Taming the ‘Hell Strip’

One of the most difficult places to plant is the area affectionately called the ‘Hell Strip’ or as Cornell Cooperative Extension lists, the tree lawn. That poorly conditioned, nutrient free, soil compacted plot of land owned by a municipality, but maintained by a homeowner, between the sidewalk and the street. It suffers the abuse of snow plows and salt assault. Say that one three times. It is surrounded by heat retaining, heat reflected asphalt and concrete, reaching temperatures as high as 150 degrees at ground level.  Just about  anybody that ever touched a trowel knows these facts.

Looking mighty hot here, but the perennials seem happy enough.

Also consider kids and dogs in the equation. Halloween brings kids by the bus load. And neighbor’s dogs, that is another story. Foot traffic and dog waste. What a double whammy for any plant to endure. Hear that parents, keep a leash on them both. Just kidding, but I had a neighbor like that, and boy was it terrifying.

One of the best uses of the tree lawn that I found is this creative pit stop for dogs. I did not take this photo and apologize for not knowing who did, but is this not the coolest use of a hot spot? The watering bowl is so thoughtful. I have to use this idea if I create a roadside planting. I love dogs.

Watering is also an issue, because due to all the hard surfaces and their gravel base, water is not easily retained. Add soil compaction  and you get another double whammy. Compost can help the problem but not completely solve it. Building the bed up can also help somewhat, but that presents other issues with runoff and bed height.

Planting heat and drought tolerant plants is a solution. Also, if the tillable soil exists to a depth of only 6 inches, then you hit what seems like hardpan, turn back I say. Well that is barely OK for grass, but not most perennials.  Forge on by choosing  shallow rooted plants, like succulents in conditions such as these. But be forewarned, double-digging is going to be back-breaking.

With a little soil conditioning, appropriate mulching and caring home owners, the planting area can take on a new life beyond the browning and burnt grass. But a word on mulching. The bark mulch so commonly used is discouraged because it gets washed into the municipal storm system and plugs up drainage ways. Gravel mulch often suits the plants that are commonly used, but gravel also must stay in the bed, so edging may be required, or like above at the doggy spa, properly scaled for use.

I wear two hats. One as a Master Gardener that answers questions on planting and plant selection, and the other that deals with codes and ordinances. It is important to ask local officials if the ordinances will allow roadside planting. You often get told that is your responsibility if the plow destroys it in winter. They also can dig it up for any number of reasons. The height of the planting is to be considered so as not to block sight lines for traffic safety or block pedestrian movement. Rules, rules, rules.

Take precaution with plants growing over three feet high. This will make it difficult backing out of driveways and seeing pedestrians walking.

In the image below, although very nicely constructed with what appears as low growing specimens, leave enough room for mowing. This type of wall requires weed whacking. A gravel mow strip would help.

Plants to consider are those that mat and are steppable, like Thyme, Ajuga and Sedum. Cushion phlox is another contender. They can withstand light foot traffic and thrive with less than optimal watering. Natives are also suggested for drought resistance and wearability. Grasses and sedges are a good choice as long as you keep the size of the plant at maturity in mind.

It is a good idea to provide a path or paving for passengers to enter and exit a vehicle without destroying your masterpiece. Other types of plants to consider are prairie plants. They have developed over time to withstand the hardships of drought and poor soil.

In Buffalo, curbside planting has become popular and quite imaginative. They incorporate curving walkways and mounded planting. It is clear, some gardeners did not consult the City because numerous faux pas exist, like raised beds, boulders and prickly plants.

Don’t forget about security. Vandalism occurs not just in the cities. You may lose plants or paving to theft or have windows broken due to some prankster throwing your decorative rocks. Cars drive over the area too. In our neighborhood, a woman, sorry fellow females, drove straight up the sidewalk, over numerous people’s front yards and then ran smack into a tree. How she mistakes the four foot sidewalk for a street is beyond me.

I am entertaining taking the first step. I know that if I do, I will liberate neighbors city-wide into the realm of xeriscape roadside gardening. I might start out with Carex or buffalograss. Buffalograss, hardy to zone 2, is the only native turfgrass in North America.

I already have a good crop of Carex growing in these conditions. I think that this plant can grow anywhere. This is a plant tag where I ignored the recommendations. It is invasive and, even though it says prefers shade, you gotta see mine scoff at that one. Looks pretty content to me, as long as I keep dividing it every two years. Oh, did I mention that?

I will then slowly inch my way into more elaborate planting. I am confident I can succeed, but not so sure of dedicating the time necessary for maintenance. Once established, the garden should live without me, but the labor intensive first year of weeding and watering, well….. gotta make a commitment.

And, please feel free to comment. I could use some encouragement on this project. Taking the plunge on the hell strip planting has me on the fence a bit, no matter how much I like them.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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