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Planting for Others

roadside landscape design

Roadside Enhancements

The public rights of way along state routes provide lots of opportunities for local government entities and individuals to enhance the driving experience for travelers. When done well, ornamental landscapes can increase economic development for an area and instill a sense of pride.

The roadside rights of way belong to everyone. It is important to keep this in mind whenever proposing new activity.  Proposals to beautify the roadsides should be reviewed thoroughly to be sure any changes meet essential safety and aesthetic standards.

We are here to help your group understand the process and to guide you so your group can achieve a successful, long-term enhancement project, with a non-technical explanation of typical governmental requirements for when you want to beautify public roadsides.

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So, let’s get started!  Read more about Roadside Design in the new Advanced Guide to Roadside Design eBook, based on years of experience working with the pros, evaluation thousands of roadside landscape projects.

Roadside Planting Plans

Design Considerations for Large-Scale Projects

roadside planting plans, adam woodruff, piet oudolf

Design of roadside plantings involves unique challenges. Roadside plantings will never receive any hand weeding or close inspection. Try walking for a distance of at least a mile, and imagine spot treating every weed along your way. Imagine pruning and shaping every shrub, and evaluating and keeping healthy every tree for the entire length of your walk. Imagine doing all those things in ninety-five-degree heat among broken glass and rubbish. Now, imagine doing all this for a distance of several hundred miles!

Professional landscape crews will not agree to maintain rights-of-way in the same manner as they would a commercial or office property. Government agencies will never have a budget which allows such extravagance. When you design a roadside planting, you must consider that maintenance will be, at best, two or three rough mowings with a tractor, a few passes for litter removal, and string trimming around appertances. That’s it.

The designs of Adam Woodruff and Piet Oudolf are amazingly beautiful! It would be interesting to calculate the actual design, installation, and yearly maintenance costs per square foot. Their designs are not simple and not easily scaled to large roadside projects, but roadside designers can learn valuable lessons from their example. The exciting garden results of Woodruff and Oudolf come from integrating different plant species in complex relationships with their compatible neighbors in carefully constructed, imaginative works of art. Reaching for similar results on the rights-of-way is not fool-hardy, in spite of the obvious budget challenges.

Maintenance for Public Roadsidees

Budgets and Enforcement

maintenance contracts, roadsideGood maintenance is based on budget priorities. The key reason for long-term survival of successful public roadsides is appropriate maintenance. The commitment to high-quality maintenance practices is a given for private, high-end ornamental landscapes, but for public roadside turf and plantings, there is no political, financial, or community support until things get bad. The money is almost always there, but priorities get shifted to more visible items. Public officials tend to ignore maintenance unless they hear public complaints. A deterrent to good maintenance is a limited budget. Someone must take the advocate role and remind others why lack of maintenance costs everyone.

There are ways to save. Choosing either in-house or external contractors is a dilemma for public agencies. A clear decision needs to be made—does the agency want to be in the landscape maintenance business, or do they want to use external contractors? In-house, government agency staff without competition can become complacent about quality.

Red Tape

Forty-seven Easy Steps to Qualifying for Large-scale Roadside Work


Red Tape Hurdles to Working on Roadside Landscape ProjectsAs a landscape designer, you may wish to participate in projects involving state rights of way. In addition to learning the relevant policies and procedures, consulting experienced designers for mentoring help, and researching the unique challenges of roadside horticulture, you will need to qualify with your state transportation agency. My firm will be a small, but essential part of a team of engineers and technical experts on a major road endeavor for the next few years. Preparing for participation was a bit time-consuming. Here’s a list of some of the components of qualifying to join the group.

Signs and Landscape Design

Signs speak.

signs and landscape designToo many signs get annoying and distracting. Loud, intrusive signs are unpleasant. Signs with tiny fonts and lots of words are ignored. Ugly, chaotic signs cause the eye to glaze over. The more attractive the sign, the more attention it will receive. When you design a sign, think about how it will deliver its message.

Wording must be concise. Huge billboards, in order to be read, must have eight or fewer words. The most important part of sign design is the scale of the lettering. Letters should be a minimum of one inch tall for every forty feet away from the viewer, in order to be legible. The letters on typical interstate overhead signs are almost two feet tall!

When you are designing a sign, use the highest quality lettering you can find. Inexpensive wood cutouts and characters will become an embarrassment as they age. Graphic environmentalists study for hours and hours over font styles to get effective results. You should, too.

Gateway signage for communities should not be used to advertise every local civic group and industry in town. Just say, “Welcome,” and let the people who live there do the economic development educational pitch. A tasteful and colorful landscape will do much more positive advertising than a collection of logos hanging on a chain link fence.

The Pros and Cons of Decorative Crosswalks

Maintenance is the Deciding Point

crosswalk designFor streetscapes, special crosswalk paving can add human dimension and design continuity with the sidewalks and planter boxes. Embedding pavers into vehicular traffic areas can cause problems, though. When resurfacing is needed, who will pay for the removal and rebuilding of the expensive pavement treatment? If a plan and an escrow maintenance budget line item are not in place, then it would be much better to incorporate stamped concrete or stamped asphalt into crosswalk treatments, rather than individual paver units.

Paver units for vehicular areas need density to handle truck traffic weights. Regular bricks look great when they first go in, but quickly split and flake when subjected to tire turning and heavy loads. It’s an expensive mistake to use regular brick for crosswalks. If you have the luxury of individual paver units and the maintenance budget to handle resurfacing changes, use colored concrete pavers instead.


About Roadside Design

interstate landscaping, roadside landscapingMy job at a state Department of Transportation was to review landscape plans, provide technical advice for anything related to landscapes, write contract specifications for planting and grassing, write maintenance specifications and work plans, and create statewide policies for roadside projects and permits. The department had about 4500-personnel statewide, including many civil engineers and ecologists as well as external consultant designers.

I also helped create a statewide landscape grant program and vegetation management permit policy which provided ongoing funding for the program.

My background is in landscape architecture with a strong emphasis on horticulture. I did a lot of industrial campus plans and municipal work before coming to the Department, and I worked, early in my career, on large-scale planting and irrigation plans. I did some residential work, too. I got to know the green industry and gained practical experience in how to keep plants alive and maintain them. You get to know plant species after specifying several hundred of them on a single site!

During my time at the DOT I reviewed thousands of landscape design proposals and grant applications for the rights-of-way. It was very interesting to see the plan graphics of so many designers. With time, I could quickly determine if the landscape plan was created by an architect, a civil engineer, a landscape architect, or an ecologist. There were distinctive strong and weak points for each professional discipline.

What do I want to tell you about roadside design?

• As long as you meet the safety and permit requirements for a public landscape proposal, your project will breeze through the plan development process for approval.

• It is easy to put together a standout landscape grant proposal.

• There are simple ways to create a roadside landscape design that works.

The devil is in the details, though!

I want to share as much as I can with you about what I’ve learned over the years, but you can find detailed information in my Advanced Guide to Roadside Design eBook. I would love to hear your comments and about your roadside enhancement stories and experiences, too.

Advanced Guide to Roadside Design








You might also enjoy the Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants eBook, full of practical tips for applying for funding and making your beautification project a success.

Advanced Guide to Landscape Grants








A Checklist for Roadside Landscapes

Landscape Design Considerations

interstate landscape

Before hitting the drawing board to create a roadside landscape design, you need to do a quick check of seven things. Block out zones for setbacks, vertical clearances, overly steep slopes, clear sight lines, sign visibility, guard rails, and utility easements to keep your landscape design free of safety conflicts. By checking these items initially, you can map out the basic configuration of use zones and develop the structural framework from which your design can be based. Those zones, drawn on a base map, develop site development shapes, and a clear design concept calls out to you.

Consider the following items your first priority:

• Setbacks and the Clear Zone

Keep any tree you propose on public rights of way well beyond the required safety clear zone. Trees in the clear zone create a fixed object that might be hit by an errant driver that runs off the road. This gives the driver an opportunity to recover and get back on the road without injury or damage to the vehicle. This may seem elemental to seasoned designers, but I’ve seen a surprising number of plans submitted for review without adequate setbacks.