Hellstrip Landscaping Ideas, Plants, and Designs
Table of Contents
What is a hellstrip?
You know that narrow strip of no-man’s land between the sidewalk and the street? It answers to many names – parkway strip, median strip, beauty strip, tree lawn, boulevard, verge – but our favorite by far is “hellstrip” (credit to horticulturalist Lauren Springer Ogden for this stroke of authorial genius).
Hellstrips are usually unpaved, frequently covered in lawn, and often planted with street trees.
At once, they are both difficult to landscape and widely underutilized. Yes, hellstrips present many challenges, but they also offer many opportunities – for neighborhoods, for the environment, and for homeowners looking to save time, spend less, and get more value from their property. Curious to learn more? Let’s take a closer look at hellstrips, starting with the challenges.
Why is landscaping a hellstrip so challenging?
Hellstrips have the name for a reason: they can be hell on plants. Plants in hellstrip gardens confront a brutal range of punishments, including:
- Soil compaction
This is the biggest issue hellstrip gardens face. Compacted soil is too densely packed for roots to penetrate – it’s like a brick wall stopping roots in their tracks. This stunts plants’ growth, restricts their access to air, water, and nutrients, and quickly leads to their failure. What causes soil compaction? Foot traffic from pedestrians, people stepping out of parked vehicles, children playing, joggers, rolling trash cans, delivery workers, even dogs.Tip: if your soil is compacted, try using a digging fork to create space for roots to penetrate.
Speaking of dogs, hellstrips may be the world’s most popular dog bathroom. Plants in hellstrips are commonly exposed to urine and feces, causing many species to struggle and some to die. Dogs also wreak physical havoc on plants, particularly delicate species easily ripped up by frolicking pups.
- People + Cars
The same factors that threaten plants below-ground via soil compaction also threaten plants above-ground via physical damage. The tromping feet of kids, adults, and even sloppy drivers jumping a curb all threaten to flatten, tear, snap, or completely destroy plants in a hellstrip.
- Trash and Pollutants
Sad to say, people still litter. It’s not uncommon to see trash in hellstrips. Stormwater also washes trash into hellstrips, along with oil, brake pad particles, and other miscellaneous pollutants deposited by cars onto roads and driveways. Car exhaust, especially along busy roads, also deposits airborne pollutants onto foliage in hellstrip gardens.
- Road Salt
In snowy regions where roads are salted, tires spray salt onto hellstrip plantings, singing the leaves of some species and, in some cases, increasing the salinity of the soil, which causes many plant species to suffer.
Reflected heat from paving makes hellstrips super hot environments. Hot conditions tend to stress plants, causing water scarcity by drying out the soil and causing plants to use water less efficiently.
- Narrow and Shallow
Hellstrips are narrow – typically 3’ wide, sometimes even thinner. They’re also shallow, hemmed in at the bottom by layers of compacted stone underpinning adjacent roads and sidewalks. With limited available space, only small soil volumes can fit into hellstrips. Small soil volumes dry out quickly, and offer little space for roots to roam, which limits plants’ growth and resource uptake.
Sidewalks often sit higher than streets. To navigate a drop from sidewalk to street, hellstrips often have a downhill cross slope.Hellstrips with pronounced cross slopes have a tough time absorbing water – water applied to their surface tends to run downhill into the street, rather than soaking into the soil.
On the whole, hellstrips are pretty inhospitable to plants, particularly young plants, which are extra vulnerable to damage. And yet, despite their many stresses, hellstrips remain excellent sites for gardens.
We’ll get into tips for overcoming hellstrip challenges in a moment. First, let’s take a closer look at the many opportunities that hellstrip gardens offer.
Why should I landscape my hellstrip?
A well-designed hellstrip garden can benefit the community, the environment, your property, your wallet, and your free time.
- Increase Property Value (for you and your neighbors)
Study after study finds that homes with landscape improvements command higher resale values. Research also indicates that neighborhoods with more trees are more highly valued in the market (they’re also healthier and more pleasant to live in). Hellstrip planting is front and center, affecting curb appeal for your neighborhood as well as your own home. The more houses who proactively improve their hellstrips, the more the community benefits.
- Reduce/Remove Lawn
Lawns aren’t inherently bad, but they’re tremendously overused, and linked to a host of issues, from air and water pollution, to unsustainable water use, to habitat loss and plunging biodiversity. Lawns are also incredibly high maintenance, and more costly to maintain than any typical planting feature. Replacing hellstrip lawns with low maintenance, habitat-rich gardens promises to save homeowners time and money while also benefiting the community and the environment.
Because hellstrips are small, they require minimal investment to landscape. Depending on your situation, you can be in business for little more than the cost of a few plants, mulch, and minimal irrigation (if you even need any).
- Low Maintenance
Only low maintenance, tough plants will make it in a hellstrip. That may limit your selection, but it also means you’ll spend a lot less time on maintenance, particularly if you are replacing a lawn. Bye-bye, mowing.
- Increase Tree Canopy
Reducing flooding and pollution, improving community health, strengthening local ecosystems – trees yield a seemingly infinite list of benefits. Take advantage of your hellstrip to plant a tree or two, and enjoy the rewards.
- Improve Street Life
Curbside gardens in hellstrips encourage pride in the community and foster a sense of place. They also stimulate neighborly interaction by making public spaces more beautiful and hospitable. Go the extra mile for increasing sociability by adding opportunities for passersby to pause and enjoy your hellstrip garden design: a simple bench, a dog water bowl, a small tree to catch some shade.
- Improve Street Safety
Research suggests a link between trees and streetside landscaping and reductions in car accidents and driving speeds. That’s a win for keeping kids, cyclists, and pedestrians safer along the street. Tip: Hellstrips also make for a great spot to place “Slow – Kids Playing” signs.
- Create habitat
Hellstrips planted with tough, pollinator-friendly native plants can become rich pockets of habitat. Blend perennials like black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), yarrow (Achillea), and coneflower (Echinacea) among ornamental grasses and patches of sturdy groundcovers like Sedum, and watch the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds flock to your garden.
- Capture Runoff
Water that falls on a residential property – “stormwater” – can be nasty stuff, picking up trash and pollutants as it flows to the gutter. Trapping stormwater on site by soaking it back into the ground reduces local flooding, recharges groundwater supplies, and prevents pollutants from entering local waterways. Situated as they are between the sidewalk and the street, hellstrips are fantastic places to capture stormwater. In fact, many cities, including Seattle and Portland, encourage residents to convert their hellstrips into rain gardens designed to trap and absorb stormwater. Tip: hellstrip rain gardens should set the level of soil a few inches below sidewalk elevation to allow room for water to pool on the surface during a storm.
- Cool Ground Temperatures
Because planted areas reduce ground level temperatures, hellstrips can help to create cooler sidewalk environments, something that plants, fauna, and people all benefit from.
- Save Water
Replacing lawns, recharging groundwater, using drought tolerant plants, keeping soil moist by reducing ground temperatures – a hellstrip garden offers lots of ways to reduce landscape water consumption.
How to create a hellstrip garden
With the right approach, you can design a hellstrip garden to suit any landscape style. Here’s what you need to know to successfully create a landscape design for your hellstrip.
- Check for Regulations
Cities, HOAs, and other agencies often have rules about what you can and can’t do with your hellstrip. It’s common, for example, for agencies to have lists of approved street tree species. Before you start your project, check your local regulations.When you do, keep an eye out for chances to save money. Increasingly, cities are offering incentives to replace hellstrip lawns with drought-tolerant, habitat, or stormwater planting designs.
- Check for Utilities
Underground utilities often run through hellstrips. Before you dig, call 811 for free utility flagging. If utilities are present, plant shallow rooted, non-woody perennial species approved for planting above utilities.
- Low Water
Hellstrips are dry places. Use low water plants.
- Low Maintenance + Tough
Use the toughest, most fuss-free species you can. Ideal hellstrip plants tolerate drought, heat, foot traffic, urine, and salt (in snowy or coastal climates). They also perform well with minimal maintenance – aim to be on the hook for little more than seasonal cut-backs. Skip fertilizing and opt instead for species that will be happy in the low quality soil common to hellstrips. Proven-winner native species are a great place to start your search.
- Protect During Establishment
Plants are vulnerable when they are young. Use low fences or other physical barriers to protect them from compaction and physical damage until they’re mature enough to make it on their own. Weed vigilantly to protect young plants from being outcompeted. Sheet mulching ahead of planting is a great idea, particularly if you’ve got aggressive plants in your hellstrip.
- Choose the Right Tree
Choose trees from approved street tree lists, and take care to select species that won’t interfere with overhead power lines. Often, this means opting for smaller species like redbud, dogwood, or crabapple.
- Channel Foot Traffic
Discourage trampling by providing designated spaces for walking across hellstrips. This is particularly important when curbside parking is common. Make planted areas difficult to walk across by incorporating plenty of species in the 18” – 24” tall range.
- Courtesy Strip
Leave a 12” unplanted strip along the streetside curb for people to step on when they exit parked cars. Gravel or mulch are fine but prone to being kicked into the street. Compacted DG, larger stones, or a strip of sand-set pavers are tidier (but costlier) solutions.
To ensure safety, it’s crucial to keep views clear for people, cyclists, and cars moving along the road or entering/exiting driveways. Avoid plants over 3’ tall (aim for 2’ or less for most plants). Limb trees up to keep branches 7’ or higher above the ground.
It’s simple to bore a hole by hand beneath a sidewalk, allowing you to run irrigation from your home to your hellstrip. A water-efficient drip system allows you to skip hand-watering, and helps ensure success in the early years of plant growth. If conditions require paving to be removed and replaced to run irrigation to a hellstrip, costs will be a lot higher, and permitting may be necessary. In this instance, you may be better off hand-watering a xeriscape design until it’s established enough to survive on precipitation.
Decorative stones and aggregates like gravel and decomposed granite all provide permeable, durable surfaces that work well in hellstrips, though aggregates are prone to some messiness, and compacted DG should not be used as a mulch. Boulders make for zero-maintenance accents (and fun informal seating).
- Plant Containers
By using large plant containers, you can bypass the risk of compaction and trampling, and often provide a deeper soil volume. If your heart is set on a species requiring nutrient-enriched soil, containers will save you money by keeping the amount of soil you need to buy to a minimum.
Recommended plants for hellstrip gardens
The particular species that will be best for your yard will depend on where you live and what the sun, soil, and moisture conditions will be in your hellstrip.
The good news? MANY species can be planted in hellstrips, allowing you to pursue the full spectrum of landscape styles. Provided that a plant is tough, low maintenance, and happy in the light, soil, and climate conditions of the site, it could make for a good contender for a hellstrip. If you’re in the West or any other region affected by drought, low water requirements will also be crucial.
Tip: Begin your search by browsing proven-winner native species, which tend to thrive with the least fuss.
The species below represent a few of the many species that are popular for use in hellstrips across the U.S. Whatever species you opt for, always confirm they are appropriate for your climate and region before planting – choosing the right plants for your site is the single most impactful thing you can do to ensure a successful design. Contact your local nursery for additional guidance.
Note: Where only genus is listed, USDA zones listed represent a range covered by several species.
*denotes U.S. native
Among ornamental grasses, native grasses in particular are a staple of hellstrip planting. It’s common for hellstrip gardens to be a majority of tough, low-water native grass species, with some flowering perennials or a few marquee succulents thrown in to complete the composition.
- *Sideoats Grama / Bouteloua curtipendula (zones 4-9)
- *Blue Grama / Bouteloua gracilis (zones 4-10)
- *Buffalo Grass / Buchloe dactyloides (zones 4-8)
- *Little Bluestem / Schizachyrium scoparium (zones 3-10)
- *Prairie Dropseed / Sporobolus heterolepis (zones 4-9)
- *Lindheimer’s Muhly / Muhlenbergia lindheimeri (zones 7-10)
- *Gulf Muhly / Muhlenbergia capillaris (zones 5-11)
- *Inland Sea Oats / Chasmanthium latifolium (zones 3-8)
- *Tufted Hairgrass / Deschampsia cespitosa (zones 4-9)
- Blue Oat Grass / Helictotrichon sempervirens (zones 4-9)
- Blue Fescue / Festuca glauca (zones 4-8)
All of the below tolerate a bit of foot traffic. Add patches of groundcover in front of taller species, or tucked in gaps between stepping stones or pavers.
- *Stonecrop / Sedum (zones 4-10)
- *Wild Strawberry / Fragaria (zones 4-10)
- *Bearberry / Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (zones 2-8)
- *Frog Fruit / Phyla nodiflora (zones 8-11)
- Creeping Thyme / Thymus coccineus (zones 5-10)
- Silver Carpet / Dymondia margaratae (zones 9-11)
- Gazania (zones 9-10)
- Periwinkle / Vinca minor (zones 4-10)
Too big for foot traffic, but with a low, spreading habit.
- *Indigo Bush / Dalea greggii (zones 8-11)
- *White Evening Primrose / Oenothera speciosa (zones 4-9)
- *Phlox (zones 3-9)
- *Creeping Juniper / Juniperus horizontalis (zones 3-9)
- Rock Rose / Helianthemum nummularium (zones 5-7)
- Wall Germander / Teucrium chamaedrys (zones 5-9)
- Lilyturf / Liriope muscari (zones 4-11)
- L. muscari ‘Silvery Sunproof’ (zones 6-13)
- Gro-Low Fragrant Sumac / Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’ (zones 4-9)
- Rock Purslane / Calandrinia spectabilis (zones 9-11)
- Blue Finger / Senecio talinoides var. mandrilascae (zones 9-11)
- Shrubby Bindweed / Convolvulus cneorum (zones 8-11)
The perennials below are just a sample of the hundreds of flowering perennials that could work in hellstrips. Many native perennials provide crucial nectar for pollinator species – talk to your local nursery for additional suggestions.
If you are concerned about a species being too delicate for a hellstrip, design a buffer of tough plants, decorative stones, or other features to separate them from people and other physical threats.
- *Yarrow / Achillea (zones 3-10)
- *Tickseed / Coreopsis (zones 4-10)
- *Lindheimer’s Beeblossom / Gaura lindheimeri (zones 5-9)
- *Blazing Star / Liatris (zones 3-8)
- *Black-Eyed Susan / Rudbeckia hirta (zones 3-10)
- *Coneflower / Echinacea (zones 3-10)
- *Penstemon (zones 4-10)
- *Prairie Coneflower / Ratibidia columnifera (zones 4-9)
- *Maximilian Sunflower / Helianthus maximiliani (zones 3-9)
- *Bee Balm / Monarda (zones 4-10)
- Goldenrod / Solidago (zones 4-8)
- Walker’s Low Catmint / Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’ (zones 4-8)
- *Milkweed / Asclepias (zones 4-10)
- Note: Milkweed can be toxic if ingested, and may not be appropriate for areas where kids or dogs will directly access it. That said, milkweed is a fabulous plant with massive habitat value, and we strongly encourage planting it wherever possible.
While street tree lists must be obliged where applicable, the following small tree/large shrub species tend to be a good fit for hellstrips.
- *Redbud / Cercis (zones 4-10)
- *Serviceberry / Amelanchier (zones 2-9)
- *Desert Willow / Chilopsis linearis (zones 7-10)
- *Bigtooth Maple / Acer grandidentatum (zones 4-9)
- Dogwood / Cornus (zones 3-8)
- *C. florida is native
- Crabapple / Malus (zones 2-8)
- Flowering Cherry or Plum / Prunus (zones 3-10)
If height is not limited by power lines or local ordinances, these species are proven winners for streetside planting.
- *Honey Locust / Gleditsia triacanthos (zones 3-8)
- *Chinkapin Oak / Quercus muehlenbergii (zones 5-7)
- *Shumard Oak / Quercus shumardii (zones 5-9)
- *Common Hackberry / Celtis Occidentalis (zones 2-9)
- *American Basswood / Tilia americana (zones 3-9)
- *American Hornbeam / Carpinus americana (zones 3-9)
- *Red Maple / Acer rubrum (zones 3-9)
- European Hornbeam / Carpinus betulus (zones 4-8)
- Chinese Pistache / Pistacia chinensis ‘Keith Davey’ (zones 6-9)
- Trident Maple / Acer buergerianum (zones 5-8)
- Sweet Bay / Laurus nobilis (zones 8-11)
- Ginkgo / Ginkgo biloba (zones 3-10)
Plants NOT to use in a hellstrip garden
Many plant species are not appropriate for use in hellstrips. Here are a few to avoid:
Shallow roots can lift sidewalks. Drops spiky fruit which can be a nuisance. Leaves stain concrete.
- Southern Magnolia
Shallow roots can lift sidewalks. Difficult to underplant. Roots struggle in compacted soil. Needs a planting area at least 10’ wide.
Sensitive to dog urine.
Characteristics to avoid in hellstrip planting
- Thorns/spikes/sharp edges
Hellstrip plants often come into contact with people. In most instances, it’s best to skip sharp plants to avoid causing injury. If you do include a sharp plant, place it such that it’s unlikely to come into contact with people – try surrounding it with other plants that block people from accessing it.
- Toxic plants
With so many dogs and kids around, hellstrips should avoid species that are toxic or irritant when touched.
- High Litter
Plants that drop a lot of litter on the ground, from needles and leaves, to weak branches, to fruit, can make a mess of sidewalks, parked cars, or unlucky people walking beneath at the wrong time. Opt for tidy species with low litter.
- Invasive roots
Plants with roots known to lift sidewalks, damage underground utilities, or crack subterranean structures should be avoided. Shallow-rooted plants with utility-safe roots are best – soil is often shallow in hellstrips, thanks to underground layers of compacted stone used to support adjacent sidewalks and roads.
Our 13 Favorite Hellstrip Designs
For a final dose of inspiration, here are a few of our favorite hellstrip landscape designs from the Yardzen design team:
01 Pollinator Paradise
This Colorado hellstrip is laced with drifts of perennial wildflowers, including regional native favorites like Yarrow and Coneflower. Sedum groundcover provides a sturdy base layer in a cooling blue-green hue. The dense arrangement suppresses weeds while evoking a natural feel.
02 Light and Dry
Small masses of low water favorites Westringia ‘Grey Box’, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, and Blue Oat Grass create a silvery, drought tolerant display for this Bay Area hellstrip design. Informal gravel paths give people easy access from parked cars to the sidewalk. Existing street trees lend a bit of dappled shade.
03 Blue Notes
Showpiece Blue Glow Agave preen among small masses of Blue Fescue, forming a silvery-blue foreground to a crisp row of ‘Little Ollie’ dwarf olive shrubs. Dark gray gravel lends a modern feel to the scene, while blonde wood accents provide pleasant contrast.
04 Room for Desert
This design downplays the sidewalk by extending the succulent-heavy, desert-inspired planting design of the front yard into the hellstrip. An array of Agaves, Yucca, and Golden Barrel Cactus, complemented by decorative stone, make for a super low water, low maintenance design.
05 Fanciful Flowers
This floral garden for a cottage home sticks to a controlled color scheme: pink, purple, white (and green, of course). Strips of lawn and meandering low hedges frame the scene, lending a sense of order that allows the flowers to be a bit shaggy. We love that they incorporated Yarrow and Salvia, both pollinator favorites and staples of drought-tolerant designs.
06 Rhythm and Room
Dense scenes of ornamental grasses (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Sideoats Grama) blended with the low, yellow blooms of Angelita Daisy give plenty of room to two specimen birch trees in this Utah hellstrip design. The result is a rhythmic, highly legible design that leaves plenty of space for pedestrians to cross without harming any plants.
07 Rock What You’ve Got
This California design manages to pack a complete design into two small strips of available space. Decorative boulders play a key role, anchoring each design. Their heft and stillness makes for a pleasant contrast with the airy, billowing grasses that dominate the planting design.
08 Simple and Strong
Cotton-tipped ‘Little Bunny’ Pennisetum and landscape favorite ‘Platinum Beauty’ Lomandra line up in two casual, well-spaced rows. Keeping it simple down low casts extra attention on the pair of existing maples that frame the entry walk. Gravel mulch in calming river bed colors provides an easy walking surface to channel foot traffic around the grasses.
09 Friendly Waves
Simple wood edging creates a gentle waving pattern on the ground, highlighted by two shades of gravel mulch. Tall grasses pick up on the theme, waving gently in the breeze. Boulders distance the showpiece Agave from the sidewalk to avoid any risk of poking pedestrians.
10 Low Water, No Hassle
For a dry climate client with a taste for stemmy succulents and a distaste for maintenance, Yardzen developed a fuss-free hellstrip design with round-lobed Aeonium, shrubby gray Westringia, and cool blue Agaves. A meandering DG path protects the plants while injecting a little whimsy into the scene. The plant and material palettes mirror that of the front yard, visually linking the hellstrip to the overall design.
11 Call and Response
This hellstrip design alternates vertically and laterally: tall, upright Feather Reed Grasses give way to low clusters of Blue Fescue to create an up-down rhthym. Bare gravel walking strips flank sculptural Crape Myrtles, exaggerating the up-down effect. The grass design ping-pongs back and forth across the sidewalk, creating a “call and response” effect while helping to link the hellsrip with the main property.
12 A Pop of Pink
Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is a great plant: low water, high beauty, easy to grow, and a favorite native among hummingbirds. Best of all, it has beautiful, playful pink flowers that rocket up above it’s grass-like, silvery blue foliage. We like how this design uses Red Yucca sparingly to provide a pop of bright color at either end of the hellstrip. Add to this a few boulders and grasses, a wide bare strip to link to the front path, and plenty of space for an existing tree to shine, and you’ve got yourself a design. Simple, but highly effective.
13 Orderly Frames
We love the contrast of clean lines with the organic forms of plants. Succulents, with their sculptural character, offer a bold contrast to the crisp lines defined by concrete and dark gravel in this design. The effect is to lend a sense of order to a design while hanging on to a little wildness. These plants are placed in a natural manner within the planting area, but their framing presents them as a carefully curated display.
Get Started With Your Landscape Design by Yardzen
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted and habitat-providing plants as well as water saving landscaping principles in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.