Heavenly Hellstrips

by | Aug 24, 2018 | Landscapes, Native Plants

Hellstrip PHOTO Pam Penick

Colleen Jamison replaced invasive Bermudagrass with Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) and other native plants in this Central Austin hellstrip. PHOTO Pam Penick

If you have a yard to take care of, you’ve probably dealt with it: that sun-baked strip of lawn along the curb or in the no man’s land between street and sidewalk. Known colorfully as the “hellstrip” or prosaically as the “median” or “verge,” it’s a public space where neighbors pass by and visitors arrive. You want it to look good, yet conditions are challenging: compacted soil, reflected heat pulsing from surrounding pavement, Sahara-like aridity that hoses and sprinklers can’t quite reach. Indeed, maintaining your verge can leave you feeling a bit on the verge yourself.

In her book “Hellstrip Gardening,” author Evelyn J. Hadden describes hellstrips as pieces of property that are part of the public landscape. “These tough environments don’t often support healthy lawns,” she writes, “but they can host thriving gardens that dramatically improve their surroundings” — adding curb appeal, beautifying the neighborhood, saving water, and giving wildlife an urban stopover for shelter and food.

After taking a sustainable landscapes class at the Wildflower Center, Gary Citron felt inspired to makeover his own curbside strip of lawn. “Redoing the hellstrip seemed manageable,” he said, “and at 94 square feet would not be too costly to transform from St. Augustine lawn to a collection of native and adapted plants.”

Living near the Wildflower Center in Austin’s Shady Hollow neighborhood, Gary and his wife, Linda, visited the Center’s gardens at different times of the year and made note of plants they liked. (They are both members, and Linda volunteers at the Wildflower Center Gift Store.) “We tried to use tough native plants,” Gary says. “We have big muhly grasses [Muhlenbergia lindheimeri], autumn sage [Salvia greggii], calylophus [Calylophus sp.], skullcap [Scutellaria sp.] and non-native bulbine [Bulbine sp.], as well as native groundcovers like creeping germander [Teucrium canadense], woolly stemodia [Stemodia lanata] and annual bluebonnets [Lupinus texensis]. The idea was to put in plants that would look good most of the year and not present any hazardous conditions to pedestrians.”

Indeed, choosing plants that get too big or spiky is the biggest mistake people make in creating a curbside garden, says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Wildflower Center. “If there’s no irrigation and it’s sunny and hot, people want to use succulents,” she says, “which tend to be pointy and prickly.” She advises researching each plant’s ultimate size and choosing smaller, less spiny species. And don’t overlook native grasses like gramas (Bouteloua spp.), curly mesquite (Hilaria belangeri), buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides) and inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), or soft-textured perennials, none of which will stab anyone in the ankle.

“I’ve seen a hellstrip of native gayfeather,” DeLong-Amaya says, “and it was perfect. People usually give gayfeathers too much water or not enough sun. But a hellstrip generally has exactly the brutal conditions that Texas gayfeather [Liatris punctata var. mucronata], in particular, thrives in.”

Other considerations include cost, HOA or city rules, and potential damage done by people or pets. Colleen Jamison — whose home in Austin’s Highland Park neighborhood faces a long, narrow median — decided a few years ago to makeover the derelict space, which at the time was primarily filled with bleached, invasive Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) and weeds. “I took on a relatively small section at first to see what would happen,” she said. “Was there any response from the city or neighbors? Was there any vandalism or theft? I just didn’t have anything negative, so the next year I did another section, and the next year another section. And so on.”

By planting inexpensive and pass-along plants, Jamison avoided spending a lot of money, which made it feel less risky to invest in a public space. She planted two rows of retama trees (Parkinsonia aculeata) to shade a gravel path she laid in the center, with masses of wispy, self-seeding Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) along either side. Thrift shop benches placed along the path invite neighbors to stop and enjoy the garden on their walks. The response has overwhelmed Jamison. “When people tell me they enjoy it,” she says, “it makes me so happy.”

The Citrons’ neighborhood is governed by an HOA, so they presented a detailed plan for their hellstrip garden to the landscaping board. “We thought they’d think we were freaks,” says Gary, “but they were pretty receptive.” Their neighbors’ excitement during bluebonnet season and their own view from inside have also been rewarding: “Instead of asphalt, now we see pretty flowers,” says Linda.

Best of all, the new garden doesn’t require a lot of watering. “We use about one-third as much water as the average household in Texas,” Gary says. “People think, ‘Well, water’s cheap, so who cares?’” But he’s looking ahead, imagining ever-drier aquifers. “The hellstrip looks good and is interesting,” he explains, “and doesn’t require the water going all the time to maintain it.”


Terra cotta watering stake

A terra cotta stake releases water slowly. PHOTO Joanna Wojtkowiak

Curbside Design Tips

PLAN FOR PARKING Leave room for people to open their car doors and step out. Use stepping stones or mulch to create some spaces that aren’t planted.

KEEP IT SHORT Plant low-growing plants that won’t overwhelm the narrow space. DeLong-Amaya recommends native groundcovers like frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora), Gregg dalea (Dalea greggii), snake herb (Dyschoriste linearis) and woolly stemodia (Stemodia lanata).

CONTAIN THE SITUATION Where space is especially tight, or if you’re concerned about damage from pedestrians or pets, use containers to elevate plants out of harm’s way.

REMEMBER TO WATER New plants, even drought-tolerant or native plants, need water to get established. Make sure your hose can reach, advises Gary, or have alternate plans. Jamison repurposed wine bottles by upending them on terra cotta watering stakes (above) to keep her median-strip garden hydrated. “People loved it. All those upside-down wine bottles in the garden made people laugh.”

Pam Penick writes the gardening blog Digging and is the author of “Lawn Gone!” and  “The Water-Saving Garden.”