“Hellstrip” in the title of this book refers to the land between the sidewalk and the curb where everything “looks like hell” because it is so hard to garden there. The term started being bandied about a number of years ago by designers and garden gurus and the author of this book, Evelyn J. Hadden, uses it to draw our attention to this often misused and abused part of the landscape. It makes for a catchy title as well.
The first section of the book shows a number of inspiring gardens across the United States and explains how each gardener handled the challenges of their particular site. A variety of styles and some unexpected plant material make for a great introduction to the topic. However, with the exception of a rather distinctive garden in San Francisco (pgs. 40-45), I couldn’t help but notice that many of the gardens depicted are remarkably spacious compared to typical “hellstrips” one sees every day. The second part of the book deals with obstacles and challenges. The topics of street trees, too much or too little water, slopes, and poor soil, are all addressed. Hadden’s good advice shows she understands the complexities—it is easier to work with a problem armed with knowledge than to fight against something you may not be able to change. The reactions of neighbors and others is addressed with great care, showing that a reasoned dialogue can help change entrenched, antagonistic attitudes. Where this book falls a little short is how to deal with municipalities, laws, and covenants. These important and often frustrating matters are given short shrift (possibly to avoid frustrating the reader). Nothing can kill a creative flash of horticultural inspiration faster than City Hall. A few “war stories” would have been useful to the average reader ready to tackle their own project.
The third section of the book is a sensible plea for the use of native plants which usually require very little input from the gardener once they are established. Also we are urged to partner with nature and plant for the use of wild creatures living in, or passing through, the garden. The author covers choices relating to style and plants as well as earthscaping to capture water, and earth-friendly strategies for keeping maintenance to a minimum. Hadden rounds out her book with a list of curbside-worthy plants as well as plants with colorful foliage and showy flowers. Hellstrip Gardening is an entertaining addition to a growing arsenal of books devoted to changing the notion of what gardening (and good gardening) means.
Steven Gerischer, garden designer and PHS board presidentLos Angeles, California