Hell Strips and Other Unmentionables

There are always “problem children” in every garden.  You know where yours are…those locations that never are quiet right, the areas that try as you might, just don’t support plants well.  They may be too boggy and wet or have poor soil or be bakey and hot.

Typically the parking strip—that area between the sidewalk and the curb is one place that is a challenge for gardeners.  These spots are referred to as “Hell Strips”, they are so called for a reason.  More often than not Hell Strips are hot spots, filled with compacted soil and subjected to pollutants because of the proximity to the street.  They are often forgotten and neglected, left to default to a boring strip of lawn or a swatch of river rock collecting weeds.

There are alternatives to the default approach.

With lot size growing ever smaller as urban density increases capturing the “Hell Strip” and making something of it is becoming more attractive to gardeners.  Hell Strips are being planted with everything from drought tolerant plant material to evergreens and edibles (although I question if it is smart to plant things you want to eat within inches of traffic and pollutants).

The first step in re-claiming a Hell Strip is amending the soil properly.  There is no point of investing in plants if the soil is so poor that it won’t support plants well.  Most soils in the Portland area are clay which means compaction is rampant, you won’t find an earthworm for miles and water runs off without penetration.  Digging in a mixture of topsoil, compost and gravel or course sand will give you a good start (at a ratio of 40:40:20).  I recommend digging the amendments in by hand but if you must rototill, show restraint and do not over till the plot.  The goal is to separate the clay and combine the amendments NOT powder the soil into a fine dust the consistency of cake flour. Whatever method you choose, hand or machine, wait to dig until the soil is not muddy or you will do more harm than good to the soil structure.

Irrigation is the next consideration.  It is not always necessary to have permanent irrigation in the Hell Strip but consider where your nearest water source is and how easy is it to access.  ALL plants (even the most drought tolerant species) need water for two to three summers until they become established.  If the source of water is difficult or complicated to use, you will find yourself inadvertently avoiding watering the new plantings. It only takes one hot day to lose your investment of time and dollars.

Now, make your design decisions about this new bed.

How should it function?  Remember this will be a very public planting.  It is at the edge of the street.  People will tend to treat it for what it is…a public place.  They may feel free to pick the blooms, eat the fruit, and walk through the plantings on the way to the street or the car.  Be prepared for all these events because they will happen.  So choose plants that are tough and not fussy.  Choose plants that will look good for at least three seasons of the year because this will create the “curb appeal”.  Choose plants that are just fine if they are walked near (or on).  And lastly choose plants that are not rare or expensive so if one disappears you will not be heartbroken.

What’s the character?  Will this be mostly edible landscape?  A Mediterranean look—lean and spikey?  An ode to Northwest Natives?  An English cottage garden?  What is your vision?

These are questions and issues to answer BEFORE you take a trip to any nursery, not AFTER you return home with a car load of “must have” plants and no plan.

Happy planting!

Bonnie Bruce is owner of Celilo Gardens, a Portland landscape design studio.  For more information: