(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!