(This post was authored by bay-area landscape designer Emily Lubahn. She’s the first of our new guest contributors who will be developing articles for the site, and you can check out some of her work here.)
Do you walk on a sidewalk to get to your front door? Do enjoy plants more than concrete? If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, you are one step closer to becoming a proud sidewalk gardener.
More and more people are removing excess pavement and replacing it with vegetable, pollinator, and native plant gardens. These guerilla-type gardens perform more than aesthetic or edible functions for your enjoyment; they are contributing hidden services as well. Stormwater management, pollinator habitat, and cooling and cleaning of the air are just a few of the hot ecosystem services you will be adding to your streetscape. It is a bit of work to get started, but cities are making it easier for residents to bust out the hardscape (concrete, asphalt, etc.) for softscape (plants, mulch, etc.).
Getting started: Begin With the End in Mind
The first thing you’ll want to to is determine an ideal location for your sidewalk garden. (For starters, don’t obstruct traffic, people, cars, etc., or havoc will ensue.) Two other high priority items on your checklist are permitting and community support. Most cities/communities will require a permit in order to protect underground utilities. Permitting can be tedious, but many communities have organizations that will help you with this. In San Francisco, Friends of the Urban Forest will help fund and coordinate the project with enough properties on the block participating. In Portland, OR, Friends of Trees and DePave are two organizations that can provide technical support, and even volunteer power!
The department of public works and the department of transportation will often be your first departments to check out (the exact department(s) you need to work with can vary by municipality). Acquiring a permit is not glamorous; just be sure to smile and breath, you’ll get through it!. Be sure to document everything along the way: record names and contact info of people you talk to, etc., so you can always get back to them with questions or if you run into any roadblocks in the process. Throughout the process, having a design to show people along the way will help communicate your project (and may be necessary for permitting too!).
Once the permitting is through, the fun begins.
A jackhammer (large area) or 20-lb. sledge hammer (small area) will be your tools of choice. What? Don’t have a jackhammer tucked in a corner with your bike? Your local hardware store can probably rent you one, or point you in the right direction. They will also be able to help you/tell you where you can take the concrete that is being removed; or better yet, you can reuse it in the new garden as a retaining wall or pathway.
This may seem like the easiest part, and it will be once your plan is in place. Major points to consider: How much sunlight is hitting this spot? How do you want the plants to function? What is your maintenance plan? Once these questions are answered you can get your hands dirty! Don’t forget to amend the soil and add plenty of mulch; raised beds are a quick and inexpensive way to get started. Now get some friends and plan a work party!
It’s a full project, but the result will be a long-term ecosystem service benefiting your community. If construction and implementation takes a while, I highly recommend putting up a sign stating your purpose. Even the biggest skeptics are much more comfortable when informed of changes!