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Reclaiming dirt patches: How to beautify a parking strip

Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Butterflies are attracted to the purple flowers of lilac verbena, a fragrant, mounding perennial that does best in full sun. In a parking strip, the colors blend well with pink or white yarrow.

In many neighborhoods, the most unloved parts of the landscape are the parking strips between the curb and the sidewalk. At a presentation sponsored by the Gardening with Natives group of the California Native Plant Society last year, landscape designer Carrie Jensen advocated reclaiming those dirt patches.

When Jensen and her husband purchased their home five years ago, the parking strip was concrete, so they rented a jackhammer and got rid of it.

“I’m not a construction worker, and if I can do it, anyone can do it,” she said.

Because the soil was so poor, Jensen planted mustard and alfalfa as cover crops, then chopped them in place before they went to seed. She added mulch to speed the decomposition, then planted native wildflowers, grasses and perennials.

For parking strips with lawn or bare soil, Jensen recommended sheet mulching with layers of compost, cardboard and wood-chip mulch.

Beautifying parking strips

Jensen, who specializes in habitat restoration, had good advice for designing the parking strip.

First, make sure that the mulched edge is level with the sidewalk so that you won’t create a tripping or slipping hazard from mulch falling onto the sidewalk. You can do this by digging a trench along the edges of the parking strip.

Second, Jensen pointed out that the parking strip is a public space, and people will inevitably trample some plants. Don’t plant your favorites without protecting them, she advised. Instead, create intentional places to walk with stepping stones. Place rocks strategically at the corners and other areas where people might be tempted to cut across. On the curbside, add pavers so that passengers can exit parked cars without stepping on plants.

Select plants with the following criteria in mind.

• Compact growth pattern.

• Drought tolerance, so you won’t have to tunnel under the sidewalk to install irrigation or spend time hand-watering once the plants are established.

• Low-growing, up to 3 feet high, to allow visibility.

• Tidy plants that need little pruning or maintenance.

• Tolerant of poor soils.

For sunny areas, Jensen suggested low-growing manzanitas or coyote brush for year-round green; Bee’s Bliss salvia, a gray-green mounding subshrub; or native grasses such as taller but airy deergrass, lower-growing blue grama grass or compact mounds of blue-tinged Idaho fescue. Floriferous perennials include foothill penstemon, coyote mint, yarrow and lilac verbena.

For tight spaces, the smaller native buckwheats are showy and attract pollinators. Sulfur, saffron and rosy buckwheat are all good choices. Select Mattole California fuchsia also forms a low, compact mound and sports bright red-orange flowers from late summer to late fall.

In shadier areas, Jensen suggested hummingbird sage, clumping Douglas iris, native coral bells or the minty groundcover yerba buena.

Native wildflowers are a popular choice in parking strips, but they bloom only a few weeks without watering. If you take the time to water and deadhead the flowers, you can extend the showiness to four months. Intersperse the annual wildflowers with perennials and subshrubs to keep the area looking good year round.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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