To start with, let’s define “hell strip.” A hell strip is a narrow or oddly shaped expanse of the landscape, and in many parts of the U.S., turfgrass has been the traditional choice of plant material for these spaces. Many other options exist as well, as landscapers and homeowners alike have experienced generally poor results with keeping turf alive and thriving in hell strips.

Hell strips are tough to maintain in the traditional manner.

Hell strips are everywhere

Hell strips can be found at residential lots, city parks, sports facilities, parking lots, shopping malls, city centers and commercial buildings. Examples include the space between two front yard driveways, narrow areas around a swimming pool and the turf located near parking lot bumpers. Sometimes these spaces are triangular, with 3 to 4 feet of turf at one end and reducing to a couple of inches on the other.

The classic example is the space between the sidewalk and street in a residential neighborhood. Depending on the width, these areas are tough to maintain – tough to water, to aerate, to fertilize. Just about any good cultural practice is made more difficult due to the size and shape of the strip.

Right plant, right place

Turf usually performs best when:

  • It is separated from trees, flowers and shrubs. It’s much easier to maintain without ornamentals in the way.
  • It is easily irrigated and fertilized with both uniformity and minimal loss of applied water and nutrients. This is important for the topic of this article, as well as for the overall issue of water pollution and stormwater runoff.
  • It is in a solid mass, with a critical volume of surrounding turf plants that act as a canopy.
  • It can be easily aerated, overseeded, power raked, etc.
  • The soil is a healthy mix of organic matter, neutral to slightly acid pH and mineral compounds that provide adequate nourishment and facilitate growth and development of the root system.

Salty slush/ice damage.

In a hell strip, these requirements are either not met at all or are, but to a very limited extent.

Sure, turf can grow quite well in a hell strip if the right amount of water, nutrients and other inputs are applied without regard to the level of maintenance, cost or pollution potential. In fact, turf can be grown on bare concrete if a very high level of maintenance is provided. But, is that practical? Is it what the client wants? Probably not.

Likely pests in a hell strip

There are several pest and pest-like problems that commonly arise in hell strips. First, because they are commonly located near areas that need to be kept clear of ice and snow, salt damage is a common problem, particularly if turf is the plant material.

White grubs are common pests, and are likely to cause more damage in a hell strip than in a properly sized area of turf because of the compromised, smaller-than-normal root system. A smaller root system equates to more damage than usual. In addition, white grubs tend to be attracted to streetlights during the nighttime flight of the beetle, and most, if not all, hell strips are near bright lights, either parking lot lights or streetlights.

Weeds are common in hell strips, and are usually a result of thinning turf. When the canopy thins, the capacity for turf to compete with weeds is reduced. The best defense against weed germination and establishment is a thick, healthy turf stand, which tends to be rare in hell strips.

Perennial/shrub mixture alternatives for hell strips could help minimize pests.

Snow mold and ice damage are two other common issues in hell strips, especially ones close to areas where snow is deposited following storms. Often, a “salty slush syndrome” develops where the residue from driveways and sidewalks is in constant contact with the turf below. In winters where many sleet/ice/snow events occur, the effects are worsened due to repetitive applications of a mixture of sodium chloride and slush.

Oddly shaped hell strips are commonplace.

When one large storm happens at the beginning of winter and then cold weather sets in and acts to retain large piles of snow for much of the winter, direct low temperature injury often results simply because of the constant snow cover. Of course, this can occur in any turf setting, but because most turf in hell strips is weaker than other areas and predisposed to damage, it tends to occur more often.

Alternatives to turf in hell strips

Ground cover alternatives to turf in hell strips may help with pest and disease issues.

In order to better serve your customers, offer another plant material choice. In most cases, this should be an easy sell, especially if you use color photos of their existing hell strips and ones that contain alternative plants. Fortunately, lots of other options exist – ground cover mass: perennial flower mix; hardscapes such as brick, stone or rock – again, with the rationale stemming from right plant, right place.

If you are not able to convince your client to change the plant material from stressed-out turf to something that will tolerate the hell strip better, consider another type of turf. Deeper-rooted species, such as tall fescue, zoysia and buffalograss, are usually better able to tolerate the stress of growing in a hell strip than Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass.

Another change to consider is simply expanding the size of the hell strip. Doubling the size will dramatically improve the potential for success, as the issues identified earlier have been addressed. Of course, tripling the area would be better.

Increasing the size of the hell strip usually involves removal of hardscape, such as a sidewalk or curbing, in order to expand the space for turf. This is practical in some areas, and not so much in others. It’s best to work with a landscape designer or architect to create several ideas to present to your client. In the process of selection, advise your client as to the pros and cons of each option.

John Fech is an extension educator specializing in turf and ornamentals at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.