The challenge of hellstrip gardening

April 1, 2012 lawanda Newspaper Columns

The three or four or seven-foot wide strip of grass or weeds between the street and sidewalk is mostly ignored by gardeners. But what an opportunity for gardeners to take on a new challenge!
Typically this area, sometimes known as the “hellstrip,” is a hot, dry area subject to dogs doing their business, road salt, heavy snow left by the plow, and runoff from sidewalks and driveways. Similar conditions might be found where an entryway sidewalk runs parallel to the driveway or house.
The first step in the process of beautifying your hellstrip is to kill the existing vegetation. This can be done by mowing it as short as possible and covering it with cardboard or several layers of newspaper and then weighting them down with wood chips for a few months until the vegetation dies. Rototilling three times over a period of six weeks or so combined with hand removal of perennial weeds will work too. Right next to the street is not a good place to use any kind of chemical weed killer. It will run off into the storm sewers and end up in the lake. Don’t do it! You’ll need the time it takes for the vegetation to die anyway to do some research on what plants will grow best in the area.
The soil in the hellstrip is probably in pretty bad shape. Most likely it’s compacted, probably clay mixed with stones or rocks. Look at the rocks and stones as an opportunity – pick them out and use them for landscaping either here or elsewhere in the yard. After the area is free of vegetation and rocks, dig or till the soil to loosen it and add compost. A few bags of top soil will help if the soil is in really bad shape.
To decide which plants to include in your hellstrip garden, look for plants that are drought tolerant, appropriate for your light conditions – sun or shade – relatively short in height, and non-invasive.
A mix of perennial and annual plants is the best bet. Plant them closely together so they provide shade and protection for each other and prevent your newly improved soil from washing away. Since you don’t know which plants will thrive in your particular conditions, start with a wide variety of plants and find out which ones survive. In coming years, you can divide those to fill in the spaces where others have died out.
Some perennials that should do well in a hellstrip area are flax, sedum, salvia, yarrow, artemesia, penstemon, veronica, iris, thyme, lavender, blue fescue, coreopsis, shooting star, black-eyed susan, columbine, purple prairie clover, and bulbs like tulips and muscari. Annuals include calendula, alyssum, marigolds, snapdragons, stock, dusty miller, moss rose, and zinnias.
Before you begin, accept that you are going to lose some plants. This is a difficult growing situation, but it can be done and done beautifully with a little experimentation and patience.


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