Add Some ‘Wow’ Factor To Your ‘Hood With a Sidewalk Garden

Want to get to know your neighbors better while improving everyone’s curb appeal? Why not dig in and create gardens between your sidewalks and the street? Those otherwise bland spaces – also known as hellstrips – can add texture, fragrance and color.

Many organizations, including San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest, coordinate sidewalk garden projects. Some groups will design the installation, get grants on your behalf to fund your block’s beautification, and even get rid of concrete slabs to create more planting space.

We asked Boise, ID gardener Evelyn Hadden, author of Hellstrip Gardening, to share her strategies for anyone wanting to beautify their ‘hood.

Why plant sidewalk gardens? 

Even if there’s only a fragment of land alongside the street, planting a garden there can have a large effect on curb appeal and on the character of a neighborhood. If you have a little more space, a screen of foliage between your home and the street can give you increased privacy and improved air quality. A curbside garden can be designed to absorb runoff from the sidewalk and/or street, improving the water quality and watering the plants for you.

What should a group of neighbors keep in mind?

Before they design their gardens, it’s a good idea to check their city code for height restrictions and prohibited/allowed plants. It might also be useful to tour each other’s gardens so everyone can see what kinds of plants are thriving in their locale. 

They might be able to echo certain plants all along the block, creating a feeling of cohesion between their landscapes and strengthening their neighborhood’s sense of place. 

The creation of sidewalk gardens could be a great excuse for a block party (or more than one!), and could give rise to plant swaps, potlucks, and other exchanges that would enhance the feeling of community. 

Which plants are best for this type of garden?

Keep your climate and site conditions in mind, and choose plants that will thrive with minimal intervention once they’re established. Investigate native plants of your region that have adapted to a wide variety of conditions.

Choose plants that have a long season of interest; for instance, wild geraniums have a gorgeous fall foliage color in addition to their summer flowers. Some ornamental grasses have beautiful fall color as well, and their seedstalks can be left standing for winter interest.

The hellstrip is a great place for extra seedlings and divisions of plants that already do well in other, similar areas of your yard. Don’t put anything rare or expensive out there. 

Pedestrian and dog traffic do tend to cause periodic damage, if you use plants that self-sow and spread vegetatively, they can help repair gaps before weeds come in, meaning less work for you. Helpful spreaders include groundcovers like creeping phlox and deadnettle; self-sowers include larkspur and snapdragon.

I always recommend including some “ambassador plants” that are familiar and beloved to people in your area. Many of these tried-and-true plants are extremely hardy, including iris, rose, daylily, and daisy for sun, lily-of-the-valley and sweet woodruff for shade. 


Couple planting tree: Friends of the Urban Forest via Compfight cc

Hellstrip Photos – Josh McCullough

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