March 12, 2010

Strip Gardening

I have to garden in 3 and 4 foot wide strips.  Walkways were installed right along the edge of our house foundation on two exposures: south and west.  I asked my local garden center for advice on what to put in such narrow strips in such hot sunny locations, and they showed me their gravel supply and plastic flamingo inventories.

In the front, the narrow strip is partly under the eaves, making it dry.  It's directly south facing, with white concrete that amplifies sunlight, and a brick wall that absorbs heat.  They were serious about gravel and flamingos for this space.  But I put in some alliums (blooming here) and sedums and nepeta (nice full shape later in the season) and some very forgettable Stella d'Oros that don't do much.  It's ok, but too horizontal, too bleah.

 It's the walk to the front door, there's no other way for visitors to get in the house, and so it should be a real display garden, something with pizzazz.  In three hot feet between concrete and brick, what can I plant with form and structure and focus?  This isn't it:

The walkway on the west side has even more challenges in addition to hot sun: it's the way to our backyard, so again, you must walk right by this strip, up close.  And, for good aesthetic measure, it's where two large air conditioning units squat, along with the electric meter on the wall.  Oh, and the shiny red bulkhead door to the basement beckons as you round the corner.  My first instinct was to put the garbage cans there too, and the compost pile and call it a day:

But instead I added fothergilla, blooming here, and dwarf Alberta spruces massed in front of the meters (I dislike the overused dwarf Albertas, but what else fits in a narrow space and provides dense screening all year?)  A glossy-leaved redbud (Cercis reniformis 'Oklahoma') dressed in its magenta blooms, leans out over the walk:

Next to the cellar door is a Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva' standard which will probably be too big for the space soon and I'll have to do something about it when Jim can't open the bulkhead doors:
The a/c units are now hidden behind some switchgrasses (Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' -- very, very narrow upright variety).  This was right after I transplanted the switchgrass, so it hasn't evened out in color or filled in yet.  Golden hakone grass and soft gray lambs ear are at the feet of the grasses (it might be too hot and sunny for the hakone grass I fear). The shrubby thing in between the grass pillars is a blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) which I'm training to a single stem tree.  It will still be dense and twiggy, but will eventually be up to the windows or above, and be sort of vase shaped over the grasses (that's my plan, if the blackhaw cooperates):

Really, I kind of like the whole strip on this side. It all looks pretty good, assuming the grass stays narrow as advertised and I haven't doomed the hakone grass in too much sun.  The redbud is down at the entrance on the far right, becoming an exuberant round tree, and the showy hydrangea Tardiva anchors the other end.

It's the skinny front walk garden I'm not happy with, and that's the one part of my garden everyone sees.  The first person who suggests taking out the straight concrete walk and putting in a luscious curved stone path to the front door, with more room for plants, has to speak to my husband.  But really, a newly designed walk may be the only antidote to strip gardening in that space.  


  1. Why not small espaliered trees against that brick? You could install trellissing on either side of the windows to support a pair. I've done it with pyracanthus, but the pruning was thornily painful. You have a lot of nice plants in already and great bones :)

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  3. I think this strip looks good. I can hear your ac technician griping about having to work around the plantings. Ours griped at me and I thought I left him enough room to maneuver.

  4. Thank goodness this post was about flower beds and not naked gardening. Whew.

  5. Cyndy, I like the idea of a couple espaliered trees. I'll have to read up on how to do it... a good learning project for me!

    Sweet bay, the Oklahoma redbud is one of my favorite trees, I'll do a post on it in more detail. A real performer.

    Lisa, I'm already getting grief from my husband about making the a/c units inaccessible, but even he agrees there weren't many options to camouflage them!

    Benjamin, this post was in fact about naked gardening, oh wait, you were imagining something else.... tsk tsk.

  6. The back walk looks great, and I like the allium blooming in the front. I do think the front could use some vertical accent beside the windows. Also, have you considered a planting area in front of the walkway? You could curve it out toward the driveway and plant a tree in the middle and add a ground-cover or more flowers. You could also stain your concrete with a good concrete stain in a gray stone-like color that would complement the brick of your house.

  7. Some height will definitely help here. Are there some tall, skinny shrubs/trees that would work in this space or tall grasses. You are well on your way! :)

  8. Deborah, I did consider planting in front of the walk. It drops off pretty steeply, you can't tell in the photo. That's a challenge, but I could still put some interest on that side to draw the eye from the bleak brick wall to the yard side. Need to get thinking on that...

    Garden Ms. S, Something vertical is exactly what would help. I liked Cyndy's idea of espaliered trees, but have to learn how to do that. Might be fun to learn and try!


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