Hell Strips of the Street

 In Gardening

‘Hell strips’ of the street? Never heard of it? Well perhaps it’s time you did!

‘Hell strips’ are what West Coast cities of USA call that no-mans-land between the street and the pavement and it’s a very tough place to be!

But we have those ‘hell strips’ here too. Perhaps we don’t have quite so many and here they are just a feature of cities. Most of our towns and some of our villages have hell strips where invariably there is the odd street tree breaking up a narrow strip of grass that is mown to within an inch of its life! It is almost useless for wildlife and is dull bland and uniform to look at. Now maintaining this area must be expensive for local authorities so they might be interested in a different approach.

In two of the biggest west coast cities the adjacent homeowners are gardening those hell strips. I see little reason why that should not work here. The climate is similar if perhaps warmer in summer but winters are generally mild and moist.

hell strips 1I’ve just returned again from visiting family in Portland but I also visited Seattle on the way home. I’ve visited both cities several times before and have discovered that this practice is actually quite widespread. In both cases the local authority encourages this form of gardening and even provides discounted trees to plant. The thing that strikes me about these two big and sprawling cities is their awareness of the potential that this practice can bring society closer together. It can also go some way to offsetting carbon emissions and there is no doubt that, when done well, the whole neighbourhood is made much more attractive.

Of course, not everyone wants to cultivate that extra strip of land outside their front gate but those that do invariably make a very good job of it and get passers-by stop and chat.

It seems that almost anything goes with planting there! I’ve seen plenty of small trees, shrubs and perennial plants. I’ve also seem seasonal bulbs, ground cover and low maintenance plants, hardy ferns and even cacti planted there!

hell strips 2For some, this offers an extra space to grow food and this is especially so in Seattle. Here expect to see raised beds growing spinach, chard, kale, zucchini marrows, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and tomatoes. And don’t be surprised to see dwarf fruit trees such as cherries, apples, apricots and Asian pears. These are invariable under-planted with luscious looking strawberries.

But these berries and other edibles growing beside the sidewalk and the street might be a temptation for pedestrians here in the UK that is too good to resist. Not so in USA! Sadly it seems that there is still a greater respect for others properties there than we now have here in Britain.

hell strips 3But that’s no reason to not green up those unloved ‘hell strips’ is it? By having hardy plants there we will be providing a far better place for wildlife than that razored grass! Berries will feed birds, insects will be attracted to flowers, butterflies and moths will feed breed and multiply in these places.

Perhaps what is needed here is for this to become part of a community based movement so that everyone can keep an eye on things. And there is some evidence of this beginning with Todmorden Incredible Edible movement being a prime example. This West Yorkshire village has lead the way here in the UK and I’m delighted to see that the Incredible Edible group in Bristol is doing great things too! Incredible Edible is an enthusiastic group of [mostly] young people from all walks of life coming together to grow food in vacant, grey and unloved areas of our neighbourhoods.

hell strips 4Sure, we will need to give some careful thought to what is planted but no more thought than we do for planting inside our gardens. We don’t want trees that will grow too large and block the road or invasive bamboos that will push up the pavements! There could easily be a list of recommended species and this would weed out any invasive or problematic plants. The list should be focused on plants that tolerate difficult growing conditions – it’s not called ‘hell strips’ for nothing! Plants should be able to recover from set-backs and they need to be easily pruned. They will need to have natural pest and disease resistance too.

hell strips 5I’m not suggesting that we spend vast amounts on this planting as some in Portland had. Hardy palm trees, Japanese maples and topiary trained trees might be best inside the garden rather than risked on the roadside! Perhaps planted containers is the way to go? I would suggest that if so, they need to be large and not easily removed!

Several homeowners in Portland had magnificent pots planted with olive trees and beautifully under-planted with classy low growing hardy plants. I also saw a beautiful and very imaginative use of mosaic breaking up a ‘hell strip’ and this really got my vote! This allowed access from parked cars to the pavement in a very high-end way!

hell strips 6But how much better would it be for us all if we improved these in-between, no-mans-land areas? You may have been aware that the Royal Horticultural Society has recently joined this movement with its ‘Greening Grey Britain’ scheme so it’s become mainstream and no longer the prerogative of the guerrilla gardener.

So what do you think? Is it worthwhile?

Can we improve our hell strips of the street?

Will our local authorities have the foresight to see the value to our communities, to wildlife and the environment? I certainly hope so!

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