From "Hell Strip" to Habitat

Curbside gardens can be surprising sanctuaries for birds, bees and other pollinators.

  • Janet Marinelli
  • Garden for Wildlife
  • Aug 01, 2020

In Portland, Oregon, a curbside habitat (above) provides an attractive alternative to weedy turf grass as well as food for bees and other insects. Good plants for such gardens include, in wet areas, swamp milkweed (below, with monarch butterfly) and butterfly weed in dry areas.

ARE THERE ANY PLACES MORE forlorn than the strips of land sandwiched between sidewalk and street? Trampled by pedestrians, peed on by pets, Sahara-like in summer and crushed by piles of salty snow in winter, they’re known as “hell strips” for good reason. Yet it’s possible to transform these sad scraps of weedy lawn into thriving habitats for songbirds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. And “anyplace we can create habitat is a great opportunity,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior director of community wildlife.

A Monarch Butterfly on milkweed in Roseville, MN.

To create a curbside habitat, begin by checking the location of utilities and consult your municipality or neighborhood association about any permits and restrictions that may apply. In Seattle, for example, where curbside gardens are popular, a street-use permit is required. Plants must be no more than 3 feet high, and in areas where sight lines are critical, such as near driveways and intersections, they should not exceed 30 inches. Plantings also must be located at least 4 feet from the trunks of existing street trees to protect their roots.

After researching local guidelines, assess your site’s sun and soil conditions. The soil is probably compacted from years of foot traffic and should be loosened gently with a digging fork to create the airspaces that plant roots and soil organisms need to thrive. Because your habitat is probably next to on-street parking, designate one or two “landing pads,” narrow paths of flagstones, recycled bricks, beach stones or gravel to provide access to the sidewalk.

Before planting, smother any lawn and weeds with a blanket of newspaper about 4 sheets thick, overlapping them so there are no holes for weeds to poke through. Wet the paper to keep it in place, then apply a layer of compost. In a week or so, plant seeds or seedlings directly into the compost.

The plants you select must not only be suited to the site’s light and moisture conditions but tough as nails. Look for native species that thrive in harsh environments such as rock outcroppings, sand dunes, dry or wet meadows or, if you’re planting under mature street trees, deep forest shade. Bluebonnets and grama grasses in Texas, bright pink cushion phlox and lavender aromatic aster in the East, orange butterfly weed in dry, sunny spots and mauve-flowered swamp milkweed and great blue lobelia in moist to wet soils are the kinds of tenacious beauties that will provide food and shelter for wildlife from spring until the first hard frost. Tough plants such as these will be able to survive largely on their own after some watering the first year or two. But make sure you have a long-term plan to care for your new curbside garden, Fitzgerald warns. If plants die or grow messy, neighbors can get annoyed.

An added bonus of well-tended curbside gardens, he adds, is that they can inspire community stewardship, turning entire blocks into corridors of habitat where you and your neighbors can enjoy bees collecting pollen and butterflies flitting from bloom to bloom all season long.

New York writer Janet Marinelli is a frequent contributor.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

A Farewell to Lawns »
Urban Greening: Bloom or Bust »
Blog: Transforming Unused Lots into Climate-Resilient Pollinator Gardens in Philadelphia »

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