Protecting your privacy with shrub layer, flowerbed

Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Oh it's great to go away, and it's so good to come home. We had the chance to go for a summer vacation, and we took it. Two weeks in the south of France, with a couple days in Paris, and a visit with the grandparents in California; sun, great food and wine, and a view into another world.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

We talk about tourism, and rightly so, but these folks have had people knocking at their doors for two thousand years, and their landscape shows how they deal with it.

The homes turn away from the street; they face into their yards and save the best for the family and friends. The wandering souls who throng the streets see a very nice hedge, or a series of hedges on top of a retaining wall, they might glimpse a corner of the domestic scene if the luck is with them, but they cannot just look into the heart of the home.

If you have ever had Margaret or me come to your home and talk about your landscape, you will probably have heard the phrase "The street comes all the way up to the first barrier." This means that the perceived public space sweeps from the street right into any yard or open space until it reaches a boundary layer. This can be a shrub layer, a group of trees, a fence or hedge, or a perennial flowerbed. It can even be a sudden change in grade, or a low evergreen layer, but as long as the sense of a single surface extends from the street to the door, there is no sense of the edge.

A good guide to this is to watch the behavior of dogs as they pass along the street. They are visual, and sense the permitted and prohibited, they know not to venture into someone else's space without an invitation. Dogs will casually stroll into an unfenced yard, they will lope across an open lawn, and they will make themselves welcome in your flowerbeds or borders if they line your side property lines. They are reading the message your landscape is sending.

These dogs are no different than our casual visitors, they are not malicious, nor criminal; they are following their own agendas, seeking pleasure and satisfying their curiosity. We don't expect our canine visitors to read, so tasteful signs are useless, we don't want to live inside chain link fences if we can avoid it, so we plant ourselves a separation layer.

Tradition and the visual arts show us hedges of single species, all shaped into walls, some even including doorways framed in finial topped pillars. These call out age, privilege and privacy. They are monumental, satisfying and truly effective, but this is not the only way.

We saw the concept of the trimmed edge in thousands of applications, from the mixed flowering shrub layer (Lilac was among the most common) to the multiple species trimmed into one form, to the successive layer of separate forms treated as a series. Some are formed by a tall hedge with a contrasting lower one as a curb or border, others are planted atop a low stone or concrete wall. There were also ones that incorporated the fence, with a hedge behind it.

The sense of the hedge as a barrier did not carry the same sense of unwelcome that a tall fence has, the softer look of the foliage says that this is a private space, but does not have the feeling of prohibition. The visitor is not sent scurrying away but it is clearly a domestic space, not on view and not to be stared at.

The trimmed edges were not restricted to those domestic spaces, they were in evidence along country roads, lining farm spaces, and even in the national parks where they served to keep the visiting population from pulling off the roads into the forest and parking in unsafe locations.

This is not an exclusively foreign concept; there are many homes in our area that have used the same techniques and with the same success. There are lovely hedges along the street in the older parts of town, along 12th street and up near the Governors mansion, and we have helped people plant them all over the rest of the town for the last 20 years. Many of the nicest of these planted edges include the existing or transplanted native vegetation.

This lesson in privacy we learned was not a new one, but the application to a visitor impacted area was an insight, and a great idea to bring home.

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