Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Toasted Flax January 16, 2009

The title might lead you to believe that this is going to be something in the way of a healthy culinary post, but I am not here to extol the virtues of flax as a fine source of alpha-linolenic acid. Nope.

With our spate of awful weather in December, there is one category of plants that is just not looking well these days. It’s the edge-of-zone-hardiness crew, which includes the seemingly ever-popular New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax. Along with euphorbia, I would say this is one of the most often-used (or some may say over-used) landscape plants in Seattle.

Often used as a focal plant due to its impressive size at maturity, the appeal of this plant is undeniable. It provides height and interesting color, strong/sharp shape and a semi-tropical look to our Northwest gardens. Bronze varieties are seen all over the city. Here is a photo of one in my neighborhood, pre-snow, looking really healthy:


Alas, this seems to me to be a classic example of pushing the hardiness envelope a bit too far – according to my plant guide, it’s only good for Zones 9-10 (i.e. New Zealand’s climate), whereas we are normally 8, with a longer dip into the 20sF this year than usual. I am certainly often guilty of this garden sin myself, that of hoping for mild winters so certain tender plants will survive (yeah, I’m talking about you, adorable but not frost-hardy ornamental pomegranate – arrrrrrrrrgh!), so I am not casting any stones here!

Here is what many of them are looking like these days, post-freeze (note: this is a different specimen than the one pictured above):


Poor things. I have no idea if they will recover or not. I’m guessing not. Anyone with experience who can weigh in here? Is it possible for this plant to die down in cold weather but come back from the ground? Or is it likely to be, as I fear, toast? And do you ever find yourself falling for and bringing home plants that you know may be zapped if you have an unusual weather year? Or even a typical one?


Tiki Street Garden January 12, 2009

I spotted this one on one of our alternate school routes the other week, before the snows. I hadn’t walked by it before and had to go back for a closer look later, with camera.

Although rock gardens are not my own personal style, I had to admire this gardener’s flair for the unique. This certainly does not look like any other parking strip or front garden I’ve seen elsewhere in Seattle!

Parking strip rock garden beds

What is that pink thing, a slice of petrified wood? I love the beds outlined in darker rocks, also the festively-copper-painted fire hydrant.

Fairly common Northwest plants are not always paired with gravel and rock-decorated beds like these. Here there is a conifer and a small senecio, and some of you will probably know what the low-growing yellow variegated groundcover in the foreground is, its name is escaping me at the moment.

Parking strip garden

Here it is up closer, next to an antler as garden art!

Antler garden accent

The wackiness continues on the other side of the sidewalk in the house’s front garden, where all of the lawn has been removed and half has been given over to further rock garden beds.

Lawn alternative

The other half of the front former-lawn made me think of a northwest mostly-green version of a South Pacific idyll.

No front lawn

You can see that they have not been shy about their house color either – bright yellow!

This New Zealand flax plant was looking very healthy. I wonder how it survived the cold weather that hit just afterward? Many I have seen in street gardens did not fare so well. They are kind of at the edge of hardiness in our zone, so this was not a good winter for them. I’m curious to see if any will rebound.

Perennial garden

Dotted throughout the front are what look like home-carved totems of some sort. I looked at idols and images from many cultures and didn’t find any that looked like this. Maybe they are the owner’s idea of garden spirits?

Yard totem

Garden idol

Nyack Backyard had an interesting post about homeowners associations and garden restrictions. You can bet this garden wouldn’t pass muster in one of those communties! Yet another reason I could never live in one. I love it when gardeners let their freak flags fly! How about you, got any wacky gardens in your ‘hood?


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!



Winter Crabapples January 7, 2009

After yet another snowfall the other day, I spotted this parking strip crabapple and had to stop, slog through the slush, and take some photos. I have complained about my own crabapples, which are spindly and perhaps have been poorly pruned, but these ones had a nice shape and the color of their fruit is really pleasing. Plus, they looked pretty with the snow melting off of them.

Crabapple in winter

I’m not sure why the birds have left these alone – maybe they are too tart even for our avian friends? I know there are fans of crabapple jelly out there, it seems like kind of a green tomato thing to me but hey, whatever floats your culinary boat.

Raintree Nursery has a lot of crabapple varieties. They can be used as ornamentals, for their fruit (usually for preserves), and also as pollinators for regular apple trees.

Snow melting off crabapples


Unusual Winter Food for Crows December 16, 2008

Filed under: edibles,fauna,neighborhood gardens — greenwalks @ 9:16 pm
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Crazy times here at the end of the year, haven’t been able to do much more than lament my lack of time for writing blog posts, reading others’ or leaving comments. I look forward to getting back to all of that, probably not until  January though!

Things have been so hectic that I can’t even seem to remember to take my camera with me when I leave the house. I’m usually driving these days, sadly, no “greenwalks” for me at the moment.

In the parking strip a few blocks from our house, someone had put out their (uncarved) pumpkins a few weeks ago in the bare dirt and leaves. Hm, I thought, odd choice but whatever. Then someone else (I suspect teenagers but maybe that’s unfair) smashed every single one of them, leaving them in place but completely shattered. Before the rot could set in, we got a really crazy cold snap (for here) and they have been perfectly preserved in their new forms. The result is oddly artistic, and I have been watching them every day as I drive by to see what will happen next.

Well, during the afternoon school run the other day, we were driving by and saw a funny sight – 6 or more crows happily nibbling away on the pumpkin shards! Maybe it tasted like pumpkin ice cream to them (one of my favorite flavors at the legendary Mitchell’s Ice Cream in San Francisco, it’s only available in the fall and early winter and I missed going there on our last visit). I lamented my lack of a camera, and my daughter asked “why, is it for your blog?” Oh dear, I guess she’s heard that word a few too many times around here! So I said yes, I wished I’d been able to take a picture of it and she said “Well, I could draw a picture and then you could put that in your blog instead.” How could I resist an offer like that?

In her rendition, there is only one pumpkin, and the crows are flying over it, not eating it, but that’s artistic license (and 5 year olds) for you. 🙂

Crows & pumpkin drawing


Summer in Winter December 8, 2008

Our comparatively mild fall and early winter here in Seattle has produced what seems like an especially long blooming season for many of our flowering plants. I should keep better records so that it’s not just speculation, but to me it seems strange to have certain things still putting out flowers here in the second week of December.

Even though I’ve added a few evergreen perennials to the parking strip, it still ought to be a comparative moonscape by now. But lo and behold, look what I found out there yesterday:

The ‘Pink Panda’ strawberries are still putting out flowers.

Pink Panda strawberries in December

Pineapple sage is a late-season bloomer, but I don’t recall it hanging in there quite so long. I’m sure the hummingbirds don’t mind!

Pineapple sage in December

The golden variety is still chugging along too.

Golden pineapple sage in December

This one really shocked me:

December Nasturtium?!!

I didn’t think it was possible to have nasturtiums here in December! And they’re even putting out babies!?! (At the right of the  photo below, next to my slowly-growing mesclun seedlings.)

Mesclun and volunteer nasturtiums in December?!

There’s exactly one heroic cosmos and aster left each, a little worse for wear but still going.

December Cosmos!?!

Late-season asters

And, from the upper level garden, just like Raquel over at Perennial Garden Lover, I have one very last rose. My plants were inherited and are not disease-resistant, so they may get dug up next year since I am never going to spray. But I do appreciate the last vestige of summer that this rose provided, and I have made sure to look at it every day in appreciation.

Last Rose

What about you, got anything blooming unseasonably late this year?


Cherry Trees in Planter Boxes December 6, 2008

Walking around my neighborhood the other week, I saw these relatively mature ornamental cherry trees in the parking strip.

Cherry tree planter boxes

I was curious about the planter boxes, which are a bit weathered and coming apart at some of the corners. I imagine the intention was to help the trees get a good initial start in an area where soil compaction is usually high. There is nothing (at least currently) planted underneath, so that doesn’t seem to have been the plan.

The trees, bare of their leaves, had been recently mulched and seemed to be tucked in snugly for their winter nap. Some of the claims to fame for mulching include insulation, nutrient supply, weed control, water conservation and disease suppression (per Linda Chalker-Scott’s “The Informed Gardener.”)

Cherry tree planter box with mulch

When mulching trees, I have read that it’s a good idea to keep the mulch away from the root crown. What do you think, did this gardener do it correctly or is it too close to the crown? I have to admit in advance that I don’t know the answer! Do you mulch your trees? If so, what material do you use? How have they fared?