Neighborhood changes are opportunities

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2001

There's a home a few blocks from my own, where a very nice couple have spent their retirement years. It has been a wonderful home, right on the lake where they could watch the wonderful parade of seasonal waterfowl. They were blessed with the nearby presence of their children and grandchildren; in fact their family occupied the only house they could see.

Thick Sitka spruce forest sheltered their flanks, and any area that was disturbed was quickly replanted so that the soil did not erode into the lake. They acted with conscience, treasuring the view and the solitude. They also recognized that what they loved might not last forever.

During the last years of the senior member's life they saw the surrounding property subdivided and cleared as new home sites were platted. The trees were cut, new drives placed and the 100-yr.-old forest was gone in a blink.

The new setting is a totally different scene. There is a new house a dozen yards away, with windows that line up so that the view, once so private, is now of another face. The forest, which for years absorbed their gazes like snow falling into water, had relied on space and repetition to filter presences. They could feel as alone as they wished, even though others were nearby. This new setting calls for another type of protection.

I often use the phrase "most questions are design questions," meaning that redefining the setting and problems can open up new ways to approach difficult situations. This example of infilling housing is a common experience, and one that can lead to personal discomfort, not from any disagreement with the new neighbors, or hesitance to welcome them to the area, but just because of proximity and sight lines. This is an opportunity to examine a few ideas that Margaret and I have been tossing around.

There is no way that anything can be planted in the 10 feet remaining of the original home's buffer space that will replace the privacy they once enjoyed. The few trees remaining are bare for the first 20 feet and their trunks and root masses create a difficult planting area. The soils are so root-filled that they are difficult to dig in.

Placing new, more fertile soil on top of the forest floor is an option, but the angle of repose, or the degree of slope that will be stable without retaining, is so wide that there will not be much depth to work with without constructing an enclosure. We can build rock or wooden retainers, or fashion something of cast or precast concrete. We could use compacted earth walls held in place with geotextile fabric, covered with timber cribbing.

There is also the possibility of placing large transplanted native shrub and young tree masses into the site. A chunk of excavated soil, filled with the roots and stems of elderberries, young hemlocks and blueberries, can be slipped off the back of a truck and set into place. Water will make all the difference in the world, and a trickling hose for the first summer will help these new plant neighbors get comfortable.

This is one very desirable solution, providing multiple layers of foliage for sight and sound absorption, and it can also give nesting, feeding and concealment to the small animals that fill these edge-of-the-forest spaces. It does require making arrangements with an excavator, a dump truck driver and some landowner who is developing his own site, but all these are possible.

It is also very exciting to combine this method with other more finished styles. Building trellises, arches and garden structures seems like it would focus the attention more on what one is trying to conceal, but since perception is psychological more that physiological, we see what we want to see. Placing these regular shapes into a naturalistic setting helps to create a foreground. It is much like stage design where suggestions, hints and some screening let our brains create a suitable scene.

The addition of a few lines of regularly spaced vertical and horizontal members can diffuse a view. Combining the wild and the domesticated makes more than either would be able to provide on its own. We accept the resulting creation, as something not quite wild and not too finished, but entirely satisfying. It also allows the gardeners among us space to incorporate anything else we want. Once the landscape becomes a creation, design opens doors we never recognized.



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