Chicago may sport the motto “Urbs in Horto,” but Seattle takes the concept of “city in a garden” to a whole new level. Chicago has lovely sidewalk plantings – many more than does New York City , where I grew up. But when we transplanted our family to Green Lake, the streetside views bowled me over. Green Lake gardeners claim every plantable square inch – from garage-top patios to the sidewalks and even the roundabouts. The line striking the balance between garden – nature controlled by man – and wilderness is quite unstable here. Sometimes your walking experience is entirely dictated by plants, as when passing under a tunnel of English laurel, or through the great drooping branches of an old cedar. With a little squinting, it could be seen as one communal botanic garden.
Want to green up your street a bit? Wondering who is supposed to cut down that branch that keeps scratching your car? Here’s what you need to know:
The city builds them, but it’s the “neighbors’” responsibility to plant and maintain them. Block associations and garden clubs often adopt roundabouts. Here are some that neighbors say need some TLC: (the city’s map is here)
Orphaned Roundabouts that Need Volunteer Help
- 1st Ave NE and 64th St N
- 1st Ave NE and 57th St N
- Woodlawn Ave N and Kenwood Place
- Woodlawn Place N and 60th St N
- Fremont Ave N from 67th– 79th St N – 12 blocks’ worth!
- Ashworth Ave N and 82 St N
- Stroud Ave N and 82nd St N
- Sunnyside Ave N and 77th St NE
Planting a Tree
You can apply to ask the city to plant trees of their choice in your corner of Green Lake for free through SDOT.
To plant one of your own (approved by the City Arborist), apply for a permit, first researching the location of underground utility lines by calling 1-800-424-5555, and checking whether your site can fit a tree (several site specifications, including a minimum 5 foot wide curbed planting strip). Full details are here.
If the city planted it, the city maintains it.
If you planted it, you are responsible for it, including pruning to clear traffic patterns, power lines, etc.
Property owners are responsible to maintaining and cleaning sidewalk strips and sidewalks.
Other than trees, permits are not required for gardening in your sidewalk strip. Installing hardscaping, such as paving, or building raised beds, does require a permit. Plantings must however, follow these guildelines:
- There should be enough room for easy access from car doors.
- There should be a 1’setback from the sidewalk to allow for pedestrian travel.
- There should be enough room for setback and access to utility poles, vaults, meters and other utility installations.
- Plantings should be low enough to allow for clear visibility from the street; generally, plantings must be below 3’ to allow for visibility; 2’ if within 30 feet of an intersection..
- Pavers shall not exceed 40% of planting strip area.
- Plantings within 10 feet of a driveway must provide visual clearance between 32” and 82” of height from the ground.
Street-smart plants and trees
Here are some tough customers that can take life on the streets.
The city recommends these street trees – which also make good choices for front yards near the street.
Edibles, like low growing vegetables, are fine, but fruiting trees including apples and cherries are on the “will not be approved” list, because they can litter the sidewalks.
Native plant species are always a good bet for rough conditions like street planting, being usually more resistant to local disease and summer drought than far-flung cultivars.
Designing your sidewalk strip
After considering setbacks, maintenance and drought, here’s the fun part – playing with the plant combinations to make a satisfying blend of color, form and texture. Drought-tolerant plants are a good place to start, since you probably won’t want to drag the hose to the curb.
Many folks have countered the flatness of the sidewalk by building up berms of soil –which adds depth to the landscape and has the added benefit of allowing you to improve the likely rotten soil underneath without double-digging –just pile on the good topsoil and plant. Just make sure while doing so you’re not blocking lines of sight for walkers or drivers.
You can choose to make a whole new atmosphere in your strip, give it over to vegetables, or link it to your front garden by repeating plants and colors. Then, mix plants balancing big and small, bold and fine, spiky and arching, add year-round performers like evergreens and persistent ornamental grasses, garnish with spring bulbs for seasonal surprise, and enjoy.
For more inspiration, this seattlepi.com article has many ideas for designing a strip you’ll love to come home to in every season.
Read more about gardening on My Green Lake.