That strip of land between the sidewalk and the street—the boulevard or sometimes, the hellstrip—offers exciting space opportunities for gardeners who want to expand their plantings. But planting a boulevard garden requires honest assessment, careful plant choices and diligent maintenance.
Assess the Space
First things first: Make sure it’s legal to plant on the boulevard. Some cities have ordinances about plant height and other restrictions. You don’t want to spend money and time on a garden that your city or town will veto. Second, consider and respect boulevard trees. Trees on the boulevard are usually owned by the city. Depending on their type, trees also may provide wonderful pollinator habitat, utility-bill reducing shade, and water-filtering benefits. Avoid disturbing roots as you remove turf grass and put in new plants. Finally, you’ll want to honestly assess the sun and soil on your boulevard garden. If there are trees nearby, you’ve got a shady space and should plant accordingly. If road salt is an issue, consider choosing plants that can deal with that. You also may want to plant a garden designed to reduce runoff.
Once you’ve got the basics in hand, the fun part starts—designing your garden and choosing plants. Boulevard gardens can be in almost any style, but native plants and pollinator friendly ones often do best in the tough conditions on boulevards. It’s also a good idea to choose plants that have a slightly lower profile. You don’t want a tall plant to block a driver’s sight line or one that will flop over on the sidewalk and block pedestrians. Great boulevard garden plants for sun to part-sun conditions include little bluestem, prairie dropseed, purple coneflower, anise hyssop and short’s aster. If you have a solid shade garden, you may want to think about Solomon’s seal, native geranium, columbine, wild ginger, maybe a few hostas. The University of Minnesota’s classic The Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites includes lists of plants for different types of boulevards and is free to download. Since this garden is out-front, consider adding some spring bulbs or spring ephemerals to extend the season of bloom.
Practicalities and Maintenance
When designing your boulevard garden, consider the practical stuff as well as the beautiful: is there room for people getting into or out of parked cars? Can you step into the garden to do weeding, planting or other chores? Stepping stones are a good way to add a design element that also has function. Depending on the location of your hose, you may want to think about choosing drought-tolerant plants for the boulevard.
Once you garden is planted, add a thin layer of mulch and keep the space weeded and well-maintained. Before you know it, your neighbors may be planting a boulevard garden, too! To learn more about boulevard gardens, check out the MSHS class on Hellstrip Gardening, March 8, taught by Becky Rice and Rich Harrison of Metro Blooms.