Hollow Garden: Bare Bones—Screening Unwanted Views

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Outhouse Cedar

Words and Photos by Cathy Clary

Summer’s verdure is long departed and  the last of the oak leaves are gone. Bare bones of winter reveal the landscape. Often, we don’t like what we see. I once worked for a wealthy man who lived on top of a hill. Everywhere he looked was a view he didn’t want. The affliction of undesirable views is not restricted to hilltop elites, however. My former employer didn’t want to see his own well-tended barns and tenant houses from his back terrace, but the development dweller who oversees a sea of rooftops from her deck or sits across from a new construction site confronts the same dilemma. 

Most of us want to avert our eyes from something. By chance, I inherited a classic here in the hollow: a red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in front of an outhouse. Evergreen, native, suited to its microclimate, reflecting the “vernacular” of the place, as the landscape architects say—the perfect design solution.

In spite of the outhouse, we have a landscape many affluent homeowners might envy. I can turn 360 degrees in my front yard without seeing anything I don’t want to. We are surrounded by wooded hills and fields on three sides; the fourth, to the sunset west, fronts a gravel road where a 40-year-old American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), keeping time for us since our daughter was a little girl, spreads its 60-foot wingspan to buffer the occasional traffic, shield against dust and provide a solid backdrop to the garden. Distracting the eye is as important as blocking a view. The Lonicera at the bottom of the electric pole brings the eyes down to human scale.

Evergreens, of course, are indispensable for blocking undesirable views and adding luster to the garden, but the Beech shows the utility of deciduous trees and shrubs. Their intricate forms give depth and texture to a screen and tinge the unremitting greens with browns, grays and lavender. 

Backdrop beech

The English clip the European Beech (F. sylvatica) and its cousin the Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) into impenetrable hedges, but we are able to accommodate our native’s natural habit—silver gray filigree in winter, tender pleated pea-green leaves and dangling catkins in spring, dense crisp foliage in summer and a stained-glass display of bronze and gold on autumn afternoons. I view it through the frame of my bathroom window and bring my chair out to sit with it when the leaves unfold, just as the Japanese worship their cherries and Henry Mitchell his beloved irises. It thrives in our bottomland and blue jays and turkeys come to eat the nuts.

Autumn Beech

Witchhazels (Hamamelis) and Viburnums are smaller alternatives. H. ‘Diane’ and ‘Arnold’s Promise’ reach the size of small dogwoods, flowering in March with little puffballs of ruby red and golden yellow, respectively. ‘Diane’ adds striking apricot to her autumn leaves and ‘Arnold’s Promise’ wafts a sweet astringent smell on the chill air. Doublefile Viburnum (V. plicatum tomentosum) ‘Mariesii’ serves up a dense wedding cake of white blooms in summer followed by bird-friendly berries and burgundy fall color. Viburnums number hundreds of different species and scores of cultivars (“cultivated varieties”), truly one for every situation.

Evergreen Viburnums, Leatherleaf (V. rhytidophyllum) and Prague (V. x pragense), have an elegant texture similar to Rhododendrons and all thrive in deep shade. The latter can be finicky without acid soil, the leaves getting a chlorotic yellowish look when they’re not drawing up enough nitrogen. They don’t like being mulched, prefering mosses and leaf litter.

Beech catkins

Magnolias open another page, from the imposing Southern (M. grandiflora) down to its shrubby cultivar ‘Little Gem’ and the delicate Sweetbay (M. virginiana). Although most require good drainage, the Sweetbay can grow in marshy spots and, like all broad-leaved evergreens, they appreciate protection from wind and afternoon sun and a spring planting rather than fall to save their leaves from winter burn.

A grouping of semi-evergreen fragrant honeysuckles (Lonicera fragrantissima) flanks the giant Beech. In February and March their creamy blossoms permeate the air with the scent of Fruit Loops. They are not native, but are often planted in orchards as an early source of food for pollenators and, like the Beech and Hornbeam, they can be clipped to a hedge. 

If your backyard is bounded by a fence, you have a ready-made border. Low shrubs and perennials like Oak Leaf Hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) and Inkberries (Ilex glabra), Christmas Ferns (Polystichum) and Hellebores with spring bulbs make a good foundation if you have room. If not, decorate it with artwork or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocisus quinquefolia) and Clematis (C. virginiana), perhaps some fairy lights.

Perched atop a hill or face-to-face with a backyard fence, gardens have ever been a shelter from the outside world. We make them where we find them. Planting and tending become a life’s work before you know it and everywhere we look is the garden we’ve made around us. 

Lonicera ceria and beech

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