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Gardening / Home Improvement | IN THE GARDEN

How to Make That Utility Pole (Almost) Disappear


Imagine my surprise at finding a telephone pole in my backyard--although I am partly to blame for its sudden appearance.

When our new neighbors mentioned that they couldn't grow anything in their backyard, I pointed at a huge old avocado back by the fence.

The tree covered most of their tiny backyard and part of mine as well. Nothing could grow in its dense shade--except for some clivias on my side of the fence.

To add insult to injury, it produced only a handful of avocados each year. Down it came.

I shed no tears over its disappearance, but I was surprised to see that it also had hidden a utility pole in the corner of their yard.

I vaguely knew the pole was there but had no idea how many additional lines the cable and phone company had been stringing on it. The pole is now the central feature of my poor garden.

I started thinking about hiding the pole again, and called a few garden designers to see if they had any good planting choices.

Rick Fisher of Toyon Design in Altadena said that in his own yard he's covered the pole with morning glories, which is "real unpopular" with the utility companies since they have to cut them off about twice a year. Morning glories were my wife's first thought when she saw the pole.

Santa Barbara landscape architect Owen Dell, however, said "the worst thing you can do is plant a vine on it. It drives the utility companies crazy and it draws attention to the pole."

In clients' gardens, Fisher has used Eucalyptus nicholii, Nichol's willow-leafed peppermint.

"What you want is an upright, lacy tree about 30 feet tall that will soften the pole and draw the eye away from it," Fisher said, and this graceful 30- to 40-foot eucalyptus with furrowed, reddish-brown bark fills the bill.

Actually, several small eucalyptuses would work. Another is e. sideroxylon 'Rosea', with deeply furrowed bark the color of a creosoted utility pole. Though the tree ranges from 20 feet to 80 feet, most that I've seen are narrow and not too tall.

I like the idea of the bark being similar in color to the pole. If I follow the advice of Claremont landscape architect and author Bob Perry and plant two trees in front of the pole, the pole will appear to be the third trunk in this little grove of eucalyptuses, and as all design students know, three of anything is aesthetically better than one or two.

I also like the fact that eucalyptuses are also fast growing.

Fisher has also used the shoestring acacia (Acacia stenophylla), another graceful 30-footer that is fast, but it is an even filmier tree, with long (to 16 inches!), narrow leaves and a droopy habit. This would cast virtually no shade and the pole would be visible behind it. It wouldn't conceal so much as veil.

But as Bill Evans, the distinguished tree expert and landscape architect for the several Disneylands points out, "You don't have to obliterate the pole, just give the eye something else to rest on," so these pole hiders don't have to be dense and maybe should not be.

If you want dense, Italian cypress would hide the pole but probably wouldn't look that great in front of one. They're a little obvious, making such a statement that the eye would find the pole right away and know that you were trying to hide it, none too successfully. Wires would seem to be sprouting from its top.

Evans has introduced a group of evergreen trees new to this country but native to Japan. They were found during a long search for evergreens hardy enought to survive at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., which gets colder than here.

In Tokyo, they are the backbone for Disney's park and one of these, Elaeocarpus decipens, the Japanese blueberry tree, is fast and upright to 30 feet. A wholesale grower, Monrovia Nursery Co., is now raising it. Evans thinks it would do a fine job of pole concealment.

Bob Perry suggested timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) as another pole hider. It will easily get to 30 feet, and grows as a clump. It is dense and graceful, growing naturally as a grove of canes.

He also suggested sweetshade, Hymenosporum flavum, an under-utilized Australian tree that looks a bit like a pittosporum with shiny, dark green leaves and yellow flowers that smell like orange blossoms. It's upright and grows to 30 feet, but slowly. It's not dense and looks nice planted in small groves.

Fisher also brought up another point: Plant the tree too far from the pole and it won't effectively hide it. Plant it too close and the utility companies will behead it.

Landscape architect Gordon Kurtis of Los Angeles suggested a bunch of trees that are "vertical, evergreen, fast and cheap," including the madrone-like Tristania conferta or Brisbane box and Brachychiton populneus, the bottle tree, which is tough enough for the low desert.

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