1. KNOW THE CODE > Though homeowners are required to maintain their hell strips by removing weeds (at the least), the narrow plots are actually city property. Before you start ripping up grass, call the Zoning and Planning Office in your county to see if there are any height or watering regulations. In general, be cognizant of sightlines for drivers and passersby—in other words, don’t plant anything too tall. Thirty inches is an ideal max height. And bear in mind: If the utility companies need to get to pipes or anything else, workers can dig up whatever’s there, no questions asked.
2. GET DIRTY > “You need to dig down one to two inches below the sidewalk or curb before you plant,” says Sheila Schultz, co-founder of Denver Dirty Girls. That way, when the area is watered—whether by you or the rain—mud won’t spill out and cover the sidewalk. Other important first steps, says Lauren Startzel, also of Denver Dirty Girls: Locate feeder roots for any existing trees, as digging could damage them, and amend the soil to add nutrients (ask a local nursery for recommendations) for your new plants.
3. WATER IT > Both Schultz and Wendy Booth, president of Ivy Street Design, encourage the use of water-wise plants; however, irrigation is generally still necessary to help roots grow in the early stages.
4. WALK THIS WAY > People park at curbs, so if you don’t want them to traipse all over your plants, start the design process with a walkway. Schultz recommends placing a flagstone pathway in an eye-catching design, such as rectangular shapes fitted in a herringbone pattern.
5. CHOOSE WISELY > Choose hardy native plants or flowers that maintain interest throughout the four seasons. Round out your design with some low grasses (such as Mexican feather grass) or flowers that mirror the garden closer to your house (Schultz is a fan of plumbagos). Vary textures, shapes, and heights for visual interest; density will discourage weeds. For a tidy look, Booth suggests her go-to: purple wintercreeper (euonymus fortunei Coloratus), a sprawling low-maintenance perennial.