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?
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.
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.
Boulevard strips come in two basic types:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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