When first reading the term “hellstrip gardening,” I was curious and had to research what this term meant. Hellstrips are the areas between the sidewalk and the curb. Often these are pieces of land that are part of the public landscape. There are other names for hellstrip gardens, such as meridians, planting strips, inferno strips, tree parks, verge, boulevards or pocket gardens.
Living in an older neighborhood, we have these areas on several blocks. The majority of property owners keep these strips covered in grass or rock to simplify maintenance, but many are overlooked and full of weeds and other volunteer plants. If you have such an area on your property why not dig in and transform your small space to beautify your home and neighborhood?
Becoming aware of these “special” planting areas, I noticed that there are homeowners who have planted the area between the sidewalk and street with amazing ingenuity. A pocket garden can be any small, unused space on your property outside the fence, down the steps or beside the driveway. These small areas can be reformed to make your neighborhood more interesting, more peaceful, earth-friendly, fragrant and beautiful.
For gardeners wishing to spend their energy, time and resources bringing nature’s beauty out to the street, do your homework and become acquainted with the plants suited to these small gardens. Review the space as to exposure (sun or shade). Would wind or rain be a factor to consider? Are there existing trees? Do you want to add trees? Avoid anything that would scratch or poke, such as roses, lemon trees or junipers. Do you have access to water or do you need to bring water to the space? Is the soil healthy or does it need amendments to support plant growth? Do vehicles park along the street where car doors open into the space and passengers step into the garden? Is there a problem with wildlife in the neighborhood?
Water scarcity and rising costs of irrigation should be a concern to all of us. Using drought-tolerant plants is always a smart choice. The challenge of climate and soil affect us all.
Curbside gardeners include those who want edible gardens or choose to plant edibles among their annuals and perennials. Vegetables grown in a hellstrip garden would be subject to others helping themselves to your harvest. Most of us share our gardens with our friends and neighbors anyways. Another benefit is for children to experience the delight in picking fresh food. A great reference book on edibles in the front landscape is “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy.
What to include in a curbside garden? Compact shrubs that “fit” entirely within the planting area, mulches to discourage weeds, plants from your garden and your friends’ gardens. A path or a couple of stepping stones linking the sidewalk to the street is a good idea. Use inexpensive or easily replaced plants. When purchasing plants, read the mature size of the plant, as it will grow to that size!
Things to avoid in this garden are fist-size rocks that could trip visitors, branches arching over the sidewalk, rare or expensive plants and foliage that obstructs signs or safety equipment. Don’t plant vines or groundcovers that become over-exuberant and need constant trimming.
For those gardeners who like the look of lawn, no-mow lawns can be a solution. There are choices for lawns that need minimal water, little or no fertilizer and no mowing, such as low-growing native grasses such as Habiturf, (developed in Texas), dwarf Mondo grass or even liriope.
Drip irrigation is an easy, affordable system to water your pocket garden. It has little or no loss from evaporation and slow enough water disbursement that the soil can absorb it without runoff. Another easy watering system is using a soaker hose, or two such hoses linked together. They are sturdy enough to be stepped on and do not clog easily. They are a removable solution for hellstrip gardens where a more permanent system is not allowed or possible.
With this new information, I plan to redo our hellstrip garden in the future. We are fortunate that the water supply is part of our regular lawn sprinkler system.
To complete this project, it would involve removing the existing lawn, adding new soil, some drought-tolerant (dwarf) plants, a few stepping stones, mulch and maybe a piece of garden art.
I did say “in the future,” didn’t I?
Sharon Rico is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.