Planning a boulevard garden

SUBMITTED PHOTO Garden Boulevards like this one can lighten up a neighbourhood, but there are a few things to keep in mind starting one

Real estate is a necessary part of gardening, and we know how precious real estate is in this country. Especially in our cities.
It is a reasonable temptation to view city-owned boulevards as an opportunity to expand our garden vision – in some places, like Ben’s hometown of Guelph, it is even encouraged.
Within the city of Toronto, boulevard-gardeners’ experiences are mixed. Gardening on someone else’s property, even public property, means playing by their rules, and with the city, that can vary based on local by laws, public use or neighbour complaints.
Generally, gardening on city boulevards is tolerated, provided it is maintained and does not obstruct visibility of traffic. Should the City decide to clear the boulevard for any reason, you would not be entitled to consultation – the garden would have to go.
In gardening circles, this strip of land is often referred to as the “hell strip”, where dead grass or an unhealthy tree are often the dominate features. Cultivating a boulevard garden can provide food for humans or habitat for wildlife and it can improve the appearance of your neighbourhood. Another reason to beautify your boulevard is because you love gardening. Who cares if what we create is not made for eternity?
We recommend that you consider the following when planning a boulevard garden:
• Site prep. As ever, the first ingredient to garden success is site and soil preparation. An environmentally friendly method to convert grass to garden is by putting down a layer of uncoated cardboard, covered with at least four inches of bark mulch, and left for a year to allow the underlying grass to die and the cardboard to decompose. To speed things up, add a 5 or 6 cm layer of triple mix between the cardboard and the mulch which will provide a good “bed” for your new garden.
• Keep a low profile. While a complaining neighbour may get the attention of city officials, creating a safety hazard by obstructing the view of traffic is sure to bring your plan to a brisk conclusion. Consult with your neighbours in advance and look for groundcovers and plants that will not exceed 16 to 25 cm in height along any sightlines.
• Keep the soil low, too. Avoid the temptation to mound up your beds higher than the sidewalk like the plentiful gardens you might have in your yard. One of the benefits of a hell strip garden is storm water retention, so it’s important to keep the soil level at or below the sidewalk to allow water to flow into it. This may require you to remove existing soil to create an environment that encourages plant health. Be sure to “call before you dig” if this is the case.
• Plant selection matters. Ideally, a mix of very hardy perennials will provide a reliable repeat performance from year to year. Consider planting a scree garden in particularly arid and harsh environments. Scree gardening mimics the nutrient-poor environment of the high alps, where you would use rocks and gravel for mulch and drought tolerant perennial plants such as creeping thyme, sedum, supervivum, and dwarf conifers. Any opportunity to plant native perennials is also welcomed, as the goal is to add as much value to the ecosystem as possible.
• Food crops if you’re careful. The risk of growing food so close to traffic is that crops could potentially absorb road salt and heavy metals from car pollution and runoff. This is particularly true of leaf crops like kale where there will be a higher concentration of ground-source metals in the edible leaves. Best to avoid unless your street is particularly low traffic.
• A place to step. Lest your new garden be trampled by passengers getting into and out of street-parked cars, it’s a good idea to place flagstone or mulched paths throughout the garden as a place for considerate travellers to plant their feet without crushing your creation.
Green your community by reclaiming the “hell strip”. And remember that you are doing this to have fun.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.