Street Lawn Plants

What to plant on narrow strips of ground by the street

By: Sandy Feather ©2011
Penn State Extension

Q. My teenage son has torn up the narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street with the car. I wanted to do something with this area anyway, since it was filled with weeds. My entire lawn gets nearly all-day sun and the sprinklers don't really reach the strip by the street.

A. This inhospitable bit of land is known by many names - tree strip, tree lawn, parking strip – but I think author Lauren Springer Ogden got it right when she called it “the hell strip.”

Although typically planted to lawn grasses, Dante himself could not have come up with a more hellish design when it comes to the cool season grasses best suited to western Pennsylvania.

Cool Season Grasses

Their classification as “cool season” should be a clue that planting them in horrible, compacted soil surrounded by pavement that reflects heat up to 150-degrees at ground level is a recipe for problems, especially when irrigation is not available. In addition to poor soil and reflected heat, hell strips suffer from road salt, foot traffic, careless drivers, and irresponsible pet owners.

Where to Begin

The best place to start renovating the hell strip is by testing the soil for its chemical properties and how well it drains. Basic soil tests from Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Laboratory provide information on the soil pH (acidity or alkalinity), phosphorous, potash, magnesium and calcium. Nitrogen recommendations are based on the known needs of the “crop” you intend to grow in the area. In Allegheny County, consumer soil test kits cost $12 each, and come with detailed instructions for taking a good soil sample and information to help you understand your soil test results. Customers ordering multiple kits at one time pay $9 each for the additional kits. Send a check made payable to Penn State Extension to Penn State Extension, 400 North Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write Attn. Soil Test Kit in the lower left corner of the envelope.


To check for drainage, dig a number of holes (how many depend on the area of the site - you want a representative sample) 18 - 24 inches deep and fill them with water. If they drain in a few hours, the drainage is fine. If not, drainage could be a problem that will complicate your selection of plants.

Good Soil Preparation

To some extent, how you proceed with soil preparation depends on the plants you choose to grow there. If you choose to stick with traditional lawn grass, you will have to get rid of the existing vegetation and prepare a seedbed. You can dig the existing vegetation out by hand or spray it with a non-selective herbicide such as horticultural vinegar or glyphosate (Round Up, Eraser, Kleen Up).

Once the vegetation is dead, rototill the area and rake out the clumps of dead vegetation. Till in lime or sulfur and the basic fertilizers as recommended by the soil test results along with a few inches of compost. Rake the seedbed smooth, scatter the grass seed, and then mulch with clean oat straw or compost. You will need to water until the seed germinates and becomes established. If we get into hot, dry weather later in the summer as is typical, you should provide supplemental water for the first growing season.

Grass Choices for Street Lawns

Turf-type tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) and creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra) are the best choices for more traditional lawn grasses in the hell strip. Turf-type tall fescue is moderately salt tolerant, and drought and wear-tolerant once it becomes established. Creeping red fescue is moderately tolerant of drought and salt.

Alternatives to Grass

Depending on your community’s zoning laws or the rules governing your homeowners’ association, you may able to forego grasses in favor of low growing, drought-tolerant shrubs, warm season grasses and herbaceous perennials. It wise to stick with plants that will not grow more than three or four feet tall to avoid blocking drivers’ view up and down the street.

curbside garden
Growing a vegetable garden along the street

In this case, you still need to get rid of the existing vegetation. This can be done by smothering it with layers of damped newspapers or corrugated cardboard covered with about four inches of compost and bark mulch. Alternatively, you can also spray a non-selective herbicide such as horticultural vinegar or glyphosate (Round Up, Eraser, Kleen Up). Do not remove the dead grass, but leave it in place to act as mulch. With either of these methods, you dig holes for individual plants, but do not till up the whole area. This avoids bringing weed seeds up to the soil surface where they are likely to germinate. Also, it is a step to restoring the natural order of soil layers that were destroyed when your neighborhood was built.

groundcover under a street tree
Groundcover in place of a steel grate or only mulch


Some alternative plants for narrow planting strips include:


Arctic Fire Red Twig Dogwood
(Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’)
3-4 feet

Rock Cotoneaster
(Cotoneaster horizontalis)
2-3 feet

Rockspray Cotoneaster
Rockspray Cotoneaster

Gold Tide Forsythia
(Forsythia x ‘Courtasol’
1-2 feet

Creeping St. John’s Wort
(Hypericum calycinum
1-1.5 feet

Dwarf Mugo Pine
(Pinus mugo ‘Mops’)
2.5-3 feet

Shrubby Cinquefoil
(Potentilla fruticosa
2-4 feet

yellow Potentilla

Gro-low Fragrant Sumac
(Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’)
1.5-2 feet

Green Mound Alpine Currant
(Ribes alpinum ‘Green Mound’
2-3 feet

Adam’s Needle
(Yucca filamentosa)
2-3 feet (foliage)



(Achillea millefolium
18-24 inches

(Antennaria spp.)
6-12 inches

Sea Thrift
(Armeria maritima
6-12 inches

Silver Mound Artemesia
(Artemesia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’)
12-15 inches


Red Valerian
(Centranthus ruber var. coccineus)
18-36 inches

(Cerastium tomentosum)
6-12 inches

(Dianthus spp.)
4-12 inches

Blue Oat Grass
(Helictotrichon sempervirens)
24-30 inches

(Hemerocallis spp.)
12-36 inches

Stella d'Ora Daylily

Candy Tuft
(Iberis sempervirens)
6-8 inches

Tall Bearded Iris
(Iris hybrida)
6-36 inches

Lily-turf (Liriope spicata)
9-15 inches

Little Bluestem
(Schizachyrium scoparium)
18-24 inches

(Sedum spp.)
4-18 inches


Prairie Dropseed
(Sporobolus heterolepis)
24-36 inches

(Thymus spp.)
4-8 inches

Barren Strawberry
(Waldsteinia fragaroides)
3-6 inches




Growing apples

Attracting Songbirds

Azaleas & Rhododendrons


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