In an effort to reduce thirsty grass and beautify their properties, many homeowners are replacing the sod in their boulevards with gardens. But what thrives on the front lawn doesn't always do well in that thin strip between sidewalk and road. Pedestrian traffic, winter salt and exhaust fumes are tough on plants, and boulevards get all three. While it's tempting to fill the gap with hardy perennials, like black-eyed Susans, Mary Grad, co-ordinator for the Guelph and Wellington County Master Gardeners warns that some varieties are biennial or delicate hybrids. “I wouldn’t subject them to boulevard conditions,” she says.
So, how do you go about planting a boulevard garden that will please everyone?
1. Be street legal
Check with your municipality about boulevard guidelines or regulations. Some cities require you register your boulevard garden; others simply supply a list of safety concerns and appropriate plants. Regardless of how strict your area is, make sure plants don’t block fire hydrants and utility valves. Traffic needs a clear view of driveways and intersections, and pedestrians can’t be tripping on greenery.
2. Border on the safe side
A border of ground cover or grass around your boulevard’s perimeter will ensure your garden doesn’t interfere with foot traffic or people getting in and out of cars. Live in a busy area? Mulch or groundcover paths will protect your other plants.
3. Encourage plants, discourage weeds
Any time you disturb the soil, you give weeds a chance to flourish. To deter dandelions and the likes:
- Dig once: Plant perennials or low-lying shrubs, not annuals.
- Create a barrier: Landscape fabric or wet newspaper six to 10 sheets thick will smother weeds. Cover the boulevard, cut a hole where you wish to plant, add your greenery, then mulch.
- Apply common sense and water: Even drought-tolerant plants need to establish their roots. Water your garden regularly for the first two years.
Now, what will you plant? “In Vancouver, you could plant a stick and it would grow,” says Grad. But winter-ravaged regions aren’t so lucky. Grad’s picks for plants that survive not only the traffic, but the winter salt:
- Daylilies are colourful, hardy and spread quickly. Plant them away from the edge since they grow quickly and can crowd the sidewalk.
- Sedum, especially Autumn Joy, is a top pick. “It’s upright, drought tolerant, loves the sun and is clean looking,” Grad says. What more could you want?
- Dwarf spirea fills large spaces, while providing elevation and colour — all within height restrictions.
- Wooly thyme soaks up the sun, produces a carpet of purple and releases a lovely fragrance when walked on.
- Ajuga, also called bugleweed, is an ideal hardy ground cover. Its purple flowers are pretty and it stays neat while spreading.
- Hostas love shade, but plant them away from the edge so they don’t flop onto the sidewalk.
- River stones are an attractive alternative to mulch. And no matter what, you can’t kill them.
- Spring bulbs, like crocus, snowdrops, scilla and grape hyacinth, provide a lovely burst of colour before dying back.
The ultimate way to beautify your boulevard? Plant a tree! Get the dirt on municipal planting programs here.
Charmian Christie is an avid gardener and home cook. When she's not digging in the dirt, she's charting her culinary adventures on her blog, Christie's Corner.