Leafed out tree surrounded by medium-sized plants, some flowers

It’s Spring! Plant a Boulevard Garden

Walking and bicycling through my neighborhood has given me a deeper appreciation of the many gardeners who work to add beauty and resiliency to our world. I started noticing the strips of curbside gardens, and occasionally stopped to chat with folks while they were out planting. I enjoyed watching the plants sprout, bloom, feed bees, and become decorated with snow as the year went by.


Close up of white cosmos bloom with bumble bee on it

I spotted this bee while I was walking by a garden. (photo: Jenny Werness)


The boulevard strip along my street, despite having been sodded by the city only a couple years before, was a sad collection of browning grass and weeds. I did not want to perpetuate the fundamental environmental problem with American lawns (which require significant amounts of work, water, fossil fuels, and herbicides) to maintain a nearly artificial green carpet that provides no benefits to our native insects and animals. Transforming a useless patch of lawn to a garden seemed like a small climate-friendly step I could take, while also adding beauty to the streetside for neighbors to enjoy, provide habitat for animals and insects, and catch stormwater.


narrow garden between sidewalk and street, filled with bark mulch and several green plants

One year after planting, my boulevard garden begins to fill in (photo: Jenny Werness)

Planning a garden for a “tough site”

Street-adjacent sites like this experience some harsh environmental conditions, including road salt, two- and four-legged trampling, hot/dry conditions in summer, and snow piles in winter (this winter’s boulevard snow pile was nearly five feet tall).  The boulevard is city property, and Saint Paul generously allows for residents to plant these areas with some restrictions imposed, including height limits and zero use of herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers.

Close up of plant, with dog foot about to step on it

My very own dog, Hexie, about to trample my garden


Originally I wanted a dedicated rain garden, but the friendly folks at Capital Region Watershed District suggested it wouldn’t be an ideal location due to the mature trees. I loved the look of rock gardens, but I wanted to include more native plants, insect host plants, and pollinator plants. I also required plants that would be able to survive this rough environment without watering or significant nurturing from us. The U of MN Extension, it turns out, has the perfect reference material: The Best Plants for 30 Tough Sites, edited by Mary Meyer, Deborah L. Brown, and Mike Zins. They have recommendations for perennials and small trees for boulevard gardens, as well as a wealth of other advice on things like dry soil, river banks, shady areas, deer resistant plants.


With these constraints, I began planning a garden primarily composed of hardy native and pollinator perennials, with a bunch of my favorite yard rocks relocated to the boulevard.


Preparing the site and planting
There are many ways to start a garden from a patch of grass, including soil solarizing or smothering, both of which are fairly easy and require no special equipment or hard labor. However, I wanted to decrease the final height of the garden so that water would drain into it rather than run off into the street, so I had to get the grass removed instead. After calling Gopher State One to get the utility locations marked, I hired a neighbor who manually cut up and removed all the turf. He gave me some great advice on gardening, and he regularly stops by to chat about my garden as he’s out and about. Other neighbors stopped by to reuse the “sod” in their own yards or compost piles.


Narrow strip of dirt between sidewalk and street, with a large pile covered in tarp

Work in progress, with a tarp-covered sod pile (photo: Jenny Werness)


My partner Kyle and I began acquiring plants, starting in our own yard, and then in our neighborhood. I scattered some annual flower seeds  in the new garden, and then I picked out my perennials that needed dividing (including the ever-present sedum and hostas). We relocated some, and then took the rest to the Mac-Groveland Plant Share to exchange for other suitable plants, including a gorgeous pink phlox.  I asked my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Project group if anyone had plants to share, and was gifted with some lovely lilies. A friend from work brought me irises he’d split from his garden, complete with labels and photo references of each type. After letting these plants establish themselves, I consulted my list and we went to Highland Nursery for some of the hardy natives I hadn’t yet found.


Person on bicycle with trailer filled with plants, at stoplight

Taking some plants to the neighborhood plant share (photo: Kyle Constalie)

As the plants grew and bloomed, we often sat on the retaining wall and watched as they attracted bees and butterflies, even occasional birds. We put out a water bowl for the dogs. My sister brought me some nice big rocks to add to the not-yet-filled-in spots, and made me a series of seasonally-changing fairy garden decorations. Neighbors walking by stopped to chat about the garden, just as I’d been doing around the city. Planting the garden was, in many ways, a joint project with our community, and I am very thankful.

Tiny church door by tree trunk, and nine tiny gravestones with fairy writing

Boulevard fairy garden, Halloween spooky graveyard edition (Photo: Jenny Werness)

A tree falls

Later that fall, the city decided that one of our boulevard trees needed to be removed, as it had developed a deep split. It was sad to lose the tree, and also to lose some of the plants in that area as they ground out the stump. But it gave us the opportunity to plant a new tree, chosen from a list provided by staff at the City of Saint Paul Forestry Department. The city forestry department would have replanted eventually, according to their planting rotation, but we didn’t want to wait that long.


I made a spreadsheet of our options, narrowed the list to a top three with the input of our immediate neighbors, and we went to buy a tree. We decided on a hackberry (celtis occidentalis), which is recommended by the U of MN Extension as tolerant of tough boulevard conditions.

The hackberry is a native tree, which attracts 41 larval insects including the common snout butterfly, and will grow plentiful fruit for birds and small mammals. I like to think of this tree as the linchpin of the non-human community in our garden.


Do you have a favorite garden along your commute? Have you planted one yourself? Ask your gardening questions or share your gardening tips in the comments.


Jenny Werness

About Jenny Werness

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Jenny (she/her) is a carfree, bicycling, tree-loving St. Paul resident, with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. She believes that our rapidly changing climate should be of utmost concern to all of us. Board of Directors of streets.mn, 2019-2024; Executive Committee - Content Manager.