What the Hellstrip?

Horticulturist Lauren Spring Ogden was spot on back in the 90s when she coined the term “hellstrip” to describe the trampled-on, stepped-over, parched, neglected, unsightly, unspoken-for, dog-potty strips of land between the sidewalks and the street curbs. Since then, the garden-minded among us have been quietly crusading for better treatment of these slivers of earth and with notable success.

In fact, beautifying hellstrips on residential streets has had such rewarding results that the concept has expanded to include commercial roadside lands and divided highway medians, parking lot strips and islands, subdivision entrances—all those places where would-be green spaces are tucked into paved, often hostile, surroundings. Today, any gardening by the street or curb, small space gardening and even replacing lawn with strips of garden plantings can be considered hellstrip gardening.

What constitutes a hellstrip today is really not as much the location, per se, as it is the unique challenges of establishing a garden in that location.

As this hellstrip I saw in Asheville, North Carolina, illustrates, the right assortment of plantings can turn a narrow strip of neglected ground into a beautiful garden.

Its location—a busy thoroughfare with on-street parking—and the site conditions—were thoughtfully considered in the design of this small plot. Plants were chosen to suit the soil, light conditions and water needs. Care was taken to ensure trees and taller plants wouldn’t obscure drivers’ lines of sight and signage. Pathways were put in to direct foot traffic from the street to the sidewalks so plants wouldn’t get trampled. Pointy and prickly plants were avoided so cars and legs wouldn’t be scratched up. And to make sure the small garden would stay attractive all year, the gardener chose plants with interesting evergreen foliage that would outlast the flowers’ blooms.

True hellstrips are surrounded by heat-reflecting pavement, subjected to relentless sun, and at the mercy of the weather for water since they typically don’t have means of irrigation and aren’t within reach of a water hose. Here, the gardener chose heat-tolerant, winter annuals that don’t mind the poor soil and harsh environment. Purple pansies and bright pink dianthus rise up from a carpet of fast-growing, chartreuse Sedum angeline. When the tulips pop up, they add to the cheerful atmosphere and create a nice pollinator habitat in what would otherwise be ugly, wasted space.

I love the walkway-borders at Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Yes, I know it’s hard to think of the lovely bands of blooming gardens in the context of hellstrips. But I’m sharing them here because they’re a great example of a relatively low-maintenance, perennial garden design that would be easy to duplicate in a traditional, residential hellstrip or as part of a lawn-replacement project. Notice the design isn’t complicated. Repeating a limited number of types of plants and using just a few colors keeps the garden tidy and calming.

Even though their maintenance usually falls to homeowners, hellstrips are often owned or in the right of way of cities or counties or controlled by Homeowners Associations. Be sure to find out whether there are any ordinances, restrictions or covenants governing your intended hellstrip garden before you stick the first shovel in the ground.

Tackling a challenging hellstrip in a common space helps bring neighbors together for an exciting common cause. Master gardeners, garden club members and extension agency staffers are great resources for help in designing the space and assistance in identifying plants of the right sizes and shapes that can tolerate the heat, drought and other conditions. The hellstrip pictured above has all the right elements:  a large specimen tree, rose bushes, ornamental grasses and a mixture of perennials in the background and annuals in front, where it’s easy to get to them for frequent replacement.

Hellstrip gardening isn’t a new concept, but it is enjoying renewed interest now as more and more people are realizing the environmental, aesthetic, emotional, psychological and physiological benefits of having plants and gardens around us. If you’d like to learn more, you might want to read. Hellstrip Gardening:  Create a Paradise between the Sidewalk and the Curb, by Evelyn Hadden (2014, Timber Press). The foreword is written by Lauren Springer Ogden, the acclaimed horticulturist and author who first gave hellstrip gardening its due.

And here’s a link to some design ideas and hellstrip gardens you’ll enjoy.


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