Friday, January 20, 2012

What price privacy?

When I was in Seattle last July, I had the very great pleasure of meeting garden writer Marty Wingate, whose latest book, Landscaping For Privacy, is published this week in the UK by Timber Press. I have to admit that while I was looking forward to seeing it, I expected it to be much more relevant to an American audience - after all, Marty is an American writer and the photographs are of American gardens. (Nothing wrong with that - I love a bit of American gardening voyeurism.) However, to my surprise, I found it very thought-provoking.
We British like to think we know all about privacy - all those castles aren't just there to look quaint, you know. We are an island race, and at the first hint of trouble, our instinct is to throw up a huge wall, preferably surrounded by a moat, with armed battalions standing by to pour boiling oil on intruders.
The materials may have changed (it tends to be Leylandii hedging these days, or feather-edge fence panels), and the armed guards may come a little expensive in these times of austerity, but the same sentiment still lurks beneath that stiff upper lip: Keep Out!
Personally I would feel very exposed in a garden that had no visible, tangible boundaries whatsoever. But the problem with merely building a high fence (6ft 6ins is the maximum you can go without planning permission in the UK) is that you end up with a garden that can be a bit box-like. And of course, you wouldn't want a 6ft fence two feet from your front windows.
So what do you do if you still want lots of light and a feeling of space, but you also want the sense of privacy, of having a veil between you and the world? The answer is simple, says Marty. Buffers.
Buffers can be plants - trees, shrubs, perennials - or they can consist of wooden panels, or archways, or perhaps just a large pot or an obelisk. The key thing is that they give the illusion of a barrier, but without compromising your sense of space.
Buffers play other roles as well. They can act as a teaser - half hiding and half revealing the vista beyond, as with the picket fence and arch in this Seattle garden below. You wouldn't feel you could go through this gate unless you had been invited, so it holds you at arm's length to an extent, but you can still admire the garden that you see quite clearly through it.

Yes, that looks lovely, you say - but I can't afford a picket fence and arch, and if I could, I don't think it would suit my property, and I'd have to find someone to do the work for me and ... blah blah blah.
Well, you don't have to do the full picket fence thing. Vertical accents, such as these wooden trellised obelisks in another Seattle garden, behave like punctuation marks - they stop your eye in the same way as a comma breaks up a sentence, so that you take a visual breath, as it were, before moving on to the next bit.

These conifers, below, act just like exclamation marks! They seem to say: "Look at that view!"
No one in their right mind would want a high hedge or a fence here, but the slim columns of the trees not only frame the view but also give you a sense of being separate from the property below.

Yes, well (you might argue), I don't live in Seattle and I don't have the space to grow huge conifers, nor do I have a handy view of Puget Sound.

Well, here's a solution to that problem (well, OK, not the Puget Sound bit). Admittedly, this garden is in Seattle - it belongs to garden writer Lorene Edwards Forkner - but it's an idea that could be borrowed by anyone anywhere. Lorene has planted conifers in huge galvanised stock feeders, thus creating a barrier that is both temporary and mobile. If she needs access, all she needs to do is move them out of the way. (Notice the irrigation hose, which stops them drying out).
I've used my own pictures here to try to give you some idea of what Marty is talking about. The pictures in her book are far better - and she has lots of other good thoughts too: for example, how water fountains, or plants that rustle in the breeze, act as buffers to counteract traffic or neighbourhood noise. Have a browse - see what you think.