By Kate Bowen
Hell strip. There. I wrote it, but I didn’t coin the phrase. That credit is given to Lauren Springer Ogden, a renowned gardener, who came up with the term “hell strip.” You know exactly what I am talking about: that evil zone between you and the road. It might be paved; it might have some weeds; it might have some tidy grass; or it might be bursting with life—a microcosm of annuals, perennials, and wildlife.
Many Belmont streets have paved shoulders. The town does not formally encourage restoring paved hell strips, and open shoulders are often paved during street repaving projects. However, there are several reasons to replace a hell strip with life-bearing soil.
1) Temperature. It’s a lot cooler with plants. I don’t mean fashionable, I mean actually cooler. Vegetation lowers air temperature through evapotranspiration. Yes, plantings alone or in combination with shade can reduce local temperatures by two to nine degrees Fahrenheit. Mix in more shade trees and you can make a real difference. On summer days, shaded pavement can have temperatures to 20–45°F cooler than sunny pavement.
2) Air quality. A hell strip may seem insignificant since it’s only a few feet wide, but a study from the Harvard School of Public Health compared bicycle travel routes on road vs. separated routes with vegetative barriers. The separated routes had 33% less black carbon and nitrogen dioxide, common pollutants known to have negative impacts on health such as increasing asthma, impaired lung function, and heart disease, among others. More plants, please.
3) Soil. Plantings retain soil which is good for preventing it from getting washed into the storm water system and overburdening it. Deeply rooted plants and soil rich in beneficial microbes may also increase carbon retention in the soil, becoming a carbon repository known as a “carbon sink.” Agricultural practices are shifting globally to increase carbon retention, improving the atmosphere and restoring soil depleted from modern conventional farming practices.
Replacing the pavement with soil avoids the increased temperatures from pavement in hot weather. Pavement also blurs the boundary between sidewalks and roadways. Cars often park on sidewalks, making it difficult or impossible for pedestrians to pass safely. A soil strip, better yet with plantings, makes a clear demarcation.
4) Food. You may have heard about colony collapse disorder, which is killing millions of U.S. honey bees each year. Creating pollinator patches is a great reason to plant the hell strip. Native wildlife need more native wild plants too. Why not plant some lowbush blueberries and feed the birds too?
How to Make Pavement Green Again
If you want to restore a paved strip to green space, you must first get permission from Belmont’s Community Development department. They will want you to follow Mass Department of Transportation specifications for curbing. The town prefers granite curbs, which come with a hefty price tag of ca. $30 per linear foot. If you like to explore options, you might glance at your neighbors’ molded asphalt or concrete and think there’s a way around the expense of granite. Good luck. Town officials don’t like asphalt because it easily falls apart when driven over in the heat or hit by a snowplow. Concrete deteriorates at varying rates depending on materials and workmanship.
Don’t think about putting in boulders or other creative barriers on the hell strip. As the homeowner, you’ll be liable if a car or person is injured due to your innovative markers. The town may not agree to have the pavement removed at all if it’s been repaved in the last five years. You will also have to pay $100 for a street opening permit, though technically the hell strip is not “street.” Street opening permits are typically required for altering sidewalks and driveway exits. I’ll be trying out this process; I’ll let you know how it turns out.
What to Plant on Your Strip
There are many reasons for planting the hell strip and just as many approaches to what to plant. If you only plant grass, you will still be doing good. Consider a good mix of grasses, one that feeds the bunnies. The Massachusetts Greenscapes Coalition, which educates MA residents about preserving water quality, recommends a fescue mix to reduce watering and runoff. Cut it, leave the trimmings, feed it in the fall, and don’t expect miracles on the hell strip.
If you are feeling especially brilliant, go native. These plants will endure the heat, need little maintenance, and benefit native birds and insects. It is possible to tastefully plant native wildflowers and shrubs to resemble conventional decorative landscaping. Some companies, like online retailer High Country Gardens, sell pre-planned “inferno strip” gardens that tolerate dry, hot conditions well.
Keep in mind that height is important. For safety, use low plantings less than 3 feet tall to keep smaller folks and wheelchair users visible from the street.
Likewise, cut your trees’ low branches to preserve visibility. Be especially mindful at corners. The town requires the vertical zone between 3 feet and 8 feet at corners to be clear 20 feet back from the point of intersection. If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of the road to make a turn, you know why this zoning bylaw exists.
If you do have the opportunity to plant a tree, call the Tree Warden. You may be able to get on the list to have the town plant a new tree. To get on the list, the Tree Warden will take down your information, investigate the existing pipes that would affect planting: gas lines, sewer, and so on. He will also be interested in knowing that you are willing to water the newly planted tree, as the town does not have the resources to tend to fragile seedlings. If you can do it, it is well worth the effort to nurture a new tree. Consider planting a tree to the west of your house to maximize the cooling benefit from its shade in hot months.
Finally, the public right of way—whether it’s paved or not—is just that: a Public Right of Way. Planting in the public right of way must allow safe and easy passage. Plants will get stepped on no matter what you do and that’s ok! Take a walk. There are a lot of great plants that tolerate foot traffic that you are already walking on—at Rock Meadow, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, or Pequossette Park. Next time you’re walking around, notice them. Ajuga has been my stepable plant of choice, but I’m branching out this year. Hopefully, your plantings on the strip will not only allow safe passage, but encourage it.
Kate Bowen is Chair of Sustainable Belmont.