from “Hellstrip Gardening” by Evelyn J. Hadden
Many of us own or manage pieces of land that are part of the public landscape, a landscape that other people interact with every day. That public environment uplifts our mood or sends it plummeting, rivets us in the present moment or fails to distract us from our busyness. Attractive scenes invite us to open our senses and our hearts, while ugly or barren surroundings train us to block those sensory messages.
Yes, curbside landscapes have that much power. And by extension, we who own and manage those landscapes also have power.
I invite you to use your power, to make your own contribution to the public landscape. Convert a sparse, weed-ridden curbside lawn to smile-inducing scenery that doesn’t need much help to stay healthy. Outside the fence, down the steps, or beside the driveway, incorporate ignored and deplored bits of land into the rest of your garden, or help them shine as stand-alone pocket gardens that brighten the routes of commuters.
You’ll add curb appeal, and you’ll also improve the daily life of your neighborhood and its denizens. The gifts of a curbside garden are disproportionately large. Natural scenes, even minutely glimpsed in passing, distract us from worry and interrupt negative psychological cycles. Garden fragments purify and freshen air, absorb and filter water, and foster biodiversity with its associated services and benefits, not to mention lowering crime and raising property values.
With just one garden, you can make living where you live — and visiting too — more fragrant, more lively, more peaceful, more interesting, more earth-friendly, and more appealing.
What Are Curbside Gardens?
Curbside locations are the public faces of places. Though they are the last areas we may think to beautify, they provide the first glimpses of what to expect inside a building, through a gate, or across a threshold. They may be the places most used by wildlife passing through our properties, and the places where runoff, litter, and human visitors are apt to loiter. These tough environments don’t often support healthy lawns, but they can host thriving gardens that dramatically improve their surroundings.
Parking strips (the piece of land between a street and a public sidewalk, also known as a tree park, boulevard, verge, hellstrip, meridian, planting strip, or inferno strip) make promising spots for curbside gardens. So do front yards that are simply one outdoor room from curbside to front door. Although the most challenging area of such a front yard may be located alongside the street, driveway, or public walk, the gardener will likely want to design the entire room as a whole, not just one edge of it.
Similar challenges and opportunities exist for fragments of land languishing alongside driveways and buildings and in alleys, parking lots, roundabouts, and medians. Some of these places may be publicly owned or have public easements or utilities running through them, posing additional challenges and perhaps limiting the types of plants and structures that can be added. Regulations are most often set by the city but can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Who’s Doing It?
Across North America, gardeners are tackling this final frontier. Curbside gardeners include water savers, edible gardeners, wilderness advocates, busy homeowners, creative thinkers, green-starved urban dwellers, and generous neighbors. Savvy businesses, government agencies, and neighborhood organizations too are realizing the rewards of remaking these landscapes.
Water scarcity and rising costs for irrigation are driving many of the changes. Western regions and those facing water restrictions and long-term droughts have turned their attention to relandscaping medians, boulevards, and parking lot islands, as well as unused turf areas around government and commercial buildings. Climate-appropriate planting reduces or eliminates the need to irrigate, while rain gardens collect storm water runoff from expanses of roof and pavement and encourage it to soak into soil and roots, filtering out pollutants and bypassing costly wastewater treatment.
Water authorities often fund these redesigns, which may put off or prevent costly facility upgrades. In neighborhoods that face expensive street or storm sewer upgrades to protect water quality or control runoff, a city may choose a less costly retrofit, cutting curbs, digging rain gardens, and even installing plants for residents who opt in. Where demand for water outstrips the supply, regional water authorities have begun paying residents to convert lawns to less thirsty alternatives.
Individual gardeners and their families can see cost savings from converting unused, unloved, and sometimes unkempt curbside lawns to gardens. Want to cut your home heating and cooling costs? Plant trees and shrubs to block sun and wind; as they grow up, your bills will go down. Does the basement flood? Does ice accumulate on the driveway? Put a garden to work soaking up water before it can damage structures and impair safety. Harder to quantify but key to an enjoyable daily life, intangibles such as privacy and comfort can be directly influenced by curbside landscapes.
Mounting distrust of industrially produced food is also leading many families to swap some lawn for edible gardens. As our favorite common vegetables and fruits prefer sunny places, the front yard and the parking strip have become desirable sites for food gardens. Despite pushback from some communities and regulations that favor lawns over fresh herbs and produce, more curbside vegetable gardens are born every day.
Restaurants with a focus on serving fresh food find it convenient and good for business to grow more of it on-site, which often means streetside in front of their shop. Challenges aside, what better way to entice customers than to show them fresh food before they walk through the door?
Community gardens are multiplying like rabbits. Students are building and tending gardens at school. The city of Seattle began a multi-year joint venture with local volunteer groups to plant a food forest in an urban park. Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama, the White House lawn sprouted a vegetable garden. Growing healthy food is no longer an afterthought or an activity relegated to the backyard, but a primary pastime, to be enjoyed out in the open and shared with friends, neighbors, and community.
As development claims more open space in urban areas, city planners are moving to protect and even increase urban green spaces. Public parks and gardens bring the experience of nature into our cities, contributing spring greenery, summer flowers, fall foliage, and organic shapes visible throughout the winter against the hard lines of buildings and pavement. Formerly, when wild nature was more common, a lawn with a few trees might be considered a perfectly satisfactory green space. Now, though lawns are useful for a limited range of human activities, they are best balanced with more densely vegetated areas that host wildlife, capture atmospheric carbon, buffer shorelines, and perform an assortment of other services that protect biodiversity as well as the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Entire cities have become curbside-garden friendly. When Saint Paul and Minneapolis revised their boulevard ordinances to allow plants up to 36 inches tall on the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street, boulevard gardens began popping up. Urban gardeners who had filled their properties to their limits could finally expand their territory. Citywide boulevard garden contests and tours were born. Years after the revised ordinances took effect, it is not uncommon to see entire front yards that have become pocket prairies or cottage gardens or urban farms, stretching across the sidewalks to incorporate the parking strips, and even entire city blocks of diverse, lawnless front yards.
As more gardens grow, the ideas and extra plants they generate fuel new gardens and ignite new gardeners. Citywide transformations are under way in Boise, Boulder, Buffalo, Berkeley, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, New Orleans, and many, many other metropolitan areas, where urban gardeners are steadily converting unused streetside lawns to landscapes that support healthy street trees, pollinator-friendly flowers, ornamental grasses, and fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Rewards of Curbside Gardening
Its visibility means that a curbside garden will contribute disproportionately to your property’s look and feel. Imagine how visitors might relish walking through a garden to get to your front door, or how your mood would lift driving into your garage past a specially designed “welcome home” garden.
A well-designed curbside garden can also cut your chore load. To make it thrive without the mower or trimmer, put in plants that stay the right height, stay in bounds, and stay up year-round. You might end up making a maintenance visit just once or twice a year instead of weekly.
For additional savings in time, effort, and money, make it waterwise. Include only plants that will thrive without supplemental water, or invest in an automated irrigation system to further reduce the resources your curbside landscape will demand every day, every week, every year into the future. Your water bills will drop even as you contribute to the solution.
Don’t forget the services a strip of land could provide if cultivated as a garden. It could absorb runoff, grow food for your family, support woody plants that shelter your home and landscape from sun and wind, provide additional habitat for wildlife, and give a four-season show of texture and color.
Passionate gardeners may run out of room before they run out of passion. If you are an experienced gardener itching for new territory, train your hard-won experience on a tough site and create a well-adapted curbside garden you can be proud of. It might be easier now that you have spent years learning on the rest of your property.
Imagine a world where walking along the street is a delightful sensory experience, parking lots and public grounds refresh the air and water, edibles grow visibly and abundantly, cementscapes are cloaked in foliage, and sun and wind are tempered by still, cool reservoirs of nature. Think how rich life would be if we could move through a public environment savoring its sights, sounds, and aromas.
Your curbside garden brings that world one step closer.
From “Hellstrip Gardening” by Evelyn J. Hadden, published by Timber Press. Used with permission.