Gardening on the edge: beautifying the nature-strip

nature strip

Jane Canaway

Posted May 19, 2022

As with many new trends, the urge to ‘ReVerge’ started in Melbourne’s inner-city suburbs, where land is in short supply. First people started adding flowers to the soil under street trees, then guerilla gardeners started planting out unloved median strips and roundabouts.

By 2012, even the ABC’s beloved Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis was planting out his verge on TV. With permission, of course. 

By 2019, when Dr Adrian Marshall published his PhD on ‘Renaturing the Nature Strip’, he looked at 47 neighborhoods across Melbourne and found verge gardening was “common, occurring in almost a quarter of verges and in almost every block in every neighbourhood”. This is good news, because he also calculated that this strange twilight zone of grass between the footpath and road makes up more than 35 per cent of all public green space. 

Though the main purpose of the nature strip is to store underground services - power, water, gas, phone and sewage, a customised nature strip can be a thing of beauty - a display of individualism, a show of community spirit, and a lovely way to meet the neighbours.

The bonus upside for non-gardeners is that, even if you only replace the lawn with native grass, it will only need mowing a few times a year and, if you go the whole hog and plant shrubs instead, you can sell your mower completely. 

Nature strip gardening rules and regulations

Dr Marshall’s interviews with gardeners found the main reason stopping them from street-friendly planting was a perceived fear they’d get into trouble with their local council.

While some seemingly contradictory rules still exist - the onus is on residents to maintain this public land, yet legally you can’t prune any council-planted tree there - most councils have embraced the trend and have issued guidelines for how to maintain a nature strip garden.

Bylaws vary (a lot) across Victoria, so always check local regulations. Generally, councils that support nature-strip landscaping require you to get a permit first, and some charge a fee for this ‘service’.

You may need to supply a site plan and list of proposed plants/modifications - mostly to show you’ll avoid invasive weeds and keep it safe for pedestrians and motorists.

At minimum, that means keeping sightlines clear for drivers, ensuring plants won’t trip or scratch pedestrians and providing safe paths for passengers to access cars. Most councils have a plant height limit - anything between 30 centimeters and 1 meter. 

nature strip

Taking pride in your nature strip keeps your house looking neighbourhood-friendly. Image: Getty. 


What to consider when choosing flora

Native plants: most natives prefer poor soils, so they can often outcompete weeds. Choose plants suited to open heaths or grasslands; visit an indigenous nursery for ideas. Plants local to your area will offer the best habitat for wildlife. 

Try: Native grasses – mass-plant low-growing species such as wallaby or weeping grass (Microlaena) as a lawn replacement, or use taller, ornamental species as a feature. 

Herbs: grow well in sunny spots. If you’re allowed to create a raised bed, it helps lift them out of the dog and exhaust zone to make eating safer. Choose dwarf versions of shrubs such as lavender and rosemary.

Try: Thyme – naturally suckers to form dense clumps of scented foliage with pretty pink flowers. Thyme can take light foot traffic but beware bees on flowers in summer. 

Succulents: these drought-hardy plants do well on verges. They grow easily and quickly from cuttings and come in a range of forms, colours and shapes so lend themselves to creative landscaping. However, they need excellent drainage. Avoid plants that are prickly or get too tall.

Try: Blue Chalk Sticks – upright, chalky-blue stems that contrast well with small-leafed plants such as native daisies. 

Cottage style: many cottage plants thrive in full sun and grow easily from cuttings, such as salvias, iris, daisies (great for attracting bees and butterflies), and grey-leafed plants such as plectranthus, lamb’s ears and convolvulus.

Try: Soft-leafed, pink-flowered Pelargonium australe, which is native to most of Victoria and self-seeds easily. 

Beauty tips

There are some other things you will want to consider before beautifying your boundary:

  • Growing conditions are harsh - sun, wind, and poor, compacted soil. Plant something durable.
  • Plants are exposed to air and soil pollutants, stormwater and whatever passing dogs leave behind. Avoid growing leafy greens.
  • If there is a street tree, plants must compete with its roots, so consider a low-raised bed to provide more root space, but make sure car doors can still open.
  • Be prepared to lose a few plants. Don’t plant anything too precious and add extras to allow for losses. Some growers post signs inviting people to harvest a few leaves or sprigs, but “please leave the whole plant for others” - this seems to work. 
  • Keep your nature strip neat - councils rarely act without a complaint so it’s worth keeping neighbours onside. 
  • If a service provider decides to access their ‘assets’, know that your plants will become collateral damage.