Lessons from a Portland Hellstrip


Garden touring season has given way to what I’m learning to treat as a second dormant period here in the high desert: the extreme heat of midsummer. And how convenient that is, since now there will be time to mull over the many photos of gardens that I’ve accumulated during the last couple of months, to see what I can learn from those gardeners.

And may I say, I find this whole process of touring other people’s gardens and then examining the photos highly useful, and I’m very grateful for gardeners who are willing to open up their private havens to the rest of us for a day. (Also, I’m grateful for those gardeners who are kind enough to provide iced drinks to make the touring even more pleasant.)

I’ve begun the mulling with the garden I saw most recently. It’s an amazing hellstrip garden all along the front of the Portland Nursery parking lot (on Stark Street in Portland, Oregon). This demonstration garden showcases all kinds of effects that any gardener can experiment with, using site-appropriate plants in their own garden, whatever its location.

This view highlights the benefits of good edge plants. The chartreuse flowers of Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) froth over the sidewalk, romantically blurring it. Dense basal foliage hides bare ground to the edge of the walkway, making the garden look finished, slowing soil erosion, and keeping the top soil layer more shady and moist, which encourages healthy, active soil life.


Capstone shrubs anchor the ends of the plantings on both sides of the walkway. A climbing rose holds the street side with its erect form and colorful flowers, while an orange-tinted mound of bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) caps the planting on the other side of the walk. Note that the ground under the rose is concealed with a mix of living mulches, a demonstration of a more nature-friendly way to grow roses that Susan Harris mentioned here at GardenRant not too long ago.


A particularly striking purple/red combination features tropical canna, red-blooming bee balm (Monarda didyma), wine-accented flowers of bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis), and carrying into low amaranth foliage on the street side and a red-tipped grass by the sidewalk. This combination is more than just a color echo drawing a visual line between two plants; rather, it’s an explosion of warm color, intense at the center and trailing off around the edges. What a bonus that the nearby parked car coordinates so well.


Shrubs and trees dominate the parking lot side planting, while the hellstrip proper is planted with colorful perennials, easier to see through if you’re a pedestrian and fun to look at from a moving vehicle. The hellstrip plants will be easier to move or replace should the city need to dig up the utility lines that probably run under them, while the trees and shrubs are likely safer as they’re located on the main property.

During a tour, there is so much stimulation: multiple gardens, crowds of people, the need to find a way from one strange place to another, the time limit. My pondering brain can learn much more from poring over the photos afterward than from trying to capture any snatches of insight that flit through during the tour itself.

Do you find garden tours as useful as I do?


  1. I love garden tours. Even if the space is uninspired, I always find one plant or one plant combination that catches my eye. It’s an amazing opportunity to see how other people think and I am always grateful that others are willing to open their “soul” via their garden, to share with me.

  2. I love to tour private gardens, those that are personal and loved. Expensive designer gardens bore me.

  3. While these examples are certainly lovely for parkway plantings, where is the room to open the passenger side car door to get in or out? Far better to leave a 2 foot strip mulched or graveled or DGed on the curb side.

    • Good point, Nina, it’s much more welcoming to include easy access from cars to the public sidewalk in your design. There are sidewalk-width paths every 10 feet up and down this hellstrip that lead across it, but those may just be to help pedestrians who are coming across the road, as I’m not sure if parking is allowed on that side of the street.

  4. Hey if you like that- there are many many fine examples of “hellstrip” gardening in Portland Oregon! Especially southeast Portland. We have perfected it.

    • Monica, I was driving verrrry slowly as I tried to take it all in! Wish I’d had more time there to just walk around different neighborhoods and see some more of the truly amazing and delightful gardens in Portland.

  5. I completely agree about getting more out of the photos later than I do out of the actual tour, when my brain can be quite addled by heat or crowds or conversation or just awe. I adore garden touring and am thankful that digital cameras allow us to take hundreds of photos. I try to walk through in a methodical manner and take photos that will enable me to walk through again, in my mind, later.

  6. I love garden tours as well, but I find myself quickly overwhelmed with all the incredible things that people have created in their garden. After one or two stops my mind becomes a fog of ideas and thoughts and inspiration. I’ve learned that taking lots of photos is the key to slowing down and being able to process what people have done in their gardens.

  7. This is wonderful. I was just in Portland myself (from NJ) and am so inspired by the hellstrip planting. I’m trying to figure out what I could do here that could survive 5 feet of snow on top of it in the winter. Maybe perennials that die back to the ground, like hosta, some sedums, and ferns. And now you’ve inspired me to add bee balm.

    As for scrutinizing photos after, I’ve started doing that even in botanical gardens, where I take pictures of plants I like with the identification plate included so that I know what to look up later.

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