hiding from the neighbors

We have new neighbors immediately behind the house next door. One of their first acts was to erect this gonzo back deck.

The previous owner was a house-bound woman who for the last twenty years of her life lived mostly indoors. Her back fence stopped at the property line and was six feet high. We never saw her, she never saw us.

The new owners, a young couple, apparently didn’t care for the big dark fence getting in the way of their view. And they apparently didn’t think their back yard was large enough since the new deck juts out many feet into a city easement. I’m sure they have a great view of the ocean. But using the equation, I can see them = They can see us, I’m certain they also have a tremendous view of my back yard.

There are a few islands of privacy. This black bamboo provides a little bit of screening–if you’re standing in just the right spot.

But this view from the bedroom window shows that the isn’t much privacy from much of the garden. I planted a Dr. Hurd manzanita in front of the bamboo, before the new neighbors moved in. Once it hits its twelve foot target, it’ll help provide some shelter. But being a manzanita it’s taking its good old time getting larger. Had I known we’ve have this privacy issue I’d have planted something faster growing, maybe a desert willow.

A few things get in the way of planting more large plants on the property line. There’s a buried drain–not the best thing to plant a small tree over. This is also the the southern edge to the property. A tree would provide some shelter, but it would also shade a garden populated with sun-loving plants and homeowners. Also, the previous owners of our house installed a large fishpond in what would be the most welcome spot for a small tree.

We’re still trying to think of what to do. Until we have a larger plan in place, we’re letting some plants get taller than we otherwise might. This mystery shrub came with the house. Although it’s growing too close to a fence to let it get very large, we’re still letting it grow taller. There’s one of these plants in the canyon nearby and the best idea I have is that if it’s native it might be a Pacific wax myrtle (Morella (formerly Myrtica) californica), but I think the ID is incorrect because Calflora shows its native range ending to the north, in Los Angeles County.

Here’s a closer look at the foliage. Later in the year it has tiny white flowers with an insanely powerful fragrance–gardenias on steroids, maybe. Feel free to send me any ideas for this plant’s identity. It’s probably wishful thinking on my part thinking this is a native instead of an escapee from one of the local gardens.

[ EDIT, January 24 ] Well, I knew you guys would come through! Maggie and Bahia have pointed me in the right direction. Thinking that it was a local native was definitely wishful thinking on my part. The mystery shrub is a Victorian box, Pittosporum undulatum. The fact that it’s escaped into at least one spot in the local canyon makes me think that this is destined not a long-term plant, particularly when you consider that it can get massive size for a suburban lot, not to mention it’s ridiculously close placement to the fenceline.

The California Invasive Plant Council describes its problem potential this way: “Infestations in CA are small. More problematic on north coast.” Not the worst plant, but I could definitely do better.

The privacy problem could be worse. The neighbors spend almost no time outdoors, and much of that is in the relative privacy of darkened evenings.

Still, gardens are as much about fantasy as they are reality. It’s not that we’re doing anything particularly scandalous in the back yard, really. But if we were, we wouldn’t want the neighbors to see!

18 thoughts on “hiding from the neighbors”

  1. How frustrating! If you’re lucky they built it for vanity reasons, and won’t spend much time out there.

    Your plant ID seems correct, except for the fragrant flowers part. The leaves are fragrant, but I don’t think the flowers are.

  2. Hello, you may have a pittosporum. The wax myrtle leaves are less pointed at the tip, and the flowers and fruit grow near the base of leaves.

  3. Well that just sucks! There is no accounting for the crazy actions of ones neighbors. Since you said the deck juts into the city easement is there any chance they might have to take it down? (if someone complained I mean).

  4. As Loree says, ask the building inspector? I would weep if that happened to me, but when we lived in Camps Bay on a steep slope – each time a house changed hands it was TOTALLY renovated. Messy green stuff OUT. I remember one ‘house’ right on the edge of the Table Mountain Nature Reserve. They removed everything. Dug a humungous hole. Built an enormous house. Then added two palms and some lavender on the public pavement. Sorted.

  5. Surprised you don’t recognize a widely planted Australian tree when you see it. Your shrub is Pittosporum undulatum, and they can get 40 to 50 feet tall up here in the San Francisco Bay Area. People either love this tree for the attractive foliage, showy orange fruits, and very fragrant flowers, or they hate it, because it seeds itself around so easily, the sticky fruits are very messy over paving, and it out-competes native plants in many environments. It is a real problem invasive in coastal Portugal, from Lisbon to the Algarve, and loves to self sow here in my Berkeley garden as well, but I tolerate the bad for the wonderful fragrance. Also because it makes an excellent dense screen between my neighbor’s deck and my own, and takes pruning readily.

    As to your dilemma, it would seem you have easy recourse if the new owners don’t have the legal right to extend the deck over the easement. At the very least, they would have needed to apply for a variance which should have given you notification of their intentions?

  6. I concur with Loree – that sucks! My Dr. Hurds have grown at the rate of an inch per year, so not very promising as a fast privacy screen. Indeed, a desert willow would do nicely in that role. Do you have a spot in front of the bamboo and next to Dr. Hurd to put one in? The Chilopsis tends to grow faster with more water, but then of course that won’t gel if you’re growing it next to a manzanita. If you do indeed have the space, then maybe a Sargent’s or Tecate Cypress would work – both are native, of beautiful form, drought tolerant, and fast-growing.

  7. On the one hand, I would probably be annoyed if my neighbors did that. On the other hand, I have myself started to hang out in my totally unfenced front garden quite a bit. I enjoy watching all my neighbors wandering by with their dogs and sometimes kids.

    And now that they can see you (so what), you certainly can see them (ha!).

    Hope it all works out. It does give me a queezy feeling that they clearly didn’t bother to conform to regulations, though.

  8. Isn’t it remarkable how many of our fellow Californians never use their gardens ? I am outside all day, all weekend, and my neighbors-all postage stamp close-are never seen or heard from. I guess that’s ok, I’d hate it if my stereo had to compete with theirs.

  9. Susan, if I had their house I’d definitely want a place to enjoy the view. But you know, I think what they did is really rude! A glass fence would give them the view without turning them into peepers.

    Maggie, yes! That’s the plant! Thank you!

    Loree, thanks for sharing my pain. I’m trying to be live and let live about it, figuring a second floor on their house would be even more obtrusive. But their use of the easement does seem more than questionable.

    EE, so people are displacing South African plants, even in California, where in this case they’re lethally shading a slope of iceplant, Carpobrotus. Since it’s a true invasive here, the deck project has one positive going for it by shading it out. Still, everything gives me a severe grrrrr response.

    Bahia, thanks for your ID and your explanation of the plant’s capabilities. I was inclined to remove the plant a decade ago and I might follow through. The plant I thought it might have been would work much better in that spot. A realtor neighbor mentioned having seen this done all over the neighborhood, but that doesn’t make it legit.
    Bahia, trees are my weak suit since I haven’t paid much attention to them because have room for anything of any size. Thanks very much for the ID. After researching the plant I think that I would probably do better with a plant that I can predict the growth of–and a plant that won’t have semi-invasive tendencies.

    Arleen, for me Dr. Hurd has been putting out about 6 inches of growth a year, maybe in response to a moist spot that might mean death for other manzanitas. I picked it partly for its tolerance of garden watering for this transitional garden spot, and I think a chilopsis also might do well there. I’ll admit to having a disdain for conifers, but the more I’ve seen the plants you suggest the more I like them. The Tecate would be well-scaled for this spot. Thanks for the ideas!

  10. That’s pretty dreadful. It’s not even an attractive deck. Can you make your fence higher with a horizontal-slat addition? Another 2 feet would probably do the trick, and an open-work design may not conflict with city fence codes.

  11. As I look more closely at the mix of native/introduced ornamentals in your backyard as it is, it appears a bit at odds from a water use/compatibility standpoint. The Blackstem Bamboo alone would give you plenty of coverage/privacy if it got enough summer irrigation to let it do what it wants to do, which is grow 20 feet tall and be dense. It looks like it is severely struggling with lack of water and resultant sparse/browned foliage. It also looks like you have other non-native palms and aroids on that same slope. I’d suggest that a faster growing native shrub/small tree to replace these plantings might be the better approach, and look into flowering/fruiting evergreens such as Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia or Fremontodendron ‘California Glory’, Lemonade Berry, Rhus integrifolia, or one of the larger growing Ceanothus. Personally I find Chilopsis a poor aesthetic choice for year round good looks, as it looks so bedraggled in winter with all those seed pods, and gives no privacy when deciduous. In a small backyard, year round good looks and privacy are often more important qualities than pretty seasonal flowers.

    I doubt that Victorian Box is as invasive in San Diego County except where it gets summer water, as it is native to summer rainfall areas of Victoria/New South Wales and is not particularly drought tolerant.

    That Blackstem bamboo looks like it is miserable to me, I find it hard to appreciate any bamboo when it struggles to survive on too little water. A Fremontia or Lemonade Berry in that spot could do a better job of screening, and make you feel better using a native rather than exotic…

  12. Cheeky neighbors, but wonderful plant discussion brought up by their thoughtlessness. Not sure if Monterey Cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa, will grow as far south as San Diego, but that’s what’s screening out my eastern neighbors. Tall, narrow, columnar, relatively fast growing.

  13. Bummer about the deck. Personally, I’d talk to them and see if they want to go in on a restoration of that ice plant slope with some plants that would screen between the two yards. You do the labor, they pick and buy the plants, that kind of thing.
    I wouldn’t worry about the Pitt undulatum getting too big. They’re one of those plants that you use when you want to control the size, fast to about 15 feet, but then quite slow as it puts on bulk, and it takes pruning and shearing. They’re a common plant for 10′ tall hedges in the Bay Area and that one looks like it would make a nice small tree if its trunk is clear of the fence. If you want a small canopy in that spot, I’d leave it. They’re nice.

  14. Everyone around here has border disputes of one kind or another. One neighbor complained long and often about his neighbor directly across the street from him. That neighbor’s response? He cut down all the shrubbery along the road, put in an electrified fence and started raising pigs (which also happen to be downwind from neighbor number one). So see…it could always be worse.

  15. Oh how frustrating! Good luck finding ways to screen your garden and not shade yourselves or your plants. I imagine the view from that monster deck is amazing, but the view of it is not… Here’s hoping they don’t go for late night parties – or that if they do they invite you along and become good friends 😉

  16. too bad they took some of your privacy, but at least they dont use the deck that much. And the good part is that you get to experiment a bit with your landscape

  17. Even if you don’t see them out there, the very presence of the deck changes the character of your garden’s feeling, I’m sure.

    What have you got for your region in the way of fast-growing vines…can you trellis to screen?

    Maybe if when you DO see them out there you stare at THEM enough, they’ll start buying potted plants for the deck, to screen themselves from YOUR prying eyes. That could work, too.

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