Magazine article Sunset

Heaven in a Hard Place

Magazine article Sunset

Heaven in a Hard Place

Article excerpt

A Southern California designer TRANSFORMS a "bowling alley" side yard into a showplace

Think like a plant for a minute. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is this: Infiltrate a skinny, 18-inch strip of dirt and try to establish some roots. And, oh yes, try to look pretty while you're at it. The site will be as dark and dank as a cellar all winter, and your feet will never dry out. Then, come summer, it will feel like a furnace as the sun beats down and the reflected heat of the walls on either side of you sucks any remaining moisture from your already desiccated leaves. Would you take this assignment if you were a plant? If it were forced upon you, would you survive?

Unfortunately, such a scenario is typical in cities and subdivisions where houses are packed together. About the only spaces left for a garden on some lots are the narrow strips of dirt between the walls. The canyon effect the walls create is hardly an ideal environment for plants; it shades them in winter and holds in heat during summer. No wonder most homeowners faced with such a garden space quickly throw in the trowel. This is landscaping hell.

Ross Holmquist faced this problem when he moved into his house in Lake Forest, California. Two narrow strips of earth bordering a concrete walkway the length of a bowling alley made up his main gardening space. His house walled the corridor on one side; his neighbor's house, just a few feet away, walled the other side. Holmquist, a landscape designer, initially thought of the site primarily as a design challenge. How could he make the space seem less elongated? What could he do to create a view from indoors? But the longer he lived there, the more he let the plant survivors dictate the design. "I learned to love anything that lived," he laughs.

European white birch, the first thing Holmquist planted, not only survived but also solved a multitude of problems. The handsome white trunks of these trees and the graceful shadows they cast created the attractive view from indoors that he was seeking. The way the treetops gracefully canopied the walkway was another asset. The birches' deciduous habit also happened to be perfect for this space: When fully leafed out in summer, the trees provide pockets of shade perfect for sheltering seasonal annuals. And by conveniently dropping their leaves in winter, they allow more permanent plants full access to that season's limited light.

Finding understory plants that worked was largely trial and error. …

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