Spring Comes to the Parkways of East Lansing

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016, 10:18 am
Aron Sousa

Above: The author's parkway in mid-summer

The weather of this last weekend led many East Lansing gardeners to break out their gardening tools for some planting and spring garden cleanup. A quick walk through some westside neighborhoods reveals that folks are beginning to use their parkways as an interesting gardening opportunity. A parkway is the land between the sidewalk and the street. Homeowners own the parkway and have the responsibility and the right to maintain the land, while the City has right of access to the parkway.

Many people plant trees in the parkway—ELi has previously brought you tips from City staff on how to do that—but there are more and more parkways planted as garden borders. The parkway is an interesting but tough place to garden. The soil is typically sandy, salty, trodden on, visited by dogs, and occasionally driven on. One year my parkway was even “cooked” by the exhaust of a fire truck idling while the Fire Department dealt with a downed power line on our street.

For all of the struggles, however, the parkway is the most visible and visited part of a garden. This week a stranger drove up to our house and knocked on our front door just to ask me about our annual parkway zinnia display. (I won’t plant the zinnias until I am pretty sure that there is less than a 50% chance of a frost according to NOAA.) The visitor’s questions were similar to those I have heard from others:

Who plants them? (Me.)

Really, you plant them? (Verily and forsooth.)

How do they get so tall? (I pick a tall variety, like State Fair.)

How many do you plant? (I put about 15-20 packets of seeds into our 120-square-foot parkway. You could get away with fewer seeds if you took more time and care, but life is short, and seeds are cheap.)

After the questions, this gentleman told me a story. When he was a soldier in Korea, he was stationed on “a drab, drab hillside in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing but our little collection of pup tents and scrub.”

He asked his mother to send him some flower seeds. She sent him zinnia seeds, which he planted. They came up and flowered, and at some point a captain came to their little encampment and asked, “What are these flowers and who planted them?”

My visitor answered, “Sir, I planted these zinnias, sir.”

“Where are they from?” the captain asked.

“Sir, these are American flowers,” my visitor, now laughing, recollected telling his captain. He tells me he now plans to plant zinnias in his backyard up against a neighboring golf course.

I doubt it is good military practice to identify your base with colorful flowers, but they surely do make a parkway look nicer.

Some local gardeners eschew a surfeit of zinnias and choose a range of plants that will flower or look good all year. Here are a few examples of this spring’s parkway planting from the Oakwood and Glencairn neighborhoods:

Below, Vinca minor, rose, paving stones, and well-tended ornamental grass (not yet grassed-out).

Below, more vinca minor in blossom with hyacinths.

Now, here (below) is a parkway that will soon develop its own showy display of daylilies, which have the advantage of being low-maintenance perennials. Daylilies spread as a clump and guidebooks say you should divide them after they finish flowering in spring. In truth, they are pretty tough and you transplant them from spring to fall.

Finally, for true inspiration, go visit the corner of Southlawn and Westlawn Avenues, where the parkway garden leads to a fairy-house that charms many a passer-by.



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