I garden in a small space. I live in a townhouse and use planters and vertical plantings to get the most variety in my garden. In fall 2014, I enrolled in the Green Spring Gardens Extension Master Gardener (EMG) program. I quickly realized I knew nothing about gardening. The classes were fabulous. The lecturers were experts in the horticulture arena. The topics were in-depth, and most were new to me. I grew pretty flowers and tasty tomatoes, but it stopped there. I was eager to learn. I finished the program and became a certified EMG. EMGs work with the public to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management.
There was no larger personal gardening space in my personal future, so I volunteered to chair the landscaping committee of my townhouse community, share my new knowledge, and have more soil for playing. The development of 16 townhouses sits on the busy corner of Route 123 and Great Falls Street in McLean, Virginia. It has a welcoming front with garden space that is filled with shrubs the builder planted more than 30 years ago. There are assorted hollies, azaleas, rhododendrons, junipers and skip laurels. I began to garden in the small plot of soil at the entrance to the townhouses. This plot borders a sidewalk, a bus stop, a small strip of soil, grass and a busy street. The soil and grass strip adjacent to a street and sidewalk is called a “hell strip.” You might know it as a parking strip or median strip. Horticulturist Lauren Springer Ogden coined its “hell” name. My initial plan was to develop the hell strip as I planted the community entrance with Virginia natives.
I started with a soil test. The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) supplies soil test kits free at Fairfax County libraries and farmers’ markets or by calling VCE. You also can pick one up at Green Spring Gardens.
I started cleaning the hell strip of dog poop and weeds. I knew it would be hard to grow any kind of plants on the strip because of the challenging conditions — it lacked water, and it had foot traffic, a large amount of car exhaust, salt from snowmelt and lots of dog poop. The soil test results came back quickly, and I began amending the soil.
As I gardened by the road, it was not unusual for people in cars stopped at the traffic light to roll down the window and chat. I was asked what I was doing. Was I for hire to put down mulch? Where did I buy my plants, and where was the nearest Starbucks? My most memorable question was from a young couple looking desperate with a van full of kids under age five. They handed me a very dirty diaper and asked if I would throw it away.
I sometimes used a Hori-Hori, my favorite garden tool. It’s a heavy, serrated, multi-purpose steel blade. The word “hori” means “to dig” in Japanese. Once while working with the Hori-Hori, a black town car pulled to the curb and a well-dressed Asian gentleman got out and asked if I knew about the tool I was using. He was a big Hori-Hori fan, and we had a delightful conversation about gardening until his driver had to move the car. My least favorite experience came from feisty teenage boys. I was bending over when they stopped at the light and yelled “not a pretty sight.” I did laugh at their arrogance and my old body.
I began to plan the hell strip and learned it was public property regulated by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The Code of Virginia is specific about what you can and cannot do, and there is no room for exceptions. The first thing needed, before any work, was a Land Use Permit from VDOT.
The rules are built around the need for low maintenance, small roots that won’t damage the sidewalk, size restrictions to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act so plants don’t obstruct the sidewalk, and many other considerations. Fairfax Master Gardener Mary Elyn Perkowski wrote an excellent article, “Make Your Hell Strip Less Fiendish,” that outlines VDOT rules and regulations. They also are listed on VDOT’s website for NOVA Permits. There are a variety of tedious forms required with every Land Use Permit Application, including but not limited to a Homeowner Maintenance Agreement for Landscaping, Erosion and a Sediment Control Contractor Certification. It’s a challenging process, but there are many hell strips that have taken on a heavenly look.
I haven’t filled out any of the applications yet to plant the hell strip. I’m thinking that, for now, I’ll maintain it looking neat and tidy, and dazzle the traffic with the Virginia natives I plant in the community plot.
Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Green Spring Gardens Extension Master Gardener and a Friends of Green Spring Board Member.