I can just imagine what you were picturing when you saw the words “island garden.” Alas, for me, you’re wrong. Not only is my island located in the decidedly non-tropical state of Wisconsin, it’s right in front of my house out in the middle of the street. In the parlance of our town, it’s what’s called a “traffic-calming island.” Not an ideal location, nevertheless, it’s free garden space — in a spot that gets more direct sunlight than anywhere on my own property.
Gaillardia 'Oranges and Lemons' (above) continues to bloom in late October.
The idea is that these raised garden beds, running like a dotted line down the center of neighborhood streets, force cars to jog to the side thus keeping drivers alert while slowing them down. Before the traffic islands went in, my street was pretty much a speedway — a hilly but straight stretch of pavement with no stop signs for a mile. Most drivers have accepted the lowered speed limit as well as the physical changes to the roadway. That seems to be the case with drivers in other neighborhoods as well, judging by the gardeners I’ve talked to around town who tend their own island gardens.
Alas, there's still a handful of hardcore speeders who travel down my street who have not accepted the changes or don't see them in the dark until it's too late to stop. As a result they now hit the sign in the middle of the island (which barely slows them down) or they bounce off the island's curb and crash into the 160-year-old Bur Oak tree at the end of my driveway, which is a marginally more effective deterrent.
Lilium 'Time Out' from Brent and Becky's Bulbs (above).
Tending this garden is sometimes more along the lines of a sociological study than gardening. As I’m out there on my little mound of dirt and concrete I watch to see which drivers will slow down for this highway worker; and it’s not always the ones you would expect who make eye contact, nod or wave. Some even roll down the car window to offer compliments.
One of the positive side effects of working in the middle of the road is that it also makes drivers realize these island gardens are — for the most part — planted and maintained by citizens. They’re a variation on community gardens. And interestingly enough, neither pedestrians, bikers or drivers have so much as picked a flower from my island garden; not even the flashy lilies. The flowers are left for the community and the commuters to enjoy.
Look closely and you can see how narrow this island is with roadway on both sides of it. My own garden begins at the street curb and slopes upward. There are no sidewalks on this street.
Last week I stuffed 40 tulip bulbs into the crowded bed: ten each of Orange Princess, Orange Favorite, Prinses Irene and Sensual Touch (from Old House Gardens and Brent and Becky's Bulbs). They’re all orangey reds so, come Spring, they’ll act as mini caution-lights while complementing the bright yellow traffic paint that edges the island. They’ll glow so brightly I won’t even notice the periodic beer can or fast food wrapper that winds up in the foliage.
Alas they’ll only be visible in the daylight which won’t help the night-blind speeders. I need to find glow-in-the-dark tulips — something, anything — that will spare my island garden and my historic tree any more bumps in the night.
Among other things, my island garden contains catmint (Nepeta), old varieties of German and Siberian irises, daylilies (Hemerocallis 'Stella de Oro' and 'Little Grapette'), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa aureola), Sedum hybrida 'Matrona' and a falling down Echinacea 'Sundown.' The yellow traffic paint on the lily stem gives you an idea of how hardy these island plants need to be. And the passing car shows how hardy the gardener needs to be!
For more about "traffic calming" island gardens, read my Artful Living column in The Capital Times.