Garden Design Forensics

Photograph By
Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA

After the garden renovation, the shelf forms a perfect frame for future artwork.

There’s no such thing as a blank slate with gardens, especially on Capitol Hill. The first time I see a new space, I feel like Sherlock Holmes looking deeply at a yard full of clues. Knowing how a space got to be the way it is helps us know what to change, how to change it, and in what order. Though every space is different, common clues fall into four themes.

Theme One: Accretion

Like the old adage about history being one damn thing after another, new things often pile up in gardens without the previous thing being removed. This can cause problems, or at least inconveniences down the road. On Capitol Hill, garden accretion is often seen in the following ways:

Fences in front of fences are easily seen with the naked eye. Maybe first there was a three foot tall chain link, or older welded wire fence with deep concrete fencepost footers. Rather than dig them up and haul the concrete and metal to the dump, the next guy dug holes for new posts in between and in front of the old ones when he installed a new six foot, solid board wooden privacy fence. When done on both sides of a typical 16 foot wide Capitol Hill back yard, this reduces the width about nine inches on either side, or 10% of the total garden width. 

If the neighbors have independently done the same thing due to different timing, budget, or not realizing they could cooperate and build a single shared fence along their property line, the total reduction in garden width could go as high as 20%. In long, narrow spaces like those on the Hill, 20% makes a huge difference not only in area, but in proportion, spatial perception, and ultimately, psychological comfort.

Other important examples of accretion that may not be easily apparent are layers of patios, one on top of another, low retaining walls built on top of paving with footers for stability and structural support, and even garages with masonry bump-outs to accommodate longer cars.

Accretion is also the reason why some people must step down into their homes or garages. Maybe a basement was excavated for an apartment, and because a truck couldn’t get into the garden to haul away the dirt, it was spread out in situ. If you lower your basement one foot, it’s easy to understand how your garden would be raised by that same amount. The problem is what this grade change does to your drainage, never mind the tripping hazards that may ensue. Also, this added soil is often piled up against yours, or your neighbor’s fence, invisibly and slowly rotting it below grade. Fences are not intended to serve as retaining walls, but often by default they do.

One last example of accretion is the lowly downspout. Should outside storm drains get clogged with roots or otherwise malfunction, or be covered by paving or a new deck, wildly inventive downspout extensions are sometimes the result. Sometimes these extensions carry water to a deserving garden bed, but more often they simply dump water into the alley, or an unsuspecting neighbor’s yard. 

Accretion often occurs in waves, resulting in a pre-design garden that looks like a Rube Goldberg sculpture. While sympathizing in the owner’s desire for change, I find in them a certain pathos and charm. They never look ugly to me, only interesting and full of potential.

Theme Two: Inertia

Capitol Hill is an historic neighborhood, so landscape inertia has had a lot of time to work its magic. Some of my favorite examples involve trees that have grown through things. Look for the tree that has grown through an old cast iron gate on New Jersey Avenue, SE, freezing it forever partly open. Another tree in an alley off Kentucky Avenue, SE has grown to maturity right in front of its carless owner’s garage door. A weed tree in my own backyard once sprouted in the mortar of my former absentee neighbor’s garage, ultimately requiring its demolition and replacement. And how many trees have been planted by city birds pooping seeds onto the ground along fence lines while taking a break from flight? While humans sit back, trees grow. Undoing the results can take a lot of work and resources.

Theme Three: Vestigial Elements

Here we see garden remnants of childhood, relationships, customs, hobbies or even legal disputes. Neighbors whose children were friends may have installed a gate along their shared backyard fence that is now locked shut but not removed. Old swing sets and sand boxes sit idle as their former users sit in college classes and their parents work through empty nest syndrome. Tree stumps too costly or difficult to remove persist as hibachi grill platforms. 

Poles with old clothesline pulley hardware remind us of Blue Monday when neighbors chatted across low fences as they hung the laundry and watched their kids play. A house I almost bought on 10th Street, NE, had a bare dirt, swept back yard with a single massive black walnut tree in its center. Swept yards were typical practice of older African-Americans who moved to DC from the South. Sometimes in the South, lower tree trunks were painted white to help people spot climbing snakes. I’ve seen this on the Hill as well (not the snakes, the white paint). Black Walnuts were once considered a delicacy, so this massive 10th Street tree was intentionally planted and its nuts harvested. Today people don’t care for the large falling nuts or the way these trees make other plants difficult to grow. Former coal storage bins are still evident on the Hill too, if you look hard enough.

More recently, empty 21st century chicken coops may be tucked into quiet corners (true empty nest syndrome), or greenhouses may have become outdoor storage sheds instead of seedling nurseries. Indeed, the difference between archeology and garden building is relative.

Theme Four: Incompetence

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is a good adage for garden situations you may have inherited. It could have been a DIY project gone bad, or a sub-contractor taking the easy way out, but lots of things share this theme.

Sadly, mature trees that were pruned or topped are included here. It is difficult, if not impossible to repair this damage to a tree. Tree roots may be hacked or paved over as well. Whenever possible, saving valuable trees is my first consideration and the reason to consult certified arborist professionals.

Some driveway gates opening into the alley are not to code and potentially dangerous. Electrical wiring is another errant garden element. You’ll see it run above ground along fences, along the ground, sometimes in metal conduit, or even with bare wires exposed. Always consult a professional if you see this in your space, and when designing a new garden, build into your budget the cost of properly encasing and burying any wires that carry house current to sheds or garages.

Take a look at your landscape with new eyes. Messages from the past will emerge that will help you bring your garden happily in the future.

Walls, curbs, paving were removed to create an inviting entryway
Walls, curbs, paving, and shrubs crowded this tiny front yard.
A new concrete landing and downspout rerouted through the fence into the alley.
This before shot includes a garage shelf created to make room for a big car

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect working on Capitol Hill and beyond. She loves untangling and transforming urban landscapes and gardens.

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