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.

 

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28 Responses to It’s Spring! Plant a Boulevard Garden

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 7, 2019 at 8:17 am #

    This is great. Thanks for making St Paul a slightly more beautiful place to walk.

  2. Kyle Constalie May 7, 2019 at 8:58 am #

    I second Bill’s comment. This is a great story about a little piece of Earth.

  3. jack May 7, 2019 at 10:50 am #

    Thank you for this story! I really need to step up my boulevard game!

  4. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina Scheel May 7, 2019 at 10:52 am #

    Thanks for this lovely piece on the value of boulevard gardents and how to create one. I love how you demonstrated that it doesn’t need to be costly to be beautiful and beneficial.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 1:39 pm #

      Yes, this project was a really inexpensive one, and made a huge difference to how I use and enjoy the front yard.

  5. Christa Moseng
    Christa Moseng May 7, 2019 at 11:01 am #

    I love this project, and this post. Thanks for sharing and improving that border-space between public and private that doesn’t often get a lot of love and attention.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 1:38 pm #

      Thank you! That is an excellent characterization of this space. My follow up post has some thoughts about encouraging the “public” part of it.

  6. Chelsea B May 7, 2019 at 11:48 am #

    I find myself so grateful when I’m out on a walk, for all the work my neighbors have done to make something wonderful for me to look at, and to support the tiny urban creatures.

    I have a book called “Hellstrip Gardening” for exactly this purpose! But I got too excited to actually plan well last fall and put in a bunch of bulbs and strawberries instead. My eagerness to garden is frequently a hinderance to my success.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 1:34 pm #

      That was one of the books I read too! I checked it out from the library as an ebook. So convenient.

      I hear you on the enthusiasm aspect – I definitely planted a few things before removing the grass (and then had to dig them up and put them back, thus creating 3x as much work for myself).

      A hellstrip of bulbs and strawberries sounds pretty great.

  7. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson May 7, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

    I’ve been wanting to do a boulevard garden for one specific spot. We have a boulevard tree that has a very high mound, the grass on the mound is a pain in the ass to mow. I badly want non-grass plants on this huge boulevard mound.

    My problem may be working itself out because this tree is budding on one a handful of branches, the rest are just dead. My big old problem tree may be dead.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 1:37 pm #

      The hostas I planted around the boulevard tree were one of the first things that went in, specifically because we didn’t want to mow around it. They did not enjoy the sunlight once the tree was cut down, but they were hardy enough to re-establish themselves the next year.

  8. Andrew Evans May 7, 2019 at 2:15 pm #

    Maybe this is the year I put planters out or do something like that. Although no one on Lyndale by us does anything, but someone has to start it.

    Most of the rest of the yard and gardens are set, so this is the last part to pretty up if we’d want to.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 2:22 pm #

      I hope you do! Even some little annuals or something is a nice beautifying touch for the boulevards. My street didn’t really have any other curbside gardens, either, but there are some nice ones in the neighborhood I liked to study.

  9. jared czaia May 7, 2019 at 3:28 pm #

    Thanks for leaving so many helpful links scattered throughout the article!

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 4:37 pm #

      You’re welcome! Those references have been very helpful to me too, especially those from U of MN extension.

  10. Rosa May 7, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

    Just, for everyone planting boulevard gardens, put in some places where people can walk across them! This is still public space and making long areas where people feel like they shouldn’t walk (or worse, some of the boulevard gardens in Seward are full of things that are big enough/thorny enough you CAN’T walk) is really unfriendly.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 7, 2019 at 4:36 pm #

      In my case, there’s a sidewalk (sometimes called “carriage walk”) that bisects the boulevard, so it’s easy to keep access open.

    • Andrew Evans May 9, 2019 at 3:02 pm #

      Rosa, agree. Per city requirements, without a permit (whatever a permit means) flowers or things planted that aren’t trees, can’t grow more than 36 inches tall and/or must be shorter than that if close to an intersection.

      I’m indifferent on having paths or providing access. Yes, we don’t need to be Richards about it, but at some point the property owners are given ownership over it and from the way the whole city page reads, it’s more to provide green space than anything. So we’re not under a obligation to provide access, in fact further in the ordinance or rules it states that a owner can’t pave the whole strip, without permission. So it’s mean to be some kind of green space, and flowers or some garden is encouraged.

      Rules below from the city site about flowers.

      Vegetation. Except for flowers, grass and trees as provided herein, the growing
      or planting of any weed or similar noxious plant, vegetables, fruits, hedges,
      shrubs or other type of vegetation on any boulevard is prohibited, unless a permit
      for such is issued by the city.
      (1) Flowers permitted. Flowers grown on that part of any boulevard between
      the sidewalk and the roadway are allowed without a permit from the city,
      provided that they shall not exceed thirty-six (36) inches in height, and
      flowers grown within twenty (20) feet of an intersection, alley or driveway
      approach, or five (5) feet of any public utility fixture shall not exceed
      eighteen (18) inches in height.
      (2) Grass and trees permitted. The growing of grass in compliance with
      section 227.90 of this Code and trees in compliance with Chapter 10 of
      the Park and Recreation Board Code of Ordinance[s] are allowed without
      a permit from the city council.

      • Jenny Werness
        Jenny Werness May 9, 2019 at 3:44 pm #

        Is this from Minneapolis or somewhere else? (I’m in Saint Paul, and the rules are slightly different)

      • Rosa May 11, 2019 at 6:59 pm #

        But just as a matter of politeness people are highly unwilling to walk on flowers, and we want to preserve that cultural norm. Boulevards are still public and if you impede the ability of people to get out of parked cars or go onto the boulevard for groups of walkers to pass, it makes the neigjborhood public spaces less public and shared

  11. Elizabeth Saathoff May 7, 2019 at 11:35 pm #

    You can also grow veggies! Last year I grew a big crop of cucumbers, beans and ground cherries on our boulevard in St Paul. I got great advice from the “Tiny Fields Project” in Minneapolis: https://www.tinyfields.org/

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 8, 2019 at 9:40 am #

      That’s lovely! Thank you for the link.

  12. Andrew Evans May 9, 2019 at 2:54 pm #

    More so as an FYI, from the Minneapolis city website…

    Vegetation. Except for flowers, grass and trees as provided herein, the growing
    or planting of any weed or similar noxious plant, vegetables, fruits, hedges,
    shrubs or other type of vegetation on any boulevard is prohibited, unless a permit
    for such is issued by the city.
    (1) Flowers permitted. Flowers grown on that part of any boulevard between
    the sidewalk and the roadway are allowed without a permit from the city,
    provided that they shall not exceed thirty-six (36) inches in height, and
    flowers grown within twenty (20) feet of an intersection, alley or driveway
    approach, or five (5) feet of any public utility fixture shall not exceed
    eighteen (18) inches in height.
    (2) Grass and trees permitted. The growing of grass in compliance with
    section 227.90 of this Code and trees in compliance with Chapter 10 of
    the Park and Recreation Board Code of Ordinance[s] are allowed without
    a permit from the city council.

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 9, 2019 at 3:46 pm #

      Vegetables and other plants (I assume fruits?) are allowed in Saint Paul, FYI. They only restrict “noxious weeds,” and of course too-tall plants.

    • Rosa May 11, 2019 at 7:01 pm #

      In practice this isnt enforced and probably shouldnt be, though

      • Andrew Evans May 13, 2019 at 11:45 am #

        What should be enforced is a height limit, that gets really annoying or dangerous. Then maybe someone should be chastised for planting something like a apple tree that could make a slippery mess of a sidewalk or road if it isn’t picked and cleaned up after. I can see shrubs too, since part of the point of a boulevard is to provide street access.

        I’m indifferent on most fruits, although my street is way too busy and littered for me to want to plant anything editable by it. Totally different if I’m on a side street.

        I only posted it because as far as I know those are the rules, and the park board as well as the city can at times be huge Richards about things like this.

        Fwiw though there was a great bulivard garden by Café Racer in Mpls. They had short fence sections that provide a nice backdrop and protection for their garden. I may have to try something like that where I’m at, once I figure out of it’s legal or not. Where I’m at off Lyndale in North it’s much more likely some random grumpy city or park board inspector will see what I’m doing, vs someone in south, so I have to be a little more careful.

  13. Lou Miranda May 11, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

    Great post! Nothing like making our streets a better, friendlier, sustainable place. And a great conversation starter. Once a passing motorist got my attention while I was minding my boulevard garden, and pointed out the fox that was trotting up the street!

    I’ve planted boulevard gardens wherever I’ve lived. I’m no longer putting a lot of effort into our current one, as our street is marked for a re-do in a couple years, and my hard work will be for nought. In the meantime, I’m letting the native plants reseed where they wish, and we’re getting a whole interesting variant on what I originally planted. I guess they’re happy!

    • Jenny Werness
      Jenny Werness May 13, 2019 at 3:13 pm #

      I like the idea of your native plant self-seeding experiment, Lou! It’s fun to see what plants do when left on their own.

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