swanky strips Everyone knows the strip from hell. Dry soil, blasted by wind and traffic, and set either in scorching full sun or under dense tree canopy. It’s the parking strip between the sidewalk and the street, and anyone who’s spent their summers watering, feeding, weeding and mowing knows just how unrewarding it can be as a strip of grass. Sure, you could just cover it over with concrete or rocks. In the last few years, though, turning that strip into the Garden of Eden has become a local trend. It’s a lot of work in the beginning, but the rewards include beauty, fresh produce, water savings, wildlife habitat and meeting the neighbors — even, for some, a new career.
Here are nine local gardens that have survived and thrived on the parking strip – plus the tips you need to know to grow them.
Good for: Hot, exposed strips with no irrigation, low-maintenance
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It’s a striking sight on a busy street – amid oceans of grass, a desert landscape. Yuccas, red-hot pokers and salvias dot a bark-mulched corner lot in Tacoma’s North End, looking more like Arizona than Western Washington.
“One of the hard things about this strip is that it’s so hot,” says Annie Nelson, who with her husband has been adding plants to what was a “weird combination of things” when they bought the house in 2003. “It faces southwest, and there’s a lot of heat coming off the asphalt.”
Nelson’s solution was highly drought-tolerant plants, the kind you’d find in the desert, with landscaping fabric and bark mulch to keep the weeds down. On a visit to Las Vegas, her husband discovered the trick of “skinning” yuccas like palm trees to expose the gnarly trunks, a stunningly sculptural look. They water once a week only when it’s hot.
The benefit? “Not having to mow it,” says Nelson at once. “And it’s more interesting to look at.”
Plant ideas: Yucca, flax, salvias, lavender, cactus, red-hot pokers, sedums
Mulch with: White rocks, oyster shells, fine bark mulch
Good for: Sunny strips, low maintenance, insects
The bees love Lynn Whitener’s parking strip. Covered in a haze of pink thyme flowers, with a stretch of beach strawberries and clover on one side and creeping raspberry on the other, she’s feeding the insects as much as the neighbors with her thick mat of plants.
“I was thinking about my neighbors – I wanted to take care of them, and model that one person could make a difference,” says Whitener, who began her berry parking strip when the economy went south (and, conveniently, when the City of Tacoma was redoing her sewer pipes). “If we all grew food gardens, we’d be in better shape.”
Whitener’s berries are an extension of her herb/berry bush front yard and vegetable backyard; above them she’s also planted two filberts, two apples and a plum tree. Another long strip is set aside for her son’s permaculture studies. It doesn’t take much watering, though the weeds are a challenge and she’s learned that strawberries shouldn’t be mown in the summer. If she could do it again she’d plant more herbs.
But it’s been worth it. “People say, ‘Wow, we love what you did,’ ” says Whitener. “And I tell them to help themselves to all the extra runners spilling over. It’s free.”
Plant ideas: Beach or alpine strawberries, creeping raspberry, small fruit trees for shade, creeping thyme
Mulch with: Compost or bark until plants cover the ground
Good for: Sunny strips with good soil and easy water access
Michelle Regan had never grown so many vegetables until she started her parking strip patch. The North End gardener had converted her corner lot strips from parched grass four years ago (“I couldn’t stand the bad look,” she says), cutting out the sod and excavating near the curbs to avoid spillage. The south-facing strip has landscape fabric, soil mix, fine bark and a variety of ornamentals; but it’s the east-facing strip that gets all the attention from passers-by. Loaded with Tagro, snap peas tangle into trellises, while potatoes sprawl in straw mulch and greens go wild, like an organic farm in the middle of the city.
If she could do it over, Regan says she’d have sheet-mulched the ornamental bed with something that would break down, rather than gone for instant-gratification fabric. As it is, though, she’s spent very little maintenance time, and doesn’t water the ornamentals.
“I can harvest food right out of my doorstep,” she explains. “And it’s more attractive than a strip of lawn.”
Plant ideas: Any vegetables, though vertical plants will need support in the wind
Mulch: Compost, Tagro, leaves, straw
ALPINE ROCK GARDEN
Good for: Small areas with good irrigation
When Ross Barde decided he wanted an Alpine garden on one of his parking strips, he called his brother, a landscape gardener. It was done in six hours.
Barde’s tiny North End parking strip is perfect for the kind of miniature Japanese/Alpine setting he’s put there. The 5-by-20-foot strip has been contoured into a tiny hill, topped with a spruce, and surrounded by sedums, dwarf pines, grasses, boulders and another pom-pommed spruce.
Standing like a Japanese temple bell is a hanging home-made gong, which the neighborhood kids love to ring.
“That’s the fun of it, that’s why I put it there,” laughs Barde.
The garden echoes the weeping junipers and Japanese maples in Barde’s border beds, and at Christmas he decorates it with lights.
This kind of garden needs daily irrigation, however, so probably isn’t a good fit for larger strips.
Barde’s still got a strip of grass on the eastern side of his property – is he thinking of converting that too?
“I dig up a little more every year,” he says.
Plants: Dwarf, weeping or sculpted conifers, alpine flowers, sedums, grasses
Mulch: Fine bark, rocks
PERENNIAL COTTAGE GARDEN
Good for: Sunny or part-shade, smaller strips, low-budget, insects
Nancy Brones’ roadside garden is a rainbow of color. Pink rock rose, white and yellow yarrow, purple lavender, blue salvia and sea holly, towering pink foxgloves and bright lemon sedums. Farther along, under the trees, is a cool sea of green – ferns, hostas, evergreens. It’s a cottage garden that takes a lot of time to weed, but cost hardly any money – just what she spent 12 years ago on gravel mulch and a few ornamental boulders.
“It was just black plastic and bark before,” remembers Brones. “The trouble was, the weeds would grow through and tear it. It looked terrible.”
Brones dug up a few clumps of sod, turning them upside-down to create natural berms, but it became too much work. Instead, she sheet-mulched with cardboard topped with topsoil and gravel. The perennial cottage plants she got free from friends or cheap from garden work, and now it self-seeds. She never waters it.
“I think potable water for parking strips is a waste of resources,” Brones says. “If it doesn’t make it, that’s it.”
She does do a lot of maintenance, though, including pruning the cherry trees (hers is a busy street), weeding and cutting back plants that don’t make it.
“A lot of people don’t want to do this because they could hire someone to do grass,” points out Brones, who has nevertheless inspired two neighbors to cottage-up their strips too. “But it’s much more interesting than grass. It always looks different.”
Plant ideas: Daisies, Echinacea, salvia, lavender, sea holly, sedums, thymes, hollyhock, foxglove, rock rose, grasses, lilies, campanula, columbine, California lilac, butterfly bush, alpine strawberries
Mulch: Gravel, bark
SHADY COTTAGE GARDEN
Good for: Strips under trees
When Betty Hummel retired a few weeks ago, the City of Olympia gave her an official honor award – for her gardens. As well as her own Capitol area yard and that of her nearby office, she’d created a lush cottage garden on her long parking strip. It represents years of hard work.
When the city took out some old trees a decade ago, Hummel’s late husband decided he hated mowing grass, and dug up the trees’ roots also. Together they cut the sod and turned it over to make berms before adding their own compost. The city planted more oak trees, though, so over the years Hummel has added and subtracted plants that work in the shade – lilies, iris, poppies, daisies. She fertilizes with alfalfa pellets, pulls out spreaders and hose-waters in hot weather. In fact, she’s looking forward to retirement, so she’ll have more gardening time.
And the city loves it. “They told me my oak trees are bigger than all the others along this street,” says Hummel. “It’s all the attention.”
Plant ideas: Lilies, hostas, heucheras, daisies, iris, bulbs, ferns, natives
Mulch: Compost, leaves
VEGETABLE AND FRUIT GARDEN
Good for: Sunny strips, good soil, easy watering
There are quite a few parking strip veggie gardens near Lincoln Elementary in Olympia, but one stands out: 60 feet of raised beds, a kiwi arbor, plus espaliered trees, a grapevine and raspberries going around the corner into the next-door parking lot.
“We really wanted to maximize the space we have,” says David Koszka, who created the garden with his partner Rob Thoms. “There’s so much unused space in the world that could be used for food production. Hopefully the world will catch on.”
Koszka and Thoms tore up the sod three years ago, using it in their backyard and for a raised bed on the strip. The rest was turned over to large planter boxes. The following summer they made the arbor, with kiwi growing over it and an inviting deck chair beneath. They sourced woodchip mulch from a local event, bricks from online and lumber from a resale store. The couple grow potatoes, greens, tomatoes and more – and they’re happy to share with passers-by, though they keep their strawberries closer to the house.
Nestled inside a raised bed, two feet above the pavement, is a city water meter.
“We got a note from someone at the City – she loved the garden but had no access to the meter,” says Koszka. “So they raised it on a concrete block for us. They were really supportive.”
One big benefit, other than fresh produce, has been a lucrative career for Thoms. Seeing their garden, the next-door neighbor hired him to create a similar food yard. Now, Thoms has his own gardening business.
There are some challenges – mushrooms growing in the compost, grass coming out of the berms. And yes, they have to water every other morning, but for Thoms, its all part of the enjoyment.
“It’s a nice way to wake up,” he says.
Plant ideas: Fruit, vegetables
Mulch: Woodchips, compost
Good for: Sunny strips, large or small areas
The food corridor at Ninth Avenue and Franklin Street in Olympia runs for a whole block. Half of it belongs to organic bed-and-breakfast Fertile Ground, the other half to Northwest Ecobuilding, but both are aiming for the same idea: A parking strip that offers food to passers-by.
Fertile Ground, having a few years’ headstart, has a lush edible forest already, with pear and cherry trees, strawberries, raspberries, herbs and a few flowers thrown in. The other half of the block shows the garden in progress: Sheet-mulching with cardboard, topsoil and woodchip mulch, with the local chickens providing free fertilizer.
“We wanted to create it so people could nibble as they went by,” explains Fertile Ground’s Gail O’Sullivan. The strip never needs water, and only takes about 10 hours of weeding in the summer for maintenance of the drought-resistant plants.
“It’s the survival of the fittest out there,” she says.
But the garden also serves as a memorial for a friend who died just before they created it. Along with a plaque on the west side, her ashes are buried underneath some tiger-lilies, chosen for their similarity to her red-haired looks.
Plant ideas: Fruit trees, raspberry, strawberry, loganberry, cranberry, blueberry, other edibles such as wintergreen, rhubarb, kale
Mulch: Woodchips, bark
Good for: Sunny strips, large areas
There’s a house on Olympia’s east side that all the neighbors know and passers-by love. It’s a flower farm, where the entire front and backyard, plus a large parking strip, is devoted to cut flowers: Roses, lilies, lupines, peonies, baby’s breath. It’s a colorful beacon on a busy street.
Immaculately weeded and neatly spaced, it speaks of endless hours of devotion – as do the bark mulch bags stacked eight-high on the front porch – and the result, for the owners, is cash. Under two umbrellas by the driveway is a stand filled with vases of cut flowers, $3 a bunch on the honor system.
The owners don’t answer the door – but the parking strip speaks for itself, as a beautiful, profitable alternative to grass.
Plant ideas: Any sturdy flowers
Mulch: Bark, compost in spring
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568