Curb Appeal

Turn that little swatch of earth into a colorful garden display


For years, we relegated gardens to the back yard or to discretely planted aprons around the house. But lately, gardeners -- hungry for beauty and eager to embellish any bit of earth available -- have begun to create curbside gardens.

"People want to see some color when they pull in," says Kelly Williams, manager of Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center in Monkton. Many also want to make a personal statement. "They want their house to stand out," Williams added.

Curbside gardens can enhance the strip between curb and sidewalk, the napkin of ground around the mailbox, or even the dirt around street trees, which can host a gorgeous collection of tough shade-lovers like hosta and coral bells (Heuchera). In addition to adding beauty, it's another opportunity to create habitat. And if you plant it -- particularly native species -- they really do come.

"We spend a lot of time with new urban homeowners who don't have a front yard but have a tree well," says Cheryl Wade, owner of Mill Valley Garden Center in Hampden. "We encourage people to plant perennials and annuals that attract beneficial birds and insects."

But while people want beauty and connection with the earth, they don't want chores. Which is what makes a curbside garden appealing. It's a contained space, one you can design for low maintenance and transform in a weekend. And with planning, it can offer nearly year-round beauty.

"Our 18-inch-wide urban demo curbside garden has 15 different plants," says Gary Schwetz, program director at the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington. "It has perennials and bulbs and we add some annuals for a different splash of color and texture every season of the year."

In designing a curbside garden, there are several ways to go, including formal, natural or tropical. Formal is more structured and pruned, for example dwarf boxwood (Buxus) or azalea, creeping juniper (Juniperus) and a few demurely mounding annuals. The more free-flowing natural look is achieved with native plants.

"We use things like boneset [Eupatorium purpurens] and thoroughwort [Eurpatorium hyssopifolium] and primrose but we make sure there's a sense of order with a neatly mowed edge," says Schwetz.

And tropical goes wild with color. Rich magenta mandevilla, hot-pink, yellow- and orange-bloomed portulaca, bright-frothing `Wave' petunias, and croton, whose leaves are splashed with color, all make a mariachi statement.

"You'll feel like you're pulling into a resort," says Williams. "And in Baltimore, the hotter it gets the more the tropicals like it."

Some counties have regulations on curbside gardens. Baltimore City doesn't, though the municipality has ultimate jurisdiction over that space.

"It's a city right of way so if we got a complaint about vision into traffic, the city could come cut it down," notes Joe Kostow, engineering supervisor for the Baltimore City Department of Public of Works.

The rule of thumb is: Don't obstruct visibility or foot traffic. Generally keep height no more than 30 inches, especially on corners, and don't let plants sprawl across the sidewalk.


Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center, 16435 York Road, Monkton 21111. 410-343-1150,

Mill Valley Garden Center, 3401 Chestnut Ave., Hampden 21811. 410-889-6842

Carroll Gardens, 444 E. Main St., Westminster 21185. 410-848-5422, 800-638-6334,

American Plant Food, 5258 River Road, Bethesda 20816. 301-656-3311; or 7415 River Road Bethesda 20817. 301-469-7690,

Groff's Plant Farm, 6128 Street Road, Kirkwood, Pa., 17536. 717-529-3001, 717-529-2249,

Brent and Becky's Bulbs, 7463 Heath Trail, Gloucester, Va., 23061. 877-661-2852,

Create a curbside garden

Scrape off the turf to get down to dirt. Whether in full sun or shade, curbsides combine the worst of everything that nature and man can throw at them -- exhaust, compacted ground, snow-removal chemicals and temperature extremes. So it helps to amend the soil first.

"If you don't take care of the soil before you plant, you won't have good results," says Kingsdene Nurseries manager Kelly Williams. "Everyone here has clay soil, but you can fix it with organic soil amendments."

Careful with the compost. For a tree well, you can add a several-inch layer of compost mixed with soil to the hollow. But be careful not to let it mound up against the trunk or it will create problems for the tree. Then plant and mulch.

Use tough plants. Natives, either sun- or shade-lovers depending on site, offer a reliably sturdy assortment. Tough sun-lovers include native aster, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) and bee balm (Monarda didyma), which also attracts butterflies. Native grasses, like switch grass (Panicum amarum "Dewey Blue"), add drought-tolerant low-maintenance grace, color and bloom.

"We use amsonia tabernae `Montana' and A. hubrichtii, which have nice blue spring flowers, airy lime green foliage all summer and a blast of golden fall color," says Gary Schwetz, who works with the Delaware highway department to plant median strips and verges. In addition to the environmental slings and arrows, curbside beds can get trampled or run over.

"Woody plants mostly won't tolerate being run over," says Schwetz. "But a few are rejuvenated by being cut down every year."

For example, red twig dogwood (Cornus cersia) needs to be cut back every year since the color is brightest on the new stems.

Look but don't eat. Though herbs like feathery bronze fennel can add a beautiful element, don't eat anything from a curbside garden, since leaves can absorb and retain metals from exhaust.

Finally, fertilize. "You have to fertilize more because of all the variables," says Williams.


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