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Green Acre #344: A Fence Is Not a Fence . . .

In leafy Capitol Hill, neighbor Pat’s patio umbrella is the only splash of color at certain times of the year. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

My neighbor Pat’s giant red patio umbrella is just visible, planted like a giant flower amid the vast mass of greens in her side garden. 

There’s a limit to fence heights in yards in the Historic District of Capitol Hill, so one must be creative to gain privacy when your house is on the corner, with just a deep yard in front, another alongside the house, and no buffer against nosy neighbors strolling by. 

How to skirt the rule brought on a neighborly confabulation some decades ago. The solution, to outline a seating area with picket fence at the allowable 4-foot height and set a pair of high-hinged screens, like broken parentheses, or wickedly arched brows, within the boundaries. Tucked behind them: dining and seating concealed from curious eyes. 

When is a fence not a fence? The screens were not fencing; the fence was along the property line. The screens were an installation, an art piece, or so she might argue if the fence police blew their whistles.

Within a few years, vines loped along the outer fence and climbed the screens, and flowering shrubs and bulbs were staggered about. A dogwood marks the grave of Pasha, Pat’s dog, who she insisted was part Briard and part wolf, though the Briard genes were invisible.  

One of the Hill’s tallest, skinniest crape myrtles is front and center; it’s now a Seussian specimen that stands maybe 20 feet tall with a cluster of deep pink flowers on top, like a pom-pom. 

In mid-summer the scarlet red umbrella provides all the color at eye level. 

I caught up with Pat today as she was coming down her steps and I was tromping back from the grocery. “I love that umbrella,” I said. “It’s like an enormous Lord Baltimore hibiscus.” 

She looked at me blankly. 

“They have flowers the size of dinner plates that look like tissue paper?”

“Oh, yes, it does look like that,” she said, smiling. 

“The Prince would tell you to take it down at night, or in nasty weather, so it stays nice. But I’m glad that you don’t—it’s so cheerful.” And that goes double when the sky is gray. 

“If it falls apart you can get another,” I added.

Amazon,” she volunteered. “It’s really sturdy, too, heavy, with a crank to raise it and lower it.”

Which, as I said, she doesn’t bother to do. 

“I love Amazon. It was under 50 bucks and it’s so well made,” she said.

“I love Amazon too,” thinking, 50 bucks? Definitely replace.

“I don’t care what they say about Bezos.”

“Me neither.” We paused for a moment to contemplate that. 

“How is it that these guys come up with a little idea and make billions?” she said. 

“Wish it were me,” I said.

“No—too much money, too many choices. I’m pleased with what I have,” she said, and got into her little black VW and tootled away. 

“But,” I wondered to myself, Would a couple million bucks hurt? 


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