Taming the Hell Strip

If you’ve never heard the expression, the hell strip is that skinny stretch of real estate between the street and the sidewalk, a patch of dirt that often looks like well, hell. And believe it or not, it’s up to you to maintain the strip even though the municipality owns it. It’s like the sidewalk in front of your house – you don’t own it, but you have to shovel it in winter or risk a fine. Most towns won’t ticket you for neglecting your hell strip, but transforming it from a weed-infested plot into a flourishing garden brightens the neighborhood and may even fatten your wallet; realtors estimate that landscaping can add as much as 15% to a property’s value.

So now that you’re hooked and excited to boost your “curb appeal”, let’s start with the soil in your hell strip. Probably it’s crummy, sapped of nutrients by those voracious weeds that you’ve ignored until now. So first things first – get rid of the weeds. That means weeding by hand, or if you recoil at that chore, you can spray them with vinegar to kill them. But do resist the urge to use a weed killer such as Roundup®; not only is it bad for the soil, it’s worse for the environment. Then it’s time to improve the quality of the soil, enrich it by adding a mixture of composted material and fertilizer. After the soil has been amended, we can talk about the plants, and here’s the most important attribute of any plant chosen for the hell strip – low maintenance. You don’t want to spend precious gardening hours tending a piece of land you don’t own. As well as minimal upkeep, the plants selected should include a mix of textures for visual interest, and some that hang around to liven up the winter landscape. So far, so good. But wait – we have not addressed the two plagues that lay siege to most hell strips – salt and/or dog pee – and they must be considered. Any plants selected should fight off one or – ideally – both of these curses. Unfortunately Mother Nature is not that magnanimous; there are few if any plants that can withstand the onslaught of both, so you must pick your poison: salt spray or dog spray.

If salt is your nemesis and your hell strip gets ravaged by winter snows, or the town mobilizes the salt spreaders at the first dusting, the following selection of plants, shrubs and perennials, are low maintenance and don’t mind a salty spray from time to time.

For a sunbaked hell strip four rugged plants that mix up textures and thrive on benign neglect are Cinquefoil, Blue Oat Grass, Purple Cone Flower and any member of the Daylily family. The first toughie on the list, Cinquefoil or Potentilla fruticosa, is a deciduous native smothered in cheery yellow flowers all summer.

It remains a tidy compact shrub that needs little water once it’s established. Also happy in dry soil, Blue Oat Grass,

Helictotrichon sempervirens, a cool season grass adds another dimension and remains semi-evergreen through the winter – always a big selling point.

The next choice, our native Purple Coneflower, produces seeds that attract bees, butterflies and gold finches.

To encourage Echinacea purpurea to rebloom pinch off the spent flowers and the rewards will be yours all summer. The last choice for a sunny strip is any member of the Hemerocallis family, and the daylily pictured is the prolific ‘Happy Returns’.

Although the flowers last only one day, if you deadhead this daylily you will have flowers from June through October. All these choices generally are hardy in USDA Zones 3-8.

If you are planting under a sycamore tree, often the street tree of choice in many communities, or any tree for that matter, then the plants you select should be shade as well as salt tolerant. A sturdy shrub to anchor your garden, Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry is a deciduous holly native to eastern North America.

To guarantee an ample supply of vivid red berries for the birds, plant a male somewhere in the neighborhood, and keep the hose nearby; the Winterberry likes its soil moist.

Also partial to moist soil, Japanese Forest Grass is one of the few grasses that thrive in shade. Despite its delicate appearance Hakonechloa macra holds its own under the ravages of salt spray although by the time winter arrives this ornamental grass is usually dormant.

The third selection for a shady strip, the Holly Fern, Cyrtomium fortunei, also hails from eastern Asia and is valued for its handsome fronds that resemble holly branches, foliage that generally remains evergreen unless attacked by an Arctic blast.

The final choice for a shady hell strip, Rocky Mountain Columbine, the state flower of Colorado, adds a shot of color in the spring.

The nectar produced by the large blossoms of Aquilegia caerulea is a big draw for hummingbirds, and although it relishes the thin air of the high Rockies, it will grow almost anywhere except in hot, humid climates.

Now, however, if you garden in a neighborhood where dog walkers abound and salt contamination is a lesser problem than dog urine, the following discussion of plants most tolerant of that scourge is split between the sun lovers and those that prefer shady conditions.

For the sunny hell strip the shrub chosen to star in your plot, Osmanthus x burkwoodii, remains green through the winter and will delight passers-by in spring with its profusion of fragrant tiny flowers.

Although this native of Oregon can top out at 10 feet, it’s a slow grower and quite amenable to pruning. For a different texture the ornamental grass that best tolerates dog pee, Calamagrostis acutifolium or Feather Reed Grass, was selected as the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. The very handsome cultivar ‘Karl Foerster’, named for the German nurseryman who discovered it in 1930, bursts forth in May with pinkish purple flowers that last through the winter.

But for maximum high drama in winter nothing beats Red Twig Dogwood, Cornus sericea. Although its white blossoms are similar to those of the family, it’s the brilliant red twigs exposed in winter that will make your neighbors gasp.
Since the youngest stems are the most vivd, prune out 25% of the older branches in early spring.

Both Feather Reed Grass and Red Twig Dogwood require moist soil.

The final selection of sun loving plants, Euphorbia martinii, has deep green lance-like leaves, and in late spring it produces charming lime green bracts with bright red eyes .

Hardy in USDA Zones 6-10 it is the most drought resistant of this group of plants followed by Osmanthus burkwoodii.

For those hell strips shaded by street trees and abused by dogs consider a Chinese Snowball Viburnum as the focal point. The flowers of Viburnum macrocephalum emerge lime green in early spring before changing into brilliant white snowballs.
This Viburnum, evergreen in milder zones (USDA Zones 6-9), wants average moisture, and although it can grow to 10 feet, it’s quite happy if pruned.

The next selection for a shady spot in the strip, Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’ is one of the few plants that tolerates both salt and dog urine.

This Asian native remains green all winter, and although it too can get quite tall, it’s a slow grower, and do give it moderate water and good air circulation to avoid that insect pest, scale. The fern chosen for the shady hell strip, the Western Sword Fern, Polystichum munitum, hails from the Northwest part of the country, and its deep green leathery fronds hold their color through winter.

Another evergreen plant that flourishes in shade, Euonymus fortunei or Wintercreeper, is a low growing groundcover (pictured is the cultivar ‘Emerald Gaiety’).

Although it’s invasive in some parts of the country, it safely can be planted in the hell strip since it is not known to jump sidewalks. Like all members of the Euonymus family it is toxic, so avoid chowing down.

Armed with this selection of plants for both sun and shade, some of which can withstand salt spray and others dog pee, it is hoped that more gardeners will be inspired to tackle and tame their hell strips and dress up their neighborhoods.

Plant Sources


Rare Find Nursery

High Country Gardens

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