I’d been gardening on it for almost 10 years before I knew these garden spaces actually had a name: The Hell Strip. And suddenly all my challenges made sense. Yep, I’ve been trying to garden on a little strip o’ hell.
For those of you unacquainted with the “hell strip” it’s a long garden space bordered on both sides by either a road or a concrete walkway. Some are obviously hell-like, in full baking sun. Mine, however, is in dappled shade, which led me to think it might be a fairly hospitable place for cultivation.
“Ha!” chuckled the dark denizens of hell as I got out my spade.
Many years ago someone had optimistically dug all the grass from the strip and had planted bulbs. These did fairly well the first year, and when I got hold of the space I had high hopes, but I soon learned what I was up against. My hell strip is shady, filled with sandy, what I laughingly call “soil”. This “soil” is filled with tree roots from oft cursed Norway maples. It’s the definition of a challenging space. Here’s what I’ve learned about my hell strip over the years:
1. Bags of manure that I pile on the strip disappear, possibly melting through the earth’s crust and showing up somewhere in Australia.
2. Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis, if planted in large drifts, with the hope that masses of flowers will frothily cascade onto the sidewalk, will actually drift away never to be seen again.
3. The surface tension of the soil has sort of a magnetic effect, and by magnetic effect, I mean the other side of the magnet that repels things. Water sprinkled onto the soil surface trips lightly over it and rushes to the safe haven of the concrete on either side.
4. Certain plants hang around. Oh, they don’t actually grow or increase, but as they’re hanging onto life, I still have hope. But every year they get a little bit smaller and a little bit smaller. They sing softly to me as I pass by, “We gotta get outa this place. If it’s the last thing we eh-ver do.”
5. Worms shun the hell strip. But snails hang around in large gangs. Hostas say: “Hosta la vista!”
There is some good news though. Here are my surprising hell strip successes:
1. Shasta daisies, Leucanthemum ‘unknoweum’, inexplicably, thrive and bloom like crazy. As you can see by the photo at left, they are spreading into a reasonable clump. I’m completely puzzled by this.
2. Rudbeckia triloba (seen in leaf at the top of the column) manages to grow and blooms faithfully at the end of every summer. Also self seeds. Yes, it’s a bit weedy, but it’s green and the flower clusters of small, yellow, black-eyed Susans on sturdy stems are cheerful when not much else is blooming.
3. Lamium maculatum (the variegated leaf shown just behind the rudbeckia, above) grows like crazy and blooms reliably through spring and early summer. Yes, it’s a bit boring, but can’t argue with that kind of success, and the leaves are attractive all year.
4. Perennial foxgloves – Digitalis lutea – manages to grow and flower, in unexpected places. This is a charming little plant (with spikes of tiny, creamy yellow foxglove flowers) that I have nothing bad to say about.
5. Columbine, Aquilegia, have planted themselves happily here and there, and for a short while in spring, look lovely.
So, my lesson here is to plant more of what works, and to rescue what’s left of the ones that are desperately singing songs of escape. Sadly, the rest of my garden is no plant picnic either: same soil, same shade. Hmm, maybe my rescues can go into the guerrilla garden across the road….