Friday, October 9, 2015

The illusion of space and distance

When we moved into our current house, after spending most of our adult years in densely-populated urban environments, we had the impression of lots and lots of space.  During our graduate school years, we'd lived in a rent-controlled apartment.  The apartment, our neighbors and our neighborhood were great but we shared walls on both sides and the area was packed solid with condos and rental units.  Parking was an everyday challenge.  Later, when we bought a townhouse in a local beach city, we shared a driveway but no walls and we gained a tiny backyard all our own; however, we were surrounded by 2-story condos and townhouses on all sides which blocked most of the sun in the garden.  Only the jungle-like garden I created in the backyard gave us a modicum of privacy.  When we moved into our 1950s era house with its open view of the Los Angeles harbor almost 5 years ago, we felt we had real breathing room at last.  The properties on either side of us sit below us so we don't feel crowded by them.  But space is an illusion.  Although our property is a little over half an acre, our neighbors are still close.  Taking down the giant Yucca elephantipes at the bottom of our slope eliminated the visual boundary between us and the neighbor on one side.  The shrubs I planted down there have yet to repair the breach.  The boundary between us and the neighbor on the other side, made up of fences and plants, was fairly solid - until this week when she cut down the Strelitzia nicolai (Giant Bird of Paradise) and banana trees that lined her side of the fence.

Before and after view from the northwest corner of our property, which we recently cleared of sod

This before and after shot from our vegetable garden looking west over the corner of our garage shows the most dramatic change - from here and the front garden we now have direct views of 3 of our neighbors' homes

The change between the before and after shots in the dry garden doesn't look dramatic but, from another angle we can now see the neighbor's house, previously invisible except from the bottom of the slope


The neighbor's house with its teal trim peeks above the fence


On the good news side of things, the plants on our side of the fence will get more sun and better air circulation.  In addition, the neighbor didn't take out her plants but just cut them back to the ground so they should be back, eventually.

The main trunks were cut flush with the ground but side shoots were left

On the other hand, I now have a clear view of the homes up the street - the illusion of distance between us and our neighbors has been shattered.  My biggest concern is that the front area on our northwest side, recently cleared of sod and destined to become a shade garden, just became a whole lot sunnier.  Still, it's a good thing that the change occurred before I planted rather than afterwards.


All material © 2012-2015 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

32 comments:

  1. Dear Kris, I can completely relate to your journey of finally ending up in a home that has some distance to the neighbors and is/was sheltered by tall plants. That is basically the journey of my husband and me as well. I think it is just amazing of how much privacy or the illusion of it plants are able to give you. Have you thought about, other than what you already did, planting some more tall plants on your side of your property to screen you neighbors out a bit more? I am glad that you didn't do you plantings in the front area of your northwest side before that part of your garden received much more sun. That would be really too bad!
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend and may the soil sifting part in your back soon be over ;-)!
    Christina

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    1. For the most part, I already have trees and plants running the length of our shared fence, Christina. The exceptions are the area behind the garage, which is both narrow and filled with "stuff," including my 265-gallon rain tank, and the area occupied by the large composting tumbler near my garden bench. As the composter is slowly falling apart, I'm tempted to put a tall plant there but it'd probably get me in trouble with the neighbor up the street who has complained that my plants block her view of the harbor. I believe that the reason my next door neighbor cut her plants to the ground was also to satisfy that neighbor.

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  2. we are still working on that screening the neighbours thing. On one side they have a monster hedge which wants to eat our garden. On 2 sides the only plants are on OUR side of the fence.

    But I do understand cutting back Strelitzia nicolai. Left to itself it grows like Jack and the beanstalk. Grows. And grows. And grows!

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    1. The Yucca that bordered our neighbor on the other side was like your neighbor's monster hedge. Initially we weren't even sure who owned the Yucca. We finally determined that it was on our property, although it appears that it was originally planted by the neighbor on our other side at a time when she believed that area belonged to her. That was an ugly issue settled by a previous owner before our purchase but the bottom line was that no one had assumed responsibility for keeping the Yucca within bounds. Watered by run-off from our slope and a graywater system we didn't discover until the Yucca was removed, it had turned into a Yucca grove. It took a ridiculous amount of money to get rid of and its removal also left a major privacy gap. I planted 3 Pittosporum 'Silver Magic' to fill the gap but maybe I should have planted Strelitzia nicolai! (Just kidding.)

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  3. I had no idea the Bird of Paradise got so big!

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    1. They're not kidding when they call this plant the giant bird of paradise. The flowers are purplish/black and white rather than the orange and purple of the better known species. It can grow to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and wide and the leaves can get to 10 feet (3 meters) long. These still had a ways to go to reach maturity!

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  4. I would never have believed you only have ½ acre. It seems like so much more the way you have designed and planted it. And yet that is probably enough in these times of drought. I always think it is quite amazing when a plant is taken out. I think most of the time it is for the better. we soon get used to the new view and amend it if necessary. I always love your before and after shots. A great idea.

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    1. By LA standards, a 1/2 acre lot is large, Jenny. Most of my friends make do with 1/8th of an acre or less. I always said I wanted 2 acres but that's hard to come by in SoCal, at least at an affordable price in a location that wouldn't put me in the hinterlands. But, you're right, the drought - and even the work involved in maintaining this lot - has led me to the conclusion that I couldn't manage much more. As it is, I'm concerned that I may have to turn off all irrigation to the back slope one day.

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  5. Privacy screening is a big issue. Neighbors are always issues. I know you'll work out the plantings in an excellent way.

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    1. I hope so, Hoover Boo. The privacy issue here is further complicated by the city's view conservation ordinance, which seeks to limit the height of any foliage that blocks selected views. I'd argue that the ordinance is a relic of another time and the city should be seeking to preserve trees and foliage, if not also planting more (as Australia did during its severe drought), but not everyone sees it that way, including one of the neighbors now in my own line of sight.

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  6. I wonder if the giant bird of paradise was a victim of the view conservation ordinance. I rather hope not....it's a shame that you can't really plant trees, but on a recent trip to inland NSW (which has an arid climate like SoCal) I saw a garden with a privacy screen of Dodonea viscosa 'Purpurea' which I rather liked: although you may have this already - it only gets to 15' so would make a good screen

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    1. The neighbor left us a voicemail message about cutting the Strelizia in which she referenced concerns on the part of unnamed neighbors so I'm virtually certain the work was prompted by the concerns of the same person who has pushed the view issue with me, Matt. A Dodonea would have been a good idea at the bottom of the slope, although the Pittosporum tenuifolium should do the trick once the shrubs grow up, assuming that they survive the decay of the Yucca roots below them, which is already causing sinking. I'm not sure what, if anything I want to put next to the Arbutus along the fence in the front - I don't want to crowd the tree's roots.

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  7. I remember seeing those giant bird of paradise back in May when I visited. I have a tiny one of my own now, which will live in the greenhouse over the winter. I'm fascinated to see how big it will get.

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    1. Hopefully, the pot will keep it under control, Alison. Otherwise, you'll need to cut a hole in your greenhouse roof!

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  8. It must be a bit disorienting to never know whose house will suddenly become part of your backyard, so to speak! I think of my aunt's yard, which in my childhood was sheltered by huge Eucalyptus trees at the back. I still can't believe the yard is the same size. Oh, well, those trees came down years ago, and I know she was sooo glad to get rid of them finally! For what it's worth, some of the desert small tree/large shrub types supply much more open shade than the subtropicals and, of course, don't require much water. Something to supply more visual barrier, perhaps? Just a thought as I know I'm not really aware of what the height limitations are with your neighbors -- or which desert plants will grow there!

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    1. There have been a lot of unexpected changes to the sense of enclosure the property had when we bought it, Amy. The last owner had the house for just over a year and we were never able to get a straight answer on why he put it back on the market so quickly - now I think we know. The height limitation specified by the "view conservation" ordinance is 16 feet or the house ridgeline, whichever is LOWER. The ridgeline of our one-story house is 12 feet. However, a neighbor registering a complaint can't specify her entire view area - the ordinance deals only with the "primary" view area, a fact I'm not sure my neighbor up the street understands. I'm scheduling tree trimming on an annual basis now but, if I get pushed to take out more trees, I'm going to make a case against not only the complaint but the ordinance - we shouldn't be taking out trees in the middle of a severe drought.

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  9. Your garden seems much bigger than half an acre. It is amazing what a wealth of plants you have there. I know what you mean about screening neighbours, one likes to feel one is in one,' s own world in the garden. I hope you can resolve the problem. Bananas grow quickly don' t they?

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    1. I think the level changes make the property feel bigger - and that open view looking out toward the harbor. Banana trees do grow fast but the giant bird of paradise which makes up more than half of the foliage screen grows more slowly. Our water restrictions may also slow their growth.

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  10. I am in awe of folks who can take a little balcony in New York City, say, and use plants and trellises to turn a few dozen square feet into a private sanctuary. I've always been a "little house, lotta land" kind of person (little house, little land these days), but even with elbow room, privacy can be a concern, and I'm always on the lookout for good screening ideas. Wonder how Strelitzia nicolai would do in a pot...

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    1. I was able to create a good screen in the tiny garden attached to our old townhouse but there was no "view conservation" ordinance there to restrict the height of what I grew as there is here. Alison (Bonney Lassie) may be able to tell you how the giant Strelitzia does in a pot next year, although winter cold presents a challenge for her - would that be a factor for you as well?

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  11. You have my heartfelt sympathy. I remember how shocking it was to see neighbors on all sides of us after the 1990 tornado took out many, many trees, especially so since we did not have curtains. It was years before we had our privacy restored.

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    1. Maintaining privacy is beginning to feel like a fool's errand as new holes in the screen I thought we had around us appear to open up continuously. While I like most of my neighbors, I would like to choose when I see them and when I don't.

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  12. I'm still convinced that the particular pesky (that's probably the nicest way I can put it) neighbour should buy themselves a boat and live in the harbour!
    I, like others, had no idea that the Strelitzia grew to such massive proportions. I'm sure you'll come up with a suitable remedy Kris. Although as you say, perhaps you'll end up fighting a loosing battle.

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    1. Probably my most realistic hope is that I'll outlive Ms. Pesky, Angie.

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  13. Sigh. So many things in the garden are beyond our control, aren’t they? Especially your neighbors! It is good that you hadn’t planted that shade bed yet. But you’ve got the right attitude - the glass is half full and you can still mull over changes to your original plan.

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    1. I thought more space would include more control, Diana, but it appears that the opposite may be true. Oh well - as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.

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  14. The "after" photos are quite shocking. I feel bad for you because you get so used to things being a certain way and you forget that not everything is under your control.

    A few years after we bought our house our neighbor removed a mature Chinese pistache just on the other side of the fence, exposing a view of the street and the houses on the other side that I hate to this day. We planted our own Chinese pistache but it took 10 years for the view to slowly become obscured. Fortunately, your neighbor's strelitzia and bananas will grow back MUCH faster than that.

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    1. I hope so, Gerhard, although, if the neighbor up the street has any say (and it's almost a forgone conclusion that she will), my next door neighbor may be keeping her Strelitiza and bananas trimmed now now.

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  15. Sorry that your illusion was shattered but when the plants grow back, perhaps you'll be able to forget the naked truth that is now revealed.

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    1. That neighbor does like to garden in a bikini...

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  16. Well shoot. Stuff like this can be so annoying. Just the opposite happened to me. I planted my Rosa mutabilis in what I thought was a sunny area but the neighbor's trees grew just enough this past summer to turn the area into a now mostly shady area. I'll be digging up that poor rose yet again. It never ends. Nor would we want it to. :)

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    1. That's the positive way to think about it, Grace. I'm trying to think about the opportunities and not just the losses - I'm just not there yet.

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