Funny thing about houses (and I should know, I’ve lived in quite a few) is that in every single one there is an area (or areas) that could best be described as “a waste of space”. Weird corners that no side table can fit into, funny skinny hallways unsuitable for anything other than skating in socks and racing the kittens, unusable alcoves under stairs, and the ubiquitous corner cupboard by the oven in the kitchen that inevitably becomes a black hole for Tupperware and baking trays.

But, the greatest waste of space of all is generally located outside the house. It’s the nature strip, and I reckon it’s time we all paid some attention to this oft neglected but all too visible patch of nothingness!

The Nature Strip Explained

So, what exactly is a nature strip (or verge)? Well, technically speaking, a nature strip is “council owned and/or controlled land located between a constructed road and a parcel of private property, which does not include land reserved for public purpose or bushland”. This is pretty much a long winded way of saying, ‘the area out the front of your place between the boundary fence and the gutter’. Nature strips are, in most circumstances, owned by the council but managed by the residents, which means the upkeep (yup, I’m talking mowing) is up to you. The exception to this rule is street trees, which are generally managed by the council… so give them a call if they need a prune, or some serious management.

I reckon that, by very definition, the word nature strip is an oxymoron in most circumstances. There is so little ‘nature’ on most nature strips that the desolated Afar Depression on the Horn of Africa would have some serious competition from many nature strips! Traditionally, most nature strips are a monoculture of turf ….an area of often neglected grass used by the postie, house visitors when parking and, my own personal nemesis, the inconsiderate souls who brings their dogs to toilet there nightly…right by the letter box! But, as St. Dylan told us, “the times they are a-changin'”, and increasing numbers of eco-friendly folks are looking to change the face of our natures strips.

Stripping – Getting Started

Now, before you scurry out to the front strip and start re-creating the Daintree, there are a few things you need to be aware of. Nature strips are, technically, council property, and many councils have some fairly tight regulations when it comes to planting out nature strips. Being public space, these areas have to allow easy access (think pushers, bicycles, mobility scooters and the postman), be free of trip hazards and allow for a continuous line of sight to prevent traffic chaos and accidents. Generally speaking, the footpath area (where people walk) needs to be 1.5m wide, although this can vary from council to council, and be kept free from overhanging branches and plants that could take someone’s head off!

I have to point out that, for whatever reason, not all councils are amenable to homeowners altering their nature strips (something to do with upsetting the aesthetics and feel of the suburb/street!). Yup, it might be draconian and backwards, but I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to check with your local council before doing anything or planting anything on your nature strip. There is nothing worse than the council coming along and “removing” an unsuitable landscape… it’s only going to end in tears and a story in the local newspaper! Loads of councils actually have some really good nature strip beautification guidelines, including rules, regs and often suggested planting lists.

Getting Back to Nature (Strips)

One of the safest and sexiest of all footpath funk-ups is planting a selection of locally native grasses, wildflowers and small shrubs. These types of plantings require minimal inputs (like irrigation, fertilising and pest control), increase suburban bio-diversity, create habitat for birds and butterflies, and enhance the character of a suburb. Indigenous plantings are uniquely suited to the local environment, and should thrive, even on the toughest nature strip. The upside of this type of planting is that most councils are more than happy for you to whack these types of plants in… provided you adhere to their guidelines.

As we all know, biodiversity and meaningful habitat has a number of strata or vegetation layers, ranging from groundcovers and grasses, small, medium and large shrubs, and, of course, trees. And herein lies a significant hurdle for converting footpaths into genuine “nature strips”. You see, councils have a street tree planting policy, and a whole bunch of factors are taken into consideration before street trees are put in. These include public safety, suitability of the tree for the site, overhead powerlines, pruning and maintenance requirements, underground services and much more. With this in mind, it is best not to plant anything that is likely to stand over 1m high at maturity, lest the council come and remove it. Check with the council, loads of them will come out and pop a suitable street tree in if you ask them.

Feeding on the Footpath

With all things edible now becoming incredible, imagine converting your footpath into a food forest? This is a fabulous option for loads of residences, especially those with limited backyard space or those living in quiet cul de sacs or side streets, away from the polluting influence of main roadways. And even better is that taking your vegie garden to the street is a fantastic way of connecting communities. There are a number of communities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle already converting large expanses of footpath into community veggie gardens, and, councils willing, more should continue. The secret here is to seek council approval before whacking in the watermelons, and liaise with your neighbours. Vegie verges are an attractive, functional, productive use of what can be a bit of a waste of space.

So hop to it… call your council, get into the guidelines, connect your community and do something funky on your footpath!

Pic 1: A footpath full of food.
Pic 2: A (partially) edible nature strip in Syndal, Melbourne. – syam c
Pic 3: Typical nature strip….complete with ornament! – yewenyi
Pic 4: Beautiful nature strip in an urban landscape….apart from the Agapanthus! – yewenyi