How to create neighborly seclusion

“I might have been a goldfish in a glass bowl for all the privacy I got.” ? Saki

Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) wrote those words in 1904 in his book Reginald, but they hit home with considerable force in 2001.

Growing populations that crowd today’s cities and housing developments make many of us feel like overexposed goldfish every time we walk out into our yards.

For better or worse, many of our homes take up most of their lots. What’s left, typically, are narrow strips of ground in front, side yards barely wide enough to walk through, and backyards that feel like the stage in an amphitheater because neighbors on both sides can peer down from their second-story windows.

No wonder, despite our coveted Western weather, we’re reluctant to venture into such gardens. In settings like these, even lighting the barbecue feels like a performance.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The goldfish bowl suggests the solution. If fish have a few retreats within their glass bowls where they can go to escape the public eye, they’re happy; you don’t have to build a wall around the whole aquarium.

Humans are the same: We don’t need to be totally enclosed to enjoy privacy. In fact, in a small yard, total enclosure can seem like imprisonment.

And the chance to peek out at the world from a veiled hideout makes you feel like a kid in a treehouse again. You can see them, but they can’t see you. Delightful.

Here are some ways to create private hideouts within a “fishbowl” garden.


Front-yard screening

When Billy Spratlin and Alex Kochnuk created a semihidden dining alcove in their front yard nine years ago, they started a trend in Bayshores, their Newport Beach, California, neighborhood.

As is typical in properties close to the beach, lots in this community are tiny. Yet, with the help of Tustin, California?based landscape architect Dale Waldo, they were able to carve out a delicious retreat in a pocket-size space.

The curved wall-planter that wraps around the dining area is only waist-high. But the judicious placement of plants ? a strawberry tree in the planter and several liquidambars screening a corner ? makes the space surprisingly private. “It feels sheltered without seeming unfriendly,” says Spratlin.

Other Bayshores homeowners have copied the front courtyard idea since, he says. Linda and Russell Jacques, who also live in Bayshores, took a different approach with their front yard. Linda’s main concern was making the shallow space feel more like a garden. The Jacques have a corner dining nook and a side patio that overlook this area. They wanted to see greenery and flowers from these vantage points, not pavement and cars. “But this is a neighborly community,” says Linda, “and we didn’t want to look unwelcoming.”

Jay Rodriquez of Upper Crust Landscaping solved the problem through strategically placed berms and multitrunked pink melaleuca trees. The Jacques have the screening they want now but haven’t walled themselves off from their neighbors ? and they have a prettier view, says Linda.

Backyard retreats

Often, the easiest way to create a retreat in the backyard is to extend the living space immediately outside the house with hardscaping, then screen off the resulting outdoor room with a vertical structure. A pergola topped with vines to block overhead views is a typical solution; a framework of planter boxes topped with a trellis might be another.

Side-yard solutions

The side yards in many new tracts aren’t yards at all?they’re barely walkways. But even if they aren’t usable as garden space, they can’t be ignored because, from some rooms, they constitute the entire view. Find some way to “green up” these areas. At the Jacques home, for instance, Rodriquez suggested a row of king palms in large pots be placed in front of the fence.

Creating privacy within confined spaces is, admittedly, a challenge. But if a goldfish can find escape from the public eye within its tiny glass globe, we can create privacy in a garden.

Before you begin, some tips

Determine what you want to block out or be shielded from.

Evaluate how plantings and additional structures will affect your neighbors, patterns of sun and shade in your garden, and any views you want to preserve.

Find out exactly where the boundaries of your property are, so you don’t end up building or planting on your neighbor’s property.

Check local ordinances and easements that could affect your plans. Many communities have guidelines to protect solar access or views.

Any structures or plantings on the property line belong to you and your neighbor. So before you begin, discuss changes you want to make with your neighbor. If construction or planting you do on your property affects the health of plants on your neighbor’s property, you could be liable for damages.

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