Evelyn Hadden wants you to rethink your lawn. She is the founder of lesslawn.com and a founding member of the Lawn Reform Coalition, a resource for ecologically sound lawns and lawn alternatives. Evelyn is also the author of four books including Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives (Timber Press, 2012) and Apprentice to a Garden: A new urban gardener goes wild (LessLawn Press, 2013).
In her latest book, Evelyn tackles the oft neglected bit of ground between the road and sidewalk, affectionally called the hellstrip. Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise Between the Curb and Sidewalk (Timber Press, 2014) speaks to the growing trend of taking unused and unloved lawns – even small, narrow hellstrip lawns — and making them into useful and rewarding landscapes.
1. What is a hellstrip garden?
“Hellstrip” is a term coined by plantswoman Lauren Springer Ogden to describe the piece of land between the sidewalk and the street. It conveys the frustration a lot of people feel trying to make this space beautiful. Often our default landscaping (lawn) doesn’t thrive out in the heat generated by all that asphalt, or among thirsty roots of mature trees that have outgrown their available soil area, or under winter’s onslaught of piled snow and road salt, or getting packed down by numerous pedestrians.
2. Why bother planting this awkward space?
Though hellstrips may be relatively small in size, they can have a big impact on curb appeal, on the homeowner’s view and/or privacy, on local water and air quality, and on people’s experience of a neighbourhood. The hellstrip might be the only part of your property that gets enough sun to grow vegetables and other sun-lovers. If you have a small urban yard and have been gardening for awhile, it can give you more precious space. And one of the best reasons to do it is to make your community more appealing — more walkable, more colorful, more fragrant, more lively in all seasons, more livable.
3. Are there any challenges to hellstrip gardening?
The challenges are significant! Hellstrip Gardening devotes eight chapters to these challenges: street trees; water (too much or too little); poor, contaminated, or compacted soil; regulations and perceptions that might limit your planting or design; wildlife (wanted and unwanted); utility lines and equipment; pedestrian traffic; and the dust, smog, sounds, and smells associated with vehicles. But I would say to would-be hellstrip gardeners: don’t let the challenges discourage you! Other people have overcome them to create healthy, rewarding landscapes at the curb, and so can you.
4. Given the unique characteristics of the hellstrip area, what should a gardener consider when he or she is ready to break ground?
Think about how it will feel walking through or past your hellstrip garden, and about how it will look from the road and from inside your house and yard. Try for a design that works in all seasons.
If you are the first on your block to make a garden in the front yard, it can feel a little awkward. Some tips for making it “friendly”:
• Keep the plants low, at least near the walkway
• Include “ambassador plants” that are familiar and beloved to people (lilac, iris, rose, and so forth)
• Talk to your neighbors about your plan before you start, and consider any suggestions they might voice, to head off future complaints
• Plant something you can harvest and share with neighbors (cut flowers, herbs, cherry tomatoes)
5. Can you offer a few ideas or plant suggestions for a kick-ass hellstrip garden?
Some really cool hellstrip gardens have a symmetrical design across the sidewalk, which transforms the sidewalk into a path through the garden. You can see a couple of examples in the book’s featured gardens.
Pick plants that already thrive in your yard. Use your divisions and seedlings out there on the hellstrip. It’s cheap, they have a good chance of succeeding, and echoing plants will make your garden feel larger and better designed.
Use tough, low-growing native wildflowers that suit your site’s conditions, from winecups to wild geraniums to heath asters. Buy them small from local growers. If you get plants that don’t need pampering, you won’t have to be out there pampering them.