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Severe Cut Backs
updated: May 22, 2010, 9:50 AM

By Billy Goodnick

A few weeks ago I was taken to task about my word choice. It seems, in the opinion of more than one reader, that using "sucks" when describing many of the gardens I see might prevent me from reaching a wider audience.

Ten Commandments

I also mused about what a wonderful world it would be if we could eliminate gas-fueled tools. A reader offered, "Pretty good stuff. But I'd tone down the attack on folks who use power tools…I don't use chemicals in the garden, but do use gas in the mowers. I'm a sinner, not a saint."

Mae West allusion aside, I guess should set the record straight. I know that power tools are here to stay - they're just so damn convenient.

[Darn it! I said "damn". That pretty much locks up spending eternity in H-E Double Hockey Sticks.]

I've gotta admit, power tools are fast, convenient and allows a gardener to keep his monthly charges down. I only wish the guys wielding these tools had a microgram of understanding about plant physiology. As long as I'm dreaming, what if they had imagination and a sense of play?

Shear Madness - Plant Physiology 101

Whether it's you or a hired gardener shearing a hedge, keep in mind that leaves are the solar collectors that drive the plant's engine. Sunlight provides energy to convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates, the food the plant needs to survive. If you're continually shearing off the productive leaves, it's like throwing a blanket over your solar collectors.

Aside from starving your hedge, heavy shearing eventually leads to a point of diminishing returns. We've all seen old stands of shrubs where a few measly leaves try to pull off a Donald Trump comb-over. That's because cut branches and twigs don't heal the way our skin does and eventually start thinning out.

According to Karen Christman, a local certified arborist and co-owner of Arbor Services, Inc., "Shearing doesn't make good cuts. The rougher the cut, the less likely that new leaves will resprout. If you see shredded leaves instead of clean cuts, there will be a lot of die-back."

The ideal solution is to pick plants that grow only as tall as privacy demands, and no wider than the space you have - get that right and you never have to prune again. If it's too late to implement that strategy, Karen advises, "Make sure that all tools are well maintained and regularly sharpened, and let the plant grow awhile before you shear it again."

Why Do Sheared Hedges Have To Be So Ugly?

They don't, really. Sure, I have a lot of fun railing against the bad stuff, but it's important to laud the good stuff, too.

First off, here's what we don't want to see: the Rubik's Cube approach that numbs my senses. I still hold that gardens should remind us of the natural world, not what's being perpetrated at La Cumbre Plaza. Think of the time, energy and emissions that go into these silly blocks of green.

At a minimum, use a soft touch and sculpt forms that you find in nature. Simply rounding the top and sides is enough to soften the mass and create flowing lines.

Simple geometric shapes, used deliberately for contrast, are appropriate in a cottage style garden. These little boxwood orbs, with their crisp yellow-green foliage, are playful and just the right scale for this small entry. But I'll have to ding them a couple of points for the ridiculous lantana "wafer" clinging to life at the top of the wall.

I did a double take when I spotted this architectural hedge downtown a few days ago. I've driven down this street hundreds of time, but this is the first I've noticed this ambitious, laser-honed formal wall of eugenia. The undulating "cap stone" is proportionally scaled to the green "wall"; the peaks and swoops are rhythmically spaced. What's cool is that once you have the form in place, it' not a lot more work to make something more interesting than a static monolith.

One caution: The underside of the overhang (say that fast three times) receives no direct sun, eventually causing the foliage to thin out permanently.

I've had my eye on this little delight near Cottage Hospital for years. The matching teddy bears flanking the doorway are a friendly way to greet guests, or just say, "welcome home." That's why it was sad to revisit after a few years to discover that its best days have passed. North-facing and compromised by the shade of a parkway tree, the green mantle has become threadbare. Though it might be possible to cut far into the skeleton of the plant and start over, there is no guarantee new growth will return.

Have you seen Crosby Panoyan's handiwork at the corner of State Street and Calle Laurales? Since 1963, when he bought a residence and remodeled it into his tailoring shop, he's made time to putter in the garden. The showpiece is his cartoon-like 3-D menagerie. I'll leave you to your own interpretation, but I saw a tipping star, a plump turtle, a mutant aardvark, and a few other cryptozoological forms.

For some reason, this one reminds me of Ike, Kyle's adopted Canadian brother on South Park. It's just so cute, I want to pinch its chubby little cheeks!

I can't sign off without tipping my stingy brim to the ambitious topiary collection at Ganna Walska's Lotusland. The late Carol Valentine, former president of the board and founding trustee, spearheaded an effort to restore and expand this garden treat. Local artist Lori Ann David made the fanciful and exquisitely constructed armatures.

If you're stuck with a hedge that's genetically predisposed to surpass the Great Wall of China, but you only have room for the horticultural equivalent of a picket fence, think about letting your imagination wander. I'd much rather coo over a taste of eye candy than risk laryngitis screaming at mindless hack jobs.

RESOURCES: For more about tree and woody plant care, visit the International Society of Arboriculture's web site.

For local expertise, contact Arbor Services Inc.


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