Gardeners are driven by many goals — blooms, edibles, beauty and fragrance. Quite often though, the process can be just as satisfying as the maturation of what’s been planted. Die-hard gardeners consider every uncultivated patch of earth to be a future project — even the most unforgiving areas.
One of these unforgiving areas is the hell strip — the strip of earth between the sidewalk and the street. A term coined by horticulturist Lauren Springer Ogden, the hell strip is so named because of the hellish environment it affords for plants. It also refers to the intense heat that this area is often subjected to — paved surfaces on either side, as well as the overhead sun. Also contributing to those hellish conditions are foot traffic, dog waste, winter street salt and snow pack.
Despite all the challenges that the hell strip presents, it can be a very satisfying garden area to grow. The curb appeal alone is worth it, as it can set you apart from you the redundancy of a plain strip of grass. There are many different approaches you can take with a hell strip, each of them defining your home within your neighborhood.
Consider a colorful planting with annuals, native plants, or dwarf blooming shrubs. This pop of color can contribute to urban beautification, and is quite often a haven for beneficial pollinators. Small trees can provide seasonal color and create shade. A mass planting of native or ornamental grass can add a soft edge to this rough strip of landscape. Even an evenly mulched hell strip with no plants can add to the curb appeal. Mulch is plain, yet tidy and practical — and it eliminates the need to mow a strip of grass.
First and foremost, before planting a hell strip, you first have to contact the city. The hell strip is technically not yours to plant; however, it is never a discouraged endeavor to beautify the city in which you live. You simply have to get permission.
“The area between the sidewalk and curb is part of the city’s right of way,” said Winston-Salem Vegetation Management Director Keith Finch via email. “Can a landowner plant in this planting strip? Maybe. To plant anything on the city’s right of way, they will need to get a permit from our urban forestry section. The permit is free, but the urban forester will review the plans and type of plant material to see if it will be proper fit. As for mulching, the landowner is more than welcome to do this.”
Don’t be discouraged by the phrase “obtain a permit.” The city is simply making sure that the plant material doesn’t interfere with utilities, traffic or create any problems. The Winston-Salem urban forestry department can be reached at 336-748-3020 or email urban forester Derek Renegar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Depending on your neighborhood, you may or may not have a hell strip. I have no sidewalks in my neighborhood, so I don’t have the option of creating my own personal design. I was able to find several creatively planted hell strips throughout the city, though.
Jayne Williams has a colorful hell strip outside of her Old Salem home. Planted with tough native plants, her hell strip blends in seamlessly with the landscape of this historic community. Williams has a good mixture of native perennials with staggered bloom. Black-eyed Susan flowers are taking center stage right now, which will be followed by solidago come September. Lavender bee balm and echinacea are still blooming, too. Purple and white garden phlox have faded, but provided a swath of color earlier in the season.
Native plants are a perfect choice for a hell strip, considering their toughness and capacity to thrive in adverse conditions. A mixture of native perennials, low shrubs, grasses and seasonal bulbs are all options.
Another head-turning hell strip is in the West End neighborhood, the work of homeowner Helen Parsonage. An oasis of color, Parsonage’s hell strip consists of mostly annuals. A big patch of iris flanks one corner, which Parsonage said is a beautiful sight late spring to early summer.
“There are a few perennials and bulbs that I fill in with annuals,” Parsonage said. “It has taken a while to find the ones that survive best, but marigolds and petunias have done well.”
Yellow and orange marigolds, fuchsia wave petunias, celosia and dusty miller are all blooming now in Parsonage’s hell strip. Hardy mums will follow in several weeks.
One of the biggest challenges with a hell strip is its vulnerability — in terms of traffic and weather. Parsonage’s area has seen its fair share of issues, as she says it gets driven on sometimes. She has to provide supplemental water sometimes, too, which should be expected during dry periods.
“Having someone drive over it is maddening! It happens about once a year. I water it when it gets too dry. It also acts as a great absorber of the runoff when I water the rest of the front yard.”
There are many other areas of the city that have attractive hell strips. Some of these areas are planted with small dogwood trees. Some are mulched and manicured, some are rectangular seas of liriope, and others are artfully designed with small boulders and conifers.
Because the hell strip is an intense place for plants to grow, make sure to properly prepare the soil before planting. Amend with compost, top soil, city leaf mulch, manure and even some sand. Adding a bit of sand to the soil mixture can improve drainage, which can be helpful when it comes to winter road salt.
If you decide you want to cultivate a hell strip, don’t be intimidated. There are challenges and learning curves, but with proper planning, it can be a dramatic improvement to your home and your neighborhood.