One of the most awkward, yet rewarding, gardening challenges can be found in that neglected patch of turfgrass between the sidewalk and the curb: your parking strip. Across the U.S., gardeners have been enthusiastically transforming this “hell strip” into viable habitat. These sidewalk ecosystems are critical for the tiny creatures that inhabit them and when connected they serve as mini-wildlife corridors. Parking strip gardens can be planted to provide us with healing herbs, bouquets of wildflowers, juicy berries, and organic vegetables, as well as daily close-up interactions with the myriad pollinators and decomposers—bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, worms, snails, and spiders—that call these strips home.
Every arthropod-friendly parking strip helps to strengthen local populations and make them more resilient by fostering biodiversity. The Xerces Society says this is good news for all flora and fauna, but especially for our native bees. One problem is that parking strips appear green, but are often planted with turfgrass or exotic and invasive plants, which offer little or no sustenance to native fauna. Native plants attract native pollinators and do not require constant maintenance, copious amounts of water, or chemical supplements to keep them healthy.
Replanting your parking strip is an achievable goal for the ecologically savvy homeowner. Over the last twenty years, my husband and I have been caretakers of our own backyard wildlife sanctuary and this has included the twelve-year transformation of our turfgrass parkway into a pollinator-friendly strip. In the process we have become more knowledgeable about the habitat needs of native plants and trees and have learned which grasses and flowers attract the most attention from both human and wild visitors. We take great delight in the ever-changing palette as we become more intimately connected to our landscape.
Belt of Bleakness or Vibrant Verge
A turfgrass parking strip can be redesigned as a wild and lovely native plant garden, a shady tree-lined parkway with wood chip mulch, a raised bed vegetable garden, or a sunny rock garden with drought-tolerant plants.
Whether you decide to do it yourself or engage the expertise of a landscape designer, your parking strip transformation choices need to be carefully considered. The three main steps are: researching city codes and permits, parking strip design, and soil preparation.
Soil and Patience
I asked local ecosystem expert, Marisa Hendron of Chrysalis Garden Care, how she works with clients who are considering a parking strip transformation. “Planting in parking strips comes with a lot of challenges,” she explained. “Parking strips are particularly exposed to weed seeds traveling by wind, leaf blower dust, and stormwater, as well as damage from people and dogs. The soils have been compacted by heavy equipment, and topsoil was definitely removed in the creation of the roadway, even if that happened a long time ago.” As Marisa pointed out, it’s a pretty strange cultural phenomenon to tolerate ecological “dead zones” so close to our homes. By restoring these spaces gardeners are contributing to the beauty of the whole city and creating opportunities for people to connect with nature.
From Marisa again, “Investing in soil resilience and fertility has many benefits for living things that we can’t fully quantify and understand. It takes patience, and some trial and error, no matter how foolproof your plan.” Marisa likens building soil fertility to getting physically fit. “In the beginning of a new training regimen, your body can’t do all the things you’re hoping it someday will be able to do, so you continue to train from where you’re at,” she observed. “When you jump ahead and push yourself too hard, you put yourself at higher risk of injury, because the ecosystem of your body isn’t yet designed to support the work you’re undertaking.”
Creating healthy soil doesn’t happen overnight. At the start of your parking strip project, it can be difficult to get the soil to retain water and plants will inevitably fail. But gradually, as you improve the soil structure it will become less limiting to your vision.
Marisa offered the following practical advice, “I wouldn’t recommend investing heavily in plants up front, but rather invest in the soil first. Try out a few tough plants, see how they do, and continue from there. It’s helpful to have a fully articulated vision to work towards, but there are things about your particular space you will learn along the way that may cause you to change course.”
Design and Plant Selection
“Flip the Strip” is Sherrie Pelsma’s call for community action. Sherrie is the founder of the Pollinator Parkways website in Portland, Oregon. Since 2015 she has helped to convert more than 11,000 square feet of parking strips into pollinator friendly habitat. In addition, she has created a handy do-it-yourself manual, also called “Flip the Strip,” that includes designs and plant lists for both shade and sunny strips, in skinny and wide versions. This well-researched and information-rich guide focuses on native plants and pesticide-free care. Though written for urban Portland, it will be helpful for all strip-flippers on the West Coast. Thank you Sherrie, for your generosity and vision.
Native and drought-tolerant plants lay the foundation for a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem. Fortunately, resources abound to help you choose the right plants for a water-wise garden in your growing region (see sidebar opposite).
Wood Chips and Permitting
No matter what type of garden you choose, you will need to get rid of the existing grass or vegetation and find a local source for wood chips.
Note: there is no such thing as too many wood chips in hell strip remediation, the fresher the better.
Removing turfgrass will require mechanical removal or sheet mulching, which is a no-dig method designed to mimic the natural process of forest decomposition. Do not skimp on this stage! Get the sod out and wood chips in. Thickly layered on top of the soil, wood chips retain moisture, regulate soil temperature, and provide weed control. A parking strip full of decaying wood chips is full of life: bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. And wood chips will also attract earthworms, which create vermicompost, eliminating the need for additional fertilizers.
You will not want to plant directly into the newly spread chips, so plan on waiting several months for the microbes to do their work while you design your new habitat. As the wood breaks down it returns nutrients to the soil, creating that luscious earth that smells so good and is brimming with Mycobacterium vaccae. This beneficial bacterium stimulates serotonin production and acts as a natural antidepressant and mood lifter.
Finally, do your permit and city code research before you start digging. Permit requirements will vary depending on where you live. For example, Seattle allows homeowners to farm or garden in the parking strip without a permit as long as they comply with city-mandated restrictions, however, a free Street Use Permit is required to install trees and raised beds. Check your city’s website for information about local permitting requirements.
With your new planting in place, delight in the wild beauty of your reclaimed parking strip.
Worryingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that each year homeowners in the U.S. use 70 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides. The ugly reality is that your backyard may be laced with a toxic cocktail of deadly chemicals. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are found in our groundwater, 22 are toxic to birds, all 30 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, 29 are deadly to bees, and 14 are toxic for mammals; some fungicides and pesticides can kill 60 to 90 percent of the earthworms where they are applied. In addition, the EPA reports that the run-off from lawn care products into our fresh water includes carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and neurotoxins, and that there are no federal regulations for these products.
A California-Friendly Guide to Native and Drought Tolerant Plants
A publication of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District Calabasas, California
This 64-page guide, filled with colorful photos and suggested plant lists for a variety of exposures and conditions, covers everything from compost and container gardens, to wildflower meadows and native trees.
www.lvmwd.com (Search: A California-Friendly Guide to Native and Drought Tolerant Plants)
California Native Plant Society
Valuable information about gardening with California native plants
Marisa Hendron, Chrysalis Garden Care
Mindful support for sustainable gardens
National Wildlife Federation
Resources for creating a sustainable garden that helps wildlife
The “Flip the Strip” manual, created by Sherrie Pelsma, is available from a link on the homepage
Washington Native Plant Society
Valuable information about gardening with Washington native plants
An organization dedicated to protecting invertebrates and their habitats.