Super-Tough Plants for Curb Gardens

by Susan Harris
Who SAYS the strip of land between your sidewalk and the street has to be covered with turfgrass?  Okay, in some places the government actually says that but where I live and elsewhere, homeowners have the opportunity to do something a little more interesting – and less resource-intensive, too.  Here you see the curb garden or “hell strip” in front of my house, where I’ve made sure the water-meter guy still has access, and also that this little garden doesn’t block the view of drivers.  (Safety first!)  I goofed in not knowing (or inquiring about) permission I should have gotten first from my city before  planting anything here, so I’m just lucky I was allowed to keep this garden.  Which garden my neighbors never seem to tire of admiring, by the way, and thanking me for.   Public gardening sure has its rewards.

Now about the choice of plants, curb gardens need tough ones because sites don’t get much tougher than this one.  They have to be able to handle the usual stresses of heat and drought PLUS cars, snow plows and salt trucks, kids on bikes, and the regular diggings and droppings of all the dogs on the street.   I wasn’t about to spend money here, just to see everything destroyed.  So everything here was a cast-off or division from other parts of my garden.

And it’s important to note that this spot can be garden-like, crammed full of plants of different heights, only because there’s no parking on my side of the street.  I’ve seen some great curb gardens that DO allow for access to parked cars and I’ll be posting about them soon, right here.

The Plant List
Yoshino cherry tree, a beautyberry shrub, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, lots of daylily cultivars in assorted colors, and creeping sedums as groundcover.

Four years in the ground, and what’s the result?  Absolutely no damage from any of the feared sources, and a pretty garden that’s almost no work.  These plants are drought-tolerant, and pretty good at crowding out the weeds.  So, a bit of watering, a bit of weeding.  Then in late winter I do clean-up – remove dead perennial flowers, hack the grasses back to the ground, and prune the beautybush.

Beautyberry with Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Buffalo, NY
Next stop, a curb garden in Buffalo, New York, the city with the largest garden tour in America.  (Every July over 300 gardens are open to the public over two days, all free.  More about Garden Walk Buffalo here.)

Portland, Oregon
And from the West Coast, below you see a high-impact garden wedged in between the street and the unseen sidewalk.

Inspired yet?  One New York Times writer was inspired to do something creative in his Minneapolis hell strip, and recounts the transition here. I’ll be asking for an update next year, so hopefully more will be revealed.

9 Responses to Super-Tough Plants for Curb Gardens

  1. James Hitz says:

    Gorgeous. Not everyone is as lucky as you. Some have parrking along the curbs and people would complain they can’t get out of their cars. And then there are the people allergic or fearful of bees who would complain to the township. I hope others who can will follow your lead.

  2. James, that occurred to me and I already amended the post to say that my curb is fortunate to not have parking. Also, I mentioned I’ll be posting photos of some great curb gardens that DO allow for car doors, etc. Gotta be realistic, here. Susan

  3. Sandi says:

    I have a really ugly 3×3 patch at the end of my driveway. Lots of roots from a nearby tree, hard dirt, good amount of sun and lots of hungry bunnies. Can you give me a plant list for that?

    Not kidding when I mention the rabbits. Your staff suggested a flowering quince saying it was deer/rabbit tolerant and let me tell you, the rabbits LOVE flowering quince. Please, please keep that in mind.

  4. Gene Sumi says:

    Three evergreen shrubs that rabbits really do not like to munch on are hollies and boxwoods. However, they do not flower or show leaf colors other than green but they desired for their green foliage and their longevity in the garden, especially in competition for root space. They should also be among the better shrubs to compete with the roots of that nearby tree. Pick a holly or boxwood variety that stays small enough to nicely fit in that 3′ x 3′ space. My recommendations are ‘Carissa’ Chinese holly or a Korean boxwood variety such as ‘Green Gem’.

  5. Pingback: Garden Sprouts - August 15, 2010 | Gardening on the Moon ( GOTM )

  6. Karen says:

    I love these parkways. I have parking in front of my house and I feel like a jerk saying this but I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who park there. I first tried iceplant, people stomped it to death. Then I tried the purple training lantana. People, I swear went out of their way to kill it. Now I have lavender, with a narrow 12″ cement brick row (it’s maybe 3 ‘ long) along the street where the water meter is. And FINALLY, I have something other than dead or dying ground cover. Oh yeah, and I also have the trash that people tuck into the lavender.

    So I say, make it pretty!

  7. unavailable says:

    Hi! I love your garden, and especially love how tough the plants are. I am working on a science project, trying to create a biodegradable bag made of plants. What would you say is the toughest plant you know of?

  8. Kim says:

    Wow!! So beautiful! What a gorgeous selection! I street garden here in the city in Sydney, but suffer from vandals and theives! It’s rewarding but can be heartbreaking sometimes too! Best of luck! I’m so impressed !!

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