Turning a strip of no-man’s land into garden, curb appeal

Turning a strip of no-man's land into garden, curb appeal
This July 2018, image provided by Jim Charlier shows a colorfully-planted hell strip garden in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jim Charlier via AP)

You know that boring strip of grass — or weeds — between the street and the sidewalk that technically belongs to your city or town but whose care ultimately falls to you?

It goes by many names: median, verge, tree belt, boulevard, parkway, utility strip, parking strip — and my favourite, the hell strip, which best describes the growing conditions there.

This slice of no-man’s land is typically plagued by compacted soil, tree roots, exhaust fumes from passing cars, and “gifts” from neighbourhood dogs. But with a little effort, the hell strip can become a heavenly garden addition that adds to your home’s curb appeal.

First things first: Before investing time and money into planting the strip, check local zoning regulations to ensure it’s legal to do so. Your municipality’s website will likely offer guidance or a phone number to call for information.

If you share the strip with a neighbour, have a conversation to make sure they’re OK with your plan.

With the authorities and neighbours on board, give careful thought to plant selection. Opt for tough, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants, preferably native to your region, that will thrive in the likely hot, dry conditions of the strip. And be sure to select plants suited for the amount of sunlight they’ll receive there.

It’s best to stick to perennials, which will anchor the soil and return year after year, and select plants with a range of bloom times so there will be multiple seasons of interest. In colder climates, small evergreen shrubs and spring bulbs will extend the season.

Avoid planting edibles, which could become tainted by car emissions, road salts and other pollutants. Also don’t plant large trees, which over time might interfere with overhead utility lines, and whose roots could disrupt sidewalks. Thorny plants should be avoided, too.

Consider how high plants will be at maturity, especially if the strip is on a corner; blocking the view of drivers or pedestrians could create unsafe conditions. The width of plants matters, too: Avoid those that will grow to block the sidewalk.

As for design, you are limited only by your taste and imagination. Select styles and colours that complement your home, fence or other plants growing in your garden. Fill the entire bed with low, mounded plants and groundcovers or use low-growing plants on the ends of the strip and taller ones in the center. Incorporate ornamental grasses or sow wildflower seeds.

To prepare the long-ignored strip, clear away grass and weeds, and turn the soil over. Mix in a generous helping of compost to improve drainage, water retention and soil nutrition. Then plant your selections, observing the spacing recommendations on their tags.

Consider installing a simple barrier, such as one made of stakes and twine, around the perimeter of the strip to protect it from trampling by passersby. And keep the bed well weeded until plants fill in.

Even drought-tolerant plants will need to be watered regularly throughout their first growing season to ensure they develop a deep, vigorous root system. Going forward, they may require some additional watering, particularly during hot, dry spells. Proximity to a garden hose would be ideal, but because hell strips tend to be small, a few trips with a watering can may suffice.

With relatively little effort, your little hell strip garden will improve the view of — and from — your home. It might even increase its value.

Jessica Damiano/The Associated Press

Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press and is the author of The Weekly Dirt newsletter.  She is also a master gardener, educator, and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. 

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