Turn that boring strip between your curb and sidewalk into a lush garden.
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Found in neighborhoods all across the country, curbside gardens are small plots of land also referred to as parking strips, utility strips or tree lawns. They're usually owned by the municipality but maintained by the homeowner, which can be a bit confusing when it comes to who's responsible for taking care of the space. And because the land doesn't belong to the homeowner, it's hard to know what can and can't be done with the strip.
Curbside garden expert Claire Hagen Dole suggests ways to transform these public patches of land from painful eyesores to a sight for sore eyes, based on her own experience.
"We had a lawn out here, and nobody in my family wanted to take care of it," she says. "It looked terrible all the time. In the summer, it gets really dry, and I didn't want to have to lug a hose out here." So to remedy the situation, she tore out the lawn to prepare the area for a more attractive curbside garden.
But before Dole started any planting, she pounded the pavement of her Seattle suburb. "The first thing you should do is talk to your neighbors and make sure that it's an acceptable landscaping choice for other people in your neighborhood." Then, of course there are city rules and regulations. Dole suggests checking with the authorities for city codes detailing plant selections and height limitations.
Take corn, for example; it looks like a good use of the land, until it begins to dangerously obscure the view of motorists. Similarly, tall trees can get tangled in the wires of power lines. It's best to iron out the red tape before starting a new trend in your neighborhood.
According to Dole, curbside gardening is contagious. "It's been fun to watch the reaction of other neighbors because I've noticed that when someone on a street does this, then within a year, there are probably two or three on the same street who do it, and then within another year, two or three more."
Dole's curbside garden hasn't always looked so lush. Because it's flush against the street, it's constantly pummeled with hot, dry wind and car exhaust. Even with the wet Pacific Northwest weather, the microclimate between the sidewalk and street needs special consideration. Because a curbside garden tends to be dry, Dole suggests choosing drought-tolerant plants. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), prairie coneflower (Ratibida) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) are drought-tolerant and do well in a planting strip.
Something else these plants need to tolerate is foot traffic. Stepping stones are the desired paths, but for drivers pulling up to the curb, the path more often traveled is usually Dole's resilient wild strawberry (Fragaria) and creeping thyme (Thymus pulegioides). "When people are getting out of their car, they don't want to have to realign their car with a stepping stone, so they'll get out and just walk on it. So you don't want to have a mound right next to the curb where they can't get out."
Problems with her curbside garden are few. "You do need to do a bit of weeding," she admits, "but I'd rather come out and weed than mow a lawn." Dole has become her street's go-to person for plant selection and advice. A common recommendation that she makes is to allow plant choices in the front yard to spill across the sidewalk and into the planting strip. This little sedum called ‘Vera Jameson' features pretty pink blossoms, and it has leapt from her yard to the curbside garden.
Some cities have regulations for the amount of vegetation versus landscaping materials like rocks that can be used, so it's best to check the rules in your area. Another commonly asked question pertains to food crops planted so closely to the road. "A lot of people do plant food in their planting strip," says Dole. "I think there's some concern about eating leafy greens that are next to a street where exhaust is hitting them, but other things that can be washed well are probably fine."
Whether it's with fruits, flowers or foliage, transforming your curbside garden can bring a wealth of gifts for both you and your community. The plants help to purify the air where the air needs purifying the most — right by the road. They add beauty and interest to the neighborhood. Motorists enjoy a more picturesque route. Pedestrians are strolling the sidewalks again, and citizens are taking more pride in their communities. And maybe the best benefit of all is that it's a great way to meet your neighbors.