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Garden Designers Roundtable – What’s lawn doing in Hell?

by Rebecca Sweet

Let me state up front that I’m not a hater when it comes to lawns.  There, I’ve said it. If you have a lawn and you or your kids actually use it, then it’s okay in my book.  Especially if you don’t have unrealistic expectations that you need to saturate your garden with chemicals to keep your lawn weed free and in tip-top shape at all times.

However, in California’s Mediterranean climate where water is such a precious commodity, planting a lawn where it’ll never be truly enjoyed just doesn’t make sense.  Why waste valuable water and energy when you can plant something that can provide edibles, flowers, year-round interest and attract beneficial insects?

To help you get started down this lawn-free path, join me in this month’s Garden Designers Roundtable, where the topic is ‘Lawn Alternatives’ for your garden.  And it’s not just the Roundtable that’s participating this month, we’ve also combined forces with some of the folks at the Lawn Reform Coalition.

For my part today,  I’m focusing on the area between the sidewalk and the street, lovingly known as the hellstrip.  This poor area has so much going against it, it’s hard to imagine anything thriving here which is usually why people give up and just plant water-thirsty lawn.

1.  Why is this section called a hellstrip, anyway?

Well, one reason is that due to years of neglect and compaction this rectangular patch of dirt typically contains little to no nutrients and has the consistency of cured cement.  Additionally, this area is surrounded by the hottest, heatreflecting surfaces in the landscape – asphalt from the street and concrete from the sidewalk.

And when planted with lawn the shape of these rectangular strips are inefficient (and expensive) to irrigate, causing water to be wasted on the sidewalk and street.

Another reason lawns are a crummy choice is it’s challenging to mow when mailboxes or fire hydrants share this space.

To make matters worse these strips are usually owned by the city but are expected to be maintained by the homeowner.  Just to be safe, before planting anything you might want to check with your local ordinances.  You’ll probably hear the typical common sense suggestions not to plant anything too high or too large that might obstruct views of traffic or pedestrians.    So what’s the solution?   Read on…..

2.  Designing your hellstrip

To begin, you’ll first need to amend the heck out of the soil to replenish much needed nutrients.

Then comes the fun part – thinking  about your front garden and how you can extend it to the street.  I’m not talking about simply planting ivy and calling it a day (though that would be better than lawn since it doesn’t require as much water).


I’m talking about using similar plants and colors that are already planted in your front garden and extending them all the way down to the street. But keep in mind that the city owns this section of your garden and can do with it as it pleases.  You don’t want to plant expensive, precious plants here but instead plant hardy, inexpensive ones that you can easily replace if needed. (click here for a sad, but true, story.)

Keep a consistent style within this strip to help it blend in with the rest of your garden.  For example if your garden’s style tends to be formal, why not add a boxwood knot garden in this area?  Boxwood is a perfect choice as it’s compact, evergreen, low maintenance and doesn’t chug tons of water.

When planting in this narrow strip make sure you use plants that area friendly to legs.  No one wants to walk their dog and be impaled by an overgrown barberry’s thorns or stung by a bee!

Instead, choose plants that will remain a tidy size and are soft if brushed against.  Better examples would be smaller grasses such as melinis nerviglumis or pennisetum ’Red Bunnytails’, the many varieties of carex (c. ‘Evergold’, or c. divulsa for example), mounding heucheras or low-growing perennials.

And don’t forget edibles!  Since this area is plagued with blistering heat, why not take advantage of it and use plants that love hot temperatures.  Edibles are a perfect choice and while they may require as much water as a lawn does, they give you SO much more.  Take a look for yourself at fellow GDRT member, Ivette Soler’s very public and very edible hellstrip.

Beats a boring lawn any day!

3.  Pathways 

Flagstone + cement + bricks = too busy! The flagstone and cement are the perfect combo

Keep in mind that you really should create some sort of pathway from the street to the sidewalk, otherwise how will people get to your front door? Believe me when I say that people will take the shortest route possible to get from Point A to Point B, which usually translates into tromping through your newly planted area.  Create a wide and stable pathway and you won’t have this problem (yes, even on Halloween). When creating the pathway, keep your garden’s overall design consistent by using the same material on both sides of the sidewalk.  For example, if the path to your front door is brick, don’t use flagstone in the hellstrip as it’ll end up looking fragmented (especially considering the big swath of cement from the sidewalk that already bisects your pathway.)  Two hardscaping materials is plenty – don’t add a third! I also see a lot of river rocks as a no-lawn, no-hassle solution. While, yes, this is low-maintenance it’s also an ankle-twister.

Think about your poor visitors who pull up along your curb at night and step out of their car.  Not a good thing (especially if they’re wearing sandals or high-heels!)

Need more inspiration?  Check out these fine examples of hellstrips planted without lawn:

No more mowing around this fire hydrant! Drought tolerant plantings from garden to strip


      Nicely pruned to stay out of a pedestrian’s way                                    Low maintenance AND low water

*For more information on lawn alternatives, please stop by  the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable and Lawn Reform Coalition who are writing about this topic – you won’t regret it!Susan Harris : Garden Rant : Takoma Park, MD

Susan Harris : Gardener Susan’s Blog : Takoma Park, MD

Billy Goodnick : Cool Green Gardens : Santa Barbara, CA

Evelyn Hadden : Lawn Reform.Org : Saint Paul, MN

Saxon Holt : Gardening Gone Wild : Novato, CA

Ginny Stibolt : Florida Native Plant Society : Green Cove Springs, FL

Tara Dilliard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden, Life, Home : Atlanta, GA

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT


Landscaping_Katy September 1, 2011 at 2:26 am

“Hell strip” alright. How apt a term. But I have to agree with everyone in here. Your ideas and suggestions are great and very doable. Good to know something positive can be done besides looking at the hellstrip and groaning. Kudos to you!

Rebecca Sweet September 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Thanks Katy!

Nikos Lynch August 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm


Town Mouse August 28, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Ha! This was quite possibly my most favorite of the Lawn round table posts. Thanks so much, great ideas!

Rebecca Sweet August 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Awww…thanks Townie! I’m so glad you liked it!!

Robert Webber August 27, 2011 at 9:09 am

Never heard of the term hell strip before. We have a good few in this country.
You have opened my eyes as to planting and the considerations which have to be taken into account. Some lovely ideas here, but the boxwood one is COOL!
Thanks and Best

Rebecca Sweet August 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Thank you, Robert – the term is a perfect one, isn’t it?

Loree/danger garden August 25, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Hi Rebecca! I just discovered your link to my hell-strip nightmare! The plants have all rebounded but I’m still discovering bright yellow rocks….

Love all of your inspiring images!

Rebecca Sweet August 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Hi Loree – LOVED your story. I had meant to shoot you an email to ask if it was okay, but I totally forgot! Glad you’re cool with it! Glad to hear your plants have rebounded, too….

Jenny Peterson August 25, 2011 at 10:36 am

Rebecca, those are awesome examples of how to treat the Hell Strip! In our area, we’ve recently done several projects where we removed the grass in that area and added a variety of rocks–river rock, boulders and cobbles. But I agree with you–river rock alone doesn’t do the trick if you have visitors pulling up and parking. Give them a “landing pad” to step onto and blend it in to its surroundings. Great post!

Rebecca Sweet August 28, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Thanks Jenny. I’d love to see some pics of what you guys are doing without the plants. I know this year in particular is a horrible one and you’re being forced to be extra creative with stone – would love to see what you’ve come up with!!

Jocelyn/the art garden August 24, 2011 at 8:06 am

I see the beginnings of a new book here, Rebecca! Hellstrips seem to be the #1 place where folks are willing to give up their lawns, and you’ve given them some fantastic ideas here!

Rebecca Sweet August 25, 2011 at 7:32 am

Thanks Jocelyn! One could certainly have fun writing a book about hellstrips, couldn’t they?! Hmmmm…..sounds like a little food for thought…..

Pam/Digging August 23, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I’m with your other commenters: that boxwood swirl totally rocks! It reminds me of the “embroidery garden” in James David’s Austin garden: (scroll to 5th picture). We don’t have sidewalks on my street, but I still redid my hell strip along the street last fall, putting in a decomposed-granite sidewalk edged with limestone block, with a pretty xeric bed eating into the front lawn along the length of it. So much better than half-dead lawn along the street, and much more welcoming. Little by little, as the budget allows, I’m getting rid of my front lawn and loving the results. In my former garden I ripped out the front lawn the first year (it was much smaller than my current yard), planted a garden, and never looked back.

Rebecca Sweet August 25, 2011 at 7:35 am

Oh gosh, Pam, you’re right! That hellstrip is so much like James David’s garden! Thanks for the link – another gorgeous garden tour from you!! (hey – did you ever think about writing a book? ;)

I’m slowly removing my entire front lawn, too. I’m down to a small circle (a lawnlett, really) and am just waiting to find the time to re-do the entire thing. Some day soon, I hope.

Susan Morrison August 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm

I walk in my neighborhood a few mornings a week. When someone takes the time to extend their garden into the hellstrip, I always feel like they’ve given me a little gift. (Plus, no sprinklers saturating the sidewalk that I have to dodge!)

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm

You’re right, Susan, it IS a little gift, isn’t it? Especially since so often these areas aren’t really visible from their home. Truly a gift for others!

Curbstone Valley Farm August 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Lovely examples! I really love the spiral boxwoods, although they’d look a little out of place here, they’d quite a conversation piece in the garden! My entire front yard is a hell-strip. It was the previous owner’s lawn, but we’ve let it run amok until we can decide what to do with it. As it sits over the septic leach field, it’s been a bit of a challenge, along with the deer that like to eat most things we plant. We have too many river rocks already, again, courtesy of previous owners, and I agree, they are absolute ankle turners. If my ankles never see another river rock, they’ll be very happy! I’m definitely leaning in the low maintenance, low water direction though, whatever it will turn out to be!

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm

You know, sometimes you just have to let an area ‘be’ for awhile until you’re mentally and physically up for it. Nothin’ wrong with that! Plus, it lets you know what really wants to grow there (hopefully something more exciting than the oxalis that wants to take over the neighborhood). Someday you’ll get to it, and when you do – look OUT! :)

Debbie/GardenofPossibilities August 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Rebecca, Wow, what fantastic pictures. You’ve shown so many options, literally something for everyone. But I’m with Gen, for some strange reason I really like that boxwood swirl. Of course here in CT, it would be dead after the first winter, killed by road salt. But still, it makes quite a statement.

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 5:37 pm

I’m with you and Gen – that boxwood is so cool, isn’t it? Not for me, but still cool! I always forget about your road salt – one more reason why they put the ‘hell’ in hellstrip, right?

Saxon August 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

Some great examples Rebecca. With gardening space so limited for so many urban and suburbanites, why not open your eyes up to that piece of ground. One piece of caution, remember you are inevitably inviting in the creatures and pets in your neighborhood to “use” your hellstrip too. Just another design consideration ….

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

So true, Saxon. Those doggies will love ‘christening’ your plants for you!

Genevieve August 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

It’s funny, I think of myself as having a casual style, but that boxwood swirl is oddly intriguing! I dig it. Also, unsurprisingly, love the varied plantings and the grasses, especially the wavy, casual ones.
And thank you for pointing out what NOT to do, too. That ankle-twister of cobble is awful! Pretty, but ouch!!!
I’m not sure I agree about the ivy being better than lawn, though. I know you were being tongue-in-cheek, but I’d way rather have a brown patch of unwatered lawn than a noxious invasive! (I’m biased, though – ivy makes me sneeze terribly!)
Beautiful post, Rebecca. The text and the photos work together beautifully, and you’ve presented some inspiring ideas with what to do in hell.

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Thanks Gen – I agree with you, too. Every time I pass by that boxwood hellstrip I like it more and more. Very cool!

Susan Harris August 23, 2011 at 5:31 am

I LOVE these examples!

Rebecca Sweet August 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Thanks, Susan!!

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