Creating Curbside Charm

This post is a repeat of a post not many of you have seen I am sure. I had posted Taming the Hell Strip prior to joining Blotanical. It fits into my Process of Design Series in that there are many points to consider when designing a Hell Strip garden.

I would like you to visit a blogger I admire and his blog which I have followed for a really long time. He is also a Buffalo neighbor. He has a post on Living Hell Strip that has additional photos to those I have shown on his blog, Art of Gardening. I hope you enjoy both posts.

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 may 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 turf grass 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.

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:
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29 Responses to Creating Curbside Charm

  1. My problem with these plantings was always the car issue. There’s nothing more annoying than managing to find the only parking space for three blocks and to have it next to someone’s xeric masterpiece to find their idea of where you would be exiting the car does not line up with your reality. Also, my city has a list of what you can plant in these strips. It is so limiting and depressing I have decided against the effort. They are tempting, though. Especially if you’ve got a really fantastically deep park strip.

    • I too agree about the car issue. My suggestion is to have a parked car determine exactly how you construct the passage. Mainly because of door swing, but also the consideration of a four door. I was thinking of only planting my strip on each end. It solves a myriad of issues since this is where the grass dies first anyway. But it opens up a problem of where to shovel the snow. Both sides of the driveway have towering snow mountains now. This leads to another of my tips from a previous post. Live with your site for a year and all seasons to see if what you plan conflicts with what you routinely do on your property.

  2. Shyrlene says:

    GWGT – this is a great informational post.

    I’ve been ‘eye-balling’ the Living Hell Strip (an excellent name by the way) in my front yard for a year now. It bugs me – just kind of lame space, with the parkway tree and the city water and sewer main connects. (and the soil is just terrible – you are so right) Now I’m inspired to see what the local ordinances will allow! Thanks!

    • When you have a teeny plot like I do, it is easy to have a wandering eye for any plantable zone. This area was never conducive to growing grass. It always dries out in summer and it difficult to water with a sprinkler. Good luck with your planting. You may start something in your area! It certainly is more eco friendly than grass or paving.

  3. One says:

    Great post that offers great ideas. I especially like the Doggy Spa and the flower bed with rock border.

    I made the mistake of removing the existing grass and grow Philippine lawn grass on this strip. Now it has become the hell strip. Everything I grow is invaded by the grass so I removed all the plants. Perhaps, someday when I am energetic enough, I may just remove all the grass and build a Dog Spa.

  4. Karen says:

    Donna, living in the country, I don’t have to worry about curbside issues, but I have many friends who do. If the beds are maintained, they are lovely. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many that were left to go wild and it’s not so attractive; like any other garden, the gardener has to be dedicated. Your post will surely help many people visualize what they can do with this unused space.

    • I know what you mean about leaving them, but most of the time it is the wrong plants in this type of location. Also, they forget to divide perennials or cut them back, like grasses in spring. I did see some really bad ones on the Buffalo walk, but some were so new, they just looked untidy. That is another issue easily solved. Just plant annuals until the second year when the perennials start to really show.

  5. Donna says:

    we don’t have these strips but we do have mailboxes close to the road which have a lot of the same issues. Many just plant grass around them, but I planted a drought tolernt, dwarf garden that resists salt, heat etc…great tips Donna

  6. Thanks for the mention Donna. I do remember reading this post a while back. I’m leaning towards those “prairie plants” mentioned for my own hellstrip when the time comes. Not only for the conditions they’ll tolerate, but because they provide a great textural look, are not too tall, can come in a variety of subtle colors — but they can look pretty good in winter if not cut back until spring. The doggy spa is a good idea, but I don’t want to encourage more dog traffic! Especially being so close to Elmwood Avenue. And garden rocks thrown through my windows? I never considered that. Now I’m paranoid! Great photos by the way — some of the same as I have from different viewpoints.

    • Jim, the garden rock throwing happened on my block. My one neighbor just got through landscaping her front yard and her landscape rock was stolen. Another had her rock thrown at her home onto her roof. It had to be kids, but you never know. I saw your post and thought others should too. My post was prior to Blotanical and figured it went well with my Design Series. I hope all my readers see your post. I did get a message from one that went to your site. Good luck on your planting.

  7. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Donna, For my own part, I prefer to see severely restrained planting schemes, perhaps mainly green with a predominance of hard landscaping in these pavement strips, since they are rarely maintained well, or year round, by house owners. More trees, especially Plane trees which thrive in city conditions, and fewer perennials would be my choice.

    • Understandable. My concerns as well. My own garden is very structured and this type of planting would conflict with my home and garden. This is one reason I am so torn what to do. I know I would pave some of it with free draining pavers since it is free for me to do so and it would provide a place for vehicular access, trash recepticols and snow. And my carex would complement the existing planting, but to dig up that much carex every two years for dividing….

  8. Alistair says:

    Donna, we have pavements which the council have planting spots for trees only. If the set up was like your own I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from extending my garden area. Thanks for your recent visit and comment, I suppose I was a bit on my high horse, but of course I was not including all who were born between these times.

    • Good to know. I feel better now. 😀 I do agree with most of your points though. I do know of the types of whom you speak. I just needed to sulk a bit since that is the time in which I most impressionable. LOL.

  9. Joy says:

    Donna I really enjoyed this post ! .. I have considered doing something with our hell strip but it would be a very long stretch, because we share it with our neighbor .. I think I can also have the city plant a tree in it, but I have to be dedicated to make sure the poor thing is well watered all that year and some TLC to make sure it “takes” .. I am leery about commitment to a new project because of the injury last summer .. that is still a huge issue for me. But you definitely have me yearning to do something inventive and of course gorgeous ! LOL
    Joy : )

    • Joy, the neighbors above all cooperated, but that is because they are on the largest Garden Walk in the country. There is a lot of competition in Buffalo for creating the best gardens. And with injury, you do NOT want to start digging in these locations. The sidewalk has a stone base and it extends well into this area. Did you ever notice how the grass burns about a foot in on each side, It is all heat retaining stone there. And with compacted soil, a nightmare to till. That is why you see so many built up. Others, the homeowners are just really diligent.

  10. Donna, I planted extensive hell strips of native plants in the full sun parking lot at my children’s school. Height was not an issue so I had a freer range of plant material. One native shade grass that’s not too tall and worked really well is Chasmantium latifolium, northern sea oats. It looks beautiful all year round, including right now, with its khaki leaves and triangular oats swaying in the breeze. Other plants: all kinds of tall native grasses, hardy ageratum, Amsonia hubrechtii, goldenrod ‘Fireworks’, Rudbeckia, etc. We even have Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ in there and its loaded with berries.

    • Plants are always a consideration for size and appropriateness. These strips shown have some examples of what is also not appropriate. As loose stone looks great, it can be a liability. Same with tall grass. Too high and a pedestrian or vehicle is in danger. Plus, some people just don’t like home owner intrusion onto the sidewalks and parking areas, like the home that planted barberry. I bet her neighbors had something to say, maybe not to her, but even nana can give a prick.

  11. noel says:


    alot of imaginative use of curb gardens, its very inspiring to see all the attendtion to the details

  12. Jenn says:

    Very great idea! I especially like the doggy spa- I never thought of doing that but will totally have to steal the idea now!

  13. TufaGirl says:

    Great information. I did the somewhat narrow strip between our driveway (in the former life) and the neighbors driveway – close to the street. Nothing would grow there. I brought in weed fabric and load of gravel for mulch. Then neighborhood boys and their bikes found the gravel and made a jump ramp out of it. I quickly finished the project and stood guard over the new plantings and waited for the boys to return. I promptly told them that I realized the gravel jump was fun but it was gone now and I appreciated them riding on the street in the future. I guess I said it nicely enough as there were no tire marks in our new gravel flowerbed.

  14. dona says:

    These flower-beds are gorgeous! I realized that one of the secrets of gardening is making the right choice before. You will get a great satisfaction only if you grow the right plant in the right place.

  15. debsgarden says:

    You show some beautiful ‘hell strips’, though I’m not sure I would want to put such effort into something so easily destroyed by others. But if I had one in front of my house, I know I would be mighty tempted!

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