'Cuz we don't want to mow that parking strip!
A short question nets a detailed design and more:
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.
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 you can cover the whole front yard with
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
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
jumping across to fill any opening in the juniper.
Please note that junipers are BIG plants...
...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.
What do the other plants look like?
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!)
Choosing and re-choosing
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
Other possibilities for this property:
Wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) Z 5-8
Rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) Z 4-10
Iceplant, spring-blooming (Delosperma nubegina) Z
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
It's a sun lover that could not hold its own in the shaded
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.
How to plant an outlawn
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!)
Over years, ground
level in sod can become higher than adjacent surfaces as organic
matter accumulates between and under the grass plants.
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
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
Left:We've red-lined space to be smothered,
not dug, and outlined future landing strips in
orange. (The soil level in this parking strip
is elevated; the bed has to be lowered
considerations for designing in an outlawn
Here are nine things specific to public strips that we thought
about in making this design:
- Plant nothing hurtful. It's a public strip.
Have a care for young kids whose feet or hands might stray, or who
might topple off the walk while learning to ride a
- Pedestrians must be able to see cars and vice
versa. Use very low plants. If you want height in one or two spots
because you want a bit of drama, use an herbaceous plant that is
only seasonally tall and is cut to the ground to start over each
year. (Everything in this design is either a groundhugger or can be
whacked back to the ground each year in late winter or early spring
to keep it at its lowest and neatest.)
- Don't be stingy or silly regarding foot
traffic. Paths should not be planted and if they're
accurately placed they become your easiest spots to tend. Mark
where feet cut corners and alight from parked cars. You can guess
cars' location, as we did here. You can be more precise by moving a
car into spaces along the street then laying out a passenger-side
- Plant very low groundcovers near landings so
plants can fill spaces between the stones.
- Where cars will park, do not raise the bed or
install any hard structure that sits above the grade. It will block
the opening of low cars' doors.
- To keep foot traffic out of an area, warn people
away by using plants that are safe yet have a mean face.
For instance, in a region where agaves/century plants or cacti can
be grown outdoors, people learn to avoid them because of their
spininess. Those people may also steer clear of yuccas or aloes --
spineless but reminiscent of the more dangerous plants.
- Don't hurt the street trees. Create large,
mulch-only areas around each and don't plan to dig and plant there.
Don't stack mulch against trees' trunks. Set paving stones on
leveled soil rather than using anything that requires an excavation
to establish a base of slag, gravel or sand. If groundcovers work
their way into those spaces over time, that's okay.
- Repeat elements and patterns in the parking
strip that appear elsewhere in your landscape. If beds nearer the
house feature mondo grass (Ophiopogon), ajuga and hosta,
it's visually pleasing to use those plants somewhere in the public
strip, too. If your larger areas are laid out asymmetrically,
continue that balance in the parking strip. Pick up the home's
brick tones or accent color in plant foliage, and you visually "lay
claim" to the outlying beds.
- Do not turn tree trunks into focal points unless it
serves a purpose. Ring a tree trunk with distinctive
plants or call attention to it in other ways only if the trunk, its
placement or both are visually pleasing and deserving of a
spotlight. In this design we've figured for asymmetry and we've
avoided regular, rhythmic outlines around the tree trunks.
Adapting across zone lines
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