Living on the Edge – Boulevard of Broken Dreams?

Broken dreams? It doesn’t have to be. How adventurous are you? Is planting the municipal-owned strip worth doing or even attempting? Will you incur the wrath of neighbours or bylaw enforcers, if you stray from the norm?

Vegetation living on the boulevard. A better choice would have been native species. Above all, avoid planting goutweed, periwinkle, English ivy, Japanese barberry, etc. These seem to be the choice of gardeners who are avoiding turf but end up planting invasive species.

Neglected Niches to Beloved Boulevards

Planting on your own property is a given. But planting on municipal property, the boulevard, the easement or right-of-way that abuts your property and is owned by the city is another matter. Planting in the boulevard is a gray zone. It’s not for everyone; but it should be. If you are feeling timid, should you even try? Why not? Choose the lowest profile, hardiest native species, i.e., tough groundcover and work up from there as your knowledge and confidence grows.


One of the small, evening primroses (Oenothera sp.) works well on a boulevard slope. Part sun and very dry soil.

We’ll help you, but you have to be aware of a few things, especially when you are in tight quarters in a large city and everyone has a different perception and way of doing things. It doesn’t mean you can’t find common ground. But sometimes, you have to push the boundaries and fight to assert yourself. Keeping the status quo, i.e., lawn is no longer the only option these days.  Being on the vanguard, we native plant enthusiasts have to lead the way by example and plant our personal pollinator pathways, especially when we don’t have the impetus or room for something grand like the project in Seattle.

Yet, some suffer as they exert their independence over the amorphous majority. There have been and will be growing pains. Still, we must persevere, as difficult as it seems. Our planet depends on it.

A grass strip doesn't get anymore neglected than this. Note: the hedges would be in violation of the Fences bylaw (too tall, not see-through, sight line issue).

A grass strip doesn’t get anymore neglected than this. Note: the hedges would be in violation of the Fences bylaw (too tall, not see-through, sight line issue).

Boulevard strips come in two basic types:

  1. A strip between sidewalk and road. Some strips can be very small areas. Generally, but depending on the width of the road, the city meets the private property line at the edge of the sidewalk closest to the house.
  2. The boulevard meshes with the front property in tight environs, usually due to narrower roads.

Older areas might even have a grass swale instead of concrete gutter and curb next to the road. In this case, stormwater mitigation is better than a concrete curb and gutter arrangement.

No median strip. Most of this front garden patch is on city property.

No median strip. Most of this front garden patch is on city property. Note: the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) on the corner was not planted; it “invited” itself to the sunnier corner.

However, neither concrete, nor lawn (“green” concrete) is as effective as other plant material in controlling surges from large storm events. Stormwater mitigation is even more dramatic if the entire swale is planted with vegetation other than lawn and allowed to absorb rainwater. This is a much cheaper option than building underground storage tanks to hold stormwater overflow.

Be careful with tall stuff, particularly grasses – they get a bad rap.

Boulevard plantings are more contentious than front yard plantings. The crux of the matter has to do with height. Perceived overgrowth can draw the ire of neighbours who complain to the bylaw officers. It might be deemed messy or threatening, especially when surrounded by lawns. It may be cited as a sight line hazard, even if it isn’t. Bylaws involving vegetation may overlap like canopy layers. It could involve several bylaws with several departments or divisions, depending which way the wind blows.

So, always keep in mind that the boulevard is city property. However, as in my city, even though it is public property, you are still obliged to take care of the portion that is adjacent to your private property. It’s written in one of the many bylaws. It is an issue that needs its own post or several. So, we’ll save it for another day.

Non-native, Cosmos bipinnatus, commonly called the garden cosmos or Mexican aster. It tends to flop during heavy rain. A native aster would be preferred.

Non-native, Cosmos bipinnatus, commonly called the garden cosmos or Mexican aster. It tends to flop during heavy rain. A shorter, more stiff-stemmed native plant would be a better choice.

A few things to keep in mind

Check the bylaws in your local community. In Canada, very few communities have a version of the Homeowners’ Association (HOA) which places covenants on articles or behaviour. It is rare to have a gated community. And many condominium owners have their own property bylaws. Most municipalities have a property standards bylaw. In Toronto we have a property standards bylaw and several others dealing with vegetation restrictions. More importantly, it usually takes a complaint to generate scrutiny by enforcement officials. So, many residents do get away without harassment unless someone takes issue.

Before you dig, check the placement of utilities. Do not risk severing gas, water, cable, electrical lines or pipes. Contractors are notorious for severing lines when they don’t take time to hand dig near utility lines.

Plant for the size of area. Don’t let vegetation hang over or otherwise impede pedestrian or vehicular (including bicycle) traffic. Consider using a set back rule for tall plants which could be set at 12” (30 cm). Don’t let plants flop over public paths or roads which will certainly happen after heavy rain or snowfall. Weak-stemmed plants are best contained amongst stronger stemmed varieties.

Don’t plant woody-stemmed vegetation unless small, compact and hardy. Shrubs can be the unfortunate victims of a side-swiping snow plow, if they are planted too closely to the road or sidewalk. Perennial herbaceous plants will recover when amended as soon as possible in the spring after the ground has thawed.

Repeated plow damage. Fresh evidence remains on the sidewalk.

Repeated plow damage. Fresh evidence remains on the sidewalk.



Be carefully when considering boulevard plants as part of a healthy diet. Road salts, car grease, and dog waste are hazards. However, if allowed, a raised bed or containers might be an option. Boulevard Vancouver Edible Gardens, Boulevard VEG for short, is a funded project by students to build planter boxes and sell them to neighbours for vegetable growing on their boulevards.


Plants to plant on the boulevard

If you really need a piece of lawn, try the swirly fescues, e.g., Ecolawn  with its mixture of fine fescues. They grow up, but are finely structured and fall down to maintain a low profile.

Don’t resort to the non-natives, particularly the invasives, e.g., monkey grass or spider grass (Liriope spp.), goutweed, periwinkle. I’ve seen both goutweed and periwinkle struggle in full sun looking wilted and burnt. Try Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) or its close relative, woodbine (P. vitacea) instead. However, avoid the temptation to train the vine to grow up hydro poles. Some homeowners will go this route to hide an ugly pole. It may be fine for several years and look quite nice, until Hydro decides the vegetation wrapped around the wires is too dangerous. Hydro crews need to be able to maintain the infrastructure, so make their lives easier by keeping an eye on any vines planted.

For properties that do not have the grass median, your design should be a gradation from short to tall when planting from the sidewalk towards the house. Save the tall prairie plants for a spot closer to the house. Keep in mind, lack of moisture may limit the height, as it is not optimal growing conditions. This will work in your favour.

This specimen of Coreopsis sp. stays small in a compromised spot.

This specimen of Coreopsis sp. stays small in a compromised spot.

Our NPWG writers also have suggestions. Vincent Vizachero writes about sedges and why you should “carex“: “Carex glaucodea is tidy groundcover, taking the place formerly occupied by liriope.”

Emily DeBolt mentions blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) as a good option. “A native iris with extensive roots, this plant is drought tolerant once established. Northern blue flag iris is quite adaptable in the garden, able to grow in regular garden soils.  It won’t spread as much as in wetter sites, but that is often just fine with the home gardener.”


Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing slowly in partial shade and very dry conditions beside a moisture-sucking Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in decline.

If you have a dominant tree and are dealing with partial shade and dry soil, try violets, strawberry, short sedges (Pennsylvania sedge, dryland sedge Bebb’s sedge). Barren strawberry, while not a true strawberry but another member of the rose family, may be a good choice. Just make sure you have the native one Waldsteinia fragarioides, Appalachian barren strawberry. I’ve seen mostly the European one (W. geoides). Look for the separation of leaves into three distinct leaflets. If they are joined or lobed, it’s the wrong one.

Don't plant this! Non-native barren strawberry (Waldsteinia geoides)

Don’t plant this! Non-native barren strawberry (Waldsteinia geoides)

Boulevards – they define the physical character of the community. They’re up front, in your face expressions of the residents; extensions of your property. They could make a grand statement in sustainability. They could be the hedgerows in our contemporary urban environment providing many benefits such as habitat for wildlife and stormwater attenuation. We just have to be mindful when planting and be willing to compromise a little. In this case, size does matter.

© 2013, Janet Harrison. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I am thankful, since our yard is so small, that we live in a neighborhood that does not mind what others have planted in their yards. I have a few things that are taller than the 3 or 4 foot limit, but most of the plants in the curb area are not too tall. We do not have a sidewalk, so there is grass where that would be.
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..Waiting for Spring

    • says

      Sue, we definitely due have our challenges on small lots. You are fortunate in your situation. A major problem with the bylaws is that there are height-based restrictions for no reason other than assigning an arbitrary height. Most situations don’t have a valid health or safety reason for the restrictions. Sad as it is, we’ve been lumped in with neglected properties that have overgrown turf. Bylaw officers don’t need to know the difference because it is all based on an arbitrary height, which when surpassed will trigger the issuance of a violation notice.

  2. says

    Some cities are more friendly than others and will even work with you. For example in Vancouver, B.C., they have a green streets program where they provide compost, networking, advice and gatherings for the gardeners. I did an interview with them awhile back, it’s a great, supportive program.

    Portland also has a green streets program, they are leading the country on stormwater management and will retrofit many neighborhoods to add rain gardens.

    Seattle has a traffic circle adoption program which you can sign up for.

    So check with your city, they may be happy to work with you!
    Kelly Brenner recently posted..Friday Film:: Designing Neighborhoods for People and Wildlife

  3. says

    Thanks Janet. Great article! It’s past time to normalize front yard & boulevard plantings. The reaction I most often get when trying to explain Toronto’s own bylaws to staff or Councillors is “but the boulevard HAS to be grass”. The Ontario Superior Court ruled in 2003 that residents are allowed to garden on the city-owned median given that they are required to care for it — provided that it doesn’t create a safety hazard. In February 2012, boulevard gardens were specifically included in Toronto’s Street bylaws…yet as of February 1, 2013, I will again be facing a cut threat from that department against my perfectly legal boulevard garden. There are over 11,000 km of boulevards in Toronto…what a lot of good all that land could be doing.
    Deborah Dale recently posted..Nature is Scary — Holding Back the Invasive Green Tide

  4. Dena says

    I’m in the process of planting the strip between my the street in front of my house sidewalk. I don’t anticipate any issues. I am starting with Mimosa, a native to my area and will go from there.

  5. Dee says

    I enjoyed the article very much. I drive past a huge jail complex everyday, there is Barberry everywhere. There is also a small dirt patch on a slope under a tree, bare with the exception of a few sparse perennials. As a butterfly gardener, I could do so much with that space, if the powers that be aprove my plans. It would be a lot of work to maneveur the huge red tape bereaucracy that is Cook County. They are also broke, so I would have to pay for the plants myself with no hope of reimbursement. Do I take my time & spend my money? How long would the flowers last with the people walking by picking them, or leting their kids run through & trample them? I would love to have the invasive Japanese Barberry removed, & replaced with native flowers, but that is right on the side walk, & would probably be destroyed. It’s a shame that peole can’t enjoy without destroying, but, that’s how people are, so they area will probably remain as it is. But it was a nice thought.

  6. Kathy says

    I love this idea … and have done a little bit of this at the entrance of our subdivision (no HOA) but my biggest hurdle has been the fact that there is no irrigation … I started hauling water in gallon milk jugs until it go too much for me … had gotten many compliments but no helpers with planting, mulching, watering etc. (sort of like the Little Red Hen … everybody enjoys it as long as they don’t have to do any of the work) …I have paid for plants and mulch from my retirement money … voluntarily … I would like to continue filling out this area … any suggestions on how to handle an area that gets no irrigation other than rain … I live in northeast Florida on a sandhill … so things dry out quickly particularly in the hot weather …


  1. […] I expect the workshop will have a pro-wildlife stance, but it’s difficult to predict with some government officials. Toronto Wildlife Centre, Toronto Animal Services and Toronto Region and Conservation are certainly pro-wildlife. I’m not sure if other departments will be involved like Municipal Licencing and Standards (MLS). Most bylaws are not wildlife-friendly, as evidenced by the many anti-vegetative provisions in bylaws, including the Grass and Weeds bylaw and the Property Standards bylaw that I discussed briefly in previous posts: A tale of two city yards  and Living on the Edge – Boulevard of Broken Dreams. […]

  2. […] but roadside gardens? It’s just another way to describe a garden that is living on the edge  – a boulevard garden. You can’t get any closer to the edge than by living close to the sidewalk and […]

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