I bought a home on a corner lot, so it came with two long, useless strips of lawn between the sidewalk and the road. It doesn't make sense to mow out there, there's already enough lawn to cut. They are also awkward to mow. Each one is 4' x 80', interrupted by trees, with a curb the mower can fall off of. What else can I plant there? I'm in Savannah, Georgia. - D.S. -
Public strip, park strip, parking strip, hell strip, sidewalk strip, tree lawn, parkway, median, right of way, outlawn -- people call it many names, which all sound the same when
muttered by a disgruntled mower/edger.
Right: What's Coming Up 144 has designs, how-to's and plant lists for alternative lawns. However, lawnlessness in the public strip raises unique considerations we'll address here. Between this article and What's Coming Up 144 (pdf) you can cover the whole front yard with other-than-lawn.
Notice in the aerial photo of this property (based on a Google Map; thank you Google!) or any scale drawing, that the outlawns are such a narrow border that they're almost insignificant compared to the rest of the property. So don't expect what you plant there to star in your landscape. Handle those areas simply and move on to the bigger spaces.
We prefer to think of gardeners whistling as they work. So here's a design idea for you, showing plants and initial plant placement. It's a big project that can be taken in stages, starting with the corner highlighted in violet.
Above, left: To be effective, a groundcover must be so vigorous that it's dense enough to prevent weeds from getting a foothold. Here, Japanese Pachysandra (P. terminalis) and a 'Calgary Carpet' juniper combine forces to cover ground. In our design combinations we give each plant "initial" placement, distinguishing that from eventual location. We place them where we think the environment is right but expect and rely on our chosen mix to mingle and move until each occupies spots best for its species.
Above, right: In this bed the juniper once dominated. As the trees in the bed have grown, shade-loving pachysandra has asserted itself. Lately we've been giving the juniper a helping hand, removing pachysandra that crowds it. Eventually, we'll let the pachysandra win.
Above, left: Sedum 'Angelina' to the left of the bench, myrtle (Vinca minor) to the right, and behind, one 'Calgary Carpet' juniper.
Right: We filled the sidewalk-crossed corner of this no-lawn lot with three of the ground-hugging juniper, 'Blue Rug' (Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii'). Sedum acre (blooming yellow) has followed the blue arrow, jumping across to fill any opening in the juniper.
...in the four-foot wide parking strip we address in this design, pruning will eventually be necessary. When you do that pruning don't simply clip the tips when they reach the pavement. That kind of cut turns the edge into a thick mat of brown twigs. To keep it feathery and healthy, prune to thin that juniper's leading edge.
We'd love to give you pictures of every one and will eventually post them here or forge links to hop from a plant name to other places where we have their photos. (For instance, creeping St. Johnswort.) For now, today we can't do it. We need to hop to it, as we've already missed our weekly deadline.) (Sponsor us and we can advance the cycle! Learn more!)
Even after you take plant recommendations such as these and look at the plants in a plant encyclopedia or on-line, go see them growing before you buy. Go to local public gardens, a botanical garden or a garden center with display beds. Be sure you like it before you turn it loose to become a groundcover in your yard. By their nature, groundcovers are aggressive spreaders. Should you decide you don't like one after it has become established, removing it can be a drawn-out trial.
Other possibilities for this property:
Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) Z 5-8
Rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) Z 4-10
Iceplant, spring-blooming (Delosperma nubegina) Z 6-9
Redstem stork's bill (Erodium reichardii) Z 7-9
Dwarf cranesbill (Geranium x cantabrigiense) Z 5-10
Golden coins (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') Z 5-9
Crested wood iris (Iris cristata) Z 5-8
Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) Z 5-9
Right: To decide what will work for you and in a particular spot, go on garden walks, stroll your own neighborhood and visit local public gardens to see the plants growing. That's Ajuga 'Bronze Beauty' in the foreground. Way in the background where Janet's kneeling to weed this alternative lawn, the very flat
light green plant is wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus).
It's a sun lover that could not hold its own in the shaded end where the ajuga reigns.
Below: Many of the plants on this list and in the design are here in this no-lawn, hardiness zone 5 lot we designed and helped the owner tend. In the foreground, cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) bloom. Behind the pinks, on the left, darker purple catmint (Nepeta x mussinii) is in flower. Just beyond the trunk of the locust is a landing paved with flagstone, with spaces between stones occupied by wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and Sedum acre.
1) Look around to be sure there's precedent for lawnlessness in local parking strips, or check your community ordinances before removing the grass there.
Some communities require that an outlawn be planted with turf, or kept to a certain height.
Although we gardeners know that these spaces can be effectively planted with no-mow, inoffensive species that bear up to some foot traffic and stay out of the public's way, that knowledge isn't worth a dime if a law says "Thou shalt have grass." No sense court trouble in the form of a code violation.
Above, right: To effectively smother grass along a curb or pavement in preparation for planting alternative groundcovers, use a spade (a "shovel" with a rectangular
blade) to cut along both edges (follow the blue lines in this photo of D.S.' public strip).
Trench along each edge by lifting out that sod. You can dispose of sod in a compost, as yard waste, or spread it on the lawn in the center of the strip, there to die under
newspaper and thick mulch.
If you leave that edge "as is," greenery will be left peeking out from under the edge of the newspaper and mulch. That plant won't die!
2) Next, remove or kill the lawn. Although we often opt to save labor by smothering existing vegetation over time, that's not the best solution if the beds are elevated. (D.S., your strips do look high!)
If we kill the grass in an elevated area and don't dig to change the grade, we end up planting into a mound. Irrigation water tends to run off a mound rather than soak in, so new plants have a hard time getting established. In addition, mulch will tend to slide down the slope onto the walk where it will demand sweeping.
So we remove the sod to lower and level the bed. That gives new plants a fair shot at irrigation water and leaves room for mulch, too.
In a previous photo, you saw a public strip where we removed the sod and then removed even more soil. Our aim was to stop all run-off from the sidewalk . The owner said, "I do not want water that falls here to run off into the gutter and end up muddying the river or adding to a water treatment plant's load." (Note: In lowering those public strips we made the conscious decision to contradict our normal salt-protection measures and accept some road salt damage, since spray from the road accumulates in such low areas.)
3) Be flexible. You may not be able to dig everywhere so a combination approach may be necessary. Smother where tree roots prevent digging and then let those spots be gradually colonized by groundcovers spreading from dug-out areas.
4) Place paving- or step- stones where pedestrians are likely to cross this strip or alight from parked cars.
5) Plant, mulch and enjoy your mow-less strips.
Here are nine things specific to public strips that we thought about in making this design:
Do we, as cool Northerners, envy a gardener in Savannah, Georgia for being in USDA hardiness zone 8b, average minimum winter temperature 15°F? Or do we feel pity, since that area's in AHS (American Horticultural Society) heat zone 8 with 90-120 days over 86°F each year? (That's 2 to 3 times more hot days as we usually have on our home ground.)
Neither. We work in a number of regions and know that every one has its pros and cons. So we simply adjust our plant choices and planting dates, then enjoy the result.
Southeast Michiganders and those on Georgia's northeast coast have a surprising number of plant choices in common. If you are in a colder zone than D.S. but would like to accomplish the same look and function, use this design but pay heed to the plant substitutions list included on the design.