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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Steep Challenge

By Jim Bishop.

While we were working on remodeling the house, I was desperate to create a garden. However, there were a few challenges to overcome. First, most of the house is surrounded by walkways and patios leaving very little gardening space near the house. Second, there was no irrigation system and no faucets behind the house. Third was how to garden on a steep hill.

On the west side yard, there was a very uplifted, steep and uneven walkway along the side of the house. Below this area were some crumbling brick planters and stairways with a unique handrail made from PVC irrigation pipe. Inside the pool area were several cracked concrete planters. The strangest of these was an 8 foot tall planter that the stairway to the pool wrapped around. It was planted with a very large and tall Washingtonia palm. Improper construction and the palm had created a large 2 inch wide crack from the top of the planter to bottom. Around the pool was a stucco wall with a noticeable lean that someone had added buttresses to on the backside to prevent it from falling over. The only access from the pool area to the canyon was a side gate with a strange support at the top that was about 5 feet high and required ducking under to get through the gate. This may have been created to keep the pool fall from toppling, but it had pulled away from the concrete block wall above it and was now just something to hit your head on. Once you exited the gate, there was steep drop off into the canyon. Behind the pool wall was a chain link fence for a very narrow dog run. Below that was a weed and eucalyptus forest. One of the previous owners had planted row after row of eucalyptus trees every 10 feet from the top to bottom of the canyon. There were a few overgrown trails, but no easy way to access them.

Side yard before

Since any work behind the house required access from the street the first project we tackled was replacing the walkway on the side of the house. A large volunteer Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island Date Palm) had taken root at the base of one of the Italian cypresses just inside the gate to the street and blocked access to the pathway. We set out dig it out unaware of the large spines at the base of the leaves. I watched in horror as one of the spines pierced through the skin between Scott’s fingers and came out the other side. Luckily, he was able to free himself without further physical injury. The Italian cypress was not so lucky and we ended up digging it out entirely to remove the palm. We transplanted both plants further down the hill where they both soon died. Next we removed all of the old concrete and blocks along the side of the house and cleaned the mortar off the bricks from the crumbling planters and re-laid them into a nice curving walkway that led to the back of the house. We were very proud of our first functional and aesthetic addition to the garden.

Side Yard After

Next we needed to figure out how to get irrigation into the canyon. We had noticed that there were several faucet outlets in the canyon and one just behind the pool wall. However, they did not work and we could not find where they tied into the house piping. I figured we could pressurize the line by connecting a hose to the top and eventually water would come out somewhere. So we did just that and noticed we could hear the water freely running and went about other chores in the garden. Several hours later, we heard a lot of people frantically yelling at us from the top floor of the parking garage behind our house. Once we were able to understand them, we realized that we had flooded the bottom floor of the parking garage. We quickly turned off the water and went down the hill to investigate. There was a PVC line that went from our property and into the bottom of the parking garage where it had been cut, but not capped. After talking to neighbors and hotel employees, we found out that one of the previous owners that they referred to as the “bounty hunter” had owned both the hotel and our property. He had intended to put hotel suites on the canyon behind our house, but was unable to get city approval. He also had planted the eucalyptus grove and installed the PVC lines on the hill and connected it to the hotel. A few neighbors also told us that there was once a trailer on the flat area at the very bottom of the hill. We had noticed that there were a few old pine trees and some ice plant there and wondered what had been there. Several neighbors informed us that the trailer was used by prostitutes that were waiting for calls from clients in the nearby hotels. We’ve never been able to officially confirm the story…but we are grateful for the irrigation lines in the canyon. We were able to tie into them with an irrigation system that waters part of the canyon. We are less grateful for the eucalyptus which we will discuss in future articles.

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