By Renate Tilson | Published April 2018

I catch myself wondering: Why must beautiful gardens end at the sidewalk? Why not enhance your neighborhood by extending your plantings a few feet into the area between walkway and curbside? Why not build gardens overflowing into the hellstrip, delighting friends, neighbors, and walkers?

Those small, seemingly meaningless curbside spaces, also called parking strips or planting strips, don’t support healthy lawns, but they can host thriving gardens. To survive in these challenging areas, a plant has to be more than tough—it needs to be almost invincible, supported by the best possible environment.

To cultivate this area, first remove any gravel or struggling grass. Second, work on improving the soil. Plan to till in ample quantities of mulch and compost to lighten up the compacted dirt and enhance water retention. Adding mulch every year will also give plants an extra layer of protection in winter.

When planning your new bed, tie it into the rest of your front yard plantings. It’s nice to have plants of similar color and foliage growing on both sides of the sidewalk. Put in plants that stay the right height, remain within bounds, and provide interesting color and texture all year long. Include only those that will thrive without supplemental water. When selecting plants, check out tough, drought-tolerant, and low-maintenance flora that succeeds in your area. Your plantings can absorb seasonal rain runoff and provide additional habitat for wildlife.

There are many plants that hit these criteria. Euphorbia thrives in sunny, hot spaces and offers beautiful chartreuse blooms early in spring. Lavender, Russian sage, and caryopteris also do well under difficult growing conditions and have long summer bloom times. Try rose campion, a lovely self-seeder with magenta flowers and silver foliage. Sedum Autumn Joy, sometimes called “live forever,” will bounce back quickly if it gets damaged. Show-offy poppies, so colorful, also work well. Black-eyed Susans, also known as Rudbeckia, will give you color in late summer and early fall, thriving in a spot that’s wet in winter and bone-dry all summer. Ornamental grasses are tough, resilient, low maintenance, and attractive all year long, especially when mixed in with colorful perennials.

A well-designed curbside garden can also cut your workload. To make it thrive without the mower and trimmer, put in plants that stay the right height, stay within bounds, and offer year-round color, texture, and interest. Your maintenance efforts can be reduced to just once or twice a year instead of weekly.

Be courteous in your selections. If you decide to include trees in the bed, be sure the branches are trimmed high enough for pedestrians to pass under safely. Since walkers often prefer taking the most direct route, it’s a good idea to place a few stepping stones or bricks in the curbside bed for people passing from sidewalk to street. Take a careful look when selecting plants to make sure motor vehicle traffic will have a clear view.

When confronting town regulations, especially ones written decades ago, don’t assume they can’t be revised or varied. Sometimes a conversation, accompanied by a visual aid or other description of your garden, might be all it takes to convince city officials that what you have in mind will be pretty wonderful.

Given all the pleasure that street-side gardens provide daily, you will soon notice they’re definitely worth the small amount of maintenance they require. Take advantage of the uncared-for hellstrip. By enhancing this area, you will add curb appeal, increase your property value, and improve the daily life of your neighborhood. You’ll notice more smiles walking by as folks take in the beauty, sniff the purified air, and admire your handiwork.

Hellstrip-friendly plants:

Euphorbia

Lavender

Russian sage

Caryopteris

Rose campion

Sedum Autumn Joy

Poppy

Black-eyed Susans

Ornamental grasses