Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Berm Theory February 24, 2009

I passed this parking strip garden on a walk earlier this month, and although I’m sure it’s lusher and more filled-in-looking in summer, I was curious to see what “winter interest” was growing that could perhaps be added to my currently quite barren strip.

I thought it was interesting the way soil had been added to create several berms, which is one solution to the problem of soil compaction that so bedevils gardens in this part of the streetscape.

Parking strip berm from street

I have considered putting in berms but have always balked for some reason, maybe I just don’t like the humped-up look. Then again, an expanse of flat ground can be pretty boring without something to break it up, especially in winter. I kind of like wavy berms, rather than one big bump that looks like something’s buried underneath.

Ann Lovejoy, one of my favorite garden writers, has a brief article about berm-building here. It’s notes for a class she gave a while back, wish I could have attended!

This garden could have been meticulously planned out for all I know, but I liked the way it looked pretty casual, like maybe I could do it too if I just got a few more plants into the ground that would live through the winter. Nothing too show-stopping, but many different species of grasses, euphobias, sage, and probably a lot of stuff that’s under the ground at the moment, judging by the spent flower stalks and seed heads still visible.

Parking strip berm garden from sidewalk

Some of the euphorbias had lovely strong colors on their “flowers” – sorry, not sure of any varieties here.

Cool yellowish euphorbia


Reddish purple euphorbia

Cute grasses, maybe a blue fescue and a copper sedge?

Winter grasses

What is this, purple orach? Can that grow in the NW in mid-winter? Cool, if so!

Purple winter groundcover

The City of Seattle says not to put un-cemented stones in the parking strip (for fear someone could chuck one through a car window or friend’s head, I guess) but these folks did it anyway. The rocks might have been unearthed while digging up the garden beds, I know I have found quite a few that way.

Rocks edging berm

What’s your take on Berm Theory? Any fans of this form of gardening?


19 Responses to “Berm Theory”

  1. Melanthia Says:

    We ended up with berms in our parking strip after we put in the path and just chucked the dirt in the middle. Now it’s in sore need of good old compost. i’ll need to dig deeper in some of your earlier posts for inspiration!

    • greenwalks Says:

      Melanthia – Oh, don’t look to me for inspiration! You have that in spades, my dear. đŸ™‚ Hey, you’re on your way to a berm garden if you want one! I think you have to add layers of manure and mulch to keep it happy and I don’t know how to make sure the water doesn’t run off. I bet Ann Lovejoy has more info in some of her books, though. Can’t wait to see what you do with your parking strip, I know it will be awesome!

  2. tina Says:

    I love berms. A very good way to garden, define a flat spot of land and increase your garden space. I do think you have to make sure it is wide enough to compensate for the height though or it will look silly. This one looks fine. I would’ve loved to have been in her class too.

  3. Catherine Says:

    I like berms too, but I’ve never seen one on a parking strip. I think as long as someone is able to walk across is the only issue I could see. Could the purple plant be ajuga? Ours is looking like that now.

  4. Michele Says:

    I don’t know if I have a feeling about berms. It does add some interest though. I think that purple-ish plant is ajuga too.

  5. jgh Says:

    Seems like a good way to increase space and create interest, but I’m more apt to go in the other direction (sunken) or making a rain garden. Most of my impromtu beds are lined with rocks and miscellaneous bricks that I found in the yard. I love how the bottom one is edged with moss, too.

  6. Gail Says:

    I think berms work in some yards and in some spaces…you can tell when you see them. I am sure there is a rule of thumb about proportions that makes it feel right. In a suburban neighborhood they can give a home privacy and create interest…a neighbor has planted them with oakleaf hydangeas and other shrubs…Not bad looking, either. They are also great for directing water..swales… we used a dry creek instead. gail

  7. Grace Says:

    I think berms are a terrific element in garden design. They play off the whole “vertical” theme. They’re great for for drainage and for showcasing smaller rock garden plant specimens and I think they make an area appear larger. The purple leaves are definitely ajuga or bugle weed. (I like to call it bungle weed. Don’t ask why.) During my early days of gardening Ann Lovejoy was my proxy garden coach. I devoured her books and because none of them had pictures, I was forced to remember the botanical names and find a good reference book. (This was before the Internet.) Anyway, good post.

  8. Daniel Mount Says:

    Greenwalker, I think there is a time and a place for berms just like for topiary, or tea roses. They’re great if you want to grow things that need drainage or have poor soil and want to build it up with good soil. I did berms in a parking strip once many years ago, they’ve sunken a bit but they sure controlled the traffic flow, keeping people out of plants, but remember car doors must open and people get out, Be generous. I posted a picture, blurry, of what I bought at the garden show. D.

  9. I like the moniker – greenwalker – a good twitter name perhaps.

    Anyway, I like berms. Good for visual and aural privacy. Also, as others have noted, berms provide visual interest and even scale in the garden. Berms are useful in managing water in the garden (examples: and

    • does anyone have information on how berms can be used to lessen car noise? My guess is that the sound comes off the tires, and if you block it close enough to the road, it will save your house from being washed in noise – particularly impt. when you’re near an arterial. Any research or info on this would be appreciated.

  10. Megan Says:

    I’d probably do a berm for the right plants, but the urge hasn’t struck yet. I could see it for the plants that want excellent drainage, like so many on my wish list. And hakonechloa is so pretty when it spills over a little hill. Some day, I’ll have one of everything.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hi Megan – Yeah, I agree, maybe it’s determined by the conditions. I was thinking it might be a way to avoid building raised beds, but am not sure it would be water-wise if I want to grow veggies or other things that need more H2O. Yes, you will have one of everything someday, I am convinced – if anyone could do it, it would be you!

  11. Racquel Says:

    I like the idea of berms since having different levels in the garden can be quite interesting.

    • greenwalks Says:

      Racquel – Yes, I think when they are done right they can be really great. Just a big fat one plunked down in the middle of a lawn, however, can look pretty silly. I am thinking of putting one into my parking strip and just want to make sure it looks okay and doesn’t end up causing me to have to water more.

  12. Laura Says:

    I just found your blog stumbling around looking for easy to build raised beds. I just assumed that I had to ‘get thee to a hardware store’ to buy some untreated lumber but apparently I just need to pile up some dirt.
    Saves me trip and the cost of the lumber as well as the breaking of my back to put said lumber together into a raised bed. I’d say that’s a win!
    All of that makes me much more likely to do it, also. Lovely blog you have going here. Adding you to my GoogleReader now. đŸ™‚

    • greenwalks Says:

      Hello and welcome, Sophielovespeanutbutter (that was fun to write!) – I can’t promise that berms work the same way as raised beds, but if you do a little more reading, maybe you’ll find out how to manage them. I think the main issue might be water retention/drainage. I’m with you on the back factor, though! Seems like an easier way to go as long as you do it in a way that makes sense for what you want to grow. Good luck and thanks for the add!

  13. hey there, hoping it’s OK, used your pic above in my new blog – am looking for information about cities and towns that have used massive amounts of berming to quiet residential arterial streets. i hope to start a movement here in Portland.

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