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Curb strip. Parking strip. Tree lawn. That narrow stretch of turf between the sidewalk and street goes by many names, but it’s the oft-used “hell strip” that best conveys the frustration many homeowners feel as they struggle to keep this part of their property looking healthy and inviting year-round.
To be sure, there are many factors working against them: the heat reflected from adjacent paved surfaces; foot traffic from pedestrians and their pets; automobile pollutants; salt from winter snowmelt; and poor soil that tends to get compacted over time.
But this space—which is typically public land that homeowners are required to maintain—offers many possibilities, which is why Denver-based landscape expert Duncan Cruickshank has coined for it a more optimistic term: “beauty strip.”
Cruickshank, who manages the predesign team at online landscape design and build company Yardzen, specializes in analyzing sites to determine the feasibility and cost of the projects that Yardzen designers and their residential clients dream up, so he knows the potential this patch of land holds.
“It’s a great opportunity to beautify and add curb appeal to the front of your home,” he says. “By creating more visual interest in a forgotten area like this—and by viewing it as a part of your front yard that just happens to be interrupted by sidewalk—you can create a more unique and cohesive look from the curb all the way up to your front door. You can add a lot more character, dimension, and definition than you’ll get from the flat turf that’s been the go-to for so long.”
Reimagining your beauty strip is also an opportunity to replace thirsty grass with decorative hardscaping and native plants (including pollinator-friendly varieties) that require less maintenance, fertilization, and irrigation. “These days, people are more focused on drought-tolerant planting designs, especially here in Colorado, where we’re constantly hearing about how we don’t have enough water,” Cruickshank says. “I find it very fitting that we’re seeing this [beauty strip] trend take off in Denver proper, because it’s Denver that has traditionally been one of the leading forces in developing more ecologically minded landscape design principles.”
Cruickshank reports an upswing in residential clients looking to upgrade their beauty strips—an area that is covered by Yardzen’s Front Yard ($995), Full Yard ($1,495), Curb Appeal ($1,595), and Outdoor Transformation ($2,395) packages. So we asked him to share how he’s been helping them coax maximum beauty from this small stretch of earth.
Channel pedestrian traffic.
“People are going to be stepping over and through these spaces, but if you make an effort to channel the traffic in a few places, you’ll protect your plants and minimize soil compaction. When planning your beauty strip, imagine that you’re telling pedestrians where to go with the placement of your design elements, like pavers, stepping-stones, or a path of finely crushed gravel.”
Take cues from the front yard.
“I don’t like to view a beauty strip as an independent space, but rather as a part of the front yard. When choosing plants, consider adding elements that exist—or that you can incorporate—into other areas of your yard, which creates a pleasing sense of repetition and cohesion.”
Incorporate a variety of plants.
“I’m a big fan of beauty strips with a plant-heavy palette and a variety of colors and textures, and I tend to use species that you would commonly find in open-space landscapes. Sideoats grama, little bluestem, and prairie dropseed are grasses that reseed themselves and provide a lot of structure, to which you can add in perennials for that color we all like. Some of my favorite blooming plants include yarrows, penstemons, coneflowers, bee balm, and black-eyed Susans, and some smaller evergreens for year-round interest—all are varieties you would find throughout the Colorado landscape. And if you’re able to add trees, you’ll be helping to increase the urban tree canopy, which is especially important here in Colorado, where we have very intense sun.”
Mix up your hardscape.
“If you’re considering a design that’s predominantly rock, remember there’s no rule that says it has to be just one type of rock. Consider combining a few different styles, sizes, and colors—from the tans and reds that come from quarries in Fort Collins and Lyons, to cooler gray tones that are popular choices for contemporary designs. You might even mix a few to create a little dry creek bed that breaks up the space. Boulders are a great way to punctuate a design and can even be used for seating—I’ve used everything from 3-ton boulders that had to be set with a crane to ‘two-man’ boulders that could be manually placed.”
Check local rules and guidelines.
“It’s important to remember that beauty strips are within the public right of way. You’re responsible for maintenance, but utilities are often buried beneath these spaces, so you might have to accommodate infrastructure improvements or maintenance that could lead to some disturbance. A crusher-fine pathway or stepping stones are easier to work around than hard-set pavers. Smaller plant materials that don’t take a really long time to get established are also a great choice, as are native and climate-adapted plants that tend to establish themselves—and recover from disturbances—quickly.”
Remember to water—at first.
“We have extreme temperature swings here in Colorado, and any plants you select will establish themselves and perform better if you irrigate (or hand-water) them for the first full growing season. Eventually though, the goal is for these spaces to not require any supplemental water.”
Make use of local resources.
“There are many programs out there designed to help homeowners with the cost of transitioning to a low-water landscape. Some water providers offer rebates when you purchase water-conscious plant material; a local program called Denver Digs Trees provides Denver residents with free and low-cost shade trees for planting on both private and public property; and Boulder-based Resource Central offers professionally designed, water-wise garden kits—called Garden in a Box—that are designed for Colorado yards.”
Plant soon—or make a plan for spring.
“In Colorado, we’re always up against the planting deadline set by frost or snow. October can still be a great time to install a new beauty strip, but if you haven’t yet begun to plan, think of fall as a great time to focus on getting your design absolutely nailed so you’re ready to start installing in the spring, once the ground has thawed.”