By Valerie Easton
Gardeners struggle with views. It’s not that we don’t appreciate a panorama of water and mountains as much as the next homeowner, but we want our trees as well.
We hate it when our prized plants get lost in a big view. No one pauses to admire a magnolia or Japanese maple, let alone a clematis or tulip, no matter how gorgeous, when the Space Needle or Mount Rainier looms in the background. How can gardeners compete with a snow-topped volcano, a working harbor or the lights of the big city?
Competition, it turns out, is a losing game. Pursued to an extreme, you end up with a Disneyland cartoon of a garden. Yet for those who love plants, it’s discouraging to keep them pruned back and down so you don’t intrude on the vista.
“If people would just relax on trees a bit, they’ll get so much pleasure from both the trees and the wildlife they attract — and their views will be more dramatic and dynamic,” says landscape architect Charles Anderson. He suggests layering evergreen and deciduous trees for permanency, seasonality and peek-a-boo views. Trees lend shelter and shade, he says, bringing birds such as banded pigeons that need high perches. He suggests you pick your view, using trees to selectively screen out unwanted sights from the neighbors.
For a west-facing modern house high atop Queen Anne Hill, Anderson planted big leaf maples and madrones in front of the smashing view. Owner Phil Vogelzang says, “It’s bankrupt to get rid of the trees. They cut down on glare and give us shade, privacy and a close-up view of wildlife.” But do they block his view? “Trees can be sculpted,” he says.
Gardens make you feel safe and grounded, so you never have that queasy sense of standing on a precipice, according to designer Richard Hartlage of AHBL landscape design group. Like any garden, those with views must first relate in scale and style to the architecture of the house. This means that on a large property, conifers or elms might be used to frame the view. On a smaller urban or suburban lot, more modestly sized stewartias or dogwoods are an ideal foreground.
“If you can see a view from everywhere, it loses its impact,” says Hartlage. “So I make a judgment call — what am I going to highlight?” He closes in pieces of a garden for intimacy, while leading the eye toward the most magnificent views. His design for a Tacoma garden screens out the view from the street so you don’t see the water at first, while the main axis of the garden emphasizes the view out toward Puget Sound. “You use the garden to create progressive layers of foreground and mid-ground; otherwise, the view is just like a painting on the wall,” says Hartlage.
Landscape architect Bruce Hinckley, who designed the garden for Jim Dow’s home on page 42, says hectic city views can be fatiguing. He chose a limited, austere plant palette so it wouldn’t compete with Dow’s huge view of the city and Elliott Bay. Hinckley craned in a forest of mature black pines to modulate depth of field, meaning that the eye will focus on different depths and distances on its way to taking in the Space Needle and passing ships. “Trees bring the sky down so you can appreciate clouds and the changes in weather,” Hinckley says.
Trees also provide some measure of solar control and privacy. Finding just the right amount of shade and shelter on an exposed site can be a balancing act. “Remember, if you can see, you can also be seen,” says Hinckley. “And who wants to keep their blinds down?”
Too often, with a big panoramic view, people cease to really see it. By using trees as framing and foreground, Hinckley assures, “You may see less, but you’ll enjoy it more.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.