Parkway pizazz

June 27, 2010 at 9:38 PM Leave a comment

Parkway pizazz

Brightening that curbside canvas takes a bit of planning

By Pat Terry Special to Tribune Newspapers
June 27, 2010

In Akron, Ohio, it’s called the “devil’s strip.” In nearby Cleveland, Terre Haute, Ind., and Raleigh, N.C., it’s a “tree lawn,” while other cities call it a parking strip, sidewalk buffer or utility strip. In the Chicago area, it’s known as a parkway.

Whatever it’s called, this no man’s land between sidewalk and street — usually a city-owned public way — calls out to gardeners. In Chicago, it’s often the only soil available; in suburbs, it’s an extension of the landscaping design. Parkways, where they exist, generally run the width of a property and range from a small, pie-slice-shape corner to a 25-foot-wide Chicago lot and larger suburban tracts.

Most area parkways sprout grass and trees, but a growing number of curbside plots are blooming with flowers, shrubs and grasses. Homeowners, condo dwellers, apartment managers and even renters are joining the colorful movement.

But before you grab the trowel or petunias, you’ll need to check with your local government to see what — and if — planting is allowed (specific trees; grasses versus flowers; raised beds or fences, and whether you need a permit).

Even if you’re not allowed to cultivate your curb, the same principles guiding gardens in these challenging areas can be applied to troublesome spots in your yard — that patch of green alongside the garage, perhaps, or a small area next to the deck.

By law, suburbanites cannot dig until they call JULIE (Joint Utility Locating Information for Excavators), says Kevin Sorby, Wilmette village forester. (Chicagoans must call DIGGER at 312-744-7000.) or The point is to ensure that you’re not digging into anything that’s buried under your parkway, such as gas and water lines, sewer pipes or cables.

City/village regulations vary widely: Some communities require permits, others don’t; some regulate plantings on a case-by-case basis, while other towns merely offer suggestions. Because trees are publicly maintained, several communities offer specific species through free or shared-expense planting programs. (If you work with a landscape architect or nursery, they’ll often handle the permits, safe digging and other details.)

Remember, though, that city maintenance and utility problems in the parkway can uproot your garden, and rarely is the municipality responsible for replanting anything but trees.

Once you’ve considered the gardening basics — soil condition (dry, wet, well-drained; sandy, loam, clay), amount of sun and your personal plant preferences — the planning has only started. Parkways have unique challenges. Overhead power lines will dictate tree height; plantings between curb and sidewalk may suffer damaging spray from salt trucks, snow piled up by snowplows, heat retained by the asphalt of street and sidewalks, and vehicle pollution. (Not to mention plant-nibbling creatures and visiting neighborhood dogs.)

For city planners, the practical needs of driver and pedestrian visibility far outweigh an aesthetic vista. “We’re not going to put a tree right next to a streetlight or where it can block a school zone sign,” says Sorby, who heads Wilmette’s cooperative tree planting program.

Doris Taylor, head of the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, notes that many towns can provide a list of trees that will do well in such a limited space.

It may take time to discover what thrives on your parkway, but trial-and-error are part of the gardener’s adventure. Just remember that this extension of your gardening prowess will demand the same attention (perhaps more) than other parts of your yard, particularly since it is so visible to an ongoing parade of passers-by. Some homeowners opt to hire a landscape architect to design and plant a stunning parkway, only to neglect the maintenance — and come spring, the show stars lots of dried-out boxwood and yews.

Todd Main, principal in Main Architecture in Chicago, decided that low-maintenance was a priority for the large, shady parkway running alongside his corner building. The garden requires occasional trimming, some raking in the fall, watering and fertilizing only when needed. Everything is perennial, including ferns, a red-flowering rhododendron, Little Sunspot and Blue Angel hostas; blue hydrangea, pink peonies, myrtle, Little Princess spirea and boxwood.

Half the parkway is designed around a mica and granite boulder, which glitters in the occasional sunlight. “The rock comes from Bolingbrook,” Main said with a laugh. “I was doing a project for a company that sold landscaping stones, and when I told them I liked this rock, it was dropped off in the parkway.” It’s too heavy to move, so it’s now the off-centerpiece. Above it towers a small, traffic-stopping tree sculpted to resemble an umbrella; no one remembers the species.

When Kathy Moore and Denny Clouse moved into their charming Elgin bungalow, the parkway boasted two large maple trees under which grass wouldn’t grow. They decided to plant hostas there instead, Kathy Moore said, “and the garden just morphed.” After the Norway maple was uprooted for a new sewer line, she added, “ComEd came out and hacked up the sunset maple, so the parkway got more sun.”

Now the shade-loving hostas are gone, and the parkway boasts colorful tulips, daffodils, primrose and Virginia bluebells in spring, and lots of native plants through summer, including coneflowers, wild geraniums and meadow rue. Sweet peas appeared serendipitously, probably from the birds — proof that people won’t be the only admirers of your parkway paradise.

Parkway picks

Chicago-area experts share some parkway favorites:

•Robert Milani, senior landscape architect, Chalet Nursery, Wilmette (

Evergreen shrubs: Everlow Anglo-Japanese yew (shade-tolerant), Skandia juniper, Kallay’s Compact Pfitzer juniper, Gro-Low fragrant sumac.

Ornamental shrubs: Annabelle hydrangea, Spirea japonica

Groundcovers: Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon, hardy, resistant to salt spray, full sun, deer resistant).

Perennials: Hakone grass, 12-15 inches high (sun or shade).

•Doris Taylor, plant information specialist, The Morton Arboretum in Lisle ( suggests these trees:

Hardy in urban conditions: Japanese tree lilac, Kentucky coffeetree, honey locust, white oak, linden, Freeman maple, disease-resistant elms, ginkgo.

Under power lines: Japanese tree lilac, crab apple, ironwood (Ostrya virginiana, also called hornbeam).

Traffic/pedestrian visibility: Narrower (“columnar”) species of trees, such as oak and ironwood/hornbeam.

— P.T.


For parkway planting requirements, permits and advice, the suburbs generally offer a one-stop contact through public works departments or forestry. In Chicago, it’s less clear-cut (even aldermanic offices can differ on the process). We’ve listed a sampling of resources below.

•Before you dig: Suburbanites should contact JULIE (811 or 800-892-0123) or log on to and share your proposed digging sites with underground utility companies (electric, gas, water, sewer, cable), which will come out and locate their utilities. Chicagoans should contact DIGGER at 312-744-7000 or go to

Chicago Botanic Garden‘s Plant Information Service, or 847-835-0972. One-on-one consultations for your gardening questions.

•The Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic, or 630-719-2424. Experts field calls, e-mails and in-person inquiries about trees and shrubs. The Web site offers lists of trees and their suitability for various conditions.

•Chalet Nursery’s Plant Health Care Center, (847-256-0561): Questions regarding plants suitable for various conditions, in addition to disease diagnosis, can be sent to an expert by e-mail (, or call and ask for the center).

•City of Chicago,, keywords “parkway” and “trees.” Available information includes a list of recommended parkway trees and regulations. A permit is needed for parkway trees, which must be installed by professionals. Call 311 or the Bureau of Forestry (312-744-9042), which is part of the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

— P.T.

Entry filed under: Green Information, Our Gardens.

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