Reimagining a Denver Hell Strip

 

A typical hell strip in “Any Town USA”

The hell strip (more politely called a tree lawn) is that pesky rectangular area between the street and the sidewalk. It’s a challenging spot – surrounded by concrete surfaces which make it super hot in the summer and subject to harsh elements in the winter.  Apprentice Denver County Master Gardeners (CMG’s) Elizabeth and Daniel Neufeld challenged themselves to redesign their hell strip by working with, not against the conditions at hand. Their new strip garden incorporates xeric native plants in a creative design which complements their early 1900’s Mayfair bungalow. Here’s a step-by-step description of the project in Elizabeth’s own words.

Site Description and Preparation
The 8.5’ by 16’ site had been a weedy portion of our hell strip. This section of our lawn was never irrigated and though we used a manual sprinkler on it for years, it never really thrived. Weeds from an adjacent bed also crept in and began to take over our lawn.

In June 2017 – after talking to CMG’s at East High’s Farmers Market – we put down 5 mil black plastic over the entire area to solarize the soil and kill the weeds. In March of this year, we removed the plastic and started to work on the soil.

The top several inches of soil was relatively good. Below that, though, was hard packed clay. Based upon our classwork to become CMG’s, and discussions with other CMG’s, we knew that we wanted to create a Native, drought resistant, garden. In order to have the appropriate depth of 2”-3” of pea gravel on top, we needed to dig out the clay. MUCH harder than we anticipated.

First I took every trash can we owned (about 5), and another 3 from a neighbor, and filled them up with just the first 4-5 inches of the topsoil. Then what to do with the clay below?  You can’t put it into the regular trash bins, nor into the city’s green compost bins as  they do not accept soil, primarily because of its weight. I secretly thought I could add just small amounts of dirt weekly and they wouldn’t know the difference. Yet this wasn’t right, and would take forever. We went online and called several places about renting a dumpster, yet the smallest dumpster we could find was going to cost $500, and we’d need to get a permit from the city to place it on the street. We needed another plan.

Perhaps you’ve seen smaller, heavy plastic canvas bags in people’s front yards as they do small remodeling jobs on their homes. These “bagsters” can be bought at a big-box store, and they hold up to 3300 pounds. Once filled, Waste Management will come and collect them for a fee. So we purchased one of these, set it up on our sidewalk next to the hell strip, and completely filled it with about 4” of the clay subsoil. It was truly a Herculean task, and it weighed over a ton, literally.

After the Waste Management dump truck removed the bagster and all its contents, we then put back all of the topsoil we had previously removed. Another day of heavy lifting.

Plant Selection
What to choose, what to choose?! Thank goodness for the CSU Extension fact sheets on Xeriscaping, Low Water gardening, and Native Plants. We also had Pretty Tough Plants, a book by the experts at Plant Select. We  spent a fair amount of time at the Jefferson County Extension office xeric garden, and the Denver Botanic Gardens, and took pictures of plants we liked. We spent a huge amount of time debating which and how many plants to include. The mix and quantities of plants we decided on follow. Click images for plant names.

  • Berlandia lyrate,“Chocolate Flower” (4)
  • Agastache, “Sonoran” (2) and “Coronado” hyssop (1)
  • Delosperma, “Firespinner” and “Red Mountain Flame” iceplants (4)
  • Eriogonum umbellatum, “Kannah Creek” buckwheat (2)
  • Schizachyrium scoparian, “Little Bluestem” (3)
  • Tanacetum densum, “Partridge Feather”  (3)
  • Prunus bessyi, “Pawnee Buttes” Sand Cherry (3)
  • Amorpha fructosa, False Indigo Lead Plant (1)  not shown
  • Miscanthus sinesis  (1) not shown

Design

design
In talking with a fellow CMG apprentice, Brenda Reum – who has her own landscape firm – we decided to put a false arroyo diagonally through the rectangular site. We also wanted a few larger accent rocks, and some medium size rock around the edges. We went to a local sand and gravel company and selected some larger rocks, and got several 5-gallon buckets of mid-size rock. During this time period (late April/early May), we also went camping in Western Colorado for a week. While driving on a dirt road along the Delores River, we came upon a pile of rocks – and collected a few dozen we liked and brought them home!

After creating an outline of the arrangement of the arroyo and the planting on paper, we commenced planting. Like many a good idea, the execution was more time-consuming than anticipated.

Once the planting was complete, we used an online calculator to estimate the amount of pea gravel needed. To have 3” of pea gravel on the site as large as ours, we would need 1 ton of rock. We put a large tarp on the street adjacent to the garden and the delivery truck dumped it on top. We spent hours shoveling the gravel over the dirt, then carefully placed our ‘trophy’ rocks through the arroyo and around the edges. Some clusters of rock are near some of the plants, and we placed a piece of weathered cedar (also found during the camping trip) and a piece of ‘rust art’ in the bed.

Now
20180622_173305The bed has been in for about 6 weeks, and it’s looking great and seems to be happy. We initially watered the plants every 2-3 days for the first 3 weeks, and have now cut back to once weekly. The ice plants and partridge feather are already spreading out, the chocolate flower and hyssop have been blooming. The little bluestem has yet to fully take off, but those plants were the smallest of all when we purchased them. We left plenty of space for the eventual growth and spreading of these plants, and look forward to their ultimate size and height.

Time and Cost of Materials
It is hard to calculate the total amount of time we spent — yet it was easily 3 times more than we thought it was going to be. It was approximately 100 – 150 hours of our own labor.

We found the plants at several independent garden centers as the big box centers did not have any of these. And because of this, the cost was more than we had anticipated, too. We spent approximately $400-$450 on 23 plants.

We spent $30 on purchasing the ‘bagster’, and $120 to have it carted away. We spent $85 on the pea gravel (including delivery), and another $40 on the larger rocks we purchased. All totaled, we spent $675-$725 on the new Native garden.  We are so pleased with the results and hope to expand our collection of native plants in other parts of our garden.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your experience! If you have a question or comment for Elizabeth, she’ll respond in the comment section.

Photo Credits: Plants: Plant Select.org,  Street Image: Bing Free Images, Garden diagram and completed garden: Elizabeth Neufeld

Posted by Elizabeth Neufeld and Linda McDonnell

 

 

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6 responses to “Reimagining a Denver Hell Strip

  1. Larry Drake

    Great article!

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Elizabeth! What a thoughtful approach for reinvigorating a difficult planting space. I’m hoping others will be inspired to tackle their hell strips, too.

    Regards,
    Jodi

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  3. Susan Tamulonis

    Inspiring!
    I hope you’ll allow us to revisit your considerable effort next year with a follow-up post to see what was was hellish and heavenly.
    My goal for my hell strip is to finally turn off the sprinklers to the area.
    I’m working with the hummingbird trumpet, Zauschneria garrettii, ‘Orange Carpet’ & I’ve seen hummers sipping at almost ground level. It’s one of the few plants that has been successful in my hell strip along with Gazania linearis ‘Colorado Gold,’ and those ever cute Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’. I gave up on design because of so many failures. My latest introduction of hope is Kannah Creek Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum.
    Thinking of pollinators, not design, and less and less water.
    Remember to post next year!

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  4. We’ll definitely update readers next year!
    -Elizabeth

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