If you’ve never had to apply the word “hell bar” to a part of your garden, consider yourself lucky. The term was coined to refer to land next to a road where nothing would grow, except undesirable things like crabgrass and poison ivy. The soil typically has a cement consistency, a near-zero fertility level, and is exposed to all the runoff from the nasty stuff winter road workers dump on the street.
Does your garden have a “hell bar”? Native plants can help.
You might say why bother, but dedicated gardeners embrace this kind of challenge. And even if you don’t have a hellbar, the concept has legs, with lessons that can be applied anywhere where land is poor and plantings often fail. Whether it’s a culvert, a gully, thin soil covering a curb or another problem area, the solutions used by road warriors can help.
If you’re dealing with an actual hell bar, your options will depend on the regulations in your municipality. Technically, the land directly along the road belongs to the city or state, which may have restrictions on use for safety issues, protecting sight lines and maintaining access to facilities. You will need to obtain permission before tampering with roadside land and be careful not to obstruct visibility or create a potentially dangerous situation.
Even with permission, gardening on turf regulated by a city, town or state can present unique challenges. Emily Baisden, seed program manager for the Wild Seed Project in Portland, Maine, got city approval to plant her hellbar, but she says the local mowing crew didn’t get the message. The result was a scalp transplant.
I also learned the hard way not to plant seeds where rainwater runoff is a problem. Perennial native seeds typically require a period of freezing before germination, so they are often washed during the winter weeks spent exposed beside the road. Baisden now uses plugs (small plants) or pint pots instead of seeds. A roadside rule is to choose plants that typically stay under 2 feet in height to keep sightlines clear. It helps that the painful conditions typical of hellbender often keep plants stressed.
Another potential solution to the erosion problem, according to Mark Richardson, director of horticulture at the New England Botanical Garden on Tower Hill in Boylston, Massachusetts, is hydroponic seeds. He did this for the carrots in the botanical garden’s steep parking lot, mixing perennial wildflower seeds and grass seeds with paper mulch to create mulch. After application, an erosion control mat holds the seeds in place. Blends are customized to the specific challenges of each farming island. For wet spots, for example, marsh grasses (Asclepia personified), soft rush (Juncos shed), Joe Pai Weed (Eutrochium purple) and New York ironweed (Vernonia novipuracensis).
Although hydroseeding itself may be beyond the scope of the average homeowner, a recipe that includes quick germination tools such as partridge peas (Chamaecrista fasciculata) to grab and hold soil, and can be adapted for home use in difficult non-roadside situations.
Another lesson from Richardson’s parking lot farmer that can help the home gardener: Don’t do it Soil fertilization. Many native plants are adapted to rooting in sandy, lean soil. They prefer tough love. He recycled poor soil from construction on the site to create a planting base. In addition to sorted partitions, it also uses sockets. His successes in the project include plugs from ground gold bowl (Pakira obovata), Bluestar thread (Amsonia Hubrichte), Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia reversoni), new york aster (Symphyotrichum nouvelle-Belgium(and the bright star)Liatris spicata). On the other hand, the Russian sage (Salvia yangi) I couldn’t handle the stress.
On or off the road, the unifying factor in most hell situations is the lack of water. Cathy Sykes, a master gardener and naturalist who specializes in creating a pollinator corridor in D.C., spends countless hours delivering water to the 1.3 miles of “tree boxes” along Connecticut Avenue that she has permission to plant primarily with native perennials and annuals.
Sykes begins planting after the rains, placing the plants in dense locations so that their leaves overlap to protect the soil from the hot sun and drying out. You then provide a generous drink once a week (or sometimes every third day in drought), spending about 45-60 minutes watering each box to allow the moisture to soak in deeply. Because they have chosen drought-tolerant perennials, less water will be needed in later years, once they are established and have deep roots.
Native plants are an excellent solution to inhospitable conditions. My personal battle with the hellbar changed radically the day I introduced coneflowers (Echinacea cv) in the pathetic soil not far from the road. Echinacea has absolutely failed in my highly fertile perennial beds. Placing it near the road was a last resort. It turns out he liked hungry, gritty soil.
Baisden says many native plants prefer the lean, mean treatment that a hellbar provides. “One of the great things about native plants is that they don’t need soil amendments,” she says.
Baisden says perennials like yarrow (Achillea millefolium), wild indigo (Baptism death), Mr. Rattlesnake (Eringium eucalyptus(and fragrant sumac)The aromatic raisin) They survive even in the hot sun. For shadier locations, wild strawberries (Virginia Fragaria(and Canadian anemones)Canadian anemone) are the preferred fillings.
Off the road, low-lying huckleberries tolerate sand and drought/flood from the pavement. When sight lines are not a problem, shrub St. John’s wort (A prolific plant), beach plum (Prunus maritima), and honeysuckle bush (Derphylla lonicera) They are workers. The space in hell strips helps limit the expansion of notorious spreaders like anemones and bee balm.
Everyone who battles hell in a bountiful and beautiful spectacle has earned bragging rights. Whether it’s a stretch of roadside, a steep slope, a patch of land next to your driveway, or another site with harsh conditions, greening a former space has been a good opportunity to feel good. Best of all, the neighbors notice. And sometimes they follow suit.
Tova Martin is a gardener and freelance writer in Connecticut. Find her online at tovahmartin.com.