Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Top 9 Objections to Gardening in the Parking Strip – Exploded! January 10, 2009

(Yes, I know, 10 is the traditional number for lists of this sort. But I chose 9 for our new year, 2009, so sue me. Actually, please don’t, otherwise I’ll have no money left for buying plants.)

Have you been aching for some more space to garden, perhaps even a blank canvas to cover with your very own entirely self-determined plantscape? Are you staring longingly at the last un-colonized patch of ground in view but are worried to touch it for one of the following reasons?

9. I’m not sure where the sewer and water lines are out there and I’m afraid to dig and hit one.

Before you start digging anywhere in your garden, you should know where your underground utilities are. Call your local municipality or look at their web site to determine how to contact them to get the lines marked. In Seattle, it’s 1-800-424-5555  for the location of your water, electric and gas lines. For the side sewer, call the Department of Construction & Land Use at 206-684-5362. Shallow digging for planting veggie seeds is probably pretty safe, but if you plan to dig and amend your beds or plant a tree, it’s safer to get this checked in advance.

8. The soil quality out there is terrible.

The issue with parking strip soil is often more that of compaction than soil quality. One way to address this is by building raised beds to house your favorite new plants. Another is to try lasagna gardening, sheet mulching, or berms.

7. It would be hard to water a street garden.

Planting a mostly water-wise garden in this area is a good bet. Or, for things that need a more frequent drink, add an extra section attached to your front hose or, better yet, a drip watering system.
6. I don’t know what plants would survive out there, much less thrive.

It’s true that conditions in that space can be tough. The plants you select need to be able to withstand greater heat due to refraction from surrounding pavement, in addition to any soil quality or compaction issues. Then again, the whole reason I started gardening in the parking strip to begin with was that it provided the single sunny spot in my previous garden. Even a small raised bed with some decent soil in it can help you raise things that might not get enough light in another spot, such as peppers, tomatoes or squash. Xeriscaping is a hot topic for gardeners these days, and some cities offer lists of suggested plants (for Seattle, click here for a list of recommended street plants.)

5. Animals and people might trash my plants.

If you’re worried about this, you can always group your edibles in one spot and enclose it with a low wire fence (that has worked for me so far, with dogs at least). People often respect a friendly, nicely painted sign asking them to refrain from picking street produce. Cats sometimes like to use freshly dug soil as a bathroom, so I’ve sometimes covered newly spaded or planted beds with chicken wire for a while until the soil settles and it’s no longer so attractive to them. Alas, there is no way to keep the squirrels at bay, that I’ve found anyway! They’ll take whatever they want, when they want it. But that applies to all areas of the garden.

4. Any edibles I plant and harvest might have contaminants.

A soil scientist I contacted said he felt the parking strip was no more likely to have contaminants than any other part of an urban garden. In fact, lead particles may be more likely to be found near the house, at least in areas where construction predates the 1970s, when lead paint was discontinued. If you are concerned about this, have your soil tested by one of the many labs offering this service. Or keep your plantings ornamental and your edibles somewhere else.

3. Nobody else on my street is gardening out there.

Well, every positive movement has to have a vanguard. Consider yourself a pioneer! You may soon have others on your block taking your lead, or at least asking you for advice on how to transform their own spaces.

2. Eek, I might actually have to meet and talk to my neighbors if I garden in such a public space.

True, gardening on the street does usually result in increased contact with neighbors. In my case, I have either met for the first time or gotten to know better quite a few folks from their visits to or strolls past my parking strip plot when I’m out there laboring away. Some ask questions, others offer the occasional compliment, and I also try to share what I can even if it’s just a taste of a nasturtium blossom or an unfamiliar herb, especially with the local kids.
1. The city owns it and I’m not allowed to plant anything out there.

Again, this is one to check with your local municipality about. Here in Seattle, the property owner is responsible for maintaining the parking strip but the city considers it a right-of-way. So, you are free to garden there but are supposed to plant it within their guidelines. This usually means observing height and offset limits for intersection visibility, keeping trees of an appropriate height and type to avoid power lines, and not causing tripping hazards for pedestrians. Even within this framework, there’s an almost infinite number of possibilities for replacing a strip of tired turf with something a lot more exciting.

Well, now that that’s settled, what are you waiting for? Get out there and green it up!



25 Responses to “Top 9 Objections to Gardening in the Parking Strip – Exploded!”

  1. Kris at t.m. Says:

    oh my gosh, I don’t know where you live and maybe it’s just the volvo parked nearby, but that looks so Seattle-familiar! I love the idea of planting the parking strip (a.k.a. hell strip) and I don’t really have one (there’s no sidewalk on my street) but I’d plant it if I did. Great tips.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Kris – Bingo! Yup, Seattle streetscapes are never complete without a Volvo 240. Or at least in my neighborhood they aren’t. Although they are becoming more scarce as the years go by. That one was my folks’, we inherited it one summer when its air conditioning broke and my mom couldn’t stand it anymore. It is like a tank. A tow truck driver told us once that the only cars he never pulled anyone dead out of were Volvos and Jaguars. That was enough for me to figure we’ll need to keep our running forever!

  2. Chloe M Says:


    I love your blog. Hopefully more people will be inspired to create lovely, curbside gardens after seeing pictures like the one above.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have any parking strips where I live now, and I kind of miss them!

    Chloe M.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Chloe – Aw, thanks! If reading something on this site encourages even a few people to transform their street gardens, I would feel honored and proud. And even if it doesn’t, it’s been fun to chronicle the creative ways people garden in this space, despite many challenges!

  3. Racquel Says:

    No parking strips here where I live, but you have some convincing reasons to utilize this area if I did. 🙂

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Racquel – Well, maybe you could kind of consider your next-to-driveway bed kind of a parking strip. It probably has a lot of the same challenges and requirements in terms of compaction, dryness, reflected heat, etc.

  4. Aerie-el Says:

    What an excellent ‘top 9’!

    The place I’ve found to have really reasonable prices and does a great job (quick, efficient, what you need) for soil testing is University of Massachusetts soil testing services. Here is a link to their services and prices:

    I’ve also found adding compost every year really improves the soil and makes it easier to dig/plant/grow stuff.

    You’ve inspired me to plant stuff in my little strip–this year is the year!


    • greenwalks Says:

      Aerie-el – Thanks for the tip on the soil testing outfit, I haven’t done this yet so that is a good option. I have also dug in compost every year but some recent reading has got me questioning that strategy. Something I want to talk about at our upcoming gathering! I can’t wait to see what you do with your hell strip – I will of course link to any post you do about it! 🙂

  5. Georgia Says:

    I’ve long envied the sidewalk gardens in Berkeley. There’s a mostly barren one in front of our house and your Top 9 is inspiring…

    • greenwalks Says:

      Georgia – Oh, I know you can do something really amazing with that strip in front of your house… if you can find the time. Blank slates can be intimidating, but I say go for it!

  6. Catherine Says:

    I just love that you are encouraging this idea. We don’t have parking strips in my neighborhood, but I just love when I see them lush and full of colorful plants! I think you’re right about pioneering. It does seem that once a neighbor sees how nice it can look they might try it themselves!

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Catherine – Thank you, I do feel like my small role here is as cheerleader and provider of ideas for anyone who might want to take on this kind of project themselves. I think a lot of people just need a small nudge to do it, they just hadn’t thought of it before or it seemed challenging for some reason. I have seen entire blocks that have decided to rip out their grass – on our street, it’s mostly only on one side of the street for some odd reason! It always has to start with someone.

  7. The city just took down a tree that’s been dying on my “hellstrip” and I’m now contemplating planting, as it wasn’t worth it before to plant around a dying tree that needed to be removed. I think I either knew, or assumed many of your rules. I think you’re wise to add #2. Time for neighbors and passersby is a blessing and annoyance, depending on who’s passing by.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi again Jim – Good luck with your hell strip transformation. I’m sure you’ll come up with something cool! With neighbors, you can always wear an iPod or Walkman if you don’t want to be bothered. Or just really look involved in your project – that helps me sometimes too if I don’t have time to chat! But mostly I have found it is a positive, and I am a fairly shy and often misanthropic person at times.

  8. Oh, and one of the best hellstrips I’ve ever seen I did a post on a while back. To see some photos of it, visit:!.html

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Jim – Thanks for the link. That certainly is a lovely garden! I really love it when people decide to get creative and provide passers-by with something interesting to look at.

  9. Curmudgeon Says:

    Last spring war broke out between a neighbor with a parking strip garden and the local dog lovers. The neighbor’s hydrangea got used as a fire hydrant once too often and looked terrible. He put out a bowl of dog cookies and a sign asking for people to respect his garden. Dog owners got into a huff and started leaving him messages on his sign. This went on for weeks. It turned into quite a bulletin board. I thought his sign and request were reasonable.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Curmudgeon – Bummer! I’ve been lucky about that issue so far, I guess. I have a rant about Seattle dog owners in my head but I’m not putting it in print since I don’t want to risk offending the “good” ones like you. 🙂 I would also not recommend putting anything valuable or too beloved out there on the street – just too risky that it will get damaged somehow. There are a lot of tough plants, though, that can look good and generally stand up to a reasonable amount of abuse.

  10. Molly Says:

    Reason #2 is exactly why a good friend abandoned her parking strip plot in Ballard. After a long day of work in one of those “open offices” the last thing she wanted was conversation with any passerby. Actually, she didn’t abandon the plot, she just put in tough perennials and moved her vegetable plot to the back yard.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Well, social gardening isn’t for everyone. I forgot to mention that there’s always, as in the R.E.M. song, “Gardening at Night.” I used to do that sometimes when there wasn’t any other time, and it does cut down on neighbor chattiness. 🙂

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Molly – Well, it can really depend on your neighbors. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky, on the whole. It depends on your tolerance for chattiness, if you can keep gardening while talking, if you even like to talk to your neighbors, etc. I think you have to be at least a tiny bit willing to socialize or even proselytize for street gardening if you’re going to get out there. If you consider gardening to be a private solace, then the backyard is probably better!

  11. Good Acres Says:

    Cool idea for a blog — there is a movement afoot in San Francisco to dig up sidewalk to expand our green areas. While we have two Chinese Elm street trees, we haven’t yet dug up the sidewalk (your blog hopefully will inspire us to do this in the coming year). Thanks for stopping by my blog. Cheers.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Good Acres –

      Thanks! I know it’s kind of a small niche, but oh well. I’m hoping more people will get into gardening on the street, it can be pretty fun despite all the challenges I listed (and more). That’s cool that you can do that in SF – too much pavement there, and so many lovely plants you can grow. I did a few posts about the good folks behind the Mission High and Everett Middle School garden renovations – maybe they could help you with further advice and inspiration as you transform your street!

  12. Kanak Says:

    Hi Karen, loved going through your top 9 list! Nice idea about the 9. Although where I live is so different from what you write about, I simply love to see your posts! And patches of green in public places always remind me of Greenwalks!

    Here’s to a wonderful 2009!!

    • greenwalks Says:

      Trying out my new WordPress comment moderation tool here, hope I figure it out (slow start to blogging innovations in the new year here, alas). I love reading about your life and observations in India, Kanak. I think you are like me in that you enjoy seeing what others (including Mother Nature) are up to as much as you like doing things in your own garden!

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