Shut Up and Dig

Nothing easy about itElizabeth_2


If given the choice, would you rather have this (above) or this (below)?


Not so fast. If you picked the second option, you might be in big trouble with your neighbors, and—more important—your neighbors might be able to do something about it.

The terminology varies depending on where you live (I’m glad we still use different words), but where I live, this strip of land is called the easeway. It’s the land in between your sidewalk and the road. It doesn’t belong to you but, in most cases, you’re responsible for its maintenance. This too may vary according to local ordinances, but I suspect many are in the same boat as me and both my urban and suburban gardening friends, and for us the problem has been made more complex by recent tree losses and damage.

In a northern suburb, one ambitious gardener planted an explosion of colorful perennials on his strip—and was blown in to town authorities for having plants that were too tall. Another was forced to remove a big stand of sunflowers; neighbors complained it blocked their view of oncoming traffic. I think the worst case I heard of was when one do-gooder was actually given an appearance ticket for simply mowing his neighbor’s easeway, to help spruce up the neighborhood for Garden Walk. The fact that this is technically city-owned land makes it easier for problem neighbors to wreak their havoc.

Easeway3I have seen many different easeway treatments. Just one block in the Elmwood neighborhood in Buffalo yielded a partially paved easeway, one part-bare/part-covered with ragged grass, one with a small ornamental tree and surrounding perennials, and one completely paved (as was the former front yard behind it). Boy, I sure can understand why people pave their easeways, as awful as that is for a plant geek to say.

Tree roots, road salt, pets, cars, and foot traffic all conspire to make this one of the inhabitable places to plant anything that you could imagine. My personal hellstrip is solid maple roots, with some tough violas and lamiastrum hanging in there for dear life. But I have dreams of somehow installing sweet woodruff; if I can get it in, I’m sure it would spread. I would be happy if it could simply be covered with a carpet of leaves; I don’t demand color.

But I’m not sure what some people resent about an easeway that isn’t simply carpeted with green. Is it unsettling? A jarring note in the serene streetscape?

Is anyone else out there struggling with an easeway? Have your neighbors complained? When everybody kills their lawns, will they kill their easeways too?

Posted by on August 8, 2007 at 5:00 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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17 responses to “Nothing easy about itElizabeth_2

  1. I decided to plant my hellstrip two years ago, mainly because I got tired of dragging my mower out just for that stupid strip of land.

    Really backbreaking labor. But what I’ve got there now–mostly daylilies–hasn’t yet taken hold, I think because the spot is so hot and so dry. So I may have to rethink my plant materials.

    The other thing about planted hellstrips is that they make things difficult for people getting out of the passenger side of parked cars. They don’t know where to put their feet.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I hate to think, though, “pave it over” is the optimum solution. We just need some strip of green between us and the foul automobiles barrelling past our houses.

  2. Meagan says:

    While I don’t have this problem since we live out in the country, we live near a small city where this issue has become a hot topic of late.

    One woman had her parking strip (that’s what we call it) planted to overflowing with perennials (it had been like this for over a decade). The city recently hired a “code enforcer” to wander around town looking for aesthetic violations, and this woman received a warning letter stating her “lawn” was too long (not a single neighbor had complained). She called city hall to say, “It’s spring, give it time to grow and bloom.” They insisted she needed to either neaten it up right away or get a “wild flower garden” permit.

    So, she mowed down her whole garden in protest – everything up to her front porch!

    A flurry of letters in support of this woman hit the local editorial pages, but it was too late. The lady decided not to fight city hall, and she has not replanted anything. Now, a year later, her yard looks so tragically normal, with scraggly lawn all the up to the front steps in place of the wild cottage garden that stood there for years.

    One more thing, as I know this is becoming a little long. I’m not sure what their ordinances are, but St. Paul, Minnesota has some of the loveliest parking strip gardens I’ve ever seen. It’s a great place to go garden gawking in general, but some of the strip gardens blew me away.

  3. Meryl says:

    My neighbors have the most beautiful peonies planted in their easement, and I’m always torn. They’re gorgeous and I would never complain about them, but I can’t count the times I’ve almost died because they block my view of oncoming traffic.

  4. susan harris says:

    Lots of issues in those hell strips, as we see from the comments already. I planted mine and my neighbors’ with divisions from the garden because I didn’t know what would survive the kids/dogs/trucks/winter salt and everything has thrived (sedum, ornamental grasses, daylilies, 3 cherry trees, etc.) Neighbors seem to love it and even dog-walkers are starting to GET that it’s a garden, dammit.
    But some caveats are important – to not block drivers’ visibility, to not threaten the eyeballs of pedestrians trying to navigate the sidewalk, and to allow for places for parkers to step to get to the sidewalk. (I’m lucky on that last score, since there’s no parking allowed on my side of the street.) But as a walker I’ve gotta say people are incredibly insensitive to the dangers their plants pose to walkers, whether from the hellstrip or from their own property. Low-hanging branches, even rose stems flopping out over the sidewalks – what are people thinking??? They certainly make the case for insisting on boring old turfgrass, I’m sorry to say.

  5. eliz says:

    The one suburban easeway I mentioned as being “blown in” was cited because of a town ordinace that prohibits plants over 3 feet tall on the easeway. Except that the first letter from the authorities made a goof and said 3 inches tall!!

  6. Amy Stewart says:

    High Country Gardens sells an “inferno strip” collection, and at the bottom is a collection of inferno strip bulbs. Geared more for the west, but some interesting ideas.


    I think that if I had a strip like this to plant, I’d go for a monoculture of either a pretty ornamental grass (that’s short enough) or something like catmint that can rebloom two or three times over a season and looks inoffensive when it’s not blooming.

  7. tibs says:

    There could be all kinds of utility lines in the curbstrip, especially if you are in a newer development where electric and phone lines are buried. Many communities are placing water and sewer lines in the curb strip so when repairs need to be made they do not have the expense of digging up street and repaving or patching. They have the right to tear up that strip anytime they want to repair/maintain the utilites. Don’t spend a fortune, you could lose all your plants. Call city hall or whover the government entitiy is and find out just what is under ground. Find out where the government Right-of-way easment line actually is on your property. You may get a nasty shock. Read your zoning regulations and building codes before you do anything. And, yeah, I am a bureaucrat.

  8. Mathi says:

    As much as I love flowers, if they block driver visibility at all they should be moved (even if it is legal in your area). Plant them near the fence or house or whatever.

    I remember learning to ride a bike on a sidewalk, and spending a lot of time riding up and down them. All it takes is one small child running/riding out from behind a 2’11” flowering shrub into an oncoming car….

    At the risk of using the dreaded word ‘grass’ here: there are some really pretty decorative grasses that look good and are low maintainance as well as low profile. If it is an issue of safety, be safe.

  9. eliz says:


    I think the one of the main questions I started out with is the difficulty of getting grass to grow here, espeically with shade trees. Many find perennials will do better. But I will say I have used largely rock-filled rock gardens used well. Though I guess they would be a tripping hazard.

  10. Georgia says:

    I don’t have a personal story to offer, but in Berkeley, CA (where I live), there are *numerous* planted curb strips. Some are planted with flowers and/or vegetables, others with edible and/or ornamental trees.

    I have not heard or read about struggles with these spaces. Planting the curb strips seems to be a well-regarded tradition in the city.

  11. Peter Hoh says:

    Here in St. Paul, we call them boulevards. The St. Anthony Park neighborhood is renown for boulevard gardens. I’m doing my best to promote boulevard gardening in my neighborhood.

    One of my goals was to create low spots in the boulevard to capture runoff from the sidewalks. Another was to replace the grass, which was more weed than grass.

    I have some taller plants, including milkweed, but I don’t let them grow near the intersection.

    I’ve included paths — wood chips seem to work better than pea gravel — so that passengers can get out of their cars without stepping on my plants.

    The city has some rules governing boulevard gardens, but I don’t think they are enforced. I have neighbors who have built raised beds in theirs, and I don’t think that’s a good idea, but I’m not in code enforcement.

    Here’s a nice article about boulevard gardening in the Twin Cities. There’s a link toward the end to the relevant city ordinance in St. Paul.


  12. firefly says:

    We pretty much ignore our hell strip and don’t even mow it. With the trees and summer heat the grass is only slightly out of control (I guess we are lucky there).

    Our neighbors planted their hell strip and the slope (45-degree angle) from front lawn to sidewalk with orange daylilies, which are tough, inexpensive, and multiply. From their point of view it’s a good deal.

    Walking through the two beds, though, is rather unpleasant — foliage hangs over on to the sidewalk and cuts down the travel area, the flower stalks loom overhead, and it seems to be a haven for mosquitoes.

    Neighbors across the street from us actually did a very nice job with curving beds of hosta — they avoided the “tutu” effect around their tree — but they didn’t get rid of all the grass and still have to mow.

    We will probably have the front slope of our lawn planted with ground cover eventually, but I don’t have any plans for the hell strip.

  13. Pam/Digging says:

    Hellstrip plantings are popular in my neighborhood. Out by my curb, which faces due west and absolutely bakes in the summer, I planted two plants that get no taller than 1 1/2 feet: Mexican feathergrass and damianita. They work well, require almost no supplemental water, and don’t block anybody’s view.

    I do think it’s important to provide paved or gravel areas for people to step out of their cars, however. I know I don’t like to park along a garden that I have to step into to get out of the car. I paved a few landing-spots on my strip with mortared stone. It’s possible that the city may dig them up one day, but it’s worked well so far.

  14. jodi says:

    Thank the gardening gods that I live in the country, surrounded by my own acreage and trees, and don’t have to contend with hellstrips. Or city bylaws. Or anal neighbours. My hat is off to all of you who deal with such things.

    I was in Halifax, (capital city of Nova Scotia) today, and drove down one such street in the south end (read: Old Money) end of the city. The median was planted with hostas around the light standards (this is a street well-shaded with trees) and with grasses, I believe, in between the standards. I assume the city did it. Another part of the city has Pavement and other rugosa roses in its median strips. Pavement roses are rugosa hybrids and they are tough–also well suited for those of us who live on the coast and deal with saltspray from ocean rather than from traffic.

    Interesting discussion, everyone.

  15. Wayne says:

    nice ranting… I agree that branches should be pruned back, but as far perennials blocking a view of a child, I can’t see it being worse than allowing SUV’s to be parked on the street.

    my town has been replacing sewer lines and the ex-owner of my house opted to put in an extra wide sidewalk.. more shovelling, but no controversial garden space.

  16. eliz says:

    I think raised beds would go only a few inches into the soil and would not disturb lines–those babaies are buried pretty deep.

  17. Mitch says:

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