoing fight against the Houttonyia precludes having any groundcover plants for at least the next several years.


During the Oakleaf Olympics of 2015 I named this tree Marla Maple, so of course this is Marla’s Bed. A few hostas, a struggling azalea, and an annoying berberis managed to barely survive within this Orange Daylily, Tiger Lily and Poison Ivy Hell.
This is one of four beds where I decided (or rather, my bank balance decided) to leave the stacked-bluestone edges in place. I did shore them up with additional pieces from the center beds, though. This is my most shaded bed on the property, so will be the best (eventual) place for hostas, ferns, and epimediums. Because of the former invasives, I will have to hold off on planting this up for a couple of years while ‘intensively monitoring’, although I may sneak in a shade-loving shrub or two.


This is one of two beds that abut the large paved patio. It was a mix of phlox, creeping sedum, a few iris, and a sneaky variegated ribbon grass.
It also turned out to harbor nutsedge and a living reference book of weeds. Weeding within creeping phlox and sedum is Mission Impossible as far as I’m concerned. The last straw was when the P.I. popped up as well. Another bed that kept the stacked stones with some fixing-up that I hope will last for a bit.
Four new bearded iris cultivars live here as of this September: Pink Kitten (early clear pink), Treasured (early midseason pale pink, bubble ruffled form), Babbling Brook (a midseason blue) and Skating Party (a late and reblooming white) so this is the Patio Iris Bed now. The righthand end of this bed is too shaded for iris, and had the worst of the nutsedge problem, so will be on hold for now but will eventually get something not too large that needs part shade.

(There are now also three blank-slate areas around the foundation of the sunroom but I didn’t count those in the official total.)

The other patio-side bed was one of the best during my first spring here, but little did I know what I was in for. The phlox were spectacular and the dwarf Japanese maple was healthy. Even the rather nondescript irises looked good. There were hints of a “pretty blue grass” coming up as well (which should have been my first warning.) The second warning was when the subsequent winter split the Japanese maple’s trunk in half from a nasty ice/snow load; half of the tree simply sheared off, which meant it was done for.
That “nice blue grass” was blue Lyme grass hell-bent on taking over the entire bed, along with a green clumping cousin nearby. Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) also got into the act, and when the P.I. appeared, not only throughout the grasses but into the phlox as well, I gave up and called in The Hired Guns (er, Shovels) for a rip-out.
The poison ivy had been so bad in this area, and of course the dead roots remain toxic for several years, that I decided the only thing to replant with would be dwarf conifers having a clear trunk (for easy P.I. monitoring and removal.)
This bed faces west and gets full sun all day, so I decided to create a dwarf Pinetum. Thus far I have (looking left from the short light-post) P. mugo ‘Ophir’, P. mugo ‘Carstens Wintergold’, P. strobus ‘Mini Twists’ and P. strobus ‘Soft Touch.’

This one area (same as the second early photo) of the bed is in shade for just a couple of hours in the early morning because it is a bit closer to the house after it ‘turns the corner’ of the patio but is in full sun the rest of the day. I already know what I want here: Pinus parviflora ‘Tani Mano Uki’ whose new needles emerge white and slowly fade to green. This pine has an irregular growth habit that will be the first focal point when one walks into the backyard from the front. As for other additions to the Dwarf Pinetum, I have an eye out for P. cembra ‘Matterhorn’ and P. mugo ‘Fastigiata’ and ‘Shina.’

That’s an even dozen Blank Slates so far; now for the front yard blanks!

Front Yard Blank Slates

The good news is that all of the front-yard blank slates actually have something in them, either “originals kept” or plants that were added this year (summer 2019.)

For some reason I never took a photo of the Cotinus Bed before now, probably because the only things there were a double-trunk oak tree, the colossal cotinus, and P.I.-and-weed-infested pachysandra.  There was no edging, of course. The pachysandra is gone (I hope!) and two white evergreen azaleas plus a Rhododendron mucronolatum were moved here in early spring to rescue them from certain death during the underground dam installation. The “rhody” side of the cotinus only gets morning sun during the growing season and so some small hostas might work here (after I am sure that the P.I. won’t come back) as well as some epimediums and/or hardy geraniums.


Another no-Before-photo blank slate is the Mailbox Bed that originally had a mixture of tiger lilies, orange daylilies, hostas, a couple of Erica and two tiny evergreen azaleas, a perpetually-dehydrated hydrangea, and the usual pestiferous poison ivy. It is now stripped and hosts only a new Chionanthus ‘Tokyo Tower’ being protected by a temporary “fence’ from the ravages of the lawn-mowing crew’s machinery which they insist on driving through this bed instead of around it. This will eventually get aluminum edging after the driveway work is done. I have dwarf conifers in mind for several parts of this, plus a new mailbox!


This is how the bed on the “house/front porch” side of the walkway looked before the 2018 exterior renovation. It faces east and so is in shade from about 11 a.m. onward except for the farthest end next to the driveway. The deciduous shrubs seen here are a mildew-prone crape myrtle, a red-flowered mountain laurel, and a red-flowered spring-flowering camellia (the Killer Viburnum having already been cut back to a stump.)

The porch is gone but the new columns continue to support the 8-ft-deep roof that was over it; no sense eliminating a perfectly good roof. For lack of a better name I call this the North Portico bed. This is where my desire for part-shade and acid-loving shrubs collide with the existence of masonry products like bricks, pavers, and cement footings and edges, plus tons of brick and cement dust and slurry from the 2018 reconstruction that got mixed into the soil. I see a lot of Holly-Tone in my future! New residents are (outward from steps) Rhododendron ‘Cunningham’s White’, Azalea ‘Rose Greeley’, daylily ‘Clarity of Purpose’, and Camellia ‘Winter’s Snowman’ which flowers in November. All the flowers in the two Portico beds will be white, except for the eventual Geranium ‘Biokova’ which is such a pale pink that it reads as white from any distance (this will run along the front edge of the bed.) White flowered bulbs just planted here are Anemone blanda ‘White Splendor’ and Hyacinthoides ‘White City.’ On the wantlist for next spring are Dicentra spectabilis alba, Astrantia ‘White Giant’, Aruncus ‘Misty Lace’ or aethusifolius, Epimedium ‘Domino’ or ‘White Queen’, Actaea racemosa or A. simplex ‘Black Negligee’, and the variegated Solomon’s Seal. The far (garage) end was supposed to be planted with white iris and tall white daylilies as well, but… more about that later.


The opposite end (now the South Portico bed) originally had nothing but a row of yellow Chamaecyparis and a struggling Ilex.
This bed is shorter than the other because the walkway swings around the corner here. Right now the only occupants are another R. Cunningham’s White and the non-prickly Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Grace Seabrook’ which will – when she gets a bit older – have fragrant white flowers in autumn and only grow to six or eight feet tall. I’m crossing my fingers because this spot does get direct sun until just past noon which is probably more than most Osmanthus prefer. More of the white Hyacinthoides went in here also but my spring want-list includes another Azalea ‘Rose Greeley’ for next to the steps as well as the elusive pure white flowered mountain laurel ‘Snowdrift’ in that empty space in front of the middle column.  A couple of white hellebores such as Molly’s White and Ice’n’Roses would go well here, as would some of the aforementioned North Portico perennials and a Tiarella or two (or three.)


This shows one part of the outer Front Walkway Bed as it was in 2015. We see a weeping redbud that should have been staked higher when young, but wasn’t; a hedge of yellow Chamaecyparis; prostrate junipers; the R. mucronolatum that eventually got moved to the Cotinus Bed; another seed-strewing Rose of Sharon (far, far too many of these were on the property) and a weeping Picea pungens (a/k/a “Coniferus Rex”) that’s out of the photo.

As a result of the Big Dig in July 2018, everything in the center had to ripped out to make way for the new cesspool line, leaving only the redbud and Coniferus Rex. Because of the new waste line, I can only safely plant perennials and bulbs in most of the center section. The irises are new, and both are whites: Immortality and Got Milk. Just planted a few weeks ago are two white narcissus for next spring: Misty Glen and Stainless.  Barely discernible in the photo is my tree peony, Kamata-Fuji, who has somehow endured being in a growbag in a freezing cold garage for a year, then in the ground with not nearly enough sun but at least safe from construction crews for a year (she refused to flower that year and I can’t say I blame her), and now will be happy (I hope) in a permanent home in this bed.  The edge adjacent to the walk will be planted with one of my favorites, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, this spring but the rest of this bed is still a blank slate. I was hoping to plant the ‘driveway end’ of the bed this fall but therein lies a tale…

The deteriorating 40-year-old cement driveway was scheduled to be replaced in early September (2019) which was to involve all sorts of heavy equipment ripping it out and then the installation of a new ‘base’, cemented-in Belgium block edging, and an asphalt surface. Any planting area along the edges would be im mortal danger but that schedule would allow me to start planting up the walkway-end and driveway-side beds by mid-October. Of course, the driveway replacement didn’t happen – due to circumstances beyond the contractor’s control – and is now rescheduled for April 2020, weather conditions permitting. The delay has also prevented any planting of the driveway-end of the North Portico Bed which also contains part of the underground dam.

The Driveway Bed originally consisted of a mix of prostrate junipers (which I heartily dislike), a giant forsythia, a reddish pink crape myrtle, a huge triple-trunk oak, a red Japanese maple leaning at a 35-degree angle (a/k/a the Leaning Tower of Maple), a struggling conifer at the base of the oak trunk, and a few even more struggling hostas in blazing sun near the curb. Said junipers were massively infested with goutweed, one of nature’s more serious pests, with a few poison ivy plants tossed in for good measure. Oh, and there was also a healthy population of the invasive variegated ribbon grass, Phalaris arundinacea v. picta.

Oaks and maple gone, junipers and ribbon grass ripped out, and goutweed repeatedly nuked; I will find out in Spring 2020 whether or not it’s gone for good. The crape myrtle and neatened-up forsythia have been joined by the mountain laurel and camellia (both formerly in the North Portico) and Callicarpa ‘Pearl Glam’ with which I am extremely impressed because it does not flop. The oak’s absence has not only allowed the struggling conifer to come into its own but also a volunteer Chamaecyparis (two, actually) to positively burgeon. Eventually the two of them will effectively mask the large oak stump that remains. I was going to plant something in front but discovered that all those white stones are not just “mulch” … they extend more than a foot deep (a veritable quarry!) and so I will paraphrase Marie Antoinette and say “Let it be mulch!” Absolutely nothing can be done with this bed until (a) the goutweed is definitely gone and (b) the new driveway has been installed. Except for…

The center of the far (streetside) end of the driveway which is where I absolutely positively am going to put a Cupressus arizonica ‘Blue Ice’ which will love it here and quickly grow up into something gorgeous…. if I can only find a decent one!! The few that I was able to locate at a nursery or two in 2018 were sorry specimens indeed, resembling nothing so much as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Apparently, no wholesale growers were shipping any nicely shaped 3- to 4-foot plants last year that would grow into anything like the one I had at my previous house.
My former ‘Blue Ice’ when I planted it in July 2005 at slightly more than 4 ft tall.
Six years later, in October 2011. Now that’s what I call a “blank-slate filler!”

So here I am: Eighteen blank slate areas to figure out what to do with. (Actually nineteen if you count the foundation area of the sunroom.)  I’m not sorry that I cleared them all, because I was definitely losing the war to all of the invasives, but it’s a daunting prospect to be sure. Logic dictates that I should choose only two or three “slates” to work on per year, and somehow keep the weeds at bay in all the rest, but I know what will happen when spring rolls around and I see all the horticultural goodies available: Self-discipline will be tossed onto the compost heap. But at least I have the next few months in which to contemplate some sort of planting plan(s)!

  3 comments for “‘Blank Slates’: Too Much of a Good Thing??

  1. November 25, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    All that potential, fantastic!

  2. November 29, 2019 at 11:21 pm

    You could pile cheap wood mulch on the ones that you won’t immediately get to, or maybe cardboard with a few inches of wood chips.

  3. December 2, 2019 at 9:00 pm

    One of the advantages to the disadvantage of being in dense redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains is that, even if we wanted to, we could not landscape all of the space that it out there. Fortunately, we don’t need to. It is fine as wild as it is. I would wear myself out with so much flat and usable space.

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