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My Ten Commandments (Minus the Burning Bush)
updated: Apr 24, 2010, 10:20 AM

By Billy Goodnick

This is my 50th blog post at Edhat. Overlooking my schizophrenic swings between writer's block and the fear of numbing repetition, blogging for Ed has made for a jolly good time.

Writing has been therapeutic. Putting my thoughts into words forces me to examine my beliefs about beauty, purpose and sustainability. Along the way, I have either confirmed what I already thought to be true, or reexamined long-held beliefs and come away with a fresh perspective.

Forgive the melodrama, but writing for Ed has been life changing as well, opening doors on a new profession, new people and the opportunity to dig into fresh subject matter.

In fact, writing is so much fun, I've started drafting a book, tentatively titled Crimes Against Horticulture: When Bad Taste Meets Power Tools. The following eight-hundred-or-so words are my first crude brain dump. I wrote it to establish my point of view. I think it's appropriate to test-drive it at Edhat, where for almost two years I've been allowed to figure this sustainable landscaping stuff out for myself. I welcome your comments.

Stupid Equals Ugly

Most gardens I see are either blah or they outright suck. If they were just ugly, I wouldn't be so pissing furious driving through suburban neighborhoods. After all, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. What one person sees as stunningly beautiful can trigger their neighbor's gag reflex.

My revulsion is my own doing - I'm told my expectations are unreasonably high. Point taken; not every garden has to look like a magazine cover.

That's the danger of knowing a subject well-my standards have become more rigorous making my expectations rise and setting me up for unavoidable disappointment and, in rare cases, rabid frothing at the mouth.

I don't expect everyone to master the complexities of landscape design, a discipline that calls for equal parts biology, art, and psychology.

As most gardeners learn by trial and error, creating a garden is not the same as decorating the den - chairs, rugs and bric-a-brac don't get attacked by aphids. End tables don't go dormant, leaving gaping holes in an otherwise thoughtful tableau.

But it's inexcusable when someone compounds their design mistakes with avoidable environmental damage. We're beyond the point where curb appeal can be the Holy Grail of landscaping.

I have a strong belief that all gardens, regardless of their climate zone or style, can and should be beautiful, functional and sustainable.

To attain these reasonable goals, I offer Billy's Ten Commandments. (Somebody grab a stone tablet and chisel.)


1. Ignorance = Ugly: You don't have to be Claude Monet to create a beautiful garden. Learning a few visual design principles helps avoid fugly landscapes.

2. Emulate nature: I have never seen a garden magazine cover with foliage meatballs skewered on poles. With the exception of formal gardens that employ artfully clipped hedges and topiary, people are attracted to gardens reflective of the natural environment.

3. Use shock tactics: Enough with the coffee table books and their luscious images. There's nothing like a poke in the eye with a sharp cultivator to grab someone's attention. There's a place for bad examples and ridicule in my teaching methods, especially if I can milk it for a laugh at someone else's expense.

4. Model landscapes after natural systems: Gardens that survive only by putting them on life support are a thing of the past. Spraying toxic chemicals, spewing pollutants, revving gas-sucking power tools and drenching lawns with precious potable water has to stop.

5. Do no harm: I propose a gardener's Hippocratic oath. Live gently, practice natural resource conservation, stop landfill-clogging waste and end the toxic soup of garden products that poison our water. While we're at it, let's mute the power tools and let our neighbors sleep in.

6. Don't waste your time and money: How long have you been hacking the same super-sized plant into submission? That juniper in the curbside bed is genetically programmed to grow 20 feet wide; your parkway is only five feet wide. Wonder why you're working so hard?

7. Lay down the power tools: Just because the plant janitor you hired drives a pick-up truck and wields a razor-sharp, case-hardened steel, 200-horsepower, fuel-injected hedge trimmer doesn't mean he gets to take out his hostilities on every plant in your yard. Gardening requires artistry as much as it calls for a bit of brawn.

8. Stretch the boundaries: "But everyone on my block has a front lawn." Yeah, so? Be bold! Have fun! I get furious at regulations and homeowner association rules demanding Stepford wife mindless conformity at a tragic cost to the environment. Get on a committee, slap on your Che Guevara red beret and start a bloodless coup.

9. Push out your walls: You pay property taxes on every inch of your land, so get something back. My first question at interviews is, "What do you want to be able to do in your yard?" Not, "Do you prefer a herringbone or basket-weave pattern in your brick walkway." Design your outdoor spaces for how you want to live, and fret over the color swatches later.

10. Grow something you can eat: It's important to make space for entertaining and hanging with the family. But integrating something you can eat into your landscape is garden planning at its highest form. Suburbia started as a quest to leave congested cities behind, grow some food, and graze a herd of miniature elk.

My goal is to shed some light, raise the bar and motivate people to think outside the boxwood. We can go on doing things the way we have been, or get back to basics.

Moving your garden from the old way toward a more natural model doesn't happen overnight. Don't beat yourself up. Start from where you are today and make things a little better.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 71478 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-24 04:18 PM

Thank you Billy. I love your commandments. I live in a condominium in Santa Barbara which used to be known for it's spectacular grounds. In the last few years the grounds have been systematically hacked, stripped, pruned, poisoned,tortured ( you don't want to see what they have done to the Magnolias Jasmine,Rhaphiolepis,Roses,and even the sturdy Geraniums, which are hard to kill in this climate.) and practically destroyed by every imaginable loud, buzzing, strident piece of machinery, namely that oxymoron, " the garden tool". I was born and brought up in England. I remember well the gentle "swoosh" of the broom and the soothing scratch of the rake,in the hands of our gardener,who miraculously produced thick herbacous borders and a wonderful landscape of twists and turns, bursting with seemingly casually placed plants. A big plus too were the many fruit trees and a vegetable garden to die for. All produced without any of those instruments of torture. I recall just a few tools, a pruning saw, a large digging fork and spade. and a lawn mower, but I know there were more in the garden shed. The big tall compost heap was an ongoing attraction to our dogs. As was the yearly delivery of the pig manure, which produced fits of ecstasy from dogs, and wails of despair from my mother when they dashed through the house after a good wallow in that gloriously aromatic pile! And of course I still imagine that wonderful aroma from a bonfire of Autumn leaves. Sigh.


 COMMENT 71626 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-25 04:12 PM

yes, much of what is done is in the name of pruning a crime, I agree. But, well...your writing style is a bit crude. I just don't want to read that something "sucks". (cringe)

Can you be a bit more descriptive without being crude? You're an entertaining writer with lots of good insights. This is a topic that has gone mostly unwritten (or -spoken) about for too long. I don't think you have to be crude to be entertaining or to sound stylish.

Good luck with your project.


 COMMENT 71925 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-26 06:01 PM

(I corrected my login info Billy, and can now leave comments, here's my first, the one I sent to you via Facebook)

Pretty good stuff. But I'd tone down the attack on folks who use power tools. I have a big yard, and although I'd love to turn it into a wildflower meadow and cut back on cutting grass, I like a nice lawn so I own a riding mower and dedicate a fair amount of time to a love/hate relationship with mowing.

I don't use chemicals in the garden, but do use gas in the mowers. I'm a sinner, not a saint.


 COMMENT 71932 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-26 06:50 PM

Billy, I love your writing and think a book of yours would have a wide audience. I dont' mind you using the word "sucks," but I do think your tone could be a little less "Fox News", a little less rant, and a little more lighthearted insight. If your lovely wife, on your first date together, held you to the same standards as you hold us well-meaning but ham-handed home-gardeners, you would have never gotten that first kiss!


 GREENTOO agree helpful negative off topic

2010-05-01 03:08 PM

Billy, I love your spunky take on garden subjects and it is exciting that you are thinking about writing a book. If your aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible, a small adjustment of language may be necessary. Approach it as if you're in an academic mode, (Adult Ed, Botanic Garden, etc.), clear on philosophy but somewhat more precise and subtle in venom delivery. Write on!


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